I wanted to update my Acer Tablet, an A500, to ICS Android v4.x, but knew it would mean losing all my data, programs and root access. Today, the desire for MKV video support on the tablet finally overrode my desire to retain all that other stuff, and I started the update process.
Steps to ICS Install
- Backup everything I could using the free Titanium Backup. This tool requires root to work, so it is unclear that I’ll be able to restore when all completed.
- Open a bash shell, change to root and
# cp -rp /mnt/sdcard /mnt/external_sd/
During this copy, it is clear that the external SDcard is formated with FAT32 and can’t hold permissions. All permissions are lost.
- Create and store an ls -lRa file list onto the external SD card, just in case I get a wild idea to manually restore some files. Doubtful, but at least then I’ll have some chance of success.
- Force a factory reset to return to the stock 3.2.1 Android firmware. This is fairly painless. Settings → Privacy → Wipe all Personal Data. The stock firmware is required to get the ICS update from Acer in the marketplace.
- Now I get to fight with a stock setup – Arrrrrg.
- No file browser in the stock install. No way to easily load APKs that I’ve saved on an SDCard without a gmail and network connection. Acer is evil for doing this.
- Entering a 50+ random character WiFi key is not fun.
- Entering a 30+ random character Gmail account password is not fun.
- Agree to all the Google Play demands
- Update the stock 15 apps or so – Acer says all apps need to be updated prior to the new firmware install – Doesn’t make sense at all to me.
- Finally get to the Acer Update option using Play searching for Acer. This update was installed about 20 times under my root’ed OS, but never worked.
- Settings → About Tablet → Search for Updates finally found something. Selected Wifi and install. That ran for about 10 minutes including the download and 2 reboots.
Things I Immediately Notice in ICS
When I was all done, it appeared that a few of my apps had been installed automatically by the Android v4 update. Not many apps, just a few. I find it odd to see SuperUser installed on a non-rooted machine. I use it, so that will be nice, eventually.
First, the version of Android installed according to the device is 4.0.3. That’s the most recent version I’ve seen mentioned on XDA. Sure, some folks have 4.1, but not on an Acer.
G+ insisted on being updated. I did the update and it gave me the option to delete it – FANTASTIC, I don’t want G+ anywhere. Removed … but that was just the update. There doesn’t seem to be any way to delete G+ completely. Google has decided to follow me, even if I don’t want to be followed. Sniff, sniff. I shouldn’t be surprised.
WiFi connection settings were carried over. Nice. At least I won’t have to type in that obnoxious WPA2 passphrase again.
Gmail account was carried over. It is a necessary evil. I don’t use it for anything but apps for Android devices anyway.
I see that the timezone is wrong. I’d read on XDA that the NTP settings for the Iconia were a major issue for the GPS not working well before. I know that is true. Under 3.x, the A500 GPS would finally figure out where it was just as I was arriving at a destination. I’d assumed that was due to A-GPS, not the NTP settings. Interesting.
I work through all the ICS system settings to get a feel. A few new things are there.
- Data Usage
- Retained my Display : Sleep settings
- Storage is still confusing with Internal and SD Card labels. Aren’t they both SDHC memory? At least they don’t say phone storage.
- Acer’s media player/server is running. Perhaps it will work with DLNA better? I have other DLNA servers and clients on the protected network here. Sadly, I’m not connected to that at this point so I can’t test it.
- Google Sync was enabled for lots of stuff. This setting was disabled previously. I am not interested in Google having anything more than required information, PERIOD. Disabled all those.
- Location Services i.e. tracking disabled. This setting was retained.
- Security – I see an encryption setting. Only works at power-on. I need to pull the SD card with all my backup data on it and enable encryption.
- Device Administrators – there doesn’t seem to be a way to add myself to this list. Hummm. Is there any way to add a user? Looks like this is how device policies can be enforced. It is meant for Enterprise devices, not those at home. That is an app idea. I’ll need to think about that further. Found this Android Security Admin Policy API Guide.
- Language / Input – Physical Keyboard Settings. This is new to me. Nice. I use a USB keyboard with this tablet most of the time. Auto-correction is nice, but not auto caps or punctuation.
- Backup & reset – offers to backup all sorts of security-related data to google servers. Not gonna happen. Wouldn’t be prudent.
- Date / time – set to GMT+0. Huh? Switched to Eastern USA and automatic network time.
- Developer options – seems there’s a way to have a complete device backup over USB. Nice. I need to learn more about that.
It is time to find the apps that I’ve purchased over the last year owning this device. I expected to find a My Apps option but didn’t. It is probably disabled due to a google privacy setting, so time to go fiddle with those. After a few minutes in the Accounts and Sync and Apps I didn’t find anything. I’m not the only person missing My Apps That thread implies there’s a settings wizard that might be run after a reboot.
