The electronic brains that have been converting my ordinary TV into a Smart TV, have undergone considerable churn. It has been an Intel Core i5-430M CPU based laptop, followed by an Intel Core i5-2430M CPU based laptop, followed by an Intel Core i3-4005U CPU based laptop, followed by a Raspberry Pi B+.
Now it is an Amlogic S812 CPU based Android Media Player and I am sincerely hoping that the churn would come to a rest.
Each move was necessitated by requirements such as:
- Faster decode performance for emerging audio-video technologies such as 4K resolution, 60p videos, H.265 codec, 10-bit video
- Lower power consumption for Always-On type of device setup
- Lower heat generation during operation
- Lower fan-noise etc. during operation
- Lower profile to occupy less space on the equipment rack
In the Developed Nations, media players are typically devices such as Apple TV & Roku. These devices specialize in playing streaming content from subscription based websites like Netflix. They have limited or no support for media playback from local sources such as USB Pen-drives, Hard disk drives & Network shares.
Such devices when brought into Developing Nations, simply fail to work as intended. I have an Apple TV 3rd-Gen and I can attest to the it’s limited utility. Even my Pansonic TV’s Youtube player adapts better to the relatively slow broadband Internet connection than the Apple TV. Since services such as Netflix, Pandora and Hulu do not work in India, the only way to utilize the Apple TV, is to use it as an attractive paper-weight.
In the Developing Nations, high-speed Internet is generally a luxury and most people depend on off-line storage media such as Optical Disks, Hard disk drives, Flash memory drives to create a personal library of content for themselves and then use a Media Player to play the content on their TV / Projector. In fact, most TVs now sold in India, have the capability of playing back H.264 Video and AAC audio in MKV / MP4 container from 32GB USB Pen drives.
Traditional Media Players have been limited in their functionality to playing back of stored media files only. They cannot connect to streaming audio-video sources on the Internet, download additional content, download content meta-data and additional material such as Subtitles, Trailers, Posters, Artist-bio etc. Such media players also feature a static pre-programmed user-interface and generally lack manufacturer support for continuous firmware updates to remove bugs and add support for emerging content-types.
Users who wanted a Media Center (instead of just a Media Player), utilized software like XBMC (XBox Media Center, now know as Kodi), to convert a traditional Desktop PC / Laptop PC into a Home Theater PC (HTPC). Combined with a Wireless Keyboard-Mouse, the HTPC helps to surf through Terabytes of content stored on their HDDs sitting in their Lounge Chairs.
With the advent of powerful ARM CPUs, it has become possible to run a processing-power hungry software like XBMC and run it on a compact Single Board Computer (SBC) or a Portable Device such as a Phone or Tablet. In the jugaad world, where Google’s Android OS rules the market, the combination of Android + XBMC makes for a very very Smart Media Player indeed.
Innovators in China have been making Android based Media Players (AMP) for a couple of years now and the newer devices that are coming out of their stables, are simply terrific in performance. Cheaper processors from Allwinner and Amlogic feature in most of these media players. A few even have faster CPUs from Rockchip. CPUs from Mediatek and Qualcomm are generally not found in these device. Broadcom CPUs make an entrance where Raspberry Pi boards are being used as XBMC based media centers.
I bought a few AMP devices intending to replace the plethora of Laptops that are currently serving the role of HTPCs at home.
The MK809V Compact AMP device features an Amlogic S805 Quad Core CPU with 1GB RAM and 8 GB Internal Storage. It plugs straight into the HDMI port of a TV and features Onboard Wi-Fi and a single USB 2.0 Port that can support Pen Drives. This device is primarily aimed at enabling streaming content (either from the Internet or Local Network), little bit of casual Internet browsing, some apps and games. The device plays back H.265 content in 1080p 30 fps resolution flawlessly.
- The MXQ 805 device features identical computing power to the MK809V device but has a conventional HTPC appearance. It’s a compact flat box like Apple TV, featuring 3 USB 2.0 Ports, 100 Mbps Ethernet, Optical Audio-out and SD Card support. This device is very useful to connect a bunch of External HDDs directly to it and playback their content on the TV.
- The M8H device features the Amlogic 812 Quad Core CPU with 2 GB RAM and 16 GB Internal Storage. It is similar in profile to the MXQ 805 device and features USB Ports, Optical Audio-out etc. This device is supposed to be capable of playing 4K videos at 30 fps.
The M8H box was intended to be the replacement device for my Laptop that was functioning as HTPC. The device comes with a Remote Control, DC 5V 2A Power Supply, HDMI Cable and a small instruction booklet. Setting it up was super simple. I hooked it up to my Onkyo TX-NR525 Receiver via HDMI, connected the power supply and was done.
As a rule of thumb, the more simplified some system is, the more complicated it becomes to perform some advanced operation on it. The M8H Box running Android is no different. Importantly, the M8H Hardware has little or no role to play in the complication of setup. The device itself works very well; it is the software which is more problematic.
- The M8H is fast. Most of the benchmarks posted scores that were high enough to mean that this device’s performance would be snappy. Applications load and launch fast. The apps themselves work very well.
- AnTuTu Benchmark 5.7.1 Score: 34515
- Quadrant : 6981 (CPU:16640, Mem:5149, I/O:9678, 2D:990, 3D:2450)
- Sun Spider 1.0.2 : 809.68 ms
- Support for USB Hub and External HDDs (with external power) is very good. I connected a Belkin 4-port USB 2.0 hub with 4 USB External Desktop Drives connected to it and the M8H recognized and mounted all of them automatically. Some of these drives were formatted with FAT32 file-system and some were formatted with NTFS file-system. I was able to easily use ES File Explorer to browse the content of the drives and trigger the applications to display them.
- It comes pre-installed with 4K Media Player and Kodi Media Center. You can also install MX Player to complement the setup. In my tests, I observed that when playing un-compressed BDRips, the output of MX Player appeared to be low-resolution and up-scaled. The output quality of Kodi and 4K Media Player was distinctly better. MX Player also does not feature any pass-through mechanism and baulked at the DTS MasterHD Audio codec that was used. Kodi had no issues forwarding the audio-stream to my Onkyo receiver which decoded it perfectly.
- The device’s design is not outstanding, but its not horribly tacky either. The rather large triangular white plastic piece at the front of the player takes away from the device appearance. The large stencilled M8H name also contributes to the reduction of appeal. However, it certainly is acceptable. For those inclined to create a custom case, the entire mechanism of the device is single motherboard and a small daughterboard that contains the IR Receiver and the Power / Standby LED indicators. It should be reasonably simple to craft a simple case out of Plexiglas / Aluminium etc. and remount the electronics.
- The device does not get unbearably hot. The motherboard features a passive heat-sink that does a good job of taking away the heat from an otherwise hot S812 CPU. In my tests, the device worked for 4-hours straight without hanging or burning up.
- Some apps from Google Play Store will refuse to install citing device compatibility issues. You can bypass these errors by downloading the APK files from Play Store and then installing it transferring them to the device using a USB Pen Drive or over Network.
- The M8H does not support 2.5″ USB Portable HDD drives that require bus-power. Apparently, the USB ports on the M8H do not deliver 500 – 700mAh that is required for these drives to spin-up and work. Your only solution to connect such drives to the device is to use a USB Hub with External power option.
- The device claimed to feature 2 GB RAM, however Android only reports about 1.6 GB RAM. It also claims 16 GB ROM, but Android reports available space of only about 10.5 GB. Both these parameters are not terrible and in fact, nearly 1 GB RAM is available for apps at device start.
- For a software that claims to be Version 15, Kodi has a number of usability issues.
- The sub-title colours in Kodi are hard-coded into the app and cannot be configured by the user. In fact, the “Grey” colour option is so light, that it almost appears white.
- A fair bit of technical prowess is required to install additional fonts for subtitles in Kodi.
- Kodi offers pass-through of Dolby AC3 and DTS audio-tracks. Many Receivers cannot handle multi-channel audio in any other format (for ex: AAC Multichannel). On such receivers, only stereo audio is processed. Fortunately, Kodi also offers an option to Resample such multi-channel audio files to AC3. Much of multi-channel audio/video files on the Internet use AAC encoding and this feature is certainly very useful.
- Kodi is unable to render 10-bit H.265 video properly. While other apps simply crash and burn, Kodi struggles but eventually fails. I am unsure if 10-bit video will even become a priority for general public, but being able to support it will become mandatory.
- Confluence, the default UI of Kodi requires a steady-hand and high-accuracy mouse. It’s quite frustrating to use the interface using a Bluetooth Keyboard with Touchpad from 10-feet away. Other user-created interfaces are available but the default theme is now long overdue for a revamp.
- The device lacks a software option for operating system shutdown and hardware switch for cutting power to the device. In the best case, you can put the device in standby mode using the remote or the power button of a keyboard. If you intend to switch the device off, please ensure that you have unmounted all connected USB storage and closed apps that may have opened files. Since Android 4.4 that is installed on the device is not rooted, you can use apps available on Google Play Store to power-off or reboot the device.
- Quite surprisingly, the M8H only features 2 USB ports and no Bluetooth. Cheaper device like M8S features bluetooth and the M8S made by MXQ features 3 USB ports and 1 USB OTG port. The M8H also does not come with the EP-Pin to Composite Audio-Video cable that can be used to connect the device to older analog televisions. In fact, one AMP device on Aliexpress even featured HDMI-In port to enable Picture-in-Picture facility.
- The device does not feature Bluetooth, hence you cannot redirect the audio from the device to a Bluetooth Portable Speaker or Bluetooth Audio Receiver. The device does not feature a headphone socket either for easy connectivity to small computer speakers. I did connect a Bluetooth dongle to the device and was disappointed to see that the dongle was not detected and added to the system capabilities.
The Wi-Fi Antenna implementation of the M8H box leaves a lot to be desired. It’s a small patch antenna of the type that is used in mobile phones. On my device, the patch antenna had come loose and gotten stuck below the CPU heat-sink. This resulted in the device not detecting my Wi-Fi network even when it was placed just 10-feet away from the Router. I opened up the box, discovered the problem and rectified it by sticking the antenna to an empty area of the plastic case.
- I have ordered an Apple iPhone 5s compatible Wi-Fi Internal Patch Antenna, a 3 dB Gain Wi-Fi External Antenna and a 8 dB Gain Wi-Fi dual-band External Antenna. I will be trying all of these out with the M8H box to see which one of them is most effective for my requirements.
- The OS features an Update feature to update the OS. However, it does not work. Since the manufacturer of the M8H device is not clearly documented, trying to download the original or updated ROM for the device has proven to be useless till date for me.
- The device claims to do 4K decoding but utilizes the older HDMI 1.4a interface instead of the emerging HDMI 2.0 interface. While HDMI 1.4a is is perfectly capable of displaying 4K video, this device would have been better with USB 3.0 ports, HDMI 2.0 port, Wireless 802.11AC, Gigabit Ethernet, SPDIF Digital Audio port, External Wi-Fi Antenna support and Bluetooth based Remote.
The device excels as a Media Player and is capable of playing a very wide range of audio-video content that is downloaded off the Internet. Kodi is a good Media Center, albeit one with a steep learning curve. High-resolution media files play very well and this device is an overkill for low-resolution files (480p – 720p content).
As pointed out earlier, the few shortcomings of the device are not related to the device itself. They are limitations of the Android OS or the Apps that has been installed on it.
I tried out the external antennae and quite surprisingly, the 3dB 2.4GHz antenna worked the best with my NetGear N300 router. There was a 10dB jump in signal strength.