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ECDREAM A9 Apollo Lake HDMI “TV Stick” Review with Windows 10 and Ubuntu 17.04

The ECDREAM A9 is arguably the first Intel Apollo Lake ‘PC stick’ available for purchase. However, in reality it is surprisingly large, and when compared to earlier Intel Atom ‘sticks’ and mini PC ‘boxes’ it lies somewhere in between. Measuring 2.3 inches (58 mm) wide and 0.6 inches (16 mm) thick it feels almost double in size of the original Intel Compute Stick (1.5 in/38 mm by 0.5 in/12 mm) and like nearly half of a mini PC (Beelink’s AP34 is 4.7 in/119 mm by 0.8 / 20 mm). Given that you only get two USB ports, an micro SD card slot and the obligatory HDMI and power port, the large size would be better justified if an Ethernet port had also been included given other smaller ‘sticks’ have shown this is possible.

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However the reason for its size is due to the oversized fan and heatsink…

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and that will be the deal-breaker for most. Because it is not a quiet fan, but noticeably noisy. However, that is under Windows as the fan doesn’t run under normal Linux.
Taking a look at the package in more detail…

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Inside the box together with the device is a short HDMI extender cable, a power supply (with no international variants or adapters), a manual (which is more of a Windows get-started guide) and a further slip of paper with a picture showing what the ports are. The device comes with a large detachable cap that covers the HDMI port. Then inside the device underneath the fan and heatsink is the Intel Apollo Lake SoC, memory chips from Micron, eMMC from Foresee and an Intel wifi chip all matching the advertised specs

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The device comes pre-loaded with activated Windows 10 Home 64-bit and has nearly 18GB of available free space to fill up with Windows updates.

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Unusually the updates were initially switched off

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The Windows performance is impacted in part due to the slower Foresee eMMC

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Overall the device performs better than Cherry Trail devices and as expected

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4K video (at 30fps) can be watched through Chrome and Kodi and the fan keeps the temperatures down

Temperatures with Chrome 4K (Left) and Kodi (Right) – Click to Enlarge

and the external temperature is acceptable at around 30°C.
However, as mentioned the fan is audible in comparison with other ‘stick’ PCs with fans. Using a battery powered clock as a baseline in a highly unscientific comparison you can judge for yourself, comparing Intel Core M STK2M3W64CC Compute Stick…

… to ECDREAM A9

Initially I was rather happy that the fan didn’t start under Linux, however without it temperatures rocket and the device crashes when playing high definition videos.
Looking at the hardware from a Linux viewpoint the CPU is an Intel Celeron N3350 Apollo Lake
 
useable storage of 28.9GB plus the micro SD card option

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2GB DDR3 1600 MHz memory

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Intel 3165 wireless

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HDMI audio

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and everything (except the fan) works using Ubuntu 17.04 with the ISO’s default kernel. This includes Sandisk micro SD cards
which still fail on Cherry Trail devices.
Unfortunately however there is no option in the BIOS allowing Linux to boot directly:
so the Ubuntu ISO had to be respun using ‘isorespin.sh’ to add the rEFInd boot manager

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Having installed Ubuntu to eMMC, and running my usual benchmarks there can again be seen the performance improvement over Cherry Trail devices (STCK1A32WFC is the Intel Compute Stick Falls City, STK1AW32SC is the Intel Compute Stick Sterling City, and STKM3W64CC is the Intel Compute Stick Cedar City)​​

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Exploring the fan issue further shows the failure appears to be a BIOS ACPI table related issue

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even though there are many options in the BIOS for thermal configuration
By recompiling the kernel with a ‘hacky’ patch it is possible to get the fan working
but because the BIOS isn’t populated with appropriate DMI strings it is unlikely that this device will receive mainline support.
However with the fan running the temperature is controlled even after stressing the CPU

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making 4K video (30fps) watchable

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Although I encountered an issue in that Chrome would successfully stream 4K videos in Windows, yet under Ubuntu it kept intermittently pausing waiting for network data. If I first downloaded the video then playing it was fine using Kodi.
As 32GB of storage is now really too small to run both Windows and Linux given the size, and frequency of Windows updates I installed Ubuntu with my custom kernel to a micro SD card and resized Windows to use the entire eMMC. Again some juggling with rEFInd was required to boot as the micro SD card is not recognized directly during the boot process.

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Interestingly there was a slight overall performance increase which is probably due to the slow eMMC. The maximum temperature for the eMMC-based benchmarks reached 80°C after running the ‘openssl’ tests compared with a maximum of 57°C also after the ‘openssl’ test on the fan-assisted micro SD card so thermal throttling would not appear to be a contributing factor.

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The device comes with a very unrestricted BIOS so there are lots of ways to brick it
To conclude the product is bulky given its advertised ‘stick’ form factor, and is limited because it only has 2GB RAM. The fan with its noise under Windows and lack of support under Linux limits the product’s appeal. In terms of support, the Windows drivers are available from the manufacturer’s community web page although their specification page incorrectly states the CPU model. It is currently priced at USD 129.99 at Geekbuying who kindly provided the sample for review. [Update: Using GKBECDA9 coupon brings the price down to $113.99]

Review of MeLE PCG03 Apo Fanless 4K Mini PC – Part 2: Windows 10, Benchmarks, and Kodi

July 12th, 2017 20 comments

MeLE PCG03 Apo is an update to MeLE PCG03 mini PC, and one of the rare Apollo Lake mini PCs to be both fanless, and support HDMI 2.0 output. I’ve already checked out the hardware design in “MeLE PCG03 Apo Fanless Apollo Lake mini PC Review – Part 1: Unboxing and Teardown“, so in the second part of the review I tested Windows 10, focusing on HDMI 2.0 features, audio pass-through in Kodi, and performance and stability tests to see how well it compared to similar actively cooled mini PCs such as Voyo V1 VMac mini.

MeLE PCG03 Apo Setup and System Information

I connected a USB 3.0 drive to one of the USB 3.0 ports, USB keyboard and mouse, and RF dongle for a wireless gamepad to the other USB 2.0/3.0 ports, as well as USB type C to micro USB adapter itself connected to a micro USB OTG adapter in order to add a USB flash drive. Finally I added Ethernet, VGA and HDMI cables, and of course the power supply to complete the setup.

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A typical boot to the login window takes around 15 seconds, but the very first boot, I went through the usual Windows 10 setup wizard to select the language, create a user, etc…, as well as retrieve the latest Windows update. So that’s better than some other Windows 10 mini PCs which are already configured with a default user, and may raise suspicions.

I still wen to Control Panel->System and Security->System to check Windows 10 is indeed activated, and the mini PC is running Windows 10 Home 64-bit on an Intel Celeron N3450 with 4GB RAM as expected.

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The next step was to check HDMI 2.0 support that should allow 4K resolutions @ 60 Hz, and I could select and use 3840×2160 or 4096×2160 up to “60p Hz” without any issues.

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Since we have a VGA port too, I tested dual display setup using extended desktop mode with 3840×2160 resolution @ 60 Hz on my 4K TV, and 1600×1050 on my Full HD TV, as it was the maximum resolution I was offered.

No problem here again, and I could use to independent display one connected via HDMI 2.0, and the other via VGA.

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I’ve also included a screenshot of the dual display setup for those interested.

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I took the screenshot below after starting to download a few programs (but no installation), and 28.9GB storage is really tight for Windows 10, I could not install all programs used for the review, without uninstalling one or more. For example, if I install PCMark 8, complete the benchmark, I had to remove it before install PCMark 10, even when moving all download the USB partitions.

So may want to run Disk Cleanup from time to time, and uninstall some pre-installed games. I may also consider disabling hiberfil.sys file, learn how to do folder redirection and filesystem junction with mklink, which I used for Package Cache directory. You could do this to external USB hard drive, but performance may suffer while loading programs or during databases accesses, so you could consider adding a 80mm M.2 SSD inside the mini PC. I could not get one to test, but the company told me they tested three models available on Aliexpress:

Another thing I discovered is that when you “uninstall” Windows Store apps, there are not deleted, but for some reasons kept in C:\Programs Files\WindowsApps\Deleted directory, so I’d have to take ownership of the directory and delete it if you want to free up some more space.

The 32GB eMMC flash capacity is the most negative point I found about this mini PC, I wished the company could offer a 64GB version, or better a pre-installed 128 M.2 SSD [Update: I forgot this would be a problem with the discounted Windows 10 license]. This will not be a problem if you only plan to use the box as an HTPC, but for desktop use, you really need more external storage.

The mini PC recognized the NTFS and exFAT partition in my USB 3.0 drive, but the USB flash drive which I connected the USB type C port was not found. I tried to connect the keyboard there instead, and then to my computer via a USB type C to USB type A cable, but again no luck in both cases. It looks like the USB C port is not usable for anything. Maybe my sample has some issues.

I took a screenshot of the Device Manager for people who want a few more technical details about peripherals.

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… as well as HWiNFO64 which basically reports the same info as on Voyo V1 Vmac Mini since it’s based on the same Celeron N3450 processor.

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MeLE PCG03 Apo Benchmarks

Let’s start with PCMARK 8  HOME ACCELERATED 3.0 benchmark at 1080p60 resolution and framerate.

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The score here is surprisingly higher than on the fan cooled Voyo mini PC (1,566 points), and not too far to the score I got (1,846)with the Pentium N4200 version of Voyo V1 VMac Mini.

