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

November 15th, 2017 9 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 7.12 / Linux 3.18.31

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 4 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.

Zidoo H6 Pro (Allwinner H6) TV Box Review – Part 2: Android 7.0 Firmware

November 10th, 2017 5 comments

Zidoo H6 Pro is the very first Allwinner H6 based 4K TV box. The Android 7.0 device support H.265, H.264 and VP6 4K video decoding, comes with fast interfaces such as USB 3.0, and network connectivity with Gigabit Ethernet and 802.11ac WiFi.

I’ve already checkout the hardware in the first part of the review entitled “Zidoo H6 Pro (Allwinner H6) TV Box Review – Part 1: Unboxing & Teardown“, and since then, I’ve had time to play with the TV box, and report my experience with Android 7.0 in this second part of the review.

First Boot and OTA Firmware Update

I’ve connected a USB keyboard and a USB dongle with RF dongles for an air mouse and gamepad on the two USB ports, a USB 3.0 hard drive to the single USB 3.0 ports, as well as HDMI and Ethernet cables before powering up the TV box. I also added two AAA batteries to the IR/Bluetooth remote control.

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Boot to the background image takes around 20 seconds, but to reach the actual launched it normally takes around one minute and 25 seconds when I have the hard drive connected (with 4 partitions and many files). If I remove the hard drive, the full boot can complete within 23 seconds. Not that much of an issue, but it still may be something Zidoo wants to optimize.

On the very first boot, a few seconds after the launcher showed up, I also had a pop-up window informing me that Firmware v1.0.11 update was available, with a neat changelog listing the main changes including support for Netflix 1080p playback, and YouTube 2K/4K playback.

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I clicked on the Update button to start downloading the new firmware…

… an cliked Update again after downloading, to complete the firmware update with MD5 check and installation to the eMMC flash.

The system will then reboot, and we can get access the Zidoo ZIUI launcher.

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The launcher is identical to the one in Zidoo X7 except for two extra icons on the bottom for BT remote, and “Box RC” app, but more on that later.


Beside those two new remote apps, we’ll also notice HappyCast app used by Airplay/Miracast, and the lack of ZDMC (Zidoo’s Kodi fork), as we are told to use Kodi from Google Play instead.

Settings & Google Play

The settings section looks the same as Zidoo X7 settings, so I will only go through it quickly.

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We have four main section with Network, Display, Sound and Other. I could connect to WiFI and Ethernet with no issues, and Bluetooth worked with my smartphone and a pair of headphones. Display can be set up to a resolution / framerate of 3840×2160 @ 60 Hz, and PCM 2.0 output, HDMI & S/PDIF audio pass-through options are available. Looking at the Other section, About tab, and Android Settings about TV box reveals ZIDOO_H6 Pro is running Android 7.0 on top of Linux 3.10.65, and the firmware I tested for the review is v1.0.11, as we’ve seen from the OTA firmware update part of this review.

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Android security patch level is dated November 5, 2016. Not the most recent, and you won’t get monthly to bi-monthly security updates like in Android One phones such as Xiaomi Mi A1. The firmware is rooted by default.

Looking into storage options, I had 418MB free out of 10.22GB internal storage partition at the very beginning of the review, and NTFS and exFAT partitions of my USB hard drive could be mounted, but not the EXT-4 and BTRFS partitions.

I could install all apps I needed for review using Google Play, and I also installed Riptide GP2 game with Amazon Appstore since I got it for free there.

Remote Control – IR/Bluetooth, and Box RC Android App

One way Zidoo H6 Pro differs from most competitors is that it comes with a Bluetooth remote control. By default it works with the IR transmitter, and Bluetooth is disable, but you can enable Bluetooth by launching Bluetooth Remote app, or selecting BT Remote icon on the launcher.

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Hold the back and menu keys for a few seconds until the LED on the remote start flashing. The app will then show the Bluetooth remote is connected, and the battery level. Bluetooth does not enable air mouse function, and you’d still need to use the arrow keys to move the cursor in mouse mode, so the main advantage of Bluetooth over infrared is that it does not require line of sight. You can hide the box being the TV, or inside a furniture, and the remote would work. You do not need to point the remote control towards the TV box either, it works in any directions. I successfully tested the remote control up to a distance of 10 meters. Once I lost control of the OK and Back keys, but they came back later on after a reboot, and could not reproduce the issue.

I also tested MINIX NEO A2 Lite air mouse / keyboard / remote control, and again no problem. It’s my favorite way to control an Android TV boxes, since it works with all sort of user interfaces and most apps, excluding some games that require touch support.

Another way to control the TV box is to install Box RC  Android app in your smartphone. Launch Box RC app in the TV box, and you should see the QR Code below.

It redirects to RC Box apk file. +  Screenshots of smartphone app.

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After installation, you’ll be presented with the “key mode” pad. Tap on “My Device” and select ZIDOO_H6 Pro to connect to the TV box. Clicking on the icon in the top left corner will give you a few more remote modes, including “Handle model” for gaming…… as well as mouse and gesture mode – both of which look like the left screenshot below -, and an Applications with a complete list of apps installed in the TV box. Simply select the app you want to launch in the TV box.

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Finally, you’ll have an About section showing the version number, and checking for app updates, and a Screenshot option to remotely take screenshots. Everything worked well. I’m just not quite sure how to use the gesture mode.

Power Consumption & Temperature

Power control is just like on Zidoo X7 with a short press on the remote control power button bringing a menu to select between Power off, Standby, or Reboot. A long press will allow you to configure the behavior of the power button: Off, Standby, or Ask (default).

I measured power consumption in various mode, and here it works better than X7:

  • Power off – 0.0 Watt
  • Standby – 3.2 Watts
  • Idle – 4.0 ~ 4.4 Watts
  • Power off + USB HDD – 0.0 Watt
  • Standby – 6.0 to 6.4 Watts
  • Idle + USB HDD – 6.0 to 6.4 Watts

With regards to temperature, the box itself stays fairly as after playing a 2-hour video in Kodi, I measured 45 and 43ºC max measured on the top and bottom with an IR thermometer, and 47ºC on both sides after playing Beach Buggy Racing & Riptide GP2 for about 30 minutes. However, right after playing, CPU-Z reported respectively 86°C and 80°C CPU & GPU temperatures, which should be close to limit of the SoC. The ambient temperature was around 28°C, and 3D performance was contant while playing.

