Monday, February 2, 2015

First impressions of Minix Neo X8-H Plus

A media player is to your media library what a DVD player is to your DVD library - a way to transfer your media so you can watch it.

This is basically what the X8-H Plus and other similar devices are supposed to do for you, and that's why I got it.  So this review is going to be all about that.  If you want to know how to take advantage of the secondary features (games, Plex, whatever) you can look at the other reviews.

I tried the X8 out because it was one-third the cost of a barebones Brix PC.  Since it's a single-purpose device intended to only drive my home theater, I figured - why not?  Yeah, the PC can be upgraded (until parts go obsolete in 2 years) and could do additional things (like recording) at additional cost, but that's not what I need.

So how does it do?  Pretty damn well, as it turns out.  In short, I haven't had a single issue with it so far, and it seems at least as good - if not superior - to a roll-your-own media center PC.  Easily as good as a special-purpose stand-alone network DVD player a la Oppo, I think.

Background:  My theater was built some time ago and has "only" a 720p projector plus 7.1 audio.  I do not have Blu-Ray either.

Sneer if you want to, but nobody has ever complained, as the scaling on my Oppo DVD player is stellar, and the projector beats most sources anyway.  As it's all about presence, the 110" screen more than makes up for any potential shortcomings in the video.

(Besides, I've had the theater for going on seven years, and use it weekly, so that's 350 movies I've seen for free that you have not.  Nuts to you.)

Obviously I'm not interested in 4k video streaming or whatever from the little Minix.  It's purpose was to replace burning media files to disc and playing them in the Oppo player.

This process has worked extremely well for years, but is a bit time-consuming.  Plus I am finding people shifting away from AVI to MKV format, which the Oppo does not handle.  The Minix was intended to fill the gap.

So the unit is cute, comes in a cute box, comes with stuff, doesn't get hot, blah blah blah.  Freaking obvious stuff.  If you want unboxings look for Youtube, who cares... HOW DOES IT WORK???

To make a long story short, setup of the X8 is easy.  Seriously.  Easy.  Dead easy.  Did I mention it was easy?

Obviously you have to know how to do such things as connect to your Wi-Fi, but here is the basic process:

-  Collect the following:
  -  A wired USB keyboard
  -  A 720p monitor or display
  -  A HDMI-to-DVI adapter (for older monitors)

Do this:
-  Connect the display.
-  Turn the Minix on.
-  Connect to Wi-Fi or wired Ethernet.
-  Go through the settings once.
-  Start XBMC.
-  Go through the settings once.
-  Set up a couple of network sources.
-  Play videos.

In my case, I think dragging up an old yet compatible monitor and finding the keyboard took about as long as the actual setup.  (You will want a cheap USB keyboard for the initial setup.)  This was only because my first monitor was an old 19" that wasn't actually 720p-capable, my bad.

Note that this was >only< because I was anticipating issues with the setup, and didn't want to go ahead and plug the thing into the theater without setting up first, owing to issues with physically accessing the required connections.  This turned out to be a waste of time since I didn't have a single issue in setup worth noting.

I should mention that there aren't that many setup menus, especially not in XBMC.  How people could NOT go through them all, just once, to see what's what, is kind of beyond me.  It takes like 10 minutes, duh.  If you just look through the settings once and fix everything relevant, everything will be just fine.  So don't be lazy.

In regular use I found the interface very snappy with (usually) not a hint of lag.  It's so much better than the little Eeebox PC that I bought last year, it's laughable.  Occasionally it will hesitate for reasons unknown, but only for a second or so.  I turned off the feedback sounds, which might help cue you if the unit is hesitating or not.

To compare, the X8  looks and works like a dedicated DVD player, pretty much - startup and response and nearly instant.  The Eeebox works like a 10-year old WinXP/Celeron box and chugs for ages just to start up, takes 3 minutes to start Firefox and is generally a POS that cost 3x the cost of the Minix.

(YES, I know the Eeebox has a hard drive, not a SSD.  Doesn't matter.  Out-of-box, the Minix kills the Eeebox for what I need it for.  Get my point?)

I find the defaut, Metro-esque launcher UI a little weird but still pretty simple.  I won't touch Win 8 so it's all new to me, but it suits a HTPC pretty well.  To change launchers seems to require a cold restart - there is another way to do it, but I forget how ATM.

Also, contrary to reviews, you can enter and exit standby mode from the remote.  Maybe this is a new feature for the Plus, I don't know.  Resuming from standby mode takes 4 seconds.

