Your extraordinarily flexible friend
What is the Neo X8-H Plus?This is just one of the Android media boxes in the Minix range and we’ll be taking a look at some of the others over the coming weeks, as well as the Z64 Windows 8.1 Micro PC. To be frank, this is a product sector we’ve only really touched upon before, although we’ve been observing its growth for at least a couple of years. In terms of the mainstream market, you can compare the X8-H Plus to the likes of Amazon Fire TV – which is essentially an Android Box – and the Roku family, although the latter is a more walled environment, lacking the liberties of Android. At the time of publishing (March 2015), you can pick up the Minix Neo X8-H Plus for around £120, from major online retailers, but you can get it for less if you’re willing to shop around.
So why now and why Minix?As we said above, we’ve been keeping our eyes on the sector for quite some time but it’s only been until fairly recently when we’ve considered the devices to be ready for primetime, in terms of accessibility and usability for the less tech savvy out there. The reason we made our initial approach to Minix, is quite simply down to the fact that the company receives mostly positive customer feedback, for their support and very regular stream of software updates. There are dozens and dozens of these types of devices available, through the likes of Amazon, but all too often these are released with major bugs and then left on the market with little to no manufacturer support; this patently doesn’t seem to be the case with Minix so we can present this product to you, our readers and forum members, with some degree of confidence.
What can these Android TV Boxes do?Dealing specifically with the Neo X8-H Plus we have in front of us, the answer is lots! Think of it as a fairly powerful Android tablet in a boxy casing but with no built-in display; instead you attach it to a TV – or other HDMI capable display – to view the images. That does throw up the question of just how do you navigate the apps and functions when the Android operating system is so reliant on a touchscreen interface? Well, we’ll deal with that more fully below but the short answer is that you use a special remote that can replicate what your fingers would usually do. The X8-H Plus comes with full access to Google Play – and any other Android app store you fancy – so the range of apps available is enormous, although we’ll be focussing on mostly on the more mainstream ones out there.
Minix Neo X8-H Plus SpecificationThe X8-H Plus is equipped with a Quad-core Cortex A9r4 processor, back upped with a dedicated octo-core Mali-450 GPU and bolstered by 2GB of DDR3 RAM. The box comes running Android 4.4 (KitKat) and features dual-band (2.4/5Ghz) WiFi compatibility, which is excellent news in terms of HD video streaming. In-built storage comes courtesy of 16GB of eMMC flash memory but you can expand that with an external SD card or via USB storage.
What’s in the Box?Minix are very generous in providing accessories and cables and you get a HDMI, Micro USB and OTG cables, along with a UK power adapter and the Minix infra-red remote in the box. Along with that are a quick start guide and a product brochure in packaging that wouldn’t shame any of the big name competition.
Design & ConnectionsThis box is quite a bit bigger than the more mainstream efforts from Roku, Amazon and Apple but then it does pack in much more connectivity and it is hardly what you would describe as large. It’s very square measuring 128mm both across and in depth and it is but a mere 20mm in height but you will need to factor in some extra clearance for the dual band antenna which can add up to 11.5cm to the height and 4cm to the overall footprint, although it does swivel to become more flat. You not forced to attach it, however, so if you run a wired network connection it’s not going to be an issue.
Inputs and outputs are stationed on the right and back edges and include 3 x USB 2.0 and a micro USB OTG port. The HDMI output is version 1.4 and capable of 4K resolutions at up to 30 frames per second. If you don’t wish to take the audio via the HDMI connection, you also have the option of digital optical (Toslink) or a standard 3.5mm stereo jack. Additionally, there’s an inlet for the power adapter, a SD/MMC card slot and an Ethernet port for wired LAN. Also present is a (perhaps too) discrete power indicator which glows a very subtle shade of blue and a power button that’s mostly inlaid in to the casing.
Remote ControlThere’s not that much that can be said of the bundled infra-red remote control, other than you’re probably going to want to seek out an alternative means of operation as it is a bit limited for a touchscreen interface. It has some directional keys, power, enter, home and back buttons and a shortcut to take you in to the Settings Menu but many apps simply aren’t navigable when using it so we’d have to recommend either using your phone and tablet with a remote app, or seeking out something like an airmouse solution.
You're probably going to want the one on the right
Minix recently made some of their devices compatible with Google’s own remote control app – obviously designed for their Nexus Player – but it works perfectly well with the Neo X8-H Plus and although it’s not yet on the UK Google store, you can download it from here. Better still was the experience using the Minix A2 Lite, which has a full Qwerty keyboard and fluid cursor control using the motion sensing tech within. There are lots of ‘airmice’ on the market but the A2 does work particularly well with its stablemate product.
