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MINIX NEO N42C-4 Pro Review – Part 3: Ubuntu / Linux

In the second part of MINIX NEO N42C-4 review (and on linuxium website), we looked at the device and the performance using Windows.  In this third part, we will look at how to install and the performance of using Linux (Ubuntu).

The BIOS does not include an option to select Linux as a boot OS and a standard Ubuntu ISO written to a USB will not boot. So to install Ubuntu to the eMMC as dual-boot first it was necessary to respin a standard Ubuntu ISO using my ‘isorespin.sh’ script with the ‘–apollo’ option, and which after creating a LiveUSB using the ‘dd’ command was used to boot and install Ubuntu.

First let’s remind ourselves of the hardware configuration by running some standard Linux commands:

This shows the memory will be dual-channel once the second slot (bank:1) is populated and also confirms that the eMMC 5.1 (mmc0) is running the faster HS400 interface. Headphones shows up as ‘Line Out’ in the sound settings and are selectable along with HDMI/DisplayPort and S/PDIF audio output:

Running my standard set of benchmarking tools shows performance is as expected:

and can be compared with other Intel Apollo Lake devices:

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Looking at real-world usage cases the first tested was watching a 4K video using Google Chrome was unwatchable with dropped frames:

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however at 1080p the video is watchable:

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Running Kodi videos encoded with the VP9, H.264 and H.265 or HEVC codecs used hardware for decoding:

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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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The internal fan was inaudible but works and prevents the device from heats up playing videos:

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with the external surface temperature not exceeding 38°C during continuous video playback:

Ethernet throughput measured using ‘iperf’ shows 941 Mbits/sec for download and 940 Mbits/sec for upload. For Wifi connectivity the 2.4 GHz throughput showed 42.2 Mbits/sec for download but only 30.1 Mbits/sec for upload. However 5.0 GHz throughput is good with download measuring 133 Mbits/sec and upload of 146 Mbits/sec.

Power consumption for the device was measured as:

  • Power off – 0.5 Watts
  • Boot menu – 4.0 Watts
  • Idle – 4.1 Watts
  • CPU stressed – 10.0 Watts
  • 1080p video – 9.3 Watts

When I reviewed Windows on the device I also added 4GB of RAM and installed a 240GB M.2 SSD. The updated memory hardware configuration now looks like:

After successfully installing Windows to the M.2 drive I also installed Ubuntu to the eMMC:

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And then after successfully reinstalling Windows on the eMMC flash, I also reinstalled Ubuntu on the M.2:

with no issues booting either OS from the BIOS boot menu (F11) showing that there is flexibility in installing Ubuntu either as dual-boot sharing a drive or using a dedicated drive.

Power consumption increased slightly with the extra RAM and M.2 drive and was measured as:

  • Power off – 0.5 Watts
  • Boot menu – 4.6 Watts
  • Idle – 4.6 Watts
  • CPU stressed – 10.9 Watts
  • 1080p video – 8.5 Watts

Finally given the price it is clear that MINIX have positioned this device as a Windows platform as evidenced by the lack of a Linux option in the BIOS. It performs well under Ubuntu however if that was to be the only installed OS then an Intel NUC or similar barebones device should probably be considered because the primary selling point for this device is the inclusion of the activated Windows 10 Pro license.

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

January 7th, 2018 9 comments

MINIX NEO N42C-4 is the first Apollo Lake mini PC from the company, which also happens to be their first one with a fan, using internal antennas for WiFi and Bluetooth, and offering user-upgradeable storage and memory thanks to M.2 and SO-DIMM slots. The device also features three video output via HDMI 2.0, mini DiplayPort, and USB Type C  ports supporting up to three independent display.

I’ve received a sample and already checked the hardware, and showed how to install an M.2 SSD and SO-DIMM RAM to the device in the first part of the review entitled  MINIX NEO N42C-4 Triple Display Capable Mini PC Review – Part 1: Unboxing and Teardown, so I’ll report my experience with Windows 10 Pro in the second part of the review, and there should also be a third part specifically dealing with Linux support.

MINIX NEO N42C-4 Setup, System Info, BIOS

The device is basically an update to MINIX NEO Z83-4 Pro mini PC, also running Windows 10 Pro but on a Cherry Trail processor instead, and maybe of the part will be similar so I’ll refer to that review from time to time.

I first connected the mini PC with the usual peripherals and cables including USB keyboard & mouse, USB 3.0 hard drive, HDMI cable to my 4K TV, Ethernet cable, and since the computer also comes with a USB type C port supporting DisplayPort Alt mode, I also connected Dodocool DC30S USB-C hub in order to get a second HDMI display.

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Time to connect the power supply, press the power button for two or three seconds to get started, with the blue LED on the front panel turning on, and shortly after getting to the Windows 10 Pro Welcome screen, where you could use Cortana voice assistant (or not) in order to go through the setup wizard to select the country and keyboard, accept the EULA, sign-in or create a user, set privacy settings and so on.

I won’t into details since the procedure is exactly the same as their previous moduel, and you can check the Windows 10 Pro setup wizard section of NEO Z83-4 Pro review to get more photos about the initial setup. What was different this time is that a large Windows update (2 to 3GB) was available, and I waited for it to complete before accessing Windows desktop, but as you can see from the photo below there’s also an option to “go to my desktop while my PC updates”.

Now we can get to the desktop, and check info about the Windows 10 license, and basic hardware info in Control Panel-> System and Security -> System. The mini PC runs an activated version of Windows 10 Pro 64-bit, and is equipped with an Intel Pentium N4200 CPU, 4GB RAM as advertised.

