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Zero Devices Z5C Thinko 4K H.265 TV Stick Review

November 26th, 2014 No comments

Zero Devices Z5C Think is one of the rare HDMI TV sitck powered by Rockchip RK3288 quad core Cortex A12/A17 processor available on the market. I’ve already take a few pictures of the device and internals, so today I’ll focus on testing the firmware, and performance of this thin and nice looking TV stick.

First Boot, Settings and First Impressions

There was a time when HDMI stick were powered by much slower, but power efficient processor based on Cortex A5 cores. One of these was CX-01 mini PC, and they could be powered by the USB port of the TV without problems. Now the processor are much more powerful, so normally you can’t power the device directly from the TV, but since I’ve seen people claim it was possible to drive RK3288 stick directly from the USB port of some TVs, I gave it a try, connected the stick to my Panasonic TV via the HDMI cable extension, as the two HDMI ports on my TV are too close, connected the micro USB to USB cable to my TV, and the power LED turned on, but the screen would stay black, and the TV display the message “Overcurrent error on USB device occured. Please remove the USB device and switch off the TV by mains power switch”.

Overcurrent_error_panasonic_TVSo that did not work out, but it was expected, and it’s not a problem with the stick, just that the TV can’t handle device with high power requirements.

So instead I used the power supply, and added a RF dongle for the Mele F10 Deluxe air mouse. Boot time is one of the best on the market so far, as it takes just 25 seconds between the time connecting the power supply, and getting to the Android Home Screen.

Android Home Screen (Click to Enlarge)

Android Home Screen (Click to Enlarge)

But the very first time, you’ll get through a wizard that let you select simplified Chinese, English or Others languages, scale your display for overscan compensation, and configure Wi-Fi. Unfortunately the first time, it did not find any Wi-Fi access point, so I went to Android Settings to check, and there was no MAC address either, probably meaning the Wi-Fi module was not detected. But everything got back to normal after a reboot, and Wi-Fi worked just fine.

Let’s have a look at the e Android settings. The Wireless & Networks sections comes with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Ethernet (for external USB dongle), and Data Usage menus, as well as a “More” section with VPN and Portable Hotspot. The Display settings mainly include font size adjustment, overscan compensation menu, and HDMI resolution selection between 9 modes: 1080p 24/25/30/50/60Hz, 720p 50/60, 720x576p-50 or 720x480p-60. Options for 4K output will be display if you own a 4K UHD TV. You can select the “Sound Output Device” in the “Sound Devices Manager” either “Default Output”, “Spdif Passthough” (which is not available on the stick), and “HDMI Bitstream” (HDMI pass-through).

About_Z5C_ThinkoThe 8GB eMMC is partitioned into two partitions:  a 0.95 GB “Internal Storage” partition for apps with 658 MB free, and a 8 GB (black magic yet again) “NAND FLASH” partition for data, with about 5.20 GB available space.

The “About Z5C Thinko” section reports the model number is Z5C, and it’s running Android 4.4.2 on top of Linux 3.10.0, and the vendor software version is 1.0.3. There’s also a System updates menu, that appears to properly connect to a server, but no new firmware was available at the time of the review.

Google Play works pretty well, and I could install apps such as ES File Explorer, Antutu, Beach Buggy Blitz, CPU-Z, etc…, with the only incompatible apps I’ve noticed being Vidonn Smartband app (as usual), and Real Racing 3. I’ve also installed Riptide GP2 through Amazon AppStore. However, I quickly ran out of space because of the sub 1GB app partition.

There’s no power button, and not proper power handling with this stick. Pressing the power button on the status bar will come up with a power off menu, but all it will do it reboot the device. Pressing the power button on Mele F10 Deluxe will simply blink the screen for one second, but it’s probably a remote key handling issue, which I’ve seen on another device, so after a fix, standby should be supported. But there’s probably nothing to be done to support power off, since it’s probably the way the hardware has been designed.

One of the biggest problems with Z5C Thinko is that it gets really hot, and sometimes hot enough to have the chip reboot itself. After Antutu, I could measure between 55 to 90°C, with the temperature especially hot on top of the Rockchip SoC, and close to the HDMI connector, since that’s where the heatsink spans.  The maximum temperature I got was 118°C. During idle time (i.e. in the home screen), the temperature is between 45 to 55°C, and in Kodi user interface it goes up to about 70°C. I’d like to point out the temperature varies a lot (-/+ 20°C on one given spot), probably because of the ventilation holes. So sometimes my IR thermometer may point to the plastic case, but sometimes I might measure the temperature directly from the heatsink, at least that’s my theory.

As long as you don’t perform demanding tasks, the firmware is mostly stable and smooth, but there are also various bugs, as I had to reboot to get Wi-Fi and Bluetooth work, USB storage connection may not be reliable, and because of the high temperature, it’s basically impossible to play 3D games, and even playing videos for over one hour may cause reboots. The tiny app partition is also annoying, but it’s something that’s easily fixable with a firmware update.

Video Playback

Kodi alpha 14 was pre-installed in the stick,. and it even let me know I should update, but since I don’t know whether the XBMC/Kodi version installed as been customized or not, I’ve tried using that version. Normally I play video from a SAMBA share, but for some reasons Kodi did not manage to find my computer, as it happened frequently in my previous review. So I switched to using my USB hard drive. I tried to connect it via the micro USB OTG port with the OTG adapter, but it was not recognized, and I tried a USB flash drive, but same problem. So instead I attached a USB hub to the single USB host port of the Android dongle, and my hard drive LED went on, but at first I could not see any partition in Kodi or ES File Explorer. I rebooted, and it worked, but since relatively unstable. So instead I installed SPMC from Google Play, and … it did not anything in the Video menu. So I ended playing videos from a SAMBA share using ES File Explorer and MX Player:

I played 1080p videos samples from samplemedia.linaro.org, and one extra 1080p H.265/HEVC videos:

  • H.264 codec / MP4 container (Big Buck Bunny) – OK
  • MPEG2 codec / MPG container – It’s playing, but not very smooth.
  • MPEG4 codec, AVI container – OK
  • VC1 codec (WMV) – OK
  • WebM / VP8 – OK
  • H.265 codec / MPEG TS container – OK

Some higher bitrate videos had troubles to play because I was over Wi-Fi:

  • ED_HD.avi – OK, no problem even in fast moving scenes
  • big_buck_bunny_1080p_surround.avi (1080p H.264 – 12 Mbps) – Playing OK, but buffering often
  • h264_1080p_hp_4.1_40mbps_birds.mkv (40 Mbps) – Playing OK, but buffering often
  • hddvd_demo_17.5Mbps_1080p_VC1.mkv (17.5Mbps) – Playing OK, but buffering often

Please note that most Android media player won’t be able to play these files smoothly over Wi-Fi + SAMBA, so the results are not really surprising.

High definition audio codec could play (downsampled) in MX Player, but since some of these are high bitrate I had buffering and audio cut issues:

  • AC3 – OK
  • Dolby Digital 5.1 / Dolby Digital 7.1 – OK (5.1), audio cuts and buffering (7.1)
  • TrueHD 5.1 & 7.1 – Black screen only
  • DTS-MA and DTS-HR –  Audio cuts and buffering

I tried to play Sintel-Bluray ISO, but it would load forever in MX Player.

4K video playback is about the same as with other RK328 boxes in MX Player, i.e. not that good:

  • HD.Club-4K-Chimei-inn-60mbps.mp4 – Frequent audio  cut, and video in slow motion. It’s a 60 Mbps video so it can’t be realistically be played over Wi-Fi.
  • sintel-2010-4k.mkv – Severe decoding issues with heavily distorted image
  • Beauty_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_MP4.mp4 (H.265) – OK (H/W decode)
  • Bosphorus_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_MP4.mp4 (H.265) – OK (H/W decode)
  • Jockey_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_TS.ts (H.265) –  Slow motion
  • phfx_4KHD_VP9TestFootage.webm (VP9) – Slow motion (maybe 1 to 3 fps)

This morning I tried again Kodi with SAMBA, and it worked for some reasons, so I tried the 4K videos in Kodi as well:

  • HD.Club-4K-Chimei-inn-60mbps.mp4 – First time black screen only, second try: plays but with many skipped frames, and then buffering.
  • sintel-2010-4k.mkv – Buffering a lot becasue bitrate is too high for Wi-Fi, but when video plays it’s not smooth either with many dropped and skipped frames.
  • 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.
  • phfx_4KHD_VP9TestFootage.webm (VP9) – Kodi reports it plays at 8 to 10 fps, but it feels even slower than that. All four core at at 100% CPU usage.

I skipped the usual AVI, MKV, FLV, VOB, FLV and MP4 videos testing, but I still did play a 2-hour video (1080p / mkv / h.264) to test stability. The video did not feel very smooth, so I enabled Kodi debug overlay by pressing the ‘o’ key, and I regularly saw dropped and skipped frames, and the frame rate oscillated between 10 to 26 fps for that 24 fps video. Nevertheless, when I play the 2-hour video, I usually go to do something else, coming to check a few times, and after about one hour, I noticed I got back to the Android home screen. I did not connect the stick to my UPS, and I thought I heard a “micro” power failure (1 or 2 seconds), so I tried again, but it did play for one hour or so, and suddenly I saw the black, and shortly after the boot logo. So I rushed to scan the dongle with my infrared thermometer, and I go an amazing maximum temperature of 118 °C!

So proper video playback does not seem possible yet on Rockchip RK3288, and the small form factor even amplifies the issues, as it can’t play a full movie, at least at my room temperature (28 °C).

Links to various video samples used in this review and be found in “Where to get video, audio and images samples” post and comments.

Network Performance (Wi-Fi)

I’m transferring a 278 MB between SAMBA and the internal flash, and vice versa, for three times in ES File Explorer to get an idea of the Wi-Fi performance, and at 2.62 MB/s on average, the performance is decent, but not clearly outstanding. The good thing is that there was very little variation between the tests, so performance is not that great, but it’s reliable.

Throughput in MB/s

Throughput in MB/s

Miscellaneous Tests

Bluetooth

Sixaxis Compatibility Checker indicated the driver in Z5C can handle Sony PS3 controller, but when I used my controller clone, I got the message “Fake controller detected, attempting workaround”, but it just got stuck there.

Right after, sixaxis test, I tried to enable Bluetooth in the Android settings, but it did not work. A reboot fixed that, and I guess is the Sixaxis app may have caused troubles with Bluetooth. I could then pair my phone with Z5c, and transfer pictures.

I install the APK for my Vidonn X5 fitness tracker in order to test Bluetooth Smart (BLE). The smart band could be detected, and the dongle retrieve data from it successfully.

Storage

Both a micro SD card and USB flash drive formatted with FAT32 could be mounted and accessed.
Using my USB 3.0 hard drive was more problematic, as at times, it would just umount itself, or even not be recognized at all. But when it worked, it could detect all four partitions, but only mount the FAT32 and NTFS partition.

File System Read Write
NTFS OK OK
EXT-4 Not mounted Not mounted
FAT32 OK OK
BTRFS Not mounted Not mounted

Due to stability issues, and I believe people are less likely to connect a USB hard drive to their stick than a full box, I skipped USB / NTFS benchmark, but still used A1 SD Bench to check the Samsung eMMC performance.

