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Mini M8S II TV Box (Amlogic S905X) Review – Part 2: Android 6.0 Firmware

July 30th, 2016 10 comments

Mini M8S II is one of the first Amlogic S905X TV box to hit the market, with the new processor adding 4K VP9 hardware video decoding and HDR support compared to Amlogic S905 processor. I’ve already taken pictures of the device and torn it apart to check its hardware & thermal design in the first part of the review, and in the second part, I’ll boot it up, check performance, features, and video playback capabilities.

First Boot, Settings and First Impressions

I plugged-in a USB hard drive into one USB port, but since the device only fetures two ports, I had to use a USB hub to connect two RF dongles for MINIX NEO A2 Lite air mouse, and Tronsmart Mars G01 gamepad, as well as a USB keyboard to take screenshots. I completed the hardware setup by connecting HDMI & Ethernet cables before starting the device by connected the provided power adapter.

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Click to Enlarge

Booting takes around 40 seconds, and you’ll be greeted by the very common launcher below found on most Amlogic based Android TV boxes.

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Click for Original Size

A few seconds later, the system showed me a “USB drive connected”. It’s not to know my drive is working, but since it happened every single time I booted the TV box this was more annoying than useful.

MINI-M8S-II-USB_Drive_ConnectedThe settings are again about the same as on other TV boxes, and if you want to see an in-depth review of the launcher and settings I recommend you check out K1 Plus review. There were some noticeable differences however which I detail below.

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Click to Enlarge

The first difference is that HDMI-CEC option is missing. It’s not a feature I’d use in Android anyway, but the problem is that it seems enabled somehow, and if my AV receiver is turned on at the same time as MINI M8S II, I won’t be able to turn off my AV receiver, as the box will turn it back on as soon as I turn it off…

HDR support in the Display section is the second difference, and you can enable or disable it. It’s not something I could test however since my current 4K TV does not support high dynamic range.

Amlogic_S905X_HDR_OptionThe final difference I noticed is that the Storage & reset menu will now show removable storage too.

MINI-M8S-II_USB_Storage_File_Systems

The screenshot above show my hard drive with four partition is correctly detected (USB3_XXXX are volume names), and exFAT and NTFS partition mounted.

About_MINIM8S_IIWhile the eMMC flash has 8GB capacity, the system takes some, and the internal storage partition is just 4.70 GB in size with 598MB used at the beginning of the review.

HDMI output support a wide range of resolution and refresh rate, and my system was first automatically set to 4K SMPTE (24 Hz) despite my TV supporting 4K @ 60 Hz. I could manually change the output to that setting, but I’ve noticed the TV box does not always remembers the user-defined value, and a few times I saw video output set to 1080p60 after a reboot.

I can access Android Marshmallow settings by clicking or selecting “More settings”, where you can access some extra options like Printing, Date & Time, Backup & Reset and so on. So I went to the  “About MediaBox” to find out a bit more about the firmware, and “MINIM8S II” model number runs Android 6.0.1 on top of Linux 3.14.29. Please note that the firmware is NOT rooted.

I also quickly tested the included IR remote control, and the range is very good, as it works very well even 10 meters away. However, for most of the review I used NEO A2 air mouse as IR remote controls are completely useless outside of the launcher and Kodi in Android.

MINI-M8S-II_App_ListThe Google Play Store worked for most apps required for the review, except Antutu Video Tester, Vidonn Smart Band & Xiaomi Mi Fit (both require BLE support), BitTorrent and a few others from my list. Apps requiring GPS and/or phone/SMS support, such as Whatsapp, would not install either, but this is not really an issue. I had no troubles installing Riptide GP2 through Amazon Underground.

Power handling is OK with power on working from the IR remote control, and power off from the remote control or Power icon on the status bar. There’s no standby/sleep mode, so  I’ve measured power consumption with and without USB hard drive (HDD) in the two available power modes:

  • Power off – 1.2 watt
  • Idle – 2.2 watts
  • Power off + HDD – 1.2 watt
  • Idle + HDD – 5.0 watts

There are two good news here: USB power is turned off in powered off mode, and idle power consumption really low. The downside is that the system draws 1.2 watts in power off mode, while the best devices don’t draw anything noticeable by my power meter, or at least well below 1 watt.

MINI M8S II does not overheat, and after Antutu 6.x, the maximum temperature on the top and bottom of the case was respectively 39°C and 45°C max, and after over 15 minutes playing Riptide GP2 this went up a little to 43°C and 56°C. I did not notice any throttling / slowdowns during game play.

MINI M8S II feels responsive, and the firmware is stable, with the only small issues I had were the Windows appearing at each boot to tell me my USB drive was connected, and the box will automatically turn on my A/V receiver when I turn it off likely because of HDMI-CEC feature which can’t be disabled in the settings. The mouse pointer is also rather small when 4K output is selected.

OTA firmware update

One of the first thing I did before checking out the settings and Google Play as described above was to check out for new firmware. So I went to the UPDATE&BACKUP app, to check for new firmware, and the system did get an update for 2016-07-04 to 2016-07-07, which is kind of unexpected for a low cost device.

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Click to Enlarge

I went ahead with the tiny 14.13MB download, before clicking on Update now to reboot and complete the firmware update.

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Click to Enlarge

But it did not work, and failed with error. So I decided to disconnect my USB hard drive, reboot the system, and re-try the update and it went smoothly. So remember remove external storage (USB and/or micro SD card) before upgrading the firmware to avoid this issue.

However, some people mentioned they had manually installed 2016-07-19 firmware, so I went to UPDATE&BACKUP app again, and it found another larger 2016-07-19 firmware update, which went without issue.

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Click to Enlarge

I check again for a third firmware update before carry on with the review, but that was it.

Audio & Video Playback in Kodi 16.1

Kodi 16.1 (or a fork) is pre-installed on the device, and the manufacturer also included several piracy add-ons.

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Click for Original Size

Kodi_16.1_MINI-M8S-II

All videos, except otherwise stated, were played over Fast Ethernet from a SAMBA share. I’ve first played some videos found in Linaro media samples, as well as Elecard H.265 samples:

  • 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) – 1080p – 480p/720p/1080p – OK
  • Real Media (RMVB), 720p / 5Mbps – OK (software decode)
  • WebM / VP8 480p/720p/1080p – OK (ff-vp8 software decode)
  • H.265 codec / MPEG TS container  – OK

While all videos played, please note that automatic refresh rate does not work even after enabling it both Kodi and Android settings (HDMI self-adaptation).

The next step was to play some videos with various bitrates (HDD = USB hard drive):

  • ED_HD.avi (H.264 / 10 Mbps) – OK
  • big_buck_bunny_1080p_surround.avi (1080p H.264 – 12 Mbps) – OK
  • h264_1080p_hp_4.1_40mbps_birds.mkv (40 Mbps) – OK
  • hddvd_demo_17.5Mbps_1080p_VC1.mkv (17.5Mbps) – Stays in UI, but audio plays
  • Jellyfish-120-Mbps.mkv (120 Mbps video without audio) – HDD: OK

I also tested stereo audio downmixing (PCM 2.0) via Kodi and MX Player/MoviePlayer app using my TV’s speakers, and HDMI pass-through in Kodi using Onkyo TX-NR636 receiver.

Audio Codec in Video PCM 2.0 Output
(Kodi 16.1)
PCM 2.0 Output
(MoviePlayer or MX Player)
HDMI Pass-through
(Kodi 16.1)
AC3 / Dolby Digital 5.1 Audio OK but video not smooth No audio Audio OK (DD 5.1) but wrong aspect ratio (1:1)
E-AC-3 / Dolby Digital+ 5.1 OK No audio OK
Dolby Digital+ 7.1 OK No audio No audio
TrueHD 5.1 OK No audio No audio
TrueHD 7.1 OK No audio No audio
Dolby Atmos 7.1 OK No audio PCM 2.0
DTS HD Master OK No audio DTS 5.1, but two short audio cuts during playback
DTS HD High Resolution OK No audio DTS 5.1, but two short audio cuts during playback
DTS:X OK No audio DTS 5.1

So you should not have problem if you play videos directly with your TV using Kodi, but some apps won’t have any audio for Dolby/DTS, and audio pass-through is limited to 5.1 channels with some bugs (audio cuts).

