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T-bao Tbook X8S Pro Apollo Lake Laptop is Equipped with an NVIDIA Geforce GPU

February 8th, 2018 15 comments

Most products based on Intel Apollo Lake processor do so to leverage the low cost and low power of the chip that also embeds Intel HD graphics removing the need for an external graphics card. But T-bao Tbook X8S Pro laptop powered by Intel Celeron J3455 Apollo Lake “Desktop” processor also comes with an NVIDIA GeForce 920M GPU which should boost graphics performance.

Tbook X8S Pro specifications:

  • SoC – Intel Celeron J3455 quad core Apollo Lake processor @ 1.50 / 2.30 GHz with (unused) 12EU Intel HD Graphics 500; 10W TDP
  • GPU – NVIDIA GeForce 920M @ 954 MHz with 2GB RAM
  • System Memory – 6GB DDR3
  • Storage – 128GB eMMC flash or M.2 SSD (unclear), micro SD card slot up to 128 GB
  • Display – 15.6″ IPS screen with 1920×1080 resolution
  • Video Output – HDMI output
  • Audio – Built-in microphone, and stereo speakers; 3.5mm audio jack
  • Connectivity – Gigabit Ethernet, dual band 802.11b/g/n/ac WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0
  • USB – 2x USB 3.0 ports, 1x USB type C port
  • Camera – 2.0MP front camera
  • Battery – 7.4V/9000mAH Li-ion polymer battery
  • Power Supply – 12V/4A
  • Dimensions – 360 x 235 x 18 mm
  • Weight – 1.7 kg

The laptop comes pre-loaded with Windows 10, and ships with a power supply, and user manual.

I could not find a direct comparison between GeForce 920M and Intel HD Graphics 500, but there’s one against the slightly faster Intel HD Graphics 505 found in other Apollo Lake processor, and the NVIDIA card is roughly two to three times faster in 3DMark benchmarks.

T-bao Tbook X8S Pro can be found for $299 and up on sites like GeekBuying and GearBest.

Via AndroidPC.es

Vorke V1 Plus Celeron J3455 Mini PC Review with Windows and Ubuntu

Most Intel based mini PCs use processors classified as ‘Mobile’ as these have lower thermal design power (TDP) ratings which is the maximum amount of heat generated by the processor:

However, the new Vorke V1 Plus has incorporated a ‘Desktop’ processor namely the Intel Celeron J3455. On paper this processor looks like it should perform similar to the Intel Pentium N4200 processor but with a tradeoff between being a cheaper processor to purchase but more expensive to run due to the increased power requirements.

Geekbuying provided a Vorke V1 Plus for review so let’s start by taking a look at the physical characteristics.

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The device comes in a plain box and was supplied with the ‘right AC Adapter’ for my country.

The first observation is that it is quite a large device. At just over 6” square (153mm) and nearly 1.5” tall (38mm) it is the biggest mini PC I’ve seen with an Apollo Lake processor.

It has a large (white) power button on top which is very ‘soft touch’ making it easy to accidentally switch off the device simply by a glancing contact for example when picking up or moving the device.

There are four USB ports with the front ones being 2.0 and back ones 3.0. Design-wise mixing these to include one of each front and back might have been better as connecting a wired keyboard either means using a ‘valuable’ rear 3.0 port or having untidy cabling from the front 2.0 port.

The front also has an IR receiver and the IR Remote Control is an optional extra.

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Otherwise the specification is interesting for not having an eMMC card but a replaceable mSATA SSD of 64 GB together with the ability to add a full sized 2.5” SSD as well. The HDMI is 2.0a and so it supports [email protected]

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Booting the device and Windows asks the familiar basic set-up questions before displaying the desktop. A quick look at the hardware information shows it is aligned to the specification.

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Unfortunately the installed version of Windows is old (version 1703) and is missing the ‘Fall Creators Update’.

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Whilst it is ‘activated’ it also includes some setting changes (e.g. the computer name) and additional icons are present on the desktop.

There is also a device without a driver showing up in the ‘Device Manager’. As a result I decided to install the latest Windows ISO (version 1709) from Microsoft making sure it was fully updated with the latest patches:

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And whilst the resultant Windows was still correctly activated:

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several devices were missing drivers. Fortunately, a full set of drivers is available from the Vorke support page, and it is simply a case of downloading and unzipping the file and updating each of those devices:

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which results in one device still missing a driver similar to how to mini PC first came:

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Interestingly the missing drivers relate to the ‘Intel Dynamic Platform and Thermal Framework’ including the ‘Fan Participant’ driver and this may explain an issue with Ubuntu covered later below.

Once everything was updated a healthy amount of disk space remains available:

As usual I ran my standard set of benchmarking tools to look at performance under Windows:

which confirms the performance to be similar or better than the N4200 SoC although this in part may be attributable to the improved disk performance because of using an mSATA SSD:

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Next I shrunk the Windows partition and created new a 10 GB partition so I could install and dual boot Ubuntu. I used a standard Ubuntu desktop ISO however I needed to change the OS ‘selection’ in the BIOS:

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I first ran some basic commands to look at the hardware in more detail:

which shows the memory as dual-channel.

