4K IN A BOX
MINIX NeO X8-H 4K ANdrOId-BASed MedIA HuB $229
Back before our awards issue last year, we rounded up a bunch of relatively low cost devices capable of streaming digital media to your home entertainment system. One was the then top-of-the-line unit from Minix, the Neo X7. But almost straight away an even higher model arrives with one feature that makes it very special indeed: 4K video output.
Visually and feature-wise (aside from 4K output), the Minix Neo X8-H is pretty much indistinguishable from the Neo X7. It has three USB sockets, SD card slot, USB OTG (On The Go) socket, Ethernet, microphone input and headphone output; it has and dual-band WiFi, and it can do all the computery things you’d expect of a hot Android box (quad-core 2GHz processor, 2GB of system memory, 16GB of built in storage).
You can compute away with this unit. My preferred method of operation was to insert a wireless mouse/keyboard dongle into one of the USB sockets and control it primarily with the mouse. But while stocks last, this unit is being bundled with the Minix A1 Airmouse, which operates an on-screen pointer by detecting movements in the gadget.
But we’re here to talk about the differences. Before getting to video, let’s briefly consider audio. When researching that media boxes piece I was told by an audio app developer that 44.1kHz output was a limitation built at quite a deep level into Android. However one of the promises of the Neo X8-H system is its ability to hardware-decode DTS and Dolby Digital audio, rather than relying on software implementations in such software as XMBC. So I thought that perhaps this limitation had been broken. Indeed it has, but in a pretty negative way. All output from everything I threw at it (and it is enormously open to various codecs) was converted to twochannel PCM at 48kHz. So in a sense that’s an improvement for 96kHz and 192kHz FLAC files, but it’s a backwards step for the majority of music on my NAS, which of course uses CD-standard 44.1kHz sampling. Upscaling to 48kHz at its very best may possibly be transparent, but there is a huge risk of damaging the sound.
As it happens, the music generally sounded pretty good. And multichannel stuff was mixed down, rather than having the surround channels omitted. I should note that in the Setup there’s an option to ‘pass through’ the audio via HDMI. This seemed to have no effect. The results were the same with music files and video.
The bad news of 4K is photo handling. This is yet another device that can read highresolution photos, output 4K video content, yet runs the images through a 2K bottleneck along the way. A test image showed that the fine details were stripped right out. (Minix did tell me that they’d get a proper 4K photo app out in a future update.)
The good news of 4K is video. The unit rendered all our 4K clips in full, glorious detail. From USB all of these were delivered smoothly by the two 4K-capable video apps on the unit. One is called ‘4K Movie Streamer’, which makes things pretty clear. The other is the well-known XBMC app (although this appears to be an unofficial enhancement). The former only works with local media, typically on USB. The other streams from the network. The network connection proved inadequate for uninterrupted playback of a 100Mbps 4K clip, but fine for 50Mbps streams. Wired Ethernet didn’t help because the support is only for up to 100Mbps networks, not gigabit ones.
You have to manually choose the output resolution that you want, setting the resolution according to the format of the video: in particular 24, 50 or 60 hertz. If you don’t do that, you can expect jerky movement on the screen. My 576i/50 test clips, even played back with one of the 50Hz output modes, tended to be jerky. It was unclear whether this may have been due to some intermediate frame-rate conversion to 60 hertz within the unit, or just some frames were being dropped.
As a player of SD video, well, I can think of several preferable alternatives.
But, gee, the beauty of the 4K video delivered by the Minix Neo X8-H was almost enough to make me forget all that. SD More info: www.canohm.com.au