Now let’s see how well 4K playback works, especially for VP9 videos. Please note that some videos have been tested at both HDMI_4K_SMPTE (default) and HDMI_4K_60Hz video outputs as I had some interesting issues:

  • HD.Club-4K-Chimei-inn-60mbps.mp4 – OK
  • sintel-2010-4k.mkv – HDMI_4K_SMPTE (24 Hz): video not smooth; HDMI_4K_60Hz: OK
  • Beauty_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_MP4.mp4 (H.265) –  OK
  • Bosphorus_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_MP4.mp4 (H.265) – OK
  • Jockey_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_TS.ts (H.265) – OK
  • MHD_2013_2160p_ShowReel_R_9000f_24fps_RMN_QP23_10b.mkv (10-bit HEVC) – HDMI_4K_SMPTE (24 Hz): video not smooth; HDMI_4K_60Hz: OK
  • phfx_4KHD_VP9TestFootage.webm (VP9) – OK
  • BT.2020.20140602.ts (Rec.2020 compliant video; 36 Mbps) – OK. CPU usage is quite high though despite “amc-h265(S)” hardware decoding? in Kodi overlay debug window
  • big_buck_bunny_4k_H264_30fps.mp4 – OK
  • big_buck_bunny_4k_H264_60fps.mp4 – Not smooth, and audio delay (as expected since hardware is not supposed to support it)
  • Fifa_WorldCup2014_Uruguay-Colombia_4K-x265.mp4 (4K, H.265, 60 fps) – OK
  • Samsung_UHD_Dubai_10-bit_HEVC_51.4Mbps.ts (10-bit HEVC / MPEG-4 AAC) – OK
  • Astra-11479_V_22000-Canal+ UHD Demo 42.6 Mbps bitrate.ts (10-bit H.265 from DVB-S2 stream) –  OK
  • 暗流涌动-4K.mp4 (10-bit H.264; 120 Mbps) – HDD: Slow motion, and many artifacts (expected as not supported by S905X VPU)
  • Ducks Take Off [2160p a 243 Mbps].mkv (4K H.264 @ 30 fps; 243 Mbps; no audio) – HDD: Not perfectly smooth
  • tara-no9-vp9.webm (4K VP9 YouTube video) – OK
  • The.Curvature.of.Earth.4K.60FPS-YT-UceRgEyfSsc.VP9.3840×2160.OPUS.160K.webm (4K VP9 @ 60 fps + opus audio) – OK most of the time, except for ~5 seconds period with severe artifacts.

Sintek-4k.iso & amat.iso Blu-Ray ISOs could both play just fine, as well as two MPEG2 1080i videos. 10-bit H.264 is a normally an issue, but Kodi 16.1 here handle it by software decode, and the 720p video was fine (with very high CPU usage on all 4 cores), but the 1080p video was not always smooth or artifact-free. Maybe that’s something Amlogic S912 will be able to handle with its 8 cores.

My TV does not support 3D videos, but it’s still interesting to check whether videos can be decoded anyway. My A/V receiver is however capable of detecting 3D content (shows 3D icon) for MVC video as I demonstrated with Zidoo X1 II:

  • bbb_sunflower_1080p_60fps_stereo_abl.mp4 (1080p Over/Under) – OK
  • bbb_sunflower_2160p_60fps_stereo_abl.mp4 (2160p Over/Under) – Audio only, stays in UI.
  • Turbo_Film-DreamWorks_trailer_VO_3D.mp4 (1080p SBS) – OK
  • 3D-full-MVC.mkv (Full-frame packed MVC 3D MKV) – 2D only, 3D icon not shown on Onkyo receiver
  • ISO-full3D-sample.iso (Full-frame packed MVC 3D ISO) – 2D only, 3D icon not shown on Onkyo receiver

Finally I played various VOB/IFO, MKV, AVI, MP4, XViD/DViX, and MKV videos from my library and all could play fine, with the only issue occurring when using DTS or Dolby HDMI audio pass-through with audio cuts in some, but not all, videos.

Beside Kodi, I’ve also run Antutu Video Tester 3.0 benchmark, with MINI M8S II getting a decent 909 points, while the best devices get a little over 1,000 points. All videos could be played, with 3 videos not playing smoothly.

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DRM support may be important for premium video services like Netflix, and Hulu, and MINI M8S II support Widewine Level 3 for SD resolution video playback, but no Level 1 which is one of the requirement for HD and 4K video support for this type of online video services.

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Click to Enlarge

In case you wonder about YouTube, it only works up to 1080p. 4K YouTube video playback requires “Android TV” platforms.

Download links to video samples used in this review can be found in the comments section of that post.

Network Performance

I normally test both WiFi and Ethernet in my reviews, but I broke the WiFi antenna during the teardown, and could not properly re-solder it. So I only get a “fair signal” strength (about 2 bars out of 4), and throughput of around 1MB/s while using WiFi. This is quite poor, but likely due to the antenna issue. Other people also reported poor WiFi performance with earlier firmware, but firmware 2016-07-19 – used for this review – allegedly improved WiFi performance greatly. Note that only 2.4 GHz WiFI is supported by this device, not 5.0 GHz.

I’ve tested Fast Ethernet by transferring a 278MB file between a SAMBA share and the internal storage, and performance averaged 5.9MB/s placing it in the middle of the pack of devices limited to 10/100M Ethernet.

Throughput in MB/s

Throughput in MB/s

Miscellaneous Tests

Bluetooth

I could pair “MINIM8S II” to my smartphone in order to transfer some pictures over Bluetooth. However, the TV box could not find Xiaomi Mi Band 2 Bluetooth 4.0 LE activity tracker (not install any BLE app through Google Play), while the system could detect my “SH09” Bluetooth headset pairing would not work, and I had to skip Sixaxis PS3 Bluetooth game controller test since the firmware is not rooted.

Storage

We’ve already seen that a  Seagate USB hard drive was recognized in the upper part of this review with NTFS and exFAT file systems supported, and after adding a micro SD card, I could also confirm FAT32 is supported, but Android 6.0 permissions do not seem to allow write access to external storage.

File System Read Write
NTFS OK No
EXT-4 Not mounted Not mounted
exFAT OK No
BTRFS Not mounted Not mounted
FAT32 OK No

This behavior is not suitable at all for TV box, so they’ll have to find a workaround.

I had to skip A1 SD bench with USB drives due to this read-only issue, but still checked out internal storage performance with the app, and the eMMC flash achieved 34.69 MB/s sequential read speed, and 15.87 MB/s write speed. Not a bad results.

Read and Write Speed in MB/s

Read and Write Speed in MB/s

Gaming

Candy Crush Saga was a little sluggish the very first few seconds, but then it could play the game with air mouse, and without any noticeable slowdowns.

I switch to the wireless gamepad to play Beach Buggy Racing which was smooth at all time, even after settings Graphics settings to the “highest resolution”.  Riptide GP2 was fairly smooth with the default settings, but once I switched to “highest resolution” settings, the frame rate went down a bit, and while it was still playable, I did not find as quite as enjoyable. It’s pretty typical for Amlogic S905 platforms though, and the good news is that the performance was constant over the 15 to 20 minutes I played the game.

MINI M8S II Benchmarks

So is Amlogic S905X processor clocked at up to 1.5GHz (like in the specs), or up to 2.0 GHz (like in marketing materials for TV boxes)? CPU-Z agrees with the latter as the maximum frequency is reported to be 2.02 GHz just like in Amlogic S905 processors.

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Click to Enlarge

The board is p212 (useful if you want to try alternative firmware), the frame buffer resolution is set to 1920×1080, and there’s 1775MB total RAM for the system out of the 2GB RAM installed.

However, Antutu 6.1.4 score at 33,330 is slightly lower than on Amlogic S905 based devices (36,000 to 39,000 points) which looks more consistent with a lower CPU frequency… For example MINIX NEO U1 Antutu 6.0 score is 38,032 points.
MINI-M8S-II_Antutu
Let’s double checked the results with Vellamo 3.x.
MINI-M8S-II_Vellamo
M8S II got 1,491, 910 and 1,855 for respectively Multicore, Metal and Browser benchmarks, while MINIX NEO U1 achieved 1,586, 1,235 and 2,157 points. If we compared it to a cheaper model like Videostrong K1 Plus with 1,572, 763, and 2,002 the difference is not as clear, but performance of Amlogic S905 does seem higher than Amlogic S905X in most cases. We also have to take into account that all devices I tested with Amlogic S905 were based on Android 5.1, while MINI M8S II is running Android 6.0.1, which should be a little faster than Android Lollipop.

