At €39 the Amazon Fire TV Stick is very interesting. For Prime customers it’s a must-buy but for those of us with Miracast-enabled devices it means that the Miracast feature (Screen Mirroring) also brings extra value. Early firmware builds for the Fire TV Stick didn’t support Miracast from Windows 8.1 but I’ve just received a stick here in Germany, upgraded the firmware and tested Miracast on two Windows PCs, a Windows smartphone and an Android tablet. All of them worked but there are still some issues that need sorting out. Read on for a review of the Fire TV Stick, a focus on Miracast and some thoughts about KODI, iConsole Micro and Chromecast.
You are probably familiar with Intel’s NUC range of Mini PCs. They’ve been popular and now that Braswell is shipping you’re probably going to see a new range of them. Intel are also introducing a Mini Lake reference design that will be over 30% smaller. Beyond Mini Lake though is a proposal for a completely wire-free Mini PC. Meet the ‘no wire’ Mini PC.
Intel’s Braswell platform, the replacement for the Baytrail-M platform that you see in many Chromebooks and low-cost Windows laptops under the Pentium and Celeron brand, is now shipping to their customers. Intel claims that it will have 2X GPU performance and that 40 designs are in the pipeline.
I use my Intel NUC with Atom N2820 processor daily. It’s quiet, neat and runs Openelec like a dream. It was cheap too but now I’m wondering if I should have waited. The Ainol Mini PC comes with RAM, storage, a Windows OS and a 26 Wh battery for just $129. It’s silent too!
Ainol Mini PC
It doesn’t have a Gigabit Ethernet port but it does have USB3.0 so adding an adaptor is no problem. Retro-fitting an infra-red reciever might be a problem though and of course this Baytrail-T ‘tablet without screen’ is not going to allow for any expansion. The storage won’t be as fast as what’s possible with the SATA interface on an Intel NUC. The biggest problem I see though is that you might have problems installing your favorite Linux distro on this due to the 32-bit UEFI bug. Some tablets come with a 64-bit Windows not but you can clearly see that this 64-bit CPU is running a 32-bit Windows version on the Geekbuying sales page.
Along with the Baytrail-T-based dongles these are interesting IoT-style products (and with a 3G dongle could be the perfect malicious hotspot) but until they allow you to boot your chosen 64-bit OS they’re not flexible enough. If anyone finds a similar one with 64-bit UEFI bootloader, let us know.
We’ve been asked a number of times to add mini-PCs and stick-PCs into the UMPCPortal database so while we’re working on improving the database we thought it would make sense to put a couple of mini PC products in and to ask you what details you want to see. Mini-PCs aren’t ultra-mobile but they’re very portable and if our database is working well for you, why not add something closely-related to UMPCs? We’ve seen a lot of traction on the Intel NUC articles and the technology is closely related so expanding into mini PCs seems sensible. Stick PCs like the Intel Compute Stick are also up for discussion.
Intel NUC with Baytrail-M platform
We’ve already added a couple of NUC devices to a category we’re calling ‘headless’ mini PCs and you’ll find tailored information on the specifications pages including information about the internal slots and connectors. The new Broadwell-U based Intel NUC 5i5 is a good example.
The new ‘headless’ mini-PC category in the product database.
We’ve already added a benchmarks section to the product pages so where we’ve tested a device (or use a trusted partner’s data) we’ll add in a set of CPU, browser and GPU scores that should allow you to ‘position’ a mini PC in terms of performance and we’ll make as many notes as we can about important things like SATA drive max-height, TPM, Intel Quick-Sync and more. We’ve got live pricing (where available at Amazon) for USA, Germany and the UK which, again, will help you to refine your choice.
What other information would you be looking for? Let us know in the comments below and we’ll take it into consideration. While you’re at it, take a look at the updated product chooser and let us know what you think. Your feedback is more than welcome, it’s requested!
There are now three low-cost lightweight Windows 8 laptops on market that are getting good reviews and appear to be selling very well. Here’s a round-up of the HP Stream 11, ASUS X205 and Acer E11 laptops with pro’s and con’s. Each looks to be a good value purchase but there are important differences between them that will affect customer choices.
