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MINIX NEO Z83-4 Pro Mini PC Review – Part 2: Windows 10 Pro

September 5th, 2017 3 comments

MINIX launched NEO Z83-4 Cherry Trail mini PC last year, but the company has now launched NEO Z83-4 Pro, an updated version with a slightly faster Atom X5-Z8350 processor, Windows 10 Pro (instead of Home), and a a VESA mount kit. I’ve already checked the hardware in the first part of the review, so today I’ll report my experience with Windows 10 Pro.

Windows 10 Home vs Windows 10 Pro

My main computer runs Ubuntu 16.04, and I’m only using Windows 10 during reviews… But so far all other mini PCs I tried came with Windows 10 Home, and NEO Z83-4 Pro is my first Windows 10 Pro computer. So I had to educate myself, and Microsoft website has a comparison between the two versions of Windows 10. Windows 10 Pro supports all features of Windows 10 Home, plus the following:

  • Security
    • Windows Information Protection – Formerly Enterprise Data Protection (EDP), requires either Mobile Device Management (MDM) or System Center Configuration Manager to manage settings. Active Directory makes management easier, but is not required.
    • Bitlocker – Full disk encryption support. Requires TPM 1.2 or greater for TPM based key protection. More details here.
  • Business – Management and deployment
    • Group Policy
    • Enterprise State Roaming with Azure Active Directory – Separate subscription for Azure Active Directory Premium required
    • Windows Store for Business – Available in select markets. Functionality and apps may vary by market and device
    • Assigned Access
    • Dynamic Provisioning
    • Windows Update for Business
    • Shared PC configuration
    • Take a Test – app in Windows 10 to create the right environment for taking a test (education)
  • Windows Fundamentals
    • Domain Join
    • Azure Active Directory Domain Join, with single sign-on to cloud-hosted apps – Separate subscription for Azure Active Directory required
    • Enterprise Mode Internet Explorer (EMIE) – For compatibility issues of web apps in Internet Explorer 11 (emulates IE 8).
    • Remote Desktop
    • Client Hyper-V

If you don’t understand some of the option, you most probably don’t need then. Bitlocker works more securely if a TPM (Trusted Platform Module) chip is present in the system, so the presence of that secure chip is something I’ll have to check out during the review. AFAIK, the original MINIX NEO Z83-4 does not include any TPM.

A few days ago, I wrote about BBen MN10 TV stick available with either Windows 10 Home or Windows 10 Pro, and the former is offered for $21.39 extra, the later for $30.33, so the Pro version is only about $10 more expensive than the Home version on such entry level hardware. If you had to purchase Windows 10 Pro license by yourself, it would cost $199.99, or the same price as the complete MINIX NEO Z83-4 Pro mini PC including the Win10 Pro license… That sounds crazy/unbelievable, but apparently that’s just the way Microsoft handles licenses, and one of the main reason MINIX decided to launch this new model.

MINIX NEO Z83-4 Pro Setup & System Information

I connected a USB 3.0 hard drive to the USB 3.0 port, USB mouse and keyboard, HDMI and Ethernet cables, and started up the device by pressing the power button right after connecting the 12V power adapter.

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The first boot was a little different than what I’m accustomed to, as I was doing something, I started to hear a female voice… asking to select the region… So Microsoft has now enabled Cortana voice assistant by default in the setup Wizard. If you don’t like it you can turn it off by pressing the Volume icon on the bottom right corner.

NEO Z83-4 Pro does not come with an built-in microphone, but you have one you can answer “Yes” to go the next step while Cortana is listening. I’ve shot a short video to show what the new Windows 10 (Pro) setup wizard feels like.

The whole process is slightly different. For example, I normally do not sign-in with a Microsoft account, and used to press skip in that section, but there’s no such Skip button in the new interface, and instead you can click on Offline account button in the bottom left.

You’ll also be asked about privacy settings for location, diagnostics, speech recognition, and so on, which I cannot remember in other mini PCs I tested with Windows 10. All options are enabled by default, so if you want better privacy you should set them to off.

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Once the setup is complete Windows 10 Pro looks just like Windows 10 Home, except you’ll be informed you are running the Pro version in the System window.

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That window confirms the information we already knew with Z83-4 Pro model powered by Intel Atom x5-Z8350 processor @ 1.44 GHz, with 4GB RAM, and Windows is activated..
The eMMC flash has a 28.2GB Windows drive (C:) with 16.5 GB free. The system could also detect the NTFS and exFAT partitions on my USB drive, as well as some Windows network locations.

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I’ve also taken a screenshot for the Device Manager to get more technical details, and we can also notice a Trusted Platform Module 2.0 is enabled, so that’s another feature in Z83-4 Pro that was absent from Z83-4 mini PC.

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I also started tpm.msc to get some more details about the TPM as shown above, and by default it is not enabled, but you can follow Microsoft TPM instructions to use it properly for better – hardware based – security.

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HWiNFO64 show further details about the system and processor.

I noticed the computer would turn off (not sleep) by itself after a few minutes when I ran benchmarks. I could fix that by going to Power & sleep settings and changing the 10 minutes sleep time to Never.

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MINIX NEO Z83-4 Pro Benchmarks

Z83-4 Pro was strangely slightly slower than Z83-4 mini PC in PCMark 8 Home Accelerated 3.0 with 1,445 points against 1,543 points for the latter.

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If we look at the details, we can actually see Z83-4 Pro was faster in most tests, but is 50% slower in Advanced Photo Editing Accelerated, and significantly slower in Video Chat Encoding v2 Accelerated, so there might be a driver issue with OpenCL support since those accelerated tests are supposed to leverage the GPU. You’ll find the detailed results here.

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I’ve also run the newer PCMARK 10 benchmark to have a reference point for Cherry Trail platform, and in this test Z83-4 Pro got 896 points, which compares to 1,334 points on a faster Celeron N3350 Apollo Lake mini PC.

Passmark 9.0 failed in the 3D graphics section, so I ran Passmark 8.0 instead, where the device got 698.8 points, against 656.30 points in the original Z83-4 mini PC, a results closer to expectations.

NEO Z83-4 Pro archived 20,284 and 233 points on respectively 3DMark’s Ice Storm 1.2 and Fire Strike 1.1 3D benchmarks, which compares to 16,030 points and 187 points on the older version.

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The extra boost is likely due to the higher GPU frequency on x5-Z8350 SoC.

CrystalDiskMark 5.2.1 shows roughly the same eMMC flash performance as on MINIX NEO Z83-4 model. That’s rather average but normal for 32GB parts mandated by Microsoft for a discounted license.


What’s not so good however is the sequential write speed on the NTFS partition of my USB hard drive, as it can normally achieve 90 to 100 MB/s on most hardware.
The read performance is normal however. So I repeated the test, but got the same poor write speed. I retried a few days later, and after a disk scan, but write speed only went up to around 45 MB/s. So something looks wrong here.


For that reason, I also ran the benchmark on the exFAT partition, and write benchmark is fairly normal at close to 80 MB/s, so it’s not a USB issue, and looks like some issues with NTFS or caching.

Sadly, WiFi AC testing with iperf yielded under average performance.

  • Upload:

  • Download:

Throughput in Mbps

So overall the tests show everything is mostly working as expected, except OpenCL acceleration in PCMark 8, NTFS sequential write speed, and 802.11ac WiFi performance does not look that good compared to the competition, at least with my TP-Link router.

