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Sunday, December 30, 2012

Android Mini PC: The Next Tech Revolution?

After a Christmas delay, I'm back with another article! Thanks for reading my previous article on The Gingerbread Problem.

With streaming devices like the Roku, Apple TV, and Google TV set top boxes highly available, it seems that consumers have a lot of choice when it comes to consuming media. These devices allow users to stream and rent video from many different services but have very limited app selection, can be expensive, and each have their own drawbacks and limitations.

But what if I told you that was about to change? That there is a growing market in the tech industry just around the corner that can very well shape the landscape the way tablets did?

A device that has all the internals that a Android phone/tablet has but with no screen. What it does have is a HDMI output that allows it to connect to your existing HD television. All while running on the latest version of Android with a dual core processor and smaller than any set top box on the market.

The asking price?

A mere $60 USD.

This is an Android Mini PC. A device that makes your dumb HDTV into a Smart HDTV. A device capable of vast media playback and support for over 700,000 Android applications. An Android device without the screen.

A device filled with endless possibilities. 

Now this article isn’t meant to say who had the idea first or to be an exact retelling of history. It is meant to be an outline of the product that is an Android mini PC.

Android Mini PCs are a relatively new product. The concept is simple. A small device with good internal specifications, running the latest Android, and an HDMI output for the screen. This allows a user to have access to the best Android has to offer on their big screen television. Imagine checking your E-mail, using over 700,000 apps in the Google Play Store, watching videos, listening to music, or browsing the web all from the comfort of your couch.

In order to interact with the device, since there is no touch screen, you need a USB keyboard for text input and a USB mouse for touch input. There are Air Mouse controllers that can duplicate a touch like input with a built in keyboard as well as the standard keyboard and trackpad combos. These input devices work rather well and most certainly make up for the lack of a touch screen.

But where did these devices come from? How well do they work? And which one is best?

The answer is not so simple.


It begins with the Raspberry Pi. In 2006, Eben Upton and his colleagues at the University of Cambridge’s Computer Laboratory, including Rob Mullins, Jack Lang and Alan Mycroft, became concerned about the year-on-year decline in the numbers and skills levels of the A Level students applying to read Computer Science in each academic year. They wanted to create a teaching tool that would allow children to be able to apply all the aspects of Computer Science.

The Pi a single-board computer developed in the UK by the Raspberry Pi Foundation with the intention of stimulating the teaching of basic computer science in schools. It is based on a system on a chip architecture that integrates all components of a computer or other electronic systems into a single chip. There is composite and HDMI out on the board, so you can hook it up to an old analogue TV or to a digital TV.

The device was ahead of its time as it met numerous obstacles due to current tech capabilities in the mid 2000s. Designs were drawn up and scratched and it seemed that the product may never see its way into student hands. Towards the end of 2011, the device was finally demoed and development took off.

The idea was there. A miniature PC that plugs into your existing television.

FXI Technologies saw this opportunity and introduced the Cotton Candy in November of 2011.

The device would not start shipping until just recently in December of 2012 but the same initial  idea was there. The difference this time was in the size. It was made to fit the size of about the standard USB flash drive. The portability of the device was exciting as it allowed you to move it easily from room to room. Being able to put in in your pocket or purse and take it anywhere showed the direction of where these devices would move next.

It was at this point that this device showed how similar it was to a smartphone. The Cotton Candy was using a Samsung Exynos Dual Core 4210 processor, 1GB of Ram, and a quad-core GPU with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth built-in. It was basically a smartphone stripped of all the characteristics of a smartphone. There was no touch screen for input, cameras, or battery. The only output was to your television via HDMI with a keyboard and mouse being your inputs. FXI also announced that the Cotton Candy would run either Ubuntu or Android.

Android would give these devices a new calling. Using Android, already proven to run on similar hardware, would allow these devices to move from an all purpose PC to a device similar to your phone or tablet and just as familiar. Being a Free and Open Source OS would lower costs for manufacturers and allow them modify it for the purpose of their own product.

The idea was there, the concept was proven, and running on the force that is Google’s Android.
As American manufacturers began development and Kickstarter projects began to trickle in, something unexpected occurred. Something that leapfrogged all projects as delays were announced one after another. Something that hit a much lower price point than the future asking price of the $199 Cotton Candy.

That something, for better or worse, was the Chinese Market.

Soon after these devices were put into development, we began hearing news trickling in about similar devices being developed in China. In May 2012, Rikomagic beat all competitors to the market with the Rikomagic MK802.

The MK802 had a 1.5 GHz Allwinner A10 single core processor, 512 MB RAM, 4 GB storage and Android 4.0 software. The asking price was a mere $74 USD from third parties. Even though it sacrificed a Dual Core Processor and Bluetooth, it was a great start and great accomplishment as Android Mini PCs had finally hit consumers hands. The product worked and worked rather well. Performance was one area where it suffered due to a slower processor but the product was proven viable.

Soon after many other companies began to release their own product in the similar style and vein of the MK802. Soon enough the market was saturated and filled with clones and knockoffs. Some better and some way worse. Then customer complaints started to roll in. Stability, lack of support, and overheating affected many of these devices. Without a proper customer service, due to being imported Chinese products, many flocked to forums to state their displeasure. What began as venting due to a sub par product turned into a goldmine of information on Android Mini PCs. Hands on posts and reviews by users showed not only which products to buy but which to avoid. Even now most of the information on some of these devices can only be found in forums as they have not really hit the mainstream market yet.

These companies weren't really concerned as much with support as their job was to release products and sell them. Just as fast as these single core devices released they were replaced.

Enter The Dual Core MK808

The Dual Core MK808 was another step in the right direction. The RK3066 Dual Core processor is comparable to the Samsung Exynos 4210 found in the Galaxy Note. Performance was better but the some of the same issues persisted. While not as common, weak WiFi signal and overheating would continue to be an issue. The prospect of a dual core processor resulting in improved performance made the MK808 one of, if not the, most popular Android Mini PCs to date. New versions or designs would try to alleviate these issues by using air pockets/vents and a dual WiFi antenna.

At this point, we are at a standstill for these devices. The MK808B adds Bluetooth and promises better stability but it seems that quad core devices are just around the corner. Also important to note is that price for current models have never been lower. There are many options based on the RK3066 Dual Core processor and one should do their research when buying their devices. Which leads into my next article...

The Uhost 2 Review

I finally decided to purchase one of these devices and settled on the Uhost 2 over the MK808B. The U2 has Bluetooth as well, 2 USB ports as opposed to one, better cooling system, and impressions show great stability and performance. I also wanted to shed some light on a less popular device but a possibly better overall device.

Smallart also offers a branded air mouse (Umouse 2) for this device with buttons like home, back, menu, and voice search. (Unfortunately not yet available)

These devices are a great addition to any living room. Any HDTV becomes a smart TV running the latest Android. You can browse the Web, check email, and have access to over 700,000 Android Apps. Performance has reached a more than acceptable level and price has never been better. This area of Android will continue to grow and I expect more well known manufacturers to try their hand at a mini PC.

Any questions please feel free to leave comments and on my Reddit thread.

* Used for my purchase and paid via PayPal. Came in about 2 weeks but they offer express shipping which I recommend.

1 comment:

  1. Good article! I'm surprised no major publishers have written similar articles yet. This device, based on MK808 chipset, can be considered beginning of the Android mini PC revolution. Sure, similar devices have been made available for a while, but none as promising as this one! Performance and feature set are comparable to full blown PCs in many areas, which is good enough for most people in most popular usage areas..