This Atom Z3745D-based HDMI dongle is ready to plug into your TV or monitor. It will be pre-installed with Windows 8.1 or Linux and has built-in WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity, 2GB of RAM, 32GB of on-board storage, a standard USB port and a micro SD card slot for extra storage. A Micro-USB port is also on board for power supply. Basically it’s a Baytrail-T tablet without the screen, battery and speakers.
CES is huge, scary, entertaining, unhealthy and informative all at the same time but I really wish I was there. The advantage of being in the office this year though is that even if it’s 3am I can wade through a ton of feeds to pick out relevant news items. Here are the news items I haven’t blogged in full today, Day 1 of CES 2015.
Back at MWC we spoke to MMV CEO Christopher Price about dual-OS tablets, Ultrabooks and desktops. At that time they were public about iConsole.TV – an Android build designed to run games on high-power PC platforms. The idea of high-end gaming power is interesting but the more interesting topic for us was the promise that they were “building the first Android desktop PC.” [Watch the video here.] MMV have officially launched that project and it’s called Console OS. It’s going to be a true instant-switch dual-OS options for Windows PC owners.
Console OS is a part-completed dual-boot Android build that has the aim of being a complete desktop-capable fork of Android for X86 . The project has launched on Kickstarter where you can support and influence the project. If the project is successful we could see a true hypervisor-controlled instant-switch Android build in 2015.
The Kickstarter project is mainly geared towards building Console OS Pro – a version with hypervisor-based switching, service layers, maps and stores. This version will also, eventually, include OpenGL4.0 support and a Windowing system. Console OS will also be available to everyone soon as a basic dual-boot version.
Neither version will ship with the Android application store or Google service integration but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. It’s up to MMV, OEMS and Google to solve that issue and there’s obviously going to be money directed towards teasing OEMs into the project. Unofficial Google solutions are likely to appear but the hope is that Google would eventually come to their senses and support this commercially led project. The Amazon store is has already been tested and MMV will also build a Console Store that will include enhanced apps. MMV are also promising to allow you to import applications from your existing Android devices.
Other Cosnole OS Pro features:
Toggle between native and modified user-interface.
Ten-Second toggle between Windows and Android.
The Hypervisor looks like it will be based on Xen and include XenGT graphics virtualization technology.
2 apps can be run side by side (on both versions)
Gaming OpenGL 4 will be supported in 2015
ASUS Transformer Book T100 will be one of the first products to get a tailored build
Kickstarter supporters will be able to vote on which devices get priority in the tailoring process.
I’ve taken a close look at the project and spoke to MMV and I think it’s one of the best dual OS projects yet. Where Bluestacks, the AMD-funded project, runs inside a Windows-based runtime and others from Insyde and AMI haven’t really got off the ground this is not only a good technical solution but a well-organised project. Choosing to go through Kickstarter means it gets a good amount of free marketing too.
So why would you want Console OS? The free, dual-boot version may not interest too many people outside the early-adopter class but I think many will be interested in testing games on devices like the T100 and even some more powerful Ultrabooks. The Pro project is going to be the more interesting one for the mainstream though. There are going to be device-specific issues that will limit the audience at first but by choosing popular devices first – and the Transformer Book T100 is a perfect example – they should improve their reach quickly. Ultimately the OEMs need to pick up Console OS to make it truly successful and that success really does ride on being able to get a full Store and quality service layers into the product. Google is obviously the first choices but let’s not forget that Microsoft have a full Android stack in the Nokia X project.
MMV have published a list of competing Android X86 options and features.
Here’s the list of devices that will get tailoring treatment from day 1 although it must be noted that there could be issues and changes. Sensors, 3G, multitouch, digitizers and other hardware will need open-source drivers before they are supported.
ASUS: Transformer Book T100
Dell: XPS 11, XPS 12, XPS 13, and XPS 15, Venue 8 Pro, Venue 11 Pro
Intel: Next Unit of Computing (all NUC models except for 847DYE)
And, of course, all of our own iConsole-branded hardware like iConsole Unit 00 (and more, new hardware coming later this month)
Support for additional systems will be steered by OEM backing and by the community.