Video & Audio Playback with Kodi, Media Center and YouTube, DRM Info

Some people reported that Kodi installed from Google Play is working well in the box, so I installed Kodi 17.5 from Google Play, enabled automatic frame rate switching, setup the connection to my SAMBA share over Ethernet, and started playing my 4K video samples:

  • HD.Club-4K-Chimei-inn-60mbps.mp4 (H.264, 30 fps) – Not smooth, and some parts of the picture are very red
  • sintel-2010-4k.mkv (H.264, 24 fps, 4096×1744) – Not perfectly smooth
  • Beauty_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_MP4.mp4 (H.265) – Plays fine, but woman face is more red than usual
  • Bosphorus_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_MP4.mp4 (H.265) – Not perfectly smooth
  • Jockey_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_TS.ts (H.265) – Not perfectly smooth
  • MHD_2013_2160p_ShowReel_R_9000f_24fps_RMN_QP23_10b.mkv (10-bit HEVC) – Not perfectly smooth
  • phfx_4KHD_VP9TestFootage.webm (VP9) – 2 to 3 fps (software decode)
  • BT.2020.20140602.ts (Rec.2020 compliant video; 36 Mbps; 59.97 Hz) – OK
  • big_buck_bunny_4k_H264_30fps.mp4 – Not super smooth
  • big_buck_bunny_4k_H264_60fps.mp4 – Not very smooth, audio delay (OK, as not supported by Allwinner H6)
  • Fifa_WorldCup2014_Uruguay-Colombia_4K-x265.mp4 (4K, H.265, 60 fps) – OK
  • Samsung_UHD_Dubai_10-bit_HEVC_51.4Mbps.ts (10-bit HEVC / MPEG-4 AAC) – Plays OK, but red parts are over-saturated?
  • Astra-11479_V_22000-Canal+ UHD Demo 42.6 Mbps bitrate.ts (10-bit H.265 from DVB-S2 stream) – OK
  • 暗流涌动-4K.mp4 (10-bit H.264; 120 Mbps) – ~2 fps (software decode – OK, as not supported by hardware)
  • Ducks Take Off [2160p a 243 Mbps].mkv (4K H.264 @ 29.97 fps; 243 Mbps; no audio) – Not smooth
  • tara-no9-vp9.webm (4K VP9 YouTube video @ 60 fps, Vorbis audio) – 2 to 3 fps (software decode), lots of buffering
  • The.Curvature.of.Earth.4K.60FPS-YT-UceRgEyfSsc.VP9.3840×2160.OPUS.160K.webm (4K VP9 @ 60 fps + opus audio) – 2 to 3 fps (software decode), lots of buffering

Automatic frame rate switching is not working, but that’s only a small issue compared to the disastrous results above. As shown in the screenshot above, H.265 is hardware decoded, but for some videos the CPU usage is really high, close to 100% on all four cores, so something is clearly wrong. H.265 / H.264 1080p videos fare better, so maybe that’s why other people think Kodi works well. Maybe ZDMC, Zidoo’s fork of Kodi is coming soon.

In the meantime, I switched to Media Center, and it’s night and day compared to my experience with Kodi, also played from the same SAMBA share:

  • HD.Club-4K-Chimei-inn-60mbps.mp4 (H.264, 30 fps) – OK most of the time, but the end is a bit choppy
  • sintel-2010-4k.mkv (H.264, 24 fps, 4096×1744) – OK
  • Beauty_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_MP4.mp4 (H.265) – OK
  • Bosphorus_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_MP4.mp4 (H.265) – OK
  • Jockey_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_TS.ts (H.265) – OK
  • MHD_2013_2160p_ShowReel_R_9000f_24fps_RMN_QP23_10b.mkv (10-bit HEVC) – OK
  • phfx_4KHD_VP9TestFootage.webm (VP9) – OK
  • BT.2020.20140602.ts (Rec.2020 compliant video; 36 Mbps; 59.97 Hz) – OK
  • big_buck_bunny_4k_H264_30fps.mp4 – OK
  • big_buck_bunny_4k_H264_60fps.mp4 – Plays but not smoothly, plus audio delay (OK, as not supported by Allwinner H6)
  • Fifa_WorldCup2014_Uruguay-Colombia_4K-x265.mp4 (4K, H.265, 60 fps) – OK
  • Samsung_UHD_Dubai_10-bit_HEVC_51.4Mbps.ts (10-bit HEVC / MPEG-4 AAC) – OK
  • Astra-11479_V_22000-Canal+ UHD Demo 42.6 Mbps bitrate.ts (10-bit H.265 from DVB-S2 stream) – OK
  • 暗流涌动-4K.mp4 (10-bit H.264; 120 Mbps) – Massive artifacts  (OK, as not supported by Allwinner H6)
  • Ducks Take Off [2160p a 243 Mbps].mkv (4K H.264 @ 29.97 fps; 243 Mbps; no audio) – OK
  • tara-no9-vp9.webm (4K VP9 YouTube video @ 60 fps, Vorbis audio) – OK
  • The.Curvature.of.Earth.4K.60FPS-YT-UceRgEyfSsc.VP9.3840×2160.OPUS.160K.webm (4K VP9 @ 60 fps + opus audio) – Not too bad, but not 100% smooth in all scenes. (Note: Most TV boxes struggle with this video).

I’m pretty happy with the results, and automatic frame rate switching works, it just need to be enabled in Advanced menu.
Switching audio tracks and subtitles are supported by the app, and work well. SmartColor engine is specific to Allwinner processors, and may help improve the video quality, or adjust the image to your taste.


Let’s carry on testing with PCM 2.0 (stereo) output to my TV, and HDMI audio pass-through to Onkyo TX-NR636 A/V receiver, with some advanced audio codec in Media Player.

Audio Codec in Video PCM 2.0 Output HDMI Pass-through
AC3 / Dolby Digital 5.1 OK OK
E-AC-3 / Dolby Digital+ 5.1 OK OK
Dolby Digital+ 7.1 OK OK
TrueHD 5.1 OK OK
TrueHD 7.1 OK OK
Dolby Atmos 7.1 OK TrueHD 7.1 (OK)
DTS HD Master OK DTS 5.1
DTS HD High Resolution OK DTS 5.1
DTS:X OK DTS 5.1

Audio works pretty well with the only downside being a lack of support for DTS HD MA/HR which all fallback to DTS 5.1. My receiver does not support Atmos, so the box outputs TrueHD 7.1 as it should.

I’ve also tested HD videos with various bitrates:

  • ED_HD.avi (MPEG-4/MSMPEG4v2 – 10 Mbps) – OK (except running scene that is not smooth)
  • big_buck_bunny_1080p_surround.avi (1080p H.264 – 12 Mbps) – OK
  • h264_1080p_hp_4.1_40mbps_birds.mkv (40 Mbps) – OK
  • hddvd_demo_17.5Mbps_1080p_VC1.mkv (17.5Mbps) – OK
  • Jellyfish-120-Mbps.mkv (120 Mbps video without audio) – HDD: OK

Most Linaro media and H.265 elecard samples are playing fine in Media Center:

  • H.264 codec / MP4 container (Big Buck Bunny) – 1080p – OK
  • MPEG2 codec / MPG container – 1080p – OK
  • MPEG4 codec, AVI container – 1080p – OK
  • VC1 codec (WMV) – 1080p – OK
  • Real Media (RMVB), 720p / 5Mbps – Media Center app returns “Can’t play video”
  • WebM / VP8 – 1080p – OK
  • H.265 codec / MPEG TS container – 1080p – OK

The full HD Blu-ray ISO files I tested (Sintel-Bluray.iso and amat.iso) played fine, so were 1080i MPEG-2 samples. I had the usual artifacts with Hi10p videos, but audio and subtitles were displayed correctly.

