Rock Pi X Review – An Atom x5 SBC running Windows 10 or Ubuntu 20.04

The ROCK Pi X is the first x86 SBC (single board computer) from Radxa and resulted from repeated enquiries about running Windows on their earlier ROCK Pi 4. The ROCK Pi X comes in two models (Model A and Model B) with each model having either 1GB, 2GB, or 4GB of RAM and either 16GB, 32GB, 64GB, or 128GB of eMMC storage. Additionally, the Model B includes WiFi and Bluetooth together with supporting Power over Ethernet (PoE) although this requires an additional HAT.

Both Seeed Studio and Radxa provided samples and in this review, I’ll cover some performance metrics from both Windows and Ubuntu and also discuss the thermals.

Rock Pi X Hardware Overview

The ROCK Pi X is similar in size to a Raspberry Pi board…

Left: ROCK Pi X Model B; right: original Red Raspberry Pi Model B for the Chinese market

but with slightly different ports and port locations even when compared to the Raspberry Pi 4.

It is physically slightly larger than its specification size (85 mm x 54 mm) as the ports protrude from the board making it approximately 88 mm x 58 mm x 22 mm (3.46 x 2.28 x 0.87 inches). It uses Intel’s somewhat dated Atom (Cherry Trail) x5-Z8350 processor which is a quad-core 4-thread 1.44 GHz processor boosting to 1.92 GHz with Intel’s Gen8 HD graphics.

Both review units were Model B and came with 4GB of RAM soldered on. The Seeed Studio unit had 32GB of soldered eMMC whereas the Radxa unit had 128GB of soldered eMMC. On one end of each board are dual USB 2.0 ports, a further dual USB port stack but with the lower port being USB 3.0 whilst the top one is USB 2.0 and a gigabit Ethernet port. Then on one of the board’s longer sides is a headphone jack, an HDMI 2.0 port, and a Type-C USB port which is only for power. On the opposite side of the board is a 40-pin expansion header.  Along the final side of the board is a micro-SD card slot and a power button with green and blue LEDs. Additionally, there is WiFi 5 (or 802.11ac) and Bluetooth 4.2.

The full specifications include:

Box contents

The board comes in a plastic box:

and Model B includes a WiFi/Bluetooth antenna.

Accessories

To power the board you need an external power adapter supplying 9V/2A, 12V/2A, 15V/2A, or 20V/2A. Also recommended is some form of cooling for the board and an aluminum heat sink kit is available for purchase. Radxa included both an 18W power adapter and the heat sink kit with their review unit:

Review Methodology

When reviewing mini PCs I typically look at their performance under both Windows and Linux so I decided to review using a dual-boot of Windows 10 version 20H2 and Ubuntu 20.04 LTS point release 1 and test with a selection of commonly used Windows benchmarks and/or equivalents for Linux together with Thomas Kaiser’s ‘sbc-bench’ which is a small set of different CPU performance tests focusing on server performance when run on Ubuntu. Additionally, I used ‘Phoronix Test Suite’ to benchmark the same set of tests on both Windows and Ubuntu for comparison purposes. On Ubuntu, I also compile the v5.4 Linux kernel using the default config as a test of performance.

Prior to benchmarking, I perform all necessary installations and updates. I also capture some basic details of the device for each OS.

Rock Pi X Drivers Installation Issues

When Windows was installed using the latest ISO from Microsoft a number of drivers were missing:

Using a combination of drivers from the Radxa ‘Downloads’ page and Windows ‘Optional updates’ most of these could be resolved. For the Seeed Studio unit only a single Intel SD Host Controller remained without a driver:

However, during testing, the Ethernet port on this unit started to randomly disconnect before eventually stopping completely. Additionally, the 32GB of storage was severely limiting as I didn’t have sufficient space on Windows to run all my usual benchmarks. Installing Windows left only 4.5GB free:

which isn’t much for user applications and Windows updates.

I also observed excessive thermal CPU throttling as the board did not have any cooling. While discussing the Ethernet issue with Radxa they offered a replacement unit with 128GB storage and a heat sink together with an appropriate power supply.

Unfortunately after installing Windows on this replacement unit and updating all the drivers this time two ‘Generic SDIO Device’ had missing drivers and the ‘Nuvoton SST Nau88L24 Codec Device’ driver would not start:

The Radxa’s website tip to toggle DTS in the BIOS did not fix the Nuvoton driver. However, during testing, it was found that the BIOS was an earlier version so it was upgraded to Radxa’s latest published version of ‘V12_X64_20200924’. Whilst this didn’t fix the missing drivers it may have changed the behavior of the Nuvoton driver as it now appears to be unstable as sometimes on boot it works in Windows:

and sometimes after a reboot, it fails in Windows:

However, the same Nuvoton device also had a problem in Ubuntu on this unit:


and this resulted in the headphone jack not being recognized. Interestingly the driver did work in Ubuntu on the Seeed Studio unit:

Unfortunately, it didn’t work ‘OOTB’ and required a tedious workaround of installing ‘pavucontrol’, toggling the built-in audio from speaker to headphones, editing the UCM file ‘/usr/share/alsa/ucm2/chtnau8824/HiFi.conf’ to remove the ‘Speaker.conf’ entry, killing ‘pulseaudio’, and finally selecting multichannel output as the output device in the sound settings. To go back to HDMI audio required reverting these changes so I don’t see this as a very satisfactory solution even if Ubuntu does recognize the device.

It is also worth noting that after the BIOS upgrade each unit. whilst appearing identical based on the version of ‘Build Data and Time’ and other information displayed on screen in the BIOS ‘Main’ menu, is in fact slightly different including for example that the ‘Manufacturer’ is ‘Radxa’ on the Seeed Studio unit but ‘ROCK Pi’ on the Radxa unit. However, a more significant difference between the two units is that the version of the board is different as silk-screened on the Seeed Studio unit is ‘V1.4’ whereas it is ‘V1.3’ on the Radxa unit. This may account for why the Nuvoton device works in Ubuntu on one unit and not the other.

To get the WiFi to work on Windows the NVRAM file ‘4345r6nvram.txt’ from MINIX’s Z83-4 WiFi drivers had to be copied to ‘C:\Windows\System32\drivers’.

For Ubuntu, the WiFi and Bluetooth drivers were extracted from MINIX’s Ubuntu 20.04 LTS ISO and respun into an installable ISO using ‘isorespin.sh‘.

In Ubuntu a battery was detected:

so to the setting for automatic suspend when on battery power was switched to off.

There were also some issues related to the benchmarks. I could not successfully run ‘Cinebench’ in Windows as it crashed each time with an ‘Application Error’:

which seemed to point towards a memory issue:


 

Note that this error was seen on the Radxa unit as I didn’t attempt to run it on the Seeed Studio unit.

Additionally, Windows ‘blue screened’ a few times when running the benchmarks. It wasn’t clear whether this was related to the memory issue or due to thermal constraints which are further explained in the ‘Thermals’ section below.

One other point to note was that the ‘Selenium’ test from the ‘Phoronix Test Suite’ benchmarks refused to run the ‘Chrome’ option so the Octane tests had to be run manually and edited into the final results.

RockPi X Windows Benchmarks

Whilst I ran some benchmarks on the Seeed Studio unit the following results are for the Radxa unit fitted with the heat sink. The Radxa unit came installed with an unlicensed copy of Windows 10 Pro for Workstations version 1909 build 18363.900. Initially, I upgraded this to version 20H2 build 19042.685 and after believing everything to be working I decided to reinstall Windows version 20H2 using a downloaded Windows ISO and then upgrade to build 19042.685. The issues I encountered are noted above.

A quick look at the hardware information shows:

I had set the power mode to Best performance:

before running some benchmarking tools to look at Rock Pi X performance under Windows, including Passmark, PCMark 10, Novabench, 3Dmark, GeekBench, and others:

For my specific set of Phoronix Test Suite tests the results were:

All of the results can be compared with the MINIX NEO Z83-4 Plus which is a similar passively cooled mini PC with the same specification except for smaller storage:

and shows that the Radxa ROCK Pi X performance is as expected.

The Cherry Trail CPU coupled with its integrated graphics is not particularly powerful and not suitable for gaming.

Ubuntu Performance

Continuing the testing using the Radxa unit after shrinking the Windows partition in half and creating a new partition I installed my respun Ubuntu 20.04.1 ISO as dual boot. After installation and updates, the key hardware information is as follows:



I then set the CPU Scaling Governor to ‘performance’ and ran some Linux benchmarks for which the majority of the results are text-based but the graphical ones included:

And for the same set of Phoronix Test Suite tests the results were:

All of the results can be compared with the Intel Compute Stick model STK1AW32SC which is an actively cooled mini PC with similar spec but with the slightly older x5-Z8330 variant of the CPU and only 2GB RAM as well as smaller storage:

again showing that the Radxa ROCK Pi X performance is as expected and confirming that the processor is not suitable for gaming in Ubuntu.

Rock Pi X Video Playback in Browsers & Kodi

I tested video playback in Edge, Chrome, and Kodi on Windows and in Firefox, Chrome, and Kodi on Ubuntu. When playing videos thermal throttling often affected how they looked and this is discussed further in the ‘Thermals’ section below.

4K playback is beyond this processor. Although 1080p at 30 FPS was watchable in browsers an interesting phenomenon was observed in Ubuntu where after dropping the resolution from 1080p to 720p expecting to get fewer dropped frames it actually got worse as the codec changed from ‘vp9’ to ‘av01’:

In browsers 1080p at 60 FPS didn’t play well:

as 60 FPS videos needing at least 720p in Windows to be watchable and 480p in Ubuntu which then resulted in them playing at 30 FPS.

Kodi plays 30 FPS H.264 videos successfully using hardware decoding:

However, 60 FPS H.264 videos stall and skip frames as do VP9/H.265/HEVC encoded videos which use software to decode:

The following tables summarise the tests and results for each of web browsing:

and in Kodi:

Windows vs Ubuntu

Whilst a detailed comparison between the two operating systems is beyond the scope of this review, it is worth noting some of the key findings I observed. First looking at the performance tools common between the two systems. Overall Ubuntu performs slightly better in the benchmarks than Windows and this can be visually shown by comparing the same Phoronix Test Suite benchmarks in each OS:

For video playback in browsers, Windows is slightly better than Ubuntu with slightly fewer dropped frames.

Thermals

The Seeed Studio unit was supplied just as an SBC without any form of cooling for the CPU. It was evident early on when running benchmarks that the CPU was reaching high temperatures and being throttled as a result. Switching to the Radxa unit with its heat sink did reduce the CPU temperature but it still wasn’t as effective at dispersing heat compared with a passively cooled mini PC.

In Ubuntu a simple ‘stress’ test shows how quickly the CPU throttles without any form of cooling:

Without the heat sink, the temperature of the CPU quickly climbed to 83°C and the CPU frequency was stepped down and reduced by 500 MHz in under a minute. However with the heat sink during the same period, the temperature only climbed to 67°C and the CPU frequency remained constant.

Whilst the heat sink was effective in reducing the immediate temperature increase caused by the stress test after letting the test run for 20 minutes the CPU temperature gradually climbed to 73°C albeit without any throttling. Once the stress test completed the CPU temperature did drop immediately to 63°C but it took nearly 15 minutes to get back to the starting temperature of 57°C:

With a fluctuating load, however, the effect is that once the CPU heats up it remains hot simply because the heat sink heats up to the point where as quickly as it tries to dissipate its heat the CPU is repeatedly heating it back up. Ideally, a fan is required to create airflow across the heat sink to dissipate its heat.

Another example is when playing a 1080p video in Edge on Windows. When the video was started the CPU temperature was 49°C. After approximately 13 minutes of playback the CPU temperature climbed to 71°C:

After a further 8 minutes one CPU temperature hit 74°C and immediately throttled slightly:

Within a few minutes, all CPUs had started to throttle significantly and playback began to stall:

Eventually, all CPUs were constantly throttled resulting in the video being unwatchable:

further demonstrating that given the room temperature was only 23°C without airflow over the heat sink it was no longer effective.

A final example of the effect of thermal throttling can be seen when running the 3DMark benchmark. Normally I run ‘Sky Diver’ followed immediately by ‘Fire Strike’. When I did this the result from ‘Fire Strike’ was only 114:

However days later when I realized it had been throttled and was substantially lower than expected I reran ‘Fire Strike’ and the result was nearly double at 202.

Networking

Network connectivity throughput was measured on Ubuntu using ‘iperf’:

The WiFi results were as expected for this module however the Ethernet upload was rather slow.

Power Consumption

Power consumption was measured as follows:

  • Powered off (shutdown) – 0.0W (Windows) and 0.0W (Ubuntu)
  • BIOS  – 3.3W
  • GRUB boot menu – 3.5W
  • Idle – 2.2W (Windows) and 2.7W (Ubuntu)
  • CPU – 5.2W (Windows ‘cinebench’) and 5.4W (Ubuntu ‘stress’)
  • 1080p 30 FPS videos* – 6.7W (Windows Edge) and 7.2 (Ubuntu Chrome)

*The power figures fluctuate so the value is the average of the median high and median low power readings.

BIOS

The BIOS is quite unrestricted and detailed instructions on upgrading are available from Radxa’s website.

Final Observations

The key attraction of this SBC is likely to be the ability to get x86 architecture for a relatively low price. By including a 40-pin expansion header the device is suitable for multiple projects where GPIO connectors are required.

Whilst the ROCK Pi X performance can be similar to other devices with the same CPU the effect of insufficient cooling can impact this considerably.

The driver issues will be of concern for those wanting a working ‘OOTB’ solution. They may all be fixable but will require some effort and research.

Highlights
Limitations
x86 architectureDriver issues
Low costAdditional cooling required
40-pin GPIO headerDated (low performance) CPU

I’d like to thank both Seeed Studio and Radxa for providing ROCK Pi X for review. The model sold on Seeed Studio with 4GB RAM, 32GB flash, and no heat sink goes for $75 plus shipping.  The board sent by Radxa currently retails at around $107 (excluding power adapter and shipping) on Allnetchina for the tested 128GB and heat sink configuration. Alternatively, you’ll also find it on Aliexpress for a total of around $155 shipped.

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