Running my usual suite of Phoronix tests generated mixed performance results compared with N4200 devices again likely being affected by the faster mSATA disk:

Ubuntu’s Octane result was slightly better than in Windows:

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Looking at the device’s performance against other Intel Apollo Lake devices:

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shows that overall the device performs well.

Playing videos under Windows using a browser (either Edge or Chrome) worked without issue:

 

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I also tried playing a [email protected] video which played fine in Edge:

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but resulted in dropped frames in Chrome:

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although the number of dropped frames was lower than when the same video was played on the N4200 Intel Compute Card which has HDMI 1.4b:

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Under Ubuntu the previously seen issue of playing 4K videos in Chrome was again encountered and playing the video at 1080p resolved stuttering and frame loss:

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And it was a similar situation with [email protected] videos in Chrome although playing at 1080p now results in dropped frames:

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Running Kodi on Windows with a VP9 codec encoded video uses software for decoding resulting in high CPU usage and a slightly jerky playback:

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compared with a H.264 codec encoded video which uses hardware to decode and plays smoothly:

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as do videos encoded with H.265 or HEVC:

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Kodi on Ubuntu uses hardware to decode all three codecs:

 

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with no issues with the playback of the videos. However some H.265 videos resulted in a blank (black) screen just with audio whereas others played without issue:

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The ‘elephant in the room’ with this device is the noise from the internal fan. Maybe as a result of running a desktop processor rather than a mobile one means a larger more powerful fan is required or maybe it is just the type of fan used. However it can be loud. Under Windows the fan’s running speed (and therefore loudness) is dependent on internal temperatures i.e. workload. Under Ubuntu the fan runs continuously. The fact that Windows required specific drivers for the ‘Intel ® Dynamic Platform and Thermal Framework’ including a ‘Fan Participant’ driver might indicate a fan driver issue with Ubuntu. Even trying the latest Ubuntu by running the daily ‘Bionic Beaver’ ISO updated with the latest v4.15.1 kernel did not fix this issue.

I’ve tried to make a video to demonstrate the fan’s noise by including a battery-powered clock next to the device to act as a reference in comparing how audible the fan actually is. In the video initially the device is in the BIOS boot menu and the fan is running at low speed and is just audible. As the device boots into Ubuntu initially the fan stops and then after loading the kernel the fan comes back on at high speed and is noticeably audible in a normal operating environment:

Albeit noisy the fan was able to prevent any thermal throttling:

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and kept the external temperature below 30°C.

which is not surprising given the fan is quite a large component in the device:

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Another two typical ‘pain’ points with Ubuntu on mini PCs are the micro SD card reader and headphone audio. However with this device, both worked without issue:

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Just for reference the headphones work under Windows:

Network connectivity throughput was measured using ‘iperf’:

with the wifi performance being similar to comparable mini PC devices.

Power consumption was measured as:

  • Powered off – 0.4 Watts
  • Standby* – 0.9 Watts
  • Boot menu – 5.7 Watts (no fan running) 6.4 Watts (fan running quietly)
  • Idle – 4.7 Watts (Windows) and 4.9 Watts (Ubuntu)
  • CPU stressed** – 14.3 Watts (Ubuntu)
  • Video playback*** – 8.1 Watts (4K in Windows) and 9.2 Watts (HD in Ubuntu)

* Standby is after Windows has been halted.
** Initially there is a high power demand before reducing to a constant rate.
*** The power figures fluctuate so the value is the average of the median high and median low power readings.

The results show a slightly higher power consumption than comparable mini PC devices which is in line with expectations from using a ‘Desktop’ processor.

The BIOS seems to be unrestricted:

Finally I installed an SSD using the supplied mounting kit:

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The SSD SATA port is accessed by removing the single screw on the base plate underneath the device and after fixing the bracket to the SSD it is then secured in place with a screw at the top of the SSD as the base plate will also secure the SSD by using the hole on the right:

I then successfully installed and booted Intel’s Clear Linux OS by selecting the SSD from the ‘F7’ boot menu:

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Overall the device performs well with the exception of the noisy fan and for some including Ubuntu users this may not be acceptable. It is a rather large mini PC and this needs to be considered before purchasing. Performance is comparable with an Intel Pentium N4200 mini PC although it will cost more to run due to increased power consumption. If you’re interested in Vorke V1 Plus , you can purchase it on GeekBuying for $159.99 including shipping [Update: using GKBPC1 coupon should bring the price down to $149.99].