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Click to Enlarge

3D graphics performance does not seem to be affected as much as Amlogic S905 TV boxes would normally get around 4,300 points in 3DMark ICE Storm Extreme, while Amlogic S905X based M8S II got a similar 4,183 points.

Conclusion

MINI M8S II TV Box has a good performance/features to price ratio, a responsive Android 6.0 firmware, decent video playback in Kodi for 10-bit and 8-bit H.265, H.264, and VP9 videos up to 4K @ 60 fps, but there are still a few firmware issues such HDMI audio pass-throguh, Bluetooth issue, read-only USB storage, etc.. to solve.

PROS:

  • Stable and responsive device with recent Android 6.0 firmware
  • Good (although not quite perfect) video playback in Kodi 16.1 with support for 4K 10-bit H.264, H.264 and VP9 videos
  • HDR (High dynamic range support) for compatible TVs (not tested as my 4K TV does not support it)
  • Proper power handling, and low idle power consumption
  • Relatively fast internal storage leading to 40 seconds boot, few slowdowns during operation
  • OTA firmware update
  • Device stays cool under load
  • exFAT, NTFS, and FAT32 file system support for external storage
  • IR remote control working with long range (at least 10 meters)

CONS:

  • External storage (USB and micro SD) are read-only due to permissions.
  • Some Kodi issues: HDMI audio pass-through not working well, even for Dolby / DTS 5.1 or 2.0 audio, automatic frame rate switching not working, 24 fps videos may not be smooth when played using 24 Hz video output.
  • Lack of Dolby & DTS licensed for downmixing to PCM 2.0 (stereo audio) in apps other than Kodi
  • Bluetooth issues – No Bluetooth LE support, problem pairing with Bluetooth headset. (File transfer with smartphone is OK)
  • DRM: Only supports Widevine Level 3
  • Some apps (that should) can’t be installed via Google Play (e.g. Antutu Video Tester, Bittorrent…)
  • TV box will force my AV receiver to turn on, even as I manually turn it off (likely HDMI CEC issue)
  • USB device connected full screen window shows up after each boot if you have connected an USB drive

So not a bad start, but you’ll have to rely on firmware updates to get fixes for some of the issues listed above.

I’d like to thank GearBest for sending a sample for review, and if you are interested, you could consider buying the device for $35.99 including shipping (if the price has gone up, GBM8SII coupon might help) from their online shop. Other shopping options include Banggood, Aliexpress, and Amazon US, but they are roughly $10 more expensive at this time.

Raspberry Pi Club Battery / UPS Kit Assembly Guide and Review

July 25th, 2016 12 comments

A couple of months ago, I wrote about a Raspberry Pi battery kit with a 3,800 mAh battery, a battery control board, an acrylic enclosure, and an heatsink + fan set that I found on DealExtreme for about $22. I decided to buy it once I got confirmation the battery was included, and so today I’ll write about my experience assembling the kit, and running it with a Raspberry Pi 2 board. If you are only interested in the “RPi PowerPack” battery control board and battery, you can find them on Banggood for $11.93.

Raspberry Pi Club Battery Kit Unboxing

DX put all the accessories inside a zip bag, and shipped it in a bubble envelop.
DX_Raspberry_Pi_Battery_Kit_Unboxing

It contains a white box with the RPi PowerPack V1.0 battery and battery, several screws, spacers, and bolts sets, a fan with screws, an acrylic case with three layers, an heatsink set with two aluminum heatsink for the Broadcom processor and USB hub, and a copper plate for the memory, as well as a short USB cable to connect the power from the battery board to the Raspberry Pi.

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The three acrylic plate are covered by brown covers on each side. It can be peeled optionally, but I discovered they would not come off that easily, so I left it that way.

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Click to Enlarge

The top of the top has the connector for the battery (already connected), two USB ports include one “Output For RPi” to connect to Raspberry Pi micro USB port for power, one micro USB port to connect a 5V/2A charger, an On/Off switch, and a charge status LED.

The board can be used a as dumb UPS taking care of keeping power during outages, but you could make it more useful with some hardware hacking, by connect the Charge status LED to the Raspberry Pi board to find out when the battery is charging, as as well as the positive output from the “LiPo” connector via an ADC chip in order to monitor the battery voltage level in order to know when the battery level is critical, and to take actions such as powering off the Raspberry Pi board.

Raspberry_Pi_Club_Battery

The back of the board just have the 3,800 mAh battery firmly attached to the board.

Raspberry Pi Club Battery Kit Assembly

Assembly is quite straightforward if you look the picture on DealExtreme, but I’ve shot a video explaining how to assemble the kit. Sadly, my Linux based video editor (Openshot-qt) is very unstable, and I’ve not been able to create the video after multiple attempts (any recommendations for a Linux Video Editor with fast forward support?).

But basically I did as follows:

  1. Fasten the Raspberry Pi board to the middle plate with the four smaller spacers and corresponding bolts.
  2. Insert four long spacers to the top plate (with the hole for the fan)
  3. Attach the fan to the top plate with its screws/bolts
  4. Connect the fan to 5V (pin 4), and GND (pin 6)
    Raspberry_Pi_Battery_Kit_Fan_Connection
  5. Fasten RPi PowerPack to the bottom plate with four medium spacers, screws (bottom), and bolts (top)
  6. Screw four long spacers to the long spacers instead on the Raspberry Pi acrylic plate
  7. Attach the bottom cover with the four remaining screws
  8. Insert the short USB Cable between the USB port of the battery board and the micro USB port on Raspberry Pi board
  9. Done!
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Click to Enlarge

I could not find one screw during assembly, but finally they are all accounting for. Just one decided to hide under a bag 🙂

Raspberry Pi Club Battery Kit Review

Now that assembly is complete, it’s time to connect a 5V/2A micro USB power supply to test the battery and fan.

As soon as I applied power, I noticed that the fan was turning, and Raspberry Pi 2 board running, irrespective of the On/Off switch on the battery board. The charge LED is turn on as long as power is applied, and the battery is not fully charged.

Raspberry_Pi_Battery_Kit_Power_ButtonThen after I cut off the power from my power extension, and the Raspberry Pi board was still running fine, although the fan was turning a little faster, likely because the voltage straight out of the battery board is higher than the one from the power supply (e.g. 5V vs 5.4V). It’s only in this mode (no mains) that the OFF mode for the power switch is useful, and Raspberry Pi board will stay powered off.

I’ve also let the Raspberry Pi 2 run Raspbian in idle mode for over two hours on the battery and no problem. A 3.7V / 3,800 mAh battery has about 14 Wh capacity, and since the Raspberry Pi consumes less than 5 Watts in most cases, it should be good for at least 2 to 3 hours, but it depends on your load. Disconnecting the fan would also extend it a little longer.

When I tried the UPS mode in the video review above I did not connect the Raspberry Pi to a monitor, but once I did, I discovered the screen will blink (black) for about a second when switching from mains to the battery, and for one out of my 10 tries, the board rebooted while switching power from mains to battery. So this may not be a 100% reliable solution for UPS. [Update: See comments below as the fan seem to affect the results]

EBox T8-4 Review – A 4K Android TV Box Bundle Geared Towards the UK Market

July 24th, 2016 2 comments

I’ve already taken some pictures of the device and board in part 1 of EBox T8-4 review, so today, I’m going to report my experience with the Android 5.1 firmware for this Amlogic S905 TV box, air mouse, and wireless gamepad, specifically targetted to users leaving in the United Kingdom, but since the hardware is based on Zoomtak T8V, it may also be informative to international users, although the firmware, mostly launcher and IPTV services, will be different.

EBox T8-4 Setup Wizard & Configuration

Since I’ve already inserted an internal SSD into the SATA bay of the device, I did not connect an external USB harddrive, and only connected HDMI and Ethernet cables,  plus the RF dongle for the included air mouse, a USB keyboard to easily take screenshots, and of course the power cord. The power button will be red at this stage. If you want to start the TV box, you either need to press the button on the box, or the power button on the remote control, the power button LED will change to blue, and the display will show “boot”.