After looking for a solution to the missing My Apps, going to the Play Store Webpage and logging into my gmail account let me push all the apps previously installed. It took 3 clicks per app and a number of the sucky apps were in that list that I’d like to remove … forever. Why can’t I remove them from my list forever? Sometimes apps are mistake.
Doing a Power Off was quick. Like less than 1 second quick. I like it. I wasn’t expecting that. Reboot was still slower than anyone likes, but it did feel about 2x quicker than under 3.x Android. Still, it was about a minute.
The reboot didn’t bring up an wizard and My Apps is still missing from G-Play.
Playing Around with Core Apps from Acer
Clear.fi is placed on the HOME screen in a complicated gallery and media app that Acer includes.
It has found thumbnails for the hundreds of books on the ext-sdcard and placed those into a completely useless photo album. The app works like Windows7 libraries, which I dislike. Show me images by directory, not all mushed together, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE. There aren’t any settings for this. Images from websites are also displayed. So if you use this gallery to show vacation photos, be certain you didn’t also visit IMDB for any racy movies.
Strangely, this is organized by directory. I immediately recognize my TV recordings and a folder holding videos from an old work project. The TV Recordings isn’t my recordings, but samples from Acer, I guess. They look nice, but …. why waste the storage? These samples are at 240p and 480p quality. Seems they’d want to show off 720p on this device with all the hype. Samples deleted. I was unable to find a mult-select … that sucks. It means deleting 800+ clips can’t reasonably be done using this tool.
It organized the music by albums, not artist. My on-disk organization is genre/artist/album.
Going through the different screens of Clear.fi is painfully slow. If I can, I’ll delete this app. It is probably a mandatory app, sadly.
The eReading app placed on the HOME screen is just a link into another organizer with Lumiread, BN/Nook, Zinio, and Play Books apps. If I can, I’ll delete this app. It is probably a mandatory app, sadly. It is confusing to me.
The Games app placed on the HOME screen is just a link into another organizer with NFS Shift, Golf and some Sports apps. If I can, I’ll delete this app. It is probably a mandatory app, sadly. It is confusing to me.
The Multimedia app placed on the HOME screen is just a link into another organizer with a photo browser, Acer Media, MusicA, AUPED, YouTube and Clear.fi apps. If I can, I’ll delete this app. It is probably a mandatory app, sadly. It is confusing to me.
This app has image, audio and video organization and viewing.
The photos can be organized by time, folder or show them all in a flat view. Excellent. The By Time option is helpful – this is how I organize my photo gallery on a web server.
I like it, but the slide-show option is hidden just a little more than it should be. It allows control of the display time between each new photo display. Nice. I’ll probably place this app on one of the home screens. It is nice, simple, and works.
The music choice organizes by artist, album, playlists or in a flat all songs view. Excellent. Sadly, to start playback, I had to select a song. Selecting the Artist – even a long-press didn’t provide the option to play all music from that artist. Still, I’ll probably place this app on one of the home screens. It is nice, simple, and works.
Ok, finally, the reason that I wiped this device was to get mkv video file support. I only have MP4/h.264 files on the machine. These were specifically created to work well with Android 3.x, so having those playback nicely is expected. Time to try a few mkv tests.
- local files at a few different resolutions. I’m swapping between class 10 and class 6 sdcards.
- Network files at a few different resolutions; Obviously, if the local file playback fails on a higher resolution, I won’t try that over the network.
- Subtitle Support – this is always important to me.
The sample files will be TV recordings that have been transcoded to the specific resolutions. All have subtitles as SRT.
- Pablo_Escobar-El_Patron_del_Mal-2012_07_17.mkv h264 704:480
- Worst_Week_of_My_Life-Christmas_2006.mkv h264 992:592
- Burn_Notice-418-Last_Stand.mkv h264 1280:720
For the 1080i sample, I’ll just copy a source MPEG2 video.
- 480p – Pablo Escobar played back nicely. No subtitles worked, however. This file has both Spanish and English SRT subtitles added to the MKV.
- 600p – Worst Week of My Life had jumpy playback. Lots and lots of frames were dropped to keep the audio in sync with the video. It was really sad. A dual-core Atom netbook plays these fine, without hardware decoding support. I expected more from the Tegra2 decoder.
- 720p – Burn Notice. This was even worse than the 600p playback. At least 30% of the frames seemed to be dropped. Worse was that lots of audio was dropped too! This is unforgivable to drop any audio.