Read & Write Speed in MB/s

Read & Write Speed in MB/s

The eMMC flash has very good read speed (34.26 MB/s), but the write speed (6..62 MB/s) is not quite as good. Strangely, it’s still faster than the 6MB/s listed in Samsung eMMC product brief.  The fast read speed explained the quick boot time (25s), but I did not notice slowdowns due to the write speed.

Gaming

Candy Crush Saga, Beach Buggy Blitz, and Riptide GP2 were the three games used for testing. No problem with Candy Crush Sag, as expected. I played the two racing games with Tronsmart Mars G01 wireless gamepad, which works just fine as usual. Beach Buggy Blitz was ultra-smooth with maxed out graphics settings, but I decided to try to play a few races, and check the temperature with that games. At the second race, the stick rebooted automatically, and I measured up to 105 °C, and I was quite surprised, as it was the first time (I played games, before I played videos) I got a temperature over 100 °C with an Android gadget. I decided to let the stick cool down for about 2 minutes, which I reckon is way too short,  before “playing” Riptide GP2.  As you may gues,s I did not end-up playing very long, as the device rebooted very soon, and I measured a maximum temperature of 110 °C.

Z5C Thinko Benchmarks

I expected the CPU frequency to be lower in a tiny HDMI adapter, compared to the easier to cool down full size TV box, so I ran CPU-Z to check the information, and the maximum CPU frequency is still 1.8 GHz, which at least partially explained the very high temperature I got.Z5C_Thinko_CPU-Z

The CPU is still detected as a Rockchip RK3066 with eight Cortex A12 core clocked between 312 MHz and 1.8 GHz, so it seems CPU-Z developers are not that interested in keeping up to date with Chinese SoCs by Allwinner or Rockchip.The total memory is correctly reported as 2019 MB, and internal storage has 0.95 GB because the app only included the first partition.

Z5C_Thinko_Antutu

Antutu 5.3 score is quite lower than other Rockchip RK3288 devices. Z5C Thinko gets 29,001 points, whereas TV boxes such as Tronsmart Orion R28 Meta get around 37,000 points. If we look into the details of the scores, Z5C takes a hit with UX, RAM, and CPU tests, but the GPU performance is exactly the same. Storage I/O is also weaker probably because of the slower eMMC write speed. So a more aggressive governor must have been implemented, or the 1.8GHz frequency reported by CPU-Z and Antutu is incorrect.

Conclusion

Zero Devices Z5C Thinko is small, looks great, and comes with a powerful Rockchip RK3288 processor. But unfortunately, there are just oo many problem with the firmware right now, include potential unreliable USB hard drive support, poor video playback (mostly common to other RK3288 devices), and most importantly high temperature issues, which makes 3D gaming, continuous video playback, and other tasks that may require a sustained load currently impossible, as the stick will just reboot to “save” itself.

PRO:

  • Fast new processor
  • Gook looking, thin, and small. One of the rare TV sticks based on Rockchip RK3288 processor
  • Fast boot (25 seconds)
  • 4K and H.265/HEVC support (although it needs improvement)
  • Video Output – 1080p support 24, 25 ,30 , 50 and 60 Hz output. 4K @ 60Hz should be supported (not tested).
  • Support for OTA update (server detected, but not tested since no new firmware was available at the time)
  • Bluetooth features seems to all work (File transfer, BLE, and maybe Sixaxis)

CONS:

  • Gets extremely hot (I measured up to 118 °C), leading to reboot, and it might affect the useful life of the device.
  • No power button, or proper power off handling, which can lead to data loss.
  • Many issues with video playback including dropped/skipped frames,  and it failed the 2-hour movie playback, because of issue #1 (temperature).
  • 3D games are unplayable due to temperature issues
  • Potential USB hard drive issue (unreliable)
  • USB OTG adapter does not seem to work, at least with USB mass storage devices.
  • At first boot, Wi-Fi module was not detected. Fixed after reboot, and the problem did not occur again.
  • The internal storage partition is only 0.95 GB, and it can be full after installing a few apps.

So at this stage, Z5C Thinko can probably only be used reliably as a portable mini PC to browse the web, check emails, and interact in social networks. But they’ve got some serious work to do when it comes to video playback, USB support, 3D gaming, and overall bug fixing. The temperature issue may only be fixable by lowering the CPU frequency to 1.2 or 1.4 GHz, and for 3D gaming the GPU may also have to be clocked down, but then you’ll end up with a much less powerful platform than existing RK3288 solutions.

Zero Devices Z5C Thinko can be purchased for $94.99 on Asiapads including shipping. The company also offers a USB + Ethernet Hub for an extra $5.

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MINIX NEO X6 Media Hub Review

November 18th, 2014 7 comments

Last week-end, I took a few pictures of MINIX NEO X6 media hub, and had a look at the company’s firmware and forum support which indeed seems to be good. Today, I’ve completed the full review of MINIX NEO X6, and I will compare it to two of its lower priced competitors: MXQ S85 and EM6Q-MXQ.

First Boot, Settings and First Impressions

The IR remote control works fine, including continuous up ad down pressing, but I switched to using Mele F10 Deluxe air mouse for convenience. I’ve connected an Ethernet cable, an HDMI cable, a micro SD card, a USB hard drive, and a USB hub with two RF dongles for my air mouse and gamepad, a USB flash drive, and a UVC webcam. I’ve connected the power, pressed the power button on the side of the box, but nothing happened at first… You have to press the button one second or more to start the box, then the blue LED turns off, a MINIX logo show ups, a few seconds later a short MINIX animation, and the first screen greets you asking to choose between “Launcher” and “MINIX METRO”, respectively the default Android home screen, or MINIX customized user interface. The boot takes about 1 minutes and 30 seconds. By comparison MXQ S85 takes a little over 40 seconds, and EM6Q-MXQ about 1m 50s.

MINIX Metro Interface (Click for Original)

MINIX Metro Interface (Click for Original)

The status bar is hidden by default, and I simply pulled it up with the mouse pointer to take a screenshot. But before carrying on with the review, I noticed the company released Firmware 002 for MINIX NEO X6, so I decided to check the Update app in Android (on Monday), but the new firmware was not on the update server.  I even asked if they had a schedule to push the OTA update, but I did not receive an answer in time for the review. So instead, I used the standard firmware update method which involves USB Burning Tool for Windows, and pressing the recovery button. I was a pain, I did it in VirtualBox, but after one error, it finally successfully updated the firmware.

Back to the review. For some reasons, my TV resolution was automatically detected to be at 720p60, so i changed the settings to 1080p60 manually. I’ve noticed that switching to 720p still keep the user interface to 1920×1080 resolution, so there’s no performance gain doing so.

The Settingd menu is based on the same Metro-style interface found in most Amlogic boxes, but with MINIX green and grey skin with four sub-sections: Network, Display, Advanced and Other. I’ve highlighted the differences with MXQ-S85 in bold, and crossed the deleted options.

  • Network – Enable and configure Wi-Fi or Ethernet
  • Display:
    • Automatic or manual HDMI resolution: 480p/i @ 60 Hz, 576p/i @ 50 Hz, 720p @ 50/60 Hz, 1080i @ 50/60 Hz, or 1080p @ 24/50/60 Hz
    • CVBS Mode Setting: 480 CVBS or 576 CVBS (if Composite output selected on TV).
    • Hide or Show status bar
    • Display Position
    • Screen Save (Never, 4, 8 or 12 minutes)
  • Advanced:
    • Miracast
    • Remote Control
    • Google TV Remote
    • CEC Control
    • Location for weather (Chinese cities only)
    • Screen Orientation settings
    • Digital Audio Output (Auto, PCM, S/PDIF pass-through, or HDMI pass-through)
    • No Output to USB Audio
  • Other – System Update: Local file or OTA (connects to server OK), Backup, and “More Settings” for standard Android Settings.

CVBS and S/PDIF options have been removed since those two ports are not available in MINIX NEO X6, and they rightly removed the “Location for weather” because the services only works for Chinese cities. “No Output to USB Audio” is enabled by default, and it’s probably there to avoid audio capable air mouse, such as Mele F10 Pro, to takeover HDMI audio output automatically.

I’ve made a video to show MINIX NEO X6 user interface, system settings, as well as H.265 video playback and automatic refresh rate switching which both work in XBMC 13.3.3 MINIX Edition.

About_MINIX_NEO_X6MXQ-S85 comes with an 8GB eMMC flash with a single 5.32GB partition, with a little under 4GB free by the end of my review. The model number is reported as being “NEO-X86″ in “About MediaBox” section, and the system runs Android 4.4.2 on top of Linux kernel 3.10.33. The firmware is not rooted, and I have not rooted it, but since a USB cable is provided for the OTG port, and the firmware upgrade procedure worked, it should be able to root the device.

I had no problem installing apps with Google Play Store including the something problematic Vidonn Smartband app, a paid app, and messenger apps (Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp) which would not install in MXQ S85 TV Box. I’ve also installed Amazon AppStore, in order to test Riptide GP2.

MXQ S85 could not be powered off cleanly, but MINIX NEO X6 has no such problem. The power button on the side of the box is used to power it on (need to press 1 second or more), and the remote control or the soft power button in the status bar are used to pop-up a menu to let your “Sleep”, “Restart”, or “Power Off”. The only downside is that you can turn on the media player with the remote control, and you have to get up to press the power button on the device. It must be the coolest device I ever tested (no pun intended), the maximum temperature measured after Antutu 5.2 was 37°C and 45°C respectively on the top and bottom of the box.  After playing Riptide GP2 for nearly 30 minutes, the maximum temperature on top and bottom reached 40°C and 46°C.

MINIX NEO X6 firmware is rock solid, as during my testing I did not experience any noticeable slowdown, crash, or freeze. One game did fail to load once, but at the second attempt it worked just fine. For some reasons, I also had problems to connect the SAMBA shared in XBMC at first, but finally I could connect. I never had the message “app not responding” pops up like in MXQ S85 and EM6Q-MXQ.

Video Playback

Firmware 002 comes with XBMC 13.3 MINIX Edition pre-installed, but I saw they have XBMC 13.3.3 Beta MINIX Edition recently released with automatic refresh rate switching, something I only heard was possible in Linux so far (with ARM hardware), and better support for .ts files. So I installed it to give it a try. The 1080p XBMC user interface is rendered at about 30 fps with this hardware. Normally, I’d play video from a SAMBA share in Ubuntu 14.04, but for some reasons I got the message “Connection Refused”, albeit I got it working just fine with ES File Explorer. So most of the video test were made from a USB hard drive.

I started with videos from samplemedia.linaro.org, plus some H.265/HEVC videos (Elecard), and a low resolution VP9 video:

  • H.264 codec / MP4 container (Big Buck Bunny), 480p/720p/1080p – OK
  • MPEG2 codec / MPG container, 480p/720p/1080p – OK
  • MPEG4 codec, AVI container 480p/720p/1080p – OK
  • VC1 codec (WMV), 480p/720p/1080p – OK
  • Real Media (RMVB) – RV8, RV9, and RV10 – OK but not that smooth (S/W decode)
  • WebM / VP8 – 480p/720p OK, 1080p plays in slow motion all the time, and audio is cut.
  • H.265 codec / MPEG TS container (360p/720p/1080p) – OK, but it’s not possible to seek in the file.
  • WebM / VP9 (no audio in video) – OK

I also successfully tested automatic refresh rate switching with the HEVC / 1080p video @ 24 fps, where my TV output 1080p24 automatically, and reverts to 1080p60 after I interrupt video playback.

I also played some higher bitrate videos:

  • ED_HD.avi – audio only
  • 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, but could be smoother, and XBMC reports skipped and dropped frames regularly.
  • Jellyfish-120-Mbps.mkv (120 Mbps video without audio) – OK (Played from USB hard drive)

Next are some videos with high definition audio codec:

  • AC3 – OK
  • Dolby Digital 5.1 / 7.1 – OK, but I got some noticeable skipped/dropped frame in the 7.1 video.
  • TrueHD 5.1 & 7.1 – OK
  • DTS-MA – OK
  • DTS-HR – Audio is OK, I got some noticeable skipped/dropped frame in the video.

Sintel-Bluray.iso played OK in XBMC, so Blu–Ray ISO files are supported.

As with other Amlogic S805 based Android TV boxes, AVI, MKV, FLV, VOB/IFO, and MP4 videos could all play fine, without A/V sync issues, or noticeable frame dropped. I also watched a complete 1080p video (1h50 / MKV / 3GB) to test stability, and no issue here either. So overall, video playback capabilities of NEO X6 are quite impressive.

Links to various video samples used in this review and be found in “Where to get video, audio and images samples” post and comments.

Network Performance (Wi-Fi and Ethernet)

A 278 MB file is transferred between a SAMBA share (Ubuntu 14.04) and the internal flash, and vice versa, to test the network performance, repeating the test three times with ES File Explorer. Wi-Fi transfer speed is very good @ 3.01 MB/s on average, about the same as MXQ-S85, but not not quite as fast as the outstanding Wi-Fi performance of EM6Q-MXQ media player.

Throughput in MB/s

Throughput in MB/s

Ethernet worked fine at 100 Mbps connected to my Gigabit Ethernet switch, with performance a little better than other Amlogic S805 players.

MINIX_NEO_X6_SAMBA_Flash_Copy

Throughput in MB/s

I ran iPerf app using “iperf -t 60 -c 192.168.0.104 -d” command line, to get a raw Ethernet performance number, and it confirms NEO X6 is still the best in its category (S805 boxes have green dots):

MINIX_NEO_X6_iPerf

Throughput in Mbps

iperf output:

Client connecting to 192.168.0.105, TCP port 5001
TCP window size:  136 KByte (default)
------------------------------------------------------------
[  6] local 192.168.0.104 port 48372 connected with 192.168.0.105 port 5001
[ ID] Interval       Transfer     Bandwidth
[  6]  0.0-60.0 sec   625 MBytes  87.4 Mbits/sec
[  4]  0.0-60.1 sec   564 MBytes  78.7 Mbits/sec

Miscellaneous Tests

Bluetooth

Bluetooth file transfer works as expected. MINIX NEO X6 is advertized as “m201″, and I did not experience any issues while transferring pictures from my Android phone to the box.

I skipped Sixaxis Compatibility Checker test, as the device is not rooted, and I did not try to root it.

I used Vidonn X5 fitness band to test Bluetooth Smart (BLE), but the app could locate the smartband.

Storage

USB flash drive and a micro SD card formatted with FAT21 could be accessed by the system. NTFS and FAT32 partitions on my USB 3.0 hard drive could be mounted and accessed, but the EXT-4 and BTRFS partitions were completely ignored as usual.

File System Read Write
NTFS OK OK
EXT-4 Not mounted Not mounted
FAT32 OK OK
BTRFS Not mounted Not mounted

USB hard drive and internal flash performance were tested with A1 SD Bench app. The read speed was 18.87 MB/s, and the write speed 22.37MB/s for NTFS partition in my USB hard drive (mounted in /storage/external_storage/sdb1). Both results are not very good, but equivalent to what I got with MXQ S85, yet much slower than EM6Q-MXQ.

Transfer Rate in MB/s

Transfer Rate in MB/s

MINIX claims to have use an eMMC flash with NEO X6, and the benchmark results indeed shows its the fastest S805 device when its comes to internal storage read and write speeds, achieving respectively 23.23 MB/s (read) and 9.95 MB/s (write), which makes sure the apps load a bit faster. Boot should also be faster, but for some reasons it’s not the case, at least against MXQ S85.

Read / Write Speed in MB/s

Read / Write Speed in MB/s

USB Webcam

I could make an audio call with Skype using the “Echo Service”, and the webcam was recognized and working, but although I could record a video message, it would never show up, and I could not share it with my contact. Google Hangouts also recognizes the USB webcam, but the image freezes a lot, so it’s currently unusable.

Gaming

I played the three usual suspects: Candy Crush Saga, Beach Buggy Blitz, and Riptide GP2. Candy Crush Saga was responsive enough, and I crushed candy with my air mouse. I used Tronsmart Mars G01 wireless gamepad for Beach Buggy Blitz and Riptide GP2. Beach Buggy Blitz exited while loading the first time, but after that it worked. The quad core Mali-450 GPU is powerful enough to handle this game at a decent frame rate with the default settings (low graphics settings), even at 1080p. The system struggles a bit more with Riptide GP2, but changing the graphics quality to “Smoother Framerate” improve the user experience. I played several races waiting for the usual freeze in Riptide GP2 on Amlogic devices, but I decided to give after the 7th races (about 30 minutes), as the game was still running good. I’m not sure if Amlogic or MINIX did something to the firmware, or Vector Unit changed something in their game.

3D games are working and, NEO X6 appears to be more stable than other Amlogic devices, but if gaming is important to you, you should still consider a faster devices based on Rockchip RK3288 processor for instance.

MINIX NEO X6 CPU-Z & Antutu Benchmark

I failed to have a look at the board in MINIX NEO X6 unboxing post, but CPU-Z provides some interesting insights, which could explain some of the close results with MXQ S85 in several benchmarks above. The model number is reported as NEO X6 (m201), whereas MXQ-S85 was reported as S85 (m201). At first I thought the board could be virtually the same, except MINIX took out S/PDIF, and replaced a standard NAND flash, by an eMMC flash, but the connectors placement are quite different, so they must really be different, and I’m not sure what m201 means in this case.

MINIX_NEO_X6_CPU-Z

The media hub gets 1716,448 points in Antutu 5.2, which is a bit faster than the scores achieved by EM6Q-MXQ (16,647), and MXQ S85 (16,448), mostly because the CPU is clocked at 1,536 MHz instead of 1,488 MHz, and faster I/Os.

MINIX_NEO_X6_Antutu

Conclusion

There’s no doubt MINIX NEO X6 is a good device. Firmware is very stable, I did not experience slowdowns, video playback is excellent, with rare features like H.265 support in XBMC, and automatic refresh rate switching, Ethernet and Wi-Fi both offer good throughput, 3D games won’t hang like in most Amlogic boxes, and the main downside is probably the rather poor USB / NTFS read and write performance, which becomes an issue in case you have very high bit rate videos (120 Mbps+) stored on a USB hard drive.

PRO:

  • Firmware is stable, and relatively fast (considering the processor involved)
  • Excellent XBMC support including H.265/HEVC support, and automatic refresh rate switching.
  • Good Wi-Fi, and Ethernet performance
  • Video Output – Supports 1080p24/50/60 (but not 25/30 Hz)
  • 3D games play without issues. (Performance is not optimal however due to the GPU/CPU)
  • Good power handling, although the device can’t be turned on with the remote control.
  • OTA firmware update
  • Webcam works with Skype
  • Support forum and community

CONS:

  • USB / NTFS storage performance is disappointing.
  • Bluetooth Low Energy / Smart is not currently supported.
  • OTA firmware upgrade connects to server, but firmware files may not be uploaded to the update server in a timely manner. (TBC)
  • USB webcam did not work reliably in Google Hangouts.
  • The remote control can’t power on the device.
  • Lacks optical S/PDIF output
  • Relatively slow boot time (1m30s) despite eMMC flash

MINIX NEO X6 media hub is clearly a better device compared to the low cost MXQ S85 and EMQ6-MXQ media players, albeit its outperformed in some individuals tests. Overall, there are less issues, XBMC runs better, and if support and regular firmware updates, probably for a year based on experience with previous MINIX devices, are important to you, it could be worth paying double price to buy MINIX NEO X6 instead of MXQ S85. For $100, you could also buy one of the many Rockchip RK3288 media player, and if video playback is not your focus, web browsing and gaming will be much faster, but if your main usage will be to play 1080p videos, including with the latest HEVC/H.265, NEO X6 capabilities are greater than on any of the RK3288 TV boxes I’ve tested so far. Devices based on Amlogic S812 will also be an option, in theory providing both the same excellent video playback (up to 4K), and much faster CPU/GPU performance, but it’s something I’ll test soon.

Tinydeal provided the sample for this review, and if are interested in the device, you could buy  MINIX NEO X6 for $99.99 including shipping on Tinydeal.  It is quite popular. so it can be found on many online resellers including DealExtreme, Amazon, Pandawill, GeekBuying, etc…

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Tronsmart Draco AW80 Octa core Android TV Box Review

November 9th, 2014 44 comments

Tronsmart Draco AW80 (click for full specs) is the first octa core Android TV box / mini PC thanks to Allwinner A80 processor. Draco AW80 Meta model comes with 2GB RAM / 16GB eMMC, and the upcoming Draco AW80 Telos will feature 4GB RAM and a 32GB eMMC. Geekbuying sent me the Meta version for review, and since I’ve already posted pictures of the device and board, today I’ll post my findings after testing the unit.

First Boot, Settings and First Impressions

I’ve inserted two AAA batteries in the provided remote control, and it works as expect, but as usual, I’ve used Mele F10 Deluxe air mouse to control the device during my testing, since it’s impossible to use most apps with an IR remote control, XBMC/Kodi being one exception. I’ve connected an HDMI cable, a USB 3.0 hard drive to the USB 3.0 OTG port of the TV box, an Ethernet cable, a USB webcam, inserted an SD card, as well as a USB hub with RF dongles for my air mouse and Mars G01 gamepad, and USB flash drive. There’s no power button, and the board boots immediately as you connect the power. It takes about 44 seconds to complete, which is quite slower than the 20 seconds with Rockchip RK3288 TV boxes coming with a fast eMMC such as HPH NT-V6 or Kingnovel R6.

Android Home Screen (Click for Original Size)

Android Home Screen (Click for Original Size)

We’ve got a clean Android home screen without any icon. The output resolution was 720p by default, but I switched to 1080p60.