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A typical boot takes around one minute, but for the very first boot, you’ll be asked to go through setup wizard similar to what we find in few others boxes like WeTek Core or ARNU Box.EBox_T8-4_Setup_Wizard

Click Next to “select” your language.. English only for now.

EBox_T8-4_Language_Selection

Next window is to adjust the screen in order to remove any black orders on the edges of the screen. If you are using HDMI output, most TV should have a setting to underscan. For example it is called “Just Scan” on LG televisions. That way you don’t need to adjust the screen at all, and you can keep it at 100%.

EBox_T8-4_Adjust_ScreenThe next step is for network configuration for either Ethernet or WiFi.

EBox_T8-4_Setup_Wizard_Ethernet_Configuration EBox_T8-4_Setup_Wizard_WiFi_ConfigurationThe system correctly detected my three access points @ 2.4 GHz and 5.0 GHz, but I carry on with Gigabit Ethernet, and click on Finish button to access the main user interface.

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The launcher include EBOX MC fork of Kodi 16.1, EBOX APPS Hub folder with custom apps from the company including EBox  App to access support channels, EBox Apps app store, EBox OTA for firmware update, etc…, as well as icons to access all apps, the browser, settings, and to clean the memory.

Sadly, that’s another wizard that does not ask you to set your timezone, but maybe in that case it is understable since it’s designed for the British public and already set to the right timezone. Any I went through the settings, which looks quite similar as other Amlogic TV boxes.
EBox_T8-4_Settings_Network

You can change network configuration as needed, as well as display settings.EBox_T8-4_Settings_Display

HDMI auto-detection is ON by default, and it set the resolution to 1080p50 by default, so I disabled it and manually selected 4k2k-60Hz mode. Sadly it looks like it does not always remember that setting after a reboot.EBox_T8-4_Settings_Advanced

Advanced options are for Miracast, CEC Control is not working for me (same results as with all other Amlogic TV boxes I’ve tested), and you can also configure audio output to PCM, SPDIF or HDMI.EBox_T8-4_Settings_Others

Other settings show some system information: Android 5.1.1 on top of Linux 3.14.29 running on p200_2G platform. More Settings lead to another familiar setup menu.
EBox_T8-4_Settings

This is where I enabled HDMI adaptation (automatic refresh rate) via Play back settings, and set the correct timezone (Date & Time). You can access Android Lollipop settings by selecting “More setting”, so you’ve got three different settings user interfaces, which should really be unnecessary….

EBox T8-4 OTA Firmware

The company informed me by email of a new firmware update, so I updated it right before going further, by entering the System Update menu, but you can click on EBox OTA to enter the update app too. After clicking to check updates, I got a popup window “ROM update available”.

EBox_OTA_Firmware_Update

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So I start the download…

EBox_OTA_Firmware_Download

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Which was reasonably fast, and been asked whether I want to Wipe Data and/or Wipe Cache when installing the firmware. I always wipe the cache, but I avoid wiping the data since I like to keep my data (screenshots) and apps installed via Google Play.

EBox_T8-4_Wipe_Data_Wipe_Cache
Once I click on Install, I get another window explaining the box will reboot into recovery mode, flash the ZIP file, and automatically reboot.

EBox_T8-4_Install_Firmware

So I click in Install against and this time the box reboots, shows me an animation with a green Android logo amd a progress board, and after 3 to 5 minutes, reboot the the main launcher and the update is complete. That part was flawless.

Entertainmentbox.com Customer Support

However, I had a big hiccup with the firmware, after spending much time taking screenshoot, and testing apps, I tested on and off, and power consumption, and all of a sudden the device would not boot to the launcher, and all I could see if a blueish background photo (the vertical line is just an issue with my TV).

EBox-T8-4_DeadI sent an email to my contact in the company about the issue, but since it was a Saturday, I was not sure when I’d get an answer, so I went to their website, and saw a “Chat Now – Online”  section on the bottom right of the page, so I decided to give it a try and asked my question about the box being stuck at boot time.

Within a few seconds, a support person called Vikram told me to try to factory rest the box, and provide a link with detailed instructions, and the chat was over in about one minute. I followed the instructions, which involved wiping the data, but I tried to only wipe the cache as I wanted to keep my data, and I did not work.

I wanted to try to re-install the firmware without wiping out the data instead. So I went back to start a new chat to ask about the firmware since I could not find T8-4 on their firmware page. Again Vikram answered within a few seconds, and said he was aware of the issue, and forwarded to the persons in charge. Again efficient, polite and to the point, so my experience with support was very positive, although my problem was not resolved.

Eventually, I got answer from my contact, as they had uploaded T8-4 firmware with clear instructions. So I copied the file to a USB flash drive, went into recovery, and flashed the firmware apparently successfully, but it did not resolve my issue. So I ended up wiping out the data, and lost all my files and installed app, wasting a few hours of work.

The reasons was that EBox Play app (now removed from the firmware) that allows you to play retro games was not compatible with Android 5.1, and messed up with the firmware.

Anyway, while I was clearly not happy about that annoying firmware bug and wasted time, Entertainmentbox.com customer support appears to be very good. They also have support forums.

Installed Apps and IPTV Streaming

The TV box comes with some interesting apps including popular video streaming and on-demand app in the UK such as BBC iPlayer, FilmOn, and TVCatchUp.

EBox_T8-4_App_List_1BionicTCP should be interesting too on other devices, especially if you have troubles with streaming videos, as it allows you to tweak TCP buffers to allow for larger buffers possibly improve the streaming experience.

EBox_T8-4_App_List_2
So I had a quick try of the IPTV apps, although I’m not based in the UK.

Let’s start with Filmon.TV app which sorts live TV streams by country or categories.

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You can then select one category, and a stream from the list to watch live TV, in full screen or within the interface.

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There’s also an online TV guide (EPG) available from the app.

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After a while, the app will ask you to register. I think it’s free to watch SD channels, but you may have to pay to watch HD TV. (TBC)

TVCatchup is a service that allows to watch live TV even if you missed the right time when it was broadcasted. When the app start I’ve been asked to confirm I’m indeed based on the UK… to which I agreed…

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I could get the list of channels, and programs, but was unable to play any videos, most probably because I’m not actually in the UK…

TVcatchUp_ChannelsYou can also access the EPG from the app. You’d think free channels like Aljazeera would work from anywhere, but it did not play either.

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Finally, BBC iPlayer.. It asked me to install BBC Media Player, which I did, but then I could not stream any video due to geo-blocking.

BBC_iPLayer

BBC_iPLayer_Content_Not_WorkingSo the pre-installed app are interesting if you are based in the UK, and wants something easy to setup. If you live overseas, you’d have to use a VPN, or some DNS services like StrongDNS.

Video and Audio Support in EBOX MC (Kodi 16.1)

EBOX MC (EBMC) used Confluence skin with a different background image.

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It is based on Kodi 16.1 with possible some customizations under the hood.

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Since I’ve reviewed so many Amlogic S905 TV boxes, I’ll just try 4K videos, and audio capabilities (e.g. HDMI pass-through). All files will be played from a SAMBA share.

4K video samples:

  • HD.Club-4K-Chimei-inn-60mbps.mp4 – OK
  • sintel-2010-4k.mkv – OK
  • Beauty_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_MP4.mp4 (H.265 @ 30 fps) –  OK
  • Bosphorus_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_MP4.mp4 (H.265 @ 30 fps) – OK
  • Jockey_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_TS.ts (H.265 @ 30 fps) – OK
  • MHD_2013_2160p_ShowReel_R_9000f_24fps_RMN_QP23_10b.mkv (10-bit HEVC) – OK
  • BT.2020.20140602.ts (Rec.2020 compliant video; 36 Mbps) – OK
  • big_buck_bunny_4k_H264_30fps.mp4 – OK
  • Fifa_WorldCup2014_Uruguay-Colombia_4K-x265.mp4 (4K, H.265, 60 fps) – OK
  • Samsung_UHD_Dubai_10-bit_HEVC_51.4Mbps.ts (10-bit HEVC / MPEG-4 AAC) – OK
  • Astra-11479_V_22000-Canal+ UHD Demo 42.6 Mbps bitrate.ts (10-bit H.265 from DVB-S2 stream) – OK
  • Ducks Take Off [2160p a 243 Mbps].mkv (4K H.264 @ 30 fps; 243 Mbps; no audio) – Won’t start to play, and stays in UI.