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Finally, I’ve compared MINIX NEO Z83-4 Pro benchmark results (adjusted for easier comparison) to Atom x5-Z8300 / x5-Z8500 mini PCs including NEO Z83-4, Kangaroo Desktop, and Tronsmart Ara X5, and as one should expected, there aren’t that many differences between the devices. Z83-4 Pro is slightly faster than x5-Z8300 devices, but a bit slower than an x5-Z8500 mini PC.

Chart adjustments as follows: 3DMark Ice Storm divided by 20, 3DMark Fire Strike multiplied by 4, and storage results multiplied by 5.

MINIX NEO Z83-4 Usability and Stress Testing

I repeated the test I did for Z83-4 to see how the mini PC performs in a typical desktop use case, and check out some BIOS settings.

  • Multi-tasking – Using Firefox, Thunderbird, LibreOffice, and Gimp at the same time
  • Web Browsing
    • Loading multiple tab with CNX Software blog in Firefox
    • Playing 1080p & 4K YouTube Videos in Firefox
    • Playing Candy Crush Saga in Firefox (now smoother/faster since it’s not using Adobe Flash anymore)
  • Gaming with Asphalt 8: Airbone
  • MINIX UEFI Settings

The experience is so similar to MINIX NEO Z83-4, that I have not done another video, and if you want to get a feel about the system performance you can check out last year video.

One difference is that there’s a new MINIX option in the BIOS: USB charging that allows you to charge your phone or other device via the USB 3.0 ports even when the mini PC is turned off. That’s an addition to existing BIOS options to set earphone standard, (automatic) AC power on, Wake-on-LAN, and RTC wake up.

I used Aida64 Extreme’s system stability test for 2 hours to stress the computer in combination with HWiNFO64 to monitor CPU temperature and potential throttling, but the latter never happened, and temperature never exceeded 69°C, or a cool 34°C away from the junction temperature, with an ambient room temperature of around 30°C.

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So I’d except the mini PC to perform consistently even in hot climate / room with temperatures exceeding 35/40°C.

Finally some power consumption numbers with all USB devices connected:

  • Power off – 0.2 Watts
  • Sleep – 3.3 Watts
  • Idle – 4.2 Watts
  • Aida64 stress test – 9.4 Watts

Conclusion

If you’re one of the customers who purchased MINIX NEO Z83-4 mini PC and installed Windows 10 Pro, upgrading to NEO Z83-4 Pro for your next purchases is a no-brainer, since performance is similar – usually a bit better -, and you’ll save a nice amount of money on the Windows license. The device also includes enterprise features like a TPM 2.0 module, and ships with a VESA mount. So overall, I’m very pleased with the device, and the only issues I found are disappointing sequential write speed to external USB 3.0 storage with NTFS file system, OpenCL based tests in PCMark 8 are slower than usual for this type of hardware, and WiFi 802.11ac – as tested with iperf – is not quite as fast as on other 802.11ac platforms I’ve tested.

MINIX NEO Z83-4 Pro mini PC sells for $189.99 and up on various sites including AmazonGeekBuying, GearBest, Chinavasion, and others.

Intel Pentium Silver N5000 “Gemini Lake” Notebook Shows Up in Benchmarks

September 1st, 2017 4 comments

We all know that Gemini Lake processors will succeed Apollo Lake family, we have a good idea of the supported features. and even know that Intel is expecting 10 to 15% CPU integer performance improvement between the two generations. I’ve now been informed that an Intel Gemini Lake notebook powered by Intel Pentium “Silver” N5000 quad core processor clocked at 1.09 GHz was spotted in SiSoftware Sandra benchmark database.

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If we compare those results to the ones for Intel Pentium N4200 Apollo Lake processor with the same 1.1 GHz base frequency, we can indeed see some progress, and the results, albeit early, are quite encouraging, except for the GPU part with similar results.

Intel Pentium N5000 Intel Pentium N4200 Delta
Processor Arithmetic 31.11 GOPS 21.42 GOPS 1.45x
Processor Multi-Media 44.65 MPix/s 41.38 MPix/s 1.08x
.NET Arithmetic 11.5 GOPS 7.31 GOPS 1.57x
Processor Crypto 2.8 GB/s 1.41 GB/s 1.99x

It’s quite possible to turbo frequency is higher in the Gemini Lake processor, but I could not find any details about this yet.

Zidoo X7 Review – Part 2: Android 7.1 Firmware, ZDMC, WiFi, and More

August 29th, 2017 9 comments

Zidoo X7 is an Android TV box powered by Rockchip RK3328 processor similar to Bqeel MVR9 with 2GB RAM, but instead of provide Gigabit Ethernet, and 802.11 b/g/n WiFi, it comes with Fast Ethernet, and 802.11 b/g/n/ac WiFi, so is better suited to people using WiFi instead of Ethernet for media streaming. You’ll find plenty of photos in the first part of the review entitled “Zidoo X7 TV Box Review – Part 1: Unboxing & Teardown“, and I’ll report my experience with Android 7.1.2 firmware in this second part.

First Boot, Setup, and First Impressions

I connected two RF dongles for  MINIX NEO A2 Lite air mouse and Tronsmart Mars G01 gamepad via a USB hub, a USB keyboard to take screenshot, and a Seagate USB 3.0 hard drive to the single USB 3.0 port on the box. I perform tests with Ethernet in most reviews, but with Zidoo X7, I’ve decided to use 802.11ac WiFi instead, so I only connected the Ethernet cable when required for some tests. I completed the hardware setup with HDMI, and power cables with the box starting automatically when connecting power.

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The boot normally takes around 19 seconds to the new version of the company’s ZIUI launcher, largely inspired from Android Leanback launcher, but I find Zidoo design more pleasing to the eyes.

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The notification and status bars will show automatically when you move the mouse pointer to the top of bottom of the screen, and hides automatically when you move away. That’s my favorite way of handling those.

Pre-installed apps include the Play Store, ZDMC (Kodi fork), some settings apps. YouTube, Vimeo, Hulu… apps shown in the main launcher are not installed by default but you can download them if you click on the icons.

The setting app have four main sections, starting with Network to configure WiFi, Ethernet, or Bluetooth…

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Display to adjust the screen resolution from 720x480p-60 up to 4096x2160p-60, adjust overscan, and set your own wall paper…

Sound to configure audio output to PCM, or S/PDIF / HDMI audio pass-through, and disable/enable system sounds…

Other to set language, reset to factory settings, switch to “advanced settings” (i.e. Android Nougat settings), or learn more about the system info.

The About section of the advanced settings shows ZIDOO_X7 model runs Android 7.1.2 on top of Linux 3.10.104 with the security patch level dated April 5, 2017.

The device has a 7.28GB internal storage partition with 2.91GB used at the beginning of the review. The system also detected and mounted exFAT, EXT-4 and NTFS partitions on my USB hard drive, but could not handle BTRFS.

I went to the Update app but no new firmware was available ,so I tested Zidoo X7 with firmware v1.2.5.

Google Play worked fine, and I could install most apps I needed for the review, but I did notice Smart Movement app for a Bluetooth LE smartwatch could not be installed via the store, so maybe BLE is not supported. I could also install Riptide GP2 with Amazon Underground, but the first time I launched the latter is crashed. (Riptide GP2 only). I had a funny issues with apps installed from Google Play, not but Amazon Underground,  as they would show twice in the list of apps.

