Samsung 500T Now Runs On Solar Power

I wanted to have a screen in my house displaying current location of the international space station. I love ISS-Above but didn’t want to dedicate a Raspberry Pi and screen, I wanted to use something in my pile of retired electronics instead. I found ESA’s HTML-based ISS tracker, tested it on various devices from my pile, and decided the Samsung 500T would be the best one to use for this project.

One of the first device I tried was a HP Mini (110-1134CL) and I measured its power consumption while running ESA’s tracker. I calculated my electric bill impact to keep such a display going 24×7 would be between one and two dollars a month. This was acceptable and a tablet would cost even less, but what if I could drop the electric bill impact all the way to zero?

Reading the label on Samsung 500T’s AC power adapter I saw its output is listed at 12V DC. The hardware is unlikely to run on 12V directly, since it also has to run on batteries when not plugged in. It is very likely to have internal voltage regulators which should tolerate some variation of voltage levels around 12V. The proper way to test this hypothesis would be to find a plug that matches the AC adapter and try powering the tablet from my bench power supply. But I chose the more expedient path of beheading the AC adapter instead and rewiring the severed plug.

A quick test confirmed the tablet does not immediately go up in flames when given input voltage up to 14.4V, the maximum for lead-acid batteries. Whether this is bad for the device long term I will find out via experience, as the tablet is now wired up to my solar powered battery array.

This simple arrangement is constantly keeping tablet batteries full by pulling from solar battery. This is not quite optimal, so a future project to come will be to modify the system so it charges from solar during the day and runs on its own internal battery at night. But for now I have an around-the-clock display of current ISS location, and doing so without consuming any electricity from the power grid

Samsung 500T Disappointments

I pulled out my old Samsung 500T to see if it could run ESA’s ISS tracker. It could, and quite well, so I think the role might be the best use of this machine. Because it has proven to be a huge disappointment in so many other ways.

I knew of the machine when it launched alongside Windows 8. This was when Microsoft also launched the original ARM-powered Surface tablet to demonstrate what’s possible by using ARM chips: look at how thin and light they are! Samsung & friends launched the 500T as counterpoint: just as thin and light as the Windows RT tablets, but with an Intel CPU for full x86 compatibility. Judging by the spec sheet, it was a spectacular device to undercut and humiliate the “Windows on ARM made thin and light possible” story.

But that’s only on the spec sheet and not on the price tag. The 500T was expensive and Surface tablets sold for far less. Due to that fact, I didn’t get my 500T until much later when it showed up as a secondhand refurbished unit on Woot. When it arrived, I was sure there was something wrong with the machine. Maybe it somehow slipped past testing in refurbishment? It was completely unusable, taking several minutes to boot and user commands took many seconds (5-10) to respond or were ignored entirely. I went online and found a firmware update, which took all night to apply and upgraded performance from “disastrous” to “merely horrible”.

The screen was another cool feature that didn’t panned out. Not just a touchscreen for fingers, it was also a pen digitizer. Compatible with passive Wacom stylus used by the much thicker Surface Pro tablet, the 500T also had a tiny stylus holder built in. It held the promise to be a digital sketchpad with pressure sensitivity making it superior to a contemporary iPad. But slow system response killed that dream. Who wants to sketch on a pad when strokes don’t show up until a few seconds after we draw it?

Judging by Windows Task Manager, this device’s major implementation flaw was its eMMC flash storage, constantly showing 100% activity. The Atom CPU was not exactly a stellar performer, but it wasn’t the reason for delay as the 500T was constantly waiting to read from or write to storage. Generally ruining user experience across the board.

Not to let Intel entirely off the hook, though, as its Atom Z2760 CPU turned out to be a long term liability as well. This CPU was part of Intel’s Clover Trail family, and they had problems running Windows 10 features newly introduced in 2016. Intel had discontinued that line and declined to do anything about it, so Microsoft blocked Clover Trail devices from advancing beyond Windows 10 build 1607. They will still receive security fixes until January 2023, but features are stuck at July 2016 levels forever.

All of the above are things that I might be able to overlook as unfortunate result of things outside Samsung’s control. The eMMC storage might have performed well when new but degraded with time as solid state storage sometimes do. (The TRIM command could help, but they had to make use of it.) And Samsung had no way of knowing Intel would just abandon Clover Trail.

But let’s talk about what Samsung have chosen to install on the machine. As is typical of machines around that age, there was the usual useless bucket of trials and discount offers. There are also Samsung features that duplicate existing Windows functionality, others thinly veiled advertisement for Samsung products, and more. The worst part? I could not get rid of them. I thought they would be gone once I wiped and installed Windows 10, but they were bundled with critical device drivers so I had no choice but to reinstall them as well. Holding device drivers hostage to force users to accept unrelated software is consistent with Samsung’s anti-user behavior I saw across the board.

The image at the top of this post is just one example. SWMAgent.exe appears to be some sort of Samsung software update engine (What’s wrong with Windows Update?) and it asks for elevation. If the user declines to grant elevated privileges, the software is supposed to respect that choice and go away. But not Samsung! We see a black border visible around that dialog box, which might look strange at first glance. Windows 10 adds a subtle dark shadow to dialog boxes, why this ugly black thing? It is because we’re not looking at a single SWMAgent.exe dialog box, but a huge stack of of them. Each popping on top of the last, and another one added every minute or so. The thick black border is a result of that subtle dark shading stacked deep and combining, because Samsung would not take no for an answer.

I don’t need that in my life. The upside of this machine being disappointing was that I had no motivation to put up with it. Into the unused bin it went, and I haven’t bought a Samsung computer since.

ESA ISS Tracker on Samsung 500T

Setting aside the HP Stream 7 as unsuitable for my current project, we reach the final piece of x86 Windows hardware in my pile of unused devices: the Samsung 500T. I guess 500T was a shorthand for its full designation XE500T1C, though I don’t think it made the name roll off the tongue much easier.

This device has a 11.6 inch diagonal touchscreen. It was designed for Windows 8 and launched at around the same time. Its primary focus is on tablet workloads, but can become a convertible tablet/laptop like the HP Split X2 with purchase of an optional keyboard base. Since the keyboard is optional, the 500T has more peripherals packed along its edges. Not just the microSD expansion slot like the HP but also a full-size type A USB and micro HDMI connectors. HP delegated the latter tasks to its included base, which has two type A USB ports and a full sized HDMI connector.

As a piece of Windows 8 hardware like HP Split X2 and HP Stream 7, the 500T has a Windows license in embedded hardware. Thus I was also able to install Windows 10 erasing the existing installation of Windows 8 which was protected by a password I no longer remember. Once device drivers were installed, all features functioned as expected including the ability to run on plug-in power and charge its battery.

That capability was inexplicably nonfunctional in my HP Stream 7. Which meant unlike the HP Stream 7, I could run this display continuously on wired power around the clock. And showing the ESA HTML live space station tracker might be the best way to make use of this hardware. It would be a better end than collecting dust, as my past experience of this tablet has failed to live up to its potential and generally soured me on buying any more computers from Samsung.