So no problem playing most 4K video samples with the codecs supported by Amlogic S905 SoC (i.e. excluding H.264 4K @ 60 fps, and 10-bit H.264) expect a very high bitrate H.264 video. However, please note that automatic refresh rate switching is not working, even after it is configured in both the system and EBMC.

Time to test audio.

Video PCM 2.0 Output
(Kodi/EBMC)
PCM 2.0 Output
(Video player)
HDMI Pass-through
(Kodi/EBMC)
AC3 / Dolby Digital 5.1 Audio OK but video not smooth No audio Audio OK but video not smooth
E-AC-3 / Dolby Digital+ 5.1 OK No audio Dolby D 5.1 (OK), but frequent short noise
Dolby Digital+ 7.1 OK No audio PCM 2.0
TrueHD 5.1 OK No audio PCM 2.0
TrueHD 7.1 OK No audio PCM 2.0
Dolby Atmos 7.1 OK No audio PCM 2.0
DTS HD Master OK No audio DTS 5.1 with frequent short (0.5s) noise
DTS HD High Resolution OK No audio DTS 5.1 with frequent short (0.5s) noise
DTS:X OK No audio DTS 5.1 with frequent short (0.5s) noise

As expected Ebox T8-4 does not have the DTS and Dolby licenses for audio down-mixing since it’s using Amlogic S905, and not S905-H, but that’s a disappointment to find out that HDMI pass-through is basically unusable even for 5.1 channel audio due to a short noise that happens every 5 to 10 seconds, at least with Onkyo TX-NR636 receiver.

Gaming with Ipega PG-9028 Bluetooth game controller

I’m normally using Tronsmart Mars G01 RF gamepad in my review, but since the bundle I received includes a Bluetooth gamepad, that’s what I used with Riptide GP2 installed from Amazon Underground. At first, I had troubles pairing the gamepad as I only pressed the Home key, but then I was asked to press Home and X blue buttons together, and the gamepad would show a new device Bluetooth MAC address, and once paired show it as PG-9028.

PG-9028_Bluetooth_PairingSubsequently, you’ll just need to press the Home button to connect the gamepad to the TV box. I had then no issue navigating the user interface with B button for “Back”, A button for “Accept”, and the top left joystick to move around the launcher, and start Riptide GP2.

The game was a fluid as on other good Amlogic S905 TV boxes, so I set the graphics setting to the maximum, and played for over 15 minutes without any degradation of performance over time. The device stayed cool at all time, and the top and bottom temperatures of the case were respectively 36° C, and 39° C.

Other interesting features of the gamepad include the touchpad area to control the mouse pointer, and the five buttons at the bottom for volume, play/pause, back and next, which makes it suitable to control Kodi/EBMC. It is also possible to place your smartphone on top of the gamepad, if you want to play games on the phone instead of the TV box. You’ll find detailed pictures of the controller in the first part of the review.

EBox T8-4 Benchmarks – Antutu, Storage and Networking

Amlogic S905 is a now extremely well known platform, so I just ran Antutu 6.1.4 to double check there wasn’t any issue.

EBox_T8-4_Antutu

35,473 point is typical for this kind of device. All good.

I also tested internal storage performance A1SD bench, and the eMMC flash is reasonable fast @ 26.21 MB/s for sequential read, and 14.80 MB/s for sequential write.

Read/Write Speed in MB/s

Read/Write Speed in MB/s

One of the key selling point of the device is the presence of an internal 2.5″ SATA bay. I started by inserting an SSD with both NTFS and EXT-4 partitions, but it was mounted as a USB device with 0 MB size, so I switched another 1TB hard drive formatted with NTFS inside a Linux machine, which was a little loose in the SATA bay but still inserted to the SATA connector, and this time it was not detected at all. When I removed it, it was warm so I assume it got power. It’s quite possible the hard drive needs to be prepared inside a Windows computer to work with the box, based on a video for their older T8-3 box. That part was very disappointing.

Let’s switch to network performance with Gigabit Ethernet and iperf -t 60 -c server_ip -d command for full duplex transfer.

So the system cannot handle full duplex transfer very well, with the speed in one direction very fast (as it should), but very slow in the other direction. That test is worse case scenario though, and unless you plan to use the box as a server too, it should not be an issue, and I had no problem streaming 60 Mbps+ videos.

I’ve tested 802.11ac by transferring a 278MB file from SAMBA to the flash and vice versa 3 times using ES File explorer. For some reasons download was much faster than upload @ 5.67 MB/s vs 2.89 MB/s, and on average the transfer rate was a decent 4.27 MB/s.

Throughput in MB/s

Throughput in MB/s

Other remarks

The included air mouse is very convenient with mouse mode, remote side, and QWERTY keyboard side, and while usually I have to switch to the IR remote control to power on other devices, T8-4 can be powered on with that air mouse too. The air mouse function works well, the keyboard includes the media player keys (play/pause, etc..), and the only two downsides I found is the lack of tabulation key, and Alt key Blue on black markings are hard to read, at least with my eyesight (I need to remove my glasses to read them).

Power handling have been properly implemented too, but with only power on and power off modes. Power consumption is 0.2 watts in power off mode, 5.0 watts at idle with SSD, and 5.2 watts at with (non-detected) HDD.

I had no problem at all with Google Play with free and paid app, and Amazon Underground.

Conclusion

EBox T8-4 Android TV box performs well over time (no overheating), delivers good video playback performance in Kodi (EBMC), include pre-installed IPTV streaming app for the UK, and provide a good overall user experience, but there are still some issues that need to be fixed such as very poor HDMI pass-through implementation, and problems with internal SATA bay.

PROS

  • Complete easy to setup and use bundle with TV box, air mouse, and wireless Bluetooth gamepad
  • Stable and responsive firmware
  • Good 4K video playback performance in Kodi with both H.264 and H.265 videos
  • (Legal) pre-installed IPTV app for the UK market like BBC iPlayer, Filmon, and TVCatchup
  • Gigabit Ethernet and good 802.11ac WiFi performance
  • 2.5″ internal SATA bay (see CONS too!)
  • OTA firmware update
  • Good customer support with Live chat, forums, and online documentation

CONS

  • HDMI audio pass-through is not working well, with only 5.1 channel audio support, and I got short white noise for almost all videos.
  • No Dolby / DTS licenses
  • My 2.5″ SSD (NTFS + EXT-4) and HDD (NTFS) were not recognized by the system
  • DRM support limited to Widewine Level 3
  • (Minor) Settings are spread over  3 menus
  • (Minor) Somewhat slow boot (One minute)
  • I loss all my data and installed apps after a while due to a bug in the firmware (But it should be now be fixed, and I could not reproduce the issue).

The main thing I like about EBox T8-4 bundle is that it’s easy to setup and comes with everything you may need to watch local and live TV (in the UK), the included air mouse and Bluetooth gamepad just work out of the box, without headache due to potential interoperability issues.

EBox T8-4 + S77 Pro air mouse + Ipega Bluetooth gamepad bundle I reviewed can be purchased for 108.33 GBP exc. VAT ($142 US), but you can also purchase the box alone for 79.16 GBP exc. VAT (~$104 US), or select other bundles with different input devices and/or an included 1TB hard drive (which could mitigate the issues I had).

Review of No.1 D6 Android Smartwatch Powered by Mediatek MT6580 Processor

July 23rd, 2016 12 comments

Karl here with a new review. This one is a little different. A smart watch, but not your average smart watch, as most smartwatches supplement a phone. This is a standalone smartwatch. It runs full Android 5.1. It is the D6 by No. 1. It has a 3G radio and SIM card slot. I was really excited when I found out I could do this review.

Below are some pics from their website.

No.1_D6_Smartwatch

Another professionally shipped and packaged product and some box pics

Chinavasion_No1_D6_Smartwatch_Package

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No1_D6_Smartwatch_Specs

Here are the specs from No. 1’s website.

