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Review of Xiaomi Mi Band 2 Activity Tracker

June 27th, 2016 2 comments

I’ve been using Xiaomi Mi Band 2 for a little over two weeks now, so I’m not ready to report my findings, and the results are mixed. If you are interesting in checking out the accessories, and physical aspect of the watch, feel free to read Xiaomi Mi Band 2 unboxing post first.

Since the new model adds an OLED display, let’s first see what options it has to offer. The display is off by default, and pressing the capacitive touch button (please note that it’s not a real physical button, so it won’t work with most gloves for example) will turn on the display for 5 seconds. You can keep pressing to go through time, step count, distance, calories burnt, heart rate monitor, and battery level.

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Except for time, there’s a icon shown before display the actual value. If you find that the display does not look clear, that’s because despite its IP67 ingress protection rating, humidity made it into the display, and all I did was washing hands and taking shower during the two weeks of testing. The issue only happened yesterday, so if possible you may consider taking it off before shower, and be careful when washing hands.

Xiaomi_Mi_Band_2_Humidity

Humidity inside Mi Band 2

Just like other devices with OLED displays, it’s barely readable under sunlight, as you can see from the picture below. If you click on the picture, and zoom in you’ll find out the time is shown.

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If you click on the picture, and zoom in you’ll find out the time is shown. So you’d have to make some shadow with your other hand in order to read  the display under sunlight. One good point is the algorithm that will automatically turns the display on for 5 seconds when you lift your arm. There are few false positive, and it works 80% of the time for me, the other 20% of the time I either press the button to check the time, or lift my arm again.

You’ll need to install Mi Fit app for Android in order to synchronize time and fitness data between the tracker and your phone. At first, I was unable to pair Mi Band 3 with my Mediatek phone, but after making Bluetooth discoverable in my phone, the connection worked smoothly.

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The first screen shows the number of steps, last night sleep pattern, your weight evolution (only if target is set), the last hear rate measurement, and the last 10 days step count goals. You can click on each item to get more info, including daily, weekly, and monthly statistics, sleep data, etc…

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The “Play” button on the main menu is actually redirecting to settings, where you can set notifications for calls, SMS, apps, and sit alert, as well as define alarms.

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Call, and apps notifications worked well for me, but somehow SMS did not. Sit alert allows for 60, 90 and 120 minutes of inactivity before being triggered, while you can set three alarms, that will vibrate in 4 or 5 sequences of 3 vibrations, before snoozing and repeating the process again in 10 minutes. The app can also work with WeChat, Google Fit, and Sina Weibo, but since I don’t use any of those services I have not tried. You should also be able to use Mi Band 2 to unlock your phone, but it requires Android 5.0 or greater, and my phone is still running Android 4.4.

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The profile section will show your details, total stats, connected band(s), and allow you to set some options such as activity goals in steps, other notifications, and some settings such as metric, imperial or Chinese units for length and weight. If you click on “Mi Band 2” in Profile, you’ll get more info about the band, firmware, and one feature I particularly appreciate: “Mi Band display settings” to select with items are displayed on the watch. I’m only interested in Time, Steps and remaining Battery , so that’s what I’ve enabled.

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But let’s go back to the main menu. If you tap on the top right corner you’ll get another summary of your daily activity, as well as options to share it on social networks.

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Tapping on “Heart Rate” will bringing a window saying “Fasten your band, don’t move”, a little strange since the most interesting part of hear rate monitors (HRM) is to check your hear beat during activity, but I tapped on “Got it” and a few seconds later I got a measurement. I tried several times, and in most cases it was pretty similar to the results I got with Energympro EP-SH09 fitness tracker.

Another way to get your heart rate is to simply cycle through on the watch until you get to the heart icon, and wait for a few seconds to get your heart rate. One downside of Xiaomi Mi Band 2 HRM is that it will only take one measurement, and continuous measurement is not an option. So when I went running, I planned to just tap from time to time to check it out. However, it would fail time and time again (the screen shows — x), and after 20 attempts I gave up during the run, but I repeat the test while a cool-down walk, and again it did not work at all. Back in the car, I could finally get a proper measurement, so it appears Mi Band 2 invalidates HRM measurement is your are not still. Please note that I was holding my arm straight and close to my chest while walking and running, so the “Don’t move” message is to be followed seriously. Those results unfortunately make the HRM on Mi Band 2 nothing more than a useless gimmick.

I’m very satisfied with step counts however, as results are reproducible, and realistic with for example, 4,500 steps for a 4km run, and 2,300 steps for a 2km walk. Battery life is very good, although I did not get 20 days, I still manage to get 14 days on a charge. I did not enable phone and app notifications during the week, and battery went from 100% to 70% the first 7 days, I then enabled Skype, Facebook messenger, and phone call notifications, and the battery seemed to handle this very well, but for unexplained reasons the 12th day the battery dropped from 39% in the morning to 19% in the evening. You’ll start to get an icon on the watch when battery falls below 10%, and I decided it was time to charge the tracker on the 14th day when it dropped to 5%. The complete charge took just above 2 hours.

You can see the Mi Band 2 in action in the video review below.

Some of the advantages and drawbacks for Xiaomi Mi Band 2:

  • PRO
    • Activity tracking (step count) is working well
    • OLED display allows you to follow progress without smartphone
    • Most features work reasonably well including sleep monitoring, phone and apps notifications, alarm, etc…
    • The display can be turned on automatically by lifting your arm (worked around 80% of time for me)
    • Custom selection of items shown on display
    • Very good battery life, around 2 weeks in my case
  • CONS
    • Useless heart rate monitor that does not support continuous monitoring, and only works when you do not move
    • OLED display is rather dim outdoor, especially in direct sunlight
    • IP67 rating can not be trusted, as humidity infiltrated the tracker, even though I only took showers and washed hands (no bath, no swimming).
    • Capacitive touch button won’t work with (thick) gloves, or with wet hands, and may be triggered by flowing water/rain.
    • SMS notifications did not work for me

I’d like to thank GeatBest for sending a review sample, and if you are interested you can purchase Mi Band 2 on their website for $33.91 with coupon GBMI2 [Update: currently you can only request an “arrival notice” due to high demand]. Other sellers include GeekBuying, Amazon US, and a few other alternatives.