User InterfaceFirst of all, you’re not forced in to using the Minix user interface and you can customise to your hearts content with any number of the Android launcher apps out there. We were happy to stick with it during the course of the review, however, as the homescreen provides a very effective launchpad for any of the various apps you might have installed. 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.
To the right are further tiles offering quick access to any App markets you have installed and the same goes for any file explorer apps (it comes with ES File Explorer pre-installed). There’s also a useful ‘All Tasks Killer’ function too and the tiles are very easy to navigate using the directional buttons, for that true set-top-box feel. We’re not at all keen on the app drawer (All Apps) interface, however, and it could really benefit from a more contemporary redesign.
Video StreamingIn some ways the Minix X8-H Plus running a full version of Android is its greatest strength but, in others, it’s the biggest weakness. Having virtually unfettered access to Google Play – and any other Android app store you care to use – obviously opens up all manner of possibilities and you can fairly easily almost fully replicate your tablet or smartphone experience. The environment does have its limitations, owing to where the OS has come from, howvere. With so many of the apps destined for use on screens far smaller than that of your TV, you will often find that they will run at sub HD resolutions, which is going to have an impact on any ‘reasonably’ sized telly.
Some obvious candidates to mention here – as they are the most widely used in the UK – are Netflix, YouTube, BBC iPlayer, with the former maxing out at 480p, whilst YouTube is 720p and the iPlayer app is currently plagued with issues – mostly down to the BBC but some attributable to the Minix software. We’ve spoken with Minix, who assure us a fix is ready and will be released as part of a software update to be released within the ‘next couple of weeks,’ as of the time of writing (19/03/2015). The Amazon Instant App is totally non-functioning at this time, however, although it – as well as iPlayer – have perfectly good (if not better) workarounds if you get the relevant plug-ins for XBMC (Kodi); and they both offer streaming at the maximum resolutions.
Lack of mainstream app support for HD is going to be an issue for some
We have spoken to Minix regarding the lack of HD for Netflix and seemingly their hands are tied. They have approached the world’s biggest internet TV service to have their devices added to the list of those approved for 1080p but it seems they are unwilling. We suppose if Netflix were to suddenly allow the ever increasing number of Full HD (and beyond) tablets and phones access to their HD streams, bandwidth would become a question but, that said, as a paying Netflix subscriber I should reasonably be able expect maximum performance, regardless of the hardware I’m watching it on. Hopefully Netflix will see the light one day but it’s not like I (and likely you) are short of something else to use for that service.
There’s some really good news for subscribers to Virgin and Sky’s TV services in that both TV Anywhere and Sky GO are fully-functional on the Minix X8-H Plus. So, instead of needing a second box and/or a multi-room package, you could just plug one of these in and let it do the job for you. Other than the issues with iPlayer, all the other UK catch-up services (Demand 5, 4OD and ITV Player) are also working well, as are the paid-for NOW TV and Wuaki services, although the former also runs at sub-optimal resolution.
In summary, the Minix X8-Plus is kind of like the ultimate second screen device. The lack of HD streams from some of the key services would preclude it from taking centre stage in my living room but on the 32-inch TV it’s primarily been used with, in another room, it’s become pretty much indispensable.
Music StreamingThe X8-H Plus does a superb job here and it’s something we used it for extensively. It runs three of our key services – Spotify, TIDAL & Google Music – perfectly and you can use it with Bubble UpnP to cast music from Google and TIDAL to other devices around the home. In the case of TIDAL, you can do that at virtual CD quality thanks to FLAC support. The Minix is also blessed with an excellent Bluetooth transmitter and it synced with the various Bluetooth speaker systems we have scattered about the place perfectly. The spec sheet suggests native support for MP3, WMA, WAV, OGG, OGA, FLAC, ALAC, APE and AAC file types and the X8-H Plus certainly played everything we had to throw at it.
GamingYou can hook up various controllers, both via USB and Bluetooth, and have something graphically like a last-gen (PS3/360) gaming experience, via the X8-H Plus, but there’s an element of trial and error in finding out what’s going to work well when downloading games from the app stores. Clearly, anything heavily reliant on touchscreen controls is not going to work, without a special controller and, even then, the experience will be not be like on tablet or phone. Some games reliant on gyroscopic controls might work, again with a compatible controller, but the experience is likely to be compromised also.
What we will say is that games designed with controller support – we were using an Amazon Fire V Controller – are definitely a fun experience with the X8-H Plus and racers such as Asphalt 8 & Beach Buggy racing licked along well, with no obvious slowdown or graphical glitches. We did see some textures popping in with Asphalt 8 and the GTA: Vice City HD remake, on highest settings, but nothing that gave cause for concern, unduly, and being able to pump a lossless custom soundtrack over the top of anything, via TIDAL, was an absolute joy.
Minix X8-H Plus XBMC (KODI) & Local Media PerformanceThe fact that the Minix homescreen devotes more tile space to its own tailored version of XBMC (based on v13.3) than anything else, should be telling. Clearly the manufacturer knows its market and we can say that fans of the incredibly popular, open-source media player software are not likely to be disappointed. We won’t get in to how you want to use KODI but we can report that the official plug-ins, at least, run extremely well. In fact, if I were keeping the device permanently, I might even be tempted to root and use it as the launcher with a customised skin to integrate the Android apps.
You’re not obliged to use their tailored version, of course, but if you’re sticking with the bundled remote, we would suggest it’s advisable as there are special keymap features built in to the Minix release. There was a recent issue setting up SMB shares but that’s now resolved and we’d definitely be hanging on until Minix releases their own version of Helix (14.x), or beyond, as we know they take the development of it very seriously and tailor it to the specific hardware characteristics of the device.
A great KODI machine!
The Minix software makes special provision for self-adaptive refresh rate switching and our test files would suggest that it works near flawlessly, with the X8-H Plus locking on to the three key ones instantly. There is a slight suggestion that the timing is out, ever so slightly, on 24p (23.967Hz) material as there is the occasional (every 40 seconds or so) slight stutter but it’s highly unlikely to trouble most. [Update: This is now fixed and 23.967 plays back flawlessly]. The X8-H Plus will also play 4K content at up to 30 frames per second, encoded in either HEVC of H.264, but it must be no higher than 8-bit colour, else you’ll run in to issues.
In terms of movie audio, the Minix will gladly play 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 with pass-through over HDMI but DTS-HD MA is downscaled to core DTS; there is no support for Dolby True HD. The lack of HD audio support will definitely disappoint some, of course, but we’re told licensing is very costly.
Minix Neo X8-H Plus Video Review
- Almost limitless apps
- Excellent video capabilities
- Brilliant for audio streaming
- Superb KODI support
- Plays games very well
- Strong manufacturer support with regular updates
- Lacks HD support from major video apps
- No HD audio
- Android interface not always the easiest on a TV
- Bundled remote isn't great
Minix Neo X8-H Plus Review
Should I buy the Minix X8-H Plus?Obviously we can’t really answer that for you but, I tell you what, I’m sorely tempted! As a second screen device - that being a 32-inch TV - it’s brilliant and provides you with almost all the varied entertainment Android has to offer. There are some limitations in that key streaming apps, such as Netflix, YouTube, iPlayer, NOW TV & Amazon Instant don’t run at maximum resolutions, with their versions of the Android apps, but there are workarounds in a couple of cases using XMBC (KODI). In terms of that particular piece of software, the X8-H Plus runs it near spotlessly, by the way, so if it’s a dedicated KODI box you want there are unlikely to be many better Android devices out there.
The Minix software engineers have also built in effective frame refresh rate switching which works equally well within KODI as it does through the built-in video player which, incidentally, is able to playback 4K content - including HEVC encoded material – at up to 30 frames per second.
We got a lot of use out of the X8-H Plus as an audio streamer and the ability to stream lossless, from the likes of TIDAL, to Bluetooth speakers can turn it into the ultimate jukebook device. You can also send audio to other compatible devices using UPnP or DLNA, via the appropriate app. Casual gamers are also well catered for and, with an increasing number of Android games including gamepad support, things can only get better here too.
This is, without doubt, one of the most versatile little devices we’ve ever tested at AVForums and the fact the Minix X8-H Plus can pull off so many things, so well, means it’s well worthy of our recommendation. It has its limits, certainly, but if you can’t find several beneficial reasons for it being in your life, there’s a chance you haven’t yet made it to the 21st Century!
What else could I considerStrictly speaking, this is our very first Android ‘Smart TV Box’ review but we have, of course, looked at many devices occupying a very similar market space. If you’re looking just for the mainstream streaming services, and by that we mean BBC iPlayer, YouTube, Netflix, ITV Player, 4OD, Google Play & NOW TV, you should be looking no further than either the Roku 3 or Streaming Stick. They will do all you want, at maximum possible resolution, and are great devices in their own rights. Moving up the flexibility ladder, take a look at the Amazon Fire TV which essentially runs Android but requires workarounds and more fiddling around to get it close to the versatility of the Minix. In its favour, it does boast Full HD native apps for the likes of iPlayer and Netflix, however, and of course it also supports Prime Instant Video. For the Windows 8.1 experience, a Micro PC such as the Hannspree offers all manner of possibilities but our experiences would suggest Android is an operating system better suited to the media streaming space at the moment.
And if it’s a direct Android TV Box competitor you’re exploring, good luck in wading through the reams of no-name boxes on ebay or Amazon!
You can buy the Minix Neo X8-H Plus here
Networking, Internet, Streaming quality8
Set up, Menus, Remote8
Value for Money9
Our Review Ethos
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