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Review of GOLE 10 Mini PC with 10.1″ Touchscreen Display – Part 2: Windows 10 Pro (Not Activated)

January 17th, 2018 2 comments

Depending on your point of view, GOLE 10 is a mini PC with a touchscreen display, or a really thick tablet with an inclined display.  I’ve already received a sample, and had a look at the hardware in the first part of the review, so in the second I tested the performance and stability, and thought about and test some use cases for this type of products.

GOLE 10 (aka F6) Setup and System Info

There are various way to use the mini PC, either as a standalone screen without any peripheral connected using the touchscreen, or as a mini PC with USB keyboard and mouse and potential other accessories, or in a dual display setup with the device connected to an HDMI TV or monitor.

I decided to connect it to my “test” TV, add a USB 3.0 drive, USB keyboard and mouse, Ethernet cable, and of course the power supply. Note that contrary to other similar model, GOLE 10 does not come with a battery. I pressed the power button on the right setup, and the first time it started in portrait mode, but after moving the PC (to take the photo below), it automatically switched to landscape mode.

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This made me wonder if you was practical / feasible to use it in portrait mode, and while it’s not really designed for this, the left side does not come with any connector, so you could rotate it 90-degres anti-clockwise to switch to portrait mode.

As you can see from the first picture, the system is configured to use Clone displays by default when HDMI is connected, but you can obviously switch to Extended Desktop mode. You may want to see the HDMI TV/monitor as the primary display if you plan to use the touchscreen display as a control console, as some apps like Kodi will apparently start on the primary display by default.


I could not find a way to force the display orientation, and a few times GOLE 10 started in portrait. You can either move it around, or go to the settings and set orientation to 270 degrees.

We can find some basic info about the computer and operating system in Control Panel -> System and Security -> System. The hardware info is as expected with an Intel Atom x5-Z8350 processor and 2.00 GB RAM (GOLE 10 is also sold with 4GB as option), but the operating systems is sort of a disappointment as we have an unactivated Windows 10 Pro 32-bit OS installed.

I tried to see if I could activate it by click on Activate Windows, but unsurprisingly it did not work. So you’d have to get your own key.

Windows 10 recognized the NTFS and EXFAT partitions in my USB 3.0 expansion drive, and we got 15.3 GB free of 28.4 GB in the eMMC flash partition (C:).

At this point, I got a pop-up window saying a Windows update was available, so I went ahead thinking it would not take that long, but it ended being a rather large Windows 10 update that took close to 4 hours to complete…

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I wanted to check the installed update to check for Meltdown / Spectre, but none would show, so I clicked on Uninstall an update to get a list. KB4056892 does not show up, and all updates are older, and somehow Windows 10 did not ask me to update any further, maybe because it’s not activated? I don’t know.

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Device Manager show further information about the hardware, and surprisingly a TPM 2.0 module appears to be installed. HWiNFO32 shows about the same information as other Atom x5-Z8350 mini PCs.

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I’ve been using a mouse and keyboard so far, but I wanted to see how it would feel to remove them, and instead use the touchscreen and software keyboard instead. It did not started so well. as the software keyboard would not show up automatically by default.

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So I had to go to Ease of Use-> Use the computer without a mouse or keyboard, and tick “Use On-screen keyboard“. The keyboard works but the keys are really tiny on a 10.1” 1920×1200 display, so you’d have to resize it to make it suitable, or use a capacitive touch stylus. I could not make the keyboard automatically when I select a text input, e.g. a search box in a web browser, so I pinned the on-screen keyboard app to the taskbar to call it whenever I needed it, and minimize it when not. This is not ideal, but that’s the only way I found.

GOLE 10 Benchmarks

Let’s go through some benchmarks – without HDMI display just in case – to check the system runs normally, starting with PCMARK 10, and oops “To run this test you need to run PCMark 10 in 64-bit mode on a 64-bit operating system”, so it looks like PCMARK 10 does not work on 32-bit systems. Good to know.

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I’ll try PCMARK 8 later, but in the meantime, I went with Passmark PerformanceTest 8.0, with a score of 601.0 points compared to 698.8 points for MINIX NEO Z83-4 Pro, but keeping in mind that the 3D graphics test completely failed.

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So a direct comparison of the total score is not possible, but if we go to the detailed score, and compare it to the results for MINIX NEO Z83-4 Pro, we can see something is really wrong.