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I took a screenshot of the “Devices and drives” section in “This PC” right after initial setup, and the 32GB eMMC flash has a 28.1 GB Windows partition (C: drive) with only 7.72GB free, but later on a pop-up will show up asking whether we want to delete the old Window 10 update files, and free space will increase a lot.

The D: drive is the 240GB M.2 SSD I installed myself, but since I partitioned it for another review with EXT-4 and NTFS, only the 59.6GB NTFS shows up. E: and F: drives are the NTFS and EXFAT partition on the USB 3.0 drives, so all my storage devices and (Windows compatible) partitions have been detected and mounted properly.

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I tool a Device Manager screenshot for people wanting more technical details, and since we can see Trusted Platform Module 2.0 shown in security devices, I also launched tpm.msc “Trusted Platform Module Management” program to confirm the TPM was indeed ready for use.

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HWiNFO64 shows the same information as for other Intel Pentium N4200 systems, except for the CPU microcode (μCU) which has been updated to version 24, and hardware specific items like the motherboard name, and BIOS date and version.

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Since I don’t own any DisplayPort capable display, so I could not test triple display support, but I could still work with a dual setup display using the HDMI 2.0 port and USB type C port via my USB-C hub as shown in the photo below. You may want to read the video output ports limitation listed in the first part of the review to make sure the system meets your requirements if you plan to use three displays.

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Pressing “Esc” at boot time will allow you to access Aptio Setup Utility, often referred to as “BIOS”.

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In previous models, MINIX had added several extra features in Advanced->MINIX Feature Configuration, but when I went there I could only find EarPhone Standard selection, no more restore AC power loss, wake-on-lan, etc…But then I found the other extra MINIX options had moved to Advanced->Power Management Configuration, and we still have WoL, resotre AC power loss, RTC wakeup, etc.. functions. So all is well…

MINIX NEO N42C-4 Benchmarks

The performance of Intel Apollo Lake processor is now well know, but let’s still go through the usual benchmark to make sure everything is working as expected.

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A PCMARK 10 score of 1,568 points is actually quite better than the score I obtained with MeLE PCG03 Apo (Celeron N3450 – 1,334 points),  and MeLE PCG35 Apo (Pentium J3455 – 1,391 points), both quad core fanless Apollo Lake mini PCs, so it looks like the fan may be helping, as well as the faster storage as we’ll see below. For reference, NEO Z83-4 Pro’s PCMARK 10 score was 896 points, so there’s a clear performance benefit here.

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NEO N42C-4 passmark 9.0 score: 768.3 points. In this case, the mini PC is slower than MeLE PCG35 Apo with 790.7, which should be expected since Pentium J3455 (1.5/2.3 GHz, 10W TDP) is supposed to be a bit faster than Pentium N4200 (1.1/2.5 GHz, 6W TDP). However, if we compare to Voyo (V1) VMac Mini‘s score (1087.0 points) also based on Pentium N4200 processor, then it’s disappointing. But there’s an explanation, as PassMark attributes a significant share of the score to storage performance, and Windows 10 is install in the faster SSD in the Voyo mini PC, breaching Microsoft’s low cost license agreement in the process… However, there’s also another element of the score that is weak in N42C-4: 3D graphics mark (132.2 vs 325.8), and both systems were configured to use 1080p60.

I’ve run the 3G graphics mark manually again to make sure the issue was reproducible (it is), and get some data to compare to similar system with better score in the future.

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However, switching to 3DMark’s 3D graphics benchmarks, MINIX NEO N42C-4 performs better than Voyo V1 with respectively 366, 1,567, and 2,658 points for respectively Fire Strike 1.1, Sky diver 1.0, and Cloud gate 1.1, against 267, 1,384, and 2,347 points for the Voyo mini PC. Ice Storm benchmark failed to complete on NEO N42C-4 after three tries, even after a reboot, so there may be a problem with the 3D graphics drivers.

Links to results:

MINIX used a pretty good 32GB eMMC flash with sequential read up to 307.5 MB/s and writes around 81 MB/s, nearly twice as fast as their MINIX NEO Z83-3 Pro for reads, but random I/Os are roughly the same.

I also benchmarked KingDian N480 M.2 SSD, and results were even better than in MeLE PCG03 Apo mini PC with significantly better sequential and random speeds in most tests.

USB 3.0 NTFS write speed was rather poor (35 to 45MB/s) in MINIX NEO Z83-4 Pro mini PC, but NEO N42C-4 has no such problem getting over 100 MB/s for both read and write.

Full duplex Gigabit Ethernet performance is excellent:

802.11ac WiFi performance is also very good, and much better than MINIX NEO Z83-4 Pro:

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So in my case, having switched to internal antennas do not negatively affect performance at all.

I’ve compared MINI NEO N42C-4 mini PC to other Apollo Lake mini PCs, as well as Cherry Trail based MINIX NEO Z83-4, and an Intel Core M3-6Y30 Compute Stick, whenever scores are available. First, there’s a clear advantage of upgrading from the Cherry Trail model to the Apollo Lake one, N42C-4 has the best eMMC storage performance (although systems run Windows 10 on an SSD will be faster), and usually performs better than other Apollo Lake mini PCs, except for Passmark 9.0 due to poor 3D graphics issues in that benchmarks.

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Note that the values above have been adjusted with different multipliers for each benchmarks (e.g. 3DMark Fire Strike multiplied by 5) in order to display all benchmarks in a single chart.

MINIX NEO Z83-4 Stress Testing, Power Consumption, and Fan Noise

 

I also use the device as a desktop computer, doing my usual tests such as multi-tasking with Thunderbird, LibreOffice, Firefox, etc, as well as multitab web browser, YouTube, playing Aaphast 8: Airborne game, etc… It works well with a user experience similar to most Apollo Lake mini PC, and the usual caveat like YouTube 4K working better in Microsoft Edge, but usual in Chrome/Firefox as long as you disable VP9. Whether Kodi 17.6 works suitably well with depending on your requirements. Automatic frame rate switching, HDMI audio pass-through for Dolby Digital 5.1, and 4K H.265 / H.264 are usually all working, but VP9 is using software decode and is quite slow, pass-through for TrueHD and DTS HD is not working, and from time to time some H.265 videos just show a black screen.

I stress-tested the mini PC using Aida64’s stability test for two hours, and CPU temperature never exceeded 60°C, so no thermal throttling problem at all, and it should make a good mini PC in relatively hot environments. CPU frequency averaged 1.8 GHz.

 

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While there was not thermal throttling, the power limit was exceeded during spikes to burst frequencies, but I’d assume this may be normal behavior.

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While the mini PC comes with a fan it is incredibly quiet, and if my main computer – which I admit is rather noisy – completely overwhelm whatever noise comes from NEO N42C-4. When I turn off all other equipment, I cannot hear anything while idle, unless I place my hear close to the device, in which case I hear some low level noise, either the fan turning slowing, or another source of noise. Under load, it’s possible to hear the fan, but again noise is very low.

I used GM1352 sound level meter, placing the device about 2cm above the enclosure (since I don’t happen to own an anechoic chamber), and as you can see from the table below measured sound levels are really low compared to a device like Voyo VMac Mini.

Noise Level (dBA)
Ambient voise (aka Silence) 38.5 to 38.9
MINIX NEO N42C-4 Idle 39.1 to 39.5
MINIX NEO N42C-4 Stress test 39.7 to 40.4
Voyo Vmac Mini – Idle 52.3
Voyo Vmac Mini – Stress test 52.5 to 57.5

Finally some power consumption numbers without USB-C hub, nor USB 3.0 expansion drive unless otherwise noted:

  • Power off –1.1 to 1.2 Watts
  • Sleep – 1.2 Watts
  • Idle – 6.4 Watts
  • Aida64 stress test – 13.4 Watts
  • Kodi 4K H.264 from HDD – 14.3 to 16 Watts
  • Kodi 4K H.265 from HDD – 15 to 17.1 Watts

Conclusion

If you’ve been using MINIX NEO Z83-4 Pro mini PCs, MINIX NEO N42C-4 will offer a nice upgrade with significantly better performance, and all some problems I found in the Cherry Trail  device are gone: USB 3.0 NTFS write speed is normal (100 MB/s), and 802.11ac WiFI performance is excellent, the best I’ve tested so far (with iperf). Compared to other Apollo Lake mini PCs, the performance is also a bit higher, running temperature is very low (< 60 °C) thanks to the quiet fan, and you’ve got a TPM 2.0 chip, VESA mount, support for triple display setup, an activated Windows 10 Pro OS, all features normally not found in other cheaper models. The low running temperature should make it ideal in hot climates where room temperature may be 35 to 40ºC.

The mini PC has some of the same limitations as other Apollo Lake mini PCs, with Kodi 17.6 handling VP9 codec with software decode, and no TrueHD, nor DTS-HD pass-through), and watching online videos for example with YouTube works better in Microsoft Edge. The only small issues I found are low 3D graphics performance in Passmark 9.0 – but no such performance issues in other benchmarks – and 3DMark Ice Storm benchmark would not complete successfully.

MINIX NEO N42C-4 Pro mini PC sells for $299.90 and up on various sites including Amazon US, Amazon UKGearBest, GeekBuying, etc…

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.

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:

and that ‘Headphones’ shows up in the sound settings only when an external speaker is connected through the 3.5mm audio jack:

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Turning to real-world Windows usage cases the first tested 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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with the GPU having to work harder.

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

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Unfortunately the same video in Google Chrome on Ubuntu at 4K 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 with only the occasional dropped frame:

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Running Kodi on both Windows and Ubuntu show similar ‘differences’ in the results.

On Windows if the video is encoded using the VP9 codec then decoding is using software resulting in high CPU usage:

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However when the video is encoded with the H.264 codec then Windows 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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As previously mentioned the device is passively cooled and does not require an internal fan:

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although the device can get quite warm:

with the highest observed reading being 45°C.

Inside the device it is possible to mount both an SSD and an M.2 SSD:

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To open the case you only have to remove the outer four screws as the inner four are used to secure the SSD. The M.2 slot is for the longer 2280 card and you are meant to attach one of the included thermal strips to the aluminium heat sink for best results. I found that you could use the heat sink to effectively hold down a smaller 2242 M.2 card in place through a combination of force and gravity if you don’t have the correct size. The included instructions do not cover installation in detail however Azulle have uploaded the following useful videos online:

 

Once both SSDs were connected I then installed LibreELEC (or Just enough OS for Kodi) to the M.2 and Linux Mint to the SSD. Interestingly the M.2 showed up as a UEFI device in the boot menu which may mean installing Windows to an M.2 card is relatively simple although licensing should be considered. The SATA connected SSD was accessible through GRUB as the original Ubuntu installation had already created an NVRAM entry for ubuntu:

which when selected provides a GRUB menu updated with entries for Mint after the installation:

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Notice how the GRUB menu also includes an entry to boot Windows from the eMMC which works despite the OS now being set to Linux in the BIOS. There is also a working entry to access the BIOS (System setup).

Finally the BIOS is reasonably open with the key settings being available.

I’ve found this device to be very flexible. Storage is not an issue given the ability to expand through additional SSD or M.2 or even by using an SD card. Although the memory cannot be upgraded you do have the initial choice of either the 4GB or the 8GM device. Also having a BIOS that supports Linux means that you are not restricted in what OS you can install so the device is a viable HTPC especially as there is no residual noise from a spinning cooling fan. The connectivity and ports including their location on the device are also well planned. I’d like to thank Azulle for providing the Byte3 for review. The mini PC is also sold on Amazon US for $199.99 and up.

Amlogic S905X vs Rockchip RK3328 vs Allwinner H6 Processors – Benchmarks & Features Comparison

November 27th, 2017 46 comments

Rockchip, Amlogic and Allwinner are all battling for the lower and mid range segment of the TV box market, so it may be interesting to compare their solutions. We won’t look into the ultra low-end market with 32-bit ARM Cortex A7 processor, but instead compare some of the recent quad core 64-bit ARM Cortex A53 processor for 4K HDR TV box from the company with respectively Amlogic S905X, Rockchip RK3328, and Allwinner H6 SoCs.

We’ll compare some of the benchmarks obtained with Android TV boxes, as well as other features like video support, USB and Ethernet interfaces.

Benchmarks

Let’s start with results for popular Android benchmarks: Antutu 6.x, Vellamo 3.x, and 3DMark Ice Storm Extreme v1.2 with results obtained from 3 TV boxes: Mini M8S II (Amlogic S905X), A95X R2 (Rockchip RK3328), and Zidoo H6 Pro (Allwinner H6). A score is highlighted in green is there’s a clear winner, and in red for a clear loser.

Amlogic S905X Rockchip RK3328 Allwinner H6
CPU (1) Quad core Cortex A53
@ 1.51 GHz
Quad core Cortex A53
@ 1.51 GHz
Quad core Cortex A53
@ 1.8 GHz
GPU (2) ARM Mali-450MP3 ARM Mali-450MP2 ARM Mali-720MP2
Antutu 6.x
Overall 33,553 33,117 40,467 / 36,957 (2)
3D (1920×1080) 3,099 1,475 6,292 / 2,782 (2)
UX 12,365 16,426 13,360
CPU 12,438 10,486 16,395
RAM 5,651 4,730 4,420
Vellamo 3.x
Metal 910 937 930
Multicore 1,491 1,464 836 (3)
Browser 1,855 (Browser) 1,943 (Chrome) 2,546 (Browser)
3DMark – Ice Storm Extreme v1.2
Total score 4,183 2,252 3,951
Graphics score 3,709 1,871 3,643
Physics score 7,561 7,814 5,608

(1) Those are the frequencies reported by CPU-Z, and the actual maximum frequency may be different. For example, it appears Allwinner H6 can only run at 1488 MHz in a sustained manner, and possibly only reach 1.8 GHz during short bursts (TBC).
(2) Allwinner H6 is the only SoC to include a GPU supporting OpenGL ES 3.1, which means it is the only one to complete Marooned 3D graphics test (Antutu 3D test has two 3D benchmarks), and the other boxes just got zero since it did not run. So I’ve included two scores for overall and 3D Antutu results: actual score / score minus Marooned benchmark.
(3) Vellamo multicore had a warning on Zidoo H6 Pro, so it may not represent the actual performance of the device.

Allwinner H6 has a slight advantage, but during use it will be really hard to notice the difference between TV boxes with one of those processors, and other factor like RAM capacity and storage performance will have more influence.One exception is 3D performance, as Rockchip RK3388 is clearly slower here, and I could notice it while playing games.

Features

But SoC performance is only one side of the equation, so let’s have a look at some of the features from the SoCs, which may or not be implemented in some TV boxes. For reference I also included USB 2.0 or 3.0 storage (HDD NTFS partition), and Ethernet performance numbers. Those numbers may vary a lot with further software optimization, configuration tweaks, so they should only be used for reference. I used the same TV boxes as for the benchmark section, except for Gigabit Ethernet relying instead on iperf results from ROCK64 development board (RK3328) and K1 Plus (Note S905, no X, for reference only, but in my experience all Fast Ethernet interfaces have about the same performance), and NEXBOX A95X for the USB storage performance.

Amlogic S905X Rockchip RK3328 Allwinner H6
Video
– 4K 10-bit HEVC Up to 60 fps
– 4K VP9 Up to 60 fps
– 4K H.264 Up to 30 fps (8-bit only) Up to 30 fps (8-bit and 10-bit) Up to 30 fps (8-bit only)
USB 2.0 / 3.0 USB 2.0 USB 3.0 USB 3.0
– A1SD Bench (R/W) 37/37 MB/s 94.52/90.73 MB/s 59.07/42.12MB/s
Ethernet 10/100M only Gigabit Ethernet MAC Gigabit Ethernet MAC
– iperf (full duplex) 91.6/91.8 Mbits/s 815/344 Mbits/s 758/350 Mbits/s
RAM Capacity (Max) 2GB 4GB 2GB
Misc  TS, Smartcard interface TS, Smartcard interface, PCIe

I did not include audio, as all those SoC are supposed to support Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD audio codec pass-through. but implementation varies a lot between devices.