Product Overview
Model NO.1 D6
Product modeling Android Smartwatch
System Android 5.1
CPU MT6580 quad core Cortex A7 @ up to 1.3 GHz with Mali-400MP2 GPU
Screen Resolution 1.63″ 320 x 320 resolution
RAM 1GB
ROM 8GB
Wifi Support
Google Play Support
Features
Make calls Support
See text messages Support
Contacts Support
Heart Rate Support
Pedometer Support
Bluetooth BT2.1 + BLE4.0
Browser Support
Barometer Support
Voice Search Support
Alarm Support
Weather Support
Health Data Synchronization Support
Change Clock Face Support
Install App Support
Operation frequency GSM/ 850/900/1800/1900 ; WCDMA 850/2100
Language Chinese (Traditional), Chinese (simplified), Indonesian, Malay, Czech, Danish, German (German), German, English (UK), Spanish (United States), Filipino, French, Croatian, Italian language, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Netherlands, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese (Brazil), Portuguese (Portugal), Romania, Slovakia, Finland, Sweden, Vietnamese, Turkish, Greek, Bulgarian, Russian, Ukrainian language, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Thai, Burmese, Khmer, Korean, Japanese
Hardware
Speaker Support
Battery capacity 450 mAH
Antenna Support
Side buttons Support
Chargers Support
USB Support
G-SENSOR Support
Package weight 170g

First Impressions

The watch looks good to me. I had a few people say it looked big to them but I don’t feel like it is too big….in fact I wish it were bigger. Below are some pics I took. My pictures don’t due it justice so that is why I posted the professional pics above.

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No1_D6_Android_Smartwatch

First Tests

First thing I did was try to push it to the max and do some absurd testing. What does that entail? For me it was watching movies on a watch. Kodi Netflix MX player, Plex, HdHomerun, and Emby.

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To my surprise most worked pretty well considering it is a watch. With Emby I couldn’t use the built in player and had it use MX player and I couldn’t get Plex to work at all. This is not a deal breaker…it is really a ridiculous test but sometimes you do things just to see if they could be done. I also ran Antutu and got a 23221 on version 6.1.4….not too shabby for a watch.

No.1_D6_Antutu_6_Score

OTA Firmware Update

After a couple days I received notification that the watch needed to be updated. So I performed the updated and followed the instructions. It went through and when it booted the first time after the update it hung on the boot animation and got really warm. I waited a long time I took the battery out and when I turned it on next it booted properly. Then a 2nd update appeared but this time the watch soft bricked. I went to the website, downloaded the latest firmware, and installed it. It mostly went off without a hitch except I should have waited to plug in the watch until after I installed the drivers. It took 30 tries for me to catch the device in the device manager to install the drivers manually from the download. Included in the download were the drivers and flashing tool and img. It did not come with any instructions that I saw but it was easy to reflash. (Received another update today and it installed perfectly.)

Setup

I didn’t like the built in launcher at first so I installed Nova Launcher. Added 3 widgets one is clock, circle battery widget from the play store, and power control widget. Nova is pretty customizable so I was able to mimic an android phone setup. But I ended up getting errors with Nova and it would force close frequently and I had to choose default launcher over again.

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I really wish Nova worked better, didn’t close like this, and I think it takes a toll on the battery. I installed Apex launcher which worked pretty well and not too heavy but had to sacrifice too much. After a while I ended up back with the stock launcher. It’s good enough for a watch that runs full android with a small screen.

Use

So as I see it, there are a couple ways use the device. You can use it as a standalone. Pop a SIM card in and use it as your phone. A Bluetooth headset is necessary for this. Speaker phone is weak and there is no privacy. I tested first with a Ting SIM card. Popped it in and I was immediately up and running. I only made a few calls this way. I also tested with a Metro PCS SIM. Not quite as easy…I had to call and give Metro my IMEI number, and about 30 minutes later I was in business. I am not a fan of Bluetooth headsets so I didn’t enjoy this way. And I got caught at the end of the day once before I started charging midday without phone service. 2nd way is you can use it paired to your phone through Bluetooth and receive notifications, pass files to the watch and uninstall applications on the watch. Use it like a traditional smart watch. I didn’t find this particularly useful and when you get out of range of the watch both the watch and the phone beep. I opted to use it standalone. When out and about I turn on my hotspot on my phone and when home I use my home WiFi. This seemed to work best for me. You could also pair the phone and watch and also use hotspot. I just didn’t find notifications particularly useful. The good thing about this watch is you get many choices.

Battery

The battery has a 450 mAh capacity…which is tiny considering this processor is installed in full size phones. I really had to watch what I installed and had to be conscious of background tasks or it would destroy the battery. After testing to see if I could make it all day I started charging on my lunch break at work after that I didn’t have to be concerned with battery life. It charges relatively fast. After receiving the last OTA update when this review was nearly complete, I got significantly better battery life. I used it quite a bit the next day and I had about 20% left at the end of my work day with no charging. Depending on how it is used will significantly impact battery. I would recommend a second charging cable. It is proprietary with magnets that aren’t particularly strong. I found sometimes it was difficult to get it to stay.

Apps

I installed lots of different apps. Everything would install and was mostly usable. On a small screen it was sometimes difficult to navigate. I covered all the video apps already but I also installed ES File Explorer and to get on the pop bandwagon I installed Pokemon Go and it played fine.

No1_D6_Smartwatch_Android_Apps

There are thousands of apps and if you would like for me to test one leave a comment below and I will give it a shot. I live in the United States so some apps might not be available.

Radios/Antennas

Cellular, WiFi, or GPS worked ok. I had more dropped calls than I typically did with my smartphone. I do live in rural America so this will vary. WiFi range was OK. With Pokemon Go I did notice that trees were enough to disrupt the GPS signal.

Final Thoughts

It’s a pretty neat watch considering what it is doing in such a small amount of space. With this last update from No.1 battery life improved a lot. I wish it had come earlier in the review. It is definitely up the tech junkies alley and would make a cool gift. I am sure there are a lot of uses that it could be used for. There is a long thread on XDA as well covering the watch and I would imagine a custom ROM will be out soon. People are already flashing an img from another smartwatch on this one. Supposedly 6.0 will be coming to the watch in the near future and hopefully bring adaptable storage to the watch. If you have any questions feel free to post in the comments below.

I would like to thank Chinavasion for sending the NO. 1 D6 to review. It comes in 3 different versions: silver like shown in review, gold, and black. You can purchase it for $76.99 on their website. Alternatively, you can also find the watch on GearBest, GeekBuying, eBay, and Aliexpress for similar or slightly higher prices up to $90.

NEXBOX A95X (S905X) Android TV Box Review – Part 1: Unboxing and Teardown

July 22nd, 2016 11 comments

NEXBOX A95X is an Android TV box that first launched with Amlogic S905 processor, the company thought it was a good idea to make multiple models with the same name with a combination of memory capacity (1 or 2GB), storage capacity (8 or 16GB), and even processor, as you may get a box with Amlogic S905, or Amlogic S905X processor adding 4K VP9 and HDR support. So you should be careful befoire your place an order, and check you got the right model when you receive it. The company now sent me their “high-end” A95X Android 6.0 model with Amlogic S905X processor, 2GB RAM, and 16GB storage, as well as Fast Ethernet and dual band WiFi 802.11 b/g/n support. In the first part of the review I’ll check out the hardware, including the board itself, before testing the firmware in more details in the second part.

NEXBOX A95X Unboxing

The box ships in the black package with no apparent trademarked logos or names.NEXBOX_A95X_PackageYou can double-checked the main specifications on the bottom of the package, and you’ll also notice the CE / FCC / RoHS markings which could matter when you import the device.

NEXBOX_A95X_Specifications_CE_FCC

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The TV box ships with an IR remote control taking two AAA batteries and supporting IR learning function for 5 keys, a 5V/2A power supply, an HDMI cable, and  “Android TV User Manual”.

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The device itself is really small, although not quite as tiny as WeTek Hub. We have a micro SD slot and two USB 2.0 ports on one side, and the power jack, HDMI 2.0 and AV outputs, Ethernet, and coaxial S/PDIF on the rear panel.

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NEXBOX A95X Teardown

The bottom of the case list the main specs, and shows a MAC address starting with C4:4E:21, which looks up to… nothing. So either the MAC address space has been recently registered, or it’s just been (semi-)randomly selected….

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Let’s open the thing. There aren’t any screws, but you’ll notice a tiny opening on the top center, and that’s where you’ll want to start working your way to open the case.