Review of PocketCHIP Hackable Handheld Linux Computer

June 25th, 2016 12 comments

It’s not that easy to describe PocketC.H.I.P in a couple of words, as it’s so versatile. It’s a Debian based portable Linux computer with a resistive touchscreen and battery, but also a retro gaming console thanks to PICO-8, as well as a hardware development platform for IoT application with expansion header providing access to I/Os including GPIOs, I2C, SPI, UART…, and WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity. Furthermore you can easily dismantle the device, in order to use the CHIP board, based on Allwinner R8 Cortex A8 processor, for a different project.

So when Next Thing asked me if I was interested in reviewing Pocket CHIP, I was pretty excited, but when I received it, I scratched my head as there are so many ways to review the item, and it works out of the box with the firmware pre-loaded inside the internal flash, so a getting starting guide would have been too short: “press the power button, and have fun”. So finally, I decided to take a few pictures of hardware, show most of the features, and then go through the different options in the user’s interface.

PocketC.H.I.P Unboxing

I’ve received the device in a black retail package plus a micro USB to USB cable for charging.

PocketCHIP_PackageThe other side of the package has a quick start guide, including a link to PocketCHIP documentation.

PocketCHIP_Quick_Start_GuideBut if you can’t wait, you can most likely jump to step 2, as the device’s battery already has some charge, at least it was the case for me.

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The QWERTY keyboard is quite standard, except the number keys are on two rows, and the arrow keys are located on the top left corner.  The display is using resistive touch, so can use both your finger or a stylus for better accurate. You’ll go through a short tutorial during the first boot. The top has through holes for the I/Os, and at first, they look to be arranged in an undulated way, but I had no problem inserting headers, so that’s just a visual effect. The hole on the top right is likely use to add a necklace, although you could use it as a huge keyring too 🙂

PocketCHIP_PencilThe two holes on each side on the bottom can be used to keep the display straight with the left hole for pens (I also use an old USB WiFi dongle with antenna), and the right hole for pencils. I also ended up using mine as the stylus for the screen.

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The back of the device has a clear cover revealing CHIP board and the battery (11.1Wh @ 3.7V). You can completely disassemble the unit if you want, but I only pulled out the board with my little green tool. You can watch the video review at the end of this review in case you are unsure how to do.

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The top of the board has the USB port, a 3.5mm audio jack, a micro USB port, a battery connector, a 4GB NAND flash, Realtek RTL8723BS WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0 LE module, AXP209 PMIC, and the expansion headers. The power button is located on the top left. Note that if you want to output to HDMI you’ll need to purchase an extra HDMI adapter. You may also have to reflash the board with a different firmware (TBC).

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The back of the board is protected with a plastic cover tightened with a single screw, and features Allwinner R8 Cortex A8 processor @ 1 GHz, as well as 512MB Samsung DDR3 memory.

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The CHIP board is sold for $9 + reasonable shipping, and should be about twice as fast as the original Raspberry Pi Model B board CPU wise. I wrote a comparison of ultra cheap boards’ features pitting CHIP with Raspberry Pi Zero and Orange Pi One if you want to find more details.

CHIP_Pin_MarkingsI also appreciate the markings written on the side of the headers, which makes life a little easier when wiring, as you don’t need to consult the pinout diagram.

What can you do with PocketC.H.I.P?

So after going through the hardware, I’ll show some of the things you do with the pre-installed firmware. Let’s get started by pressing the power button for one or two seconds. The boot will take a little less than one minute during which you’ll be shown several boot logos, and eventually you’ll be greeted by a short tutorial.

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Screen resolution: 480×272

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You can browse the tour with the left and right arrow key, it’s simply explains you can use the touchscheen with your fingers or a stylus, and the various tings you can do such as playing games, making music. Once we are done with the tour, we get into the main menu with four icons: Terminal, PICO-8 games, Make Music (SunVox), Get Help, Write, and Browse Files.

PocketCHIP_Main_Menu

There are also four icons on the edges of the screen showing battery life and WiFi connectivity, setup and power options.PocketCHIP_Settings

Let’s go inside the setup options since it’s one of the first things you’ll want to do if you plan to access the Internet, as this is where you can connect to your WiFi router, and I had no problem doing so, but note that only 2.4 GHz WiFi is supported, and 5GHz access points won’t be shown. You can also adjust brightness and volume for the audio jack, since there aren’t any speakers.

If you wonder how I took the screenshot for this review, I ran the following command in the terminal which gives me five second to go to what ever menu:

but eventually I did so in an SSH sessions with:

…and found the pictures inside ~/Pictures directory despite the following error showing each time as gnome is not install:

The company latter told me they used “xfce4-screenshooter” for their screenshots, so it should be a better option.

Anyway, time to play with the command line:

PocketCHIP_Terminal

Some command to see system info first:

So the device runs Debian 8 with recent Linux kernel (4.3), the rootfs partition is 3.6GB with 3.0GB free (after installing a few apps), there’s 496MB RAM available to Linux, and the processor is indeed a single core Cortex A8 processor made by Allwinner.

Linux 4.6 will start to support lsgpio to list all GPIOs, but in the meantime, we can still check this with sysfs:

With Linux 3.4 legacy kernel, all the GPIOs would show after loading gpio-sunxi module, but since we are using a more recent kernel, the instructions have changed, and you need to export the GPIOs you want to use as explained on linux-sunxi wiki.

The other good news is that apt is working fine, so you install most of the program that work on Debian. One of the first thing I did was to install openssh-server, because while typing on the device might be fun, it’s also slow, so I found it more convenient to access it via an SSH session from my main computer with the username / password combination being both “chip” (without quotes). I also found instructions to install doom on Adafruit, so I tried it:

It worked flawlessly, and I tried the game by simply typing doom,… and success!

