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Eye on Demand | November 17, 2017

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Minix NEO X8-H Review

Minix NEO X8-H Review

Review Overview

Value For Money5
7.5
User Interface
5
Availability and Quality of Services
6
6.2

Great for streaming local media & Zattoo!

Most of the hardware platforms we test and review here at Eye on-Demand are focused on the everyday user. Those who don’t want to think how their set-top-box works, and those who are quite comfortable lying on the sofa with a remote dangling from their hand. But if you don’t mind a bit of tinkering, and a device with potentially more power and flexibility, perhaps the Minix NEO X8-H could be exactly what you are after.

Unlike most of the other set-top-boxes reviewed here, the Minix NEO X8-H is in effect a fully functional and adaptable mini computer. For this reason, this review more than most others will be subject to frequent updates as new features, hacks, tricks and apps are added to the platform. Generally speaking, most STBs are limited to only a handful of new (worthwhile) apps added every now and again, but the Minix box has the flexibility of an almost endless variety of opportunities.

The reason for this is that the Minix has Android at its heart, with the NEO X8-H model shipped to us for review sporting the latest Kitkat 4.4. This means the world’s widest used and most popular mobile operating system lies at the device’s core, allowing a phenomenal range of apps and services to be run. If a service has an Android app, then there is a possibility it will work on this great little box.

But keep in mind that Android Kitkat 4.4 was designed first and foremost as a mobile operating system, optimally designed to work on a tiny, handheld touch screen and not on box sitting beneath a television set. This means many people may find the controlling methods to be less than comfortable from a sofa. Plenty of other Android STBs and HDMI dongles, such as the Favi SmartStick also suffered from the problem that they were so underpowered, they were almost unusable for any serious bit of video streaming.

Power however is not a problem with this tiny Minix NEO X8-H box. Sporting some pretty impressive specs with a Quad-Core Cortex A9r4 Processor and Octo-Core Mali-450 GPU, allowing up to 4K UHD playback, Dual-Band Wi-Fi 802.11n as well as an Ethernet port and 16GB eMMC. Where other Android set-top-boxes or HDMI dongles have failed, the Minix NEO X8-H quite simply powered through without any qualms

So, at around €145, £105 or US$150 this set-top-box comes in at a little more expensive than the average streaming platform, but then again, it does do 4K, something you won’t yet find in a Roku, Apple TV or most cheaper boxes.

But at the end of the day, how does this tiny Android box stack up streaming television and movies?

 

  • The Minix NEO X8-H is a small Apple TV shaped puck that can easily fit under most televisions, or in fact since control is usually made via wireless controllers, completely hidden away. Line of sight is not required.

    That said, it is hardly an unattractive box in the first place, with no glaring lights or obtrusive front logos. The only visible logo is attractively embossed on the top of the box. Physically, the box oozes quality and even the packaging flaunts an air of confidence.

    The only potential eyesore is the large WiFi antenna, which can at least be turned flat and partially hidden from view, but even this gives the feeling of a device which means business.

    At 126mm x 126mm x 24mm it is an inch or so larger than the Apple TV, but this is hardly an issue in most people’s homes.

    Minix NEO

    One thing that certainly sets the Minix apart from the similar sized Roku or Apple TV pucks, is the large number of ports on two sides of the device. These include no less than three USB ports, an expansion card, headphones and microphone, optical out, Ethernet & an HDMI socket. If anyone is missing analogue video out, you’re looking at the wrong device – why buy a 4K compatible platform and connect it to an SD television?

    Minix Ports

    Inside, this box is a little workhorse of power. Unlike the totally underpowered Favi that was reviewed last year, which had so little horsepower I had trouble finding a video streaming app that would actually work, the Minix NEO X8-H is packed with enough grunt to pass every test I threw at it.

    Processor Quad-Core Cortex A9r4 Processor
    GPU Octo-Core Mali 450
    Memory 2GB DDR3
    Internal Storage 16GB eMMC
    Wireless Connectivity  802.11n Dual Band Wi-Fi (2.4GHz/5.8GHz), Bluetooth 4.0
    OS  Android™ KitKat 4.4
    Video Output HDMI™ 1.4b, up to 4K @ 30fps
    Audio Output HDMI™ 1.4b, 3.5mm stereo jack, optical SPDIF
    Peripheral Interface RJ-45 Ethernet jack (10/100Mbps)
    SD/MMC card reader (SD 3.0, MMC V4.41), Support HDMI-CEC
    USB 2.0 port x 3, OTG port x 1
    Microphone jack, Headphone jack,IR receiver (basic remote included)
    Power DC 5V, 3A adapter included (CE, FCC, CCC certified)
    Supported Video Format DAT/MPEG/MPE/MPG/TS/TP/VOB/ISO/AVI/MP4/MOV/3GV/FLV
    MKV/M2TS/MTS/M4V/WMV/ASF/RM/RMVB
    Supported Audio Format          MP2/MP3/WMA/WAV/OGG/OGA/FLAC/ALAC/APE/AAC

    As the first 4K media hub on Android, the device is powered by an impressive Quad-Core ARM Cortex-A9r4 processor along with an Octo-Core Mali-450 GPU, which combines enough power to deliver Ultra HD streams while using so little power it can be left on 24/7.