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Thermal design looks decent with an heatsink on top of the Amlogic processor, itself in contact with a thermal pad connected to a thick metal plate.

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The board is named A7_S905X_v2.0, and includes two SKhynix H5TQ4G63CFR DDR3 SDRAM (1GB), a 16GB Samsung KLMAG2WEPD-B031 eMMC 5.0 flash, Ampak AP6330 module for dual band WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0, as well as H1102NL Fast Ethernet magnetics (The Ethernet transceiver is built-in S905X processor). There’s also a smaller “DID2133 16-12 F1” IC close the AV jack that should be an amplifier. The serial console should be accessible via the four pins close to the two USB ports.

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Loosening four screws will allow you to completely remove the board, and check out the back where we’ll find two more RAM chips bringing the total to 2GB, as well as sticker with board name, storage/memory/wifi module, a serial number, and the manufacturing date. The board is basically fresh from the oven, as it was made on July 16th, 2016.

I’d like to thank NEXBOX for sending the device for review, and if you are interested in purchasing in quantity, you can contact them via their website. NEXBOX A95X featured in this post (S905X, 2GB RAM, 16GB flash) is sold for $43.99 on Banggood (group buy), and $51.32 on GearBest. You’ll also find a cheaper (~$43) version with just 8GB flash on both sites, and on GeekBuying. Finally, if you don’t care about VP9, and HDR, the first NEXBOX A95 model with Amlogic S905 processor sells for as low as $23 with 1GB RAM.

FriendlyARM NanoPi NEO Board Benchmarks

July 22nd, 2016 1 comment

We’ve already seen how to setup NanoPi NEO with Ubuntu Core, and while it’s mostly designed as an IoT node, for example to control relays over Ethernet or the Internet, I’ve still decided to see how it would perform under load by running Phoronix benchmarks, and then network and storage (micro SD card provided by FriendlyARM). It’s a small board, so we should expect it to heat a lot under load, especially it does not come with an heatsink by default. Also bear in mind that performance may dramatically change depending on the software implementation, and for the test, I’m using the company’s Ubuntu Core firmware.

Before start the benchmark, I noticed that QTe-Demo was running in the background, probably because it was used on their other board with video output or LCD. but it’s taking some CPU usage, and is absolutely not needed here.

To disable it, edit /etc/rc.local, and comment out one line as follows:

I also planned to install RPi-Monitor, which is very easy to install in armbian, but I could not find a quick way for the Ubuntu core image, so I skipped it for now, instead manually checking the temperature.

Let’s install Phoronix Test Suite:

and run the benchmark against Orange Pi, Banana Pi, Raspberry Pi, etc… boards results.

Since it will take a while (4 to 5 hours) checking the terminal output while the benchmark is running may be informative:

Phoronix will run the same test several times, and in theory, every iteration of the test should have roughly the same results, but in practice, modern processors do overheat, and either reduce frequency or cut the number of cores to keep the temperature below the (safe) junction temperature. The results here don’t look good, because they become slower overtime. A temperature check with an IR thermometer after one hour or so, shows the CPU is getting really hot.
NanoPi_NEO_CPU_TemperatureWe can also verify this in the command line by reading one of the temperature sensor:

It’s hot, and the temperature tops at 80 C, and sometimes drops down to 76 C, before getting back to 80C, so the system is clearly throlling and the final results made that clear (ARMv7 rev 5 is NanoPi NEO without heatsink). Please also note that all 6 boards included below are using the same governor settings (interactive or ondemand). However, NaniPi NEO’s Ubuntu core Linux kernel is configured to run the RAM at the lower frequency to either decrease power consumption or heat generation.

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John the Ripper is a multi-threaded password cracker, and in theory NaniPi NEO should have about the same performance as Orange Pi One, but there’s clearly a massive drop in performance.

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Same thing for single threaded FLAC audio encoding, where NanoPi NEO is almost 50% slower than Orange Pi One, and about the same as Raspberry Pi 2.

So let’s check what happens is we had an heatsink. I glued the largish heatsink (for that board) by putting thermal paste on Allwinner H3 and the Samsung DDR3 SDRAM chip. It is not centered on the board because the Ethernet jack pins prevent this. You could add some thermal pads to work around this.

NanoPi_NEO_Heatsink_Thermal_Paste

So let’s start again phoronix-test-suite to see if this improves anything:

Terminal output for the first benchmark:

We can see the results are both higher, and more stable, so that’s a good sign.

The heatsink temperature is about 54 C after around one or two hours.

NanoPi_NEO_Heatsink_TemperatureBut the CPU temperature is still high, and topping at 80 C from time to time:

Nevertheless the final results are way better. I repeated the test with heatsink twice to some issue with uploading the results the first time…

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FLAC audio encoding is now just as good as on Orange Pi One.

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John the Ripper is still a bit lower on NanoPi NEO, which could either be because of RAM clock or overheating despite the heatsink. The multi-threaded performance is still better than on Raspberry Pi 2 however.

So if you want to want NanoPi NEO to control some relays, you probably don’t need to care at all about this, but if you plan to use it as part as a cluster or build farm, you’d have to consider using a heatsink and possibly a fan to get optimal performance, as well as make sure the board does not die prematurely…

Let’s switch to Ethernet performance, but running iperf server on the board:

and running iperf client on a computer running Ubuntu 14.04 to test dual duplex performance:

So the download speed is all good at 93.8 Mbps, but the upload speed is not quite up to the task at 25.8 Mbps. Remember that a dual duplex test is a worse case scenario with heavy traffic going in both directions at the same, and it does not mean upload speed is limited to 25 Mbps in more typical scenarios.

NanoPi NEO does not come with any storage, and you can use any micro SD card you want, but FriendlyARM sells and recommend Sandisk Ultra 8GB SD micro card,  so it would interesting to see how the one they’ve sent me performs.

For that purpose I’ve installed iozone to test the micro SD card performance. You’ll need to edit /etc/apt/source.list to add multiverse at the end of the first two lines, and then:

I’ve run iozone3 with armbian community command line options, so that it can be compared to other SD cards:

So it’s not quite the fastest around, especially in terms of random write for some files, and if you want a board that boot very fast (i.e. faster than the 10 seconds boot I got), and your application is I/O depend you may want to get something better like Samsung EVO 32GB.

Review of GOLE1 mini PC with 5″ Display – Part 1: Unboxing and Teardown

July 21st, 2016 12 comments

GOLE1 is a portable mini PC running Windows 10 and Android 5.1, featuring a 5″ touchsceen display, and powered by an Intel Atom x5-Z8300 “Cherry Trail” processor. The device was launched on Indiegogo, and the project raised close to $300,000. I’ve now received an early sample with 4GB RAM and 64GB storage for review, with – I was told – a 1,800 mAh battery instead of the 2,600 mAh battey backers will receive. I’ll do a 2 or 3 parts review, starting by checking out the hardware, before testing both Windows 10 and Android 5.1 on the platform.

GOLE1 Unboxing

The device is packed into a simple white box with “GOLE1 Designed by GOLE” string.
GOLE1_Package

The mini PC ships with a 5V/3A power supply which should be powerful enough to connect a USB 3.0 hard drive, an HDMI cable, and a user’s manual in English.

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The device looks a little like a mini portable TV because of its shape an antenna. The top features the 5″ touchscreen display, as well as volume, Home/Windows, and power buttons. A micro USB port, USB 2.0 & USB 3.0 ports, and a micro SD slot can be found on one of the sides, while the rear panel includes the WiFi antenna, a 3.5mm audio jack, HDMI 1.4 output, two more USB 2.0 ports, a Fast Ethernet port, and the DC jack.

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I planned to show a quick boot demo with Windows 10 and Android 5.1 in the unboxing video, but the battery was depleted, so the unboxing / hands-on video is little less interesting than expected.

GOLE1 Teardown

GOLE1 metallic enclosure can be opened by taking out of four rubber pad on the bottom, and loosening four screws. The bottom cover does not come off that easily, so I used a sharp tool and inserted into one of the ventilation holes to gently lift it up.

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Cooling is achieved with a large heatsink covering Atom processor, the memory and a Samsung eMMC flash. Finally, I did get a 2,600 mAh battery if the markings are to be believed [Update: the company has now double confirmed I truly got a 1,800 mAh battery, but they applied the mass production sticker on it]. I wanted to completely remove the board from the case, so I removed the battery, and loosened 6 more screws, but I did not come easily, and I did not want to risk damaging the unit at this early stage.

