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Minix Neo U1 Android Box Review

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A class act

by Mark Hodgkinson Dec 29, 2015

  • SRP: £94.95

    What is the Minix Neo U1?

    In simple terms, the Minix U1 is a little media streaming box which runs on the Android operating system and it's designed to plug in to the HDMI port on your TV to make it smarter. Well that’s what it is in general terms but, to deal more in the specifics, the Neo U1 is the new flagship 4K media hub from one of our favourite manufacturers in the market sector. And why is Minix so good? For one, they don’t over-promise and under-deliver, like many we’ve seen; secondly, they keep their devices extraordinarily well maintained with software updates, well after release date – again this is in stark contrast to most – and, finally, they make great products that work as advertised with little to no problem so hopefully the Neo U1 can make good on its heritage.

    Specifications

    The Neo U1 is designed for those looking to be ready for the future, with a HDMI 2.0/HDCP 2.2 output, capable of supporting 10-bit 4K Ultra HD video at up to 60 frames per second, 7.1 channel HD audio pass-through and it runs on Android 5.1. The impressive spec sheet doesn’t end there, as the Minix Neo U1 is blessed with a new-generation AMLogic S905 processor, 2GB of RAM and 16GB of unified eMMC 5.0, i.e. fast, flash storage; note the unified part there as many boxes have partitioned storage which means you’re left with very little room to download applications, thus shortening the potential life-span of the product.

    Design & Connections

    There’s not too much to say, here, as the Neo U1 fits the description, ‘little black box,’ to a tee. It’s a bit larger than most, however, and if you disassemble the casing (don’t, it might void your warranty) you will see the reason for that in the form of a really large heatsink which takes up the bulk of the space. In view of this, it’s no surprise the Neo U1 runs extremely cool, even when put under heavy load. It measures in at 21x127x127mm (HxWxD), for those interested, and feels very well put together. The U1 comes with a detachable antennae, which transmits a Bluetooth 4.1 compatible signal as well as playing its part in the dual-band 802.11ac 2 x 2 MIMO Wi-Fi capability, which is currently as good as it gets in domestic wireless products.
    Minix Neo U1 Design & Connections
    Minix Neo U1 Design & Connections

    The physical connections are arranged down the right hand side and at the back and include the aforementioned HDMI 2.0 port, a Toslink (S/PDiF) digital audio out, headphone and microphone jacks and a gigabit LAN port. All the USB connections are at the side and are Version 2.0; we would have liked to see the inclusion of at least one version 3.0, for its better data transfer rates, and we’re surprised Minix hasn’t. There’s also a USB OTG connection, which is handy if you ever need to flash the firmware in case of difficulties and there’s a TF (mini SD) card slot that can be used to expand the storage capacity.

    Remote Control(s)

    The stock/supplied remote control works on infra-red so it requires line of sight for operation. It works well enough, for the Minix User Interface and any apps designed for remote control use but it is limiting for all those apps – and there are many – intended for touchscreen control. Minix actually supplied one of their A2 Lite remote controls along with the U1 sample, and if you can get one of those as part of your bundle, we would urge you to do so as it makes the experience a whole lot better. The A2 Lite has a full Qwerty keyboard and fluid cursor control using the built-in gyroscopes and you can also use it – via a long press – to turn off the Neo U1, which is actually an uncommon capability amongst Android media boxes. If this were a mini-review of the A2 Lite, then consider a mini AVForums Highly Recommended Award has been issued.
    Minix Neo U1
    Minix Neo U1


    User Interface & Menus

    The manufacturer has stuck with their trusty Minix Launcher (home-screen) with the U1, which is no bad thing, but we were kind of hoping for a fresher look. You’re not forced in to using the Minix Launcher, however, and you can customise to your heart’s content with any number of the Android launcher apps out there. There are tiles to represent Movies, Music, Gaming, Web browsing, online video streaming services, social media apps and settings, to the left, and under these you can group any number of relevant apps to make getting at what you want quick and simple but we would like the option for the tiles to launch a particular app. For instance, we just want the Browser tile to launch Chrome, the File Explorer shortcut to open ES File Explorer and the KODI icon to launch the best version (Minix XBMC) for the device.
    Minix Neo U1  User Interface & Menus
    Minix Neo U1  User Interface & Menus

