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Review of Ebox T8 V Amlogic S912 TV Box with SATA Bay – Part 1: Specs, Unboxing and Teardown

January 19th, 2017 8 comments

Last summer I reviewed Ebox T8-4, an Android TV box based on Amlogic S905 processor sold by entertainmentbox.com and geared towards the UK market. Although it had some of the typical issues with HDMI audio pass-through, I found the box easy to setup, and potentially interesting for UK viewers since popular IPTV apps were pre-installed. It also came with a SATA bay but for some reasons I never managed to have either a 1TV HDD or 128 GB SSD recognized by the system. Nevertheless, the box is now used full time by another person who seems to be quite happy about it, especially since it comes with an air mouse and a gamepad, and good support. The company has now sent me their updated model, Ebox T8 V, with very similar features but instead equipped with Amlogic S912 octa-core processor. Before checking the firmware, I’ll have a look at the hardware in the first part of the review.

Ebox T8-V Specifications

Apart from the SATA bay and VFD display, the specifications are pretty standard for an Amlogic S912 TV box:

  • SoC – Amlogic S912 octa-core ARM Cortex A53 processor @ up to 1.5 GHz with ARM Mali-820MP3
  • System Memory – 2GB DDR3
  • Storage – 16GB eMMC flash, SD slot up to 32GB, and internal 2.5″ SATA bay
  • Video Output – HDMI 2.0 and RCA composite ports
  • Audio Output – HDMI, RCA stereo audio ports, and optical S/PDIF
  • Connectivity – Gigabit Ethernet, dual band WiFi 802.11 b/g/n/ac. N.B.: no Bluetooth listed in specs, but they sell a Bluetooth gamepad so it might be supported.
  • USB – 3x USB 2.0 ports (including one OTG port) + 1x micro USB port
  • Misc – IR receiver, power button, VFD display
  • Power Supply – 5V/3A

The box runs Android 6.0 operating system with SPMC.

Ebox T8-V Unboxing

Beside “T8 V SMART TV BOX” package I also got an air mouse (the same as last year), a EU to UK plug adapter, and something packaged with cardboard and tape.

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Let’s open that first… That’s a 1TB WD Blue hard drive, which means I should probably already be setup, and I would not need to use a separate computer to partition and format it a way supported by the box.


The air mouse remote is the same as last year (S77 Pro), and includes a standard IR side with IR learning function, mouse functionality…

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…as well as a QWERTY keyboard side. The battery compartment is located on the right side of the keyboard and takes two AAA batteries.

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The first thing I noticed when opening the main package was a piece of paper (top right below) reading:

Because the T8 V is operating on Android 6.0, you will need to adjust the settings a bit. Let’s go into Settings, then click on Video, go to the bottom and change Settings Level to Expert. Now go to the Acceleration Tab, then over to Allow Hardware Acceleration – Amcodec, and turn it off. You need to do this, because with the introduction of the new Android 6.0, Amcodec is no longer being supported, which can cause issues with the Ebox Media Center.

This could probably be useful to change those Kodi settings for other Amlogic S905X, S905D, and S912 TV boxes too. I’m not sure why it is not disabled by default in the firmware however.

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The rest of the package includes an IR remote taking two AAA batteries which you are unlikely to use at all if you have purchased the air mouse, a 5V/3A power supply, an HDMI cable, a HDMI cable, and of course the device itself.

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The front panel has a power button, as well as plastic cover hiding the IR receiver and VFD display. Two USB ports, the SD card slot, and a recovery button can be found on one of the sides, with the other ports on the rear panels including a USB OTG port (full size), a micro USB port market USB HDD, an optical S/PDIF audio output, 3 RCA connector for video, left and right audio, a HDMI 2.0 port, a Gigabit Ethernet port and the power jack. The gap under the box should allow for some cooling of the hard drive. If you want to connect the hard drive, you’ll need open the cover on the bottom of the case. There’s also a sticker with a MAC address starting with 00:11:6E and looking up to Peplink International Ltd.

Installing the hard drive is very easy and does not require any tool. Two clips hold the back cover to the case, and then you just need to insert the HDD in the bay, and push it to plug it into the SATA connector. Put the cover back, and you’re done.

Ebox T8 V Teardown

The first step to open the device is to loosen the four screws on the bottom of the case. This will allow you to remove the plastic cover on the front panel, and then push and slide the device to take it out of its outer shell.

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The board is called U PLUS V1.1, and features a heatsink covering Amlogic SoC. Foresee NCEMBSF9-16G eMMC flash is used for storage (16 GB), while two NANYA NT5CB256M16DP-EK chips are used for memory on the top of the board.

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Gigabit Ethernet is made possible thanks to Realtek RTL8211F Gigabit transceiver and HS2401 magnetics, and WiFi connectivity relies on an uncommon module, but I could not read the exact model. Since Amlogic S912 does not integrate a SATA controller, the board designer used GL830 USB 2.0 to SATA bridge. TM1628 chip takes care of the VFD display, and GL850G USB 2.0 hub adds a few extra USB interface required by the board.