Cold boot takes maybe 55 seconds, and the "on" LED is so dim as to be nearly invisible.  But as you'll never bother turning it off, who cares?

XBMC itself is nice and has a clean UI, well suited for home theater use.  No UI speed issues here either.

I was able to effortlessly connect to my Wi-Fi and my Samba (Linux) shares to serve movies from.  After the marathon session it took to set up those same Samba shares years ago, the Minix is simple as Lego.  It's sooooo nice.

It seems to be able to see every Win 7 and Win XP box on my network.  I'm sure other NAS units will work, as should USB, SD and USB hard drives, because there is no reason for them not to.

Everything plays so far, including DVD rips and a couple of odd AVIs that the Oppo did not handle well.  (Note that I still LOVE my Oppo, and it is extraordinarily rare for it to have any issues.)

I don't have MKV files to try out, but other reviewers say they work fine, so I'm not worried.  4k is still emerging so if you want to be leading edge, you takes your chances; it looks like there is a dedicated 4k Player app installed that I did not try out.

USB drives are automatically recognized but will not auto-play.  They show up in the source dialogs automatically, usually as "sda1".  So it requires a small bit of nagivating to get to the USB drive, meaning a USB stick can't quite substitute for the simplicity of a DVD being put into a player.

Items such as USB keyboards and accessories are recognized instantly - no drivers to download or anything.  They just work.  It's so nice.

Streaming regular stuff worked fine over Wi-Fi.  I'm sure Blu-Ray and 4k will have issues, but you really should be using the gigabit port in any case.  I did.

I can't help but think tht Microsoft should be paying attention.  The X8 works so well, and is so transparent, that it puts Win 7 to shame.  I'm feeling pretty good about NOT buying a Brix and having to spend hours configuring it.  Plus the X8 comes with a remote!  (Actually, TWO remotes, in my case, owing to the bundle with the Neo M1.)

Just having XBMC pre-installed on the box was a bit benefit - I didn't have to install a damn thing.  To my mind this makes it superior than a Raspberry Pi as an XBMC platform.

For the "wife acceptance factor" (WAF), there is good and bad:


-  You can set up separate user profiles in XBMC.  It doesn't get it to a single click to play, but it's close.

-  Separate profiles can be set to see different media sources.  So your wife sees only what she wants/needs, and the kids don't see anything not intended for them.

-  You can set a profile to skip the main menu and go straight to Videos, for playback.  Hides all the stuff the wife doesn't need to see.

-  You use OK and back for most everything.  Easy.

-  Selecting a media file plays it.

-  The UI is smart enough to ask if you want to resume a movie where you left off, or start over.  My Oppo has that, but it's not implemented nearly as well as this one.

-  If the unit goes standby, it resumes exactly where it left off.  So the wife can "turn it off" with the remote, "turn it back on", and be in the same place as before.  This means less navigation each time the box is to be use.

A few things that decrease the WAF compared to a plain old DVD player:

-  The bundled remote has no dedicated play/pause button.  If it had that, it would be almost perfect.  You have to learn the XMBC UI, which is pretty easy, but not one-button easy.

-  The remote also lacks a DVD menu button.  (No, the unit doesn't play physical discs as sold, but ever hear of ripping?  Or USB DVD drives, for that matter?)  With Menu and Play/Pause, it would be arguably perfect.

-  Any separate universal remote can't do much except mirror the existing remote functions - and since the bundled remote has no play/pause, the universal one can't have it either.  I don't know if there is a workaround for this, though I've heard something about an iPad app to control XBMC.

-  Selecting a DVD folder does not play the movie - you have to know to select the "menu" button to play the folder, or to navigate in and select the right IFO file.  Pick wrong and get unexpected results.

-  You must navigate to the USB drive.  So the USB drive can't be used like a DVD disc - it's not just a question of plugging in the drive and pressing "play".

My X8 came with a Minix Neo M1 air mouse - special bundle, supposedly, but I suspect you'll find similar "deals" in many places.  This remote does have a dedicated play/pause button that works with XBMC, which increases the WAF.

No fast-forward, rewind, or skip, though.  And since I've never met anyone who likes trailers, all of these could hugely benefit from a DVD "Menu" key.

There is the "air mouse" mode, but it's easily turned off and will not automatically re-enable, so it won't confuse people.  I found it reasonably easy to use, but I have only had the system a little while.  It is RF, which means fewer potential range limits, but also means a universal remote can't be programmed to replace the air mouse emulate it.

It does require that it be kept charged since the internal battery is not replaceable.  This is a pill; they should have made it AA batteries like every other A/V remote ever.  It's cool but stupid, and by aiming for the PC user rather than a home theater user it misses the mark.

What is not usually mentioned is there is a hard off switch, so if you don't use it, the internal battery will probably hold a reasonable charge for a year.  This means that occasional users will (hopefully) not routinely find it dead from not being charged.

Unfortunately, the possibility is still there for heavy users, or if you don't use it for a very long time.  Plus casual users are unlikely to know to use the "hard" off switch, increasing the possibility for battery drain.

Hopefully you have a place to squirrel it away while still keeping it on charge all of the time and don't mind checking occasionally to ensure it's plugged in. 

Air mouse mode involves waving the thing around like a presentation laser pointer, and the cursor follows.  I've never used a Wii, but I'm guessing that's what how the Wii remote works.

If you use it a ton and find it dying, you're demoted to having a "tethered" air mouse, which is beyond dumb.  One wants to buy an external phone power pack and rubber-band it to the M1.

Final notes:

-  The unit comes with HDMI, USB, and micro-USB adapter cables, but doesn't come with a S/PDIF optical cable.  You can get one from Banggood or DealExtreme for $2, but if you are not the kind to keep an spare optical cable around, you'll want to order it in advance to make sure you have it handy during your installation.  Fortunately, I had an S/PDIF in my collection, because I had clean forgot about it.

-  The Wi-Fi antenna is not often shown in unit pictures and typically sticks up.  If you plan to put the Minix in a traditional A/V rack and use Wi-Fi, make sure you have enough height for the antenna.  The total height is 14 cm, but most A/V shelves are half that.  Alternatively, it might work fine in the horizontal position, but may look weird.

-  I was unable to discern precisely where the IR receiver was on the box.  I admittedly didn't try beyond a casual glance.  If you plan to use an IR extender, you might need to play about.  I think the receiver is next to the blue status LED on the blank side of the box.

-  The remote provided with the X8 does seem to have range issues, as reported by others.  Anything under 8' should be OK, otherwise you takes your chances.  Silly since IR remotes have been produced for 50 years.  I suspect Minix put too much plastic in front of both the IR receiver and the status indicator LED, impairing both.  (The M1 air mouse uses radio and has no discernible range limit.)

-  XBMC had trouble starting consistently after switching to wired Ethernet.  Not sure why, but it can take 2 or 3 attempts to get it to start.  If you keep XBMC running, as I plan to, there doesn't seem to be any issues.

-  The Minix M1 air mouse has a glitch where if you bring up the XBMC controls while a video is playing, then press "back" to hide these controls, the air mouse pointer appears on the screen.  It will eventually time out and disappear, but the interval is long enough to make you think it's a bug and will stick there forever.  It won't.

-  I tried a 1080p MKV file and it worked fine.  No, I don't know specifically what it was.  Isn't the point of this kind of device is the luxury of *not* knowing?  That it just works, for once?

-  The blue "on" LED really is too dim to be useful - even in a totally dark theater room.  Best to leave it on all of the time so there is no question the device is active, otherwise you'll trying to figure out which of your source settings is wrong.  (Minix, I know you want to save milliwats, but- seriously?  You should have made the plastic thinner and the LED brighter.)

The relatives came by and couldn't tell where the X8-H Plus was - I had to show them.  So far it has worked without any glitches at all, yielding a high WAF.  And it worked - success!

Overall, I'm pretty happy.  Let's compare:

Barebones PC:
  • Needs SSD
  • Needs RAM
  • May need Wi-Fi antenna
  • Needs cables
  • Needs remote control(s)
  • Needs IR receiver
  • Needs operating system
  • Needs drivers
  • Needs media center software
  • Considerable installation, configuration and setup
Minix X8-H Plus:
  • Zero additional hardware required
  • Wi-Fi antenna included
  • Has (most) cables
  • Comes with remote(s)
  • Includes operating system
  • No additional software required
  • Tuned XBMC pre-installed
  • Nearly no installation, configuration, or setup
The $200 box beats the $1,000 box.  Works for me!

[Update]:  Relatives are complaining the box takes 5-8 minutes to wake up from sleep mode.  I have seen it become seemingly non-responsive after left for long periods of time, and haven't quite figured out how to (a) keep it from becoming dormant, or (b) what exactly wakes it up.  It seems that you do not need to hit a "power" button - not the one on the unit, not one on a remote - but I'm not actually sure.

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