Amlogic S905X is the weakest of the lot based on the two tables above, but it’s also the cheapest SoC among the three, and in my experience, one with the best support in Kodi, for example. Rockchip RK3328 is not much more expensive, and have many benefits, except when it comes to 3D graphics performance, but it usually only matter if you plan to play games on the platform, the GPU is usually good enough for user interfaces. Allwinner H6 has more interfaces, a Mali GPU with OpenGL ES 3.1 and OpenCL support, and lightly more interfaces. The few devices that are based on the Allwinner processor are currently quite more expensive with all other features being equal.

 

Xiaomi Mi A1 Smartphone Review – Part 2: Android 7.1.2 Firmware

November 15th, 2017 12 comments

Google recently announced several Android One smartphones, which are supposed to get 2 years of firmware updates, including to the latest version of Android, such as HTC U11 Life and Android One Moto X4. Many of those phones are limited to some specific countries, but Xiaomi Mi A1 will be launched in over 40 countries, and thanks to Chinese online shops is really available worldwide. GearBest sent me the latter last month, and in the first part of Xiaomi Mi A1 review I simply went through unboxing, booted the phone, perform an OTA update, and ran Antutu 6.x on the phone for a quick estimate of performance.

Since then, I’ve had around four weeks to play with the smartphone running Android 7.1.2 (still), so I’m ready to report my experience in the second part of the review.

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General Impressions

In the past year, I used Vernee Apollo Lite smartphone powered by Mediatek Helio X20 deca-core SoC, which in theory is quite faster than the Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 used in Mi A1, but in practise, I did not feel much difference in performance for example while browsing the web or checking email, and in some games, performance of Xiaomi Mi A1 was actually much better than on Apollo Lite, as I reported in the post entitled “Mediatek Helio X20 vs Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 – 3D Graphics Benchmarks and CSR 2 Game“.

Some of my wishes in Vernee Apollo Lite included a better camera, and improved GPS accuracy, and Mi A1 is a big improvement for both as we’ll see in more details later on in the review. The build quality of the phone is good, and the design looks more stylish and thinner than my previous phone. The display is clear, and I like the wide brightness range, that is low enough not to hurt eyes in the dark, and high enough to use the phone in sunlight. It’s quite glossy though, so you’ll have reflect especially with black background, and it’s possibly to use it as a mirror without turning it on… I seldom call with my phone, but the couple of times I made or received actual calls, the sound was loud and clear. I spend most of my time browsing the web, checking emails, watching YouTube video, and playing games (mostly CSR 2) on my phone, and do so over WiFi connection, and the phone just works flawlessly for this with good performance, and no overheating (that I could notice) contrary to Vernee Apollo Lite, which does get hot in some cases, and slows down considerably.

I’m also happy about battery life, and with my use case of hour 4 to 5 hours use a day, I can still get around 30 hours on a charge. One of the downside is the lack of fast charging, so I can’t quickly top of the battery for 5 minutes before going out. A full charge takes around 1h30, so still not too bad, and since the battery lasts more than 24 hours, it would be possible to charge every day at the same time to avoid low battery charge while on the go.

The main selling of the phone is being part of Android One program, as you’ll get security updated once or twice a month, as well as bigger Android version updates for two years hopefully up to Android 9 / P.  You do pay a premium for this, so if regular security/firmware updates are not important to you, you’ll get better value with other smartphones.

Overall, I’m very satisfied with Xiaomi Mi A1 smartphone, I could not find any major flaws so far, so I can safely recommend it especially if having up-to-date firmware (for the next two years) is important to you.

Benchmarks: Antutu, Vellamo, and 3DMarks

Here are Antutu 6.x benchmark results for people who have yet to read the first part of the review.

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60,000 points is a decent score for a mid-range phone, but for example quite lower than the 85,840 points I got on Vernee Apollo Lite.

Next up… Vellamo 3.x benchmark. Comparisons are against older phone / Android version, so I should probably drop that benchmark in future reviews…

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Note that I could not run Vellamo with Chrome browser, since it would hang during CSS 3D animation. Firefox mostly worked, except for Pixel Bender test timing out… The number are all much lower than my Vellamo results on Vernee Apollo Lite.

So I also ran GeekBench 4. AFAIK, It’s however limited to CPU performance so it does not really give real world indication like Vellamo’s Browser test for example.

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We can see the single core performance is quite lower than more powerful Cortex A72 “class” processors, but multicore performance is close enough. You can find the full details here.

I also ran 3DMark Ice Store Extreme for evaluation 3D performance further. Vernee Apollo Lite would max out the test, but Xiaomi Mi A1 scored “only” 8,045 points.

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The interested part is that my real-life experience does not match the benchmarks at all, as I found Mi A1 to perform just as well as if not much better in many apps. We’ll find out one potential reason just below.

Storage and Wi-Fi Performance

I ran A1 SD Benchmark app to estimate storage performance of 64 GB eMMC flash, and Xiaomi Mi A1 has by far the best storage I’ve used on any devices.

With sequential read speed of 198.94 MB/s, and a write speed of 192.45 MB/s, the device is in a class of its down. Ideally, random I/O performance should be tested too, but it still gives an indication.

Read & Write Speeds in MB/s – Click to Enlarge

Time for some WiFi testing. I did not have any issues, and felt web pages were always loading fast, and YouTube videos played smoothly even at 1080p. But let’s have some numbers to play using SAMBA file copy (278MB) over 802.11ac WiFi  with ES File Explorer, and placing the phone is the same test location as the other DUTs. Just like many recent devices SAMBA “download” is much faster than “upload”:

  • File copy SAMBA to Flash – 47.5s on average (5.85 MB/s)
  • File copy Flash to SAMBA – 2m10s on average (2.13 MB/s)

When we average both numbers, Xiaomi WiFi SAMBA performance is only slightly above average, but still outperformed by some 802.11n devices.

Throughput in MB/s – Click to Enlarge

Maybe that’s an Android Nougat bug… In order to have raw numbers, I also used  iperf for both upload and download

  • 802.11ac WiFi upload:

  • 802.11ac WiFi download:

Assymetry is gone, and Mi A1 is the best device in that test, but we have less data for comparison…

Throughput in Mbps

The main takeaway is that WiFi is working well, and performance is very good.

Rear and Front Facing Cameras

Beside being part of Android One program, another key feature of Xiaomi Mi A1 smartphone is the dual rear camera with optical zoom.

Rear Camera

So I’ve taken a few shots with the camera, starting with an easy cat shot… The thing that surprised me the most at first was the speed at which the photo is taken. It just happens instantaneously. With older devices, I often had to wait around one second after pressing the button while it was doing the auto-focus and take photos. You can launch the camera app very quickly – without having to unlock your phone – by pressing the power button twice.

“What do you want?” Cat – Click for Original Size

Clear enough for a camera phone. Close up shots are sometimes problematic with phone, but I had pretty good results. The text book shot is close to perfect.

I used to Read that Stuff – Click for Original Size

Development board can be tricky to photograph because the camera can focus on the wrong part (e.g. top of Ethernet/USB connector), But Orange Pi One photo below is fairly good. I had to try a few times to get the right focus.

 

Best.Board.Ever? – Click for Original Size

You can press on the live view to set the focus point. It will help.

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Flower photos were also good with color matching reality.

Local Angel – Click for Original Size

Photos taken with good lighting are always good.

What year is this? Morning Shot – Click for Original Size

The photo above was taken in the morning with the sun in my back.

Dirt Road Genocide at Sunset – Click for Original Size

When it get a little dark, or in shots with different lighting conditions for foreground and background it helps to enable HDR function.

HDR Works in Temples Too – Click for Original Size

Night shots can be a little grainy, but I find they are still pretty good…

Smoking Bear with Pig and Hedgehog overlooked by Confused Panda at Night – Click for Original Size

Now some video testing, starting with the easiest of all 1080p30 day time video.

The video looks fine, but if you’ve watched it with audio, you may have noticed may not be quite right with the microphone/audio.

4K video can be recorded at 30 fps, but it does feel as smooth as the 1080p one while panning.

All videos are recorded using MP4 Quicktime container, H.264 video codec @ 30 fps, and MPEG-4 AAC stereo audio. If you plan to watch 4K videos from the phone on TV, you’ll have to make sure the player supports 4K H.264 @ 30 fps, as some 4K TV boxes are limited to 24 fps.

Slow motion recording is something that I did not have in my previous phone, and it’s working fairly well up to 720p30 (recorded at 120 fps).

Night time videos are the most difficult, and even at 1080p the results are quite poor with the video frame rate at 14 fps, auto focus being seriously confused, and and audio has a metallic component to it, even more than for the video I recorded during day time.

So I tried again to shot a video will taking to myself, and audio was just fine. So I guess the issue may be specific to far field audio or traffic noise.

Font-facing camera

The front-facing camera works pretty well for selfies.

Angel with Bra – Click for Original Size

Golden Necklace Beauty – Click for Original Size

Black “The Boss” – Click for Original Size

I also used it with a one hour long Skype call.

Camera App Settings

Let’s have a look at the camera app interface. In the preview window we have three icons at the top to change flash settings, enable/disable portrait mode (if enabled it will bur the background), and enable/disable HDR.

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If we tap on Options we’ll have the choice to play with Panorama mode, adjust timer and audio settings, set manual camera settings for white balance, exposure time, focus, ISO, lens selection (wide/tele), and more. Tapping the Settings icon on the top right corner will bring further camera settings.

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If you plan to share photos with strangers you may want to disable “Save location info” as otherwise your GPS location will be embedded into the photos’s EXIF info. Face detection is nice, but you may consider disabling “Age & gender”, as it will automatically detect whether a person is male or female, and estimate their age while taking a photo (although it won’t show on the photo itself). I’ve seen the phone misgender people, and age can always be a contentious subject 🙂

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If we switch to video capture we have much fewer options, mostly time-lapse or slow-motion, and we can select video quality (4K, FULL HD, HD, SD).

Battery Life

Xiaomi Mi A1’s ~3,000 mAh baterry provides enough juice for over 30 hours in my use cases (Web browsing / YouTube / Gaming 4 to 5 hours a day). I also like to turn off my phone automatically at night between 22:00 and 7:00, so it adds a little to the battery life too. A typical cycle for charge to charge looks as the one below.

I normally use LAB501 Battery Life app to test battery life from 100% to 15% for browsing, video and gaming cases, with brightness to 50%, WiFi and Cellular (no data) enabled, but for some reasons I cannot explain, the tests would always stop after a few hours – despite several attempts -, not drawing the battery down to 15%.

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However, the battery discharge on this phone, and Vernee Apollo Lite looks linear…

…so I’ll use linear approximation to estimate the actual battery life..

  • Browsing (100% to 15%) – 740 minutes (12h20)
  • Video (100% to 15%) –  598 minutes (9h58)
  • Gaming (100% to 15%) –  389 minutes (6h29)

…and compare it to the other battery powered mobile devices I’ve tested so far.

Battery Life in Minutes

Xiaomi Mi A1 wins hands down against the other (older) devices I’ve tested when it comes to battery life. The good news is that battery life seems to improve over the years, as the older devices fare the worse. So a few more years, and we can get a week of charge on our phones?

Charging is not as fast as on Vernee Apollo Lite since there’s no Quick Charge, and it takes 1h30 to 1h50 to fully charge the phone from 15% to 100%. Topping the battery from a low of 8% to 27% took me 23 minutes. For comparison, I could do a full charge in one hour on Apollo Lite with Quick Pump 3.0, and a 20 minute charge would add about 40% to the battery.

Miscellaneous

Bluetooth

No problems here. I could transfer photos between the phone and Zidoo H6 Pro Android TV box over Bluetooth, connect two different Bluetooth headsets to the phone, and pair with, and retrieve data from a fitness tracker using Smart Movement app.

GPS

GPS is also an improvement over all the other Mediatek phones I’ve had. GPS fix is super fast like on Vernee Apollo Lite, but while using Nike+ Running, GPS accuracy is much better on the Xiaomi Mi A1 smartphone, as you can see from the two screenshots below.

Xiaomi Mi A1 (left) vs Vernee Apollo Lite (Right) – Click to Enlarge

I ran two laps with the Xiaomi phone, and they almost exactly overlap. The downside is that I have to run a little longer to achieve the same distance on the app 🙂

Gaming

I tried four games: Candy Crush Saga, Beach Buggy Bleach, Riptide GP2, and CSR Racing 2. All played very smoothly, to my surprise CSR 2 performed much better than on Vernee Apollo Lite, despite the latter having a more powerful ARM Mali-T880 GPU in Helio X20 SoC. As mentioned in a aforelinked post, I can see 3 potential reasons for the difference in that game: more optimization on Qualcomm SoCs than Mediatek SoCs, slightly lower level of details shown in the Qualcomm phone, better cooling for Xiaomi Mi A1 smartphone, which stays cool at all times, contrary to the Vernee phone which may require a cool pack to run smoothly…

IR Transmitter / Remote Control App

An infrared transmitter is built into Xiaomi Mi A1  smartphone, and can be control with Mi Remote app. I tried with LG 4K UHD TV, and it worked well.

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Air conditioners are always more challenging. So first I had to go through a process to detect which Haier aircon model I had, pressing poweroff button, and then other buttons, to find the right model among 158 options.

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It finally found mine, I gave it a name “Bedroom Haier AC” and realized on some functions would work, and some temperatures are not supported. So not so useful in that case.

Others

Multitouch app reports the touchscreen supports 10 touch points. The smartphone has a single speaker with mediocre quality when listening to music, but that’s not that big of an issue as Bluetooth speakers are now rather inexpensive, and in my daily life I mostly use wired or Bluetooth audio headsets. It’s good to have a 3.5mm audio jack, but I normally prefer when it’s placed on the top of the phone, rather than the bottom left, which can be an issue when using an armband, or while holding the phone.

Video Review

I’ve also shot a video review mostly summarizing the points above, showing the camera in action, playing Riptide GP2, a YouTube video up to 1080p, opening a large PDF files, etc…

Long Term Review / History

Since I’ve very satisfied with the phone, I’m going to retire Vernee Apollo Lite, and make Mi A1 my main phone. Since it’s also supposed to be upgraded for two years, I’ll keep this section to report the history of the phone, like a long term review, and report important events like firmware updates, or if something stops working. I got 3 firmware updates since I received the phone less than a month ago.

  • September 5, 2017 – Xiaomi Mi A1 announcement
  • September 12, 2017 – Official launch in India
  • October 16, 2017 –  Unboxing and September 2017 security update (1059.6 MB), Android 7.1.2 / Linux 3.18.31
  • October 21, 2017 – October 2017 security update (118 MB), Android 7.1.2 / Linux 3.18.31
  • November 3, 2017 – October 2017 security update (75.7 MB), Android 7.1.2 / Linux 3.18.31
  • November 15, 2017 – This review
  • November 22, 2017 – November 2017 security update (466.9 MB), Android 7.1.2 / Linux 3.18.31
  • December 12, 2017 – December 2017 security update (153.0 MB), Android 7.1.2 / Linux 3.18.31
  • December 27, 2017 – December 2017 security update (63.4MB), Android 7.1.2 / Linux 3.18.31
  • December 31, 2017 – December 2017 update (1107.4MB), Android 8.0.0 / Linux 3.18.66

Conclusion

I’m really pleased with my experience with Xiaomi Mi A1 smartphone, and to my surprise it’s an improvement over Vernee Apollo Lake with most features, except for fast charging that’s missing from the phone.

PROS

  • Stable and relatively recent Android 7.1.2 firmware
  • Part of Android One program with promise of regular security and firmware updates for 2 years (including Android 8.x and 9.x).
  • Good & sharp 1920 x 1080 display; wide brightness range
  • Excellent Wi-Fi 802.11ac performance
  • Excellent eMMC flash performance (Best I’ve tested so far)
  • Long battery life (about 30 hours per charge for 4 to 5 hours active use per day)
  • Good front-facing camera and rear dual cameras for depth effect
  • Overall better app performance compared to my previous Helio X20 based smartphone, especially for some games
  • Support forums

CONS

  • Quick Charge (Fast charging) not available
  • Videos shot with the rear camera are not smooth in dark scenes, and audio is poor in some videos (metal sound)
  • SAMBA WiFi performance is average for transfer from phone to server
  • Mi Remote  app (infrared remote) is not working well with my aircon (Haier)
  • Display is quite glossy / reflective
  • Built-in speaker not really good to listen to music
  • Android One support may add about $30 to $40 to the price of the phone
  • GPL source code not released yet, but an article suggests Mi A1 Linux kernel source code may be released within three months.

I’d like to thank GearBest for providing a review sample. Xiaomi Mi A1 (Black) can be purchased on their shop for $219.99 shipped with coupon A1HS. Other shopping options include GeekBuying, Banggood, eBay, and others online shops.

Some people noticed that Xiaomi Redmi Note 4 smartphone has very similar specifications with a Snapdragon 625 processor, 4GB RAM, and 64GB storage, the same 5.5″ Full HD display, but no dual rear camera, and a bigger battery (4,100 mAh). It’s sold for on Aliexpress for about $190 (Black version) and around $180 (Other colors), so if we assume the battery / camera features cancel out (in terms of price) that means Android One support adds about $30 to $40. One way to look at it is that you pay a little less than $2 per month for 2-year support with regular security & firmware updates.

First OpenCL Encounters on Cortex-A72: Some Benchmarking

November 14th, 2017 8 comments

This is a guest post by blu about his experience with OpenCL on MacchiatoBin board with a quad core Cortex A72 processor and an Intel based MacBook. He previously contributed several technical articles such as How ARM Nerfed NEON Permute Instructions in ARMv8 or OpenGL ES development on Ubuntu Touch.

Qualcomm launched their long-awaited server ARM chip the other day, and we started getting the first benchmarks. Incidentally, I too managed to get some OpenCL ray-tracing code running on an ARM Cortex-A72 machine that same day (thanks to pocl – an LLVM-based open-source OCL multi-platform implementation), so my benchmarking curiosity got me.

The code in question is an OCL (half-finished) port of a graphics demo from 2014. Some remarks of what it does:

For each frame: a single thread builds a sparse voxel octree from a dynamic voxel scene; the octree, along with current camera settings are passed to an OCL kernel via double buffering; kernel computes a screen-space map of object IDs from primary-ray-hit voxels (kernel utilizes all compute units of a user-specified device); then, in headless mode used in the test, the app discards the frame. Test continues for a user-specified number of frames, and reports the average frames per second (FPS) upon termination.

Now, one of the baselines I wanted to compare the ARM machine against was a MacBook with Penryn (Intel Core 2 Duo Processor P8600), as the latter had exhibited very similar IPC characteristics to the Cortex-A72 in previous (non-OCL) tests, and also both machines had very similar FLOPS paper specs (and our OCL test is particularly FP-heavy):

  • 2x Penryn @ 2400MHz: 4xfp32 mul + 4xfp32 add per clock = 38.4GFLOPS total
  • 4x Cortex-A72 @ 1300MHz: 4xfp32 mul-add per clock = 41.6GFLOPS total

Beyond paper specs, on a SGEMM test the two machines showed the following performance for cached data:

  • Penryn: 4.86 flop/clock/core, 23.33GFLOPS total
  • Cortex-A72: 6.52 flop/clock/core, 33.90GFLOPS total

And finally RAM bandwidth (again, paper specs):

  • Penryn: 8.53GB/s (DDR3 @ 1066MT/s)
  • Cortex-A72: 12.8GB/s (DDR4 @ 1600MT/s)

On the ray-tracing OCL test, though, things turned out interesting (MacBook running Apple’s own OCL stack, which, to the best of my knowledge, is also LLVM-based):

  • Penryn average FPS: 2.31
  • Cortex-A72 average FPS: 7.61

So while on the SGEMM test the ARM was ~1.5x faster than Penryn for cached data, on the ray-tracing test, which is a much more complex code than SGEMM, the ARM speedup turned out ~3x? Remember, we are talking of two μarchs that perform quite closely by general-purpose-code IPC. Could something be wrong with Apple’s OCL stack? Let’s try pocl (exact same version of pocl and LLVM as on ARM):

  • Penryn average FPS: 11.58

OK, that’s much more reasonable. This time Penryn holds a speed advantage of 1.5x. Now, while Penryn is a fairly mature μarch that has reached its toolchain-support peak long ago, could we expect improvements from LLVM’s (and pocl’s) support for the Cortex family? Perhaps. In the case of our little test I could even finish the Aarch64 port of the non-OCL version of this code (originally x86-64 with SSE/AVX), but hey, OCL saved me the initial effort for satisfying my curiosity!

[Update: See comment for new ARM Cortex A72 and A53 results after fixing some codegen issues]

What is more interesting, though, is that assuming a Qualcomm Falkor core is at least as performant as a Cortex-A72 core in both gen-purpose and NEON IPC (not a baseless supposition), and taking into account that the top specced Centriq 2400 has 12x the cores and 10x the RAM bandwidth of our ARM machine, we could speculate about Centriq 2400’s performance on this OCL test when using the same OCL stack.

Hypothetical Qualcomm Centriq 2400 server: Centriq 2400 48x Falkor @ 2200MHz-2600MHz, 6x DDR4 @ 2667MT/s (128GB/s)

Assumed linearly scaling from the ARMADA 8040 measured performance; in practice the single-thread part of the test will impede the linear scaling, and so could the slightly-lower per-core RAM BW paper specs.

Of course, CPU-based solutions are not the best candidate for this OCL test — a decent GPU would obliterate even a 2S Xeon server here. But the goal of this entire test was to get a first-encounter estimate of the Cortex-A72 for FP-heavy non-matrix-multiplication-trivial scenarios, and things can go only up from here. Raw data for POCL tests on MacchiatoBin and MacBook is available here.