That’s all for today. If you are interested, the box is for sale directly on Entertainmentbox.com for 104.99 GBP ($129.5) with the standard remote, and up to 217.97 GBP (~$269) with full options including a 1TB HDD, Rii i12 Keyboard, and an Ipega gamepad. The package I received should cost 185.97 GBP (~$229). Prices include VAT.

Mecool BB2 Pro Review – TV Box with DDR4 Memory – Part 2: Android Firmware, Benchmarks, Kodi

January 12th, 2017 8 comments

Most Android TV box comes with DDR3 or DDR3L memory, but Mecool BB2 Pro comes instead with 3GB DDR4 memory that’s supposed to offer 50% increased memory bandwidth. That’s why I was interested in reviewing the box. I’ve already checked out BB2 Pro hardware in the first part of the review, so the second part will focus on the firmware, video playback in Kodi 17, and benchmarks to find out if there’s any improvement over other Amlogic S912 using DDR3 memory. It’s not the first DDR4 box I’ve tested however, as Eweat R9 Plus powered by Realtek RTD1295 processor also included DDR4 memory, but based on my tests, there’s was no noticeable differences with Zidoo X9S based on the same processor, but with DDR3 memory. But this time, we’ll see if it is any different with Amlogic platforms.

First Boot, Settings and First Impressions

I connect a USB 3.0 hard drive to one of the USB 2.0 port, and a USB hub to the other port with two RF dongle for an air mouse and a gamepad, as well as a USB keyboard. I completed the setup with HDMI and Ethernet cables, and finally the power supply.

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The system will boot automatically when you connect the power, no need to press the power button, and the boot will typically take around 25 seconds. Please note the boot animation logo could with some music, so the boot is not silent, which may be annoying if you want to use the box while others are sleeping, and turned on the TV before the box.

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The launcher will look similar to regularly readers as it’s exactly the same as the one found in K1 Plus, another TV box also made by Videostrong. The notification bar is enabled by default, but not the status bar which can be enabled in the settings. This option should really be present in all boxes.

mecool-bb2-pro-appsThe list of preinstalled apps include the Play Store, Kodi, Netflix and others. You’ll also notice Kodi Updater, an app to update the likely-custom version of Kodi used in the box.

bb2-pro-kodi-updaterMy version was Kodi 17.0-Beta3 and was the latest available at the time.

The settings are also basically the same as in K1 Plus, and other Amlogic S905/S905X/S912 TV boxes. I had no troubles using WiFi and Ethernet, and set my resolution to 4k2k-60Hz supported by LG 42UB820T Ultra HD TV. Some less common settings include RGB mode (maybe to fix some pink screen issues), and Status bar (on/off), and there are settings for HDR and HDMI self-adaptation (auto framerate switching).

The internal storage has a single unified partition with 762MB used. The total capacity is reported to be 16.00GB but that’s obviously a hard-coded value, possibly to avoid customers complaining there’s not 16GB storage in their 16GB TV box box.

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The box could also mount NTFS and exFAT file systems in the USB hard drive. A FAT32 micro SD was also supported.

The “About MediaBox” section report the model number is BB2 Pro running Android 6.0.1 on top of Linux 3.14.29. The firmware is rooted. OTA firmware update appears to have been implement through “Update” app, but it would detect no new firmware, so I could not test it.
bb2-pro-about-mediabox Google Play Store worked just fine, except for Bluetooth LE apps such as Mi Fit or Vidonn Smartband. Albeit it should be easy to fix, this is an issue common to almost all Amlogic S912 TV boxes. I also install the free version of Riptide GP2 through Amazon Underground.

I had no troubles using the infrared remote control up to 10 meters, and the IR learning function worked too. However, I used MINIX NEO A2 Lite air mouse for most of the review since it’s more convenient in Android. I’d recommend an air mouse with keyboard and IR learning function (to be able to turn on the device) for the best user experience.

A short press on the power button of the remote control will trigger standby mode, while a long press will pop-up a window to confirm you confirm to power off the define. I could also restart the box from the power button from the remote and the unit.

Power consumption measured in 6 different configurations:

  • Power off – 1.0 watt
  • Standby – 1.3 watt
  • Idle – 3.0 watts
  • Power off + USB HDD – 1.0 watt
  • Standby + USB HDD – 1.4 watt
  • Idle + USB HDD – 4.2 watts

Idle power consumption is the same as M12N TV box, but power off power consumption is a bit on the high side possibly partially because of the red LED that is quite bright.

This time I only measured the temperature on the top of the case, as the bottom is bright and my IR thermometer reported wrong values for the bottom. The top of the case temperature was 39°C max after Antutu 6.x, and 44°C max after playing Riptide GP2 for about 15 minutes. I also checked the soc-thermal value in CPU-Z after the games and it was 78°C, against around 55 °C in idle mode. Riptide GP2 played fine, but not perfectly smooth, like on other Amlogic S912 TV box, and performance was constant. I did not notice any obvious improvement over S912 TV boxes using DDR3 memory.