The included IR remote control worked well up to 10 meters, and I could use the IR learning function to record some of my TV remote control buttons like power and volume. I did not use it very long though, as I used a more convenient air mouse most of the time.

A short press on the remote control power button will bring a menu to select between Power off, Standby, or Reboot.


But a long press will allow you to select between showing this menu (Ask me) go to power off and standby mode directly.

So while power handling is nicely implemented, I found power consumption to be rather high in power off mode:

  • Power off – 2.3 to 2.4 Watts (although once I somehow managed 1.0 Watt)
  • Standby – 3.3 Watts
  • Idle – 3.2 Watts
  • Power off + USB HDD – 5.0 to 6.2 Watts (even after 3 hours). The Ethernet port can establish a link if I connect the cable…
  • Standby – 5.0 to 6.4 Watts
  • Idle + USB HDD – 6.4 to 7.0 Watts

So it looks like something is wrong with power off mode.

Zidoo X7 gets a little less hot than MVR9, but I still measured up to 45 and 52ºC max measured on the top and bottom covers after playing a 2-hour 1080p video in ZDMC (Kodi fork), and 47 and 55ºC after playing Riptide GP2 for about 15 minutes. CPU-Z reported respectively 74.6°C and 83.9°C after the tests. The ambient temperature was around 28°C, and I did not experience any noticeable slowdowns during the review.

Zidoo X7 works pretty well, and I’m especially pleased with the new ZIUI launcher that’s both beautiful and convenient to use, and attention to details like option for power handling. But not everything is prefect, as power consumption in power off mode is rather high, and apps installed with Google Play show twice in the list of apps.

Video & Audio Playback – ZDMC, MediaCenter, DRM, and YouTube

Zidoo X7 comes with the compan’y own Kodi fork named ZDMC (ZiDoo MediaCenter) based on Kodi 16.1.

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For some reasons, “Accelerate VP9” and “Enable fractional HDMI (23.976, 59.67)” were disabled in Settings->Videos->RKMC, so I enabled them, as well as automatic frame rate switching before starting to test videos.

As mentioned in the introduction, I used 802.11ac WiFi for testing with my router about 4 meters away and behind a wall, but since I came across buffering issues in some videos, I tested with three methods in case of problems, stopping at the first successful attempt:

  1. ZDMC + 802.11ac WiFI (WiFi)
  2. ZDMC + 10/100M Ethernet (Ethernet)
  3. ZDMC + USB NTFS partition (HDD)

Those are the results for 4K videos:

  • HD.Club-4K-Chimei-inn-60mbps.mp4 (H.264, 30 fps)

    • WiFi – Some buffering, then video OK, but no audio
    • Ethernet – Video OK, but no audio
    • HDD – OK
  • sintel-2010-4k.mkv (H.264, 24 fps, 4096×1744)
    • WiFi – Frequent buffering
    • Ethernet – OK (24 Hz video output)
  • 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 (24 Hz video output)
  • phfx_4KHD_VP9TestFootage.webm (VP9) – OK
  • BT.2020.20140602.ts (Rec.2020 compliant video; 36 Mbps; 59.97 Hz)
    • WiFi – Not smooth, no audio
    • Ethernet – Video + Audio OK for a while, then lost audio
    • HDD – OK
  • big_buck_bunny_4k_H264_30fps.mp4 – OK
  • big_buck_bunny_4k_H264_60fps.mp4 – Tested with WiFi only: Not smooth, audio delay (Note: H.264 @ 4K60fps is not supported by RK3328 VPU)
  • Fifa_WorldCup2014_Uruguay-Colombia_4K-x265.mp4 (4K, H.265, 60 fps)
    • WiFi – Long buffering after 2 seconds, then some infrequent audio cuts, infrequent short image freezes
    • Ethernet – Mostly OK, but one short audio cut during the first 3 minutes
    • HDD – OK
  • Samsung_UHD_Dubai_10-bit_HEVC_51.4Mbps.ts (10-bit HEVC / MPEG-4 AAC)
    • WiFi – Not smooth at all, no audio (buffer = 0%)
    • Ethernet – Not smooth at all, no audio (buffer = 0%)
    • HDD – OK
  • Astra-11479_V_22000-Canal+ UHD Demo 42.6 Mbps bitrate.ts (10-bit H.265 from DVB-S2 stream)
    • WiFi – Not smooth at all, no audio (buffer = 0%)
    • Ethernet – Not smooth at all, no audio (buffer = 0%)
    • HDD – OK
  • 暗流涌动-4K.mp4 (10-bit H.264; 120 Mbps)
    • WiFi – Constant buffering (as should be expected)
    • Ethernet – Constant buffering (as should be expected)
    • HDD – OK
  • Ducks Take Off [2160p a 243 Mbps].mkv (4K H.264 @ 29.97 fps; 243 Mbps; no audio) – HDD: Not smooth
  • tara-no9-vp9.webm (4K VP9 YouTube video @ 60 fps, Vorbis audio)
    • WiFi – Frequent buffering, then artifacts starts to show on the whole screen after 10 seconds, and audio lost
    • Ethernet – Some buffering, artifacts after a while, and some apparently AV sync issues
    • HDD – OK
  • The.Curvature.of.Earth.4K.60FPS-YT-UceRgEyfSsc.VP9.3840×2160.OPUS.160K.webm (4K VP9 @ 60 fps + opus audio)
    • WiFi – Frequent buffering, artifacts on the whole screen for 1 or 2 seconds from time to time
    • Ethernet – Plays OK most of the time, but artifacts on the whole screen appears from time to time (e.g. at 00:50, then 1:20, etc..)
    • HDD – Played OK at the beginning, but then massive artifacts between 1:06 to 1:36, before resuming normally

So finally, I could play most videos with automatic frame rate switching from the hard drive, but 802.11ac WiFi is just not fast enough to play many 4K videos from a SAMBA share. Some of it may be improved by using a UPnP/DLNA server instead of SAMBA. However, I was still it surprised by the number of videos not playing fine over Fast Ethernet, so there may still be some issues here, notably with videos where the buffer suddenly dropped to 0% as reported by Kodi log overlay as shown in the screenshot below.

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Another oddity is that when I take screenshots on other platform, it will only capture the OSD / user interface, since the video is rendered on a separate 4K video buffer. Could that mean the video is downscaled? Before answering this question, I played the 4K video samples with MediaCenter app from the USB drive:

  • HD.Club-4K-Chimei-inn-60mbps.mp4 (H.264, 30 fps) – OK
  • sintel-2010-4k.mkv (H.264, 24 fps, 4096×1744) –  OK with 24 Hz video output, but I could not select the subtitles like I normally do in this video
  • 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, but 1080p @ 24 Hz video output, instead of 4K @ 24Hz
  • 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 – Almost smooth, but audio delay (H.264 @ 4K60fps is not supported by RK3328 VPU)
  • 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) – OK
  • Ducks Take Off [2160p a 243 Mbps].mkv (4K H.264 @ 29.97 fps; 243 Mbps; no audio) – Not 100% smooth
  • 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) – OK, expect for some specific scenes (source issue?).

The results with MediaCenter are very good, except for a few problem for subtitles, automatic frame rate switching for one video using 1080p24 output, and a very high bitrate video not as smooth as it could be.