Since PCG03 Apo is a candidate to use as 4K desktop for simple tasks, I run the same benchmark using 3840×2160 @ 60p Hz video output, and the score dropped a little to 1,431 points.

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Please note that only two passes out of three could complete, as the benchmark failed somewhere during the third pass, but the average should not change, it’s just we can 2 test samples, instead of 3. I tried the benchmarks 3 times in total, and the two other times it failed during the first pass ending with no score. You can find the details results here.

FutureMark has recently released PCMark 10, so for future reference I also ran that version of the benchmark using 1080p60 output.

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Check this link for full results. All other benchmarks below were done using 1920×1080 @ 60 Hz video output / resolution.

Passmark PerformanceTest 9.0 confirmed the good performance of the device with 995.70 points, which compares to 998.4 points for Voyo V1 (N3450), and 1087 points for Voyo V1 (N4200).

Note the performance of Disk Mark is quite weaker here, and the Voyo models who got close to 3,000 points, but the latter had the C: drive in a 128GB SSD, instead of a 32GB flash, which explains the massive performance difference here.

I ran three 3DMark tests showing performance that’s almost as good as Voyo mini PC based on Pentium N4200 processor.

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Details for all three results can be found below:

CrystalDiskMark reports up to 258 MB/s sequential read speed, and 51 MB/s write speed, with random I/O up to 28 MB/s for the C: drive (32GB eMMC flash). That’s actually roughly the same as the 32GB eMMC flash in Voyo mini PC, but a big difference compared to the 500MB/s+, you got from the 128GB FORESEE SSD installed in the same devices.

Random I/O performance will be better in the SSD too, so you may considering re-installing Windows 10 in an M.2 SSD if you decide to purchase one [Update: Not a good idea, the Genuine Windows key in the device will be ignore, and Windows 10 will not be activated]. You’ll find BIOS, drivers, and instructions to re-install Windows 10 in MeLE’s forums.

USB 3.0 performance is fine with my USB driver achieving around 100MB/s read and write sequential speed.
The random I/Os number shows why you don’t want to install Windows or apps in such drive.

I used iperf 2.x to measure network performance with using dual duplex transfer over Gigabit Ethernet:

All good, so I connected the mini PC to my AC router…

… and performed WiFi upload and download tests with iperf:

  • Upload
  • Download

Those are decent results with my setup, i.e. the AC router is located about 4 meter from the DUT and with a wall in between. You can see a comparison with some 802.11ac Android TV boxes I’ve recently reviewed.

802.11ac WiFi Download and Upload Speed in Mbps

To give a better idea of the performance I compare it against other low power mini PCs based on Braswell (MINIX NGC-1, Vorke V1), Cherry Trail (Voyo V3, MINIX NEO Z83-4), Apollo Lake (Voyo V1 VMac Mini), and Skylake (Compute Stick) for various benchmarks.

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Note: Ice Storm scores divided by 10, Fire Strike scores multiplies by 4 for scale.

The Skylake compute stick really stands out despite having similar TDP, but it’s also much more expensive. Other mini PCs are closely matched, but the good news is the MeLE PCG03 Apo mini PC fairs well in all benchmarks, except for storage speeds, but it can be made to match other systems if you use a M.2 SSD to run Windows instead of the 32GB eMMC flash.

Kodi 4K Video Playback and HDMI Audio Pass-through

I’ve installed the latest Kodi 17.3, and run it using 1920×[email protected] output.

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You don’t need to set the Windows resolution to 3840×2160 to watch videos, since Kodi will automatically do that if you go to Settings->Player Settings->Videos, and set Adjust display refresh rate to On start / stop, as it will also automatically adjust to the best resolution for the video.

Once I’d done that I tested my usual 4K video samples via SAMBA over Gigabit Ethernet unless otherwise stated:

  • HD.Club-4K-Chimei-inn-60mbps.mp4 – Mostly OK, but the video seems to skip frames a few times
  • sintel-2010-4k.mkv – OK
  • Beauty_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_MP4.mp4 (H.265) – OK
  • Bosphorus_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_MP4.mp4 (H.265) – OK
  • Jockey_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_TS.ts (H.265) – OK
  • MHD_2013_2160p_ShowReel_R_9000f_24fps_RMN_QP23_10b.mkv (10-bit HEVC, 24 fps) – OK
  • phfx_4KHD_VP9TestFootage.webm (VP9) – 4 to 6 fps (Software decode)
  • BT.2020.20140602.ts (Rec.2020 compliant video) – SAMBA: Audio cuts and buffering issue; HDD: OK
  • big_buck_bunny_4k_H264_30fps.mp4 – OK
  • big_buck_bunny_4k_H264_60fps.mp4 – Not super smooth, but no audio delay like on ARM TV boxes. Almost watchable
  • Fifa_WorldCup2014_Uruguay-Colombia_4K-x265.mp4 (4K, H.265, 60 fps) – OK
  • Samsung_UHD_Dubai_10-bit_HEVC_51.4Mbps.ts (10-bit HEVC / MPEG-4 AAC) – OK
  • Astra-11479_V_22000-Canal+ UHD Demo 42.6 Mbps bitrate.ts (10-bit H.265 from DVB-S2 stream) – OK
  • 暗流涌动-4K.mp4 (10-bit H.264; 120 Mbps) – Maybe 10 fps (Software decode) and buffering issues
  • Ducks Take Off [2160p a 243 Mbps].mkv (4K H.264 @ 29.97 fps; 243 Mbps; no audio) – HDD: OK
  • tara-no9-vp9.webm (4K VP9 YouTube video @ 60 fps, Vorbis audio) – 4 to 6 fps (Software decode) + buffering issues
  • The.Curvature.of.Earth.4K.60FPS-YT-UceRgEyfSsc.VP9.3840×2160.OPUS.160K.webm (4K VP9 @ 60 fps + opus audio) – 4 to 6 fps (Software decode) + buffering issues

Automatic frame rate switching is working well, but playing videos with bitrate over 50Mbps over SAMBA seems to be an issue with this mini PC. VP9 and 10-bit H.264 codecs are not supported by Apollo Lake processor, so Kodi revert to software decoding, but the processor is not powerful enough to handle those codecs at 4K. Hi10p up to 1080p is fine. One small issue worth noting is that almost all videos had a short audio cut after 16 to 19 seconds, but the problem would not reoccur at other points in the videos.

Apollo Lake mini PC are supposed to support audio pass-through, but HDMI 2.0 is implemented via an eDP to HDMI bridge which in the past has created issue with this features. So I enabled audio pass-through in Kodi by going to Settings->System Settings->Audio, enabling Allow passthrough, and selecting DIRECTSOUND: TX-NR636…. as the Passthrough output device before running the tests with various audio codecs.

Video HDMI Pass-through
AC3 / Dolby Digital 5.1 OK
E-AC-3 / Dolby Digital+ 5.1 PCM 2.0
Dolby Digital+ 7.1 PCM 2.0
TrueHD 5.1 PCM 2.0
TrueHD 7.1 PCM 2.0
Dolby Atmos 7.1 PCM 2.0
DTS HD Master PCM 2.0
DTS HD High Resolution PCM 2.0
DTS:X PCM 2.0

So only AC3 is supported. I changed to WASAPI output device instead, and the results are not much better.

Video HDMI Pass-through
AC3 / Dolby Digital 5.1 OK
E-AC-3 / Dolby Digital+ 5.1 OK
Dolby Digital+ 7.1 PCM 2.0
TrueHD 5.1 PCM 2.0
TrueHD 7.1 PCM 2.0
Dolby Atmos 7.1 PCM 2.0
DTS HD Master PCM 2.0
DTS HD High Resolution PCM 2.0
DTS:X PCM 2.0

Disappointing, as HDMI 1.4 Apollo Lake mini PCs can normally handle DTS 5.1 as well even with DTS HD files.

User Experience, Stress Test, and Power Consumption

I did a user experience test like with other Windows 10 PCs with multi-tasking by launching an using ThunderBird, Firefox, Libre Office, and Gimp at the same, multi-tab browsing in Firefox playing some Flash games, and watching 4K YouTube videos. I also played Asphalt 8, and as shown in the section above used Kodi to watch videos. The experience felt very similar to other Apollo Lake mini PC with maybe apps not launching as fast due to the eMMC flash. I also run HWiNFO64 in sensor only mode during my tests and benchmarks, and CPU throttling was never reported by the program, so MeLE PCG03 Apo is a solid device with good thermal design.

I have not done any video this time, but if you’re new to Apollo Lake system, you may want to watch Voyo V1 Vmac Mini video below which should give you an idea of the performance.

I also ran AIDA64 Extreme stability test during 2 hours with HWiNFO64 also running side by side, and the CPU temperature never went above 79 °C with the average CPU clock speed being 1.6 GHz right between the base frequency (1.1 GHz) and turbo frequency (2.2 GHz).

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Power consumption is about 6.4W in idle mode with the USB 3.0 drive connected, 1.0W in sleep mode, and 0.0W in power off mode.

Conclusion

MeLE PCG03 Apo is a solid device that stays cool enough under load despite thanks to a good fanless thermal design, and HDMI 2.0 works as expected with 4K @ 60 Hz supported. The VGA port also allows for dual independent display setups. Gigabit Ethernet, and 802.11ac WiFi are performing very well. The main downsides I can see are the small eMMC flash, USB type C port that would not work for anything (sample issue?), and HDMI audio pass-through is limited to Dolby Digital 5.1. The first issue can easily be solved by installing a larger (and faster) 80mm M.2 SSD inside the device.

If you are interested in this mini PC, you can purchase MeLE PCG03 Apo for $159.20 including shipping on Aliexpress. If the price is higher when you check it out, it may pay to wait until the week-end to get a better price.

[Update: MeLE’s answers to some of the issues raised in this review:

Read / Write speed
1. It is clear that MeLE PCG03 Apo (N3450) is far behind VOYO VMac Mini (N3450 and N4200) because MeLE follows Microsoft’s policy strictly to install the genuine Windows 10 Home as C: Disk on 32GB eMMC while VOYO does that on the 64GB or 128GB SSD.
2. According to the policy, the unit price for genuine Windows 10 Home on Apollo Lake mini PC is USD 45 at least if the storage capacity (as C: Disk) is equal or over 64GB. That is why user may see a 64GB SSD as C: Disk on VOYO VMac Mini while there is still a 32GB eMMC as D: Disk on the PCB board. It is a trick which has just been discovered and warned by Microsoft in China.
Audio Setting
1. I will check with technical team on how to make DD & DTS 7.1 working in Kodi as well, I will keep you updated.
2. It will get Audio 7.1 DD & DTS with LAV codecs using MPC-HC as player for example.
USB Type-C
1. It is actually a standard USB 3.0 interface converted into USB Type-C shape.
2. It only supports normal (not fast) power charging, and data transfer directly to USB Drive or HDD in external enclosure with Type-C interface.
3. For this point, we will update our product description on our official store on Aliexpress to make it more specific for every buyer to avoid any misunderstanding.
]

Vorke Z3 Rockchip RK3399 TV Box Review – Part 2: Android 6.0 Firmware

July 6th, 2017 11 comments

Vorke Z3 is another mini PC / TV box powered by Rockchip RK3399 hexa core processor with two Cortex A72 cores, and two Cortex A53 cores making it theoretically one of the fastest TV boxes on the market, excluding NVIDIA Shield Android TV which is well ahead of the competition, albeit with poor worldwide availability. I’ve have already shown Vorke Z3 hardware inside out, so in the second part of the review, I’ll focus on testing the firmware including video playback, and the system performance, and see how it compares to the similar Yundoo Y8, which I reviewed last month.

First Boot, Setup, and First Impressions

One the selling point of Vorke Z3 is its SATA connector, so I connected a 1TB 3.5″ SATA drive first, as well as Seagate USB 3.0 drive (1TB) to the USB 3.0 port, I also added a USB hub to connect a USB keyboard, as well as two USB RF dongles for Tronsmart Mars G01 gamepad. and MINIX NEO A2 Lite air mouse. I did not use the USC type C port at that point, but we’ll see later that it can be used for firmware update, remote storage access, and video output.  I completed the hardware setup by plugging in Ethernet, HDMI, and power cables.

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Press the mechanical power switch on the rear panel in order to start the box, with a typical boot taking around 30 seconds. That’s acceptable, but I was expecting a faster boot with the high end eMMC flash used together with the powerful processor. The first time, you may be asked to choose between Launcher3 (Stock Android Home screen similar to what you get on your phone) better if you are close to the screen using the box as a mini PC,

or the familiar MediaBox Launcher better suited to TV use, if you are seated a few meters from the screen.

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Below are the pre-installed app (minus RKMC which I installed manually) in the stock firmware.

YouTube, Hulu Plus, and Netflix are installed, but you’ll notice Kodi is missing, and there’s a good reason for this as we’ll find out below…

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The Settings are pretty much standard, but when you go to Display Output, you’ll see HDMI and HDMI1 output, because the mini PC can handle two display if you connect a compatible USB type C to HDMI dock to the device, and you can either mirror the displays, or extend the desktop. I don’t have such dock, and GeekBuying did not seem interested in sending me one, so I did not test that part, but it’s something to keep in mind. [Update: I’ve tested it with Dodocool DC30S USB Type C work, and it works, except for “display different content for double screen”, it will just mirror the screen]

I could still go to the HDMI section, and configure video output up to 4096×2160 @ 60 Hz. What I found out is that the system will not keep the setting, and it will just jump aroud 4K @ 30 Hz, 1080p60 or 720p60 between reboots. The Sound & Notification section does not include “Sound Devices Manager”, so you can’t enable audio pass-through, so if you want to do that you’d have to use the blue “Settings” app instead. The settings do not have any options for CEC or HDR, with the latter not supported by the hardware.

The screenshot above was taken at the end of the review, and I still had plenty of space out of the 26.74GB partition. USB3_NTFS is the NTFS partition of my four partitions USB drive, meaning exFAT, EXT-4 and BTRFS file systems are not supported. “USB Drive” is actually the SATA drive, and is a misnomer as the hardware implementation relies on a PCIe to SATA bridge. In case you planed to use the device as a mini PC connected to your printer, you may want to know Printing settings are missing.

The About section shows the device name is indeed VORKE Z3, and it runs Android 6.0.1 on top of Linux 4.4.166 with the Android security patch dated August 2016. The build machine’s hostname is sunchip-CS24-TY, so it’s quite possible Sunchip is being the software and hardware design. Two versions of the firmware are available with either root or no root, so you could install the one you prefer using AndroidTool (Windows) or upgrade_tool (Linux).

The IR remote control is pretty basic, and I assume most people will used the own input device be it a an air mouse or the smartphone app. It did the job but only up to 4 meters, farther than this, and some key presses will be missed. I had no troubles installing apps via Google Play and Amazon Underground stores.

It’s not possible to cleanly power off the device with the remote control, only the mechanical switch on the back can do this, so instead you can only go in or out of standby.  I measured the power consumption with or without SATA and/or USB hard drive(s) attached in power off, standby, and idle modes:

  • Power off – 0.0 Watt
  • Standby – 5.1 Watts
  • Idle – 5.1 Watts
  • Power off + USB HDD – 0.0 Watt
  • Standby + USB HDD – 8.1 Watts
  • Idle + USB HDD – 9.1 Watts
  • Power off + USB HDD – 0.0 Watt
  • Standby + USB HDD – 10.3 Watts
  • Idle + USB HDD – 11.2 Watts

After playing a 2-hour H.264 video in Kodi, I measured maximum temperatures of 37 and 40°C on the top and bottom of the case with an IR thermometer, but the temperature felt a little higher than that when touching the surface with my hand, maybe it’s made of a material that interferes with measurements. After playing Riptide GP2 for around 15 minutes, the temperatures went up a little to 39 and 42°C, and gameplay was OK overtime, but only similar to what I experience on Yundoo Y8 or Amlogic S912 TV Boxes, and not as smooth as on Xiaomi Mi Box 3 Enhanced. CPU-Z always reports 26 °C, so it’s not usable as an alternative temperature measure. I also noticed the box got quite hot (44 °C with IR thermometer) when I turned off the display, and let the UI in the launcher doing nothing. I did not notice any sharp drop in performance during use, but thermal throttling is happening as we’ll see in the Benchmark section.

I like the SATA port and USB type C port supporting data and video in Vorke Z3, and I found the firmware to be rather stable and very responsive. However, there are many small issues like no clean power off, HDMI setting is not remembered properly, so settings like Printing, CEC, Audio device, and automatic frame rate switching are missing from the main Setting app. The IR remote control does not feel very good either, and range was rather short.

Kodi & RKMC Video Playback, DRM Info, and YouTube

Kodi is not installed so I went to the Google Play store to install Kodi 17.3, and naively expected most videos to play fine. Those are my results for 4K video samples:

  • HD.Club-4K-Chimei-inn-60mbps.mp4 – OK, but not perfectly smooth
  • sintel-2010-4k.mkv – Stays in UI
  • Beauty_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_MP4.mp4 (H.265) –  OK
  • Bosphorus_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_MP4.mp4 (H.265) – OK
  • Jockey_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_TS.ts (H.265) – Stays in UI
  • MHD_2013_2160p_ShowReel_R_9000f_24fps_RMN_QP23_10b.mkv (10-bit HEVC, 24 fps) – OK
  • phfx_4KHD_VP9TestFootage.webm (VP9) – ~5 fps (software decode)
  • BT.2020.20140602.ts (Rec.2020 compliant video) – Stays in UI
  • big_buck_bunny_4k_H264_30fps.mp4 – OK
  • big_buck_bunny_4k_H264_60fps.mp4 – Slideshow + audio delay  (4K H.264 @ 60 fps is not supported by the VPU in Rockchip RK3399 SoC)
  • Fifa_WorldCup2014_Uruguay-Colombia_4K-x265.mp4 (4K, H.265, 60 fps) – OK
  • Samsung_UHD_Dubai_10-bit_HEVC_51.4Mbps.ts (10-bit HEVC / MPEG-4 AAC) – Stays in UI
  • Astra-11479_V_22000-Canal+ UHD Demo 42.6 Mbps bitrate.ts (10-bit H.265 from DVB-S2 stream) – Stays in UI
  • 暗流涌动-4K.mp4 (10-bit H.264; 120 Mbps) – First try: Kodi hangs; Second try: ~2fps + artifacts (software decode)
  • Ducks Take Off [2160p a 243 Mbps].mkv (4K H.264 @ 29.97 fps; 243 Mbps; no audio) – HDD: OK
  • tara-no9-vp9.webm (4K VP9 YouTube video @ 60 fps, Vorbis audio) – ~5 fps, massive artifacts (software decode)
  • The.Curvature.of.Earth.4K.60FPS-YT-UceRgEyfSsc.VP9.3840×2160.OPUS.160K.webm (4K VP9 @ 60 fps + opus audio) – ~5 fps, massive artifacts (software decode)

Wow… I don’t think I can remember any platform that failed that badly. But I usually use the pre-installed Kodi app, which in this case was missing, so maybe that’s why. I’ll give up on Kodi 17.3 for now, but I remember somebody mentioned RKMC 16.1 would work better on Rockchip device. I did some research, and installed RKMC in the box. I made some mistake doing so, reinstalled the firmware and lost all my screenshots in the process. So maybe sure you backup any files before messing with the system partition or config files.

But what about the results with RKMC and my 4K videos samples?:

  • HD.Club-4K-Chimei-inn-60mbps.mp4 – OK, but not perfectly smooth
  • sintel-2010-4k.mkv – OK, but not perfectly smooth
  • Beauty_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_MP4.mp4 (H.265) –  Crash
  • Bosphorus_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_MP4.mp4 (H.265) – Crash
  • Jockey_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_TS.ts (H.265) – Stays in UI + hang
  • MHD_2013_2160p_ShowReel_R_9000f_24fps_RMN_QP23_10b.mkv (10-bit HEVC, 24 fps) – Crash
  • phfx_4KHD_VP9TestFootage.webm (VP9) – ~5 fps (software decode)
  • BT.2020.20140602.ts (Rec.2020 compliant video) – Stays in UI + hang
  • big_buck_bunny_4k_H264_30fps.mp4 – OK
  • big_buck_bunny_4k_H264_60fps.mp4 – Almost smooth + audio delay  (4K H.264 @ 60 fps is not supported by the VPU in Rockchip RK3399 SoC)
  • Fifa_WorldCup2014_Uruguay-Colombia_4K-x265.mp4 (4K, H.265, 60 fps) – Crash
  • Samsung_UHD_Dubai_10-bit_HEVC_51.4Mbps.ts (10-bit HEVC / MPEG-4 AAC) – Stays in UI + audio
  • Astra-11479_V_22000-Canal+ UHD Demo 42.6 Mbps bitrate.ts (10-bit H.265 from DVB-S2 stream) – Stays in UI + audio
  • 暗流涌动-4K.mp4 (10-bit H.264; 120 Mbps) – OK (hardware decode)
  • Ducks Take Off [2160p a 243 Mbps].mkv (4K H.264 @ 29.97 fps; 243 Mbps; no audio) – HDD: OK
  • tara-no9-vp9.webm (4K VP9 YouTube video @ 60 fps, Vorbis audio) – ~5 fps, massive artifacts (software decode)
  • The.Curvature.of.Earth.4K.60FPS-YT-UceRgEyfSsc.VP9.3840×2160.OPUS.160K.webm (4K VP9 @ 60 fps + opus audio) – ~5 fps, massive artifacts (software decode)

So H.265 video won’t play, VP9 will, but are unwatchable with software decode, and only H.264 videos are playing relatively well.

I got more insights in my RKMC post with Superceleron commenting:

Well don’t expect miracles, besides that is a old kodi fork dont have python 2.7 and it have subtitles security flaw.
On my tests, on A7 version of rk sdk use kodi 18 nightly it will play ok almost all codecs. (i just made a custom rom for A95X-R2 so i know it plays it ok)
On A6 forget it, i had to make some mix custom roms to make it work with FTMC.. it now plays almost all codecs (it crashes with RKCodec on H264 10bits, but mediacodec play ok but max 720p)
Rockchip never learns….

and

Yes need to wait for it, or simple try one of my roms for 3399 like for the Yundoo Y8 or H96 Max.
It will work lot better than stock, i fixed the play of VP9 in Hw in FTMC but still crash in H264 10bits, and cant play Youtube 4k due to codec issue!

So at this stage, I’d recommend not to buy any Rockchip RK3399 TV box if you want to play videos in Kodi, and wait for Android 7.1 firmware which is expected sometimes in the next few weeks or months. If you already have one, and/or are ready to waste some time, you could try TVMC that works somewhat in Yundoo Y8, or use one of the aforementioned ROMs on Freaktab.

I’ll skip video testing in this review, and if time permits perform tests again once Android 7.1 firmware and Kodi 18.0 are released.

Click to Enlarge

I still checked DRM info, and there’s no DRM support at all, except for something called CENC ClearKey.

YouTube worked well for me up to 1080p. Video is rendered to the framebuffer (I can take screenshot of it), which should explain the resolution limitation, and mean that it’s likely using software decode.

Network Performance (Wi-Fi and Ethernet)

As I connected to my 802.11ac router, I noticed the Link Speed was 526 Mbps when I checked, so better than the usual 433 Mbps you get on most other devices.

I first tested WiFi 802.11ac throughput by transferring a 278MB file beetween SAMBA and the internal flash and vice versa using ES File Explorer. There’s again a serious problem with SAMBA implementation, as download speed was fairly good @ 3.00 MB/s, but upload speed drop to 1.06 MB/s only, leading to a well below average average speed.

Throughput in MB/s

But iperf tests below show 802.11ac performance is actually quite good in both directions, so the real problem is with SAMBA implementation/configuration in the firmware.

WiFi 802.11ac upload:

WiFi 802.11ac download:

I repeated the SAMBA test with a larger 885 MB file over Gigabit Ethernet, and I confirmed the same issue as it took 49 seconds to upload the file from the server, and 1 minute and 52 seconds to upload the file.

I also run iperf again for Gigabit Ethernet using full duplex option:

I was expecting higher numbers, but those values will be good enough for most people.

Storage Performance

I used A1SD Bench to evaluate sequential performance of internal storage, USB 3.0 and SATA interfaces.

Click to Enlarge

In theory, the Samsung eMMC flash used is very good, and results from the benchmark confirm this with 157.63 MB/s read speed, and 124.80 MB/s write speed. That’s the best performance I’ve ever gotten from an Android device.

Read & Write Speeds in MB/s – Click to Enlarge

Sure enough, I never had troubles with “app is not responding” or app beings slow to load.

USB 3.0 and SATA performance is also pretty solid, especially sequential read speed. Write speed was actually 100 MB/s the first time I tried with SATA, but after I had to reinstall the firmware, I never managed to get back to that result with the speed limited to around 72 MB/s.

Read & Write Speeds in MB/s – Click to Enlarge

Nevertheless, results are fairly good, and SATA should provide a little more performance than USB 3.0.

Vorke Z3 Benchmark & System Info

CPU-Z reports a dual cluster “RK3066” processor with two Cortex A72 cores @ 1.99 GHz, and four Cortex A53 cores @ 1.51 GHz, and an ARM Mali-T860 GPU.

Click to Enlarge

VORKE Z3 (rk3399_box) uses a 1920×1080 framebuffer resolution, comes with 3878MB total RAM (the rest being used by hardware buffers), and 26.74 GB interface storage.

Antutu 6.x score varies a lot between 69k and 78k due to thermal throttling. But if I run the benchmark right after boot, I get the result below, roughly the same as Yundoo Y8 one (76,819 points).

Vellamo 2.x results would also varies due to thermal throttling, but also because for some reasons SunSpider test would fail to run from time to time, as shown by the yellow mark on the first Chrome Browser test.
For some reasons, Chrome Browser result is much lower (4,512) compared to the 5,275 points I got with Yundoo Y8, but Multicore (2,587 vs 2,492) and Metal (2,311 vs 2,332) results are roughly the same.

3DMark’s Ice Storm Extreme results was also slightly lower with 9,726 points compared to 9,906 points for Yundoo Y8.

Click to Enlarge

At one point I only got 6,7xx points, but it was not because of overheating, and was instead due to the system randomly changing resolution and refresh rate, with the video output set to 3840×2160 @ 30 Hz at the time, limiting the framerate to 30 fps max.

Conclusion

I did not have the best experience with Vorke Z3 due to my struggle with Kodi and RKMC, and various smaller issues like HDMI output resolution & framerate randomly changing between reboots, lack of proper power off mode, some overheating, etc… But there are also some positives like excellent internal storage performance, good USB 3.0 and SATA performance, a USB type C port supporting data, and video output, and very good WiFi performance, so I’m hoping the upcoming Android 7.1 Nougat firmware will greatly improve the device usefulness.

PROS

  • Good overall performance and stable firmware
  • Fastest internal storage I’ve seen in any TV box
  • Fast USB 3.0 and SATA interfaces for external storage
  • Very good 802.11ac WiFi performance
  • USB type C port with support for data and video output (via an external dock).
  • OTA firmware update appears to be supported

CONS

  • The device is unusable with Kodi 17.3, or RKMC with most videos failing to play properly
  • Overheating leading to CPU / GPU throttling (The performance degradation is noticeable in benchmarks, but I have not really experienced it during normal use after playing a 2-hour video, or playing games for 15 minutes)
  • HDMI video output setting is not properly remembered, and it may be 720p, 4K30, 1080p60 at next boot.
  • No clean power off mode (mechanical switch only)
  • Only NTFS and FAT32 files systems are supported, no EXT-4, no exFAT
  • Lack of DRM support
  • Poor upload speed to SAMBA server

GeekBuying sent the device for review, and in case you are interested you could buy Vorke Z3 for $149.99 shipped with VORKEZ3F coupon on their website. You’ll also find the device from various sellers on Aliexpress.

A95X R2 TV Box Review – Part 2: Android 7.1, Video & Audio Tests, and Benchmarks

June 26th, 2017 6 comments

In the first part of A95X R2 Rockchip RK3328 TV box review, I listed the specifications of the device, took a few photos, and reported about the chip used in the PCBA. I’ve now had time to play with the box, so I can report about my experience with Android 7.1, video & audio capabilities, and the performance of the device in the second part of the review.

First Boot, Setup, and First Impressions

I connected a USB 3.0 hard drive to the USB 3.0 port of the box, a USB keyboard to one of the USB port to take screenshots, and a USB hub with the RF dongles for my air mouse and gamepad in the remaining USB 2.0 port. I completed the hardware setup with Ethernet and HDMI cables, as well as the power supply.

Click to Enlarge

I then pressed the power button on the unit to start it up, the front panel display showed a “Boot” string, and the box booted to recovery mode automatically.

I remember I had a “update.zip” file  for U5 PVR Deluxe in my USB hard drive, so maybe that was the issue. So I deleted it, and it can boot normally now most of the time, as sometimes it will still go into recovery mode, maybe a power issue since the 5V/2A adapter is just on the limit… So the only way to reliable boot the device is to remove the USB hard drive during boot. A typical boot is very fast, as it only takes about 19 seconds, faster than all devices I’ve reviewed so far.

Click for Original Size

It’s the first time I see this launcher, but the features are pretty standard with status icons, weather, date & time on the top, some shortcuts to the Play Store, web Browser, File Explorer, App list…., and a bottom row with customizable shortcuts. The HELP icon redirects to www.tvboxceo.com with a Q&A and Solutions sections explaining how to solve some common problems (e.g. how to install adult add-ons….), and download apps like TVMC (Kodi fork), Add-ons, Plex, Netflix, etc… Note that the resolution is only 1280×720, instead of 1920×1080 on most devices.

Click to Enlarge

Clicking on Settings will bring a right panels with various options, instead of starting it full screen. The settings are pretty standard with Network for WiFi and Ethernet, Sound including Audio device to select Default Output, Spdif passthrough, or HDMI bitstream, Display to select resolution from 720x480p-60 to 4096x2160p-60(YCbCr420), and other typical settings you’d normally find in Android.  What’s missing however are settings for HDMI CEC, HDR, and automatic frame rate switching that you’d normally find in (Amlogic) TV boxes.

Click to Enlarge

The box could detect EXT-4 and NTFS partitions in my hard drive, albeit with a wrong 32GB total size instead of around 250 MB, meaning BTRFS and exFAT are not supported. The Internal storage is reported to be 8.0 GB, but the actual available space is 4.7 GB before installing apps. The About Section shows A95x_R2 device runs Android 7.1.1 on top of Linux 3.10.104 with the latest Android security patch level dated February 5, 2017. The device is rooted, and OTA firmware appears to be working, but I could not confirm since I did not get any firmware update.

The box comes with Google Play for TVs, but search is not working as the search field will disappear about 2 seconds after you enable it, so I could only install some apps from the Top Free section like ES File Explorer File Manager, and Beach Buggy Blitz.

Instead I reverted to APKPure to install most apps, including Amazon Underground, which I then used to install the free version of Riptide GP2.

Click to Enlarge

The screenshot above is after I installed APKPure, Antutu and CPU-Z, but it shows few apps are pre-installed, and Kodi is even missing from the list. However, when I tried to install Kodi from APKPure, it showed it was already installed, and I could only open it with started TVMC 16.1, but more on that latter.

The Setup Wizard app will allow you to run some basic configuration like language, overscan adjustment, and networking. It was not triggered during the first boot for me.

The status bar can be hidden or shown are you prefer, and includes volume, Android buttons, and a screenshot button.

I tested the IR remote control, which worked reliably up to 7 meters, and further than that I started to experience key misses. IR learning function is also working. As usual, I spent most of the time using MINIX NEO A2 Lite air mouse instead since it’s so much more convenient in Android.

Power handling works a little differently than most TV boxes. The only way to turn on the device after you connect the power is to press the power button on the unit, but if your turn off the box with the remote control, it’s possible to turn it back on with either the remote control or the power button on the device. A short press on the remote control’s power button will put the box in standby mode, while a long press will show a menu to either power off or restart the device.

I’ve measured power consumption with and without USB 3.0 hard drive , and differentiated between “hard” power off (connected power supply, but not started), and soft power off (power off from remote control):

  • Hard power off – 0.0 Watt
  • Soft power off – 1.0 Watt
  • Standby – 1.0 Watt
  • Idle – ~4.0 Watts
  • Hard power off + USB HDD – 0.0 Watt
  • Soft power off + USB HDD – ~4.0 Watts
  • Standby + USB HDD – ~4.0 Watts
  • Idle + USB HDD – ~5.3 Watts

Soft power off mode is pretty much useless, as it consumes just as much as standby mode, and you need to go through the full boot sequence. If you want to properly turn off the device, you’ll need to press the button on the unit for about five seconds, release it, and you’ll see the “power off” sequence like you would on your phone. Power consumption will be zero watt in that case.

A95X R2 box is not super cool during use, but I have not noticed obvious CPU throttling during use. After playing a 2-hour video in Kodi / TVMC, the temperature measured with an IR thermometer on the top and bottom of the device was 49 and 54 °C respectively, and after playing Riptide GP2 for over 15 minutes, it went up to 50 and 57 °C. I also checked the temperature reported by CPU-Z after both test: 82.3 and 89.2 °C, so it looks to be on the limit. Gamin performance in Beach Buggy Racing and Riptide GP2 was very good, even with maximum settings, but it was certainly helped with the 1280×720 resolution.

My first impressions with the TV box were rather mixed as beside the first boot into recovery, a 720p user interface, and an unusable Google Play, I also had many “App isn’t responding window” due to the slow storage. The box basically comes to a halt when an app is being installed/updated in the background, so that’s certainly a major downside for the box, especially when it does so in the background while you are using another program.

Video & Audio Playback in TVMC, DRM Info, and YouTube

TVMC 16.1, a fork of Kodi 16.1, is installed the box. However, by default, no icon is shown. I first found the app via APKPure, as when I search for Kodi, I could not install it, instead I was offered to Open it, and TVMC was launched.

Click for Original Size

If you want easy access to TVMC icon, install it via the HELP section of the main launched. I enabled automatic frame rate switching in Kodi/TVMC, before trying a few videos (Linaro Media Samples) played from a SAMBA share over Ethernet:

  • H.264 codec / MP4 container (Big Buck Bunny) – 1080p – OK
  • MPEG2 codec / MPG container – 1080p – OK
  • MPEG4 codec, AVI container – 1080p – OK
  • VC1 codec (WMV) – 1080p – OK
  • Real Media (RMVB), 720p / 5Mbps – OK
  • WebM / VP8 – 1080p – OK
  • H.265 codec / MPEG TS container – 1080p – OK

All good, and to my surprise, automatic frame rate switching also worked just fine, so I played a few more videos, still from SAMBA, unless other stated (HDD = USB hard drive):

  • ED_HD.avi (MPEG-4/MSMPEG4v2 – 10 Mbps) – OK
  • big_buck_bunny_1080p_surround.avi (1080p H.264 – 12 Mbps) – OK
  • h264_1080p_hp_4.1_40mbps_birds.mkv (40 Mbps) – OK
  • hddvd_demo_17.5Mbps_1080p_VC1.mkv (17.5Mbps) – OK
  • Jellyfish-120-Mbps.mkv (120 Mbps video without audio) – HDD: OK

Still very good, so let’s switch to some 4K video samples:

  • HD.Club-4K-Chimei-inn-60mbps.mp4 (H.264, 30 fps) – OK
  • sintel-2010-4k.mkv (H.264, 24 fps, 4096×1744) –  SAMBA: Frequent buffering; HDD: OK
  • Beauty_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_MP4.mp4 (H.265) –  OK
  • Bosphorus_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_MP4.mp4 (H.265) – OK
  • Jockey_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_TS.ts (H.265) – OK
  • MHD_2013_2160p_ShowReel_R_9000f_24fps_RMN_QP23_10b.mkv (10-bit HEVC) – OK
  • phfx_4KHD_VP9TestFootage.webm (VP9) – 1 to 2 fps (software decode)
  • BT.2020.20140602.ts (Rec.2020 compliant video; 36 Mbps; 59.97 Hz) – OK
  • big_buck_bunny_4k_H264_30fps.mp4 – OK
  • big_buck_bunny_4k_H264_60fps.mp4 – Not 100% smooth, and audio delay (H.264 @ 4K60fps not supported by VPU)
  • Fifa_WorldCup2014_Uruguay-Colombia_4K-x265.mp4 (4K, H.265, 60 fps) – OK
  • Samsung_UHD_Dubai_10-bit_HEVC_51.4Mbps.ts (10-bit HEVC / MPEG-4 AAC) – SAMBA: Some audio cuts due to buffering; HDD: OK
  • Astra-11479_V_22000-Canal+ UHD Demo 42.6 Mbps bitrate.ts (10-bit H.265 from DVB-S2 stream) –  OK
  • 暗流涌动-4K.mp4 (10-bit H.264; 120 Mbps) – HDD: perfect.
  • Ducks Take Off [2160p a 243 Mbps].mkv (4K H.264 @ 29.97 fps; 243 Mbps; no audio) – HDD: Slideshow
  • tara-no9-vp9.webm (4K VP9 YouTube video @ 60 fps, Vorbis audio) – Massive artifacts (software decode)
  • The.Curvature.of.Earth.4K.60FPS-YT-UceRgEyfSsc.VP9.3840×2160.OPUS.160K.webm (4K VP9 @ 60 fps + opus audio) – Lots of artifacts (software decode)

We can start to see some “cracks” here, with some 50 to 60 Mbps videos failing to play smoothly over Ethernet + SAMBA, and VP9 hardware decoding not implemented in TVMC despite being supported by the processor (in theory). So I tried again the VP9 videos in FileExplorer, but I was not able to login to the SAMBA share, so I played them from the hard drive instead. It worked, but with large black bars on the bottom, left and right on the screen, and rendered on the framebuffer, meaning 720p instead of 4K.

The option to adjust Zoom/Aspect Ratio is also not available while playing videos in Kodi either.

Click to Enlarge

TVMC has option for audio pass-through for AC3, E-AC3, DTS, TrueHD, and DTS HD, so I tested those over HDMI with Onkyo TX-NR636 AV receiver, as well as stereo output (PCM 2.0) downsampling.

Audio Codec in Video PCM 2.0 Output HDMI Pass-through
AC3 / Dolby Digital 5.1 Audio OK,
video: 1:1 aspect ratio
Audio OK,
video: 1:1 aspect ratio
E-AC-3 / Dolby Digital+ 5.1 OK OK
Dolby Digital+ 7.1 OK OK
TrueHD 5.1 OK OK
TrueHD 7.1 OK OK
Dolby Atmos 7.1 OK Dolby True HD 7.1
DTS HD Master OK OK
DTS HD High Resolution OK OK
DTS:X OK DTS HD MSTR 7.1ch B

My AV receiver does not support Dolby Atmos, nor DTS:X, so it correctly falls back to Dolby True HD and DTS HD Master. I’m pleasantly surprise here again. Note that the first time, I had some background noise for all pass-through options, but once I enabled HDMI BitStream in Android settings, and restarted TVMC, everything worked fine.

Playing Blu-Ray ISOs would often results in TVMC crashing, and when working AMAT.iso would play very very slowly, while Sintel.iso would play just fine. MPEG2 1080i videos & 720p/1080p Hi10p videos played perfectly well. That makes A95X R2 the very first TV box I own capable of handling all three Hi10p (10-bit H.264) videos samples I own at 720p, 1080p, and 4K resolution with video, audio, and subtitles working.

The box could also decode SBS and over/under 3D videos, but I could not confirm whether 3D is supported since my TV is not 3D capable. Various MKV, AVI, XViD/DViX, MP4, VOB/IFO, and FLV videos could play, and the TV box passed the reliability test with a 2-hour 1080p H.264 movie played over a SAMBA share. So while the Android performance is quite poor due to the slow storage, the video & audio capabilities are not too bad. The only problem is that at the end of the review, TVMC started crashing each time I played a video, and I could not fix it even after clearing cache and data….

Click to Enlarge

DRM Info app shows Google Widevine Level 3 is supported, meaning premium apps like Netflix won’t be able to support HD or UHD video playback.

YouTube works, but can only play videos up to 720p (1280×720) resolution likely before the framebuffer is set to that resolution. The video are also rendered to the framebuffer, instead of the hardware video buffer, as I could take screenshots with the video, something that is not supposed to be possible when playing video on the hardware video buffer.

Networking & Storage Performance

A95X R2 is limited to 802.11n @ 2.4 GHz, so that’s what I tested by copying a 278MB file between SAMBA and the internal flash, and vice versa, using ES File Explorer. I could transfer that file at 3.2MB/s on average, a very good results on this type of connection.

Throughput in MB/s – Click to Enlarge

I also used iperf -t 60 -c ip_server to test raw speeds.

  • WiFi upload:

  • WiFi download:

and results are again pretty good. I also quickly tested Fast Ethernet using full duplex transfer, and the bandwidth was maxed out in both directions:

I won’t test Bluetooth with this device, simply because it does not support it.

Switching to A1SD bench app for storage performance, I can confirm the cheap Samsung eMMC flash used in the device has poor write speed (6.46 MB/s), and read speed (71.14MB/s) should be ignored due to cached read. That flash is the reason of some of the very poor performance with the TV box at times, especially when write operation (e.g. installing/updating app) occur in the background.

USB 3.0 performance is however impressive with 100.25 MB/s and 80.21 MB/s read and write speed on the NTFS partition, and 94.52 MB/s and 90.73 MB/s on the EXT-4 partition.

Read & Write Speeds in MB/s – Click to Enlarge

The performance is excellent, and is close to the performance I got on my main computer with that drive. That’s very promising for other RK3328 hardware platforms, as sadly A95X R2 is bottlenecked by the Fast Ethernet connection.

A95X R2 TV Box / Rockchip RK3328 Benchmarks and System Info

CPU-Z reports a quad core Cortex A53 processor @ 408 MHz to 1.51 GHz with an ARM Mali-450MP GPU. The model is A95x_R2 (A95x_R2_8189), probably meaning there may be other models with a different WiFi module, and as mentioned previously the “screen resolution” is limited to 1280×720. 990 MB of total RAM is available to the system, and 5.27 GB of internal storage.

Click to Enlarge

A95X R2 scores 33,117 points in Antutu 6.x , or about the same as TV boxes with Amlogic S905X, which should be expected, as both processors have similar features, except RK3328 has one less GPU cores. This is mitigated by the 1280×720 UI instead of 1920×1080. If the developer had chosen the latter, the score should have been a little lower.

Vellamo 3.x also reports similar scores with 1,943 point for Chrome Browser test, 1,464 points for Multicore (one test failed), and 937 for the Metal score, against 1,855 points for Browser test (note: not Chrome), 1,491 points for multicore, and 910 for Metal for an Amlogic S905X TV box

3DMark ICE Storm Extreme v1.2 reveals the weakness of the CPU with just 2,252 points, against 4,183 points on Amlogic S905X processor.

Click to Enlarge

Conclusion

My review of A95X R2 did not start so well with boot problems when connecting a USB hard drive (using a beefier power supply may help), and frequent sluggishness and app is not responding pop-up windows appearing. However, video and audio playback are quite well support with automatic frame rate switching and HD audio pass-through working well. USB 3.0 performance is excellent, and I was also pleased with WiFi performance.

PROS

  • Latest Android 7.1.1 Nougat firmware
  • Good 4K video & audio support in TVMC (Kodi’s fork) with automatic frame rate switching and HD audio pass-through working for DTS HD and Dolby TrueHD
  • Very good WiFi performance and stability (for a device limited to 802.11n)
  • Excellent USB 3.0 storage performance similar to what I get on my main computer
  • NTFS, EXT-4, and FAT32 file systems supported
  • Pretty design with compact box and front panel LCD display
  • Fast boot (< 20 seconds)
  • OTA firmware update likely supported (but not tested, since no new firmware)

CONS

  • Slow eMMC flash leading to sluggishness, and poor performance at times
  • Connecting a USB 3.0 hard drive may lead to booting into recovery (random issue)
  • Google Play is not usable, due to non-accessible search function
  • TVMC/Kodi issues – no zoom option during playback, VP9 hardware decoding not working, random crash when starting to play Blu-ray ISO’s, failed to play any videos at the end of review
  • YouTube limited to 720p (due to 1280×720 UI)
  • No visible options for HDR, HDMI CEC, Deep Color, etc…
  • No Bluetooth support
  • DRM limited to Widevine Level 3

It’s hard to recommend A95X R2 TV box due to the serious cons, but I find Rockchip RK3328 good be a good base on hardware with a faster eMMC flash, and Gigabit Ethernet, even potentially suitable for a NAS + TV Box combo due to the excellent USB 3.0 storage performance.

I’d like to thank GearBest for providing a sample for review. If you are still interested, you could purchase A95X R2 for $32.99 including shipping using GBA95XR2 coupon. The TV box can also be found on Banggood, GeekBuying, and Aliexpress for just under $40.

Yundoo Y8 Rockchip RK3399 TV Box System Info and Benchmarks

April 24th, 2017 6 comments

Most 64-bit ARM processors found in TV boxes and mini PC features ARM Cortex A53 cores which are good enough to watch most videos, since video decoding is usually handled by the video processing unit. But if you want some more performance for games and web browsing, SoCs based on Cortex A72 or similar high performance ARMv8 cores would deliver much a much better experience in Android. The problem is that there aren’t many options with products such as NVIDIA Shield Android TV, and Xiaomi Mi Box 3 Enhanced. The former is potentially expensive depending where you live, and the later is targeted at the Chinese market and lacks an Ethernet port. Rockchip RK3399 SoC should fill the market void for people wanting to do more than just watching videos on their TV box, and since I’ve just received Yundoo Y8 TV box based on the processor, I’ve run some apps to check out system information, and benchmark the system.

Yundoo Y8 / Rockchip RK3399 System Info with CPU-Z

CPU-Z appears to have improved since it can now detect clusters, and could detect a processor with two clusters: 2x Cortex A72 @ up to 1.99 GHz and4x Cortex A53 @ up to 1.51 GHz, as well as a Mali-T860 (actually T860MP4).

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Yundoo Y8 runs Android 6.0.1 on top of Linux 4.4.16, but I’ve read that other upcoming models based on RK3399 will run Android 7.1 instead.

Yundoo Y8 / Rockchip RK3399 Benchmarks

Let’s start with Antutu 6.x.

The 76,819 points achieved by the device is a big improvement compared to – for example – the 41,000 points in Amlogic S912 TV boxes. It also beats the ~71,000 points of Xiaomi Mi Box 3 Enhanced also based on a hexa-core Cortex A72/A53 processor (Mediatek MT8693), but at a lower 1.57 GHz maximal frequency, with a PowerVR GX6250 GPU,. and running Android 5.1 instead of Android 6.0.

Vellamo 2.x confirms the good performance of Rockchip RK3399: 5,275 points for Chrome Browser test, 2,492 points for Multicore test, and 2,332 points the Metal test. Amlogic S912 TV boxes gets about half that, and it’s also significantly better than Mi Box 3 Enhanced except for the metal test (2,392 points).

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The most powerful mobile/embedded GPUs will easily max out in 3Dmark Ice Storm Extreme 1.2 test, but the Mali-T860MP4 in RK3399 cannot quite do it, although with 9,906 points it’s a big improvement over the Mali-T820MP3 found in Amlogic S912 (~5,750 points), and slightly better than PowerVR GX6250 GPU in Mediatek MT8693 (9,260 points) using 1920×1080 output resolution.

Since low power processors are gone a long way in recent, I wanted to check out far it was from my main computer based on AMD FX8350 processor (125 Watt TDP) and running Ubuntu 16.04. One way to compare performance across different hardware and operating systems is to run GeekBench cross-platform benchmark.

GeekBench 4 Results for my PC:

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GeekBench 4 Android Results for Yundoo Y8:

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The single Cortex A72 core performance is about 50% of an FX8350 “Piledriver” core. Not too bad, even though the single core performance of this AMD CPU is not the best in the world. Multi-core performance is another story, as there are less cores/threads (6 vs 8), my computer throttles when all 8 cores are used (Normal score should be 10,000 to 12,000) , and it appears the Cortex A53 cores in RK3399 may not be used at all in GeekBench’s multi-core test. For reference, the latest Samsung Exynos 9 (8850) gets respectively 1,978 and 6,375 points in the same benchmarks. I’m assuming than in 4 to 5 years, we should be able to get AMD FX8350 type of performance in a mobile device.

Ethernet performance should be about the same in all RK3399 devices, and I tested with iperf with the command used in the TV box shown in brackets:

  • Full duplex (iperf -t 60 -c 192.168.0.104 -d):

  • Upload only (iperf -t 60 -c 192.168.104):

  • Download only (iperf -s):

So it’s working pretty well here.

Internal storage will different from box to box, and even Yundoo Y8 with 32GB storage should perform than the same box with 16GB storage, but USB 3.0 performance should remain pretty much the same across devices.

The cached read is for the internal memory (eMMC flash) which we’ll ignore here due to reason explained above. The “SD card” is the NTFS partition of my Seagate USB 3.0 drive, and results are pretty good with 94.34 MB/s sequential read, and 53.50 MB/s sequential write considering I could achieve 107 MB/s and 45 MB/s with that hard drive in my main computer.  The RAM test shows a 9684.47MB/s copy, which compared to the 3301.73 MB/s achieved by Mecool BB2 Pro Amlogic S912 TV box with DDR4 memory.

So overall the platform looks promising, and offers a significant performance boost compared to the Cortex A53 competition at an affordable price, more exactly $90 and up with 2GB RAM, 16GB storage. The downside is that since the SoC is rather new there may be a few firmware bugs at this stage, which I’ll check/report in the full review, but I’m confident they will be ironed out over time, if not in Yundoo Y8, in other RK3399 devices.

Beelink AP42 Apollo Lake mini PC Linux Review with Ubuntu, KDE Neon, Elementary OS….

Beelink’s latest Intel mini PC offerings includes the AP34 and AP42 which are their first models using Intel Apollo Lake processors. The former uses an Intel Apollo Lake Celeron N3450 processor (burst frequency 2.2GHz, Intel HD Graphics 500 with Graphics Burst Frequency 700MHz and 12 Execution Units) while the latter uses the slightly more powerful Pentium N4200 (burst frequency 2.5GHz, Intel HD Graphics 505 with Graphics Burst Frequency 750MHz and 18 Execution Units). Both support Windows 10 (Home) and Beelink’s marketing claim they “support Linux system”. GearBest has given me the chance to review running Linux on the AP42 model so here are my findings.

Spot the difference!

Normally I first make a disk image before booting Windows or installing Linux. However initial attempts at booting a Live USB with a variety of Linux systems failed so both the reseller and manufacturer were contacted for comment. Interestingly there was no immediate reply but early indications that something was amiss was when the reseller’s advert (right) changed compared with the manufacturers advert (left).

As I’d previously had a comment on my website about using rEFInd boot manager when a system wouldn’t boot I gave it a try by manually building an Ubuntu Live USB which successfully booted. Unfortunately the ISO I had used was Ubuntu 16.04.2 and whilst it ran fine on the USB drive, it couldn’t ‘see’ the eMMC of the AP42. Further experimentation with Ubuntu 17.04 Beta 2 and a variety of kernels showed that a minimum 4.10 kernel was required in order to access the eMMC. Anyone wanting to boot an Ubuntu ISO can either manually add the rRFInd boot manager, or use the latest version of ‘isorespin.sh’ to respin the ISO with the rRFInd boot manager and optionally update the kernel.

Then having taken a disk image I booted Windows only to find that Windows was already set up with an ‘Admin’ account. Which of course gave me the opportunity to test a full Windows restore that fortunately worked.

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So with a nice clean and activated Windows system and 24 hours later due to all the updates download and installing I was able to run my usual Windows tests to given me a basic comparison with other Intel devices.

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As can be seen there is a performance increment over Cherry Trail devices including better graphics performance and the new Apollo Lake Pentium N4200 processor is overall slightly better than the earlier Celeron N3150 processor.

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​Being a passively cooled device I was interested to see whether temperature was an issue. I ran HWiNFO64’s Sensor Status utility before and after each test and rather unscientifically held the box to see how hot it was. Neither indicated that I had any reason to be concerned as whilst the box felt warm the temperature maxed out at around 70 °C and no thermal-throttling was encountered.

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Having put the device through its paces under Windows, it was time to look at Linux performance. For a comparison I was going to use the results from my Phoronix ‘mini PC’ test suite run on Intel Compute Sticks. However I initially had problems getting the ‘unpack-linux’ test to install so I decided to download the latest version directly from www.phoronix-test-suite.com rather than use the one provided through ‘apt’. And because comparing results across different versions of test software and different releases of OS is often meaningless I first had to reinstall Ubuntu 17.04 on the comparison hardware and then run the tests in parallel across each device. For those not familiar with the model names they decode as STCK1A32WFC is the Intel Compute Stick (Falls City), STK1AW32SC is the Intel Compute Stick (Sterling City) and STKM3W64CC is the Intel Compute Stick (Cedar City) with the specs listed in the above table. Unfortunately with the Phoronix Test Suite some tests give decidedly strange and confusing results even those they are the average of three runs. However, as per the Windows results there is a noticeable improvement as the power of the processor increases and the AP42 performance is as expected.

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I also ran the Octane 2 on Chrome which was also comparable with the Windows result albeit slightly lower which in iteself was slightly unusual given it is typically slightly higher in Ubuntu than with Windows normally. Interestingly Octane 2 has now been retired as it seems too many programs were cheating their scores (all too familiar).

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In terms of what works under Ubuntu it was nice to find that all the usual problem areas were fine, with working audio, WiFi, Bluetooth and SD cards (including Sandisk). I did encounter a problem with HDMI audio in that you must first select the audio device under Sound Settings before it works. And in Lubuntu this was impossible to do as only Headphones showed up until I plugged in some external speakers into the headphone jack and then after unplugging them the HDMI output option then appeared. But otherwise the device ran smoothly on Ubuntu.

Some specifics about the hardware.

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The memory is single channel and is 2x 2GB DDR3 1600 MHz…

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… and the eMMC storage is CJNB4R which is a Samsung 64GB storage chip…

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… with WiFi/Bluetooth provided by an Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 3165 chip with Bluetooth 4.2 as reported by inxi.

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Given the kernel limitation, I found running other Linuxes rather limiting. I did get OpenELEC to successfully boot and run from USB but installing would be an issue. I also tried Android-x86 and Chromium OS loaders but they were also impacted and not usable. My initial Remix attempts were unsuccessful and Phoenix took too long to download to be worth waiting for another failure. Other Ubuntu based distro ISOs worked as long as they were respun with a later kernel (I tested LinuxMint, Neon and Elementary with the latest v4.11-rc7 kernel). The only other Linux distro I tried was Debian but this was also unsuccessful due to the kernel issue, however other distros with rolling releases like Tumbleweed and Arch should be okay.

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In terms of support Beelink are somewhat lacking. Despite having released the device for nearly a month, there are still no download links for BIOS or Windows drivers. They have just added a download for the entire Windows OS, but have failed to create a forum for AP42 users. For the Linux issue, they did eventually respond with “Sorry for that we don’t allow the right of Linux now” which is a somewhat unexpected response given their advert.

So for a new device running Linux it is arguably hit and miss. Depending on what you want to run will rule out the device completely at this stage and if you are looking for flexibility it may also be too restrictive. It may be that a BIOS update addresses the current Linux limitations, but equally given Beelink’s response it could restrict Linux even further.

The price is also somewhat questionable given it has a range from US$180 to US$270 which is the current price on Amazon. In comparison a barebones Zotac ZBOX CI323 with Celeron N3150 is currently US $148 on Newegg and a barebones Intel NUC NUC6CAYS with Celeron J3455 is US $149 on Amazon so the value for money given the level of support and current Linux restrictions is worth considering before purchasing. GearBest – who sent Beelink AP42 mini PC for review – somewhat sweetens the deal, as they sell it for $179.99 including shipping with coupon GBAP42. Beside Amazon and GearBest, you can also purchase the mini PC on sites like Aliexpress and Banggood for $185 to $190.

Intel Atom Z3735F (Bay Trail) vs Intel Celeron N4200 (Apollo Lake) Benchmarks Comparison

February 14th, 2017 3 comments

Intel introduced new processors every year, but in most cases the performance improvement from new processor with a similar power profile is only incrementally better, as we’ve seen in our Atom X7-Z8700 vs Pentium N4200 benchmarks comparison, which means it’s not really worthwhile to upgrade performance-wise, unless you really a specific feature or interface found in the new processor. But what if we compare to processor from 2 to 3 years ago? Intel Atom Z3735F was a popular choice two years ago, and if you’re looking for a cheap Intel mini PC or TV box, that’s still the cheapest option with prices under $80. So I’ve decided to compare Intel Atom Z3735F (Bay Trail) processor with 2W TDP to the latest Pentium Celeron N4200 (Apollo Lake) with 6W TDP.

To do so, I gathered benchmarks results from MeLE PCG03 mini PC (PCMark 8) and PCG01 TV stick (Passmark + 3Dmark) for the Atom processor, as well as Voyo VMac Mini for the Apollo Lake processor. Please note that I only have PCMark 8 Home Baseline for PCG03, and not the Accelerated benchmark with OpenCL, but based on my results with K3 Wintel Keyboard PC, and reviews from Anandtech and IXBT, there’s no difference between PCMark Home Baseline and Accelerated for Atom Z3735F processor as it seems OpenCL is not supported in Atom Z3735F SoC (at least by PCMark), so I used PCMark 8 Home Baseline results for MeLE PCG03, and PCMark8 Home Accelerated for Voyo Vmac Mini. Unsurprisingly, the Pentium processors is faster in all tasks, and I highlighted the tests where it is at least twice as fast in green.

Benchmark MeLE PCG03 / PCG01
Intel Atom Z3735F @ 1.33 / 1.83 GHz (2W TDP)
Voyo V1 Vmac Mini
Intel Pentium N4200 @ 1.1 / 2.5 GHz (6W TDP)
Ratio
PCMark 8
Overall Score 1,105 1,846 1.67
Web Browsing – JunglePin 0.58064s 0.52267s 1.11
Web Browsing – Amazonia 0.19591s 0.18459s 1.06
Writing 11s 6.89837s 1.59
Casual Gaming 6.7 fps 10.38 fps 1.55
Video Chat playback 30 fps 30.02 fps 1.00
Video Chat encoding 318 ms 196.66667ms 1.62
Photo Editing 2.7s 0.45915s 5.88
Passmark 8
Passmark Rating 466 1,052.1 2.26
3DMark
Ice Storm 1.2 14,069 2,3511 1.67
Cloud Gate 1.1 1,156 2,347 2.03
Sky Diver 1.0 439 1,384 3.15
Fire Strike 0 (Driver failure) 267 N/A

The main surprise here is how little difference there is for PCMark 8 web browsing benchmarks. Video chat is the same because the video was already rendered at 30 fps previously, and Photo editing is much faster, simply because of OpenCL support, and not because the processor is about 6 times  faster. Passmark 8 and 3DMark benchmark show a clear boost of 2 to 3 times between an Atom Z3735F mini PC/Stick and a Pentium N4200 processor for the overall system and 3D gaming. If you own an Atom Z3735F mini PC, you’ll clearly feel a performance difference if you upgrade to an Apollo Lake processor. Beside the system performance, you’ll also benefit from faster interfaces like USB 3.0, Gigabit Ethernet, and potentially SATA, as well as better multimedia capabilities with for example H.265 video decoding. You’ll have to pay 2 or 3 times more for an Apollo Lake mini PC, but contrary to most Bay trail mini PCs, it will be usable as an entry-level computer.

Xiaomi Mi Box (US) Android TV TV Box Review

February 12th, 2017 27 comments

Introduction

The Mi Box is the first Xiaomi product I have used. I received it beginning of December and have been using it regularly since then. I have received 3 updates which went through uneventfully. I was very pleased with this box. I ended up getting one for my in-laws and one for my 4 year old sons bedroom. The UI worked as expected. I have an Nvidia Shield Android TV, and the Mi Box complements it very well. Having Plex Server running on the Shield and Plex on the Mi Box is pretty fantastic to easily share content. Not to mention way more cost effective than putting a Shield in every room.

What’s Inside

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The build quality is good. The power supply puts out 5.2v which is not typical.

I do wish it had more USB ports. A single USB is inadequate. I found myself swapping USB out frequently during testing. There is optical audio and it has the round form factor. Luckily the cable I had had the adapter attached to the end, and it worked fine. No Ethernet adapter is present either.

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Teardown Photos

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Android TV UI

For anyone unfamiliar with Android TV UI I took a few screen shots. Across the top in the first screen capture a recently used/suggestion line appears. The top line will update based on your usage games, TV shows, YouTube, news etc.

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Not all apps populate this. HBO GO, Plex, Netflix, do update. Immediately below there is a MI Box Recommends section which is static.

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I was able to disable it under setting > apps to unclutter the main screen. These screenshots were taken when I first plugged in the box. I personally like the UI of Android TV and appreciate that Google ensures all apps to work with remotes and a mouse/touchpad is not necessary.

 

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Casting

Another thing that I was forced to use because DirecTV Now does not have an Android TV app yet, is the casting feature. I had it on the Shield but never really used it. Between casting my screen from my phone to most video apps I found it very easy to use. My son will navigate YouTube Kids on his tablet and cast to the TV. This is a feature you won’t find on most android boxes and I found it very convenient and easy to use.

Voice Search

During my usage and showing my son how to use the voice search I grew to like it a lot. Voice searching that is able to return YouTube, Netflix and other video apps is really convenient. My son is 4 and doesn’t speak very clearly yet but it does a good job of recognizing his voice allowing him to find the video’s he wants. (minecraft, lego, minecraft, lego, minecraft, lego) 🙂

Passthrough and Auto Framerate

I spent many many hours trying to find a good combination in Kodi/SPMC/TVMC/FTMC and couldn’t get it to work consistently. DTS only worked for me. I hope they resolve this with software in the future.

Benchmarks/Testing

This is not really fair but I performed a side by side comparison of 3DMark: Xiaomi Mi Box vs Nvidia Shield. I thought it would be interesting to see. Fear not, the Mi Box does well with light gaming. I had no problems playing games that didn’t require a controller.

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WiFi is fair at about 15Mbps on my busy Unifi 2.4 GHz network. I also have a 5GHz N built into my router and strictly using it for testing. I was able to get about 30 Mbps throughput. I still prefer a wired connection when possible and was able to use a USB to Ethernet adapter on the MI Box. I moved 2 files below one on 2.4ghz and one on 5ghz. I don’t have an AC network to test.

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I ran a few other tests and info apps below.

Widevine Level 1 Supported – Click to Enlarge

36,151 points in Antutu – Click to Enlarge

Amlogic @ 2.02 GHz – Click to Enlarge

MIBOX3 board name: once – Click to Enlarge

While reviewing

So not all apps are available due to the restrictions of Android TV and Google necessitating the apps be remote friendly. But you might run into a situation where you want to side load. If you have a air mouse or some other hid device connected it’s not a big deal. In order for to launch them in the past you loaded sideload launcher from the play store, It allows you to see all apps regardless if they are Android TV optimized. It works and is pretty easy. While reviewing I ran across a pretty neat app. TV App Repo. It makes sideloading even better.  What it does is create a small app that is basically a shortcut to your side loaded non Android TV app. Now all the apps can be launched from main screen without navigating to the sideload launcher sub menu. It worked on the few I tested. On the community addition, there are a few apps that it hosts one of which was Amazon Prime video. But I didn’t have luck getting videos to play other than trailers.

Final Thoughts

I wasn’t going to perform any benchmarking on this box. I don’t think that it is relevant. But I knew it would be crucified. This box was in my opinion built to consume media and I think it does it very well. All the streaming media apps worked great. The only drawback is that HDMI passthrough and auto framerate switching did not work consistently enough in Kodi or Plex. Streaming from HDHomerun works well even over WiFi. Amazon Prime Video is missing from this box. I did try some other methods to watch and only was able to cast from a web browser successfully.

During testing I didn’t use Kodi much and stuck with the main streaming apps that are optimized for Android TV. I hope Koying, the maintainer of SPMC, a fork of Kodi, brings some love to the Mi Box in the near future or even the Kodi team.

If you’re not an audiophile this will make a great box to stream with and hopefully save some money. If you are an Audiophile the Mi Box complements the Nvidia shield on other TV’s where surrounds sound doesn’t matter.

I would like to thank Gearbest for sending a review sample and their patience while I reviewed it. I really like to use the products for a while and get a good feel for them. If you are thinking about getting a Mi Box, it helps CNX by clicking & purchasing through this link.