Console OS release timescales
Console OS Developer Release 1 within about 30 days of the Kickstarter’s conclusion (Est. September) After the initial launch the Kickstarter funds will be used to build out support for the devices that are voted for.
MMV expects Console OS (Pro) 1.0 around December, 2014 with the goal of giving OEMs something to ship in time for new x86 tablets and convertibles this winter to ship in stores.
We’re in touch with MMV and looking forward to early testing. Expect more coverage from us soon.
Following my Windows 8.1 and Android KitKat tests with the Intel N2820 NUC I installed the software that this mini-pc is really ideal for. XBMCbuntu and Openelec are Linux-based distributions that are built purely to run the XBMC media center software. These well-developed OS builds for a mature application and for the average user are a perfect match and I’ve had success with both. The Openelec build even allows the cost to be kept down to about $160 / 140 Euro
XBMC, a project that has its roots in original hacked Xbox hardware, is a multi-platform, free software suite that provides video and audio library and playback facilities, a PVR front-end (to software like MythTV that can control TV and satellite cards.) It has a large-screen interface and can be controlled by various remote means including infra-red, app, keyboard and game controllers. It is very network-aware which allows content to be indexed from many sources. Add-on software allows libraries to be enhanced with rich content, fan-art, community information and also allows internet-based content to be access. Podcasts, radio streams, YouTube and many other content sources are supported out of the box.
In this article I’m testing the latest ‘Gotham’ releases of XBMC.
What’s the difference between XBMCbuntu and Openelec?
XBMCbuntu is a complete Linux operating system distribution set-up in such a way that XBMC auto-runs when booted. Standard features of Ubuntu Linux are included which allows the user to run other services (web server, NAS etc.) and to use the desktop in addition to XBMC. Openelec is a very reduced Linux OS that is intended to allow XBMC to run on low-power and small storage PC builds. For example, in this case we’re running Openelec from a cheap USB stick which allows us to ignore the need for a hard drive. There’s little scope for running anything other than XBMC within Openelec.
2G Memory Kingston ACR16D3LS1NGG/2G – $(recovered from an upgrade. A modern equivalent is going to be around $20)
For an XBMCbuntu or Windows 8.1 build I recommend an SSD. I’m using a MydigitalSSD BP4 240GB part but a 64GB version of this fast SSD is just $60. It helps to speed up boot, database updates and to keep power and noise levels low.
Remote – Xbox 360-compatible remote. (a remote won’t cost more than $20)
USB stick for Openelec – (You’re likely to have one lying around!)
Installing XBMCbuntu on the Intel N2820 NUC
I installed XBMCbuntu to the SSD but installed Openelec to a USB stick, which obviously negates the need for an internal drive. I used the Gigabit Ethernet port for Internet connectivity but an Intel Centrino WiFi module is also included. An infra-red transceiver is already mounted in the NUC (which means you must have it in line-of-sight to the IR remote control.)
XBMC install was very simple. A how-to video is shown below.
The rest of the install process is self explanatory but on my system – pre installed with Windows 8.1 and using UEFI boot system – it rebooted straight into Windows. I had to reboot, press F10 and go to the boot menu to select to correct boot drive. Having Windows 8.1 and XBMCbuntu on a NUC isn’t likely to be a common scenario but I have it here because of the testing I’m doing.
Performance is great. Libraries seem to update very quickly considering the amount of data I have on my remote drives. I used a combination of UPnP from my NAS and SMB shares from my NAS because via SMB I was able to tag the directory a data type and let, for example, a movie database plugin scan all my films and add metadata to them. For audio I used uPnP as I was able to link artists and genres as separate directories. I’m still experimenting with network protocols.
In terms of video playback performance I was impressed to see every single one of my Carrypad video test files play. From simple DivX through WMV and H.264 to complex MTS containers with H.264, AC3 sound and subtitles. Videos from the local network all started quickly and I saw no tearing or sync issues. In terms of bitrate performance I saw only one issue with a 25Mbps-30Mbs H.264 fullHD file at 50FPS with Dolby AC3 that was taken direct from a camera recording. During the 90-second video if needed to buffer once so it looks like either some buffering settings need to be adjusted or I need to ensure that my NAS and network is performance correctly.