Click to Enlarge

Coming back to the screenshot concern in ZDMC, I did a screenshot again with MediaCenter, and the video was again included. So it could either be the video is rendered to a 1920×1080 surface, or the system does something clever during the screenshot by copying the video hardware buffer to the framebuffer to include both. let’s find with a 4K resolution test sample, which I used previously on other 4K TV boxes. The sample would not play in MediaCenter, so I played in in ZDMC, and took a picture with my camera, and zoomed in closely on a part of the movie to find out if there was any issues.

Ignore the green line, as it’s a problem with my TV.

The samples is comprised of a grid of black and white dots, and if the video is scaled to a lower resolution we would only see white/greay or black dots, but here we can see black and white dots as expected, so Zidoo X7 indeed supports 4K properly…

So I carried on the review with audio test for both PCM 2.0 (stereo audio) for people who connected the box directly to their TV or other stereo speakers, and HDMI audio pass-through for those with A/V receivers. For the latter test, I enabled pass-through settings in ZDMC and Android, and tested both configuration with ZDMC and MediaCenter using my TV and Onkyo TX-NR636 A/V receiver.

Audio Codec in Video PCM 2.0 Output
(ZDMC 16.1)
PCM 2.0 Output
(MediaCenter)
HDMI Pass-through
(ZDMC 16.1)
HDMI Pass-through
(MediaCenter)
AC3 / Dolby Digital 5.1 Audio OK,
Video 1:1 aspect ratio
Audio OK,
Video 1:1 aspect ratio
Audio OK,
Video 1:1 aspect ratio
Audio OK,
Video 1:1 aspect ratio
E-AC-3 / Dolby Digital+ 5.1 OK OK OK OK
Dolby Digital+ 7.1 OK OK OK OK
TrueHD 5.1 OK OK OK OK
TrueHD 7.1 OK OK OK OK
Dolby Atmos 7.1 OK No audio TrueHD 7.1* TrueHD 7.1*
DTS HD Master OK No audio DTS-HD MSTR 7.1 DTS-HD MSTR 7.1
DTS HD High Resolution OK OK DTS 5.1 DTS 5.1
DTS:X OK 2x No audio, 1x OK DTS-HD MSTR 7.1* DTS-HD MSTR 7.1*

* My A/V receiver does not support DTS:X nor Dolby Atmos, so it correctly falls to be best option in this case.
Zidoo X7 handles audio much better than Bqeel MVR9 in my case, with the only real issues because the lack of reliable DTS HD MA downsampling support, and DTS-HD HR pass-through is not supported.

I played a 2-hour 1080p movie in ZDMC using WiFi and SAMBA, and I had no problem, however, there was no option to adjust the zoom level, only 3D options.

Click to Enlarge

There’s no support for Widevine or PlayReady DRM, but CENC ClearKey is supported, and actually appears to be supported in all Android TV boxes (TBC).

YouTube is working fine up to 1080p, but you can’t select 2160p.

Networking & Storage Performance

I tested 802.11ac WiFi with SAMBA by copying a 278MB file between the server and the internal flash, and vice versa, with ES File Explorer. The download results are excellent, but for some reasons the upload much weaker:

  1. Server to flash (average): 1 minutes 7 seconds, or around 4.15 MB/s
  2. Flash to server (average): 3 minutes 13 seconds, or around 1.44 MB/s

So if I used the download + upload total average of around 2.14 MB/s, Zidoo X7’s WiFi performance is somewhat disappointing.

WiFi Throughput in MB/s – Click to Enlarge

But luckily the upload issue seems to be related to SAMBA, as there’s no such issues with iperf:

  • 802.11ac WiFi Upload:

  • 802.11ac WiFi Download:

Zidoo X7 has a performance similar to some other WiFi AC capable devices I’ve reviewed recently.

iperf throughput in Mbps

Switching to storage performance, A1 SDbench app shows good write speed for the internal memory (as expected), but as is often the case the read speed is cached with an invalid result. However, I had no trouble with slow I/O during testing, the box boots rapidly (< 20 seconds), apps are loading fine, and I did not get any “app is not responding” pop-ups.

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USB 3.0 performance is acceptable for EXT-4 and NTFS file systems, but exFAT is basically unusable, which may explain why some competitors disabled it.

Gaming

I could play both Beach Buggy Racing (BBR) and Riptide GP2 on the device using Mars G01 game controller. BBR was usable even with max settings, but just like in Bqeel MVR9, Riptide GP2 was only really enjoyable with default settings, while if you set the graphics settings to “max resolution” the frame rate feels like 10 to 25 fps. I played the game for around 15 minutes, and the performance was constant throughout, so there was no apparent throttling due to overheating.

So if you use such RK3328 TV box for gaming, you’ll either have to accept default settings, or decrease quality for better performance, or get a model with 1280×720 user interface, instead of 1920×1080. Ideally, this should be an option in the settings.

Bluetooth

I had no troubles at all with Bluetooth, as I could pair my  Android smartphone, and transfer some photos over Bluetooth, and X1T Bluetooth earbuds to watch and listen to YouTube videos. I did not try Sixaxis since the firmware is not rooted.

Zidoo X7 CPU-Z System Info and Antutu Benchmark

CPU-Z still shows “Rockchip RK3066” for most Rockchip device, but apart from that it properly detected a quad core ARM Cortex A53 r0p4 processor clocked @ 408 MHz to 1.51 GHz with a Mali-450MP, as well as 1998 MB total RAM, and 5.27 GB internal storage

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The Antutu 6.x score of 33,264 points is comparable to Bqeel MVR9 and A95X R2 scores of respectively 35,994 and 33,117 points. The former slightly higher score may be due to the DDR4 used, as Zidoo X7 relies on DDR3 SDRAM instead.

Conclusion

Overall I find that Zidoo X7 offers a better experience than the other Rockchip RK3328 devices I have tested so far, especially if you rely on WiFi, and HDMI audio pass-through is important to you, and 4K video playback is working decently well as long as you play from a hard drive. I also really like the new ZIUI launcher that’s quite eye pleasing, and similar to Leanback launcher with the “Suggested videos” section replaced by icon for the main apps. Attention to details, like flexibility for power options, and automatic handling of notifications and status bar. But there are also issues with some troubles playing some video over SAMBA due to unusual buffering issues, high power off consumption, lack of DRM, and so on.

PROS

  • Recent, responsive and stable Android 7.1.2 operating system
  • Nicely designed new ZIUI launcher / user interface
  • Good support for 4K videos played from hard drive in both ZDMC 16.1 (Kodi fork) and MediaCenter with automatic frame rate switching support
  • HDMI pass-through for Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master working in ZDMC and MediaCenter
  • Fast eMMC flash storage allowing for fast boot, short app loading times, and good overall performance (e.g. no “aspp not responding” issues)
  • USB 3.0 performance is good with EXT-4 and NTFS file systems
  • Good 802.11ac WiFi performance (except for SAMBA uploads)
  • Built-in Bluetooth working as expected
  • Small details like notifications & status bars automatically shown/hidden, power options,

CONS (and bugs)

  • ZDMC – Some unusual buffering issues while playing from network/samba (either with WiFi and Ethernet); no zoom option while playing video (only 3D options); artifacts with some VP9 videos, even when played from HDD; No DTS HD High Resolution HR pass-through support (uses DTS 5.1 instead)
  • MediaCenter – Selecting embedded subtitles not working in one video; 1080p24 output selected while playing on 4K24 video; No DTS HD High Resolution HR pass-through support (uses DTS 5.1 instead); DTS HD audio down-mixing not working reliably.
  • High power consumption in power off mode, especially when HDD connected (5.0 to 6.4 Watts).
  • Poor SAMBA upload performance when using WiFi
  • Lack of DRM support
  • Google Play – Apps relying on Bluetooth LE cannot be installed; apps show twice is list of apps after installation
  • 3D gaming frame rate may not be very high on some apps, due to the 1920×1080 resolution (instead of 1280×720 on some other RK3328 models)

I’d like to thank Zidoo for sending a review sample. Resellers and distributors can contact the company via Zidoo X7’s product page, and individuals will find the box for sale online for $65 and up on e-retailers such as GearBest, GeekBuying, Amazon US, or Aliexpress.