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We can still have a closer look at the board and check out some of the chips. WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity is achieved via an Ampak AP6234 module supporting dual band WiFi 802.11b/g/n and BT 4.0, with an external antenna plugged into a connector (i.e. not soldered). Davicom DM9621ANP USB 2.0 to Fast Ethernet controller is used in conjunction with PHC SMD-16003NL transformer to provide wired network connectivity. Other ICs includes Genesys Logic GL850G USB 2.0 hub controller, and ATMLH602-46D which should an I2C EEPROM to store data like the MAC address.

If you’ve missed the crowdfunding campaign, you can (pre-) purchase GOLE1 mini PC starting at $99 with 2GB RAM / 32GB flash, and up to $144 with 4GB/64GB on GearBest (GBGF4 coupon may lower the price further). I have not found the device for sale on other websites yet.

Getting Started with NanoPi NEO Development Board – Ubuntu Core Firmware

July 20th, 2016 34 comments

NanoPi NEO is an exciting ARM Linux board due to the power it packs into its small size, and its low price starting at $7.99. It’s made by FriendlyARM, and since I’ve read some people had never heard about the company before, I’d like to point out it has been providing development boards well before the Raspberry Pi board was launched, with products such mini2440 based on a Samsung ARM9 processor introduced around year 2010. Anyway, I asked the company if they were willing to send 2 samples for review, as I plan to remove the USB & Ethernet port on one of them. Instead I got a 4 boards and accessories, so I’m going to start reviewing the board by writing a quick start guide, showing how to setup it, and check out the Ubuntu core provided by the company. If you are a fan of armbian made Debian distribution, NanoPi NEO will soon be supported too.

NanoPi NEO Pictures

So company send the parcel by DHL, and for some reasons declared an $11 value for 6 boards in the invoice, despite the board selling for respectively $7.99 and $9.99, and the two PSU-ONECOM debug boards going for $4 each… This resulted in higher custom duties than expected…

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I opened all packages, with the board stored in anti-static bags as they should.

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The complete package content include two NanoPi NEO 512MB RAM, two NanoPi NEO with 256MB RAM, two PSU-ONECOM debug board (which I don’t recommend, more details below), two 5V/2A power adapter and corresponding USB cables, as well as two blank 8GB micro SD cards. Each NEO board package also features a piece of paper with the specifications, and a getting started guide partially written for NanoPi-T3 (no you can’t use HDMI with NanoPi NEO), but still two useful links pointing the NEO Wiki, and Friendlyarm github account.

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The top of the board features Ethernet, USB host, and micro USB (power) ports, as well as the micro SD slot, and I/O headers, while we’ll find the only two main ICs on the back with Allwinner H3 quad core Cortex A7 processor, and a Samsung RAM chip.

In case you wonder how to differentiate between the 512MB and 256MB version in case you buy both model, there’s a 512M RAM sticker on the former, and no sticker on the latter.

NanoPi_NEO_512MB_vs_256MB

If for some reasons, the sticker is detached, or remove, just check the back of the board for the Samsung memory part number: 2G (2 Gbit) = 256 MB, and 4G (4Gbit) = 512MB. Easy enough.

Samsung_Memory_256MB_vs_512MBNanoPi NEO can be considered a competitor of several other small ARM or MIPS Linux boards including Raspberry Pi Zero, Orange Pi One, Next Thing CHIP, and Mediatek LinkIt 7688, so I’ve taken a “family pictures” to show the respective size of the boards, and NanoPi NEO is clearly one of the smallest, and more powerful than most other board save for Orange Pi One.

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However, it’s also much thicker than most because of its RJ45 jack, and vertical USB port.

NanoPi_NEO_Ethernet_USBI had planned to shoot a video showing how to remove the Ethernet and USB port (and possibly serial header), but I’ll probably skip it, because the company has now decided to also sell NanoPi NEO 512MB without Ethernet nor USB for $9.98 + shipping.

Getting Started with Ubuntu Core image for NanoPi NEO

So now, that we’ve checked out the hardware, it’s time to play with the board. Eventually, armbian will release an image, and it may become the preferred option, because of community support, but in the meantime, I’ll use the “Ubuntu Core + Qt Embedded” image released by the company. The instructions below are to be follow in a terminal windows in Debian, Ubuntu, or Mint operating system, but if you use Windows 10 you can flash the image with Win32DiskImager just like with a Raspberry Pi, or install Windows Subsystem for Linux, and follow the exact same procedure as in Linux.

First, you’ll need to download the image (currently nanopi-neo-core-qte-sd4g-20160704.img.zip) through mediafire, and uncompress it:

Now insert a micro SD card into your computer, and check the device name (/dev/sdX, or /dev/mmcblkpX) with lsblk command:

That step is very important. In my case, my 8GB SD card (the 3.7GB image should also work on 4GB micro SD cards) is /dev/sdb, so that’s what I’ll use. If I used /dev/sda instead, the instructions would completely wipe out my hard drive, and I’d lose all my data and OS. Anyway, let’s go ahead, and umount the SD card, and flash the image, checking the progress with pv:

The third step should take a few minutes to complete. Now we can take the micro SD card out, and insert it into the board, connect an Ethernet cable and the power, and after a few seconds (about 5 to 10 seconds). you should be able to ssh to the board with its IP address, which you can get from your router DHCP list.:

All good that was easy, and the board works out of the box. What’s not so nice is that the image is based on Ubuntu 15.10, an unsupported version of Ubuntu at this time.

Another way to connect to the board, especially if you don’t plan to use Ethernet is through the serial console. I’ve first done so using the company’s PSU-ONECOM debug board, plus a NULL modem cable, and an RS232 to USB adapter, since my computer does not have a DB9 connector.

NanoPi_NEO_RS232_Board

That’s fun, and it works, but that’s what I’d consider the old way of doing things simply because most recent computers or laptop don’t have a COM port. So instead, I’d recommend to use a standard USB to TTL, which normally cost $1 shipped, to connect to your computer, as it’s just more convenient to most people.NanoPi_NEO_USB_to_TTL_BoardSimply connect GND, Rx, and Tx to GND, Tx and Rx pins on the serial header of the board as shown below.NanoPi_NEO_Serial_Header

That’s the board output in minicom connected to /dev/ttyUSB0 with 115200 8N1 settings. In Windows, you may want to use Putty.

Let’s type some other command to find out more:

So the image is using a Linux 3.4.39 legacy kernel (mainline support should be a few weeks or months away), the rootfs size is 3.6GB with 3.0GB free (You’ll want to resize it with parted + resize2fs), and the quad core Cortex A7 processor has a maximum frequency of 1.2 GHz, instead of 1.29 GHz for boards with a different voltage regulation, but that’s OK, as the board has been mostly designed for IoT applications, and not necessarily for maximum performance. The GPIO module is compiled, but an error is generated after I load it, and now GPIOs are exported, which differs from my experience with the images I used with Orange Pi Allwinner H3 boards, where GPIOs are listed and ready to use.

Power consumption on this type of board is a topic that will require a separate post, but since I’ve been asked I’ve taken some quick measurements using a “kill-a-watt” power meter, and power consumption at idle is around 2.0 watts. Since the platform should also support standby/sleep mode, I tried it with pm-suspend:

Power consumption only dropped to 1.4 watts, and I was not able to resume by connecting a USB keyboard. So either the method I used is not correct, and suspend is not fully supported in the kernel. I’ll have to study a bit more, but obviously tips or links that could help me are welcome in comments.

Finally, I also checked whether it would be feasible to install an heatsink for people who may want to push the board to its limits.

NanoPi_NEO_HeatsinkThe Ethernet jack pins prevents to simply put some thermal paste on the processor and RAM, so you’d have to add some thermal pads on both ICs before fitting a heatsink, unless you use a smaller heatsink that does not cover the area under the RJ45 connector. There’s also no obvious way to keep the heatsink in place.

If you are interested in the board, it sells for $7.99 with 256MB RAM, and $9.98/$9.99 with 512MB RAM without/with Ethernet and USB host ports, plus shipping which normally amounts to $4 to $5 by airmail.