PassMark 8.0 – GOLE 10 vs MINIX NEO Z83-4 – Click to Enlarge

Every single score is significantly lower on GOLE 10, except Disk Mark. I include HWiNFO32 sensor data in the Passmark scrrenshot, and while throttling is not officially detected we can see temperatures went really high, and the system most likely throttled, something I’ve not seen in a long time by just running this benchmark.

Then I tried 3DMark, and somehow I had no benchmarks installed so I tried to click on Install Fire Strike, but it said “Your license does not allow installing this update”.

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Then I tried to uninstall it, and decompress the downloaded file again, and this time I noticed the USB 3.0 hard drive – where I had downloaded the benchmarks – would from time to time disconnect during decompression, and then I remembered that during download I had some beep, following by a message asking me to resume download. I realized that connection my USB 3.0 drive to the USB 3.0 port ofthe mini PC was not such a good idea after all, and the system’s power supply or circuitry could not handle it. So instead I connected it to the adjacent  USB 2.0 port, and I could extract, install, and run 3D benchmarks.

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I only ran two:

Again this does not look good, as MINIX NEO Z83-4 Pro with the exact same processor, but proper cooling and a Window 10 Pro 64-bit OS, achieved respectively 233 and 20,284 points in those same benchmarks

 

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I went back to PCMARK 8, and the system got 1,006 points, against 1,445 points, so poor performance is confirmed. I should probably also point out that it is winter here, so room temperature is now 20 to 22°C instead of the usual 28 to 30°C.

The eMMC flash is however faster than in the one in MINIX NEO Z83-4 Pro, as shown in CrystalDiskMark 6.0.0 above, as well as Passmark above.

Stress Testing / Power Consumption

Based on the results above, I was not expecting too much from AID64 Extreme system stability test, and after 12 minutes I decided to stop since I had enough data.

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The good news is that neither AID64 nor HWiNFO32 detect thermal throttling nor power limit exceeded, but the bad news is that this info is obviously bogus as temperatures run really high, and we can see frequency drops to as low as around 480 MHz during the test, averaging around 1,170 MHz for a CPU with a 1,440 MHz base frequency.For reference, MINIX NEO Z83-4 Pro averages 1680 MHz for the same test for a 2-hour period.

Since there’s no battery, I could take power consumption numbers (without HDD connected unless otherwise stated) from a kill-a-watt clone connected to the mini PC only:

  • Power off – 0.0 Watt
  • Sleep – 1.3 Watts
  • Idle (100% brightness) – 9.1 to 10.1 Watts
  • Idle (50% brightness) – 6.4 to 7.2 Watts
  • Idle (0% brightness) – 5.0 to 5.3 Watts
  • AIDA64 Stability Test (100% brightness) – 13.2 to 14.2 Watts
  • Kodi 1080p H.264 video playback to HDMI TV from USB 3.0 HDD (100% brightness) – 16.0 to 16.4 Watts

Potential Use Cases for GOLE 10 mini PC

I’ve been thinking about potential application for GOLE 10, and similar type of mini PCs with inclined display, and based on the results above it’s clear that anything involving multitasking or heavy loads is clearly not well-suited to the GOLE 10 due to the poor thermal design. Here’s a non-exhaustive list:

  • Single Display Setup
    • Home automation control panel
    • 3D printer control panel
    • USB microscope display
    • WiFi or USB oscilloscope or logic analyzer display
  • Dual Display Setup
    • Point-of-sales with touchscreen for cashier, and secondary screen for customer, with barcode reader connected to DB9 serial port
    • VLC for music or video with media shown on HDMI TV, and playlist on touchscreen display.
    • Kodi for music, photos or vidoes with media shown on HDMI TV, and web based interface on touchscreen display

I’ve tested four of the use cases above using my USB microscope to check out a Raspberry Pi Zero board, IkaScope WS200 wireless oscilloscope, as well as VLC and Kodi is dual display configuration, all of which can be seen in the video below.

As a side note, at first I tried to find Windows 10 Kodi remote control in the Windows Store, and I discovered Windows Store had a limit of 10 devices, so I was taken to the page below to remove some of my devices.

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After I could find some remote for Kodi, and tried mrRemote for Kodi, and XBMCee, but was unable to connect to Kodi, while it worked just fine from Firefox as shown in the video.