Intel Compute Cards Review – Windows 10 and Ubuntu 17.04 on CD1C64GK, CD1P64GK and CD1M3128MK

The Intel Compute Stick revolutionized the mini PC market through the introduction of x86 based processors making Windows available as an OS option. However, for Intel the biggest target market turned out to be business rather than consumer with digital signage being a key user. As a result Intel have responded with the introduction of the Intel Compute Card. So far they have released four versions of card:

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and they they differ from compute sticks by no longer being standalone mini PCs but dependent on a dock or host device.

The card itself is relatively small with a footprint slightly larger than a standard credit card:

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and is distinguished by the back being printed with details about the card including the model:

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The lack of emphasis on the consumer market is also evident in the rather unobtrusive plain packaging:

On the end that inserts into the dock or host device is a connector which is separated into two sections: a Type C-compliant portion and an extended portion. The Type C portion supports Type C-compliant connections including video with audio and USB. The extended portion supports video with audio, USB, and PCIe. Power is supplied to the card from the device the Compute Card is plugged into using the Type C portion of the connector.

The card uses bidirectional authentication to authenticate a compatible device and card. The authentication uses digital keys which are provisioned by default during manufacturing ensuring only correctly provisioned card and devices work together.

As the card can get hot during heavy workloads it totally relies on the dock or host device for cooling. It is designed so that direct conductive contact with the card surfaces provide heat dissipation. This means the card is capable of operating within all critical component temperature specifications and will produce surface skin temperatures that may violate typical safety guidelines or requirements. To stop the user being burnt when handling the card immediately after use requires the dock or host device to delay the card being ejected if additional cooling is needed to reduce the skin temperature to below 55 °C.

Although the cards now targets OEMs, manufacturers, distributors and channel partners Intel have also released an Intel Compute Card Dock allowing consumers to use a card as a mini PC.

The key specifications of the dock include:

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and it comes with a small power brick with international plug adapters together with a two meter/six foot long power cable and the dock can be used with any of the cards.

Intel kindly provided a dock and three cards (CD1C64GK, CD1P64GK and CD1M3128MK) for review.

After connecting the power cable, a monitor using the HDMI port, a wireless keyboard and mouse that connects through a USB dongle and an ethernet cable, the basic operation requires sliding the card into the dock followed by firmly pushing it in to ensure connectivity.  The card can be removed by pressing the eject button which only works while power is connected. Then depending on the BIOS setting the card will either boot immediately or after the power button is pressed.

As the cards do not come with an OS I first installed Microsoft’s Windows 10 Enterprise product evaluation ISO in order to run my standard set of benchmarking tools to look at performance under Windows:

  • CD1C64GK Compute Card
  • CD1P64GK Compute Card
  • CD1M3128MK Compute Card

The results show the improvement the newer SoCs have given the cards over the sticks:

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and shows comparable performance with devices using similar SoCs:

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The results for the Core m3 card are significantly better due to the internal storage being an NVME device rather than eMMC however the fan was noticeably audible when running some benchmarks. Interestingly the eMMC performance of the Celeron card was better than the Pentium card and this is attributed to a tolerance in manufacturing of the eMMC rather than a device characteristic and this difference is reflected in some of the benchmark scores.

Next for each device I shrunk the Windows partition and created new a 10 GB partition so I could install and dual boot Ubuntu. I used a standard Ubuntu desktop ISO however whilst the installation completed successfully the Ubuntu NVRAM entry failed to be created correctly on the Core m3 card and needed to be fixed by manually using the ‘efibootmgr’ command.

For each card I ran some basic commands to look at the hardware in more detail:

  • CD1C64GK compute card

  • CD1P64GK compute card

  • CD1M3128MK compute card

Running my usual suite of Phoronix tests shows a similar performance improvement of the cards over the sticks in Ubuntu:

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with Ubuntu’s Octane result being slightly better than in Windows.

Looking at the individual performance of the Intel Apollo Lake cards against similar devices:

shows the cards performed the best:

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Playing videos under Windows using either a browser (Edge or Chrome) or KODI worked without issue on each device:

  • CD1C64GK Compute Card
  • CD1P64GK Compute Card
  • CD1M3128MK Compute Card

Under Ubuntu the previously seen issue of playing 4K videos in Chrome was encountered even on the Core m3 card and playing the videos at 1080p resolved stuttering and frame loss:

    • CD1C64GK Compute Card
    • CD1P64GK Compute Card
  • CD1M3128MK Compute Card

And again some HECV videos played properly under Ubuntu while some videos resulted in a blank (black) screen just with audio. I also noticed for the first time that one of the working HECV video was actually very slightly jerky in parts on the Apollo Lake cards but played perfectly on the Core m3 card. The drawback however was that the fan is also noticeably audible when playing the video on the Core m3 card.

The internal temperature when playing videos using KODI on the Apollo Lake cards is very similar whereas it is much higher on the Core m3 card although the dock’s fan was able to prevent any thermal throttling:

and the external temperature did not exceed 33/35°C.

Interestingly the ‘temperature cost’ of KODI is very significant on the Core m3 and was obvious after exiting the application:

Network connectivity throughput measured using ‘iperf’ was similar across the cards:

with the wifi performance measuring much better than comparable mini PC devices.