About_Draco_AW80Let’s go to the Android Settings. The Wireless and Networks menu features the usual Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Ethernet, and Data Usage sections, as well as a “More” section with VPN, and Tethering & portable hotspot.… You can enable pass-through in the Sound Settings, and select three audio output modes: “AUDIO_CODEC”, “AUDIO_HDMI” and “AUDIO_SPDIF”. The dpi settings are set so that he box is better used as a mini PC (1 meter from screen) rather than a TV (e.g.3 to 4 meters) and the font size is quite small, so you may want to change the font to “Huge” if you are using the device as a TV box. The Display menu also let should select several output modes: 720p 50/60, 1080p 24/50/60 or 4K 30 for HDMI ,and PAL or NTSC for composite output. I’ve only used HDMI, not composite output.

The 16 eMMC flash in Tronsmart Draco AW80 Meta is partition in a single 12.04 GB “internal storage” partition for apps and data, with over 11.2GB available space. There are also some options to “enable media scanning” on SD card and USB, and enable “Blu Ray directory play mode”, but I’m not sure what’s the exact use of these functions.

The “About Box” section lists the model number as Draco AW80, and Android 4.4.2 running on top of Linux kernel 3.4.39. The build number is jaws_tvd_p1-eng 4.4.2 KOT49H 20141024 test-keys, which jaws_tvd_p1 being the board/platform name. The firmware is  rooted, and the “System Update” (no s) menu can perform OTA updates. I haven’t been able to test this feature, as there’s no new firmware, but the server check seemed to work.

In the video below, I boot the device, and go though the system settings, and play a video in Kodi.

I could install all apps required for the review from Google Play Store, except Vidonn activity tracker app again reported as “incompatible with your device”. This happens with many devices, so it could be any issues wit hthe app, rather than the firmware. I’ve also downloaded and installed Amazon AppStore in order to load Riptide GP2 game, which I got as a “free app of the day”.

Power handling may look like a detail, but the lack of power off function may lead to flash corruption because you need to cut the power from the mains, so I first was disappointed when I discovered Draco AW80 did not have power button in the unit itself. But luckily, they’ve done things right after all. The first time you connect the power supply, the box will start automatially, but you can use the remote control (Mele F10 Deluxe also work) to put the box in to standby (short press), or power the device off (long press). You can also turn it back on with the remote control power key, so you don’t need to get up from the sofa…. Thanks to the large heatsink and metallic enclosire, the box stays pretty cool, and after Antutu benchmark, the maximum temperatures measured with an infrared thermometer on the top and bottom of the box were respectively 39°C and 41°C.

Draco AW80 firmware is very stable, and the box feels fast and snappy, with a performance “feeling” pretty similar to Amlogic S802 and Rockchip RK3288 based devices. I did not have any problems of the box hanging, except with Riptide GP2 as we’ll see below.

Video Playback

This media player comes pre-loaded with Kodi 14-alpha 3. Normally, I would use a SAMBA share to play video over Ethernet, but at first XBMC/Kodi failed to find any network shares, so instead I played most videos from a USB hard drive, and only switched to SAMBA + Gigabit Ethernet later for the remaining videos, once I manage to connect. If Kodi had problem to play a particular video, I switched to MX Player for further testing.

Videos samples from samplemedia.linaro.org, plus H.265/HEVC video by Elecard, and a low res VP9 sample:

  • H.264 codec / MP4 container (Big Buck Bunny), 480p/720p/1080p – OK
  • MPEG2 codec / MPG container, 480p/720p/1080p
    • Kodi – It can play smoothly at first, but after several seconds, many frames are dropped, leading to a slow motion effect.
    • MX Player – OK
  • MPEG4 codec, AVI container 480p/720p/1080p – OK
  • VC1 codec (WMV), 480p/720p/1080p – OK
  • Real Media (RMVB) – RV8, RV9, and RV10 – OK. Smoother than other ARM platforms.
  • WebM / VP8 – OK
  • H.265 codec / MPEG TS container
    • Kodi – XBMC simply exits once I tried to play these samples
    • MX Player – Black screen with H/W decode. The videos can only be played by selecting S/W decode, which looks OK for 480p/720p, but can be choppy in some scenes @ 1080p.
  • Vp9 (low re) – OK

Most videos can play, even though I had to switch to MX Player for smooth MPEG2, but H.265 / HEVC video completely failed to play with both players.

Higher bitrate videos:

  • ED_HD.avi – OK, no problem even in fast moving scenes
  • big_buck_bunny_1080p_surround.avi (1080p H.264 – 12 Mbps) – OK.
  • h264_1080p_hp_4.1_40mbps_birds.mkv (40 Mbps) – OK at first, for some frames are skipped and dropped near the end.
  • hddvd_demo_17.5Mbps_1080p_VC1.mkv (17.5Mbps) – OK, but many frames are dropped, so the video does not feel that smooth.
  • Jellyfish-120-Mbps.mkv (120 Mbps video without audio) – OK both from USB and SAMBA (Ethernet).

High definition audio codec:

  • AC3 – OK, but aspect ratio strangely set to 1:1.
  • Dolby Digital 5.1 / Dolby Digital 7.1 – OK
  • TrueHD 5.1 & 7.1 – OK
  • DTS-MA and DTS-HR – OK

Sintel-Bluray.iso could play well in XBMC/Kodi, so Blu-Ray ISO are also supported.

Yet again 4K videos are a disappointment, especially with the latest HEVC/VP9 codec, but none of the recent devices can handle all of these properly.

  • HD.Club-4K-Chimei-inn-60mbps.mp4

    • Kodi – OK most of the time, but some frames are skipped
    • MX Player – OK
  • sintel-2010-4k.mkv – OK!
  • Beauty_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_MP4.mp4 – Slow motion (S/W decode) in Kodi, and even in MX Player where the app (incorrectly) mentions H/W decode.
  • Bosphorus_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_MP4.mp4 – Slow motion (S/W decode) in Kodi, and even in MX Player where the app (incorrectly) mentions H/W decode.
  • Jockey_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_TS.ts – Slow motion (S/W decode) in Kodi, and even in MX Player where the app (incorrectly) mentions H/W decode.
  • phfx_4KHD_VP9TestFootage.webm (3840×2160)
    • Kodi – The app exits
    • MX Player – S/W decode, super slow as with HEVC videos

I’ve also been asked to try 1080i MPEG2 videos, so I did just that:

  • GridHD.mpg – OK
  • Pastel1080i25HD.mpg – OK

Finally, I played some several AVI, MKV, FLV, VOB and MP4 videos all from the SAMBA share, and they could all play. However, I could notice some serious dropped / skipped frame issues in a t least two videos, sometimes it plays smooth for a while, and suddenly frames start to be dropped. I could not find a sure way to reproduce the issues.

In order to test stability, I also played a 1080p H.264 MKV video (1h50), and I had no problem. I did not notice frames dropped during my periodic checks, but Kodi did report 522 dropped frames, and 1021 skipped for the whole movie. As a side note, Kodi/XBMC normally makes use of all cores available on a platform, but with Allwinner A80 only two cores are used.

Links to various video samples used in this review and be found in “Where to get video, audio and images samples” post, and especially in the comments section.

Network Performance (Wi-Fi and Ethernet)

In order to evaluate network performance, I transfer a 278 MB file between a SAMBA share and the internal flash, and vice versa, using ES File Explorer, and repeat the test three times. Since Draco AW200 support both 802.11 b/g/n (2.4/5.0Hhz) and 802.11ac (5.0GHz), I use both my default router TP-Link TL-WR940N router for 802.11n, and TP-Link TL-WDR7500 (Archer C7) for 802.11ac testing. Wi-Fi performance of this mini PC is quite good reaching 2.89 MB/s (23.12 Mbps) for 802.11n, and 4.010 MB/s (32.08 Mbps) for 802.11ac with a reported link at 390 Mbps.

Draco_AW80_Wi-FI_Performance

Draco AW80 Wi-Fi Throughput (MB/s)

This mini PC is one of the few devices I’ve tested with a properly working Gigabit Ethernet connection, the only other being Orion R28 Meta, also from Tronsmart. I’ll also tested it by copying a file between SAMBA and the internal flash for reference only, since the transfer is limited by the flash writing speed, but this still gives an idea of time it would take to copy a file.

SAMBA  Flash File Copy Over Ethernet in MB/s

SAMBA Flash File Copy Over Ethernet in MB/s

As we’ll see below, the fastest storage option in this box is a USB hardware drive formatted with FAT32, where I can transfer a 928MB file between SAMBA and USB FAT32 in 44 seconds (21.09 MB/s), and from USB FAT32 to SAMBA (SSD) in just 35 seconds or about 26.50 MB/s.

Draco_AW80_Gigabit_Ethernet_Performance

Throughput in Mbits/sec

For a raw network performance number, I also used iPerf app and iperf in my Ubuntu PC, using “iperf -t 60 -c 192.168.0.104 -d” command line in Android. I’ve only tested Gigabit Ethernet, and skipped Fast Ethernet.

In the chart above, but Kingnovel K-R6 and HPH NT-V6 only transfer data quickly in one directory, and are painfully slow in the other directory. Draco AW80 Meta could make a transfer at 736 Mbits/sec in on direction, but only 234 Mbits/sec in the other. as you can see from iperf output below:
------------------------------------------------------------
 Server listening on TCP port 5001
 TCP window size: 85.3 KByte (default)
 ------------------------------------------------------------
 [ 4] local 192.168.0.104 port 5001 connected with 192.168.0.102 port 43225
 ------------------------------------------------------------
 Client connecting to 192.168.0.102, TCP port 5001
 TCP window size: 204 KByte (default)
 ------------------------------------------------------------
 [ 6] local 192.168.0.104 port 38064 connected with 192.168.0.102 port 5001
 [ ID] Interval Transfer Bandwidth
 [ 4] 0.0-60.0 sec 5.14 GBytes 736 Mbits/sec
 [ 6] 0.0-60.0 sec 1.63 GBytes 234 Mbits/sec

I’ve got about the same numbers with A80 OptimusBoard, a development board powered by Allwinner A80, so the asymmetric performance may be due to limitations of the Allwinner octa core processor (TBC).

Miscellaneous Tests

Bluetooth

I could transfer a few pictures by pairing “Draco AW80″ to my ThL W200 Android smartphone.

I managed to connect my PS3 wireless controller clone to the device with Sixaxis Compatibility Checker app, and get the device recognized by following those instructions.

I installed vidonn.apk manually, since It’s reported as not compatible in Google Play, and my Vidonn X5 activity tracker could connected to the device with Bluetooth 4.0 LE, and data was synchronized properly.

So full mark for Bluetooth!

Storage

Both a micro SD card and USB flash drive formatted with FAT32 could be mounted and accessed by the system
NTFS and FAT32 partitions on my USB 3.0 hard drive could be mounted, and read/written to, but as usual EXT-4 and BTRFS are not working.

File System Read Write
NTFS OK OK
EXT-4 Not mounted Not mounted
FAT32 OK OK
BTRFS Not mounted Not mounted

A1 SD Bench was used to benchmark performance of the internal flash and USB 3.0 partitions. I also planned to test the SATA connector, but taking out the hard drive from the USB enclosure prove a bit more challenging than expected, so I skipped that part. I set the custom location to /mnt/usbhost0/8_17 in the benchmark app to test the NTFS partition. Since my external drive is a USB 3.0, and it can deliver 100+ MB/s read speed, and 46 MB/s write speed (NTFS partition) in my PC, I was expecting some very good results. But I quickly got disillusioned, as it’s even slower than some other devices with a USB 2.0 connection. The read speed was 25.29MB/s, and the write speed of 12.57MB/s.

Draco_AW80_USB_NTFS_Performance

Read and Write Speeds in MB/S

Draco AW80 has actual the slowest USB NTFS write speed ever recorded. I also experienced a slow write speed with A80 OptimusBoard, even worse at 3 to 4MB/s, but never published due to other issues, so I’m simply guessing Allwinner SDK has not been optimized for NTFS performance. To prove the point, I also tested the FAT32 partition (/mnt/usbhost0/8_19), achieving a more respectable 36.32 MB/s and 24.61 MB/s for respectively read and write speeds. These are still USB 2.0 kind of numbers however…

I haven’t tested SATA, but since it’s based on a USB 2.0 to SATA bridge, you should experience a similar or slower performance compared to the USB 3.0 hard drive.

The Samsung eMMC found on the board has pretty decent performance, but quite far from the theoretical values (160/50 MB/s) with 32.41 MB/s read speed,, and a 11.06 MB/s write speed.

Read and Write Speed in MB/s

Read and Write Speed in MB/s

It’s not quite as fast as some RK3288 devices, which partially explains the relatively slow boot time. Nevertheless that’s fast enough, and I only experienced a severe slowdown once (mouse pointer stuck for 2 or 3 seconds) while I installed multiple apps.

USB Webcam

Skype works OK, both with Echo service in Skype, and making a call. However, once I tried to record a video message, and it looked OK during recording, but the video was corrupted when I played it.

Google Hangouts is basically unusable, as it quits whenever I start a chat session.

Gaming

The three usual games where used to test gaming: Candy Crush Saga, Beach Buggy Blitz, and Riptide GP2. I played Candy Crush Saga with Mele F10 Deluxe, and it was nice and smooth as expected, and the two racing games with Tronsmart Mars G01 wireless gamepad. Beach Buggy Blitz is ultra smooth even with graphics settings set to the maximum. However, I had great problems while playing Riptide GP2. The first time, the image simply froze after 6 seconds in my first race, but I had used to box a few hours before. So I waited for a little while bit, and restarted the box. I could play one full race relatively smoothly, but in the second race the image froze again. Sometimes, the races won’t even load, so it was quite a disaster with that. So I also had to skipped the temperature measurement after the game, so I would not play it for more than 3 to 4 minutes if I was very lucky.

Tronsmart Draco AW80 Meta Benchmark

Before benchmark the device, I ran CPU-Z app toget some more information. An octa core processor is detected with ARM Cortex A15 cores, so it seems CPU-Z does not handle heterogeneous CPU architectures for now. The GPU is correctly detected as an Imagination Technologies PowerVR Rogue G6230. The model is called Draco AW80 (jaws_tvd_p1), with 1624 MB RAM (the rest being used by the GPU. VPU, and other hardware blocks), and the storage partition is 12.04 GB just like in the Android settings. The screen resolution in pixel and dp are the same at 1920×1032, which explains why the font looks small. Other systems often have a lower dp resolution, but if you plan to use the system as a computer a higher resolution in dp is better.

Draco_AW80_Allwinner_A80_CPU-Z

With 49,657 points (unverified), Draco AW80 is by far the fastest Android mini PC on the market, at least according to Antutu. Having said that, silicon vendors and manufacturers tend to try to cheat with Antutu, so the score should not be blindly relied upon.

Tronsmart_Draco_AW80_Antutu_5.0

That’s why i could be useful to run other benchmark, such as Vellamo 3.x.

Tronsmart_Draco_AW80_VellamoFor some reasons the scores are significantly lower than on Rockchip RK3288 (Nagrace HPH NT-V6) for all three benchmarks: 2,109 points for the Browser test (vs 2,549), 1,138 points for the Metal test (vs 1,457), and 1,352 points for the multicore test (vs 2,003). The latter is all the more surprising because Cortex A15 cores are supposed to be faster than Cortex A12/A17 cores, and Allwinner A80 has 8 cores to play with (4x A7, 4x A15) instead of the four Cortex A12/A17 on RK3288. Maybe the scheduler reduces the frequencies of the cores if they all run simultaneously. I’ll write a separate post to compare all these results side-by-side between A80 and RK3288.

Ice Storm Extreme benchmark score (6,461) in 3DMark is also lower compared to Rockchip RK3288 based media players which score between 7,000 and 7,500 at 1080p resolution.

Futuremark 3DMark Ice Storm Extreme (Click to Enlarge)

Futuremark 3DMark Ice Storm Extreme (Click to Enlarge)

Conclusion

Tronsmart Draco AW80 has some exciting specifications with a fast octa-core processor, high speed interfaces like USB 3.0, SATA, and Gigabit Ethernet, and the potential to support Linux. The device feels fast indeed, and stable, with very good Wi-Fi and working Gigabit Ethernet (a rare thing!). Video playback is OK most of the time, but VP9 and H.265 are simply not properly supported in either Kodi and MX Player, and I’ve noticed some apparently random issues with skipped frames while playing some videos. USB 3.0 performance is disappointing, and if you thought SATA would bring a boost in storage performance, I would not hold my breath (not tested) as it’s implemented via a USB 2.0 to SATA bridge. So all in all it’s a pretty good device, but maybe not just as good as could have been expected from the specs.

PRO:

  • Fast new processor, the only octa core mini PC / TV box in the market (excluding some ODROID development boards)
  • Very good 3D graphics (when ti works)
  • Stable and fast firmware.
  • USB 3.0, and SATA interfaces (with caveats)
  • Very good Wi-Fi performance, and Gigabit Ethernet working
  • Video Output – 1080p support 24, 50 and 60 Hz output. 4K @ 30Hz should be supported (not tested).
  • Proper power off/standby handling.
  • Aluminum casing and heatsink keep the device cool (40 C).
  • Webcam supported in Skype
  • Bluetooth well supported – File transfer, Bluetooth Smart (BLE), Sixaxis gamepad
  • OTA update appears to be supported
  • Support forum

CONS:

  • Some 3D games may have problems to run, at least, Riptide GP2 is basically unplayable for me due to the game freezing.
  • H.265 / VP9 codec not supported properly in both Kodi/XBMC and MX Player
  • Skipped frame issues in some videos (appears to start randomly).
  • Google Hangouts can be used with webcam (can’t start chat).
  • Slow write speed on NTFS/USB partition, USB 3.0 performance slower than most TV boxes with USB 2.0 port. SATA should be the same (USB 2.0 to SATA bridge)
  • Gigabit has an asymmetric performance (720Mbps / 220 Mbps) according to iperf, but still good enough for most use cases.

Tronsmart Draco AW80 Meta reviewed in this post sells for $149 on GeekBuying, and the upcoming Draco AW80 Telos with 4GB RAM and 32GB eMMC flash is available for pre-order for $199, and is expected to ship by the end of the month. You can also purchase either model on Aliexpress or DH Gate.

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Nordic Semi Announces nRF51 DK Arduino Compatible Board, and nRF51 Dongle with Bluetooth Smart, ANT, and 2.4GHz Connectivity

October 29th, 2014 No comments

Nordic Semiconductor has introduced two new low cost development boards supporting Bluetooh LE, ANT/ANT+, and proprietary 2.4GHz applications based on their nRF51 series SoCs: nRF51 DK, an Arduino UNO Rev.3 compatible board that can be used for various IoT and wearables applications, and nRF51 Dongle, a USB dongle to connect to a PC or board, which can be useful for packet sniffing and BLE peer connection.

nRF51 DK Development Board

nRF51_DK

Key features listed for the board:

  • SoC – Supports nRF51822 (BT/2.4Ghz) and nRF51422 (BT/ANT) SoCs based on an ARM Cortex M0 processor, with 128kB or 256kB flash memory, and 16kB or 32kB RAM.
  • Connectivity
    • Bluetooth Smart, ANT/ANT+ and 2.4GHz proprietary
    • Integrated PCB antenna
    • Connector for RF measurements
  • Expansions Headers
    • Arduino Uno Rev. 3 compatible connector for use with 3rd party shields
    • All I/O and interfaces available via connectors
  • Debugging
    • Segger J-Link OB and ARM CMSIS-DAP Program/Debug supported
    • Support for Program/Debug of external target boards
    • Pins for power consumption measurements
  • Misc – 4x user LEDs, 4x user buttons, power switch, reset button coin-cell battery holder (back of the board)
  • Power Supply – 3.6v -1.6v, battery and USB, external
  • Dimensions – 101 x 63 mm
nRF51 DK Pinout

nRF51 DK Pinout

nRF51 DK board supports Keil MDK, IAR Workbench, and GCC toolchains, as well as ARM mbed for rapid prototyping and development using mbed’s cloud-based IDE and toolchain. Software architecture is divided into two layers: Application, SoftDevices, the company’s embedded protocol stacks that include Bluetooth Smart peripheral stack, Bluetooth Smart B-link central stack, Bluetooth Smart concurrent central/peripheral/broadcaster/observer stack, ANT/ANT+ 8 link stack, and Bluetooth Smart peripheral/ANT 8-link stack. Documentation and tools including user’s guides, development tools and drivers, hardware reference files, can be downloaded on Nordic website, sometimes publicly, but most of the times after purchasing nRF51 DK kit. The board also supports OTA-DFU (Over The Air Device Firmware Update) for on-field wireless firmware updates.

The kit includes nRF51 DK board, a CR2032 battery, and 5x nRF51 Series SoC samples, and can be purchased for $69 from Nordic Semi’s distributors, such as Digikey or Mouser. More details can be found on Nordic’s nRF51 DK product page.

nRF51 USB Dongle

nRF51_DonglenRF51 Dongle is a tiny USB dongle that can comes with a user button, an RGB LED, a few GPIO headers, and be used for software development on the nRF51 Series SoCs, and is especially useful when used in conjunction with the company’s nRF Sniffer and Master Control Panel (MCP) firmware and software. nRF Sniffer tool capture BLE packets, which can be viewed in the well-known Wireshark network capture and analysis utility.

Key features listed for nRF51 Dongle:

  • Connectivity – Bluetooth Smart, ANT and 2.4GHz
  • Supports Master Emulator – Bluetooth Smart Peer connection firmware
  • Debugging:
    • Virtual COM port interface through UART
    • Segger J-Link OB and ARM CMSIS-DAP Program/Debug supported
  • Misc – User-programmable RGB LED and button, 6x solder pads for GPIO/interface connections
  • Dimensions – 16 x 28 mm

Development is done very much the same way as with nRF51 DK, including the same toolchains from Keil, IAR, GCC. and ARM (mbed), SoftDevices stacks, and it also support OTA-DFU.

Documentation and tools can be downloaded from nRF51 Dongle page, and the board is available for $49 from various distributors such as Mouser or Digikey.

Via Embedded.com

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MXQ S85 Android TV Box (Amlogic S805) Review

October 11th, 2014 30 comments

MXQ S85 and EM6Q-MXQ are two main Full HD H.265 Android media players based on Amlogic S805 currently selling on Chinese online stores. I’m lucky enough to have received both, and I’ve already completed the review for EM6Q-MXQ, so today I’ll complete MXQ S85 review and compare both devices. I’ve already taken picture of the device, accessories, and checked out the board’s components in my unboxing post, so in this post, I’ll focus on the user interface, evaluate performance, and test most hardware features of this media player.

First Boot, Settings and First Impressions

I’ve started by a quick test of the IR remote control, and it works as expected after inserting two AAA batteries, before switching to Mele F10 Deluxe air mouse for convenience. I’ve connected all ports of the device except the S/PDIF output: Ethernet cable, HDMI and AV cables, micro SD card, USB hard drive, USB webcam, and a USB hub with two RF dongles for my air mouse and gamepad.  I’ve connected the power, pressed the power button opn the top of the box, a Blue LED turns off, “Google TV” icon appears on TV and in a little more than 40 seconds the boot completes. It’s not quite as fast as higher RK3288 TV boxes (20s), but it’s much better than the boot time on EM6Q-MXQ (1m 50s), so the flash must be faster.

Home Screen (Click for Original Size)

Home Screen (Click for Original Size)

The user interface is the Android Home screen, but you can also switch the MediaBox launcher with a Metro-style user interface found in many Amlogic S80X TV boxes, by going to the “Home” section in Android settings. The box automatically selected 1080p60 Hz video output, and the user interface resolution is 1920×1080 as you can infer from the screenshot above. I’ve noticed that switching to 720p still keep the user interface to 1920×1080 resolution, so there’s no performance gain doing so.

The “Setting” menu is based on the same Metro-style interface as EM6Q-MXQ with four sub menus: Network, Display, Advanced and Other. I’ve highlighted difference in bold.

  • Network – Enable and configure Wi-Fi or Ethernet
  • Display:
    • Automatic or manual HDMI resolution: 480p/i @ 60 Hz, 576p/i @ 50 Hz, 720p @ 50/60 Hz, 1080i @ 50/60 Hz, or 1080p @ 24/50/60 Hz
    • CVBS Mode Setting: 480 CVBS or 576 CVBS (if Composite output selected on TV).
    • Hide or Show status bar
    • Display Position
    • Screen Save (Never, 4, 8 or 12 minutes)
  • Advanced:
    • Miracast
    • Remote Control (app)
    • CEC Control
    • Location for weather (Chinese cities only)
    • Screen Orientation settings
    • Digital Audio Output (Auto, PCM, S/PDIF pass-through, or HDMI pass-through)
  • Other – System Update: Local file or OTA (not working), Backup, and “More Settings” for standard Android Settings.

So it’s exactly the same as EM6Q-MXQ, except the current firmware also supports 1080p @ 24 Hz.

I’ve also tested composite output, and both 480 CVBS and 576 CVBS settings worked fine. There’s no component (YPbPr) output in this box.

I have not made a video for MXQ S85, because it’s very similar to EM6Q-MXQ, except you have the option to switch between the Android home screen or MediaBox launcher, 1080p24 is supported, and S85 is a little more responsive. But you can watch the video I shot for EM6Q-MXQ if you haven’t already where I walk through the user interface and settings, XBMC user interface (1920×1080 UI rendered at 30 fps), and show H.265 video playback in MX Player.

About_MXQ_S85MXQ-S85 comes with an 8GB NAND flash with a single partition (8.00 GB – black magic again…), and at the end of the review I still had 4.01 GB free. Looking into “About MediaBox” section, we can find out that the model number is “S85″, and the system runs Android 4.4.2 on top of Linux kernel 3.10.33. The firmware is rooted, and after I started the review I found firmware 106k4 (an updated to version 105k4 used for the review), which you can probably flash with Amlogic USB flash tool, but I have not tried.

All apps I needed for the review could be installed with Google Play Store including Antutu, 3D Mark, ES File Explorer, MX Player, Beach Buggy Blitz, A1SD benchmark, Sixaxis Controller, etc… However, as I scrolled through the list of apps installed on other Android devices, there were a few incompatible apps notably some messaging apps (Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp), Instagram, Google Translate, and a few others. But you can usually work around these issues by spoofing your device name with an app (paid), or changing build.prop. I’ve also downloaded and installed Amazon AppStore, in order to play Riptide GP2.

Albeit the box features a power button, power handling is not perfect, as a clean power off is not possible. You can either use the remote control power button to enter and exit standby, and the power button on the unit, can be used to achieve real power off, and to turn the device on, but it’s and hardware power off which powers off the device immediately, Android does not cleanly shuts down. The device temperature is pretty cool: 40°C and 46°C measured with an infrared thermometer respectively on the top and bottom of the box, right after running Android 5 benchmark. And after playing Riptide GP2 for about 10 minutes (at which stage the game froze), the maximum temperature on top and bottom reached 42°C and 46°C…

The system very pretty stable, but just like with EM6Q-MXQ, attempting to play a 4K video in XBMC will freeze the system requiring a hard reboot. However, the flash is fast enough no to experience various slowdowns, or making apps randomly exit. Android did pop up the “app not responding” windows at load time for some games, so it’s not perfect, but answering “wait” will start the games normally. Nevertheless, although it’s clearly not as snappy as the latest Amlogic S802 or Rockchip RK3288 based mini PCs, I did not find MXQ S85 frustrating to use, unlike EM6Q-MXQ.

Video Playback

Videos were playing from SAMBA share in Ubuntu 14.04 over Ethernet using XBMC 13.1 pre-installed in the system, switching to MX Player for videos that failed to play. I had no problems connect to SAMBA with XBMC and ES File Explorer.

I started with videos from samplemedia.linaro.org, H.265/HEVC videos by Elecard, as well as a (low resolution) VP9 video:

  • H.264 codec / MP4 container (Big Buck Bunny), 480p/720p/1080p – OK
  • MPEG2 codec / MPG container, 480p/720p/1080p – OK
  • MPEG4 codec, AVI container 480p/720p/1080p – OK
  • VC1 codec (WMV), 480p/720p/1080p – OK
  • Real Media (RMVB) – RV8, RV9, and RV10 – OK but not that smooth (S/W decode)
  • WebM / VP8 – 480p OK, 720p some rare parts in slowmo, 1080p plays in slow motion all the time.
  • H.265 codec / MPEG TS container
    • XBMC – Audio only
    • MX Player – OK (H/W decode), but seeking does not work properly. It will switch to S/W decode, and the video becomes unwatchable.
  • WebM / VP9 (no audio in video)
    • XBMC – Won’t even start
    • MX Player – OK (H/W decode).

Then I played some higher bitrate videos:

  • ED_HD.avi – XBMC: audio only; MX Player: black screen only, no audio.
  • 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, but could be smoother, and XBMC reports skipped frames regularly.
  • Jellyfish-120-Mbps.mkv (120 Mbps video without audio) – OK (Played from USB hard drive)

Videos with high definition audio codec could be played in XBMC (with performance issues), but not in MX Player (except AC3):

  • AC3 – OK
  • Dolby Digital 5.1 / 7.1 – OK
  • TrueHD 5.1 & 7.1 – OK
  • DTS-MA – OK
  • DTS-HR – SAMBA: Audio completely cuts after a few seconds. USB: No problem with audio, but video feels slow.

A Blu-ray ISO video (Sintel-Bluray.iso) played perfectly in XBMC.

I tested over a dozen other videos from my library (AVI, MKV, FLV, VOB/IFO, and MP4 containers), and they could all play with any A/V sync issues. I also watched a complete 1080p video (1h50 / MKV / 3GB), so no problem with stability either.

Links to various video samples used in this review and be found in “Where to get video, audio and images samples” post and comments.

Network Performance (Wi-Fi and Ethernet)

A 278 MB file between a SAMBA share (Ubuntu 14.04) and the internal flash, and vice versa, repeating the test three times with ES File Explorer. Wi-Fi transfer speed is still pretty good @ 2.95 MB/s on average, although not quite as fast as EM6Q-MXQ media player.

Wi-Fi Transfer Rate in MB/s

Wi-Fi Transfer Rate in MB/s

Ethernet worked at 100 Mbps connected to my Gigabit Ethernet switch, with performance similar its competitor. Tronsmart Orion R28 Meta is way ahead, simply because it’s the only box I have that actually supports Gigabit Ethernet.

Ethernet Transfer Rate in MB/s

Ethernet Transfer Rate in MB/s

For a raw benchmark of Ethernet performance, I ran iPerf app using “iperf -t 60 -c 192.168.0.104 -d” command line. It does not quite maxes out Fast Ethernet bandwidth like Rockchip RK3288, but results are similar to EM6Q-MXQ just like with the test above.

TCP window size: 136 KByte (default)
————————————————————
[ 6] local 192.168.0.104 port 57781 connected with 192.168.0.106 port 5001
[ ID] Interval Transfer Bandwidth
[ 4] 0.0-60.0 sec 476 MBytes 66.5 Mbits/sec
[ 6] 0.0-60.0 sec 566 MBytes 79.1 Mbits/sec

Throughput in Mbps

Throughput in Mbps

Miscellaneous Tests

Bluetooth

Contrary to the version of EM6Q-MXQ I reviewed, MXQ S85 comes with Bluetooth.

I could transfer pictures from my Android phone to the box over Bluetooth, Sixaxis Compatibility Checker appeared to support PS3 wireless gamepads, but my controller was not recognized.

Bluetooth LE (Smart) was tested with Vidonn X5 activity tracker, but unfortunately the app could not locate the device over BLE.

Storage

FAT32 formatted micro SD card and USB flash drive could be recognized and properly mounted by the system
Only NTFS and FAT32 partition on my USB 3.0 hard drive could be mounted and accessed. That’s common to all Android mini PCs I tested, except A80 OptimusBoard which could mount the EXT-4 partition too (but in read-only mode).

File System Read Write
NTFS OK OK
EXT-4 Not mounted Not mounted
FAT32 OK OK
BTRFS Not mounted Not mounted

A1 SD Bench was used to benchmark USB hard drive and internal flash performance. The read speed was 16.92 MB/s, and the write speed of 21.87MB/s fore NTFS partition in /storage/external_storage/sda1, both results being weak.

MXQ_S85_USB_NTFS_Benchmark

USB HDD (NTFS) Read and Write Speeds

The NAND flash speed is clearly not outstanding at 15.8 MB/s (read) and 6.83 MB/s (write), but still better than EM6Q-MXQ, and apparently good enough for a smooth operation of the device most of the time.

MXQ_S85_NAND_Flash_BenchmarkUSB Webcam

I had troubles with both Skype and Google Hangouts with my USB webcam. I did manage to see the image in Skype once, but never long enough to make a phone call. The camera is not detected at all in Hangouts.

Gaming

Candy Crush Saga, Beach Buggy Blitz, and Riptide GP2 could run on the box. I played Candy Crush Saga with my air mouse, and switched to Tronsmart Mars G01 wireless gamepad for Beach Buggy Blitz and Riptide GP2. For each game, the system showed up pop up with “App XXX is not responding. Do you want to close it?”, but selecting “Wait” could load the games just fine. Beach Buggy Blitz framerate felt good using the default settings (low res), but I did notice some very short freezes (<1s) from time to time. Riptide GP2 is not really enjoyable with default settings (high resolution), but lowering the resolution makes it relatively enjoyable to play. Riptide GP2 freezing I encountered on other Amlogic s802/S805 devices, and Allwinner A80 development board occurred yet again, after just around 10 minutes of play time. I’m not sure if the game itself is buggy, or the GPU drivers/libraries are. I checked the maximum temperature on the top and bottom of the device at that time, and I got 42°C and 46°C.

Even if games can run, the gaming experience is not great, and you should really consider spending more to get a Rockchip RK3288, or not as good, Amlogic S802 devices if you are really interested in playing games. Nvidia Tegra K1 devices should even be better but in a completely different price category.

MXQ S85 Benchmarks

CPU-Z shows the device is indeed powered a quad ARM Cortex A5 processor clocked between 24 MHz and 1.49 GHz, but instead of using a performance governor, MXQ S85 is using a hotplug (on-demand). The board is m201, which can be a useful thing to know in case you download firmware files. FYR, EM6Q-MXQ is based on hd18t board.

Amlogic_S805_CPU-Z_MXQ_S85

The devices gets 16,448 points in Antutu 5.1 which is consistent with the score I got with EM6Q-MXQ (16,647).

MXQ_S85_Antutu_5.1

There are some differences in Vellamo 3 however, with a lower Browser score (812 vs 1061), a higher multicore score (1319 vs 1139). The metal score is about the same.

Vellamo_3_MXQ_S85

Ice Storm Extreme test in 3DMark is about the same with 2,308 points (vs 2,325 for EM6Q-MXQ), and clearly shows the relatively low performance of the quad core Mali-450MP GPU used in S805 compared to high-end SoC with better GPUs.

S85_3D_Mark_Ice_Storm_Extreme

Conclusion

MXQ S85 is actually a pretty good device and performance considering the price (<$50). Wi-Fi and Ethernet are pretty decent, video codecs/containers is quite good in XBMC, and H.265 can be played in MX Player, but not yet in XBMC. The firmware is pretty stable, and I did not come across massive slowdowns like in EM6Q-MXQ.

PRO:

  • The firmware is stable, relatively smooth to operate, and only hung when trying to play 4K videos
  • Good XBMC support.
  • HEVC/H.265 hardware video decoding support. Working in MX Player, but not with XBMC (yet)
  • Very good price/performance ratio.
  • Good Wi-Fi, and decent Ethernet performance
  • Video Output – Supports 1080p24/50/60 (but no 25/30 Hz), and composite output (NTSC/PAL).

CONS:

  • Despite having a power button, power off is not perfect (no clean power off)
  • Bluetooth Low Energy (mostly used for wearables) is not currently supported.
  • OTA firmware upgrade is not working
  • USB / NTFS storage performance is disappointing.
  • USB webcam did not work reliably for me in either Skype and Hangouts.
  • “App xxx not responding” message may appear while loading large apps such as games.

Gearbest provided the sample for review, so if you are interested in purchasing you could do so on their site for $47.99 (with MXQBCM coupon), or for $45.99 (with MXQCM coupon) for the version without Bluetooth. Coupons are valid until November 30, 2014. MXQ-S85 can also be found on other stores including DealExtreme, Amazon US, Dealsmachines, and Aliexpress.

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KDDI Unveils Tiny BLE/Zigbee Development Board Running Mozilla Firefox OS

October 6th, 2014 3 comments

KDDI has recently announced Open Web Board, an HDMI TV stick powered by Rockchip RK3066, and running Firefox OS, just like the recently announced MatchStick. The board is however aimed at embedded and web developers who want to create apps for Firefox OS, and interface with external devices over Bluetooth Low Energy or Zigbee (optional module) communication, optionally using Gluin, a web based graphical “application development tool that enables simple linking programming between electronic devices”.

Open Web Board (Click to Enlarge)

Open Web Board (Click to Enlarge)

Open Web Board specifications:

  • SoC – Rockchip RK3066 dual core Cortex A9 processor @ 1.6 Ghz with Mali-400 MP4 GPU
  • System Memory – 1 GB RAM
  • Storage – 8 GB flash
  • Video Output – HDMI
  • USB – 1x USB 2.0 host port, 1x micro USB for power
  • Connectivity – 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi (AP6210 module), Bluetooth 2.1 (HFP/A2DP/AVRCP)/4.0 GATT. and optional Zigbee via external module
  • Dimensions – Small

This dongle runs Firefox OS 1.4. KDDI showcased the board at Mozilla Open Web Day in Tokyo yesterday (05/10/2014), with ToCoStick wireless (Zigbee?) dongle as shown in the picture above.

Screenshot of Gluin Graphical Development Tool

Screenshot of Gluin Graphical Development Tool

KDDI launched a developer website called “au Firefox OS Portal Site” (Japanese), although it appears mostly under constructions at this stage with limited information. I could not find price information, and it will probably only be available in Japan. However, somebody already ported MatchStick Firefox OS firmware to MK808. so you may be still be able to play with KDDI solution as long as they release the full source code, if you own another Rockchip RK3066 mini PC.

Via Liliputing and Mini PCs Community.

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Review of Tronsmart Orion R28 Meta 4K/H.265 Android TV Box

October 3rd, 2014 6 comments

It’s been a little while since I unboxed Tronsmart Orion R28 Meta Android TV box, but since the product was still consider “beta” by GeekBuying, I wanted to wait for a OTA firmware update (109k4), which was released at the beginning of the week. Since I’ve already listed the technical specifications, and showed pictures of the board and device, I’ll focus on feature tests and benchmarks results in the review.

First Boot, Settings and First Impressions

I quickly tried the basic infrared remote control, inserting two AAA batteries, and it does the job, but for Android, you really need a pointing device, so I switched to Mele F10 Deluxe air mouse during testing. I’ve connected a whole bunch of cable, and peripherals to the box including an HDMI cable, a USB hard drive, an Ethernet cable, a USB webcam, and a USB hub with RF dongles for my air mouse and gamepad, and USB flash drive. When you connect the power, it won’t start immediately, and just need to press the power button on the device to boot it up. The remote can not turn the box on. Boot time is about 35 seconds, a bit longer than the 20 seconds boot time I experienced in some other Rockchip RK3288 powered media player.

Home Screen (Click for Original Size)

Home Screen (Click for Original Size)

Orion R28 TV boxes only coem with the standard Android home screen, so if you prefer a TV friendly launcher, you’d have to install one from Google Play. The task bar can be shown or hidden with the double arrows icon on the right. The user interface resolution is set to 1920×1080.

The Android settings are pretty standard. Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Ethernet, and Data Usage menus, as well as a “More” section with VPN, Portable Hotspot, etc… can be accessed in Wireless and Networks section. Display settings include font size adjustment, overscan compensation menu, video output selection (HDMI /  YPbPr / TV), and resolution: “auto”, 1080p 24/25/30/50/60Hz, 720p 50/60, 720×576 or 720×480. If you own a 4K UHD TV, you should also get some extra options up to 4K 60Hz. “TV” mode is composite output, and you can select PAL or NTSC, whereas YPbPr will only support 480p and 720p (no 1080p). “Default Output” (PCM), “Spdif Passthough”, and “HDMI Bitstream” (HDMI pass-through) options are available in the Sound settings (pass-though not tested). The review was done using HDMI output, but I’ve also tried composite and component (YPbPr). Composite output works for PAL and NTSC, but there was the usual green bar at the bottom with NTSC. For once, I managed to make YPbPr work, but only in greyscale (Luminance Y), with the Chrominance signals apparently not outputted..

NTSC (Click to Enlarge)

Composite – NTSC (Click to Enlarge)

PAL (Click to Enlarge)

Composite – PAL (Click to Enlarge)

Component - YPrPb 720p (Click to Enlarge)

Component – YPrPb  (Click to Enlarge)

There are three version for Orion R28: Pro with 8GB flash, Meta for 16GB flash, and the upcoming Telos with 32GB flash. My model is R28 Meta with a 16GB eMMC partitioned into a 1.91GB “Internal Storage” partition for apps, and a 16 GB (black magic alert!) “NAND FLASH” partition for data, with about 11.6 GB available space. I have not checked the free space in the “Internal Storage” partition before thr review, but after installing the applications required for the review, I had just 564 MB available, so some people will want to install custom ROMs to tweak the partition allocation.

The “About device” section includes to OTA updates option: “system updates”, and “wireless update”. You’ll need to click on Wireless Update to install new firmware updated. I’ve done so with upgrading 108k4 firmware to 109k4 firmware. The OTA update did not delete my existing apps and account settings.

Wireless Update In Progress (Click to Enlarge)

Wireless Update In Progress (Click to Enlarge)

Other information include the model number: Tronsmart Orion R28, the Android version: 4.4.2, the kernel version: 3.10.0, and the vendor software version: 109k4. The firmware is already rooted.

I’ll skip the user interface / settings video here, because it’s just the same as other RK3288 TV boxes, minus a custom launcher.

I managed to install most apps via Google Play such as ES File Explorer, MX Player, Antutu, Beach Buggy Blitz, CPU-Z, etc…  Some incompatible apps include Vidonn, Fruit Ninja, and a few others. I’ll also installed Riptide GP2 through Amazon AppStore.

Power Off/standby handling is mostly OK. A short press on the remote/box power button will put the device into standby mode, and by pressing the power button again will make it active. A long press on the power button (remote/box) will pop-up the Android menu with Power Off/Silent Mode, for a proper power off. One annoyance is that you can’t power the device with the remote control, and you need to press the power button on the box itself. If you use Mele F10 Deluxe the power button is the same, and power off work, but I could not go into standby, as the screen would just turn off for one or two seconds before becoming active again. Tronsmart Meta R28 becomes pretty hot, but it’s a common “feature” for all RK3288 boxes. The maximum temperatures measured with an infrared thermometer on the top and bottom of the box were respectively 52°C and 59°C after Antutu, and 57°C and 67°C after playing Riptide GP2 for over 20 minutes.

The firmware is stable and smooth, and I only had one freeze while playing an FLV video in XBMC. I never experienced slowdowns, but boot time, and to a lesser extend app loading is not quite as fast as on HPH NT-V6 or Kingnovel R6, because the eMMC flash read throughput is not quite as high on R28, as we’ll see below.

Video Playback

All other RK3288 devices I tested came either without XBMC, or with XBMC 13 (custom version) pre-install, but Kodi 14-alpha4 came with 109k4 firmware, so it’s interested to see if there are any improvements. The test environment includes an Ubuntu 14.04 server with a SAMBA from which I play videos from Kodi/XBMC, or MX Player in case of issues, over Ethernet.

Let’s start with some videos samples from samplemedia.linaro.org, to which I added H.265/HEVC and VP9 videos:

  • H.264 codec / MP4 container (Big Buck Bunny), 480p/720p/1080p – OK
  • MPEG2 codec / MPG container, 480p/720p/1080p – OK. Some hardly noticeable blinking effect in scenes with grass/trees, but it also happens on my PC, so it could be the original video.
  • MPEG4 codec, AVI container 480p/720p/1080p – OK
  • VC1 codec (WMV), 480p/720p/1080p
    • XBMC – Audio only
    • MX Player – OK (H/W decode)
  • Real Media (RMVB) – RV8, RV9, and RV10 – OK and relatively smooth, but not as perfect as on PC (VideoLAN)
  • WebM / VP8 – OK
  • H.265 codec / MPEG TS container
    • XBMC – 360p and 720p – OK, except seeking does not work. 1080p – many scenes are not smooth, and all 4 CPU cores are maxed out due to software decode.
    • MX Player – OK (H/W decode)
  • VP9 (low resolution) – OK.

This version of Kodi can handle H.265 decode by software up to 720p, MPEG-2 playback seems better, but VC1 videos are still not supported.

Next are some higher bitrate videos:

  • ED_HD.avi – OK, no problem even in fast moving scenes
  • 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) – Audio only (That’s the VC1 codec issue in Kodi).
  • Jellyfish-120-Mbps.mkv (120 Mbps video without audio) – OK

I usually play Jeelyfish-120-Mbps.mkv from a USB hard drive because of the high bitrate, but since Gigabit Ethernet is working fine, that’s the first device that can play it over SAMBA.

High definition audio codec could play (downsampled) in XBMC and MX Player:

  • AC3 – OK (but aspect ratio set to 1:1 is Kodi)
  • Dolby Digital 5.1 / Dolby Digital 7.1 – OK
  • TrueHD 5.1 & 7.1 – OK
  • DTS-MA and DTS-HR – OK

Kodi handled a Blu-ray ISO file (Sintel-Bluray.iso) properly.

Yet again none of my 4K video samples could play successfully in Kodi, with somewhat better results in MX Player:

  • HD.Club-4K-Chimei-inn-60mbps.mp4

    • Kodi – OK most of the time, but skips about 60 frames at the end of the video (The image will freeze before the end of the video).
    • MX Player – Not so smooth, and audio stops well before the video is complete (audio/sync issue?)
  • sintel-2010-4k.mkv
    • Kodi – Many frames dropped.
    • MX Player – Severe decoding issues. Like I see the garbled video in five small screens.
  • Beauty_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_MP4.mp4 (H.265)
    • Kodi – Slow motion
    • MX Player – OK (H/W decode)
  • Bosphorus_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_MP4.mp4 (H.265)
    • Kodi – Slow motion
    • MX Player – OK (H/W decode)
  • Jockey_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_TS.ts (H.265)
    • Kodi – Slow motion.
    • MX Player – Plays with S/W decode in slow motion.
  • phfx_4KHD_VP9TestFootage.webm (VP9)
    • Kodi – Won’t start.
    • MX Player – Slow motion (maybe 1 to 3 fps)

Finally, I went through my video library with AVI, MKV, FLV, VOB and MP4 videos. Some FLV video would make the system freeze, requiring an hard reset. At least one video suffered from audio/video sync issues. I could play a  complete 1080p video (1h50) in Kodi, so at least the system appear to be stable, even if many videos can’t be played smoothly. This is not unique to Tronsmart Orion R28 by the way, as other RK3288 boxes are also pretty poor when it comes to video playback.

Links to various video samples used in this review and be found in “Where to get video, audio and images samples” post and comments.

Network Performance (Wi-Fi and Ethernet)

I’ve now testing both 2.4Ghz Wi-Fi with TP-Link TL-WR940N router, and 5GHz (802.11n/ac) with TP-Link TL-WDR7500 (Archer C7) router. The test consists in transferring a 278 MB file between a SAMBA share and the internal flash, and vice versa. ES File Explorer is used for this purpose, and the test is repeated three times. But before going through the test results, here’s an interesting image…

Tronsmart_Orion_R28_Meta_WiFi_SignalWhereas I get about -49 dB on my phone, the Wi-Fi signal strength in Orion R28 is much lower (-68 dB). As an experiment, I’ve also removed the Wi-Fi antenna in case it was just a bad contact, but it drops to about -82 dB, so there’s another problem somewhere else. That means in Android I only get a “fair” signal, instead of the “excellent” I normally get with other devices in my office, behind just 6 meters (+wall) from the router.

Wi-Fi Throughput in MB/s

Wi-Fi Throughput in MB/s

The weak signal did not seem to affect 802.11n transfer rate, bt may have impacted 802.11ac which ended up being slower than 802.11n… However, I’d expect it to affect range quite a bit, as normally I get signal that weak when I’m in the garden about 15 meters from the router.

At last! An Android mini PC where Gigabit Ethernet works for me! I could transfer a 885 MB file between the internal flash and SAMBA @ about 14 MB/s on average.

Ethernet Throughput in MB/s

Ethernet Throughput in MB/s

Although this test usually works well with Fast Ethernet, the internal storage’s read/write speed will be the bottleneck with Gigabit Ethernet transfer, so transferring from SAMBA to flash is significantly slower (11.8MB/s) than from flash to SAMBA (19.66 MB/s), and even more so from USB HDD to SAMBA (28.5 MB/s), yet it gives an idea of actual file transfer performance between the network on the device.

In order to  get a true estimate of Gigabit Ethernet performance,  I used iPerf app and iperf in my Ubuntu PC, using “iperf -t 60 -c 192.168.0.104 -d” command line in Android. Gigabit Ethernet first, followed by Fast Ethernet:

Client connecting to 192.168.0.110, TCP port 5001
 TCP window size:  425 KByte (default)
 ------------------------------------------------------------
 [  6] local 192.168.0.104 port 58157 connected with 192.168.0.110 port 5001
 [ ID] Interval       Transfer     Bandwidth
 [  6]  0.0-60.0 sec  5.22 GBytes   747 Mbits/sec
 [  4]  0.0-60.0 sec  5.74 GBytes   822 Mbits/sec
 [  5] local 192.168.0.104 port 5001 connected with 192.168.0.110 port 37834
 ------------------------------------------------------------
 Client connecting to 192.168.0.110, TCP port 5001
 TCP window size:  136 KByte (default)
 ------------------------------------------------------------
 [  6] local 192.168.0.104 port 58259 connected with 192.168.0.110 port 5001
 [  6]  0.0-60.0 sec   655 MBytes  91.6 Mbits/sec
 [  5]  0.0-60.1 sec   661 MBytes  92.4 Mbits/sec

Fast Ethernet performance is excellent, very close to the theoretical 100 Mbps achievable, and I’d assume Gigabit Ethernet performance will please most people with 747 Mbps and 822 Mbps.

Miscellaneous Tests

Bluetooth

Bluetooth transfer from phone to Android media player is working fine.

The device is rooted, and I could confirm my PS3 Bluetooth gamepad clone is properly recognized with Sixazis Compatibility Checker.

However, I failed to connect to my Vidonn X5 activity tracker, so it could mean Bluetooth Low Energy (Smart) is not working.

Storage

Both a micro SD card and USB flash drive formatted with FAT32 could be automatically mounted and accessed by the systems.
For once, I could see four partitions in ES File Explorer (/mnt/usb_storage/USB_DISK2 directory), but as usual only the FAT32 and NTFS partitions on my USB 3.0 hard drive could be mounted.

File System Read Write
NTFS OK OK
EXT-4 Not mounted Not mounted
FAT32 OK OK
BTRFS Not mounted Not mounted

I benchmarked the NTFS partition (/mnt/usb_storage/USB_DISK2/USB3_NTFS) with A1 SD Bench. Read transfer rate: 27.50 MB/s, write transfer rate: 22.68 MB/s. Both numbers are not that great, but I suppose still acceptable. Orion R28 is on the right on the chart.

Orion_R28_USB_Harddrive

The eMMC flash has a decent write speed (13.58 MB/s), but the read speed (20.19 MB/s) is over half of other competing products based on Rockchip RK3288. The latter will mostly affect boot time, and app loading time during normal use.

Tronsmart_Orion_R28_eMMC_Performance

USB Webcam

I could make a video call with my UVC USB webcam in Skype with both audio and video working, but I had to make a few tries, and Skype hung a few times with Android asking me to kill or wait for Skype to respond.

Google Hangout recognized my webcam, and could make a video call, unfortunately all I got was a black screen. Audio worked however.

Gaming

I played Candy Crush Saga, Beach Buggy Blitz, and Riptide GP2. As usual ran very nicely on RK3288 thanks to the Mali-T764 GPU. I played Candy Crush Saga with Mele F10 Deluxe, and the two racing games with Tronsmart Mars G01 wireless gamepad. Both Beach Buggy Blitz and Riptide GP2 were smooth with maxed out graphics settings, although the latter would benefit from an even faster GPU at times. Temperature measurements after playing Riptide GP2 for over 20 minutes: 57°C (top) and 67°C (bottom).

Tronsmart Orion R28 Meta Benchmark

No surprise here with 36,865 points in Antutu 5.1. It’s slightly faster than NT-V6 because the processor is clocked at 1.8 GHz instead of just 1.6 GHz.

Orion_R28_Meta_Anutut_5.1

Vellamo 3.x scores are just as expected, and comparable to other Rockchip RK3288 mini PCs.

Orion_R28_Meta_Vellamo

Ice Storm Extreme benchmark score (7,513) is about the same as other RK3288 TV boxes, even in the higher range, as these report scores between 7,000 and 7,500+.

Click to Enlarge

Click to Enlarge

Conclusion

Tronsmart Orion R28 Meta comes with a fast processor, excellent 3D graphics performance, and a decent, although not outstanding eMMC. The firmware feels smooth, and I only experience one system freeze in XBMC/Kodi while playing an unsupported video file. It’s also the only Android mini PC where Gigabit Ethernet actually works for me, so this is a big plus, although issue with other models maybe only be due to interoperability problems with my   Gigabit switch. There are also some downside like weak Wi-Fi signal, yet with above average Wi-Fi performance, and video playback needs improvement, especially in XBMC/Kodi, but other Rockchip RK3288 media players have the exact same issues.

PRO:

  • Fast new processor
  • Good platform for games with excellent 3D graphics performance, and support for RF and Bluetooth (PS3) gamepads.
  • Stable and fast firmware.
  • First and only box with working Gigabit Ethernet so far (for me).
  • Video Output – 1080p support 24, 25 ,30 , 50 and 60 Hz output. 4K @ 60Hz should be supported (not tested). Composite is working.
  • Support for OTA update
  • Support forums
  • Proper power off/standby handling.

CONS:

  • Kodi/XBMC has too many issues: VC1 not supported, H.265 only supported by software, audio/video sync issue, few 4K videos could play properly, may hang system, etc…
  • Weak Wi-Fi signal, although performance is OK.
  • Video output – Component does not fully work  (grayscale only)
  • Webcam not working properly (black screen) in Google Hangouts. OK in Skype but the app does not seem very stable.
  • Bluetooth Low Energy may not be working

Tronsmart Orion R28 Meta can be purchased for $119.99 on GeekBuying or Aliexpress, You can also get a cheaper model without 802.11ac support (just 802.11 n/g/n) and only 8GB eMMC, called Orion R28 Pro, for $99.99 on GeekBuying or Aliexpress.

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