Mecool BB2 Pro feels like using other Amlogic S912 TV boxes with a stable firmware, and good performance overall, but again I could not really noticed any performance boost from DDR4 memory.

Video and Audio Playback with Kodi, Antutu Video Tester, and DRM info

BB2 Pro runs Kodi 17 Beta 3, or at least a custom version of it with TVaddons.org add-ons installed. I played most videos samples from a SAMBA share through Gigabit Ethernet.

4K video playback was OK, but for whatever reason I could not play any VP9 videos:

  • HD.Club-4K-Chimei-inn-60mbps.mp4 – OK
  • 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
  • phfx_4KHD_VP9TestFootage.webm (VP9) – Won’t play, stays in UI.
  • 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 – Not smooth, and audio delay (as expected since the VPU does not support 4K H.264 over 30 fps)
  • 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 (Not supported by S912 VPU, software decode)
  • Ducks Take Off [2160p a 243 Mbps].mkv (4K H.264 @ 30 fps; 243 Mbps; no audio) – HDD: Not smooth
  • tara-no9-vp9.webm (4K VP9 YouTube video) – Won’t play, stays in UI.
  • The.Curvature.of.Earth.4K.60FPS-YT-UceRgEyfSsc.VP9.3840×2160.OPUS.160K.webm (4K VP9 @ 60 fps + opus audio) –Won’t play, stays in UI.

I also tried the 3 VP9 videos above with MoviePlayer with all I got was a black screen. That’s too bad, as I wanted to see if DDR4 memoryu would improve “Curvature of Earth” playback that is not 100% smooth on all other devices I’ve tested. Automatic frame rate switching is not working in Kodi, and MoviePlayer, so you won’t get perfect playback for 24 fps videos, unless you set the frame rate manually.

Audio support is not quite perfect, just like in other Amlogic S912 TV boxes I’ve tested. PCM output (stereo downsampling) works with Kodi, but not MX Player/MoviePlayer apps, and HDMI pass-through using Onkyo TX-NR636 receiver is a disaster in Kodi, and somewhat works with MoviePlayer.

Audio Codec in Video PCM 2.0 Output
(Kodi 17 Beta 3)
PCM 2.0 Output
(MoviePlayer)
HDMI Pass-through
(Kodi 17 Beta 3)
HDMI Pass-through
(MoviePlayer)
AC3 / Dolby Digital 5.1 Audio OK but video not smooth No audio Dolby D 5.1 (OK), but video not smooth Dolby D 5.1 – OK
E-AC-3 / Dolby Digital+ 5.1 OK No audio OK Dolby D 5.1 – OK
Dolby Digital+ 7.1 OK No audio PCM 2.0 – no audio Dolby D+ 7.1 – OK
TrueHD 5.1 OK No audio PCM 2.0 – no audio TrueHD 5.1 – OK
TrueHD 7.1 OK No audio PCM 2.0 – no audio TrueHD 7.1 – OK
Dolby Atmos 7.1 OK No audio PCM 2.0 Dolby D 5.1 – continuous beep
DTS HD Master OK No audio Black screen, no audio DTS 5.1
DTS HD High Resolution OK No audio Black screen, no audio DTS 5.1
DTS:X OK No audio Black screen, no audio DTS 5.1

BB2 Pro got 851 in Antutu Video Tester 3.0 benchmark, a little less than in other Amlogic S912 based TV boxes.

mecool-bb2-pro-antutu-video-testerThe three videos with “partial support” are exactly the same as on other devices.
antutu-video-tester-partially-supportDRM Info app reports Widevine Level 3 DRM is supported by the device.

bb2-pro-drm-info

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Network (WiFi + Ethernet) Performance

In order to test WiFi performance, I copied a 278MB file between a SAMBA share and the internal storage – and vice versa – using ES File Explorer, both using 802.11n @ 2.4 GHz, and 802.11ac (433 Mbps). The results are not that good, although download speed is quite faster than upload speed.

WiFi Throughput in MB/s - Click to Enlarge

WiFi Throughput in MB/s – Click to Enlarge!

Sadly those poor WiFi numbers are quite typical of Amlogic S912 TV boxes. Note that download speed for 802.11ac was 5.05 MB/s on average, so not so bad, but upload speed @ ~1.5 Mb/s brought the average down significantly.

For some strange reasons Gigabit Ethernet suffered from the same issue, as transferring a 885MB file took 50 seconds to download (17.7 MB/s), but  2 minutes 18 seconds to upload back to my local server (6.41 MB/s). I’ve never seen that problem on other devices. My SAMBA server is connected via Gigabit Ethernet and uses a SATA drive (not USB) capable of 100 MB/s writes.

Trying a full-duplex transfer with iperf confirmed the issue:

Asymmetric performance happens more often with iperf since transfers occur in both direction at the same time. Nevertheless there seems to be some minor issues with Ethernet.

Storage performance

We’ve already seen the system could handle NTFS, exFAT and FAT32 file systems for external storage, so I tested the performance of both NTFS and exFAT partition on my hard drive as well as the internal memory using A1 SD bench app.