    There has been a welcome redesign to the settings area, however, so it no longer feels as though you’re setting up a mobile device. In fact, it’s very, very much like we see in the Android Smart TV platforms from Sony and Philips, as well as all the Android TV devices such as the NVIDIA SHIELD. One setting we definitely recommend you check is activated is located under Preferences>Playback Settings and you want to ensure this is at Level 2. The Minix firmware has built in frame rate detection so it will automatically switch to the correct output signal to suit the material. For example, most movie content is 24 (23.976) frames per second and all UK content is either 25 or 50 frames, so you want the video signal sent from the Neo U1 to match that. The default output of the U1 (and every box) is 60Hz and clearly you can’t fit 24, 25 or 50 equally in to that; so, when the U1 detects any of those frame rates, it changes its video output signal to either 24, 25 or 50Hz accordingly. If you value smooth playback of video, it’s a must-have feature and one not many Android boxes can pull of successfully.

    Video and Audio Performance

    This is as good a place to advise any new owners of the Minix Neo U1 to check their system software is up-to-date because, if you’re device doesn’t come with, at lowest, Build Number U1 FW003 20151210 (check in Settings>Advanced Settings>About Media Box), you’re experience won’t be anywhere near as good as it should be. The review sample shipped with an earlier version but the chances are yours should come pre-updated. You also need to check if Minix XBMC has been loaded at the Factory, else you will need to download that for similar reasons. Our sample came with the original Alpha version of KODI Jarvis, which was plain rubbish and kept crashing with the U1. You could probably get on fine, in most use cases, with the standard Android version of KODI but since Minix has gone to the expense and trouble of having a special, tailored-for-the-hardware version it seems wrong not to use it and you’ll get better (much better, in some cases) results using the Minix branch.

    Test Results

    Since Ultra HD/4K Video is the Minix Neo U1’s main headlining feature let’s begin there and as we'll see from the results tables, the U1 scores very highly in this department. Note the files were all played back in a variety of ways: connected to a 1TB USB 3.0 hard drive, via Network Attached Storage and, in a few cases, from the internal memory. We used Minix XBMC 15.3b, rather than mainline KODI, and the firmware version was 1.003.

    4K Tests

    Internal Player

    KODI

    3840 x 2160/AVC/MP4/23.976fps
    3840 x 2160/AVC/MP4/24.000fps
    Played at 60hz with noticeable judder
    3840 x 2160/AVC/MP4/25.000fps
    Played at 60hz with bad judder
    3840 x 2160/AVC/MP4/29.970fps
    3840 x 2160/AVC/MKV/59.940fps
    3840 x 2160/AVC/MP4/23.976fps
    3840 x 2160/HEVC/MP4/29.970fps
    3840 x 2160/AVC/MP4/59.940fps
    10-bit 3840 x 2160/HEVC/TS/59.940fps
    10-bit 3840 x 2160/HEVC/TS/23.976fps
    3840 x 2160/AVC/MP4/50.00fps
    Stuttering, audio dropouts, unwatchable

    Better than internal player but still picture break-up. Unwatchable
    4096 x 2160/AVC/MP4/24fps
    Audio but no video

    We can really see the benefits of Minix's endeavours with their own XBMC version here, although the performance with UHD 50 frames per second material was definitely lacking. This also underlines why you need to have HDMI Self Adaption Level 2 set to on as the AMLogic video player only switched between 60 and 23.976Hz.

    Moving down the resolution ladder, we'll now take a look at Full HD, 720p, and Standard Definition performance with both progressive and interlaced video:

    SD/HD/Interlaced

    Internal Player

    KODI

    720 x 576/MP2/mpg/25.000fps - Interlaced
    1280 x 720/AVC/MP4/29.970fps
    1920 x 1080/AVC/MKV/25.00fps - Interlaced
    1920 x 1080/AVC/MKV/23.976fps
    1920 x 1080/AVC/MKV/24.000fps
    1920 x 1080/AVC/MKV/25.000fps
    1920 x 1080/AVC/MKV/29.970fps
    1920 x 1080/AVC/MKV/30.000fps
    1920 x 1080/AVC/MKV/59.970fps
    Stuttering, dropped frames. Unwatchable
    1920 x 1080/HEVC/ISO/23.976fps
    1920 x 1080/HEVC/MKV/23.976fps
    1920 x 1080/VC-1/MKV/23.976fps
    No audio, dropped frames, video artefacts. Unwatchable

    Need to turn off Amcodec Acceleration in Video Settings
    1920 x 1080/VC-1/MKV/29.970fps
    No audio, dropped frames, video artefacts. Unwatchable

    As above.

    With all this power at its disposal, the Minix Neo U1 should make mincemeat of lower resolution material and it proved mostly to be the case. We can once again see that KODI/Minix XBMC is a superior media player to the one built-in, however, it also struggled in some instances. Whilst we have put a tick in both boxes for the interlaced material, we should make note that we have seen much better deinterlacing capability so, if you want Live TV as part of your media set-up, a Chromebox running OpenELEC would be a better choice and so, for that matter, would be the Minix X8-H Plus which also makes a very good job of interlaced video. The U1 displayed some quite noticeable jagged edges which let it down a little.

    For those looking to play Blu-ray rips, without any compression, the ability of a player to deal with high bitrate material is crucial. Looking down the line, when Ultra HD Blu-ray is inevitably cracked and rips of those can be made, bitrates will be even higher. The maximum bitrate of Full HD Blu-ray is 40Mbps, while Ultra HD BD is going to be around 3 to 4 times that so we're looking somewhere around 140Mbps capability for smooth playback. Again files were streamed via WiFi (802.11ac Router) and Ethernet from network storage and from a USB HDD connected to the Neo U1.

    High Bitrate

    Internal Player

    KODI

    1920 x 1080/AVC/M2TS/23.976fps & 70mbps
    1920 x 1080/AVC/M2TS/23.976fps & 90mbps
    Video artefacts. Unwatchable

    Fine over ethernet, problems over WiFi
    1920 x 1080/AVC/MKV/23.976fps @ 70mbps
    Fine over Ethernet

    Fine over Ethernet
    1920 x 1080/AVC/MKV/23.976fps @ 100mbps
    Fine over Ethernet

    Fine over Ethernet
    1920 x 1080/AVC/MKV/23.976fps @ 120mbps
    Only played well from internal storage

    Only from internal storage
    1920 x 1080/AVC/MKV/23.976fps @ 200mbps
    Only from internal storage

    Only from internal storage

    So we can see that the Minix Neo U1 has no issues, even with extremely high bit rate content but you might struggle to stream it over your network in extreme cases. There are, of course, a number of variables here and it could be your router will manage better than ours but the results are excellent, nevertheless.

    Before the arrival of the sample, we were under no impression the U1 would playback 3D video, at all, but it does actually feature more support than we'd imagined.

    Update: Since publishing the review - and following several software updates - the U1 will now play back 3D ISO albeit in top and bottom mode so not at full resolution but it's definitely better than no support at all!

    3D

    Internal Player

    KODI

    1920 x 1080/AVC/ISO/23.976fps Frame Packed
    Played top and bottom but automatically engaged TVs 3D mode.

    Played top and bottom but automatically engaged TVs 3D mode.
    1920 x 1080/AVC/MKV/23.976fps Frame Packed
    1920 x 1080/AVC/MKV/23.976fps Side by Side
    Played at 720p @ 60Hz so partial success

    Same as internal player
    1920 x 1080/AVC/MKV/23.976fps Top & Bottom

    We need to point out that, at the time of the review (December 2015), DTS-HD support is an upcoming feature which hopefully will be part of the 1.004 software update. The engineers have got it working but the feature is yet to make a public release. We will update the review once the update has been issued which, knowing Minix, will be in timely order.

    HD Audio

    Internal Player

    KODI

    AAC 5.1
    AAC 7.1
    Dolby Digital Plus 7.1
    Dolby True HD 5.1
    Dolby True HD 7.1
    DTS HD-MA 5.1
    DTS HD-HR 7.1
    DTS HD-MA 7.1
    LPCM 7.1

    Note, to enable Audio passthrough, you need to go in to the U1's settings, then Audio>Digital Sounds, choose HDMI or SPDIF, accordingly - note no HD audio passthrough on SPDIF. You then have to enable passthrough in the Kodi System settings under Audio Output, from where you can define your AV receiver's capabilities.

    So, all in all, the Minix Neo U1 is an extremely comprehensive media player and, in terms of playback of Ultra HD/4K, it’s the best we’ve seen so far, bar none. And the addition of DTS-HD passthrough, which should be imminent, will only strengthen it further. Where it will be lacking, for some, is in its weak 3D video playback capabilities but there may be salvation at hand as the very same developer who created Minix XBMC is on the case to get it working on the chipset (and others). That said, success is not guaranteed so buy the Minix Neo U1 based on what it can do now – which is plenty – not what might happen in the future, but if 3D is a priority you definitely need to seek out an alternative - if it's not, then this one is very likely to do everything you need.

    Video Review


    Are there any issues?

    There are certainly no deal-breaking issues with the Neo U1 but there are a few little bugs we’ve come across along the way. We have seen the Android system volume bar appear completely at random, which may have been triggered by the fact we had a 3rd party wireless keyboard attached at the time. There is also an issue with some video streaming apps that see the U1 as a rooted device – it isn’t – so refuse to playback and/or download files – All 4 is one of them. There’s also a bug in Minix XBMC where external USB storage devices are duplicated, i.e. you see udsik0 twice but only one will open. We have also seen reports of – but didn’t experience ourselves – people having issues logging in to the Google Play Store, but it only seems to affect a few. In all cases, bar the Play Store one, Minix says they are fixed in the next firmware release so we’ll update the review once it’s out. The only other thing we’ve noted – and it requires further investigation – is that the colour space when switching from1080p to 4K changes quite noticeably on the Minix Launcher with green looking much brighter than it should. We haven’t seen that translated in to actual video content, so far, but there is something going on…

    How future-proof is this video streamer?

    4K Ultra HD playback up to 60 frames per second
    HEVC decoding Full HD
    HEVC decoding Ultra HD
    7 Channel HD Audio pass-through
    Netflix HD/4K
    3D ISO playback
    HDMI 2.0
    Over The Air (OTA) Software Updates
    Manufacturer version of KODI

    Conclusion

    9
    AVForumsSCORE
    OUT OF
    10

    Pros

    • Plays back almost everything
    • Extremely fast & responsive
    • Auto refresh rate switching
    • 7.1 HD Audio Passthrough
    • Manufacturer's own KODI
    • Regular updates & excellent support
    • Very well built

    Cons

    • 3D Support is lacking
    • A few minor bugs
    • UHD at 50fps not working well
    • No USB 3.0, only 2.0
    You own this Total 4
    You want this Total 3
    You had this Total 0

    Minix Neo U1 Android Box Review

    Should I buy the Minix U1?

    If you can live without 3D, and let’s face it most us can and do, the Minix Neo U1 is a superb little media hub which will play virtually anything you care to throw it, now and in the immediate future. There is support for 10-bit 4K/Ultra HD at 60 frames per second and pass-through of 7.1 channel HD audio, plus as you would expect from a top-line product, it can support almost every file type from 1080p down. There were some issues with Ultra HD at 50Hz, a few little bugs and we’re waiting on an imminent update for DTS-HD audio compatibility but Minix has such a good track record in fixing things, we’d fully expect all issues to be resolved post haste.

    Minix has also created an excellent, tailored version of KODI which takes advantage of all the horsepower on offer and it definitely outshines the built-in media player so we’d definitely recommend you use it. The only real thing we can see putting off those folks who don’t do their research is the price; you can pick a box with near matching specifications for less than half the price of the Neo U1 but that would come with a high risk of little to no manufacturer support and, more than likely, a boatload of bugs that would go unfixed. If you want a quality product you have to be prepared to pay the premium and that’s exactly what the Minix Neo U1 is - a class above the vast majority of the players on the market and it comes Highly Recommended.

    What Else is there?

    If 4K/Ultra HD is a prime concern then the only other player in the same class for media playback is the NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV, although it costs a fair bit more and, as yet, doesn't pass HD audio via KODI. If you're not so bothered about Ultra HD, although it does support 4K up to 30 frames per second, the HiMedia Q5 is a great choice and can playback 3D and HD audio, with just a few limitations. If neither HD audio or 3D are needed and, again, you can live with 4K at up to 30 frames per second, there are few better choices than the Minix X8-H Plus, although if you want a 'straight' media player with no extras, it's hard to look beyond the Chromebox.


    The Rundown

    Build Quality

    9

    Performance

    9

    Networking, Internet, Streaming quality

    9

    Features

    9

    Set up, Menus, Remote

    8

    Value for Money

    9

    Verdict

    9

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