PocketCHIP_doomYou’ll need to connect headphone or speaker to get audio, and playing the game with the keyboard is not that easy as beside the WASD keys, you also need to the left and right keys placed just above. So it might be better to connect a USB keyboard to the USB port of CHIP board, or re-assign the keys if possible. Apart from that, the games runs perfectly smoothly.

Let’s go back to the main menu to try PICO-8 retro games, and again you’ll go through a short tour explaining how to use the app to play or edit games with your own sprites.

PICO-8_Tour

PICO-8_Tour_CelesteAfter the tour, you’ll be presented by a selection of 4 “favorites” games: Celeste, Frog Home, Hug Arena, and Tower of Archeos, but you have access to many others games too. I tried Celeste, and no problem, except I need to practice more 🙂PICO-8_CelesteThe option to “edit this cart” will bring you to the games code, which you can edit as your wish.

PICO-8_Game_CodeThere’s also PICO-8 terminal to perform various actions such as loading files,  creating directories, and so on.

Next up the Make Music app (SunVox) will also take you through a tour first.

SunVox_Tour

After connecting headphone or speaker, you’ll be able to compose and play music on a MIDI keyboard.PocketCHIP_Sunvox

The application definitely requires a stylus – a pencil will do – especially the top menu options, and even kids’ fingers will be too big.Sunvox_Menu

The four icon in the main menu starts an help section with a scrolling bar. So much to say about this one.PocketCHIP_Help

The “Write” icon is a text edit, which turns out to be Leafpad 0.8.0.1. It could be your text editor to write Python or other languages programs, before running them in the command line.PocketCHIP_Leafpad

Finally the File Browser is the commonly used PCManFM 1.2.3, and allows to copy, delete, move, or create files or directories.

PocketCHIP_File_Manager

So I’ve gone through all options provided on the pre-loaded firmware, so it’s time to turn it off. You can click on the bottom right corner to select Shutdown, Sleep, or Reboot options, as well as “Flash firmware” to reboot into software flashing mode. You can then follow the firmware flashing instructions @ http://pcflash.getchip.com (Chrome browser required).PocketCHIP_Shutdown_OptionsIf you prefer a video review, and I’ve embedded mine below. I checkout the hardware until 3:05, before starting the device, and showing it action.

So overall, PocketC.H.I.P is a fun device to use, and should be particularly interesting for kids, as they can play games, compose music, and learn about Linux, programming and/or hardware hacking with this inexpensive all-in-one device. PocketC.H.I.P is currently available for pre-order for $49 + shipping for a limited time, after which it will sell for $69.

EBox T8-4 TV Box and Ipega Bluetooth Game Controller Unboxing and Teardown

June 20th, 2016 6 comments

Entertainmentbox.com is a UK based shop specializing in TV box, and the company sent me their latest Amlogic S905 TV Box running Android 5.1 with EBMC based on Kodi 16.1, featuring an internal 2.5″ SATA bay, as well as an interesting and different design. I’ll write a two part review as usual, starting with specifications, and photos of the device, accessories, and internals, before actually testing the device in the second part of the review in a few weeks.

EBox T8-4 specifications

The TV box, also called Ebox T8 V4, has the following specifications:

  • SoC –  Amlogic S905 quad core ARM Cortex-A53 @ up to 2.0GHz with penta-core Mali-450MP GPU @ 750 MHz
  • System Memory – 2GB DDR3
  • Storage – 16GB eMMC 5.0 flash + SD card slot + internal 2.5″ SATA bay for HDD or SSD
  • Video Output – HDMI 2.0 up to 4K @ 60 Hz with HDMI CEC support + AV RCA port
  • Audio – HDMI, optical S/PDIF, and stereo audio RCA ports
  • Connectivity – Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0
  • USB – 3x USB 2.0 host ports including one OTG port, 1x micro USB port
  • Misc – Power button, IR receiver, restore pinhole button, front panel LED display
  • Power Supply –  5V/3A
  • Dimensions – 166 x 116 x 53 mm

Overall the hardware specifications are fairly similar to a product like MINIX NEO U1, except for the SATA bay and some different for audio ports.

The device runs Android 5.1.1 with a custom launcher, Google Play Store, EBMC (aka EBOX MC) based on Kodi 16.1, as well as EBox App for support, EBox Apps (with an “s) app store, EBox Play Box to emulate different retro gaming consoles, as well as OTA firmware updates.

Ebox T8 V4 & Ipeda Bluetooth Controller Unboxing

The company sells their device with various recommended input devices such as air mice, gamepads, and wireless keyboards, and I received the device with an air mouse (in the main package), and Ipeda Bluetooth game controller.

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The box ships with a standard IR remote control, S77 pro air mouse with QWERTY keyboard together with USB RF dongle and manual, a HDMI cable, a 5V/3A power supply plus a UK to EU plug adapter, and a user manual in English.
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The air mouse are both a remote side, and a QWERTY keyboard side, and this type is one of my favorite input device for Android TV boxes.
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The box itself is made of a metal cover with a plastic body, and the metal cover also serves has feet for the box. The build quality also feels higher than most TV boxes on the market.

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The front panel feature an LED display (hardly visible on the pic), a power LED, an IR receiver, and the power button. We’ve got an SD card slot, two USB 2.0 port, and a restore pinhole for recovery firmware updates, with all remaining ports on the rear panel: USB 2.0 OTG port, micro USB port labelled USB-HDD,  optical S/PDIF output, video composite RCA output, stereo audio RCA outputs, HDMI 2.0 port, Gigabit Ethernet, and the power jack.