Beelink AP34 Ultimate Fanless mini PC Review with Windows 10 and Ubuntu

The AP34 Ultimate combines the passive cooling of an Apollo Lake N3450 SoC with 8GB of RAM and 64GB of storage in a small box form-factor mini PC.

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Together with the device comes a pair of HDMI cables, a power adapter, VESA mount with screws, and a couple of leaflets covering basic information.

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Not only does this device have three USB 3.0 ports, full size SD card, Gigabit Ethernet, headphone jack and HDMI port, it also has a (vacant) M.2 slot allowing additional storage with the full specification being:
although there was no included remote control.
The device comes pre-loaded with activated Windows 10 Home 64-bit and plenty of available free space at (initially before updates) just over 43GB.

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The Windows performance is unremarkable and the reason for this is obvious looking at the basic benchmarks.

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The reason being that the eMMC is slow which is disappointing for an ‘ultimate’ device. The eMMC chip is a Toshiba THGBM5G9B8JBAIE 64GB eMMC version 4.41 which used the HS200 interface..

… compared with other devices like the Beelink AP42 whose eMMC (Samsung KLMCG4JENB-B041) is version 5.1 making use of the faster HS400 interface.
Installing Ubuntu as dual-boot is now much simpler as my updated ‘isorespin.sh’ script includes installing the rEFInd bootloader which enables booting on Apollo Lake devices when the BIOS doesn’t support Linux. Performance is again as expected given the limitation of the eMMC.

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Ubuntu mini PCs’ Performance Comparison – Click to Enlarge

Looking a key features in more detail the first point to note is that the BIOS is simplified with no access to features you might want to control in an ‘ultimate’ device

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The CPU is a quad core Intel N3450:
and memory is dual-channel DDR3 1600MHz:
Networking is Gigabit Ethernet and Intel 3165 (ac) wireless:
and audio is available through HDMI and headphones

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Kodi plays 4k video but however 8K is unwatchable
Both internal and external temperatures are fine under load:

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So what are the advantages of having 8GB RAM? Well it means the device works better as a mini PC, as it means you can use more memory-hungry applications like browser tabs. As an example I fired up twenty Chrome tabs in Ubuntu

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I was going to fire up twenty more but while I was refreshing each tab to make sure I used the most memory Chrome crashed.
However as I hadn’t run out of memory I decided to try with Firefox. Having opened forty tabs in Firefox, I then refreshed the previous twenty Chrome tabs. Everything was now working fine and I was hovering around the 7GB RAM usage with the temperature stable at 61°C

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But what use is a device with slow storage? I re-read the license leaflet that came with the device:

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and checked the license using ‘slmgr -dli’ which confirmed I had an activated ‘RETAIL’ license. As the device has 8GB RAM and 64GB storage, I can only assume that the device has a full Windows 10 license which means I should be able to use the M.2 drive as the Windows drive. So in theory if I used a small M.2 drive and installed Windows it should then automatically activate as the product key is held in the BIOS.
First I had to install the M.2 drive. This involves prising off the four rubber feet on the base of the device, unscrewing the four screws that are revealed, and then forcing off the base plate which is somewhat stuck to the motherboard by a thermal pad.
Then unscrew the three screws that secure the motherboard to the case and gently lift out the motherboard being careful not to loose the power-button which is now loose and also not ripping off the two wifi antena wires.
You will need a 22mm wide and 42mm long M.2 (or 2242) with at least an “M” slot SSD. The socket is near the yellow battery which the SSD actually covers when installed.
Windows can then be installed using a Windows 10 Disc Image (ISO File) downloaded from Miscrosoftand written to USB.
Except that activation didn’t work. Research seemed to indicate that this was because the drive was seen as a removable device which apparently Windows doesn’t like.
So instead I installed Windows to the eMMC I had just wiped
which activates successfully
and after turning off hibernation and setting the paging file to the minimum the Windows partition can be shrunk
and moved to the M.2 SSD using an Ubuntu LiveUSB and the ‘dd’ command
after which the M.2 drive needs to be ‘fixed’ using ‘gdisk’
and the original eMMC wiped using ‘gparted’ to prevent conflicts
Once rebooted the M.2 should be resized

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and after performing updates the M.2 SSD is the C: drive with activated Windows

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Although fine as a proof of concept I only used a relatively slow and small capacity (16GB) M.2 SSD. The real question was whether the initially installed Windows could be moved to a larger and faster SSD? The answer is yes!

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And when using a 256GB M.2 SSD
an improvement in performance is seen

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The fundamental consideration in choosing this device is whether you have the need for 8GB RAM over 4GB as this is an USD 80 question. The slow eMMC whilst disappointing can be overcome through utilizing the M.2 slot. However, it is worth checking how readily available 2242 M.2 SSDs are as they are not common in Australia for example. The price vs specification still favors these type of mini PCs when compared to NUCs and similar. However the convergence point is close, especially when factoring warranty and support. Overall the Apollo Lake CPU offers a slight improvement to last year’s Cherry Trail devices and the passive cooling of this device are definite positives with HDMI 1.4 being the obvious negative, although the limited BIOS might also be too restrictive for some.
I’d like to thank GearBest for providing Beelink AP34 Ultimate for review. If you are interested, you can purchase the device on their website for $259 including shipping [Update: Coupon GBAP348 should lower the price to $239.99. Valid until October 31st.] You’ll also find the fanless mini PC on Aliexpress, just make sure you select the blue version if you want 8GB RAM, the gray version for 4GB RAM.

Bqeel MVR9 (NT-N9) TV Box Review – Part 2: Android Nougat Firmware, RKMC, YouTube 4K, and More

August 18th, 2017 No comments

Bqeel MVR9 is another TV box powered by Rockchip RK3328, but that model comes with Gigabit Ethernet and 2GB RAM contrary to the cheaper A95X R2 TV box I previously reviewed. If you want to check thsee some pictures read “Bqeel MVR9 TV Box Review – Part 1: Specifications, Unboxing and Teardown“, as in this second part I’ll focus on the firmware, and we’ll see if the claims of better 4K video playback thanks to DDR4, optimized RKMC with HD audio pass-through, YouTube 4K, and DRM support are true.

First Boot, Setup, and First Impressions

One good thing about Bqeel MVR9 is that it comes four 4 USB port, so I did not need to use a USB hub to connect my two RF dongles for MINIX NEO A2 Lite air mouse and Tronsmart Mars G01 gamepad, a Seagate USB 3.0 hard drive, and a USB keyboard I normally use to take screenshots. I completed the hardware setup with Ethernet, HDMI, and power cable with the device booting as soon as I applied power.

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A typical boot takes around 18 seconds from power on to the Android launcher below, one of the fastest boot I’ve experienced in TV boxes.

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Browser, Music and Player icons link to a list of apps such as Chrome, RKMC, or Media Center, while MyDevice is a file manager. I was unable to find a way to enable the status bar and notification bar.

Pre-installed apps include the Play Store, Hulu, and HappyCast.

The setupWizard app will guide though the main settings namely Language, TimeZone, ScreenScale, and Network (Ethernet/WiFi). I used it to adjust overscan to none, but this can also be done in the settings. The settings will show on the right side of the screen as with other Android Nougat firmware I played with.

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Those are pretty standard, except USB mode that I may have missed in other boxes, and that allows you to switch between Host and Device modes. The about section shows the device name is actually NT-N9 – Nagrace made devices usually start with NT – and it runs Android 7.1.2 on top of Linux 3.10.104. The firmware is not rooted, and I was unable to find out if OTA firmware update works since I did not get a new firmware during the review.

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I had no problem settings the display resolution to 3840x2160p60(YCbCr420), and Audio device can be set to default, SPDIF pass-through, or HDMI bitstream. I could not see any HDR settings. The More Settings option will bring you to a full screen Settings app that looks to be made for phones with lock screen, and adaptive brightness option.

One interesting option in the Display settings was Display size in order to make items smaller or larger on the screen.

Storage settings shows 2.61GB of the 14.56GB eMMC flash partition are used, and EXT-4 and NTFS partitions of my USB hard drive are supported but not the exFAT and BTRFS ones.

I could install all apps I needed for the review via Google Play and Amazon Underground (Riptide GP2 only).The basic IR remote control included worked fine up to 8 meters, but as usual I mostly controlled the device with my air mouse.

Power handling is all good, as I could use the power button on the unit or the remote control to turn on and off the device cleanly, with a short press on the power key on the remote entering standby/sleep mode automatically, and a long press showing a menu with reboot, sleep, or shutdown.

I measured power consumption with a kill-a-watt clone, and with or without USB drive connected:

  • Power off – 0.1 Watt
  • Standby – 2.4 Watts
  • Idle – 3.2 Watts
  • Power off + USB HDD – 0.1 Watt
  • Standby – 4.4 Watts
  • Idle + USB HDD – 5.2 Watts

So everything is done right here.

The box gets a little hot during use with 47 and 61ºC max measured on the top and bottom sides of the box after playing a 2-hour 1080p video in RKMC (Kodi fork), and 40 and 57ºC after spending 15 minutes playing Riptide GP2. Going to CPU-Z to check the temperature sensor after each test showed respectively 92.1°C and 86.5°C, both values clearly on the high side if the reported temperature is correct. Note that the ambient temperature was slightly above 30°C, and that I could not notice slowdown, but if you push the box to its limit, I’d expect a drop in performance at some point.

So far, I’m very satisfied with the box with features working as they should, and a responsive firmware. The only downsides are the lack of option to enable the status and notifications bar, and potential issues due to the high temperature, but as just mentioned it did not noticeably affect me even with a fairly high room temperature.

Video & Audio Playback – RKMC, DRM, and YouTube

RKMC 16.1 is installed with a purple skin.

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As I went to the settings to enable automatic frame rate switching, I also noticed some RKCodec specific settings, with most enable, except fractional HDMI (23.976/59.97) which I manually enabled for the review.

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Once this was done I started playing some videos over SAMBA and Gigabit Ethernet starting with 4K samples:

  • HD.Club-4K-Chimei-inn-60mbps.mp4 (H.264, 30 fps) – OK
  • sintel-2010-4k.mkv (H.264, 24 fps, 4096×1744) –  OK (24 Hz video output)
  • 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 (24 Hz video output)
  • 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 – Almost smooth, but big audio delay (H.264 @ 4K60fps is not supported by RK3328 VPU)
  • Fifa_WorldCup2014_Uruguay-Colombia_4K-x265.mp4 (4K, H.265, 60 fps) – OK
  • Samsung_UHD_Dubai_10-bit_HEVC_51.4Mbps.ts (10-bit HEVC / MPEG-4 AAC) – OK
  • Astra-11479_V_22000-Canal+ UHD Demo 42.6 Mbps bitrate.ts (10-bit H.265 from DVB-S2 stream) –  OK
  • 暗流涌动-4K.mp4 (10-bit H.264; 120 Mbps) – HDD: Not perfectly smooth all the way through; Chinese fonts not supported in the filename
  • 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 at the beginning, then gray screen with lots of artifacts at 2:50 for a few seconds, then normal. However, I could not reproduce it after going back to the 2:40 mark, and playing again.
  • The.Curvature.of.Earth.4K.60FPS-YT-UceRgEyfSsc.VP9.3840×2160.OPUS.160K.webm (4K VP9 @ 60 fps + opus audio) – OK, but not smooth for every scenes.

Automatic frame rate switching worked just fine, and most videos played well. The box is using DDR4 so it may help with some 4K videos, especially, if you are using 4K HDR, sometimes that I can not test since I don’t have the TV for it. Another problem is that I can’t change the zoom level, it will only show 3D settings while playing videos. I also quickly tested some Blu-Ray ISO (amat.iso and sintel.iso) and again no problem in RKMC. I had less luck with my 1080p Hi10p 16-ref video, as it would only show the first frame.

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I switched to audio testing both using my TV speakers (PCM 2.0), and HDMI audio pass-through to my Onkyo TX-NR636 AV receiver using RKMC and MediaCenter.

Audio Codec in Video PCM 2.0 Output
(RKMC 16.1)
PCM 2.0 Output
(MediaCenter)
HDMI Pass-through
(RKMC 16.1)
HDMI Pass-through
(MediaCenter)
AC3 / Dolby Digital 5.1 OK Audio OK,
Video 1:1 aspect ratio
OK Audio OK,
Video 1:1 aspect ratio
E-AC-3 / Dolby Digital+ 5.1 OK OK OK OK
Dolby Digital+ 7.1 OK OK Video won’t fully play -> can’t test OK
TrueHD 5.1 OK OK TrueHD 5.1, but several audio cuts TrueHD 5.1, but several audio cuts
TrueHD 7.1 OK OK TrueHD 7.1, but several audio cuts TrueHD 7.1, but several audio cuts
Dolby Atmos 7.1 OK Beep / no audio ** TrueHD 7.1*, but several audio cuts TrueHD 7.1*, but several audio cuts
DTS HD Master OK OK DTS-HD MA, but some audio cuts DTS-HD MA, but some audio cuts
DTS HD High Resolution OK OK DTS-HD HR, but some audio cuts DTS 5.1
DTS:X OK OK DTS-HD MA* DTS-HD MA*

* The sample comes with two audio tracks: Dolby Atmos (normal audio), and AC3 (beep) only, so AC3 was selected by default, and switching to the other track failed to product audio
** My AV receiver does not support Dolby Atmos nor DTS:X, so falling back to respectively TrueHD 7.1 and DTS HS Master is normal.

So the good news is that RKMC and MediaCenter pass-through all HD audio codec properly, except DTS HD HR for the latter, but there’s some timing or compatibility issues, as I’d get audio cuts with the receiver often reporting “UNKNOWN” codec for  short times instead of TrueHD or DTS HD. That’s a problem similar to what I got when I reviewed Zidoo X6 Pro, and at the time others reported no problem at all, so I’m assuming the audio pass-through issue may only affect some AV receivers models including mine.

Finally, I tested different video codec in RKMC with 1080p videos from Linaro media samples and Elecard:

  • 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 – OK
  • WebM / VP8 – 1080p – OK
  • H.265 codec / MPEG TS container – 1080p – OK

No problem at all here, with all codec handled by hardware (RKCodec).

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DRM info reports Widevine Level 3 DRM is supported.

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The company also told me YouTube 1080p/4K is supported by the device, and at first glance it works, as I could select 2160p for 4K video. However, I quickly realized I could take screenshot of the video playing, a bad sign on this type of hardware, since videos are supposed to play on a separate hardware buffer.

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So I enabled Stats for Nerds in YouTube, and I can indeed play 3840×2160 videos, but they are rendered to a 1920×1080 viewport, so what we are actually watching is a 4K video downscaled to 1080p. So it’s better to just watch the 1080p version of the videos, especially I noticed some slowdowns at times while watching 4K streams.

Networking & Storage Performance

As usual, I tested WiFi with SAMBA by copying a 278MB file with ES File Explorer between the server and the internal flash, and vice versa. The results are not very good for this part:

  1. Server to flash: 3 minutes 5 seconds, or around 1.5 MB/s; included one short stall period
  2. Flash to server: 2 minutes 33 seconds, or around 1.81 MB/s
  3. Server to flash: Failed after 90% transfer

If I use the first two transfers to add to my comparison chart, it shows the device around the bottom.

WiFi Throughput in MB/s

It’s actually fairly similar to many other devices with 802.11n WiFi only, and in the past we’ve seen some devices, especially the one based on Amlogic + Android 6.0 did not perform well at all with SAMBA, so let’s see what happens when using iperf instead

  • WiFi 802.11 b/g/n upload:

  • WiFi 802.11 b/g/n download:

The performance looks better here, and should be good enough for most video streaming (although maybe not 4K ones).

Gigabit Ethernet works fine, and if you buy this device, is the recommended network interface to use anyway.

  • Gigabit Ethernet full duplex test with iperf:

Switching to storage performance, I used A1SD bench to test storage performance of the eMMC flash, and USB 3.0 hard drive.

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Please ignore the read speed of the eMMC flash since a “cached” read occur, but the write speed at 38.90 MB/s is valid, and looks good to me and close to the 40MB/s limit for the part used. The high random IO performance listed by Samsung 8K/10k R/W IOPS, certainly helps with fast boot times, app loading times, and overall system performance. USB 3.0 performance is as expected, and you’ll get good performance from both EXT-4 and NTFS, but if you want to optimize write performance, EXT-4 is the way to go. Just a quick word about the RAM test, with RAM copy done at 3397.21 MB/s (with DDR4 memory) against 3008.39 MB/s with DDR3 memory  on A95X R2 TV box, so it looks like DDR4 may improve performance a little bit on RK3328 devices.

Gaming

I played two games with my wireless controller: Beach Buggy Racing and Riptide GP2. The first game played very smoothly with default settings, and at max settings it was still perfectly playable, but not 60fps smooth. Riptide GP2 felt good with default settings, but game play was really affected after switching to max resolution in the games settings, with frame rate decreasing to probably 10 to 25 fps during the game. The frame rate was however constant through the game, as I played for 15 minutes.

This differs with my experience with A95X R2, which felt similar to Amlogic S905 based device, with a higher frame rate in both games whatever the settings. This can be easily explained however, as A95X R2 framebuffer is configured to 1280×720, while MVR9 is set to 1920×1080. 1280×720 is better for some games, but 1920×1080 is better while watching YouTube videos (I does not affect videos played in Kodi or MediaCenter since they are rendered on a separate hardware buffer).

Bluetooth

I also tested the built-in Bluetooth function in side the device I could transfer photos with my phone, and watched a YouTube video using Bluetooth headphone.

Benchmarks and System Info

CPU-Z shows a quad core ARM Cortex A53 r0p4 processor clocked @ 408 MHz to 1.51 GHz with a Mali-450MP as expected, as well as 1982 MB total RAM, and 12.40 GB internal storage

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I just ran a single benchmark to check performance is normal, and MVR9 achieved 35,994 points in Antutu 6.x, which compares to 33,117 points in A95X R2, and 34,811 points in ROCK64 development board (without heatsink).

Conclusion

Overall I was impressed by Bqeel MVR9 TV box with excellent 4K video playback with automatic frame rate switching, and fast internal storage leading to good overall performance, fast boot times and app loading times. However, if you want to use WiFi with SAMBA, you may prefer another device as I found performance to be below average, and unreliable, although raw performance number (iperf) look better, and in my case, while all HD codec were properly detected, I had many audio cuts when connected to my A/V receiver. The company also told me, the box would support YouTube 4K, but while it can stream 4K YouTube videos, it will actually downscale them 1920×1080 during playback.

PROS

  • Recent, responsive and stable Android 7.1.2 operating systems
  • Excellent supports for 4K videos in RKMC 16.1 (Kodi fork) with automatic frame rate switching support
  • HD audio codec such as Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD are detected with HDMI pass-through in RKMC, and
  • High performance internal storage leading to fast booting and app loading times, and good overall performance (no waiting for app windows…)
  • USB 3.0 performance is good with EXT-4, and to a lesser extend with NTFS
  • Good power handling with reboot/standby/power off mode, and low power consumption
  • Built-in Bluetooth is working well

CONS

  • Frequent micro audio cuts in most videos with HDMI audio passthrough using Onkyo TX-NR636 (When cuts happen the display on the receiver cycle between  TrueHD -> UNKNOWN -> TrueHD). Same results in RKMC and MediaCenter. The results may be different with other A/V receiver models.
  • 3D gaming frame rate may not be very high on some apps, due to the 1920×1080 resolution (instead of 1280×720 on competing models)
  • The device tends to get fairly hot. However, I did not notice any shutdown drops in performance during use myself.
  • WiFi SAMBA performance is rather poor, and connection unreliable.
  • Lack of zoom option in RKMC (only shows 3D settings)
  • Lack of option to show status or notification bars

I’d like to thank Nagrace for sending a review sample. I cannot find Bqeel MVR9 or NT-N9 TV box for sale anywhere, and the Nagrace has not setup a product page on their website yet, but if you are interested in purchasing in quantities, you may contact the company.

ECDREAM A9 Apollo Lake HDMI “TV Stick” Review with Windows 10 and Ubuntu 17.04

The ECDREAM A9 is arguably the first Intel Apollo Lake ‘PC stick’ available for purchase. However, in reality it is surprisingly large, and when compared to earlier Intel Atom ‘sticks’ and mini PC ‘boxes’ it lies somewhere in between. Measuring 2.3 inches (58 mm) wide and 0.6 inches (16 mm) thick it feels almost double in size of the original Intel Compute Stick (1.5 in/38 mm by 0.5 in/12 mm) and like nearly half of a mini PC (Beelink’s AP34 is 4.7 in/119 mm by 0.8 / 20 mm). Given that you only get two USB ports, an micro SD card slot and the obligatory HDMI and power port, the large size would be better justified if an Ethernet port had also been included given other smaller ‘sticks’ have shown this is possible.

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However the reason for its size is due to the oversized fan and heatsink…

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and that will be the deal-breaker for most. Because it is not a quiet fan, but noticeably noisy. However, that is under Windows as the fan doesn’t run under normal Linux.
Taking a look at the package in more detail…

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Inside the box together with the device is a short HDMI extender cable, a power supply (with no international variants or adapters), a manual (which is more of a Windows get-started guide) and a further slip of paper with a picture showing what the ports are. The device comes with a large detachable cap that covers the HDMI port. Then inside the device underneath the fan and heatsink is the Intel Apollo Lake SoC, memory chips from Micron, eMMC from Foresee and an Intel wifi chip all matching the advertised specs

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The device comes pre-loaded with activated Windows 10 Home 64-bit and has nearly 18GB of available free space to fill up with Windows updates.

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Unusually the updates were initially switched off

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The Windows performance is impacted in part due to the slower Foresee eMMC

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Overall the device performs better than Cherry Trail devices and as expected

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4K video (at 30fps) can be watched through Chrome and Kodi and the fan keeps the temperatures down

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and the external temperature is acceptable at around 30°C.
However, as mentioned the fan is audible in comparison with other ‘stick’ PCs with fans. Using a battery powered clock as a baseline in a highly unscientific comparison you can judge for yourself, comparing Intel Core M STK2M3W64CC Compute Stick…

… to ECDREAM A9

Initially I was rather happy that the fan didn’t start under Linux, however without it temperatures rocket and the device crashes when playing high definition videos.
Looking at the hardware from a Linux viewpoint the CPU is an Intel Celeron N3350 Apollo Lake
 
useable storage of 28.9GB plus the micro SD card option

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2GB DDR3 1600 MHz memory

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Intel 3165 wireless

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HDMI audio

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and everything (except the fan) works using Ubuntu 17.04 with the ISO’s default kernel. This includes Sandisk micro SD cards
which still fail on Cherry Trail devices.
Unfortunately however there is no option in the BIOS allowing Linux to boot directly:
so the Ubuntu ISO had to be respun using ‘isorespin.sh’ to add the rEFInd boot manager

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Having installed Ubuntu to eMMC, and running my usual benchmarks there can again be seen the performance improvement over Cherry Trail devices (STCK1A32WFC is the Intel Compute Stick Falls City, STK1AW32SC is the Intel Compute Stick Sterling City, and STKM3W64CC is the Intel Compute Stick Cedar City)​​

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Exploring the fan issue further shows the failure appears to be a BIOS ACPI table related issue

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even though there are many options in the BIOS for thermal configuration
By recompiling the kernel with a ‘hacky’ patch it is possible to get the fan working
but because the BIOS isn’t populated with appropriate DMI strings it is unlikely that this device will receive mainline support.
However with the fan running the temperature is controlled even after stressing the CPU

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making 4K video (30fps) watchable

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Although I encountered an issue in that Chrome would successfully stream 4K videos in Windows, yet under Ubuntu it kept intermittently pausing waiting for network data. If I first downloaded the video then playing it was fine using Kodi.
As 32GB of storage is now really too small to run both Windows and Linux given the size, and frequency of Windows updates I installed Ubuntu with my custom kernel to a micro SD card and resized Windows to use the entire eMMC. Again some juggling with rEFInd was required to boot as the micro SD card is not recognized directly during the boot process.

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Interestingly there was a slight overall performance increase which is probably due to the slow eMMC. The maximum temperature for the eMMC-based benchmarks reached 80°C after running the ‘openssl’ tests compared with a maximum of 57°C also after the ‘openssl’ test on the fan-assisted micro SD card so thermal throttling would not appear to be a contributing factor.

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The device comes with a very unrestricted BIOS so there are lots of ways to brick it
To conclude the product is bulky given its advertised ‘stick’ form factor, and is limited because it only has 2GB RAM. The fan with its noise under Windows and lack of support under Linux limits the product’s appeal. In terms of support, the Windows drivers are available from the manufacturer’s community web page although their specification page incorrectly states the CPU model. It is currently priced at USD 129.99 at Geekbuying who kindly provided the sample for review. [Update: Using GKBECDA9 coupon brings the price down to $113.99]

ROCK64 Board Review – Part 2: Quick Start Guide with Ubuntu 16.04.3 MATE, Multimedia Features, Some Benchmarks

August 7th, 2017 15 comments

Pine64 ROCK64 is the first maker board based on Rockchip RK3328 processor, and is potentially interesting for various applications including network storage thanks to USB 3.0 and Gigabit Ethernet, multimedia applications with 4K HDR video support, as well as other applications requiring I/Os. I’ve already tested Rock64 board with Android 7.1 operating system, so today I’ll report by finding and experience with Ubuntu 16.04.3 with MATE desktop.

Selecting and Flashing a Linux Image

You’ll find several operating systems in the Wiki, but you’ll also find more cutting edge images in ayufan’s github. But first let me explain some vocabulary used for Pine64 firmware files:

  1. Engineering version – Becomes with release build based on the stock build develop by Pine64 and the SoC vendor. It’s supposed to be more stable, but get less updates
  2. Community versions (currently managed via ayufan) are more frequently updates, and comes with more recent features. You’ll find two categories
    1. Release builds – The current stable version released by the community
    2. Pre-release builds – Version under test to eventually become the release build

Currently, documentation is still work in progress for the board, so I spent some time on IRC #Rock64 chatting with the helpful community there, and I noticed most of them used the community builds. I’ve also been told there has not been that much work on the Desktop version right now, with most people focusing on NAS support with images such as Debian + OpenMediaVault. But since I wanted to test a desktop image I was recommended the Ubuntu Mate image, and download the pre-release 64-bit version: xenial-mate-rock64-0.4.17-85-arm64.img.xz.

If you’ve read the WIki, you’ll notice all those are “micro SD” images, so since I had a eMMC flash module, I was a little confused at the beginning, but since I have Hardkernel’s micro SD to  eMMC flash module adapter, installation was just the same as on a micro SD card with Etcher.

Top to Bottom: ROCK64’s 16GB eMMC flash Module, Hardkernel adapter, and micro SD card reader

But Pine64 does not sell such adapter, so how are you supposed to do with you bought an eMMC flash module? I’ve been explained you first need to flash a micro SD card with the image, and then interrupt the boot in u-boot (USB to TTL debug board required), remove the eMMC jumper, and continue the boot by typing “boot”. This has be to be done, or you won’t see the eMMC flash module, while booting from a micro SD card.

Now you can download, and flash the firmware to the eMMC flash module with curl:

Not the most user-friendly method, but it should work. If you don’t have a USB to TTL board, first you should really buy one, but for this specific case, you could remove the eMMC jumper about two seconds after applying power. In that case, your mileage may vary though… Pine64 is working on an easier method of installation to the eMMC flash module.

Rock64’s Ubuntu 16.04.3 MATE Boot, System Info, and Initial Setup

Since I want to get the boot log, I connected the USB to TTL board. There’s no dedicated UART connected on the board, so I download the GPIO pinout charts for Pi 2 Bus and Pi 5+ Bus from the Wiki, amd we’ll use it to test GPIOs later on.

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UART Tx and Rx can be found on respectively pin 8 and 10 of Pi 2 Bus header, so I connect the debug board accordingly, together with USB keyboard and mouse, a USB harddrive, Ethernet and HDMI cables.

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Finally I put the micro SD card into the board, applied powered, and after a few seconds, I got to the Ubuntu MATE desktop. however, I only got ribberish in the serial console, which was set to 115,200 8N1, the most common settings “in the universive”. There’s currently no info about serial console setting in the Wiki, but a web search lead me to the right settings: 1,500,000 8N1, which apparently is the default in Rockchip SDK.

This high bitrate may cause troubles with some serial adapter, but after changing minicom settings accordingly, I had no trouble with the serial console. That’s the complete boot log after a reboot: