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MeLE PCG35 Apo mini PC Review – Part 1: Unboxing, Teardown, and M.2 SSD / SATA HDD Installation

September 18th, 2017 11 comments

MeLE PCG35 Apo is a mini PC powered by Intel Pentium J3455, one of the most powerful Intel processors from Apollo Lake family, coupled with 4GB LPDDR3, 32GB eMMC flash and support for M.2 SSD and 2.5″ SATA HDD/SSD. The company sent me a sample for review, and I’ll start by taking photos of the device, accessories, and internal design, as well as showing how to install an M.2SSD and 2.5″ SATA drive, before publishing the second part of the review with Windows 10 at the end of next month.

MeLE PCG35 Apo Unboxing

The mini PC comes with the usual black package with gold fonts the company has used us to.

The side shows the main specifications of the fanless mini PC.

The mini PC, which comes with an aluminum heatsink shaped as number 6, ships with a 12V/2A power supply plus UK, AU, US, and EU plug adapter, a quick start guide, and a zip bag with 4 screws to install a 2.5″ SATA drive, as well as thermal pad for the M.2 SSD.

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The case is not fully made of metal with the top part made of plastic, and the bottom and rear panel made of metal. The front panel include power button and LED, one of the side features a full sized SD card slot, a USB 3.0 ports, and a USB 2.0 ports…

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… and the rear panel is equipped with a 3.5mm audio jack, two more USB 3.0 ports, a Gigabit Ethernet port, HDMI 2.0 and VGA outputs, the power jack, a USB type C port for data and power only (no video/audio), a security lock, and an external WiFi antenna.

MeLE PCG35 Apo Teardown

If you plan to install an hard drive and/or SSD you’ll need to open the case. Four screws are located on the bottom, and four screws in the rear panel. I loosened all eight screws, but it should be possible to install the drives by only removing the bottom cover.

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Note that the screws do not feel of good build quality, and I had to try with 4 different screw drivers/heads for fear of damaging them, as with the first screw driver I used I could see some metal going off of the first screws. You’ll need to find a screw head that fit perfectly to avoid any damage. Note that two screws are shorter than the other to make sure to check this when you open the box. The short ones are on the edges of the rear panel.

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The bottom metal cover also include another aluminum piece that, as we’ll see later, is used to cool the M.2 SSD. We can also find the SATA cables, and 80mm M.2 slot inside the case as expected.

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On the top of the main board we’ll get the RTC battery, and several chips including:

  • Parade PS175HDM DisplayPort to HDMI 2.0a video interface converter
  • ITE IT6513FN DisplayPort to VGA controller
  • Richtek RT5074A power management IC?
  • Realtek ALC269 audio coded for the headphone jack
  • M-TEK G24101SCGX Gigabit Ethernet transformer
  • Intel 3165D2W wireless module for 802.11 b/g/n/ac WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0 LE
  • Realtek RTS5170 card reader controller driver

Unsurprisingly, those are exactly the same chips used in MeLE PCG03 Apo.

If we looks on the side, we’ll see more about the design of the aluminum heatsink. It actually looks like a heat spreader, but since it’s attached to plastic part of the case, it does not spread heat to another metal part. Most people should not do that, but I loosened for more screws to take out the board, and have a better looks at the design of the aluminum part. There’s a fair amount of thermal paste on the “volcano” like part of the heatsink that makes contact with the Intel Pentium J3455 processor.

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We can also see an internal WiFi/Bluetooth antenna in the background. That part of the PCB also includes the chips for RAM, storage, ITE IT8528E embedded controller, and Realtek RTL8111(AN) Gigabit Ethernet transceiver.

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We have 32GB storage with Samsung KLM8G2JENB-B041 eMMC 5.1 flash with theoretical performance of up to 310MB/s read, 70MB/s write, and 13K/14K R/W IOPS, which differs from the Toshiba eMMC flash found in PCG03 Apo, and the best 32GB Samsung eMMC part available.

We also have two ELPIDA FAZ32A2MA RAM chips that should be 2GB each for a total of 4GB RAM, and there are two unpopulated footprints for two more, meaning there could be a 8GB RAM model on the way, or for OEM customers.

M.2 SSD and SATA HDD Installation in MeLE PCG35 Apo

The user manual does not explain at all how to install either M.2 SSD, nor SATA HDD, but it’s quite easy enough to figure out.

I used KingDian N480 M.2 SSD (80mm long), inserted it in the M.2 slot and kept it in place with the screw. You may also want to the the M.2 SSD thermal pad included in the package. Peel off the plastic sheet on the pad, and place it pad on the of the aluminum part attached to the bottom metal cover, before peeling off the second plastic sheet as shown in the photo below.

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If you plan to use a 2.5″ drive too, use the four extra screws in the package to attach it to the bottom metal cover making sure the drive is oriented such as the SATA connector is placed close to the SATA marking on the cover, and connect the SATA cables accordingly. Now we can put everything back together, and we should be good to go. So I plan to use the eMMC flash for Windows 10, the M.2 SSD for program, cache, and email database, and the SATA hard drive for other data.

About those screws…

When I first started the teardown, I mentioned the screws could be damaged easily, and I managed to damage one on the bottom plate, enough so I can not screw it or loosen it with a screwdriver anymore. I’ll have to use another tool to take it once I want to get back my SSD and hard drive.

I also had another problem with another screw in the rear panel that would not go straight. I tried to loose the other screw around, and try again, and later mix the screws but no luck…

Since the mini PC is designed to be open, it would have been good if the company has found an easier way to open the device to insert an SSD/HDD, or sturdier screws.

[Update from MeLE:

As for the screws on the rear panel and bottom, we have realized the seriousness that it may bring uncomfortable experience to customers who install and uninstall frequently. Therefore, we have urged our R&D team to implement new screws (more stronger and more feasible) from next batch of massive production in end of this month by sending official ECN (engineering change notice) to our factory within this week.
]

I’d like to thank MeLE for sending their latest fanless mini PC for review, and if you are interested in the device, you can purchase it for $179.99 including shipping on Aliexpress. They also have options for a VESA mount, and a MeLE F10 air mouse. Please note that the company will often put the device back to $199.99, just wait a few days if this is the case, and I’ve also been told promotional prices are always on during week-ends.

Review of Koogeek BP2 Bluetooth Blood Pressure Monitor

September 16th, 2017 3 comments

Koogeek BP2 is an FDA approved smart blood pressure monitor that connects over Bluetooth to your Android or iOS smartphone, or WiFi to the cloud. The company sent me a sample for evaluation, so let’s get started right away.

Koogeek BP2 Unboxing

The device is sent in a cardboard package with Koogeek brand…

and some more derails about the specifications on the bottom of the package.

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I asked the company to confirm about FDA approval, and they told me to look for K134029 on the FDA website, which lead me to this document testing Shenzhen Belter Health Management and Analysis ePA-46B, and comparing it to the results of Omron HEM-7200-Z (BP742) with the conclusion being that:

The Belter Blood pressure meter (ePA-46B) is substantially equivalent to the predicate devices.

Koogeek BP2 is the same as Belter ePA-46B, but just rebranded, and with a different mobile app.

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In the package will find the device with the cuff attached to the main unit with an LCD display.

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The top of the unit comes with a power button, an LED, a reset pin hole, and a micro USB port for charging the 400 mAh battery.

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The package also included a charging cable and a multi-language quick start guide.

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We’ll find marking for CE and FDA approval on the cuff, and it’s a medium cuff designed for arms between 22 and 36 cm circumference.

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The blood pressure monitor wraps aroudn your upper arm, and is kept in place with Velcro. But before going ahead, you may want to read the user manual…

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..with two pages per language, except for Chinese where there are more details provided. Beside English, and Chinese, other languages include French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese. You may also want to charge the monitor before starting. It took about two hours to fully charge the device, with the LED blinking while charging, and solid once it is completed.

Koogeek BP2 Blood Pressure Monitor Review

In theory, you could use the blood pressure monitor without smartphone, by pressing the button once to power it, and another time to start measurement, with diastolic and systolic blood pressure and heart rate shown on the display at the end. But mostly people will likely prefer to use a smartphone to keep track of the evolution instead of relying on pen and paper, and download Koogeek app available for Android or iOS.

 

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Once it’s done, you’ll be asked to login and join Koogeek. THe latter can be done with an email, Facebook or Google+ account. I first tried with Facebook, and it failed with an HTTP 500 error, but I could go ahead with Google+.

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You’ll then be prompted to created a new user. For the date of birth, make sure to tap on the year, as it makes it much faster than scrolling through the months… Also indicate your height and weight, and click on create a new user.

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You’ll then be shown the timeline (empty), and can start using the monitor as follows:

  1. Tap on the Heart icon
  2. Select “Arm type” (first time only)
  3. Place BP2 monitor on your upper arm with your elbow on the table to make sure the monitor is at heart level, and place your hand palm up
  4. Turn on the monitor
  5. It will establish a Bluetooth connection, and within a few seconds later the Start button will show up
  6. Select the user (if more than one), and press Start, the cuff will inflate and take the measurement. This should take less than one minute
  7. The results will be shown on the smartphone and the LCD display on the monitor
  8. Koogeek BP2 monitor will automatically turn off after 15 seconds. Do not press the button, as it would just start measurement again

The screenshot on the right above shows the results for systolic and diastolic blood pressure in a diagram with 6 different zones:

  • Green – Optimal blood pressure
  • Blue – Normal blood pressure
  • Yellow – High blood pressure (within the normal range)
  • Orange – Mild hypertension
  • Orange Red – Moderate to high blood pressure
  • Red – Severe Hypertension

I’ve shot a video to show the full process.

In theory, after the first setup with the app, you can take measurements and upload results to the cloud without your smartphone. In the timeline, click the + button which will allow you to install a new device.

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The company also offers smart scales, thermometers,  fitness trackers, etc.., but for our use case, I selected KS-BP2 device, and set it up to connect to my WiFi router. I then tried to make a measurement without starting the app, pressing the power button once to start it up, and once again to start measurement, and at the end I could see the WiFi icon on the display showing it upload the data to the cloud, but it may have gone too high, and to medical records heaven, as I was unable to retrieve the results in my phone. I had setup two users at the time, so maybe that’s why. There’s an unknown measurement section in the app, but the results were not their either.

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You can create and switch between users in the timeline by tapping on the blue round icon in the bottom left corner with the initials of the current selected users, or switch between users and access to more settings by tapping on the three bars icon on the top left, which will also allow you to set reminders, adjust settings such as app language, units, Google Fit support, and so on. We’ve created two fictitious users to take daily measurements on two different real 🙂 humans between Monday and Saturday, and for each user you can access a chart with the blood pressure over time…

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.. as well as heart rate, and a full list of measurements is also accessible. If you can see some outliers, it’s likely a problem with the measurements, but not due to the device. For example, Marge Simpson had a normal blood pressure only on September 11, but we can see the heartrate at 92 bpm was higher than during the other days, and so it must have interfered with the measurement, as we should have waited a little longer after sitting, before starting taking the blood pressure.

Koogeek BP2 (aka KS-BP2) works as expected most of the time, and results appears to be in line with reality based on each respective patient’s history, but I had troubles using WiFi to cloud function when not using my smartphone, and once the blood pressure monitor started to inflate, deflate, inflate, etc…as if it had troubles completing the measurements. I could easily stop it by pressing the power button to turn it off, and restarted it to make a successful measurement right after.

I’d like to thank Koogeek for sending the review sample, and Koogeek BP2 can be purchased for $69.99 on Amazon. Koogeek is a TomTop brand, so you’ll also find their products on Tomtop.com.

Review of Sonoff RF Bridge, Sonoff 4ch Pro, and Sonoff POW with Sonoff-Tasmota Firmware

September 12th, 2017 No comments

Karl here. Today we are going to look at 2 new and one older Sonoff devices.

I spent very little time with the stock firmware on the device. I don’t like the fact that an Internet connection is needed, and I am not in control. As of the time of this writing I found the Ewelink was not configurable enough to meet my needs. There is one feature that is really nice that I could easily see keeping stock firmware. It is the Alexa Skill. It worked. I am also currently reviewing Vobot Smart Alarm Clock with Alexa integration and had no trouble controlling the Sonoff devices with Alexa. But unfortunately I am lazy and want everything automatic so I can’t keep it. With the RF bridge I was unable to trigger a light from a motion sensor. In comes Arendst ‘s Sonoff-Tasmota firmware  to the rescue. It gets better all the time. It is dead simple, and so configurable now. He continues to add features and devices.

RF Bridge

You may have seen my previous article building a 433toMQTTto433 bridge to use cheap 433mhz devices. I never did build a case for it, and it’s a little bit of an eyesore. When I found out about a nicely packaged one, I was excited to check it out. Like I stated previously, it didn’t work as I anticipated and was glad when I found out Arendst got one as well. He has a good wiki with on the github page and all the needed information to flash and configure so I won’t go into it. It flashed uneventfully. I was a little scared by the design that it was only going to be able to receive 16 individual codes and pass onto MQTT but that is not the case. It passes everything it receives. You can only send 16 different codes right now which need to be saved ahead of time. So after monitoring the MQTT server I ran into first hurdle. I was getting this example json value.

And actually I found after much frustration that “Data” is a nested json value. This took a while for me to figure out. After that it was relatively easy to parse in Home Assistant and move my automations over from the previous bridge.

and

From the previous article payload off is a made up value and is only used internally to turn the sensor off after a minute.

Just a couple gripes about the rf bridge which are superficial. There is a noticeable increased delay over the homemade bridge from the time it senses a trigger until the light comes on. It is only about half a second but a noticeable difference. And my wife pointed quickly that the led indicating it is on is very bright. I might remove it or install a varistor to tone it down. The receiver does not appear to be as good or might just be that it is in a case or my positioning. I am still able to cover my house but the trigger on my mailbox across the street doesn’t trigger. It was hit or miss on the old one but never triggers now.

FYI I am still running off the same batteries I initially installed in the 433mhz motion sensors over 6 months ago.

Sonoff 4ch Pro

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I also received the Sonoff 4ch Pro with 433mhz transmitter remote.

I tested it with stock Ewelink software and all tests done before worked. I quickly installed the alternative firmware from above, and again no loss in functionality. I was still able to pair and clear the 433 MHz remotes. It is weird that it does not indicate with a light that it is in pairing mode as of right now but when you press the button the light blinks when it is learned. The inching, self locking and interlock continued to work as well via switches. I can definitely see this being used for lighting, or if you needed to control multiple items in close proximity. Maybe simple access control. Possibilities are endless. On the product page, it shows wiring with motors as well which looks cool. If I find a unique or interesting project I will share.

The 4 button transmitter is very powerful. It transmits further than any of my other 433mhz devices.

Sonoff POW

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A buddy of mine gave me a Sonoff POW to play with. The Sonoff POW is very similar to the Sonoff Basic, but has the ability to measure power usage. I didn’t bother testing the stock software. I went straight to Arendst software. I didn’t have anything to measure power before and this is a welcome addition to my tools arsenal. I don’t need super accurate readings just a good idea what the draw is. I installed a light rated at 75w to test and got the results below. If a more accurate load is available you can calibrate the POW and instructions are in the Wiki.

OTA Firmware

Who wants to drag all their devices back to the PC and flash new firmware? I finally checked it out. It is really simple to do.

First uncomment BE_MINIMAL then export compiled Binary. After a while you will have a bin file in your sketch folder.

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After uploading comment BE_MINIMAL, upload again. The 2 steps procedure is because he is running out of space with all the features. He is trying to reduce the code down, and hopefully make this a single step in the future. If you have a web server there are instructions to automate this.

Conclusion

I would like to thank Itead Studio for sending the Sonoff RF Bridge, 4ch Pro and 4 button 433 MHz transmitter. They keep expanding their Sonoff line and make them hacker friendly. I would also like to thank Arendst for his tireless work on Sonoff-Tasmota firmware. If you are just looking to control your lights via Alexa, and don’t mind requiring the Internet to be available the stock firmware might work for you.

Getting Started with Espruino & JavaScript on ESP32 with ESPino32 Board

September 11th, 2017 No comments

Venus Supply Co., Ltd, better known as ThaiEasyElec, is a company based in Thailand, selling embedded systems and development board, as well as providing development services based in Thailand. The company sent me their latest board called ESPino32 powered by Espressif ESP-WROOM-32 WiFi and Bluetooth module for evaluation. While the board is supported in Arduino-esp32, I’ve already tested Arduino with ESP32-Bit module & ESP32-T board, so after checking out the hardware, I’ll load it with something different: Espruino, a firmware allowing for JavaScript programming over the serial console, or a Web based IDE.

ESPino32 Unboxing and Soldering

The board shipped with four female headers, and I/O stickers.

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The board includes ESP-WROOM-32, exposes I/Os through four 10-pin headers, features CP2104 chip for serial to USB debugging via micro USB port, two buttons (reset and program), a user LED connected to IO16, and a jumper to select between regulated power supply (micro USB or Vin), or battery power (Vbat).

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If you’re going to integrate your board in a project, you may want to use it asif without header to save on space, but for prototyping and use with a breadboard, we should start by soldering the four female headers. It’s even a little easier than with other headers, since you can simply place the board on top of the headers to do the soldering.

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Once we’re done, we can apply the stickers on all four headers, which will make it easier to play with while connecting the jumper cables.

Now we can insert the board into a breadboard, connect an external 5V LED through pin 16, and connect a micro USB cable to a computer to get power and access the board.

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A board with female headers has the advantage of providing two usable rows on each side of the board. With male-only you’d lose that extra row, unless you use a narrower board such as  ESP32 Pico Core board.

That’s the output I get when connecting the board to my Linux computer:

Quick Start Guide for Espruino on ESP32

Espruino has a page about ESP32 support that explains what is working:

  • onewire
  • hardware SPI
  • hardware I2C
  • DAC
  • ADC
  • Serial
  • WIFI – as a client and access point

and what is not (yet):

  • Over-The-Air (OTA) firmware updates.
  • Bluetooth and BLE

So we can’t play with Bluetooth, but WiFi and GPIO should work. There are also some instructions in that page which I will follow and adapt (since some are not working/out of date) below.

First we need to download the latest version of Espruino, in my case Espruino 1.94.

Espruino Firmware for various board – Click to Enlarge

The zip file includes firmware for all supported platforms include the company’s own Espruino boards & Puck.js, Micro::bit, OlimeXino, Raspberry Pi, STM32 discovery boards, and more..

For our use, we need to get into espruino_1v94_espruino, where we’ll find 3 binary files (bootloader.bin, espruino_esp32.bin, and partitions_espruino.bin), as well as README_flash.txt that explains how to do the update in Windows with flash_download_tools_v3.4.4.zip, or in Linux with esptool.py from the ESP-IDF SDK. I’m running Ubuntu 16.04, so I’ll go with the later, but since most people won’t need to install the ESP-IDF SDK, you can instead get esptool from pip for Python 2.7 or 3.4 or newer:

if you’ve used esptool previously for other esp32/esp8266 board(s) before, you can upgrade esptool with:

In my case, I had installed an older version of esptool (v0.4.6) with apt when I played with NodeMCU board, so I removed it:

Now that we have the latest esptool utility installed, we can flash the image we’ve  just extracted:

It worked the first time. Log of successful installation:

At this point, in theory, you can install Espruino Web IDE chrome extension,  click on the connect icon on the left top corner, select /dev/ttyUSB0 port, and program away.

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Espruino Web IDE will also show in Ubuntu 16.04 dash. But in practise, there’s a known issue that the first time you won’t be able to connect through the Web IDE, and indeed I could not.. The work around is to first connect using screen or minicom in a terminal window:

We can then run an hello world sample:

That “=undefined” is a little confusing, but Espruino developers explain that is expected :

This is normal and it indicates the result of the last operation, which in this case is the return value of console.log, which is always undefined.

The next step is to configure a WiFi connection to your access point:

Replace “YOUR_SSID” and “YOUR_SSID_PASSWORD” with the value for your WiFi router. If this is successful, you should  see a message like shortly after:

The line wifi.save() will make sure the WiFi connection is permanent, so the board will reconnect to the router automatically after each reboot.

We can now go back to Espruino Web IDE, click on the Setup icon on the top right corner, go to Communications tab, and input the IP address (192.168.0.112 in my case) in the field “Connect over TCP Address“.

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You don’t even need to connect the board to your computer at this stage, if you be powered by a battery, or a USB power adapter. If we click on the Connect icon again, we’ll have the option to select TCP/IP: 192.168.0.112.

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I wrote a simply LED blink demo in the right part of the window, and clicked on he Upload button (third button in the middle) to upload and start the program:

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D16 is connected both the board’s IO16 LED and the LED on the board. IO16 will be turned on when D16 is low, and my LED when D16 is high every half second. I’ve shot a quick demo below.

However, if you reboot or power cycle the board, your program will not automatically start. So if you want the program to be “permanent”, add save command at the end of your code:

The output from the console should look like when you click on Upload button.

I could turn off and on the board, the LED demo resumed automatically without having to upload the code from the IDE.

Note that at this stage, I started to have some strange issues, like failure to connect to the board, and sometimes it would should “module http not found” or “module wiki not found”, as I wrote code for a web server.

It could be you need include the code for a permanent WiFi connection, before running the save command. It was still working sometimes, but I decided to connect through micro USB cable via Espruino Web IDE (it worked at this stage) to carry on with my tests more reliably.

In case you want to use ESPino32 board as small webserver, you can do so by creating a access point, and returning a simple “hello world” with the following code:

I click on Upload button, and I could access web server from Firefox.

The main advantage of Espruino over the Arduino IDE is that it’s much faster to try your code on the target, since there’s no need to compile a binary, upload to the board, and flash to storage during development. Another advantage depends on your skill set, as if you’re a seasoned web developer with a good knowledge of JavaScript, you won’t need to learn C programming used in Arduino IDE.

For other interface (SPI, I2C, ADC…) and more advanced tasks, you may check Espruino ESP32 page, but be forewarned, as the blink and web server samples did not work for me (unknown variable and missing semi-colon) by default. So you may want to read through the API reference in case the samples do not work. The company behind Espruino, Pur3 Ltd, is likely focusing most of the development efforts of their own hardware platforms like Puck.js and Espruino boards, and there’s more activity for those in the forums. So if you are interested in JavaScript on micro-controllers, but don’t want too many issues, ESP32 may not be best platform to learn, but if you like challenges, go ahead! 🙂

I’d like to thank ThaiEasyElec for sending an ESPino32 board sample. The company sells the board locally and globally for respectively 590 THB / ~$16 plus shipping on their website, where you’ll also find some documentation in English and Thai language. If you are based in Thailand, you can get further discount and free shipping if you purchase through LINE app.

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.

2017 Tevo Tarantula Dual Extruder 3D Printer Review – Part 2: Auto-Leveling, Dual Color Prints, Flex Filament

September 2nd, 2017 4 comments

Karl here with final part of Tevo Tarantula dual extruder 3D printer review. The kit that was sent by Gearbest has a large bed, auto leveling, dual extrusion, and flex extruder of which I only found the flex extruder appealing to me. I have had this printer for a while now. It was relatively easy to setup, but near the end of the build it did not cover every aspect. There are lots of videos and a big Facebook group if you run into any troubles. Overall it is a good printer, but some of the features I initially thought I would like turned out to not be very useful.

Auto leveling

I tried my hardest to get this to work even going as far as to upgrade the firmware, but because they had a printed bracket on it, it drooped on my first high temp ABS print. I removed it immediately because it made me angry. It was not worth the hassle to me. Leveling by hand is done infrequently and can be done very quickly. I installed a piece of glass on my bed and it makes it even easier because you can see the space between the nozzle and the glass. I saw a post a while back where someone sanded their mirror with sandpaper, and they no longer needed glue, and it works well. I only had to use glue on the dinosaur head below with all the thin supports. I tried my best to get auto leveling working but IMHO, it is not worth the extra money.

Dual Extrusion

In theory, it looks good but is a terrible pain with 2 separate nozzles. 3D printing is not the easiest as it is but now with 2 nozzles side by side, printing with dual extruder is difficult. I was able to print the 2 color tree frog after multiple attempts. And tried a couple other things from Thingiverse. In my mind now, if I want to have 2 colors I will just paint the piece. I purchased soluble HIPS but never got around to printing with it. I ordered in a rus,h and thought it was water soluble but it is soluble in Limonene and I am in no hurry to buy. Limonene is pretty expensive and nasty sounding stuff. Not impressed with dual extrusion right now, and another unneeded upgrade.

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Flex Extruder

Now for the flex extruder. It was the only upgrade that I found useful. I purchased some flexible PLA and tested with the stock extruder. It jammed every time. After upgrading, I went on to print flexible filament with no issues. Flexible filament is more expensive so I only printed 2 things with it. (one of my kids stole the benchy so I don’t have a picture of it. It printed fine with the exception of the stack on top broke off. This upgrade is worth it, and works if you are wanting to print flexible filament.