T8_TV_Box_Case_BottomIf we check the back of the device we’ll find a cover with two clips, as well as a sticker with some info including a MAC address starting with 00:11:6C. We can easily open the bottom cover to access the SATA bay…

EBOX_T8-4_TV_Box_SATA_Bay… and insert a 2.5″ SSD or HDD. I’ve done so and it does not require any screwdrivers. The bay looks deep enough not to have to worry about your drive’s thickness.

EBOX_T8-4_SATA_Drive
I’ll complete the unboxing with a look at Ipega PG-9028 game controller, which comes with a user’s manual and micro USB to USB cable for charging. It’s compatible with Android, Windows XP to Window 8 (and probably Windows 10).Entertainment_Box_Ipega_Bluetooth_ControllerThe controller includes a touchpad area, left and right joysticks, a D-pad, left and right buttons on the top, ABXY buttons, some multimedia buttons on the bottom, as well as select, start and home buttons.

Ipega_BT_Gamepad_Back

The back has two more R1 and L1 buttons, as well as a reset pinhole. The Qr Code at the back points to a drivers directory with two apks. Those are probably already installed in Ebox T8-4, but if you want to use it with another Android TV box, it will be useful. The user’s manual also recommends to download BitGames to have access to many compatible games.
Entertaiment_Box_Ipega_Bluetooth_Gamepad_Smartphone
The gamepad can also be used with smartphones up to 6″ in size.

Ebox T8-4 Teardown

T8U_Board

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I had to loosen four screws on the bottom of the case, before sliding the main body. It did not come that easily, but I finally managed.There’s no form of cooling on Amlogic S905 processor, so we’ll have to see how well it performs under load. A 16GB FORESEE NCEFBS98-16G eMMC flash is used for storage, and four NANYA NT5CB256M16DP-EK DDR3 chips for the RAM. WiFi and Bluetooth are implemented through a hard-to-read “179CGR DGP0C8” module… Genesys Logic GL830  USB 2.0 to SATA bridge controller allows for the connection of the internal hard drive, so you can’t expect amazing performance, but it will be good enough to play videos supported by Amlogic S905 processor. Other ICs include HS2401 and Realtek RTL8211E for Gigabit Ethernet, GL850G USB hub controller, and Titan Micro TM1628 LED controller. The four pin header on the bottom left corner of the picture above is likely for serial console, and the board is named T8U v1.1.

T8_Board_Bottom

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The bottom of the board features the two other RAM chips, the SATA connector, power button and  LED.

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The WiFi antenna also looks a little different than usual.

If you are interested in purchasing Ebox T8-4, you can do so via Entertainmentbox.com T8-4 product page, with prices ranging from 99.99 GBP (~$146) to 189.99 GBP (~$278) depending on options with prices including shipping to UK and Europe, as well as VAT. The kit I received with S77 Pro air mouse and Ipega Bluetooth controller sells for 135 GBP inv VAT ($197).

Vorke V1 Braswell mini PC Unboxing and Teardown

June 18th, 2016 18 comments

Vorke V1 is a Braswell mini PC pre-loaded with Windows 10, powered by an Intel Celeron J3160 quad core with 4GB RAM, 64 GB internal storage, and two important features if you want to use it as a desktop PC: support for internal 2.5″ hard drive, and dual display support via HDMI and VGA ports. GeekBuying sent me a sample for review, and I’ll do a two part review, starting with pictures of the device, and its internal, before publishing the second part testing the performance, stability and features of the mini PC.

Vorke V1 Unboxing

There’s not much to say about the package, as it’s just a bland carton box with a sticker with Vorke V1 name, processor and memory info.

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The mini PC ships with a 19V/2.1A power supply and a power cord, as well as a mounting bracket and 5 screws for 2.5″ SATA SSD or HDD.

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The top cover is quite glossy and features a large power button.

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The front panel exposes two USB 2.0 ports, a micro SD slot, and a small window for an infrared receiver, not commonly found on Intel mini PCs. The two side has large ventilation holes, and the rear panel features the power jack, HDMI and VGA output, Gigabit Ethernet, two USB 3.0 ports, and a 3.5mm headphone / Line out jack.

Vorke_V1_Beelink_BT7_Raspberry_Pi_2I found Vorke V1 to be larger than most devices I’ve received, so I took a picture with Beelink BT7 and a Raspberry Pi 2 board for comparison.

Normally I’d go to the teardown part now, but with Vorke V1 I have one more step to do, as I can install a 2.5″ hard drive or SSD.

Vorke_V1_Bottom_CoverTo do so, I had to loosen one screw on the bottom of the case, and turn the lid anti-clockwise to open it.

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We can see the bottom of the board with a black protection sheet where you are supposed to install the drive. While I’m here, components of interest include CO-TOP C2417NS (probably Gigabit Ethernet magnetics), ITE IT6513FN DisplayPort to VGA controller, and ENE KB9029Q C embedded / keyboard controller with 8051 MCU, 128KB flash.

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I used a thin 128GB SSD drive first, and the first step is to install the drive inside the mounting bracket with the four screws, before inserting the drive into the SATA interface, and tightening the remaining black screw in the location close to the CO-TOP IC. You can then put back the lid, making sure the two arrows are aligned as shown in the picture of the bottom of the case, before turning it clockwise, and tightening it the screw.

But for the next part of the review, I decided to scavenge a 1TB hard drive from another device, namely a Toshiba MQ01BD100.

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The drive is 9.5mm thick, while the SSD was 7 mm thick, and while I could still close the lid, there was a small gap as shown below. So it might be better to use 7mm drives with Vorke V1.
Vorke_V1_HDD_Case_GapThat’s just a minor issue, and it should not affect the performance.

Vorke V1 Teardown

In order to access the top of the main board, you’ll need to pop up the top cover with a sharp plastic tool, and work your way around.
Vorke_V1_TeardownThe first thing that came to mind is that this mini PC is modular with removable memory, storage and Wireless module. Let’s check the board in more details.

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The mainboard takes ADATA ADDS1600W4G11-8 SO-DIMM module with 4GB DDR3L RAM, Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 3160 module with 802.11 b/g/n/ac WiFi and Bluetooth, and FORESEE FSSSDBABAC-064G mSATA SSD (See pic below). We can also find an RTC battery, Realtek RTL8111GN PCIe Gigabit transceiver, ALC265 audio codec, RT5067A (not sure what it is), and Realtek RTS5159 USB card reader.

Foresee_SSDSo overall, the system has similar features to an Intel NUC, but a lower price point. The Braswell processor is cooling with a thick metal plate and a fan controller via 3 pins.

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There are also a few unused headers that would allow for some hardware hacking with UART, USB, LPC, and microphone headers.

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I found the hardware quite interesting to study, and it’s the most module low cost low power mini PC I’ve reviewed so far, with no soldered memory, storage or wireless module. We’ll have to see how well it performs under load, as apart from the fan and “heatsink” on the processor, not much else has been done for cooling. GeekBuying claims Windows 10 Home is activated in the device, and they also quickly and successfully tested Ubuntu 16.04, so I asked them whether they planned to sell a cheaper version without Windows 10 license, but there only answer was people could install the OS they wanted…

I’d like to thank GeekBuying for provide the device, and they sell it for $199.99 including shipping, but you can get that down $159.99 to with coupon VORKEV1. The  only other seller I could find is Banggood where it goes for for $199.

Energympro EP-SH09 Fitness Tracker Review

June 17th, 2016 4 comments

Energympro EP-SH09 is a strapless fitness tracker with an heart rate monitor and Bluetooth 4.0 LE for synchronization with your smartphone, in the first part of the review, I took some picture of the device, and expressed my opinion about the build quality. I’ve now played close to two weeks with the tracker, so I can share my experience with the device. Bear in mind that this was still considered an engineering sample, so the company will likely on some of the issues I encountered before it ships to the general public or resellers.

A capacitive touch area just under the display is used to cycle through 7 watch faces: Time, Date, Bluetooth (Icon will change to a chain when connected), step count, distance, calorie count, and heart rate monitor.

Energympro_EP-SH09

It works well enough, but there are a couple of point that you may want to be aware. The display will stay on for about 15 seconds after the last touch, and remember the last face. It’s very nice if you are running, and want to periodically check your heart rate status, and a single press with show the current heart rate if that’s the one you’ve selected before. However, this become an inconvenience when you just want to watch the time, as you may have to cycle through several watch faces before getting accessing it. One way to work around this would be to enabled / disable watch faces within the app, as for example I personally don’t really care about distance and calorie count.

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Another issue common to all OLED display is poor visibility under bright light. The picture above was taken taken under bright clouds with the time displayed, and if click to access the full size picture you’ll see very dim battery level and numbers on the area with the camera shadow. So it’s basically unreadable under such conditions, unless you place your hand over the display. An e-paper display is the best for those conditions, but then at night it would require a backlight.

Since the button area is using what looks like capacitive touch technology it won’t work with thick gloves (thin ones should be OK), and if you exercise under rainy conditions you may have to wipe the area before using it. I don’t find this to be a big issue at all, but still something to keep in mind. By the way, the tracker is IP67 rated and I’ve kept it while washing my hands and taking showers, and humidity has not come through.

One of the first thing you want to do is install Smart Movement app for iOS or Android, and I did so on Iocean M6752 smartphone based on a Mediatek processor and running Android 4.4. Since it’s relying on BT 4.0 communication, you’ll need a phone with Android 4.3 or greater.

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After tapping on the first screen, EP-SH09 should show in “Lock Fitness Tracker”, and Bluetooth “Connecting”, should then be followed with “Synchronizing” to set the time and date automatically, and retrieve fitness data. It works fine, but takes a little longer than expected, maybe 30 seconds to one minute.

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Click to Enlarge

You’ll then have four sections in the app:

  • Movement with calorie and step counts, as well as estimated distance, and a chart for the day.
  • Heart Rate which will show real-time and recorded heart rate chart
  • Sleep to report whether your sleep last night was bad, normal or well.
  • Me with settings and various extra options

The step count appears to be quite reliable, although different devices may report activity in different manner, and for example I’m not wearing both Xiaomi Mi Band 3 and EP-SH09, and the two have different options of my level of activity. The former normally count more steps when I’m busy at home taking care of daily life tasks, while after a walk, I noticed the Xiaomi band reported 1,533 steps against 1,285 steps for the Energympro one. The picture below shows the tally on both devices after a day.

xiaomi_mi_band_2_vs_energympro_ep-sh09Variations are expected between devices as after all they just use motion sensors and algorithm to estimate the step count. The important part is that the band behavior is constant over the days, and I can confidently say EP-SH09 does the job, and you can adjust your goal as you see fit.

I’m not so sure about sleep monitoring however, as all my nights were reported to be “Bad”. While it might have been true for some, but I don’t feel it was the case for most.

Click to Enlarge

Click to Enlarge

The Me section has some important information and features starting with My Profile to report your gender, age, weight and height, which should affect the step count, and setting activity levels for the HRM. Call and message reminders are use to display the caller ID and vibrate when you get a call or receive an SMS, and the feature works as expected with one caveat that in my phone at least, the app will not always run in the background, and get killed. I have not found a way around this yet. Smart Alarm Clock will allow you to set up to three silent alarms that will vibrate at the given time. I’ve tried it, and the alarm works, but it seems to stop pretty quickly. So if I ever use I setup a “silent alarm” on the watch, and a “noisy alarm” on my phone two minutes later… Remote Camera just does what it is expected to go, i.e. acting as a remote for your phone camera. Other settings allow you to enable/disable touch vibration, scanning background (to auto-reconnect in case of disconnection, which I recommend), date and time settings, language, heart rate setting to optionally define alarms for minimum and maximum bpm, and keep the display on (Long Bright mode) when the heart rate is enabled.