I also tested a bunch of 720p/1080p movies with various codecs/containers such as H.264, Xvid, DivX, VOB / IFO, FLV, AVI, MKV, MP4, etc… Most could play, except some of my FLV video samples, and DVD Rips would show the “This is a Blu-ray folder” pop-up…

… but the app would also report “Can’t play video”. If I browse to the folder, and select the IFO, it does not work, and the only way to start is to select a VOB file. However, it does not automatically switch to the next file. So there’s a problem with DVD rips in Media Center app.

YouTube app could play videos up to 1440p, but 4K (2160p) is not an option.

I’ve shot a video to show issues in Kodi, as well as Media Center app which work pretty well, and YouTube playback up to 1440p.

DRM Info app shows Widevine DRM L1 is supported, meaning one of the requirements for Full HD Netflix is fulfilled.

Click to Enlarge

The company – as we’ve seen in the firmware changelog – claims support for Netflix 1080p, but since I don’t have an account I could not confirm that. It’s also unclear whether this has been achieved through a hack, or a partnership with Netflix. The latter would be permanent, while the former may not work in a few months. Based on info gathered on Zidoo forums, I can see other boxes like Mecool M8S Pro Plus TV box can play Netflix 1080p through a “3rd party Android TV Firmware”, so it’s likely something similar has been implemented for H6 Pro.

Network & Storage Performance

Zidoo X7 had a somewhat asymmetrical performance while copying a 278 MB file over 802.11ac + SAMBA, and Zidoo H6 Pro appears to have the same issues:

  1. Server to flash (average): 51, or around 5.45 MB/s
  2. Flash to server (average): 3 minutes 22 seconds, or around 1.37 MB/s

So excellent download performance, but weak upload performance with SAMBA. The average is around 2.24 MB/s.

Throughput in MB/s – Click to Enlarge

It’s probably a SAMBA configuration/implementation issue, as testing with iperf shows good performance in both directions:

  • 802.11ac download:

  • 802.11ac upload:

Throughput in Mbps

I also tested Gigabit Ethernet with iperf:

  • Full duplex:

  • Upload only:

  • Download only:

That’s pretty good, and fairly close to the results I got with ROCK64 Board (RK3328).

Switching to store benchmarks with A1 SD Bench.

Click to Enlarge

The cached read is due to the incredibly low exFAT write performance (1.52 MB/s). Read speed is quite weak to at 16.37 MB/s with this file system, but poor exFAT performance is a common to most Android TV boxes. NTFS is much better at 59.07MB/s read, and 42.12 MB/s but still far from the ~100MB/s R/W, I achieved with the same hard drive on ROCK64 board. Nevertheless the performance will be good enough for TV box use case. However, if you need hardware with fast storage (through USB 3.0) and Ethernet, RK3328 processor looks to be better.

Internal performance is good, and helps explain relatively fast boot (when no HDD is connected), fast app loading, and the lack of “app not responding” issues.

Gaming

I installed three games: Candy Crush Sage, Beach Buggy Racing (BBR) and Riptide GP2. I played Candy Crush with my air mouse, and no problem here. I played the two racing games with Tronsmart Mars G01 game controller, and BBR played very smoothly even with max graphics settings. Riptide GP2 was quite playable with max “resolution”, maybe at 25 to 30 fps, but not quite close to 60 fps. I feel Allwinner H6 might be a little better at playing games than Rockchip RK3328, and somewhat comparable to Amlogic S905/S905X. I played both games for around 30 minutes in total, and I did not notice any drop in performance over time, so no obvious throttling/overheating, despite the rather high CPU/GPU temperatures reported by CPU-Z.

Bluetooth

I’ve used Bluetooth more than on any other TV boxes simply because of the Bluetooth remote control. But I could also pair the TV box (seen as petrel-p1) with Xiaomi Mi A1 smartphone, and transfer a few photos over Bluetooth, watch some YouTube video using X1T Bluetooth earbuds, but while I was able to see and pair my BLE fitness tracker in the Bluetooth settings, I was never able to locate the smart band from within “Smart Movement” app.

Zidoo H6 Pro (Allwinner H6) System Info and Benchmarks

CPU-Z still shows a quad core Cortex A53 r0p4 processor clocked between 480 MHz and 1.80 GHz, and a Mali-T720 GPU. Note that I never saw the frequency goes over 1488 MHz, so that 1.80 GHz may only occur during short bursts if at all.

Click to Enlarge

1906 MB total memory was reported, and 10.22 GB storage. Screen resolution was 1920×1080. As with most Allwinner platform you’ll never get a recent kernel (Linux 3.10.65).

The device achieved 40,467 points in Antutu 6.x, or about 5,000+ more compared to competitors based on RK3328 or S905X.

Click to Enlarge

One of the big jump is with 3D graphics, but there’s an easy explanation: Rockchip RK3328 and Amlogic S905X SoCs rely on Mali-450MP GPU which does not support OpenGL ES 3.1 used by “Marooned” benchmark, meaning Allwinner H6 just gets 3,510 points extra just for supporting OpenGL ES 3.1… So in reality, there’s not so much performance difference between the performance.

Vellamo 3.x confirms Allwinner H6 is that much faster with the following scores: Browser: 2,546 points, Metal: 930 points, and Multicore (836 points). I’ll put aside Multicore as on the test failed because of an issue with sysbench: “issue with Finepar: Invalid CPU mode”. But when comparing the metal score result against Amlogic S905X (910) and Rockchip RK3328 (937), the differences are minor.

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The Ice Storm Extreme score (3,951 points) is about the same as Amlogic S905X (4,183 points), but quite better than Rockchip RK3328 (2,252 points). We can also see the CPU frequency never surpassed around 1.5 GHz, so I’m wondering whether the 1.8 GHZ reported by CPU-Z might just be for show/marketing…

Conclusion

Despite Allwinner H6 SoC being pretty new, I have not found any really critical bugs in Zidoo H6 Pro TV Box. 4K video playback is working well in Media Center app with automatic frame rate switching, and HD audio pass-through, and overall performance is good, including for Wifi, Ethernet and storage.Widevine Level 1 DRM is installed, and the device is also supposed to support Netflix HD playback (not tested). 3D graphics performance is closer to the one of Amlogic S905X ,and quite better than on Rockchip RK3328 SoC.

The biggest issues I’ve found is poor support for Kodi with most 4K videos I’ve tried not playing well, and red color is over-statured in many videos. Media Center app also have a few limitations such as no support for DTS HD HR/MA pass-through (fallbacks to DTS 5.1), and IFO (DVD Rip) & Real Media video files are not supported. Other issues include poor exFAT performance, and WiFi SAMBA upload speed.

PROS

  • Android 7.0 operating system – Stable and responsive
  • Eye-pleasing ZIUI launcher / user interface
  • Very good support for 4K videos played in Media Center app with automatic frame rate switching support; Smart Color Engine for post-processing
  • HDMI pass-through for Dolby, DTS, and Dolby TrueHD working in Media Center app
  • Relatively fast eMMC flash storage (fast boot/app loading)
  • Very good networking performance for Gigabit Ethernet and 802.11ac WiFi (except for SAMBA uploads)
  • Bluetooth remote control
  • Decent 3D graphics performance
  • Widevine Level 1 DRM; Netflix HD support (not tested)

CONS (and bugs)

  • Kodi 17.5 from Google Play struggles to play 4K videos and color issues (too much red)
  • MediaCenter – No DTS HD pass-through support (DTS 5.1 instead); IFO (DVD rip) and Real Media (RM) videos not supported, some FLV files can’t play.
  • YouTube limited to 1440p (no 2160p option for me)
  • Poor SAMBA upload performance when using WiFi
  • exFAT file system performance poor -> use NTFS instead on external hard drive
  • Slow boot time (~1 minute 30 seconds) when hard drive with many files connected
  • “OK” button stopped to work on the Bluetooth remote control once (despite still working on the air mouse). Reboot fixed the issue.

Zidoo kindly sent the review sample from a local distributor. Resellers can contact the company via H6 Pro’s product page. GeekBuying currently has a promotion for the device where you can get it for as low as $79.99 (only for the first 50 orders), but it’s also sold on other websites for about $85 to 100 including GearBest, Amazon, or Aliexpress.

Qualcomm Centriq 2400 ARM SoC Launched for Datacenters, Benchmarked against Intel Xeon SoCs

November 9th, 2017 12 comments

Qualcomm Centriq 2400 ARM Server-on-Chip has been four years in the making. The company announced sampling in Q4 2016 using 10nm FinFET process technology with the SoC featuring up to 48 Qualcomm Falkor ARMv8 CPU cores optimized for datacenter workloads. More recently, Qualcomm provided a few more details about the Falkor core, fully customized with a 64-bit only micro-architecture based on ARMv8 / Aarch64.

Finally, here it is as the SoC formally launched with the company announcing commercial shipments of Centriq 2400 SoCs.

Qualcom Centriq 2400 key features and specifications:

  • CPU – Up to 48 physical ARMv8 compliant 64-bit only Falkor cores @ 2.2 GHz (base frequency) / 2.6 GHz (peak frequency)
  • Cache – 64 KB L1 instructions cache with 24 KB single-cycle L0 cache, 512 KB L2 cache per duplex; 60 MB unified L3 cache; Cache QoS
  • Memory – 6 channels of DDR4 2667 MT/s  for up to 768 GB RAM; 128 GB/s peak aggregate bandwidth; inline memory bandwidth compression
  • Integrated Chipset – 32 PCIe Gen3 lanes with 6 PCIe controllers; low speed I/Os; management controller
  • Security – Root of trust, EL3 (TrustZone) and EL2 (hypervisor)
  • TDP – < 120W (~2.5 W per core)

Click to Enlarge

The SoC is ARM SBSA v3 compliant, meaning it can run any compliant operating systems without having to resort to “cute embedded nonsense hacks“. The processor if optimized for cloud workloads, and the company explains the SoC are already been used demonstrated for the following tasks:

  • Web front end with HipHop Virtual Machine
  • NoSQL databases including MongoDB, Varnish, Scylladb
  • Cloud orchestration and automation including Kubernetes, Docker, metal-as-a-service
  • Data analytics including Apache Spark
  • Deep learning inference
  • Network function virtualization
  • Video and image processing acceleration
  • Multi-core electronic design automation
  • High throughput compute bioinformatics
  • Neural class networks
  • OpenStack Platform
  • Scaleout Server SAN with NVMe
  • Server-based network offload

Three Qualcom Centriq 2400 SKUs are available today

  • Centriq 2434 – 40 cores @ 2.3 / 2.5 GHz; 50 MB L3 cache; 110W TDP
  • Centriq 2452 – 46 cores @ 2.2 / 2.6 GHz; 57.5 MB L3 cache; 120W TDP
  • Centriq 2460 – 48 cores @ 2.2 / 2.6 GHz; 60 MB L3 cache; 120W TDP

Qualcomm Centriq 2460 (48-cores) was compared to an Intel Xeon Platinum 8160 with 24-cores/48 threads (150 W) and found to perform a little better in both integer and floating point benchmarks.

The most important metrics for server SoCs are performance per thread, performance per watt, and performance per dollars, so Qualcomm pitted Centriq 2460, 2452 and 2434 against respectively Intel Xeon Platinum 8180 (28 cores/205W  TDP), Xeon Gold 6152 (22 cores/140W TDP), and Xeon Silver 4116 (12 cores/85W  TDP). Performance per watt was found to be significantly better for the Qualcomm chip when using SPECint_rate2006 benchmark.

Performance per dollars of the Qualcomm SoCs look excellent too, but…

Qualcomm took Xeon SoCs pricing from Intel’s ARK, and in the past prices there did not reflect the real selling price of the chip, at least for low power Apollo Lake / Cherry Trail processors.

This compares to the prices for Centriq 2434 ($880), Centriq 2452 ($1,373), and Centriq 2460 ($1,995).

Qualcomm also boasted better performance per mm2, and typical power consumption of Centriq 2460 under load of around 60W, well below the 120W TDP. Idle power consumption is around 8 watts using C1 mode, and under 4 Watts when all idle states are enabled.

If you are wary of company provided benchmarks, Cloudflare independently tested Qualcomm Centriq and Intel  Skylake/Broadwell servers using Openssl speed, compression algorithms (gzip, brotli…), Go, NGINX web server, and more.

Multicore OpenSSL Performance

Usually, Intel single core performance is better, but since ARM has more cores, multi-threaded performance is often better on ARM. Here’s their conclusion:

The engineering sample of Falkor we got certainly impressed me a lot. This is a huge step up from any previous attempt at ARM based servers. Certainly core for core, the Intel Skylake is far superior, but when you look at the system level the performance becomes very attractive.

The production version of the Centriq SoC will feature up to 48 Falkor cores, running at a frequency of up to 2.6GHz, for a potential additional 8% better performance.

Obviously the Skylake server we tested is not the flagship Platinum unit that has 28 cores, but those 28 cores come both with a big price and over 200W TDP, whereas we are interested in improving our bang for buck metric, and performance per watt.

Currently my main concern is weak Go language performance, but that is bound to improve quickly once ARM based servers start gaining some market share.

Both C and LuaJIT performance is very competitive, and in many cases outperforms the Skylake contender. In almost every benchmark Falkor shows itself as a worthy upgrade from Broadwell.

The largest win by far for Falkor is the low power consumption. Although it has a TDP of 120W, during my tests it never went above 89W (for the go benchmark). In comparison Skylake and Broadwell both went over 160W, while the TDP of the two CPUs is 170W.

Back to software support, the SoC is supported by a large ecosystem with technologies such as memcached, MongoDB, MySQL, …, cloud management solutions such as  Openstack and Kubernetes, programming languages (Java, Python, PHP, Node, Golang…), tools (GVV/ LLVM, GBD…), virtualization solution including KVM, Xen and Docker, as well as operating systems like Ubuntu, Redhat, Suse, and Centos.

Qualcomm is already working on its next generation SoC: Firetail based on Qualcomm Saphira core. But no details were provided yet.

Thanks to David for the links.

Linux Benchmarks – Intel J3455 Apollo Lake vs Z3735F Bay Trail vs RK3399 and Other ARM Platforms

October 26th, 2017 68 comments

Since I’ve just installed Ubuntu 17.10 on MeLE PCG35 Apo, I decided I should also run some benchmarks comparing with other ARM and x86 Linux platforms I’ve tested in the past.I was particularly interested to compare the performance of Intel Apollo Lake processors (Celeron J3455 in this case) against higher end ARM processors like Rockchip RK3399 (2x A72, 4x A53) since systems have a similar price (~$150+), as well as against the older Bay Trail processor to see the progress achieved over the last 2 to 3 years.

To do so, I used Phoronix Benchmark Suite against Videostrong VS-RK3399 results (RK3399 development board):

The benchmark first issued a warning about “powersave” governor, but I still went ahead, and once completed I change it to “performance” governor:

…and ran the tests again. All results are available on OpenBenchmarking.

Let’s address the governor results first. cpufreq-info reports that powersave governor can also switch between 800 MHz and 2.30 GHz (turbo freq).

As we’ll see from the results below pitting “MeLE PCG35 Apo – Ubuntu 17.10” (with powersave) and “MeLE PCG35 Apo- Ubuntu 17.10 Performance” that the governor settings did not matter one bit on the results, at least for the six benchmarks I ran.

Note that “MeUbuntu 14.04.3” represents MeLE PCG02U TV stick running Ubuntu 14.04.3. Every platform runs a different OS and kernel, so keep in mind the results may differ slightly (up or down) with different version. But as we’ll see the differences in performance are large enough that it likely does not matter that much.
John the Ripper password cracker, a multi-threaded benchmark, shows the Apollo Lake processor is clearly ahead of Rockchip RK3399 hexa-core processor, and the fastest ARM platform, Banana Pi M3, is equipped with an Allwinner A83T octa-core Cortex A7 processor @ 2.0 GHz. The Bay Trail system is over  twice as slow as the Apollo Lake one, also note the larg-ish standard deviation (+/- 83.72) due to some cooling problem in the small form factor.

C-Ray is another multi-threaded benchmark, and here Rockchip RK3399 SoC does fairly well, but still but quite as well as the Celeron J3455.

Smallpt, yet another multi-threaded benchmark, does not really change the order with MeLE PCG35 Apo well ahead.

Himeno, a linear solver of pressure Poisson, must be using some x86 specific instructions or optimizations, as Intel platforms are well ahead, with Celeron J3455 about 2.5x faster than Rockchip RK3399 board.

OpenSSL is the domain of Intel platforms likely benefiting from Advanced Encryption Standard instruction set (AES-NI). Performance improvement between Bay Trail and Apollo Lake is also impressive here. You’d need 10 Raspberry Pi 3 to match MeLE PCG35 Apo in this particular test.


Intel is normally better with SIMD accelerated multimedia application, and FLAC audio encoding (single threaded) confirms that.

I was expecting a close fight between Rockchip RK3399 and Celeron J3455, but RK3399 only has two fast Cortex A72 cores against four x86 cores in the Intel Apollo Lake SoC.

 

MeLE PCG35 Apo Mini PC Review – Part 2: Windows 10 Home

October 23rd, 2017 7 comments

Laptops and mini PCs powered by the new generation of Intel Gemini Lake processors are coming soon, but companies are still launching Apollo Lake based products with various features. MeLE PCG35 Apo mini PC is one of them, and what makes it interesting compared to most of the competition is support for 80mm M.2 SSDs and 2.5″ SATA drives, on top of featuring a Celeron J3455 processor, one of the most powerful of the family. I took photos of the mini PC, accessories, and internal design in the first part of the review, so I’ll report about my experience with Windows 10 Home, explain how to manage the different drives, and test stability under load.

MeLE PCG35 Apo Setup, Drives Configuration, Display Settings

Last time, I’ve showed how to install an M.2 SSD and 2.5″ SATA hard drive inside MeLE PCG35 Apo, so I just have to connect a few cables (HDMI, VGA, Ethernet, Power) and USB peripherals with USB keyboard, USB mouse, and USB hard drive.

Click to Enlarge

When we connect the power the power button should be red, and we can press it to start the device, the power LED changes to blue, and within a few seconds we’ll be greeted by the setup wizard asking us to select the language. With MINIX NEO Z83-4 Pro, I had Cortana assisting me through the process, but it did not happen here, so it must be a Windows 10 Pro only feature (TBC).

The process was actually the same as on other Windows 10 Home mini PC with configuration for keyboard, connectivity, privacy, user setup and so on. Once the setup was done, I went to check for my drives

C: is the eMMC flash with Windows 10, D: is the M.2 SSD, and E: and F: are respectively the NTFS and exFAT partition of the USB drive. I had to format D: to be able to use it, but my SATA HDD was nowhere to be seen. I’ve using the drive for Windows and Linux reviews, which explains why Windows did not show it. So I started Disk Management.

Click to Enlarge

Sure enough, I could see all the 4 drives with Disk 0 being my SATA drive. I deleted and create the partition for Disk 0 again, assigned letter G: to it, and formatted it with NTFS within Disk Management program.
I now had access to all my drives as shown in the screenshot above. A typical use would be as follows:

  • C: – eMMC flash, reversed for Windows 10
  • D: – M.2 SSD – Programs, caches, databases (e.g. email client data), and potentially user directory (not recommended). Best sequential and random I/O performance, but higher costs
  • G: – SATA HDD – Data like documents, photos, videos, large downloads, etc… that do not really benefit from fast random I/Os.
  • E: / F: (Normally only one drive) – Potentially for backup purpose

As we’ll see below, the M.2 SSD are much better performance compare to the eMMC flash, so you’d possibly gain a little bit performance by moving Windows 10 to the SSD, and use the eMMC flash for something else. The only problem is that it does not comply with Microsoft’s discounted Windows 10 license, which prohibits installation media larger than 32GB, so Windows would not be activated if you move it to another drive. Linuxium managed to move Windows 10 from the eMMC to SSD and keep it activated on Beelink AP34, but the instructions are a little complicated, and there’s guarantee it will work overtime, as Microsoft may change the way it detects the activation. So I’d recommend to keep Windows 10 on the eMMC flash, and if you need more space for program and/or better performance, add an M.2 SSD.

Now Windows will still try to install program to the C: drive by default. You can usually change that while installing programs, but it’s easy to forget, so it’s better to change the default to D:, or whatever the drive letter for your SSD. Launch Regedit, and go to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion to change all default paths to D:.

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You may also consider moving your email client and browser(s)’ profiles to the SSD drive both to save space on the eMMC flash, and gain better performance. I have not done it for the review.

Then I right clicked on Documents, Photos,  Videos, Music, and Downloads folder in the File Explorer, selected Properties->Location, and change C: to G: in order to make sure all files are stored on my hard drive as shown below for the Downloads directory.

I did not have to remove any programs during this review, but at the end, I only had just under 4GB free space on the eMMC flash (C:).

WinDirStat can help you find out what takes space. For example, the screenshot below shows applications installed from Windows Store – such as Asphalt 8: Airborne – are found in the C drive. So you may want to move that directory, as I have already explained in MeLE PCG03 Apo review.

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Most people will probably just use an HDMI display with 1920×1080 resolution, but the mini PC also supports 3840×2160 or 4096×2160 resolution @ up to 60 Hz. Windows 10 Home will however show a message about “optimal resolution” being 1920×1080 when you do so.

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As with most other MeLE mini PC, PCG35 Apo also comes with an extra VGA port which allows for dual display setup, and I had no troubles using it.

Dual Display Setup – Click to Enlarge

The mini PC is also equipped with a USB type C port, but note that it is only for data (like another USB 3.0 port), and can not be used as a DisplayPort output, nor for fast charging.

MeLE PCG35 Apo System Information

Going to Control Panel > System and Security > System shows the mini PC is indeed powered by an Intel Celeron J3455 processor @ 1.50 GHz with 4 GB RAM, and runs an activated version of Windows 10 Home 64-bit.

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I’ve also taken a screenshot of Device Manager for people waiting more technical details.

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HWiNFO64 gives some more details about Celeron J3455, and unsurprisingly it has the same features as Celeron N3450, but the base frequencies (CPU HFM (Max)) and turbo frequencies are different.

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The memory clock (800 MHz) is lower than on MeLE PCG03 Apo (933.33 MHz = 14 x 66.7 MHz).

MeLE PCG35 Apo (Intel Celeron J3455) Benchmarks

As we’ve just seen above, and confirmed on Intel website, Celeron N3450 and J3455 are basically the same SoC, but later has higher base and turbo clocks for both CPU and GPU, resulting in a higher 10W TDP. So in theory, we should expect PCG35 Apo (J3455) to be very slightly faster than PCG03 Apo (N3450).

I’ve started benchmarking with PCMARK 10 and 8.

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MeLE PCG35 Apo achieved respectively 1,391 and 1,724 points for both, which compares to 1,334 and 1,767 points on PCG03 Apo. So both platforms actually perform about the same on those two benchmarks.

Passmark PerformanceTest 9.0 shows quite a different story with PCG35 Apo only getting 790.7 points against against 995.7 for PCG03 Apo.

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If we look at the detailed CPU Mark is higher, Disk Mark similar, Memory Mark a little lower, but most of the points are lost because of 2D graphics mark, and especially 3D graphics mark (163 vs 335.9). Very odd.

I’ve also run  Passmark 8 to compare with older results.

However, 3DMark results are much closer, with on average PCG35 Apo performing very slightly better.

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Detailed results:

  • Ice Storm – PCG35 Apo: 26,075 points; PCG03 Apo: 23,194 points
  • Fire Strike – PCG35 Apo: 248 points; PCG03 Apo: 275 points
  • Sky diver – PCG35 Apo: 865 points; PCG03 Apo: 945 points
  • Cloud Gate – PCG35 Apo: 2,322 points; PCG03 Apo: 2,073 points

For most results above, I doubt the user would notice any differences, except possibly for 3D graphics in Passmark 9.0 (I repeated the test twice to make sure).

Switching to storage performance with CrystalDiskMark 5.2.2 x64. The 32GB eMMC flash performs as expected with 164 MB/s sequential reads, and ~80 MB/s sequential writes, and average random I/O.

KingDian N480 SSD attached to the M.2 slot is much faster both for sequential R/W and random I/Os, and the results are about the same as during the SSD review.


I also tested the SATA hard drive, and again the results are as expect with around 110 MB/s sequential R/W speeds, and very poor random I/O due to slow seek time on mechanical drives.

Gigabit Ethernet is working well, as per iperf 2.9.x full duplex transfer results:

I had no troubles to connect to WiFi 802.11ac.

But for some reasons, data transfers results with iperf  were quite asymmetrical, with upload…

much slower than download:

Upload was similar to download speed in MeLE PCG35 APo (~250 to 275 Mbps). I repeated upload tests at three different times, but they were all around 55 to 57 Mbps.

WiFi Throughput in Mbps

I’ve pitted MeLE PCG35 Apo against other low power mini PCs in the chart below, including systems based on Braswell (MINIX NGC-1, Vorke V1), Cherry Trail (Voyo V3, MINIX NEO Z83-4), Apollo Lake (Voyo V1 VMac Mini, MeLE PCG03 Apo), and Skylake (Compute Stick) for various benchmarks.

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Note: The scores have been adjusted for easier reading on single chart., e.g. Ice Storm scores divided by 20, Fire Strike scores multiplies by 4 for scale, etc..

Kodi 4K Video Playback and HDMI Audio Pass-through

I also installed Kodi 17.4 to test a few 4K H.265, VP9, and H.264 videos from the USB drive, since I could not connect to Windows network (SMB):

  • HD.Club-4K-Chimei-inn-60mbps.mp4 (H.264) – Not always smooth
  • Beauty_3840x2160_120fps_420_8bit_HEVC_MP4.mp4 (H.265) – OK
  • BT.2020.20140602.ts (H.265 Rec.2020 compliant video) – OK, except for two audio cuts at the beginning
  • big_buck_bunny_4k_H264_30fps.mp4 – OK
  • Fifa_WorldCup2014_Uruguay-Colombia_4K-x265.mp4 (4K, H.265, 60 fps) – OK
  • Samsung_UHD_Dubai_10-bit_HEVC_51.4Mbps.ts (10-bit HEVC / MPEG-4 AAC, 23.976 fps) – OK
  • The.Curvature.of.Earth.4K.60FPS-YT-UceRgEyfSsc.VP9.3840×2160.OPUS.160K.webm (4K VP9 @ 60 fps + opus audio) – 4 to 6 fps (Software decode) + buffering issues

Automatic frame rate switching is also working well with the resolution changed to 3840×2160 when playing video, and the refresh rate matching the one of the framerate video. VP9 is using software decode, and does not play well.

So I enabled audio pass-through in Kodi by going to Settings->System Settings->Audio, switching to Advanced mode, enabling Allow passthrough, and selecting WASAPI: HDMI TX-NR636 (Intel Display Audio)…. as the Passthrough output device. You should then get a list fof HD audio codecs to enable / disable, and I switched them all on: AC3, E-AC3, DTS, TrueHD, and DTS-HD since those are supported by Onkyo TX-NR636 receiver.

Video HDMI Pass-through
AC3 / Dolby Digital 5.1 OK
E-AC-3 / Dolby Digital+ 5.1 OK
Dolby Digital+ 7.1 PCM 2.0 (no audio)
TrueHD 5.1 PCM 2.0 (no audio)
TrueHD 7.1 PCM 2.0 (no audio)
Dolby Atmos 7.1 PCM 2.0 (no audio)
DTS HD Master PCM 2.0 (no audio)
DTS HD High Resolution PCM 2.0 (no audio)
DTS:X PCM 2.0 (no audio)

Same results, and disappointment, as with MeLE PCG03 Apo, the eDP 1.2 to HDMI 2.0 chip might get in the way with audio pass-through, as Apollo Lake HDMI 1.4 usually support AC3 and DTS at least.

User Experience, Stress Test, and Power Consumption

Beside playing with Kodi 17.4, I also did a user experience test like with other Windows 10 PCs

  • Multi-tasking – Launching and using Firefox, Thunderbird, LibreOffice, and Gimp at the same time
  • Web Browsing with Firefox & Microsoft Edge
    • Loading multiple tab in Firefox with CNX Software blog
    • Playing Candy Crush Saga in Firefox
    • Playing a 4K (VP9) YouTube Videos in Youtube and Microsoft Edge
  • Gaming with Asphalt 8

It’s hard to see much differences between all those Apollo Lake platform, but in this case 4K Youtube videos were unwatchable in Firefox, even after disabling VP9 with h264ify extension. 4K VP9 YouTube video played fine in Microsoft Edge with no frames dropped (as per stats for nerd). However, I could head audio cuts every few minutes. I also used HWiNFO64 in sensor only mode, and thermal throttling was never reported by the program…, so MeLE PCG03 Apo is a solid device with good thermal design. You can watch Voyo VMac V1 video if you’ve never an Apollo Lake mini PC in action.

After that I tested system stability with AIDA64 Extreme, and for a little over 30 minutes, everything went fine, but then I noticed a sudden drop in temperature, but no CPU throttling detected. I waited a bit longer, and surely enough it happened again, and I could see the CPU frequency drop as low as 400 MHz before creeping back up to 2.2 GHz within a few seconds.

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As you can see from the red highlight, still not thermal throttling… But if we scroll down just bit we can see “Power Limit Exceeded” for Core #1, #2, and #3, as well as as “Package/Ring Power Limit Exceeded”.  So somehow the power used by the chip must have gone over 10W, and it automatically reduced the frequency.


If we continue with the stress test up to the hour, we can see waves in the temperature chart every few minutes, and each time frequency drops to around 400 MHz, then up to 900 MHz, etc… and up to 2.2 GHz. So performance is not perfectly constant.

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This must also be related to temperature, as during the first 30 minutes, CPU temperature was lower, and I did not see any sudden drops in temperature. That means the mini PC does not run at full capacity all the time when under load. I rebooted the computer, and ran HWiNFO64 while using the computer for web browsing, playing videos, and checking email, and the same power limit were exceeded too. My room temperature is close to 30°C, and you experience may differ at 20 or 25°C, as it should take longer for the problem to occur, if ever.

I also measured power consumption in various cases:

  • Power off – 0.4 to 1.1 Watts
  • Sleep – 1.3 Watts
  • Idle – 9.3 Watts (note that’s with SSD, SATA and USB HDDs attached)
  • Kodi 17.4 4K 10-bit H.265 Video Playback from USB HDD – 15 to 18 Watts
  • AIDA64 Stress Test – 18 to 20.1 Watts (Drops to around 13.1 Watts during temperature drops)

Conclusion

If you’d expected MeLE PCG35 Apo to perform better than MeLE PCG03 Apo you’ll be disappointed. Benchmarks are similar, but cooling? did not work as well with the system CPU frequency dropping from time to time due to “exceeded power limit”. Cooling is more tricky on that model due to the 10W Celeron J3455 SoC, and the fact that I tested it with both M.2 SSD and SATA HDD installed inside the device. However, HWiNFO64 never detected any over heating, but only “over powering”. Maybe there’s a BIOS option for that but I did not investigate yet. My room temperature is close to 30°C, so it may have impacted the results too.

Other features are very similar to PCG03 Apo with dual display support (HDMI 2.0 + VGA), 4K 60 Hz video output and playback, and so on. However I found some issues with 3D graphics in PerformanceTest 9.0 benchmark, and WiFi upload speed is quite slower than PCG03 (although most people will only care about download). I’ll try Ubuntu 17.10 installed to the M.2 SSD in a few days.

The main selling point of MeLE PCG35 Apo is support for internal 2.5″ hard drive, and if you don’t do anything too demanding you could purchase the mini PC for $179.99 shipped on Aliexpress (Wait for the week-end if the price is higher when you check it out). If you don’t care about the internal SATA bay, MeLE PCG03 Apo going for $159.20 including shipping is probably a better option.

Mediatek Helio X20 vs Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 – 3D Graphics Benchmarks and CSR2 Game

October 17th, 2017 4 comments

I’ve been using Vernee Apollo Lite smartphone with a Mediatek Helio X20 deca-core ARM Cortex A72/A53 processor coupled with an ARM for a little over a year. Recently, I’ve received Xiaomi Mi A1 smartphone for a Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 SoC featuring eight ARM Cortex A53 cores and an Adreno 506 GPU.

In theory, the latter is a downgrade, and the Xiaomi phone is indeed quite slower in Antutu with overall score of 60,161 points against 85,840 points in the Mediatek phone. 3D graphics performance is also lower with 12,849 vs 17,828 points. Both smartphone have the same resolution (1920×1080), so it’s a little confusing to be told you’d “better to play games in low quality mode” for the Mediatek phone, and “game performance is mid-level” for the Snapdragon one.

But anyway Helio 20 should work better in 3D games than Snapdragon 625 if we are to believe the numbers. Most apps run fine on Vernee Apollo Lite, but one game I play is sometimes extremely sluggish, especially in a specific section of the user interface. That game is CSR Racing 2 (aka CSR2), and the section is called “Rare import” where the game will sometimes freeze for a few seconds apparently while rendering some animations. The phone may also overheat while playing, and I’ve used Boots hot & cold pack a few times to keep it cool and make the game playable, but that’s another story 🙂

So I was interesting to find out if CSR2 would also freeze in Xiaomi Mi 2, and see how it performs while actually playing, so I placed both phones side-by-side to check it out.

The video above does not actually show the worst case for the Mediatek processor, as sometimes the animations in “rare imports” would freeze for 3 to 4 seconds and several times during the process. So far, Xiaomi Mi A1 has been working very well in that section. In the video I mentioned that I could not see much difference between the two phones during playback, but after playing further I found the Xiaomi Mi A1 is also smoother to play. After also double-checking the video, it’s also clear there are less texture details and fewer objects shown in the Snapdragon 625 phone, as shown in the photo below with trees shown in Vernee Apollo Lite, but not the Xiaomi phone.

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The app is likely auto-detecting the phone performance, and it works well for one, and not quite as well for the other. It’s also possible the developers focus on the most popular phones from Samsung, Motorola, HTC, and other brands which are usually equipped with Exynos or Snapdragon processors, rather than Mediatek ones. I could not find an option to manually adjust the image quality/resolution in the game.

The conclusion is that you can’t simply look at benchmarks to find out if a particular game will work well on your phone. In this case Helio X20 is closed to 40% faster in Antutu 3D GPU benchmark, but the user experience is much better with the Snapdragon 625 phone, albeit at the cost of a little less graphics details. Other games will likely differ depending on the implementation.

Xiaomi Mi A1 Review – Part 1: Unboxing, First Boot, Firmware Update, and Benchmarks

October 16th, 2017 14 comments

Xiaomi Mi A1 hardware specifications are pretty much standard for a mid-range smartphone, except possibly for its dual rear camera, and what makes it stand apart is really Android One program that promises regular firmware update, including to the latest “pure” Android version, during a 2-year period from launch.

In my case, the phone is also interesting because so far I had only used smartphones with Mediatek SoCs, and Mi A1 is equipped with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 processor. SD625 should be slower than the Mediatek Helio X20 deca-core processor I’ve been using in Vernee Apollo Lite, but I’m curious to find out if some apps have been better optimized for Qualcomm processors. I’ll soon find out as GearBest sent me a review sample.I’ll start with an unboxing and first boot post, before writing the second part of the review in a couple of weeks once I’ve finished testing the phone.

Xiaomi Mi A1 Unboxing

I took a while to go through customs because local authorities did not know that model/brand, and at one point I understood there was no hope and I had to abandon the smartphone, since I could not provide the required paper work. So I was quite surprised when DHL showed up with the phone this afternoon.

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The exact model I got is called MDG2. It comes with 4GB RAM, and 64GB storage as all other Mi A1 models, but there may be differences in network bands since the device will be officially sold in around 40 countries.

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The phone comes with a short user manual in English, a 5V/2A power supply (no quick charge?), a USB to USB type C cable, and a SIM slot tool.

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One side of the manual has some useful information, including how to use the SIM card tray, but the other side is mostly useless legalese, except maybe for the frequency bands and power info.

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The front of the phone has the 5.5″ full HD display, camera, LED, and 3 Android buttons. The latter are a bit confusing to me, as the back and menu keys are inverted compared to my current phone.

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The back of the phone featuring the dual camera and LED flash, as well as the fingerprint scanner. Build quality looks good, and the phone feels a little lighter than Vernee Apollo Lite.

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Power and volume buttons are located on the right side,

The SIM card + micro SD slot on the left side,

and speaker, USB type C, and 3.5mm audio jack on the bottom side of the phone.

You can check the unboxing and first boot video below.

Xiaomi Mi A1 SIM Card / micro SD card installation

Today, I also learned how to use the SIM card tool… With my previous phone I insert the tool with an angle and pulled the slot. I found it was not very convenient, but it worked. But finally, I realized you had to insert the tool right inside the hole, push, and the SIM card adapter would just pop out… Facepalm…

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Xiaomi Mi A1 has a single slot that supports either two Nano SIM card, or one Nano SIM card with an optional micro SD card. It’s not really obvious you are supposed to do but just looking at the adapter, so for once, it pays to read the manual. I could install a micro SD card and a NanoSIM card as shown below.

Both were properly recognized in the phone.

Xiaomi Mi A1 First Boot, Firmware Update

The very first boot makes go go through a wizard asking for permissions, setup WiFi, Google Account, and so on. I did not take screenshot, but if you are interested you can watch the video above.

Some Xiaomi phones comes with MIUI launcher, but since the phone is part of Android One program it comes with a stock launcher. We have a folder for Google specific apps, and one for three XiaoMi apps.

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I logged into Google Play and install Antutu and CPU-Z, before taking the sscreen shot for the list of pre-installed apps. The phone has a 58.24GB internal storage partition with 9.46 GB used (48.96GB free), so I doubt I’ll use a micro SD card over the long term.The phone runs Android 7.1.2 on top of Linux 3.18.31. Also notice the Android security patch level is dated August 1, 2017. Soon after I could see a notifications about “Android System Update (Sep 2017).

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Clicking on it reveal it’s a security update from Google. Rather a large 1GB download, but no problem over WiFi. Once it is installed, you’ll be ask to reboot, and we can verify the Android security patch level is now dated September 1, 2017, the kernel is still 3.18.31 but has been updated too. That’s a nice change compared to my current Vernee phone. It was sold with Android 6.0, with a promise of Android Nougat update that never came. I still got 3 or 4 OTA updates, but nothing since January, and the Android security patch level is dated July 5, 2016, over one year old. That’s where Android One phones have a clear advantage, as I’m expecting updates until end of 2019 at least, and maybe even later for security updates.

Xiaomi Mi A1 System Info, Antutu Benchmark

CPU-Z reports the phine is powered by Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 SoC with eight Cortex A53 cores @ up to 2.02 GHz, and an Adreno 506 GPU. There’s only 3593 MB shown out of the 4GB RAM, probably because of some hardware buffers, and 50.38GB internal storage. The phone – codenamed “tissot” – has a 5.52″ display with 1080×1920 resolution.

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I also included screenshots about battery, thermal sensors, and other sensors (partial).

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Finally I ran Antutu 6.x, and Xiaomi Mi A1 scored 60,161 points. Vernee Apollo Lite got a much higher score with 81,623 points. I’ll have to see of I can notice any differences between the two during use.

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I’d like to thank GearBest who kindly provided the smartphone for review, and if you’re interested you could get one for $233.90 including shipping. Coupon XMA1GJ and MI5A1FS should bring the price down to respectively $229.90 (golden version only) and $218.90 (Rose Gold). Other options includes GeekBuying, Banggood, eBay, and others online shops, as well as your local shops if the phone has launched in your country.