Power consumption for the dock (DK132EPJ) alone was measured as:

  • Powered off – 0.3 Watts

Power consumption for the Celeron card (CD1C64GK) in the dock was measured as:

  • Powered off – 0.8 Watts
  • *Standby – 1.0 Watts
  • BIOS menu – 5.4 Watts
  • Boot menu – 4.8 Watts
  • Idle – 3.9 Watts (Ubuntu) and 5.2 Watts (Windows)
  • **CPU stressed – 8.3 Watts (Ubuntu)
  • ***Video – 7.4 Watts (HD in Ubuntu) and 7.7 Watts (4K in Windows)

Power consumption for the Pentium card (CD1P64GK) in the dock was measured as:

  • Powered off – 0.8 Watts
  • *Standby – 1.0 Watts
  • BIOS menu – 5.1 Watts
  • Boot menu – 4.5 Watts
  • Idle – 3.8 Watts (Ubuntu) and 5.0 Watts (Windows)
  • **CPU stressed – 8.2 Watts (Ubuntu)
  • ***Video – 7.8 Watts (HD in Ubuntu) and 7.5 Watts (4K in Windows)

Power consumption for the Core m3 card (CD1M128MK) in the dock was measured as:

  • Powered off – 0.8 Watts
  • *Standby – 1.0 Watts
  • BIOS menu – 9.7 Watts
  • Boot menu – 7.8 Watts
  • Idle – 4.8 Watts (Ubuntu) and 5.0 Watts (Windows)
  • **CPU stressed – 13.0 Watts (Ubuntu)
  • ***Video – 7.7 Watts (HD in Ubuntu) and 7.9 Watts (4K in Windows)

*Standby is after the OS has been halted and card is available for removal.

**The dock’s fan initially creates a high power demand and before reducing to a constant rate.

***The dock’s fan speed changes due to the temperature and consequently the power figures fluctuate. The value is the average of the average high and low power readings.

Finally the BIOS for each card only has a few key settings available:

One issue I encountered when removing a Sandisk Ultra Fit USB from the front port on the dock is that it is very easy to accidentally press ‘eject’ or catch the ‘power’ button resulting in the card shutting down.

The lack of a USB Type-C port on the dock is also a noticeable omission given a DisplayPort is provided. Neither is there an SD or micro SD card slot.

Overall the card and dock combination works well and the performance is as good or better than equivalent mini PCs. The design is well executed and an the card is a great innovation for computing.

The cards come with a three (3) year warranty and the dock comes with a one (1) year warranty no doubt limited because of the internal fan. The support that Intel offers is very good with regular BIOS updates and drivers available from their support website and RMA for defective devices under warranty in the country of purchase.

However for consumers who are less risk-averse they are expensive especially when compared to other mini PCs using the same Apollo Lake SOCs and when the cost of support is not factored into the purchase price.

The price also reflects the premium of the form-factor. Whilst the card and dock fulfill the functions of a mini PC the cost of ‘portability’ is hard for consumers to justify given the alternatives to the dock such as a card based laptops or a card based all-in-ones have so far failed to materialize. Equally the Core m cards and dock are competing both on price and better configurability with Intel’s own NUC range. From a consumer perspective the Intel Core m3 Compute Stick with pre-installed and fully licensed Windows 10 is actually a better option purely because it is cheaper than the overall cost of the cheapest card (Celeron), dock plus the cost of the Windows 10 software and would then offer a far superior performance than the compute card package.

With Gemini SOC mini PCs already announced it seems unlikely the card and dock will be popular with consumers unless manufacturers can offer products which use the cards at price competitive points. Which is a shame as they are very good products with very good support.

Intel Apollo Lake Windows 10 Benchmarks Before and After Meltdown & Spectre Security Update

January 6th, 2018 36 comments

So this week, there’s been a fair amount of news about Meltdown & Spectre exploits, which affects all major processor vendors one way or another, but especially Intel, and whose mitigations require operating systems and in some case microcode updates that decrease performance for some specific tasks.

Microsoft has now pushed an update for Windows 10, and since I’m reviewing MINIX NEO N42C-4 mini PC powered by an Intel Pentium N4200 “Apollo Lake” processor, and just happened to run benchmarks before the update, so I decided to run some of the benchmarks again to see if there was any significant difference before and after the security update.

First I had to verify I had indeed received the update in the “installed update history”, and Windows 10 Pro was updated on January 5th with KB4056892, which is what we want, so let’s go ahead.

Benchmarks before Update

PCMark 10 is one of my favorite benchmark since it relies on typical program that many people would use on their desktop computer.

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Link to full results.

Let’s through 3DMark Sky Diver to get some 3D graphics performance.

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Link to 3DMark result.

Finally, I’ve run CrystalDiskMark to test I/O performance of the internal eMMC flash.

Benchmarks after Update

Let’s see if there are any significant differences, bearing in mind there’s always some variation for each benchmark run.

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Link to full results.

Right the score is lower, but it’s really insignificant, and represents at 0.63% decrease in performance, which should likely have nothing to do with the update. So no difference before and after update here.

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Same story for 3DMark Sky Diver 1.0, basically the same score as before the update. Link to 3DMark result.

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There’s normally a lot more variation for I/O benchmarks like CrystalDiskMark, so results are a bit  more difficult to analyze, and have both screenshot side-by-side. We can safely say there’s no difference for sequential read/write (Seq Q32T1 & Seq), and I even got slightly better numbers after the updates. Random I/O look fairly good after the update, except for “4K Read” test. I repeated it several times, and always got 14 to 17 MB/s after the update (23 to 37% slower), while the “4K write” was always higher. This should not matter to most use cases.

At this stage, I was expecting to draw a table showing a 5% difference after the update, but I won’t, because there’s no clear performance hit after the update, despite Apollo Lake architecture being impacted by Meltdown and Spectre. Maybe some other database specific tests would have shown a difference, or the security fixes may mostly impact the performance of higher-end processors.

PICO-APL3 Apollo Lake Pico-ITX Board Comes with an Optional TPM 2.0 Module

January 2nd, 2018 4 comments

AAEON has launched another industrial Pico-ITX board powered by Intel Celeron/Pentium Apollo Lake processors with their PICO-APL3 Pico-ITX single board computer featuring either Celeron N3350 or Pentium N4200 processor together with 2 to 4GB soldered DDR3L memory, and 16 to 64 GB eMMC flash.

The company explains that one of key differences against other similar board is the option for a TPM module / hardware security that would allow applications such as payment processing for retailers or on the go.

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AAEON PICO-APL3 board specifications:

  • SoC
    • Intel Celeron N3350 dual core Apollo Lake processor @ up to 1.10/2.40GHz with 12EU Intel HD Graphics 500; 6W TDP
    • Intel Pentium N4200 quad core Apollo Lake processor @ up to 1.10/2.50GHz with 18 EU Intel HD Graphics 505; 6W TDP
  • System Memory – 2GB DDR3L on-board (Option to 4GB)
  • Storage – 16GB eMMC flash (32/64 GB as option), 1x SATA III port (5V/12V power), M.2 2280 B Key slot for SSD, SPI flash for AMI BIOS
  • Video Output / Display
    • HDMI 1.4b up to 3840×2160 @ 30 Hz
    • Optional internal eDP up to 4096×2160 @ 60 Hz
    • Optional DDI via BIO interface
  • Audio – ALC269 audio codec + audio header
  • Connectivity – Gigabit Ethernet via Reaktek RTL8111G PCIe Ethernet controller
  • USB – 2x USB 3.0 ports, 2x USB 2.0 header shared with fan connector
  • Serial – 2x RS-232 serial ports (COM1/COM2)
  • Camera I/F – 2-lane MIPI-CSI connector for optional 2MP camera, 4-lane MIPI-CSI connector for optional 8MP camera
  • Expansion
    • 1x  M.2 2280 B Key slot with PCIe, SATA, USB 2.0/3.0, etc…
    • 1x M.2 2230 E Key slot with PCIe, USB 2.0, etc…
    • I2C, SMBus, I2S
    • 4-bit DIO
    • Optional 80-pin BIO connector for AAEON daughterboards
  • Security – Optional TPM 2.0 module for hardware security
  • Misc – Wake on LAN, Watchdog Timer, fan connector
  • Power Supply – +12V via lockable & Phoenix terminal co-lay
  • Dimensions –  100×72 mm ( PICO-ITX form factor)
  • Weight – 250 grams
  • Temperature range – Operating: 0°C ~ 60°C; storage: -40˚C ~ 80˚C
  • Humidity – 0% ~ 90% relative humidity, non-condensing
  • MTBF –  110,000 hours
  • Certifications – CE,FCC

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The board comes with an optional heatspreader, heatsink & cooler. The product page does not mention anything about operating system, but if you download the user’s manual there, they explain how to install drivers for Windows 8.1/10. Linux should be working too, as the manual asked to disable “Monitor Mwait” in the BIOS to install a Linux OS.

The board should be available now at an undisclosed price.

 

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MINIX NEO N42C-4 Triple Display Capable Mini PC Review – Part 1: Unboxing and Teardown

December 18th, 2017 4 comments

MINIX NEO N42C-4 mini PC was first unveiled last September at IFA 2017, as the first Apollo Lake mini PC from the company. The device has some interesting features like the possibility to upgrade the RAM thanks to two SO-DIMM slots, and storage via an M.2 SSD slot, and support for up to three display via HDMI 1.4, mini DisplayPort 1.2, and USB type C connector. Just like MINIX NEO Z83-4 Pro model, the device is pre-loaded with an activated version of Windows 10 Pro, and includes a VESA mount.