The heart rate monitor is the most interesting part of this fitness band, as it allows continuous tracking during sports activities. You can enable the heart by either pressing three second on the touch area, or going to the heart rate section of the app and press Start. As you can see from the screenshot on the top right above, it will show the current hear rate plus a chart for the recent activity. If you tap the touch area for three seconds again, the HRM will stop.

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Click to Enlarge

You’ll then have recordings with nice looking charts are shown above. During the first two, I simply worked in the garden for about 30 minutes, and the last one was a short 2km run. Let’s go through all three.

  • Activity 1 – I just dugged soil and pulled out some grass with hands, so the activity level was not too high, and that’s shown correctly in the chart, however, you can see some times when the heart rate dropped to as low as 41 bpm, which can’t be… I was old to try not to place the tracker too close from the wrist, and move it a little higher and the forearm.
  • Activity 2 – So I did so, and doing the same kind of work in the garden, and it started well, but there was a sudden drop for a couple of minutes to around 50 to 60 bpm, before recovery. You’ll also notice two red bar, that’s because the Bluetooth connection was lost, and after recovery I had two sets of data for one 30 minute activity.
  • Activity 3 – Two kilometer run at the stadium. I normally start a little slowly, then increase the pace steadily, until the end when I run as fast as I can, and the chart shows just that with the peak at the end followed by the cool down period when I walk and my heart rate comes down. Very good results here. The value also seem realistic with 160 bpm to 180 bpm during the run.

So overall the heart rate monitor appear to work much better than the one on other smartwatches I’ve tested so far, but there are still some issues for unexplained dropped, and sometimes Bluetooth disconnections, which might be normal, but it would be nice if the app could still merge the two set of data together.

I wanted to compare the data of fitness trackers to a cheststrap HRM for my reviews, and I bought one a few months ago, only to find out it required the ANT+ protocol which my phone cannot handle.  The company however provides some chart comparing EP-SH09 data to the one of an Ant+ chest strap displayed in Turtle Sport open source program.Energympro_EP-SH09_vs_Chest_strap_HRM_1The first one shows basically the same pattern, while the second one is pretty similar, but for some reasons the chest strap one does have some spikes.

Energympro_EP-SH09_vs_Chest_strap_HRM_2 But overall it looks pretty good. They’ve also told me they plan to add CSV export for the data, which should be a plus for people wanting to keep track of their data over time.

A few last words about battery life. The company claims 36 hours with HRM on, and 6 days without HRM, and in my experience I found it to last 4 to 5 days on a charge. Energympro EP-SH09 is not a bad device, and actually it’s been the I’ve tested best so far with the heart rate monitor and corresponding app, but as explained in the review above, there are still some small issues that need to be addressed.

The company has now listed the product on their website, starting at $30 with local pickup in Montreal or Taipei, $40 with shipping by China post registered airmail, and $48 with shipping by Fedex.

H.265, H.264 and VP9 4K Video Playback with Hisilicon Hi3798C V200 TV Box (Video)

June 15th, 2016 25 comments

VP9 is starting to become a first class citizen as more and more ARM SoC, such as Amlogic S905X and Hisilicon Hi3798C V200, are getting 4K VP9 hardware video decoding support. I’ve already tested 4K VP9 in Amlogic S905X based NEXBOX A5, and today I’ll report my results with Sunhed S3 TV box based on the new Hisilicon processor. I won’t do a full review yet, as just like NEXBOX A5, it’s still an engineering sample, and the firmware is not quite ready for public release. For example, Google Play is working, but I could not install YouTube, and Kodi 16.0 (likely a custom version) would not start, even after clearing the cache and data. Anyway, I tested 4K VP9, as well as 4K H.265 and H.264 since the last two codec are also here to stay.

T-ara 4K VP9 Video @ 60 fps Played in Sunhed S3

T-ara 4K VP9 Video @ 60 fps Played in Sunhed S3

I first tried to play over SAMBA through the Gigabit Ethernet connection, but the T-ara VP9 video shown above with 40 Mbps bitrate would buffer quite often I’ve played all videos from a USB 3.0 hard drive connected to the USB 3.0 port of the device. The app used was either “Video player” or “VideoPlayer” app depending on the video’s container format.

List of videos, and results:

  • big_buck_bunny_4k_H264_30fps.mp4 – OK
  • big_buck_bunny_4k_H264_60fps.mp4 – Plays, but not very smoothly, and with audio / video sync issue or audio delay.
  • BT.2020.20140602.ts (Rec.2020 compliant video; 36 Mbps) – Plays but with colorspace conversion issue at times
  • Ducks Take Off [2160p a 243 Mbps].mkv (4K H.264 @ 30 fps; 243 Mbps; no audio) – OK
  • Fifa_WorldCup2014_Uruguay-Colombia_4K-x265.mp4 (4K, H.265, 60 fps) – OK
  • 4K Hawaii Sunset _ GoPro Hero 4 Black [email protected] (VP9 @ 30 fps; no audio; ~24 Mbps; Downloaded from YouTube with youtube-dl script) – OK
  • phfx_4KHD_VP9TestFootage.webm (VP9 @ 25 fps; no audio; ~14 Mbps) – OK
  • The.Curvature.of.Earth.4K.60FPS-YT-UceRgEyfSsc.VP9.3840×2160.OPUS.160K.webm (60 fps; Opus audio; ~30 Mbps) – Video OK, but no audio
  • tara-no9-vp9.webm (VP9 @ 60 fps; Vorbis audio; ~40 Mbps) – OK
  • Samsung_UHD_Dubai_10-bit_HEVC_51.4Mbps.ts (10-bit HEVC / MPEG-4 AAC) – OK
  • 暗流涌动-4K.mp4 (10-bit H.264; 120 Mbps) – Black screen only with audio
  • Astra-11479_V_22000-Canal+ UHD Demo 42.6 Mbps bitrate.ts (10-bit H.265 from DVB-S2 stream) –  OK

So that’s very good, but confirms the processor support 4K H.264 up to 30 fps, and does not support 10-bit H.264 at all. H.265 and VP9 support appears to be very good, except for one BT.2020 video, and the SoC can handle very high bitrate (~250 Mbps) videos. I found the VP9 videos, especially “The.Curvature.of.Earth” video, so play more smoothly than on Amlogic S905X, at least for now.

