Playing media on your TV shouldn’t be hard. I have very little patience for messing around with a device just to get video and audio to play on a big screen, and I’m always looking for a better way to do it, so when I was offered the chance to review the Minix Neo X7 Android-powered Mini PC from Expansys, I leapt at the chance.
The X7 (as I’ll call it for simplicity’s sake) is a rather small, unassuming little black box with some decent hardware packed inside. All said, it’s about the size of 3 CD cases stacked up. There’s a Quad Core Cortex A9 processor paired up with 2GB of RAM, a Mali-400MP GPU and 16GB of internal storage. Android 4.2 is running the show.
There’s a variety of ports arranged around the left/right/rear edges including three full size USB ports, a Micro USB port (labeled USB-OTG), headphones, microphone, an SD/MMC slot, HDMI output, optical audio output and an RJ-45 ethernet jack. There’s also a socket for screwing in the external wifi antenna.
Packed in with the X7 was a very basic remote control, HDMI cable, power adapter, a standard USB-to-MicroUSB cable and a USB-OTG adapter.
All said, after you’ve connected the power adapter, a HDMI cable and the Wifi antenna, the diminutive little box’s aesthetic appeal is somewhat destroyed.
When I set the X7 up for the first time, I nearly threw the remote control at the TV. Navigating an Android device with a directional buttons (essentially a d-pad) is an exercise in frustration, and using the remote to go through the process of adding my account to the device nearly doomed it, especially when it came to entering my (fairly secure) password on the onscreen keyboard. I was so frustrated that I actually set it aside for a couple of days before I tried again.
I abandoned the bundled remote for my second attempt, using a multifunction “Air mouse” remote control I had lying around from a previous Zazz purchase. Now I had proper control over the device – I could send my clicks where I wanted them to go, and I had a keyboard in the palm of my hand. I was back in business!
A tablet by any other name
The X7 isn’t a bare-bones Android distribution. It has a number of apps bundled with the device out of the box, and has access to the Google Play store (whether or not its actually certified for this is perhaps another question).
The onscreen UI is basically Android’s large-screen tablet mode, with the bottom left software buttons customised to add volume controls, a power button and a hide button to remove the bar entirely.
Besides the usual Google apps and services installed, there’s a media center program called eHomeMediaCenter and a video player app that’s identified just by the name “Video” (nobody seems to want to own up to being the developer of either app). These apps seem rather old.
You also get an AirPlay service called AirPin, a Miracast receiver app called “Wifidisplay”, a (very) basic file browser and an app to help you use a game controller with the device. Bizarrely, it also comes with Fancy Widgets installed.
I mentioned earlier that I like simplicity in my media players. I think I might be diametrically opposed to Minix’s world view.
For a network-connected media player, the X7 seems starkly unaware that people might like to play videos that come from their network. The bundled software might be okay at playing back media that’s stored on the device, but I expected to see an attempt to auto-discover CIFS/AFP shares on my local network, or at least support some kind of UPnP/DLNA media playback. I installed a number of apps in an attempt to find a media playback solution that worked for my needs (files stored on a NAS, accessible by CIFS/AFP) and found that common media players like Dice, BSPlayer, MoliPlayer weren’t up to the task of browsing my network and playing back the AVI/MKV files stored. Even “Ultimate Media Player” was less than ultimate.
Then there’s the process for installing a firmware update. Instructions aren’t provided, you have to watch a YouTube video. The video, frankly, made me want to shoot myself in the head:
According to the Minix site, there’s currently no way to update the firmware using a Mac. This is probably because installing updated firmware requires the use of software provided by Rockchip, which is Windows-only.
I couldn’t get AirPin nor Wifidisplay to do what they’re meant to, and the apps didn’t provide any feedback on whether this was my mistake or a problem with the apps themselves. This was a frustratingly common experience with the bundled apps – their UIs were completely inconsistent and they seemed to have been written by anonymous developers who don’t want feedback or suggestions from their users.
It’s possible that these issues might be fixed by updating the firmware, but I lack a PC in the house and the fact remains that out-of-the-box, they failed a basic usage test. Those aren’t really my primary motivators for using the X7 though, so I accepted that and moved on.
I’d almost given up hope of finding a suitable media player, until I reluctantly installed the Archos Video Player app – and wow, am I glad I did that.
The Archos Way
Having spent a number of years building portable media players (Android-powered and otherwise), Archos understands how to make a consistent user interface and browse the network.
Archos’ video player is a $4.99 purchase from Google Play. That doesn’t get you access to all the codecs you’ll need though – Archos sells some additional codecs that require licence fees, but there’s also a free Archos Video All Codecs Plugin on Google Play that seems to do provide all the codecs you need for video playback.
Once I’d gotten Archos Video Player installed, the X7 become my goto media player for a while. It could handle pretty much every media format I threw at it, and didn’t stall on videos as my Boxee Box had started to do in the last 6 months.
The Fun Stuff
Once I’d established that the X7 could actually be a competent media player, it was time to start seeing what I could persuade it to do. After all, having a gutsy Android-powered device connected to the TV is a rather different prospect to one of those tiny HDMI sticks.
Ultimately, it works
I’ve debated my review conclusion for the X7 a lot. I had so many troubles getting the device to do what I wanted it to do that I almost didn’t publish a review at all. But that’s not really fair — considering the hardware on offer and the price it’s offered at, putting in some time and energy to get the system configured right should be expected.
When it comes down to it, the X7 was able to do everything I wanted it to do and it was the media player of choice in my house for a few weeks.
That can’t be taken away from it, but it was an utter pain in the butt to get it to that point. Minix needs to bundle better apps to handle media playback, and a better remote control. Using an Android device with a d-pad interface is a recipe for frustration.
Still, remote control aside, the issues I experienced exist mainly on the setup side. Once the device is up and running with the right software on board you don’t need to worry about setup – turn it on and run your media player of choice and you’re done. Archos Video Player is a $5 purchase and it handled playback duties admirably, proving that the hardware is capable but it’s been let down by Minix’s choice of software.
Where to buy
Ausdroid would like to thank Expansys for providing the Minix Neo X7 for review.
You can order the X7 from Expansys where it’s available for $142.99 with shipping either $19 (via DHL) or $25 (via Toll).