Under XBMCbuntu I was not able to configure Wi-Fi and I could not get any response from my basic or my Xbox 360 (3rd party) remote control. The XBOX 360 remote worked under the Openelec build (below.)
Video: Testing 30Mbps file here. (On this video it works better than I describe above, possibly because I was working on the same switch as my NAS. Other tests were performed in my living room where the NAS is behind a second router. )
YouTube 1080p performance appears good although I was only able to see 720p versions of most files. 4K content was delivered as 720p despite having the YouTube app set up to request 1080p On my 100Mbps internet connection there were no delays. Other video apps tested: TED, Revision 3, Twit and a few others. I did not test any locally stored content so am not able to give an ‘upper limit’ on, for example, H.264 decode bitrate.
In terms of music content I have a very large library and have been accessing it via a UPnP share. Initial tests seem to indicate that it’s usable but more testing is needed here as I’m in a transition phase where I’m also testing the Xbox Music streaming and offline service. XBox Music streaming services are not supported on XBMC. (See notes below on DRM content.)
Boot up time (after selecting the boot partition manually in the BIOS) was around 15 seconds. (Note: This is on a fast SSD.)
No lock-ups or crashes were experienced during the testing period.
Video: Installing XBMC via XBMCbuntu on an Intel N2820 NUC
Low-Cost: Openelec on the Intel N2820 NUC
For the Openelec test I used a small USB stick as the boot media (created automatically using the Live image creator) and a 4GB USB stick as the permanent ‘disk.’ For more details on the installimstall process, which is very simple, are available in this guide.
Due to the system running from a relatively slow USB stick I experienced occasional freezing on the UI. In some cases of mapping new content into the system this was 10 seconds or more. In normal playback usage I didn’t experience any serious freezing.
Out of the box, so to speak, I had a better remote control experience. A third-party XBOX 360 remote worked although as you’d expect, it turned on both the NUC and the XBOX at the same time. You’ll need to keep your XBOX turned off while you use XBMC!
DVDs I tested worked although there were some buffering issues experienced. I’m not sure why but maybe the decrypting process isn’t that efficient? I have yet to watch a full film through so beware that there could be hidden issues that I haven’t experienced yet. DVD menus worked OK.
Video playback performance was good as long as the network could keep up. In my living room I connected via Gigabit Ethernet but saw a few buffering issues with a 30Mbps H.264 file. You’ll have to make sure your routers, switched and NAS are fit for the job if you want to deliver high bit-rate files. This could be an issues for those of you wanting to play FullHD or 4K files made with home video equipment. As with XBCMbuntu I successfully tested a suite of about 20 remote files ranging from low-bitrate to high-bitrate H.264, MPEG-2, DivX, WMV and various containers including MKV files with subtitle content. H.264 encoding seems to be the best solution for high-quality HD content.
The NUC has a quiet fan inside. I didn’t detect any noise or fan spin-up during testing (3 meters away from TV.)
OpenELEC Stable – Generic x86_64 Version:4.0.0 used for this test available here.
XBMC and the issue with modern digital media.
XBMC and other open-source media centers are good for those with a lot of local content but there’s an issue for those that don’t have local films and music and this problem gets bigger as time goes on. Over the last 10 years most of us bought our films on DVD. Recently we’ve started to buy HD films on Blu-Ray too but we’re also starting to use streaming services a lot more. TV shows, music videos and the music itself in these service is almost always controlled via a digital rights management system. While it’s acceptable to make a personal backup of a personally owned DVD in some countries (not in the USA) it’s not permissible to break DRM on streaming content that you rent. In order for pure and DRM content to be accessible via the same program the media centers need to implement closed DRM standards in order to support protected content playback. Unfortunately that’s rare in an open-source system. I know many of you avoid DRM (and for the target audience for XBMC maybe this streaming issue is a non-issue) but it needs to be said so that the average person is aware that XBMC is not a modern all-encompassing digital media player.
There are some reasons to have a media center if you haven’t got any local video content. Digital audio files are generally DRM-free and there’s a lot of online video content out there on services like YouTube that could keep someone happy for years but wouldn’t it be better just to buy a Chromecast stick, or similar, for $35? Or how about just connecting your Android, IOS or Windows phone to the TV so you can run whatever program is needed. It’s not a fully integrated front-end but it’s pretty easy to switch apps these days. Although I haven’t tested it yet you can even run XBMC as an Android app.
Alternative: XBMC / Windows tablet solutions.
I seems to me that a hybrid solution is needed to cover all forms of modern digital media and to that end I took a cheap Windows 8 tablet and tested XBMC alongside my music streaming service from Microsoft and my wife’s video streaming services from Amazon. The Windows 8 solution I chose is now available for just $215. The Acer Iconia W4 has HDMI output, can be remotely controlled via a Bluetooth keyboard, accesses the network via built-in WiFi and charges over a USB port.
If you want to connect over Gigabit Ethernet, that works via a USB adaptor (although you’ll lose charging unless you buy a data+charge solution or buy a larger Windows tablet with separate charge and USB ports.)
I also tried Miracast wireless display to have an XBMC-in-the-hand experience. While Miracast is a terrible way to use an interactive user-interface on a remote screen (due to at least 100ms latency) it’s actually possible to use a tablet with a Full-HD screen in mirrored mode and just use the touch UI on the tablet. I tested the Lenovo Miix 2 10 and it worked well and played a 2Mbps film over WiFi. Miracast isn’t good for environments with poor WiFi or for gaming or any other UI-interactive application as the Miracast solution has too much latency for that and I wouldn’t recommend Miracast as a permanent solution. A Windows tablet with HDMI and Gigabit Ethernet adaptor and a remote Bluetooth keyboard is the best way to do the Windows / XBMC hybrid solution.
An Android-based alternative could be to use XBMC on a powerful tablet with Miracast capability or to use an Android box. Given that Android 4.4 works on the Intel NUC I have it could be a good follow-up test.
XBMC is easy to install on the Intel NUC via XBMCbuntu and Openelec and it makes a small, stylish, quiet solution. Connected via Gigabit Ethernet it’s able to decode 20Mbps+ of remote content. The user interface is easy to control with mouse, touch, remote or keyboard. For the lowest cost solution a fast-USB3.0-stick install of Openelec would be my recommendation and with 2GB of RAM it brings the total cost to around $160. As a hybrid Windows 8.1 / XBMC solution it should do well too and in some respects that’s a better solution for the modern media subscriber. Beware though because disk, memory and license requirements would take the price up into territory where a Windows 8 tablet could perform just as well.
The Yoga 2 11 isn’t just a Yoga-for-the-masses or an Ultrabook without the sticker. It’s a look into the future of Ultrabooks
It’s a fanless, lightweight, convertible, touchscreen Windows PC and costs under 600 Euro. It’s the latest incarnation of the Lenovo Yoga 11 Ultrabook but it’s running a Baytrail processor. There’s four cores instead of two, and no fan. There’s a USB3.0 connector and a total weight of just 1.45KG. This is looking like a pretty smart 2-in-1. Notebookcheck have just given it an 80% rating in their review.
600 Euro isn’t exactly mainstream pricing for a little notebook. The Lenovo Ideapad Flex 10, a slightly smaller but lighter Baytrail-M (N3520) based laptop with ‘tent mode’ and touch is under 300 Euro but I would expect that 600 Euro to drop by 10-25% fairly quickly and for short-term offers to appear around 450 in the future.
In the detailed review at Notebookcheck we see that it has a 500GB HDD inside. Of course I’m immediately thinking of SSD upgrade possibility here but it’s a 5mm 2.5” SATA drive so options are limited. The performance of the Celeron Baytrail-M CPU is better than the one I’ve just tested on the Intel NUC so it’s in an acceptable area but the user experience would be vastly improved with an SSD.
A 35Wh battery returns about 5 hours of web-usage.
A fanless, lightweight, convertible touchscreen notebook at a consumer-friendly price is, in my opinion, exactly what the market needs in order to make notebooks interesting again. The Lenovo Yoga 2 11 shows some weaknesses in the processor department and a higher-resolution display would be appealing but this is still a capable device and with an SSD upgrade (and a $100 discount to pay for it!) could be a real winner.
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