Finally, I tested YouTube with a 4K video, and as expected it’s limited to 1080p. The company confirmed that 4K support with YouTube and/or Netflix will require some DRM work.

Youtube 4K and netflix 4K not allowed for DRM policy right now. DRM need hardware and software support and authoriy from google and netflix. We are preparing a DRM tvbox which support 4K netflix this year later.

You can watch the video below showing most samples I have tested, and YouTube

You can find the video samples in the comments section of that post.

Xiaomi Mi Band 2 Fitness Tracker Unboxing

June 13th, 2016 9 comments

Xiaomi started selling Xiaomi Mi Band 2 fitness tracker with an OLED display last week in China for 149 CNY (~$23), but it can also be purchased overseas with the many online resellers, and one of them, GearBest sent me a sample for review, and sells it for $33.91 with coupon GBMI2 once oversea shipping, currency conversion, and possibly some margins are included. Today, I’ll start by taking some pictures of the devices and its accessories, before writing a review in a couple of weeks after testing the device features and battery life.

I received the device in a typical Mi package, and GearBest also included a User service card to encourage people leaving feedback, and helping with returns and issues. That’s the first time I receive this card, so maybe GearBest is trying to improve their customer service.

Xiaomi_mi_Band_2_Package_Gearbest_return

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The product is definitely geared towards the Chinese market, as the specifications are shown in Chinese on the back of the package. The SKU is MGW4022CN, which could be useful to differentiate between China mainland, and international (if any) versions in the future.
Xiaomi_Mi_Band_2_Specifications
The tracker ships with a rubber wristband, a USB charging cable with 2 pogo pins, and a user’s manual in Chinese only.

Xiaomi_Mi_Band_2_AccessoriesThe QR code points to Mi Fit app in Google Play, the same app as for the previous Mi Band, and matching the language of your phone,  at least English, as on my Android phone.

Xiaomi_Mi_Band_2The OLED display is clear enough in the shadow, but as expected it can be hard to read in broad light. The button is not an actual physical button, but a capacitive touch area, so for example if you were standard gloves in winter it won’t work.

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Click to Enlarge

There’s an optical sensor and two green LEDs for the heart rate monitor on the back of the tracker.

Mi_Band_2_WristbandThe wristband itself feels quite strong, and should last a while. In the unlikely case you break it, a replacement sells for $5, and the charging cable is also available for $1.5. It’s always a plus when it’s possible to purchase accessories separately, especially at those low prices. Mi Band 2 tracker is very easy to fit into the band, and stays firmly in place.Xiaomi_Mi_Band_2_Display

I’m currently testing Energympro EP-SH09 fitness tracker, which provides decent heart rate measurement, so I’ll probably use it as a reference against Xiaomi Mi Band 2. I find the latter to look a bit better, and the wristnand to be of better quality.

Xiaomi_Mi_Band_2_Energympro_EP-SH09I also prefer the slightly wider band, which length should be long enough, except for people with fairly large wrists.

Xiaomi_Mi_Band_2_ChargingWhile the fitness tracker was already partially charged, I’m now fully charging the wearable device to find out how much truth there’s to the 20-day battery life claim.

I’d like to thank GearBest for sending the sample, and if you are interested, you can pick up one for $33.91 on their website using GBMI2 coupon. Other sellers include GeekBuying ($39.99), Fasttech ($38.99), Amazon US, and others.

Mini Review of Popcorn Hour A500 Media Player

June 12th, 2016 7 comments

Last month I received Popcorn Hour A500 high-end media player powered by Sigma Designs SMP8758 dual core Cortex A9 processor, and in the firtst part of the review I posted the specifications, and pictures of the devices and its internals. Today, I’ll write a short review of the device, as it’s basically an update of Popcorn Hour VTEN which I reviewed last year with a faster processor, more memory, and an internal SATA bay for 2.5″ and 3.5″ drives.

User Interface, Remote Control, Internal HDD, and Technical Support

The user interface is basically the same as on VTEN with two home screens to select: Media or Music.

Click to Enlarge

Click to Enlarge

The performance is a little better, but if you want to find out more about the user interface, I propose you watch the video I shot for Popcorn Hour VTEN

During the first boot, Music Home was selected, and I soon got asked whether I wanted to upgrade the firmware, and OTA firmware update worked just fine.

Popcorn_Hour_A500_OTA_Firmware_Update

One difference with VTEN is that the number of apps to install has decreased from 59 to 52 with YouTube, Russia Today still there, and working as expected.

The remote control provided with Android TV boxes is normally pretty useless, with since Popcorn Hour A500 is a pure media player the remote control is the only input option you have, and it’s actually pretty good for the task as you have quick access to various features such as audio track, video zoom, play/pause and other trick modes, subtitles, and so on.

Backlit Remote Controls are cool

Backlit remote controls are cool

Another thing that pleasantly surprised me is that the remote control keys are backlit, so it’s more convenient to use in the dark. I think it’s the very first time I get a backlit remote control.

I tried both a 1TB 3.5″ HDD with an EXT-4 partition (and some bad sectors) and a 128GB 2.5″ SSD with two partitions (NTFS and EXT-4) in the SATA bay. The hard drive was not detected, but the EXT-4 of the SSD could be mounted and and I could play some video using “Local Media” option. Others had no problems with larger hard drives.

Popcorn_Hour_A500_NASPopcorn Hour A500 can also be used as a NAS running UPnP AV, NFS, Samba, and FTP servers, and it can download torrents using a web based torrent interface using Transmission BT.

This brings me to the last part of this section before I carry on with video and audio testing. Cloud Media offers email support to customers, and well as a detailed user guide for Popcorn Hour A500, and their other devices. You can also check Network Media Tank forums to get some help.  I can also see the company has been working on firmware updates for their devices for well over a year, so you get a level of support that’s higher than with most other manufacturers, which should be reassuring. However, I’ve also read a few people write they would never buy a Cloud Media device again, as they could not fix the bug(s) that affected them on older devices.

Video Playback and Audio Pass-through Testing

The first video samples are the easy ones from samplemedia.linaro.org, plus H.265 videos by Elecard:

  • H.264 codec / MP4 container (Big Buck Bunny) 1080p – OK
  • MPEG2 codec / MPG container 1080p – OK.
  • MPEG4 codec, AVI container 1080p – OK
  • VC1 codec (WMV) 1080p – OK
  • Real Media (RMVB), 720p / 5Mbps – RV8, RV9, and RV10 – Network Media app reports “No content found”, as  .rmvb files are filtered out
  • WebM / VP8 – Network Media app does not show any file (only another directory), as .webm files are filtered out
  • H.265 codec / MPEG TS container – 1080p – OK

Exactly the same results as in VTEN. Then I switched to videos with various bitrates:

  • 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) – Could be smoother
  • Jellyfish-120-Mbps.mkv (120 Mbps video without audio) – OK

Most videos played fine over Ethernet, even the 120 Mbps one. I could also clearly notice that the video quality is superior to most Android TV boxes as the device appears to be able to clear some “white noise” on some videos, notably in the bottom right corner of the “birds” video, possibly with some clever post-processing performed with the SoC’s VXP video engine.

I’ve checked audio pass-through capabilities with Onkyo TX-NR636 A/V receiver via HDMI and optical S/PDIF, and I’ve also tested PCM downmix for people who connect the device directly to the TV.

Video’s Audio Codec HDMI PCM downmix HDMI Pass-through optical SPDIF Pass-through
AC3 / Dolby Digital 5.1 OK OK OK
E-AC-3 / Dolby Digital+ 5.1 OK OK OK
Dolby Digital+ 7.1 OK OK Audio Formats Not Supported over S/PDIF
Dolby TrueHD 5.1 No Audio OK
Dolby TrueHD 7.1 No Audio OK
Dolby Atmos No Audio Dolby TrueHD 7.1
DTS-HD Master OK OK
DTS-HD High Resolution OK OK
DTS:X OK DTS-HD MSTR 7.1*

* TX-NR636 does not support DTS:X, so fall back to DTS-HD Master 7.1 is expected.

I’ve added Dolby Atmos and DTS:X since last year, but apart from that the results are exactly the same as with VTEN which I tested a year ago. The fact that they did not fix TrueHD downmixing is unimpressive.

Sintel-Bluray.iso and amat.iso (unencrypted Bluray ISOs) could play fine, and MPEG2 videos too. However, Popcorm Hour A500 does not support Hi10p (10-bit H.264) video, as all I got what a black screen and audio for the two anime videos I tried.

  • HD.Club-4K-Chimei-inn-60mbps.mp4 – OK, but not 100% smooth
  • sintel-2010-4k.mkv – OK
  • Beauty_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_MP4.mp4 (H.265) – OK
  • Bosphorus_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_MP4.mp4 (H.265) – OK
  • Jockey_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_TS.ts (H.265) – OK
  • MHD_2013_2160p_ShowReel_R_9000f_24fps_RMN_QP23_10b.mkv (10-bit HEVC) – OK
  • BT.2020.20140602.ts (Rec.2020 compliant video; 36 Mbps) – OK
  • big_buck_bunny_4k_H264_30fps.mp4 – OK
  • big_buck_bunny_4k_H264_60fps.mp4 – Plays, but not very smoothly.
  • Fifa_WorldCup2014_Uruguay-Colombia_4K-x265.mp4 (4K, H.265, 60 fps) – OK. It’s perfectly watchable by obviously plays at 30 fps during to hardware limitations.
  • 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) –  Video OK, but no audio
  • 暗流涌动-4K.mp4 (10-bit H.264; 120 Mbps) – Black screen only (normal since hi10p is not supported) and audio heavily saturated
  • Ducks Take Off [2160p a 243 Mbps].mkv (4K H.264 @ 30 fps; 243 Mbps; no audio) – Plays, but in slow motion.

That’s not too bad, but the results are fairly similar to other devices that sell for a fifth of the price.

Finally I tried some 3D videos. My TV does not support 3D, but my A/V receiver is capable of detecting 3D MVC videos and shows a 3D icon:

  • bbb_sunflower_1080p_60fps_stereo_abl.mp4 (1080p Over/Under) – Plays but not smoothly
  • bbb_sunflower_2160p_60fps_stereo_abl.mp4 (2160p Over/Under) – Black screen + audio
  • Turbo_Film-DreamWorks_trailer_VO_3D.mp4 (1080p SBS) – OK
  • 3D-full-MVC.mkv (Full-frame packed MVC 3D MKV) – Plays in 2D only
  • ISO-full3D-sample.iso (Full-frame packed MVC 3D ISO) – Plays in 2D only

Conclusion

Popcorn Hour A500 capabilities are quite similar to Popcorn Hour VTEN, but it’s a little faster, features a SATA bay, and ships with a backlit infrared remote control. The video “smoothness” is comparable to what I get in Android TV boxes, but the video “quality” appears to be better in some videos, probably due to VXP engine and some post-processing. Audio quality should be better too, but I could not hear noticeable improvement. I don’t quite have “musical” ears though…  The main downsides I experienced were that the player did not recognize my (old) HDD drive (SSD OK), and it also rebooted twice as I tested videos. It’s also possible to setup PCH-A500 as a NAS server with UPnP AV, torrent client, NFS, SAMBA and NFS services. Another positive point is that Cloud Media provides support by email, decent documentation, and access to NMT (Networked Media Tank) forums as mentioned in the first section of this review.

Cloud Media sells Popcorn Hour A500 directly on their website for $269 plus shipping, and through resellers.