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Note that both internal memory and exFAT partition had “cache reads”, which means reading operation was at least partially done from RAM. We can discard read results for both, especially since 65.71 MB/s is totally impossible over USB 2.0. What we can see however if that exFAT write speed is quite poor, but again that’s common to almost all TV boxes I’ve review. USB 2.0 NTFS partition read performance is about the best you can get through USB 2.0, and write performance is OK. The eMMC flash write speed is quite good @ 48.57 MB/s, so read speed is likely to be good too, but lower than the 104.58 MB/s reported by the app due the “cached read”.

Gaming

As I looked for benefit from DDR4 memory in this review, I was hoping that maybe games would benefit one way or other. Riptide GP2 with maximum graphics settings seemed to perform just like other Amlogic S912 TV boxes, that is… playable, but not extra smooth like on Xiaomi Mi Box 3 Enhanced for example. Performance was constant over the 15 minutes I played the game, so I did not notice any overheating and throttling issues.

Mecool BB2 Pro Benchmarks

So far I have to say I could not notice any user experience benefit from using DDR4 memory, but maybe benchmarks could give a different picture. Let’s check CPU-Z first.

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The device is BB2 PRO (q20x) with 8x Cortex A53 cores @ up to 1.51 GHz and a Mali-T820 GPU as expected. Other settings are as expected, and we can see the real internal storage capacity available to the user: 11.87 GB. That’s perfectly normal once we take into account the space taken with the bootloader and Android operating system.

Then I ran Antutu 6.x and compared the results to M12N TV box benchmark results.

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BB2 Pro got 363 points extra, but we can consider both devices had about the same performance. RAM test should be interesting and BB2 Pro was about 12% faster. So maybe there’s some benefit, but very minor based on those Antutu results.
mecool-bb2-pro-vellamo
Vellam score is about the same story with BB2 Pro getting 1,488, 1,020 and 2,811 points for respectively multicore, metal, and browser tests, against 1,103 (test failed to complete), 1,052 and 2,758 points on M12N. If we discard the multicore that failed to complete on M12N, results are basically the same.

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The last benchmark of this review, 3DMark Ice Storm Extreme, shows a little improvement as BB2 Pro got 6,000 points against 5,732 points for M12N. But it’s hard to tell if it is because of the DDR4 RAM, or some improvements of the GPU drivers. If we look into details of the score, most of the improvement is with the Physics score & test (9263 point / 29.4 fps vs 8163 / 25.9 fps).

Conclusion

I have not been able to find a single use case showing a clear benefit from using DDR4 memory instead of DDR3 memory. Apart from that Mecool BB2 Pro works reasonably well, it feels fast enough and the firmware is stable. However, it also comes with most of the same caveats found in other Amlogic S912 TV box, including mediocre WiFi performance, lack of HDMI audio pass-through support in Kodi (except Dolby Digital 5.1) and DTS HD 7.1 not working in the local player (MoviePlayer), automatic framerate switching not working at all, and for some reasons I could not play any VP9 in the device.

PROS

  • Responsive and stable Android 6.0 firmware
  • Acceptable 4K H.265 and H.264 video playback in Kodi 17and MoviePlayer apps
  • HDMI audio pass-through for Dolby 5.1, DTS 5.1, and TrueHD 5.1 and 7.1 in MoviePlayer
  • Good internal storage performance leading to fast boot time (<25 seconds), and overall good system performance
  • exFAT, NTFS, and FAT32 file system support for external storage
  • IR remote control working up to at least 10 meters and IR learning function
  • OTA firmware update support (could not confirm whether it is working since no new firmware has been released yet)
  • Option to disable/enable status bar in settings

CONS (and bugs)

  • HDMI audio pass-through and automatic frame rate switching not working properly in Kodi, except for Dolby Digital 5.1
  • HDMI DTS-HD MA/HR 7.1 not supported in MoviePlayer (uses DTS 5.1 instead)
  • BB2 Pro firmware won’t play VP9 videos; tested with Kodi and MoviePlayer apps
  • Mediocre WiFi performance, especially for uploads. Ethernet is also somewhat slow for uploads (no problems for downloads).
  • DRM: Only supports Widevine Level 3
  • Dolby & DTS licenses not included (Only a problem for apps other than Kodi, for people not using HDMI or S/PDIF audio pass-through)
  • Power off power consumption on the high side (1 watt)
  • Boot logo includes some music (not too high volume, but it can be an issue if you start the box at night, and forgot to mute or lower the volume)
  • Google Play can’t install apps with Bluetooth LE requirement

I’d like to thank VideoStrong for providing a sample for review. Distributors and resellers may contact the company via the product page to purchase in quantities. Mecool BB2 Pro can also be purchased for $66.66 and up on Banggood, GearBest, and eBay, or  about the same as YokaTV KB2 with 3GB DDR3 instead of 3GB DDR4, but 32GB storage instead of just 16 GB, with the rest of the specifications being equal.

Rockchip RK3328 Quad Core 64-bit ARM SoC is Designed for 4K HDR Android 7.1 & Linux TV Boxes

January 11th, 2017 11 comments

Beside RV1108 visual platform for applications, Rockchip also unveiled another processor at CES 2017 with RK3328 quad core Cortex A53 processor for 4K TV Box with H.265, H.264 and VP9 codecs support, HDR, HDMI 2.0, USB 3.0, Gigabit Ethernet and more.

rk3328-tv-boxRockchip RK3328 STB SoC specifications:

  • Processor – Quad core Cortex A53 @ up to 1.5 GHz
  • GPU – ARM Mali-450MP2
  • Memory I/F – DDR3/DDR3L/DDR4 with “large memory” support (4GB?)
  • Video Output – HDMI 2.0a with HDCP 2.x/1.4 up to 4K @ 60 Hz with HDR10/HLG support, CVBS output
  • Video Processor
    • 4K UHD H.264, 10-bit H.265 and VP9 video decoder
    • 1080p H.265/H.264 video encoder
  • Audio – Embedded audio DAC
  • Peripherals
    • embedded USB 3.0 interface
    • Dual Ethernet interface: RGMII (reduced gigabit media-independent interface) + Fast Ethernet PHY
    • 8 channel I2S interface supporting PDM/TDM
    • TS and smart card interface, with support for CSA 2.0
  • Security – TrustZone, Secure Video Path, Secure Boot, OTP

The new processor with support Android 7.1 and Linux, as well as OP-TEE secure OS and DRM support for Widewine L1 and Microsoft PlayReady. The TS interface will allow for tuner (DVB, ATSC…) support.

The processor is quite similar to Amlogic S905X. However the GPU is a bit weaker, which is not really that important for video applications, but not so good for games, and RK3328 also offer some extra interfaces with USB 3.0, dual Ethernet including one Gigabit Ethernet MAC, and tuner support.

The company did not provide any information about pricing or availability in their press release, and has yet to add RK3328 product page to their website.

Datamax DM145S Hybrid TV Box with Digital Tuners is Powered by Amlogic S905D Processor

January 10th, 2017 9 comments

There are already several Amlogic Android TV boxes with dual tuner on the market, but so far you could not use both tuner at the same time, for example using one to watch live TV, and another to record TV [Update: WeTek Play 1st generation based on Amlogic AML87426-MX can do that]. Amlogic S905D is supposed to change that, and Datamax DM145S is the first device I’ve seen featuring the new processor.

datamax-dm14s5Datamax DM145S specifications:

  • SoC – Amlogic S905D Quad Core Cortex A53 @ up to 1.5 GHz with ARM Mali-450MP GPU
  • System Memory – 1GB RAM
  • Storage – 8 GB eMMC flash + micro SD slot
  • Video Output – HDMI 2.0a + AV
  • Audio Output – HDMI, AV and optical S/PDIF
  • Connectivity – 10/100M Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n Wifi, optional Bluetooth 4.0
  • USB – 3x USB 2.0 host ports
  • Tuner – Combination of DVB-C/T2, DVB-S2, ATSC or ISDB-T
  • Power Supply – 5V/2A
  • Dimensions – 115 x 115 x 28 mm
  • Weight – 200g

The device runs Android 6.0

amlogic-s905d-tv-boxI could not find the box for sale anywhere yet, but DM145S is listed on the company’s hybrid TV boxes page.

Via AndroidPC.es

Ten Most Popular Posts of 2016 on CNX Software and Some Stats

December 31st, 2016 13 comments

The last day of the year is a good time to look back at what the year brought us, and I have to say it has been a fun and interesting year on CNX Software. The TV boxes news cycle has been dominated by Amlogic products, but most products have now switched to 64-bit ARM SoC, with 4K and HDMI 2.0 support, and price have kept going down, so you can now get a 4K TV box for as low as $20, although many people will prefer spending a bit more for extra memory and support. Intel based Bay Trail & Cherry Trail mini PCs have continued to be released with Windows, and in some cases Ubuntu, but the excitement seems to have died off a bit, maybe with the expectation of upcoming Apollo Lake mini PCs that should be more powerful. The year have been especially fruitful in the IoT space with a dramatic reduction in costs and sizes from ESP8266 boards to GPS modules and microwave radar modules, and we’ve also seen LPWAN modules & boards, mostly based on LoRa, but also Sigfox, being brought to market, as well as an alternative to ESP8266 with Realtek RTL8710AF, and of course the launch of Espressif ESP32 SoC with WiFi and Bluetooth LE. We’ve also been spoiled with development boards this year with the launch of 64-bit boards such as Raspberry Pi 3, ODROID-C2, and Pine A64+, as well as more dirt cheap Orange Pi boards, joined by NanoPi boards later in the year, and made all the more useful thanks to armbian community.

I’ve compiled a list of the most popular posts of 2016 using the page views count from Google Analytics:

  1. Amlogic S905 vs S812 Benchmarks Comparison (January 2016) – Amlogic S905 was probably the most popular SoC for TV boxes in 2016, thanks to a decent set of features, and aggressive pricing from manufacturers. So people wanted to find out if it was worth upgrading from S812 to S905, or maybe had to decide between purchasing a S905 or S812 TV box.
  2. Raspberry Pi 3, ODROID-C2 and Pine A64+ Development Boards Comparison (February 2016) – 2016 was also the year of cheap 64-bit development board with the launch of Raspberry Pi 3, ODROID-C2 and Pine A64+ boards, more or less at the same time, so again people want have wanted to look at which one to buy through this comparison.
  3. This is What a 16 Raspberry Pi Zero Cluster Board Looks Like (January 2016) – What can generated more buzz than the Raspberry Pi Zero? A cluster of Raspberry Pi Zero boards, as this post went viral the day after being posted. There was some talk about a crowdfunding campaign at one point, but it never happened.
  4. Review of K1 Plus Android TV Box with Combo DVB-S2/DVB-T2 Tuner (February 2016) – My review of K1 PLus T2 S2 might not be the most viewed post on CNX Software, but it sure generated a lot of comments, as while the product offers a unique combination of DVB-T2 and DVB-S2 tuners in an Android TV box at an attractive price, the documentation and software may need some improvements. Unofficial OpenELEC firmware images later surfaced from the community.
  5. How to Change Language to English and Install Apps Remotely on Xiaomi Mi Box 3 Enhanced (April 2016) – Xiaomi Mi Box 3 Enhanced is probably the most powerful TV box that can easily be purchased worldwide, but the caveat is that it has only been designed for the Chinese market. That post explains how to work around that limitation.
  6. Amlogic S905 vs Amlogic S912 Benchmarks Comparison (September 2016) – Quad core vs octa core, yeah twice the performance! Well not quite, but people were still curious to find out how the latest octa-core Amlogic S912 SoC would perform against Amlogic S905, and the truth is that the performance difference is rather minor, except for 3D graphics.
  7. NEXBOX A95X (Amlogic S905X) TV Box Review – Part 2: Android 6.0 and Kodi 16.1 (August 2016) – NEXBOX A95X was one of the first TV boxes based on Amlogic S905X processor, and my second review. The device is tiny an relatively cheap, so the review attracted some eyeballs.
  8. Mini M8S II TV Box (Amlogic S905X) Review – Part 2: Android 6.0 Firmware (July 2016) – My first review of an Amlogic S905X TV box nearly had the same number of views as NEXBOX A95X post, and many of the same features, just in a different package.
  9. Getting Started with Wemos D1 mini ESP8266 Board, DHT & Relay Shield (March 2016) – Wemos D1 mini is a great little ESP8266 board. It’s small, cheap ($4), and easy to use. The optional shields, just as cheap, make it a very attractive option for your IoT projects. Other people noticed it too, and then visited my review to get started.
  10. Raspberry Pi 3 Model B Board Features a 64-Bit ARM Processor, Adds WiFi and Bluetooth Connectivity (February 2016) – The last post is the list if a Raspberry Pi 3 leak just one day before the actual announcement.

Stats

Traffic has been rather steady in 2016 over the months.

cnx-software-traffic-2016The blog got around 9.8 millions pageviews in 2016 compared to about 7.2 millions pageviews in 2015, a 36% growth in traffic that was likely helped by my not going on a 3 months trip this year…

“openwrt” and scoop.it, respectively the top keyword and referral in 2015, were replaced by “amlogic s912” and Facebook in 2016.  Google Analytics only shows the last three months for keywords, and the full year for referrals, with referrals excluding search engines such as Google where CNX Software gets most of its traffic.

Top 10 Keywords Top 10 Referrals
amlogic s912 facebook.com
rk3399 flipboard.com
s905 vs s905x scoop.it
s905x vs s912 t.co
mxq box m.facebook.com
amlogic s905 4pda.ru
orange pi vs raspberry pi com.google.android.googlequicksearchbox
s905 vs s912 duckduckgo.com
s912 vs s905x plus.google.com
amlogic freaktab.com

The visitor mix of the blog per country as not changed much, with the top 10 countries of 2015 still there in 2016, and the top five order unchanged with United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, and France.

cnx-software-visitors-2016London still hold the top city spot, but Hong Kong and Moscow dropped of the list to be replaced by New York and Melbourne.

cnx-software-2016-browser-operating-systems

Windows is still the main operating system of CNX Software visitors, but its share, as well as the share of other desktop operating ssystems including Linux and “Macintosh”, keeps dropping, while Android and iOS are having a stronger and stronger presence. In the “browser war”, Chrome lead extended further from 52.93% in 2015 to 59.41% in 2016, and Firefox dropping from 23.54% to 18.90%. Microsoft Edge probably had the best growth going from 0.56% last year to 1.86% this year.

Some of the 2016 review samples and I wish all my readers a very happy, prosperous, and healthy new year 2017.

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RetrOrangePi 3.0 Retro Gaming & Media Center Firmware Released for Orange Pi H3 Boards and Beelink X2 TV Box

December 28th, 2016 9 comments

RetrOrangePi is a Linux distribution based on armbian transforming Allwinner H3 boards – mostly Orange Pi boards, but also Banana Pi M2+ and NanoPi boards – into entertainment centers to play retro games, and watch/listen media files (videos/music) using Kodi. If you don’t have a development board, or would prefer a complete solution with casing and power supply, Beelink X2 TV box is also supported. The developers had been recently working on rectifying some GPL issues, and they have released RetrOrangePi 3.0 images right before Christmas.

retrorangepi

RetrOrangePi 3.0 changelog and key features:

  • Full Armbian 5.23 Jessie Desktop version with kernel 3.4.113 (backdoors fixed)
  • Slim version 1st release (less than 2 GB) coming soon
  • OpenELEC (Kodi Jarvis 16.1) with CEC support by Jernej Škrabec
  • RetroPie-Setup version 4.1
  • New Kodi Krypton beta6 version
  • New emulationstation-ROPI branch forked from jacobfk20 with gridview, on screen keyboard with easy wifi config and storage check with additional features added by ROPi team: display settings, OpenELEC / Desktop launcher and background music switcher integrated into main menu.
  • New Plug n’ Play feature – USB roms autoload (reads from /media/usb0) (buggy)
  • New dummy roms feature (most common platform shown)
  • New splash video on 1st boot by Rafael Spirax
  • New default splashscreen (from Libretro)
  • New custom ES splashscreen by Francois Lebel @MagicFranky
  • OpenELEC ROPI addon already installed
  • Retroarch with XMB menu driver (Lakka)
  • Better looking video with bilinear filtering (smoothness) or scanlines by default
  • Most retroarch cores updated (FBA, PCSX etc)
  • New and improved content:
    • AdvanceMAME (newer romset, more compatibility, better performance in some games: Elevator Action Returns, Street Fighter the Movie, Star Wars Arcade, Judge Dredd, Sega Sonic The Hedgehog etc)
    • Amiga (FS-UAE emulator, fullscreen now, diskette sound, launcher)
    • Atari 5200
    • Atari 8bit (models 400 800 XL XE)
    • Coco / Tandy
    • Colecovision (ColEm emu Custom Coleco BlueMSX core)
    • Creativision
    • Daphne (Philips Cdi emulator)
    • Dosbox (GLES version)
    • Dreamcast (fixed reicast-joyconfig)
    • Duke Nukem port (fixed tint color)
    • Game and Watch (fixed shortcuts)
    • Intellivision
    • OpenMSX (with .dsk support) PPSSPP (new version 1.3 from odroid repo)
    • TI99/4A (Texas Instruments)
    • Wolfenstein3D port

There are two ways to download the images:

  • BitTorrent – 16.0 GB download with images for all boards
  • Main server (http) – 1.6 GB compressed firmware image for your board.

If you download from the main server, you’ll get a warning saying you can’t sell hardware pre-installed with the image:

RetrOrange Pi is a non profit project.
It consists of a basic Retropie setup with most Libretro cores on top of an Armbian Jessie Desktop version pre-installed.
It includes an OpenELEC fork as well.
Much of the software included in the image have non-commercial licences. Because of this,
selling a pre-installed RetrOrange image is not legal, neither is including it with your commercial product.
As it relies on other people’s work with our own features, we won’t be offering any help in customizations to avoid rebranding or reselling.

It will be interesting to see what happens with RetroEngine Sigma project on Indiegogo that is very likely based on RetrOrangePi image for Orange Pi Lite board.

Anyway, since BitTorrent download was very slow, I downloaded RetrOrangePi-3.0.Orangepione.img.tar.gz from the main server for my $3.69 Orange Pi One board (there was a promo in September), extracted it, and flashed it to a 32GB card (8GB is enough) in Linux:

Replace sdX by your own SD card device in the 3rd command above. You can also do this in Windows with Win32DiskImager. Once it is done, insert the micro SD card in your board or TV box, prepare a gamepad, and connect all relevant cables.

orange-pi-orange-gaming

If you have connected the serial console (completely optional), or want to access the system through ssh, you can login with pi/pi or root/orangepi credentials:

Most people will just follow the instructions on the TV. We’ll get through a bunch of animation and logos during the boot.Note: Please ignore the vertical lines on the photos, as there’s just an issue with my TV.

retrorangepi-3-0-logo
The first time the system will resize the SD card to make use of the full SD card capacity, and generate SSH keys.
retrorangepi-installationOne more “Loading…” logo…

retrorangepi-loading

If you have connected a gamepad (highly recommended), you’ll be ask to configure the keys. Tronsmart Mars G01 gamepad was automatically detected, and I could easily set all keys up.

retrorangepi-gamepad-configurationOnce all is well and done, you’ll get to the main menu to select emulator or Kodi.

retrorangepi-user-interfaceMost emulators do not come with ROMs due to license issues, so you’d have to find the ROMs yourself, and install them via a USB drive, or copy them directly into the board over the network, for example with scp. If you want to try to play some games straightaway, you can do so by going to the PORTS sections with 13 games available including Doom, Quake, Wolfenstein 3D, CannonBall, Duke Nukem 3D, Super Mario War, etc…
retrorangepi-ports-pre-installed-games
I tested shortly tested Wolfenstein 3D and Quake, as well as launched Kodi 17 (Beta 6) in the demo video below.

SmartHomy Hybrid TV Box with DTV Tuner Triples as a Game Console & Home Automation Gateway (Crowdfunding)

December 26th, 2016 24 comments

SmartHomy Homy Player is a TV box running Android TV that includes an ATSC, DVB-T2/C,DVB-S2, or ISDB-T tuner, is said to be powerful enough to be used as a 3D gaming platform, and serves as a security system and home automation gateway using Z-Wave, Bluetooth, WiFi and IR blaster to control your things.

smart-homyHomy player specifications [Updated on January 19th, 2017]:

  • SoC – Amlogic S912 octa-core Cortex A53 processor with Mali T820MP3 GPU
  • System Memory – 3 GB DDR3
  • Storage – 32 GB eMMC flash
  • Video Output – HDMI 2.0 up to 4K @ 60Hz with HDCP 2.2, HDR, CEC
  • Audio Output – HDMI and optical S/PDIF
  • Video / Audio Capabilities – 10-bit 4K H.265 @ 60 fps, HD audio pass-through, Dolby Digital & DTS licenses
  • DRM – Widevine Level 1, Microsoft PlayReader, Netflix license
  • Digital TV Tuner – DVB-S2 (satellite), DVB-C/T/T2 (Cable/Terrestrial), ATSC, and ISDB-T
  • Connectivity – Gigabit Ethernet, dual band 802.11 b/g/n/ac WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0, Z-Wave (Plus 500 series)
  • USB – 2x USB 2.0 ports
  • Dimensions – 200 x 143 x 40 mm
  • Weight – 530 grams

The device ships with Homy Remote, a backlit Bluetooth 4.0 LE remote control that includes gyroscope, and allows to control the player with voice commands. Smart Homy appears to mostly targets the US markets as seen in the comparison table with some home automation solution, media players. and game console.

smart_homy_comparison

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It would have been a little more fair to include the non-pro version of NVIDIA Shield Android TV since the price without hard drive is also $199, and it still lacks home automation support and the tuners. While you can play games with Amlogic S912 SoC, the performance will be much lower than the NVIDIA box.

In order to maximize Z-Wave interoperability, Homy Player supports more than 50 command classes for Z-Wave devices, and the player/gateway also supports more than 70 Security Devices, including common security cameras. Configuration of home automation is allegedly simplified thanks to a “patent pending” Scene Recording System where you can easily record trigger and action using your physical devices.


SmartHomy has launched Homy Player on Indiegogo (flexible funding), where the company targets to raise $59,000 or more. A $199 pledge should get you Homy Player with the remote and an extra 64GB storage. Shipping adds $30, and delivery is scheduled for July 2017. You may also get more details on SmartHomy website.

Something is “Eating” my Android TV Box Internal Storage!

December 21st, 2016 6 comments

No, it’s not a joke. I’ve been playing for a while with Eweat R9 Plus Android TV box after inserting a 1TB hard drive in the SATA bay, but while in most other reviews, the apps and files used for testing are just taking around 3 GB, the 9.31 GB storage in that device was completely full, and I have yet to install some apps, and copy some files part of my testing procedure…

android-storage-fullI did not immediately find out about the “storage full” issue, as I first I just noticed Kodi would not start anywhere, and the default video app would just reboot after adjusting the volume… But let’s check what takes all that space…

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I had to uninstall 3Dmark in order to be able to take screenshots, which explains why I have a bit more space now, but the system reports all that space (and more???) is taken by apps. I clicked on Apps, to find out Es File Explorer was the worse offender but with only “285 MB” used. That did not add up, so I started to adb shell to try to find the exact files:

Media directory takes 3.1GB and data directory 4.5GB. After some more checking, I eventually the space mostly is taken by two large “external.db” databases for com.android.providers.media:

Reading from Android’s developer website:

Android Provider provides convenience classes to access the content providers supplied by Android.

Android ships with a number of content providers that store common data such as contact informations, calendar information, and media files. These classes provide simplified methods of adding or retrieving data from these content providers.

I have a lot of files (millions) on my SATA hard drive, many of them not media files, but the box is probably scanning the files and storing some metadata for faster access or/and search within Android. Earlier this year, I had a problem with Media Scanner in Zidoo X1 II TV box, as it slowed down the system greatly while scanning a USB hard drive and affected video playback. I solved the issue with media.Re.Scan: app which allowed me to stop the scanning process at the time. We don’t really need the app however, and since we don’t have space, you’d have to uninstall other apps to install the utility. Instead go to Settings->Apps, select “Show System” on the top right, and scroll down until you find “Media Storage”.

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Now click on Media Storage, select Disable, and click on “Storage” in order to finally select “Clear Data” to free up (a lot of) space.

android-media-storage-clear-data

You can now have fun with your TV box with plenty of storage, and a lot less (apparent) bugs…android-storage-usbHappy to have gotten rid of Media Storage (aka The grinch) right before Christmas :).