Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The MK802 II Mini PC, A Technological Tipping Point....

If you're wondering what the next big thing in computing is going to be, the wait may be over and it's, for lack of a better word, small... As semiconductor devices get increasingly compact and powerful, certain plateaus are reached and a new era of possibilities opens up. I believe we are at one of those technological tipping points with regards to cost versus size and capability. Moore's law pays off yet again. Cellphones and "smart "phones in particular, are currently the most powerful compact computing devices currently available to most folks.

                                             "Gordon Moore", Co-Founder Intel Corp.
( very few photos of this man in which he's not overtly smiling. I believe he truly delighted in his work)

Dual and quad core processors are now common, 8 or more gigabytes of on board memory with the option of expansion with micro sd cards. The ability to browse the web and port video out via HDMI to a flat panel monitor or television, virtually a complete mini pc, amazing capabilities in a handheld device. Heck, even old Captain Kirk would be jealous of what a modern cell phone can do. (I do wish they'd quit investing so much effort integrating projectors into phones and start developing a phaser instead, preferably something with @ least enough power to stun). However, one caveat is cost, even with a contract from a cellphone provider most current top of the line phones are $200 bucks or more, without a contract try $500 or $600 dollars. Holy crap, for that much cash I can buy a basic laptop or desktop pc, and there's the rub, I'm not going to be substituting my pc with my cellphone anytime soon.

 My current phone, (above) the first gen Motorola Electrify (in kickstand mode) sports a 1 GHz Dual-Core Processor w/ 1GB RAM and 16GB on board memory, was $200 with a 2 year contract $500 without as of a year ago. By comparison the top of the line Samsung Galaxy S3 is currently averaging around $550 to $650 bucks for a new unlocked unit. To be fair, with both of these you're getting an excellent 8 megapixel camera capable of HD video recording, a nice high resolution capacitive touch screen and the ability to connect to the internet and make phone calls via cellular networks, not to mention built in bluetooth connectivity, NFC technology and so on. It's an apples and oranges comparison with respect to any of the current PC on a stick devices at best.

That said, what if someone made a computer that I could attach a wireless keyboard and mouse and plug it directly into a monitor or flat panel tv? A device about the size of a large usb thumb drive with the ability to play HD video,  a full web browser and wifi built in. How much would something like that cost? How about $62.99 U.S. dollars....that's right sixty three bucks is the current price at the time of posting this blog.

 "ENIAC" (circa 1946) considered the first electronic computer displaced 1800 square feet and consumed 150 kW of power.

 Oak Ridge National Laboratories "TITAN" Supercomputer, uses 7 to 9 megawatts of power... ( John Cleese added for scale )

 There are a number of devices that more or less fit those specs but the one I'm referring to in particular is the Rikomagic MK802 II Mini Android 4.0 PC purchased through W2COMP. This is the first device in my opinion that possesses the minimum hardware specifications to create a relatively useable experience. The MK802 II has the Allwinner A10 ARM Cortex A8 single core processor, Mali 400 graphics, 4GB of storage ,1GB of RAM, a microSDHC card slot, and 802.11b/g/n WiFi. There are currently more powerful devices becoming available with faster multi core processors and I expect this niche to continue to expand as demand develops for these types of devices. The real interest for me is to attach the device to my HDTV for web browsing and media watching, sort of a home theater pc lite...

The MK802 II ships directly from Hong Kong so it's not a next day shipping experience but I'll hand it to the manufacturer as they had it from China to New York City much faster than the U.S. Postal service moved it from NYC to Porcupinepointe WV. The device arrived nicely packaged including the following:


  MK802 II Mini Android PC / TV Box x 1
- Micro USB to USB cable x 1
- Micro USB to USB adapter x 1
- HDMI extension cable x 1
- User Manual ( bifocals required )

The initial experience after plugging the nano receiver from my Logitech K400 keyboard into the single full sized USB port and attaching it to my 23" desktop monitor with the supplied HDMI extension cable was "What the"?... it's not booting....huh... I initially powered the unit from a usb connection on my pc (which recognized it as a storage device) and the boot sequence seemed to hang. I decided to try my phone charger and also had intermittent functionality. The manufacturer specifies a minimum of 500ma but 600ma is a more realistic "minimum" in my experience. After grabbing a higher output tablet power supply (5V @ 2.5A) presto we're in business. Rikomagic does note to "make sure you have an adequate power source" which is a vague generalization right up there with " make sure you have enough gas in the car" or " don't forget to breathe"...

                             The MK802 connected to the PC ...

The unit boots into Android 4.0
"Ice Cream Sandwich". Oh boy, I
feel like a little kid with a new toy. One of the other nice features about this particular chipset is the fact that there are a number of Linux derivations that have been ported to it, making for some interesting possibilities. My current favorite is Xubuntu, but I'll be happy if the Android OS functions normally. The MK 802 II does have access to the Google Play store so a number of apps should be available, notably Netflix, Crackle and Hulu Plus.

After supplying adequate power I was able to easily connect to my home wifi network and proceeded to search Google Play for a few of the aforementioned apps. Discovering that GP wouldn't let me connect until I manually changed the time zone from Hong Kong (GMT+8) to Eastern Standard Time. Much to my dismay (but not surprise) Both Netflix and Crackle were "not supported by my device"....what the? A few days later Netflix appeared to be compatible in Google Play and allowed me to download the app, but when opening it force closes and returns to the home screen. After downloading an earlier version of the Netflix apk (1.81) supplied by one of the helpful folks @ XDA Developers, (thanks again)  I was able to log on and access my account. The service seems to work just fine but video content can appear somewhat grainier at times than my Roku XS.

                               The naked board sans heatsinks!

 ( I wonder if the word "naked" will generate any page views with people searching for naked? I'll just wait and see if anyone comments or complains about the lack of actual nudity in this post).... On second thought, if you want naked here's your dam naked,..... sick bastards....Happy now?

 And now for something completely different... 
Did I mention the K400 keyboard from Logitech? This is a nifty and inexpensive little wireless unit ($29.00 @ walmart)  with a built in trackpad. It's not overly robust, but has a few nice features like the left mouse button in the corner allowing drag and drop ability with the trackpad and volume controls. The keyboard has legible keys that are quiet with decent tactile feedback and works quite well with everything I've tried it on. It's not a diNovo but for under thirty bucks it's a keeper.

   The Logitech K400 wireless keyboard. Note the 2 rows of macro keys on the left of the Logitech G110 below when making the size comparison as it's slightly wider than most standard keyboards.

Somewhat dissatisfied with the general performance of the current mini pc configuration, particularly the available browsers for Android, I decided to install "Splashtop", a remote desktop  application which allows the user to control a PC from the Android device.

After installing the app from Google Play and downloading the Splashtop server to the  Lenovo Thinkpad T61, I was pleasantly surprised that the MK802 II recognized and allowed me to connect to the computer flawlessly. The keyboard and mouse response was quite good.  Incredibly, I now had Core 2 Duo power at my fingertips, with the exception of two minor issues, one being the less than stellar (but acceptable) graphics display and the other being heat. After using the remote server for about 30 minutes or so, I checked the MK802's temperature and it was uncomfortably warm (incredibly friggin HOT!), in all previous use to this point the device was at most only moderately hot. The heatsink mod I had been considering will definitely be implemented. I can't imagine the A10 chip having a particularly long lifespan without something to pull the heat away.
                          The Allwinner A10 chip with heatsink installed...

                       The virtually nonexistent "cooling vents" on the stock unit.....

 Other than the heating issue, Splashtop2 ran anything on the PC just fine, web browsing was very snappy and video played smoothly with one exception, no sound. The Lenovo is running Windows Xp SP3, upon entering the Control Panel audio settings and finding the audio muted I unchecked the box and still no audio. Further adjustments included lowering the sampling bitrate and presto, I've got sound. Enthused, I proceeded to install Splashtop2 on the Win7 desktop and it functions perfectly without any adjustments as does the HP Mini 311. There is approximately a one second delay between the two devices so any gaming via Splashtop2 is going to be somewhat limited. The saving grace for the little "Mini PC" may be as a remote access to my pc. The idea that each family member can sit down in front of the widescreen HDTV and access their own unique computer with all of their personal files, documents and browser settings is a slick concept and worked beautifully with all the devices on the Peabody network.

                             The Splashtop2 interface... Pick your PC......

The HP desktop in my office "Riko-magically" appears on the HDTV via the MK802II and Splashtop2. The single core Allwinner A10 channels Core2 Quad power with smooth full control of the pc...

Basic word processing is available from a number of apps and I chose to use Google Drive which comes with 5GB of free cloud storage.    

The MK802 II is simple to attach to an HDTV, occupying a single HDMI input and utilizing the TV's USB port for power with the K400's nano receiver in the full size USB connection on the Mini PC.

The Android Youtube app plays video beautifully and is superior to watching by way of any of the web browsers I've tried for Android and that's most of the popular ones, which is somewhat surprising as the function of just about everything else on the device isn't nearly as smooth. The HD stuff looks surprisingly good and seems limited only by my mediocre and fluctuating into horrible Frontier internet service...

One nice feature of the second generation MK802 is the on board voltage regulation which allows the user to power the device off without disconnecting it from the source. However, to boot you still have to toggle power, but this isn't a problem when powering by way of the HDTV's USB connection as it boots when the set is powered up.

Some compelling features of the device are it's portability, support for external storage via USB ( you'll need to supply a powered hub) and it's video processing ability. While limited to 720p in Android, it looks quite good on the 46" screen of the inexpensive Sceptre HDTV. 

My overall impression of the device is, "it has some promise"....but... The hardware specs are there to provide the performance to get the job done, but there is still a bit of polish needed between the current firmware and the MK802 II's hardware to provide the smoothness and quick snappy response that  I'm used to in a pc, Apple or top shelf Android device.
 In it's current configuration it's more of a hackers toy (it comes pre rooted) than a ready to use out of the box media pc. This lends credibility to Apple and Microsoft's demand to control the hardware design to compliment it's software functionality. Without this tight integration you end up with something akin to a Ferrari sporting the 3 speed manual transmission from a 1960's Ford pickup truck.
Anyone who has learned to leave automatic updates
off on their Android device has figured this out.
I've had a somewhat buggy and inconsistent experience with the "app is not responding", "wait" or "close" prompt occurring more frequently than I'd like.

Being less than overwhelmed with it's performance, I'm still very happy with the device considering it's low cost and believe it's a tinkerers money well spent. This "Mini PC" format has the potential to be a strong platform for personal content consumption and data storage with a microprocessor and OS built in. Microcomputing has arrived, look for much more sophisticated and polished versions of this PC on a stick concept in the very near future, but for now the Roku XS is safe from obsolescence. Just a post note "Roku" is coming out with a streaming media smart tv stick device as well as a projector in collaboration with 3M. I could imagine popping a mini pc into the projector in place of the Roku stick....