I’m a little saddened by the lack of 600p playback. This is the default resolution that I transcode all TV shows so they will playback nice on the XBMC machine here. Sure, 480p is still DVD-ish quality and looks nice, but that 120 extra pixels does make a noticeable difference to my eyes. I’d hoped to have a way to easily playback 720p from a silent device.
Testing with a 2nd Set of Video Files
I decided to take a 5 minute mpeg2 sample of Burn Notice at 1080i and transcode it to h.264 at 1080i, 720p, 600p, and 480p resolutions. I kept mp4 and mkv versions of the result files for testing too. Transcoding on a Core i5 is much slower than real-time for the higher resolutions. Here are those results.
After loading up the 8 newly transcoded files and putting them into the external SD card, none of them showed up on the Acer Media App. I was forced to reboot the device with the card already installed. Sadly, all except the 480p transcodes failed to play without terrible skipping. The 1080p files were not recognized as video files. 1080p isn’t supported on ICS?
The only good news that I have is that MP4 and MKV containers don’t seem to matter. Both play the same.
The transcoder used is Handbrake with constant quality set on 19.5. Only the resolution is changed between runs.
Still looking for a reasonable transcode setting, I used the built-in AppleTV2 transcode settings. Basically, they just forced a quality setting of 20. The playback still sucked.
I’m determined to find a solution. The iPad settings retained the quality of 20, but forced the resolution to 576p. This played back just as bad as the ATV2 settings on a Class6 memory card, but without any issues on a Class10 sdcard. Faster SDHC is needed. Noted.
Root the A500
So I’m done screwing around without root. Searches for other answers, uncover that there’s an easy root for the ICS version on the Acer, but it needs to be installed over the USB port. Fine. USB to USB should work. Where is that USB cable?
After searching for all the USB cables in the house and finding about 20, none of them have the correct connectors for the laptop to tablet connection. There are at least 10 USB A to USB B connectors and 5 USBA to MiniUSB-A, but no microUSB and no regular sized USB-A to USB-A. The sad thing is that I have a USB-A to microUSB converter and a microUSB cable has been used for a year here between android phones and this tablet. I just can’t find it. The tablet came with the cable I need, both are missing.
Anyway, Amazon order away and I’m stuck until the USB cable arrives.
What is Missing from the Acer ICS Firmware?
No file browser. Seriously? This is terrible. 16GB of storage is too much to manage without a file browser. This is an unforgivable app gap. Acer, you need to include a file browser app and it needs to be prominent.
The tablet does feel a little faster than under prior versions of Android, but apps are locking up more often. Dolphin Browser has locked up 5 times the last day. Other apps have locked up too. I’ve switched to using the built-in browser.
The /etc/gps.conf file is still set to get NTP from north-americal.pool.ntp.org instead of us.pool.ntp.org. This has been a problem for the GPS previously. I know that the GPS in this tablet tends to finally figure out where I am just as I arrive at my destination. I need to test the GPS again under ICS. A quick test on a 45 minute drive to a meeting showed that the GPS settings seem to work fine, but I started out with the device already knowing where it was. I think it used my wifi networks to get a quicker triangulation from google. The GPS app that I use it FreeNAV-USA. This app has all road data local, so no data connection is required. Highly recommended, however, some of the roads in my area have been significantly changed and the OSM maps are not current. For example a new cloverleaf was added over a year ago, but the OSM maps say to turn left. There is not left turn there any more.
Acer ICS Root
So the cable arrived a few days ago and I finally decided to root the tablet this morning. I found an easy to follow set of instructions to root the Acer A500 . The program is named blackthund3r ISC Root. It took about 10 minutes of effort, including downloading the rooting ZIP file, connecting the microUSB-USB, enabling development USB debugging mode, reading the instructions and running the root process. I’d already loaded the trivial .NETv4 prerequisites on the laptop last v3.2.1 root session in Feb. While the process was running, I wrote this paragraph explaining it, so it really was very quick and easy. After it finished and rebooted the device, I immediately logged in, saw that my old HOME screen wasn’t modified, started up Terminial IDE, typed su - and happily saw a root prompt. Typing id showed uid=0 gid=0 – definitely root. I feel much better now. My Android tablet feels like a Linux system again.
Time to fix a few things like:
- adblocking – seeing all those ads has been terrible the last week
- per-app firewall settings; Why does a simple alarm app need any network connectivity?
- remove bloadware forced on us by Acer and
- fix the gps.conf NTP settings.
There is much to like about ICS and rooting it is trivial compared to the effort needed under prior versions of Android.
- What do you like or hate about ICS?
- Why do you root your Android devices?
- Which programs (not games please) can you not live without under ICS?
- Is there a good free VNC and NX client app for Android?
Let us know in the comments.