    The large external antenna supports the device’s Dual-Band 802.11n Wifi, which helps deliver that HD content with the minimum of buffering issues, but a good old fashioned Ethernet port is still available for those who prefer wired connections.

    Unblocking geographic restrictions on this device is supported by the following Smart DNS providers:

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  • While there was no debate on the quality of its physical appearance and internal specs, controlling it was a different matter altogether.

    First of all, we have to keep in mind that this device runs a version of Android that was originally developed for a touch screen phone and not a set-top-box. There are a few options however, and how well they work vary greatly.

    Supplied Minix Remote: The stock remote thrown into the box may have seemed a nice thought, but it sadly has about as much use as an ashtray on a motorbike. I found very few on-demand or catch-up apps that would actually work with this remote, with the exception of the built-in XBMC app. If your only purpose of this box is an XBMC client (which is a valid and excellent use of this device), then the stock remote will certainly work. In fact, outside of missing the obvious play, stop, FFW & REW buttons, I found I could happily navigate XBMC with nothing else but this mouse. Stepping away from XBMC and more hair started to fall out.

    Minix Remote

     

    Minix NEO M1: Minix also sell a 2.4GHz Wireless GyroMouse. The idea of this remote is to replicate the touch screen movement by twisting and turning the remote while on the comfort of your sofa, which in turn moves the cursor on the screen and allows access to other on-screen buttons.

    I personally struggled enormously with this remote. Unlike the above mentioned stock one included in the box, this does work with every app I found. The problem was that it didn’t work very well with me. Perhaps this comes down to my age and level of impatience with these type of devices, as I certainly have heard other people raving about air mice. Personally though I never managed to master the controller and felt myself becoming steadily more irritated as time when on. At around US$20, it is not going to break the bank to test it out, but if you are not a hard core gamer, you may prefer one of the following options below.

    Minix NEO M1

    RemoteIME: If you have an Android Smart Phone or tablet, you can also download for free the RemoteIME software. In theory, this could be the perfect controlling device. After-all, the version of Android used on the NEI X8-H was designed for touch screen phones, so why not just touch the screen of your phone, and watch everything happen on the big TV? Well, a lack of a cursor on the screen is why not! The swipe mode simply doesn’t work.

    That said, it did fare better when using the dedicated playback buttons and the on-screen keyboard. This app is worth using if you have an Android phone, even if it is just for the keyboard.

    Before you use it, you will have to activate it via: Mbox Settings > Advanced – then enable “Remote Control”. Unfortunately, no iOS version is available.

    RemoteIME

    Wireless Mouse: My favourite option is left to last. Without any doubt the easiest way to control everything on the Minix NEO X8-H is via almost any wireless mouse you can get your hands on. You will need one which has the Bluetooth or WiFi dongle that plugs into the Minix’s USB port, but even a €4 model will happily do the job.

    Use of a coffee table or flat service is required, and the more buttons you have on the mouse helps. I’ll have to test out a wireless tracking ball as well one day, but until then everything I do on the Minix is now with a Wireless mouse which works a treat.

    Wireless Mouse

     

  • The Minix NEO X8-H is a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to streaming television services. In some instances, apps like the built-in XBMC work extremely well. Other 3rd party ones like Zattoo are also good enough to make this a viable option. But plenty of additional apps available on Google Play either just won’t work on this device, or fail to perform as one would hope with an IPTV set-top-box.

    Keeping all that in mind, if this box is assigned a dedicated task such as working with Zattoo and/or XMBC, it works absolutely wonderfully, and has the advantage of a platform which unlike dedicated set-top-boxes like the Apple TV or Roku, can be tinkered with to one’s heart’s content.

    What works really well:

    XMBC: It should come as no surprise that the built-in XMBC app works really well on the Minix NEO X8-H. Not only is this the first 4K Android version of XBMC, it will even work well with the stock remote. Video quality is stunning, and the UI is fluid and well thought out. (Check back for an updated review that will include a full XBMC dedicated tab)

    Zattoo: Using this amazing Swiss service for live European television and PVR on a Minix is a treat. Unlike an earlier Android HDMI dongle I reviewed last year, the Favi SmartStick, this Minix has the horsepower to play back Zattoo’s HD streams perfectly, and the UI is good enough with the right controlling device to make this a serious solution to watching live UK, German, Swiss, Italian or Austrian TV.

    4oD: Unfortunately, you can’t expect the stunning video quality found via other platforms, but it still looks pretty good all up. The UI is fine (as long as you don’t use the stock remote), and video quality tested at approx. 1670kbps (SD). And yes, you can indeed download content from the app to your Minix box, and take it away on holiday for offline viewing!

    FilmOn: For a completely free option (when in Europe) for live UK television, FilmOn works pretty well also on the Minix box. The only catch is the poor quality FilmOn allows for Android devices, so don’t expect anything above a paltry 550kbps without a FilmOn sub.

    TVPlayer: The Minix Box seems to be very well suited to live streaming services. TVPlayer, an alternative to FilmOn for live UK channels such as BBC, ITV, Channels 4 & 5 works a treat. Video quality comes through at a very acceptable 2200kbps, though still far from Zattoo’s HiQ channels under a sub. With easy channel changing controls and a great UI, this free app is worth installing if you enjoy British television.

    CBS: If America’s CBS content is what you are after, the app works quite well on the Minix. Video quality sits at around 1550kbps and standard definition, but if this doesn’t bother you, you can catch up on this network’s latest shows.

    RTÉ Player: Unfortunately, the RTÉ Player from Ireland every now and again suffers the same problem of the BBC iPlayer, in that sometimes it either crashes or plays back with audio only. When it does work however, expect the same SD quality as any other platform, making this a more than adequate platform for the task.

    Adult Swim: The UI is a bit odd, and you will have to make a change in Minix’s settings to stop the app from forcing a rotation change, but if you don’t mind the SD limitation, this is a good way to watch the network’s cartoons.

    A&E, History & Lifetime: As long as SD quality streams are not going to be a problem, these three apps seemed to work fine. The UI was pleasant enough, and video playback averaged 1100kbps.

    The limitation of many apps to play back only in SD quality is not down to Minix, but the developers themselves. Many developers choose to limit the quality of streaming on Android devices as they imagine the largest sized screen would be a smart phone or tablet.

    What doesn’t quite work:

    Netflix: The official Netflix app will install and run on the Minix NEO X8-H-8, and just looking at the user interface, one could think this was a perfect port. Playback is where it falls down. The problem here is that Netflix considers an Android platform to be a small mobile phone, and as such, limits the video quality to SD or below, that’s if I can get it to play at all. Hardly the 4K dream that both Netflix and the Minix are capable of.

    BBC iPlayer: What starts off so promising, ends in disappointment with either a blank screen (with audio in the background) or simply crashing. Such a pity, as this would be one of the few set-top-boxes which allow offline downloads! On only one occasion out of two dozen could I get the BBC iPlayer to actually play content.

    3Now: Unfortunately this catch-up service from New Zealand decides that the Minix NEO X8-H is a rooted device and refuses to operate on it. 3Now are not alone in doing this.

    Hulu Plus: Sadly, everything works flawlessly except the actual content itself. I have yet to succeed in playing back any real content with video as well as audio.

    ABC: Technically speaking ABC (The American one) works perfectly well on the Minix, with the exception that the video quality is so subSD it is unwatchable. 600kbps was the best I could achieve, which is much lower than on other platforms.

    The beauty of the Minix NEO X8-H box, is that being a fully fledged Android platform, there is usually an alternative way to get things done. If you know of a way to access the content from the apps above, let us know!

    Unblocking geographic restrictions on this device is supported by the following Smart DNS providers:

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  • There are two sides to a device’s user interface, how easy it is to actually operate it (i.e. the controlling device) and how intuitive the software front-end is. As the controlling devices have been discussed in an earlier tab, this section concentrates exclusively on the software UI and is based on us using our favourite controlling device, the wireless mouse.

    Once the Minix boots up, you have a choice of two front-ends to work with. The first is the stock standard Android launcher, and is a bit clumsy to use.

    Minix Android Launcher

    The second option is Minix’s own front-end, the far more usable Minix Metro UI. As this is without any doubt the better of the two, the rest of this review will concentrate on this front-end, which is far more suitable for the task at hand.

    Minix Metro

    Obviously “borrowing” the original codename from the other more famous tile-based front-end, Windows 8, the overall home screen looks pleasant and well laid out.

    There are dedicated tiles for the system Settings, and folders for apps including Web Browsers, Streaming apps, Screencasting apps, Social Media apps, Games, Music and Videos make it easy to find what you are after. A dedicated folder contains the File Explorer, as well as folders for All Apps, the App Market and a handy All Tasks Killer. But it should come as no surprise that center of stage is the XBMC folder.

    It’s very clear from the start that just like Roku centers around Netflix, the Minix X8-H has a custom built XBMC media hub at its heart.

    If you don’t know what XBMC is, it was originally a 3rd party app created on the original Xbox that was designed to manage and play various forms of media, from music through to videos, mainly from your own library, and has since evolved enormously. These days it also has the ability to stream certain television shows from various catch-up services, although since these are rarely official, they often don’t work.

    XBMC is an incredible app to use and has an enormous fan base, so if something doesn’t work immediately with XBMC, there are bound to be plenty of people willing to help.

    Back to the Minix Metro interface, I especially liked the way favourite apps could be pinned to the home screen, making it very quick and easy to select a preferred service.

    Over-all, I found the Minix Metro user interface to be well laid out, and without any doubt, the best UI on the 3rd party Android TV HDMI boxes that I have used (not to be confused with the Amazon Fire TV)

    Like anything with Android, the deeper you dig into it, the more you get out of it. This is something that quite simply can not be so easily done with most other set-top-boxes. This also means that if what you want is a perfect, fluid and easy to understand UI, you may be in the wrong place.

     

  • Favi SmartStick:

    Without any doubt, the first comparison I should make is the Favi SmartStick. This tiny HDMI dongle is also powered by Android but lacks the CPU to perform most streaming tasks. On the other hand, by deliberately retaining an outdated version of Android, many Flash based webpages actually work on the Favi SmartStick which would otherwise fail on the Minix.

    Favi Featured

    Amazon Fire TV

    This is the official Android TV box, but should never be confused with any 3rd party Android TV STB‘s such as the Minix and Favi devices. The Amazon Fire TV is not designed to work with standard Android apps unlike the Minix, but instead dedicated ones that have been designed from the ground up with a 10-foot UI in mind. However, it may be possible to sideload certain Google Play apps into the Amazon Fire TV, but whether these will work well is something else entirely. The Amazon Fire TV is more restricted than the Minix and only available in the US, UK and Germany.

    Amazon Fire TV

  • I’ll be honest right from the start here, I personally believe that the Minix NEO X8-H is not the easiest device to set up and get working straight out of the box. But that is also be where its strengths lie.

    Whilst the Roku or Apple TV works within minutes of unpacking, the NEO X8-H requires a bit of setting up and tweaking to just get it right. But all that extra work may very well come with the advantage of greater opportunities and more services than most consumer STBs.

    If what you are after is a set-top-box with the power and flexibility of a mini Android computer, and if your main goal is streaming content from your LAN, USB or directly on-board, it would be hard to find a better device.

    On the other hand, although it works absolutely wonderfully with some on-demand, catch-up or other live IPTV streaming services like Zattoo, many well established 3rd party apps such as Netflix or the BBC iPlayer seem to struggle.

    As this great little box performs regular updates, we’ll keep track of any new developments, improvements and additions, and update this review. We’ll be adding new tabs over time, along with tips and tricks, so come back and keep an eye out if this box interests you.

    If tinkering is not your cup of tea, and all you want is a simple streaming STB with the perfect 10-foot sofa-friendly UI, and don’t want to use a wireless mouse on your coffee table or have issues with the air-remote, then I’d recommend a Roku, Amazon Fire TV or Apple TV, not to mention an F or H series Samsung Smart TV – you won’t have the same flexibility, but you will have an easier to use device when sitting on the sofa.

    Pros:

    • Well built and high quality hardware.
    • One of the best 3rd Party Android HDMI STBs.
    • Excellent for XBMC and other LAN streaming.
    • Can handle 4K TV
    • Powerful processor.
    • Minix Metro is a well designed UI.
    • Built-in Internet browser.

    Cons:

    • Requires an additional AirMouse or Wifi Mouse.
    • Supplied remote is good for nothing outside of XBMC.
    • Many on-demand and catch-up apps simply won’t work.
    • Many Google Play apps are simply not made for an Android STB.
    • Many 3rd party catch-up/on-demand apps only stream in SD.
    • As Android has officially ended Flash support, browser will not work with Flash websites.
    • AirPlay can be a bit “bumpy” at times.

    Log:

    05.09.2014: Review published, score 6.2: Great for Streaming local media & Zattoo.

    Note: 4K output from this device was not tested due to the slight problem that we do not have a 4K television capable of testing it.

     

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    Unblocking geographic restrictions on this device is supported by the following Smart DNS providers:

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