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Fusion 360

This is not really part of the review, but I wanted to share how satisfying it is to make things in AutoDesk Fusion 360. I am currently designing some useful parts for another printer from scratch, instead of mixing models together and some car parts. It is extremely powerful and definitely worth learning. Tinkercad is good for basic stuff, and I will continue to use it, but for more elaborate parts Fusion 360 is the way to go. The parametric modeling and timeline feature blows my mind. If you need to make a change roll back the timeline make the change then all the subsequent tools update magically. There are a ton of videos on YouTube if you are interested. I settled on Lars Christensen to learn basics. It is fun printing, but designing an object from ground up is just fantastic, and goes hand in hand with 3D printing.

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More 3D Print Samples

All the prints below were printed with ZYLtech filament with the exception of the flexible filament. If you are in the US definitely check them out. I picked up 3 rolls for $30 + shipping with a coupon code I got in one of the Facebook groups. I also signed up for the newsletter, and they send out coupon codes periodically. At the time of this writing you can get free shipping if you spend $75 or more.

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Summary

For regular printing, it prints very well and easy to print with. Heats up fast. There is a big community behind this printer so there are many mods/upgrades, but it prints pretty well out of the box. There are a lot of solid parts with the kit. The board is really good and well documented making it easy to upgrade firmware. All the acrylic parts can be printed to sturdy the frame up if you desire. I did break my Z bracket, but was able to glue it back long enough to print replacement. If I was in the market I would get the base model (~$240 – Coupon TE3DIT may lower the price), or the next step up with the larger bed (~$255). The model I reviewed with the complete options (large bed, dual extruder for bi-color prints, and auto-leveling) costs $418.59 includding worldwide shipping, but the if you use TEVODUAL coupon, the price will go down to $349.99.

A First Look at ESP32 PICO Core Development Board Powered by ESP32-PICO-D4 SiP

August 30th, 2017 11 comments

Last week, I wrote about ESP32-PICO-D4 system-in-package (SiP) that contains ESP32 WiSoC, 4MP SPI flash, a crystal oscilloscator and some passive components in a single 7×7 mm package in order to allow smaller designs based on ESP32. The company noticed the post, and asked me whether I’d be interested in receiving “some development boards based on ESP32 PICO”, an offer hard to refuse :), and within a couple of days I received the package below.

So I  ended up with 10 identical development kits, the company probably thought it was no worth paying for DHL to only send one or two development boards… The boards may also be part of some contests… We’ll see 😉

So let’s take two, and have a closer look at “ESP32_PICO_Core_Board_V3″… It comes with two rows of 20 pins with access to all I/Os, and features three main chips: ESP32-PICO-D4 SiP, AMS1117 voltage regulator, and Silabs CP2102 USB to UART controller for programming and debugging.

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There’s also an antenna, a EN and BOOT buttons, and a micro USB port. The board measures 52x20mm. On actual product, the USB bridge part would be there, so you could have something around half size or even much smaller…

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… something like the ESP32-PICO-D4 module below whose picture I found on the web.

ESP32-PICO-D4 features are basically the same of ESP32 ones, just more compact, so how does ESP32 PICO Core board compares to other breadboard friendly board based on ESP32? To find out, I compare it to ESP32-T board with ESP32-Bit module, and ESPino32 board with ESP-WROOM-32 module, which I plan to review/play with in about 2 weeks.

ESPino32 vs ESP32 Pico Core vs ESP32-T – Click to Enlarge

ESP32 Pico Core is clearly smaller. Compared to ESP32-T it’s about the same length, but much thinner, and include 2 extra pins, while in terms on functionality it’s more comparable to ESPino32 both with 40-pins, two button, and micro USB port, but the size difference is even greater.

ESP32 Pico Core on Breadboard – Click to Enlarge

If you wonder, the board is breadboard compatible, and since it’s thinner leave two rows of pins free on each side, compared to just one for most boards.

The boards are not for sale right now, and there’s no info on their website about them. You’ll however find some more details in ESP32-PICO-D4 datasheet.

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.

Click to Enlarge

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

Click to Enlarge

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.