The company has now officially launched the device, with sales starting at the end of December for US$299.90 / 299.90 Euros on sites like Amazon [Update: NEO N42C-4 is now up for pre-order on GearBest]. MINIX has sent me a unit for review, so as usual, I’ll start by checking out of hardware, before testing Windows 10 Pro, system performance and stability in a separate post.

MINIX NEO N42C-4 Unboxing

While it remains blue, they’ve slightly redesigned the package, as you can see by comparing it to the one for MINIX NEO Z83-4 Pro.

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The specifications are the same as the ones unveiled at IFA 2017 with an Intel Pentium N4200 Apollo Lake processor, with 4GB RAM (upgradable), 32 GB eMMC 5.1 flash, a 2280 M.2 slot for an optional SSD, and support for three independent display via HDMI 1.4 up to 4K @ 30 Hz, Mini DP (DisplayPort) up to 4K @ 60 Hz, and USB Type C up to 4K @ 60 Hz.

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The mini PC ships with about the same accessories as NEO Z83-4 Pro model, including a HDMI cable, 6 screws for the VESA mount (not shown in the photo below), a 12V/3A power supply and power cord, MINIX product brochure, and MINIX NEO N42C-4 setup guide. The external WiFi antenna is gone, as the new design- as we’ll see below – uses two internal antennas instead, and this time the company included plug adapter for the US, Europe, and the UK.

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There’s also another small bad with rubber pads, more screws for an M.2 SSD for example, and what looks like an optical S/PDIF adapter.

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The enclosure is made of plastic, with three USB 3.0 ports and the power button on one side, a Kensington lock and a CMOS clear pinhole on the other. The rear panel features the power jack, a Gigabit Ethernet port, the miniDP port, HDMI output, USB type C, and a combo headphone / SPDIF audio jack.

The user manual indicate some of the limitations for the video output:

  1. Mini DP  port – N42C-4 only supports mini DP to D-Sub conversion or direct mini DP to mini DP/DP connection. Mini DP to HDMI or Mini DP to DVI is not supported
  2. USB type C – Only support video output, not audio output. Hot plugging is not supported, meaning you should only connect/disconnect the display when NEO N42C-4 is powered off.

The USB type C port supports 9V/2A, 12V/5A, and 15V/3A power input, but 20V/3.25A is not supported. Power output is limited to 5V/3A.

I’ve connected the SPDIF adapter, and could insert my TOSLINK cable into it. But I have not tested it yet.

MINIX NEO N42C-4 Teardown / M.2 SSD + RAM Installation

In most cases, users do not need to open their mini PCs, and I do open them to check out the hardware design. But MINIX NEO N42C-4 is different since it’s upgradeable, and you can add more RAM up to 8GB, add an M.2 SSD, or even replace the WiFi module. The company confirmed that if users upgrade the RAM or internal storage it won’t affect their warranty status, neither will it void the warranty.

For that reason, I expected them to make opening the device a little easier, but you’d still need to remove the four rubber pads, and loosen four screws on the bottom of the case. Also notice the Genuine Windows logo, something I seldom see on other devices.

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The bottom still come easily, but ideally the rubber pad and screws should be located at different location, as the sticky part on the rubber pads may not work that well if you open the device two or three times. Maybe that’s why they included a spare rubber pad set in the box.

The bottom of the board includes the RTC battery, two SO-DIMM connectors with one Samsung 4GB stick, and an Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 3168 (3168NGW) WiFi module with 802.11ac 1×1 WiFi and Bluetooth 4.2.

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You can also add your own M.2 SSD, and I did so with KingDian N480 2280 M.2 SSD with 240GB capacity, but it looks like 2260 M.2 SSD may also be supported. MINIX told me you can boot from M.2 SSD. Simply re-install the Windows 10 OS on the M.2 SSD, and disable the eMMC in the BIOS.

Most people won’t need to further remove the board from the case, but I still took it out to check more of the hardware design.

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All other MINIX mini PCs I’ve reviewed so far were fanless with a large heatsink covering the board, but the company has instead gone with a actively cooled design for their NEO N42C-4, with a copper heatsink fitted with a fan blowing out the warm air from one of the sides (the one with Kensington lock). The fan is connected via a 4-pin, so it should be controlled depending on temperature, and not spinning all the time.

Some of the visible chips include Realtek RTL8111F Gigabit Ethernet transceiver, Realtek ALC662 5.1 channel HD audio codec, and an ARM MCU (MINI5870E?) for power control. Some headers are also exposed for the ICE (In-Circuit Emulator), and serial interface for debugging.

I have not tried the VESA mount, but the installation procedure should be the same as for MINIX NEO Z83-4 Pro. Documentation and support are available through a dedicated forum.

Continue reading MINIX NEO N42C-4 Mini PC Review – Part 2: Windows 10 Pro.