Conclusion

I find GOLE 10 to be much more useful than GOLE1 mini PC with a 5″ display I reviewed in 2016, as the display is now much bigger and usable in Windows 10. You’ll have to do without battery however, and the system has some serious limitations as it ships with an unactivated version of Windows 10 Pro, thermal design is poor so it will almost immediately throttle, and the 5V/3A power supply provided with the device is underpowered if you plan to use a USB 3.0 hard drive connected to the USB 3.0 port. I managed to work around the latter by connecting the drive to the USB 2.0 port, or you could lower brightness which also greatly impacts the power draw. Using a better power supply might help too, provided the board does not have other limitation with regards to power draw.

The device can still be use for applications that are not too demanding, and the best fit would probably be point-of-sales, followed by control panel for automation / 3D printer, and display for USB or wireless tools such as microscopes or oscilloscopes. VLC and Kodi works, but I’m not sure it’s very useful, as surely controlling the players from a smartphone should be more convenient.

If you are interested, HIGOLE GOLE 10 can be purchased for $168.99 on GearBest (2GB RAM).

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

January 7th, 2018 9 comments

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

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

MINIX NEO N42C-4 Setup, System Info, BIOS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MINIX NEO N42C-4 Benchmarks

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

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

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

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

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

Links to results:

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

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

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

Full duplex Gigabit Ethernet performance is excellent:

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

  • Download

  • Upload

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

What’s the Best Android TV Box (2017/2018 Edition)?

December 26th, 2017 17 comments

Since I was often asked which TV box to buy, I wrote a guide entitled “What’s the best Android TV box?” in April 2016. Time has passed, new products have launched, I tested more devices, and got further reader feedback, so it’s time for an update.

There’s still no device that rules them all, and since everybody has different requirements and price points, what could the best Android TV box ever to one person, maybe be a piece of junk to another. Before purchasing a TV box, you should consider what you plan to do with it, and find the device with matches your needs and budget. So first, I’ll provide a list of things to look for – beside the SoC/RAM selection – before selecting three TV boxes that stand out (in no particular order), as well as alternatives worth looking at.

Things to Look for

The list is basically the same as last year, except I added two sections for operating systems, and extra features:

  • Operating System – There was a time when “Android TV box” only meant “Android” “TV Box”, but Google’s own TV box operating system has become more popular, and some companies have also started offering dual OS version with Android/Linux running at the same time, mostly for server purpose. Here are the options you may consider:
    • Official Android TV OS – Pick such device if you want the original experience with leanback launcher, and access to streaming services like Hulu, Netflix an so on. This operating system should come with all/most the licenses needed for streaming, is specially designed for the large screen, and works well with the IR remote control. However, you’ll only be able to easily install apps specifically designed for the TV (e.g. no Chrome browser, unless you sideload it), and the system may not always work well with an air mouse or wireless keyboard/touchpad.
    • Unofficial Android TV OS – Same as above, except some licenses may be missing, so some streaming services may not work as well, or be limited standard resolution
    • Android OS – Most – not to say all – boxes you’ll find in China are running Android operating system made for smartphones with customizations for the big screen. Those devices have good flexibility, since you can install pretty any app from the Google Play store, and they come with a launcher made for the big screen. The downside is that only parts of the interface or some apps will be usable with the IR remote control, so you’ll need to use an air mouse, wireless keyboard, or smartphone app to have good control of the device. Most boxes also lack proper DRM and other licenses, which may restrict the streaming services you may access, or at least the playback resolution.
    • Android + Linux – Dual boot systems have been around for a while, and IMHO not very useful, so what I’m referring to here are systems with two operating systems running at the same time with Android for media playback, and Linux for NAS/server functions. I’ve seen devices with OpenWrt or Debian so far.
  • History of regular firmware updates – If a company provides regular OTA (over-the-air) firmware updates, your device is likely to get better and better overtime. The cheapest TV boxes normally follow the ship-and-forget model, so you can’t expect any improvements, unless some community members offer custom firmware.
  • Support forums – Most reputable companies selling to end users offer support forums. For cheaper boxes, you won’t get any support, except through communities like Freaktab.
  • 4K & HDR Support – If you want to purchase a device that will support 4K videos, and the latest HDR (High Dynamic Range features) you should look for devices with HDMI 2.0a for 3840×2160 or 4096×2160 output up to 60 Hz and HDR. Double check 4K video codecs support (10-bit HEVC/H.265, VP9, H.264), and make sure they can decode the framerate used for your videos. The latter is usually not a problem with H.265, but sometimes it could be for VP9 or H.264 since some systems can only handle 30 fps or 24 fps.
  • 5.1 or 7.1 HD audio pass-through support – In case you own an amplifier or A/V receiver capable of handling Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Atmos, DTS HD Master, DTS HD High Resolution, or DTS:X, you really need to check the reviews on this site or others, as many devices fall short despite claiming support.
  • Automatic frame rate switching – This is the ability of the device to match the monitor refresh rate to the video frame rate to avoid a phenomenon called micro stutter, which makes the videos not as smooth as it could be at regular intervals, and especially noticeable when the video is panning. if this is properly implemented, e.g. 24 fps videos played using 24 Hz on the monitor, then micro-stutter disappears.
  • DRM support for HD and UHD video streaming – If you’re paying for video streaming services like Netflix, you’ll have to make sure they are specifically supported, with Widewine Level 1 DRM necessary, but not sufficient condition for playing the videos at HD or UHD (4K) resolution. Most devices can only stream videos in SD resolution due to the lack of proper DRM and a hard-to-get “Netflix license”.
  • Thermal design and storage performance – Many Android TV boxes have similar specifications, but IMHO, two key design choices are especially impacting the performance between apparently similar devices. Some TV boxes will overheat over time, leading to poor performance after a few minutes, while others with proper cooling will perform the same over hours. Fast storage will ensure the device boots quickly, apps load fast, and the device does not get slowed down while apps are installing or updating in the background.
  • Extra Features – You’d normally not care about those, if all you want is to do streaming, but if you want more from your TV box, you could check for digital TV tuner(s) (DVB-T/T2/C, DVB-S2, ATSC..), the presence of a an internal SATA bay, HDMI input for recording or broadcasting video from another device, etc…

MINIX NEO U9-H Media Hub

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Criteria:

  • Operating System – Android 6.0.1 OS
  • History of regular firmware updates – MINIX normally updates their devices for about a year or so.
  • Support forumsMINIX forums are fairly active, so you should be able to get decent support from MINIX themselves or the community of users there.
  • 4K & HDR Support – HDMI 2.0a up to 4K @ 60 Hz is supported, with very good support for 4K 10-bit H.265, VP9 and H.264 videos.
  • 5.1 or 7.1 HD audio pass-through support – Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD audio pass-through both working.
  • Automatic frame rate switching – OK (Kodi 17.x)
  • DRM support for HD and UHD video streaming –  Widewine Level 1 & Microsoft PlayReady implemented. However, Netflix can only play up to SD resolution, or possibly up to HD (720p) with a trick, but not full HD, nor UHD since Netflix requires a separate agreement.
  • Thermal design and storage performance – Good cooling thanks to a large heatsink, and very fast internal storage.
  • Extra Features – Separate microphone jack, Kensington lock

Just like MINIX NEO U1 I recommended last year, as long as you don’t need Netflix Full HD or 4K UHD playback, and are happy using their custom launcher and an air mouse, MINIX NEO U9-H should definitely be in your list of devices to consider. Please read MINIX NEO U9-H review for details, taking into account that some bugs may have been fixed since my review in March 2017.

Price: $149.90 and up with NEO A3 Lite air mouse on Amazon US, GearBest, GeekBuying, and other sellers. You can also find the box only (without air mouse) for around $139.90.

U5PVR Deluxe Set-top Box and NAS

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U5PVR Deluxe made it to the top three list because of all the extras like tuners and a 3.5″ SATA drive, and the fact that it runs both Android TV OS (unofficial) and Debian.

Criteria:

  • Operating System – Unofficial Android TV 5.1 OS and Debian running at the same time. Android TV 7.1 is now also available, as well as a dual boot image with Enigma2.
  • History of regular firmware updates – The company has released several firmware updates since the review. Previous model was U4 Quad Hybrid – Launch: January 2016; last firmware update: November 2016. So a little under a year of firmware updates.
  • Support forums – Available on SmartSTB forums (Somewhat active), or Google+ (not so active). The device is not as popular as MINIX models, so you’ll have less users involved.
  • 4K & HDR Support – HDMI 2.0a up to 4K @ 60 Hz is supported, with very good support for 4K 10-bit H.265, VP9 and H.264 videos in Media Center app (but Kodi 17.x support needed some work)
  • 5.1 or 7.1 HD audio pass-through support – Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD audio pass-through worked in Media Center app.
  • Automatic frame rate switching – OK (Media Center app)
  • DRM support for HD and UHD video streaming –  Support for Widevine L1 DRM and Netflix HD/4K (Not in my June 2017 review, but see comments)
  • Thermal design and storage performance – Excellent internal storage performance, and no noticeable issue with cooling (See teardown for design)
  • Extra Features – SATA bay for a 2.5″ or 3.5″ drive, dual DVB-T/T2 tuner

If you live in a country where DVB-T/T2 is supported (or various combination or DVB-T/T2/C, ATSC, DVB-S2 if you purchase an additional tuner board), and plan to use the Linux NAS features, U5PVR Deluxe looks certainly like a good candidate. However, if you mainly want to watch video streams from Netflix, Hulu, and other premium services, and use Kodi, there should be other devices that better fit your needs.

Price: $229.99 including shipping on Aliexpress.

Nvidia Shield Android TV (2017 Edition)

NVIDIA has launched a smaller version of their popular Shield Android TV earlier this year, and while I have not reviewed the device myself, it’s one of the most popular Android TV box on the market.

Criteria:

  • Operating System – Official Android TV 7.0 (Upgrade to Oreo likely)
  • History of regular firmware updates – Nvidia has been providing upgrades since 2015 for the original model (around 6 times a year)
  • Support forums – Active SHIELD Android TV board on Nvidia Geforce forum.
  • 4K Support – HDMI 2.0a up to 4K @ 60 Hz is supported with support for 10-bit H.265, VP9 and H.264 video playback @ 60 fps.
  • 5.1 or 7.1 HD audio pass-through support – Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD audio pass-through supported
  • Automatic frame rate switching – OK for Kodi and Plex at least.
  • DRM support for HD and UHD video streaming – Netflix HD & 4K officially supported, as well as Amazon Video
  • Thermal design and storage performanceGood storage performance, and I only read reports of isolated issues with overheating (i.e. not a design issue).
  • Extra Features – N/A

NVIDIA TV box also features the most power GPU of any TV boxes, so it’s also an excellent 3D gaming console. Availability is still an issue, although the company has launched the model in some more countries this year. This also means the device can be pretty expensive once you factor shipping, custom duties, and other fees (e.g. forward shipping) if you purchase it from a country where the device has not officially launched. Just like other devices running Android TV OS, not all apps will be available from the Play Store.

Price: Around $200 on Amazon US.

Other Alternatives

The three devices are not the only ones to consider, and other alternatives could meet some people requirements.

  • Above $100
  • Below $100
    • Xiaomi Mi Box US – Good officially Android TV option if you want to stream video from services like Vudu+, Hulu, YouTube, Netflix… and don’t care about playing games, and very high performance for other tasks
    • Mecool M8S PRO+ – Sub $40 box based on Amlogic S905X SoC with 2GB RAM/16GB storage that supports unofficial Android TV 7.1 firmware, Netflix up to 1080p. [Please note warning about eMMC flash version in the linked post]
    • Various low cost Amlogic S905/S905X TV boxes compatible with LibreELEC (Kodi Linux distribution). Note that stock Android firmware on those boxes may not be very good, so better only consider them to run LibreELEC supported by the community

I hope this guide will help some to decide on which model to buy. Feel free to comment if you think another model should be part of the top 3, or the list of alternatives.

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

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

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

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The basic hardware matches the specification:

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

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

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

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the benchmarks were repeated:

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

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

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

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

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

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and can be compared with other Intel Apollo Lake devices:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Looking at the detail specifications:

 

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

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

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The basic hardware matched the specification:

with just under half the storage used after Windows updates:

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

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

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

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

Performance is again as expected:

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and can be compared with other Intel Apollo Lake devices:

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

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

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Turning to real-world Windows usage cases the first tested was watching a 4K video using Microsoft Edge which worked perfectly.

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

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with the GPU having to work harder.

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

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

 

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At 1080p the video is watchable with only the occasional dropped frame:

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

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

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However when the video is encoded with the H.264 codec then Windows uses hardware to decode:

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

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with no issues playing the videos.

On Ubuntu hardware is used to decode all three codecs:

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

 

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As previously mentioned the device is passively cooled and does not require an internal fan:

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although the device can get quite warm:

with the highest observed reading being 45°C.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

BBen MN10 TV Stick Review – Windows 10, Ubuntu 17.04, Benchmarks, and Kodi

The BBEN MN10 is the second Apollo Lake device to be released in the stick form-factor and on paper looks to have a lot to offer:

It features an Apollo Lake N3350 SoC, an unusual 3GB of RAM, 64GB of storage and is cooled by a ‘mute’ fan. The devices comes in a plain box with a power adapter, and a leaflet style manual.

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It also included a three-pin UK power adapter, as this was advertised as the ‘BBen MN10 Mini PC  –  UK PLUG  BLACK’.

Looking at the detail specifications:

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We can immediately see discrepancies as the device does not have a ‘RJ45 Port Speed: 1000M LAN’ port, and was not supplied with ‘1 x HDMI Cable’ nor ‘1 x Remote Control’.

Powering on the device and the ‘mute’ fan is also a miss-representation as it starts immediately and is noticeably noisy. It also runs at full speed regardless of workload so the noise is a constant reminder that the device is switched-on:

Starting Windows and the disappointment continues with a message informing that ‘We can’t activate Windows on this device because you don’t have a valid digital license or product key’:

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also ‘Intel Remote Keyboard Host App’ is pre-installed (see icon top left) and the computer name is already been set as ‘BBEN’.

As a result I tried installing Microsoft’s Windows 10 Home ISO but because of the confirmed lack of license, I then installed Microsoft’s Windows 10 Enterprise product evaluation ISO in order to review the device.

The basic hardware matched the specification:

with plenty of free-space available post installation:

I then ran some standard benchmarking tools to look at performance under Windows. These are a new set of benchmarks as I’ve updated the tools and releases specifically for devices running Windows version 1709 and later:

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As can be seen the performance is as expected for the N3350 SoC and is comparable with other devices such as ECDREAM A9 or Beelink AP34 Ultimate:

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Next I installed Ubuntu as dual-boot using my ‘isorespin.sh’ script, which includes installing the rEFInd bootloader to enable booting on Apollo Lake devices when the BIOS doesn’t support Linux:

Performance is again as expected:

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And can be compared with other Intel Apollo Lake and earlier Intel Atom devices:

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

and rather interestingly a S/PDIF audio interface shows up in the sound settings. However given there is only a 3.5mm audio jack and when an external speaker is connected through it, sound works when selecting the S/PDIF interface. This again is somewhat misleading.

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Looking at real-work Windows usage cases the first being watching a 4K video using Microsoft Edge which works flawlessly:

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The same video when watched using Google Chrome results in occasional dropped frames:

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but notice how much harder the CPU and GPU are working.

Watching the same video and changing the video quality to high definition (1080p resolution) results in a better experience.

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Unfortunately this can’t be said for watching the same video in Google Chrome on Ubuntu. At 4K the video is unwatchable with excessive dropped frames and a stalled network connection after a short while:

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Even at 1080p the video still stutters:

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

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

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However when the video is encoded with the H.264 codec then Windows uses hardware to decode:

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

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with no issues playing the videos.

On Ubuntu hardware is used to decode all three codecs:

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

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As previously mentioned the internal fan is screaming away merrily although it’s effectiveness with internal cooling is somewhat questionable:

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It does assist in keeping the device at a safe external temperature:

with the highest observed reading being 41°C.

So looking at the physical characteristics of the device its size is only slightly larger than the second generation Intel Compute Stick:

Initially I used the device upside down as it seemed sensible to have the case vents exposed:

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However cracking open the case reveals the fan actually uses the side vent between the two USB ports:

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with the bottom vents for cooling the memory and storage chips:

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Remarkably the WiFi chip appeared to have been exposed to excessive heat at some stage:

yet had still passed inspection as evidenced by the green ‘Pass’ sticker.

The only identifiable marking on the board were on the bottom under the sticky black coverings:

The BIOS is minimalistic:

which is an issue when booting with a connected USB to Ethernet adapter, as it defaults to PXE booting which needs to timeout before booting occurs from internal storage. A workaround is to boot Windows from the boot menu after pressing F7:

Notice also that the BIOS is unbranded and simply displays the Intel logo.

Finally after using Windows then Ubuntu and returning to Windows I encountered that audio over HDMI had disappeared:

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and reinstalling the Intel HD Graphics driver didn’t fix it.

So to sum up this is a device with specific limitations which the buyer should be aware of prior to purchase. I’d like to thank Gearbest for providing the BBEN MN10 for review. They sell it for $197.42 shipped. You’ll also find it on Aliexpress from various sellers with not-activated or activated Windows 10 Home / Pro.

WandPi 8M Development Board Coming Soon with NXP i.MX8M SoC for $89 and Up

November 17th, 2017 21 comments

Wandboard launched in 2012 using Freescale i.MX6 Solo/Dual processor, following soon after by Wandbord Quad. We are not hearing much about those boards today, but since the processor comes with 10 to 15-year long term support, they are still being sold, and software keeps getting updated. For example, the board first shipped with Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean), and the company recently provided Android 7.1 (Nougat) images, and Android 8.x Oreo is likely coming next year.

The company has now unveiled the next generation of Wandboard boards with WandPi 8M powered by NXP i.MX 8M Cortex A53/M4 processors, with up to 2GB DDR4, 16GB eMMC flash, and various network connectivity options and ports.

Three versions of the board (Lite, Pro, Deluxe) will be available with the following specifications:

  • SoC – NXP i.MX8M Quad with four ARM Cortex A53 cores, a Cortex M4F real-time core, and Vivante GC7000Lite GPU with support for OpenGL/ES 3.1, OpenGL 3.0, Vulkan, OpenCL 1.2
  • System Memory / Storage
    • WANDPI-8M-LITE – 1GB DDR4 + 4GB eMMC flash
    • WANDPI-8M-PRO – 2GB DDR4 + 8GB eMMC flash
    • WANDPI-8M-DELUXE – 2GB DDR4 + 16GB eMMC flash
  • Video & Audio Output – HDMI 2.0 up to 4K @ 60Hz
  • Video Decode – 4K UltraHD HDR (Dolby Vision, HDR10, and HLG) up to 4Kp60 for H.265, VP9, 4Kp30 for H.264, 1080p60 for MPEG2, MPEG4p2, VC1, VP8, RV9, AVS/AVS+, h.263, DiVX.
  • Connectivity

    40-pin Header Pinout Diagram

    • Gigabit Ethernet port via Atheros AR8035 chip
    • WANDPI-8M-PRO/DELUXE – Dual band 802.11b/g/n/ac WiFi & Bluetooth 4.2 via Atheros QCA9377; MHF4 antenna connector
  • USB – 1x USB 3.0 port
  • Expansion Header
    • 40-pin Raspberry Pi (mostly) compatible GPIO header with I2C, UART, SPI, PWM, GPIO, SAI/I2S, 5V, 3.3V and GND
    • mikroBUS socket with SPI/I2C/UART/PWM/GPIO/Analog for MikroElectronika Click Boards (now over 250 modules)
  • Debugging – 1x micro USB port for serial console access
  • Misc – Reset button
  • Power Supply – 5V via USB type C port
  • Dimensions – 85 x 56 x 17.5 mm
  • Weight – Working on it
  • Environment / Reliability –
    • Temperature Range – 0 to 50°C
    • Humidity – 10 to 90% RH humidity
    • MTFB – 50,000 hours
    • Shock – 50G/25ms
    • Vibration – 20G/0-600Hz
  • Certifications – Compliant with CE / FCC / RoHS / REACH directives

The block diagram also reveals MIPI camera display (FPC) and MIPI camera (BTB) which are not listed in the specifications.

WandPi 8M Block Diagram – Click to Enlarge

Information about software is currently limited, and we just know the boards will run Linux with “open source code and binary images that are easily accessible” as well design guides and schematics just like the previous Wandboards. The company also shows some logos for the Yocto Project, Ubuntu, Android, Kodi, and Debian, so we can expect support for those.

WandPi 8M boards will ship in Q2 2018, but the company is already taking pre-orders for $89 (LITE), $99 (PRO) and $119 (DELUXE). You’ll find purchase links and a few more details on the product page. Those relatively low cost development boards could also be good news for other open source i.MX8 projects such as Purism Librem 5 smartphone, and MNT reform DIY modular laptop, as more developers may be involved on working on i.MX 8M software support.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.