Zotac ZBOX PI225 Review – SSD-Like Mini PC Tested with Windows 10 & Ubuntu

What makes the Zotac ZBOX PI225 so interesting is that this is the first true ‘card’ form-factor mini PC. It is a mini PC that looks like a SSD. Whilst Intel replaced the ‘stick’ form-factor with a similar ‘card’ form-factor for their next generation mini PCs they also required a ‘dock’ in order to use them. The difference with the PI225 however is that it actually is a standalone mini PC and includes all the necessary input/output ports.
Intrigued by this new form-factor I decided to purchase one and the following is my review of its performance and capabilities.
The Zotac ZBOX PI225 is a fanless device which features an Apollo Lake N3350 SoC with 32GB of storage pre-installed with Windows 10 Home, 4GB RAM, 802.11ac WiFi, Bluetooth 4.2, two USB Type-C ports, a micro SD card reader and a power connector.
Importantly it comes with all the accessories you need to get up and running:

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including a Windows OS recovery disk although perhaps this could have been better provided on an SD card for ease of access. The twin USB/HDMI adapter means the device’s built-in Type-C USBs make the PI225 future-proof whilst removing the need to purchase new cables from the outset. Adding a VESA mount is a nice touch and emphasizes the size or lack thereof given the device is marginally smaller than a regular SSD.
The device once booted starts Windows which becomes fully activated after connecting to the Internet:

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The basic hardware matches the specification:

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with just under half the storage used after Windows updates:
Running my standard set of benchmarking tools to look at performance under Windows:

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reveals the performance is much lower than expected for a N3350 SoC device. Checking the BIOS reveals that ‘Turbo Mode’ is disabled resulting in the clock speed being restricted to its based frequency of 1100 MHz and preventing it bursting to its top frequency of 2400 MHz.

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This was obviously set to limit the heat produced by the CPU and assist in the thermal design which makes use of the device’s outer metal case to dissipate heat in its role of passive cooling.
After enabling ‘Turbo Mode’ and ‘Active Processor Cores’

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the benchmarks were repeated:

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Interestingly the results for CrystalDiskMark noticeably improved after enabling ‘Turbo Mode’ and ‘Active Processor Cores’ as well:

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which is reflected in all the benchmarks including on Linux (see later) and highlights the need to ‘interpret’ the results as indicative comparisons rather than definitive and accurate measurements.
So with this in mind the full results can be compared with other devices such as Beelink AP34 Ultimate or BBEN MN10.

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Next I installed Ubuntu to the eMMC as dual-boot. The BIOS includes the ‘Intel Linux’ as an ‘OS Selection’ under Chipset/South Bridge/OS Selection:

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However I found it wasn’t necessary to change it when using a standard Ubuntu ISO and it also wasn’t necessary to respin an ISO using my ‘isorespin.sh’ script.
Similar to Windows there is a significant performance gain when enabling ‘Turbo Mode’ and ‘Active Processor Cores’:

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Octane without ‘Turbo Mode’:
recorded a result of nearly half that of Octane with ‘Turbo Mode’:
With ‘Turbo Mode’ enabled the performance is as expected when compared to other devices with the N3350 SoC:

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and can be compared with other Intel Apollo Lake devices:

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Revisiting the hardware using Linux commands additionally shows that the memory is faster at 1866 MHz and configured as quad-channel and that the micro SD card is running the faster HS400 interface:
The device doesn’t have a headphone jack so audio is only available over HDMI:

Before looking at real-world usage examples it is worth discussing the thermal limitations of the device. From running the benchmarks alone it would seem obvious that keeping ‘Turbo Mode’ enabled would ensure maximum performance from the device. But as previously mentioned this setting is originally disabled and in part the reason for this can be demonstrated using the Octane benchmark. Without ‘Turbo Mode’ the benchmark runs without issue:

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However with ‘Turbo Mode’ enabled (note the CPU speed below the graph on the right):

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the power limit (see ‘Maximum’ column on left) is exceeded.
When the device with ‘Turbo Mode’ enabled was put under continuous load, for example playing a 4K video, this causes the temperature to continually rise and then thermal protection cuts in and the device effectively crashes. The following screenshot was taken shortly before this occurred during testing and shows that the CPU speed had already been throttled although the core CPU temperatures are still rising:

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So the findings are that with both Windows and Ubuntu it is impossible to watch a 4K video of any length without the device crashing when ‘Turbo Mode’ was enabled.
The good news is that 4K videos play as good as any similar device without ‘Turbo Mode’. Starting with Windows the first test was watching a 4K video using Microsoft Edge which worked perfectly:

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The same video when watched using Google Chrome resulted in the very occasional dropped frame:

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and changing the video quality to high definition (1080p resolution) results in fewer dropped frames:

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Running on Ubuntu the same video at 4K in Google Chrome was unwatchable with excessive dropped frames and a stalled network connection after a short while:

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At 1080p the video is watchable but does suffer from dropped frames:

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Running Kodi on Windows with a VP9 codec encoded video used software for decoding resulting in high CPU usage:

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compared with a H.264 codec encoded video which uses hardware to decode:

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and similar for videos encoded with H.265 or HEVC:

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with no issues playing the videos.
On Ubuntu hardware is used to decode all three codecs:

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however some H.265 videos resulted in a blank (black) screen just with audio whereas others played without issue:

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During testing without ‘Turbo Mode’ the device heats up playing videos but reaches a point where the passive cooling prevents the device from overheating:

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But when the inside warms up so does the outside. Included within the packaging is a single slip of paper warning how the outside temperature can reach up to 57°C during continuous video playback:
Even allowing for a margin of error this temperature was reached during testing:
and with ‘Turbo Mode’ enabled the surface temperature can get very hot:
so that is a very good reason why this settings should not be enabled by default. For comparison a single walled paper cup of freshly poured coffee will be a similar temperature and for most people this is too hot to hold.
For WiFi connectivity, the 2.4 GHz throughput measured using ‘iperf’ shows 42.2 Mbits/sec for download but only 22.3 Mbits/sec for upload. However 5.0 GHz throughput is consistent with download measuring 152 Mbits/sec and upload of 142 Mbits/sec.

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I also purchased a small hub that connects through a Type-C connection and provides an HDMI port for video, a USB port for keyboard/mouse and a Gigabit Ethernet port for networking (‘iperf’ confirms 940 Mbits/sec for both upload and download). Using this hub means I still have the second Type-C port on the device for using a USB etc.
Power consumption for the device was measured as:
  • Power off – 1.0 Watts
  • Standby – 0.8 Watts
  • Boot menu – 5.0 Watts
  • Idle – 3.8 Watts (Ubuntu) and 4.3 Watts (Windows)
  • CPU stressed – 4.1 Watts (Ubuntu)
  • 4K video – 6.6 Watts (Ubuntu) and 6.4 Watts (Windows)

Finally the BIOS is very flexible with all the key settings available:

It may seem that this device is overly restricted by its thermal design. However, I’ve not found that to be the case once the limitations are known. The 4GB of memory is sufficient to run Windows or Linux OS and having a BIOS that supports Linux means that you are not restricted in what OS you can install. Storage can be expanded by using an SD card and the Type-C ports provide flexibility in how the device is connected. The ability to select ‘Turbo Mode’ means you can use this device as a mini PC although it should be disabled if using as an HTPC.  Zotac could have removed the setting from the BIOS, but kudos to them in leaving it and letting the user use the device and be responsible for how it is used. As shown the setting is not required for watching 4K videos, and this makes the device perfect for digital signage. Including the dual USB/HDMI adapter, VESA mount and the Windows recovery disk with detailed documentation is particularly noteworthy. Overall it is a very commendable effort given the new form-factor and challenges it presents.


Zotac ZBOX PI225 mini PC can be purchased for a little over $200 on websites such as Amazon or eBay.

Azulle Byte3 Mini PC Review – Windows 10, Linux Support, Benchmarks, and Video Playback

The Azulle Byte3 is a fanless Apollo Lake device featuring both M.2 slot and a SATA connector, as well as supporting HDMI and VGA. It includes USB (both 2.0 and 3.0 including a Type-C port) as well as Gigabit Ethernet:

 

It features an Apollo Lake N3450 SoC and comes with 32GB of storage plus an option of either 4GB or 8GB of RAM and a further option of either with or without Windows 10 Pro meaning Linux users can save around USD 20.

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Azulle provided me with a device for review and it came in a presentation box complete with a power adapter, and remote control together with a quick guide pamphlet.

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Whilst the power adapter includes an interchangeable plug it only came with one suitable for the US.

Looking at the detail specifications:

 

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it is important to realize that the Type-C USB is USB 3.0 which provides a theoretical transfer speed of up to 5 Gbps, and that this particular device does not support “alternate mode” protocols meaning it cannot be used for HDMI output.

The device under review is the version with 4GB of RAM together with Windows Pro installed which became fully activated after connecting to the Internet:

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The basic hardware matched the specification:

with just under half the storage used after Windows updates:

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Running my standard set of benchmarking tools to look at performance under Windows:

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The performance is as expected for the N3450 SoC and is comparable with other Apollo Lake devices: ECDREAM A9, BBen MN10, and Beelink AP34 Ultimate.

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Next I installed Ubuntu to the eMMC as dual-boot. Fortunately, the BIOS supports Linux by configuring the setting under Chipset/South Bridge/OS Selection:

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So it was only necessary to change the OS from ‘Windows’ to ‘Intel Linux’ and use a standard Ubuntu ISO. Alternatively you could leave the setting on ‘Windows’ and respin a standard Ubuntu ISO using ‘isorespin.sh’ script with the ‘–apollo’ option.

Performance is again as expected:

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and can be compared with other Intel Apollo Lake devices:

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Revisiting the hardware using Linux commands additionally shows the full-sized SD card is running the slower HS200 interface: