...or how we built our ideal streaming device.
What is the Minix Z64W?The Minix Z64W is one of the new breed of ultra-small form-factor Windows PCs that have been hitting the market in 2015. Despite its appearance, it actually has far more in common with the Hannspree Micro PC, we looked at earlier in the year, than the slew of Android TV Boxes we’ve been reviewing recently. Observant readers will note that the Z64W does, in fact, resemble exactly the Minix Z64A and the two share the same internal architecture with the only major difference being the operating systems they run on. So, the idea of this review has become a quest to see which is the better platform to run a home media hub – Windows 8.1 Vs Android - although there are numerous caveats to consider in that, which we will highlight in the course of the review. At the time of writing (July 2015), the Minix Z64W commands a UK asking price of around £115, so it’s toward the higher-end, price wise, but it doesn’t seem to be an awful lot for a fully-functional Windows PC. Let’s see if we can make this little box do all that we need.
Design & ConnectionsIt’s a PC that fits easily in to the palm of your hand, with a matte black plastic casing measuring 115 x 115 x 23mm (WxDxH) which features a non-detachable WiFi antenna. Connections run around the rear and right-hand side of the box and include an HDMI port, 2 USB inputs, a 3.5mm audio jack, a LAN port and a mini SD Card slot. There’s also an inlaid power button, to the side, and a blue power indicator at the front, which sits next to a redundant infra-red sensor. There is no remote control provided – unlike the Android boxes – as Windows isn’t set up well to work with one so you’ll need a USB/Bluetooth control. We mainly used a Logitech K400 for initial setup but once that was done and we were running solely through KODI, we switched to a remote-like airmouse to enhance the media centre experience. In other words, we don’t want to sit there with a keyboard in our laps all the time, despite the fact that the Logitech is very lightweight and highly effective – your mileage might vary.
Minix Neo Z64W SpecsAs per the previously reviewed Hannspree, the Minix Z64W runs on an Intel Bay Trail-TZ3735F Quad Core CPU, with cores that are based on the new Silvermont architecture. The CPU is billed at running at 1.33Ghz – and up to 1.83Ghz in Turbo mode. There’s also 32GB of fast EMMC memory on board (24.8 GB available out of the box) and 2GB of DDR3 RAM available. The Z64A comes pre-loaded with a full version of Windows 8.1 Bing and it probably should be noted that this is the 32-Bit Version. Despite being advertised as a 64-bit device, the Z64W has a 32-bit UEFI and therefore can’t execute 64-bit code. In terms of creating a little media device, this doesn’t really have a negative impact. The major advantage we found with the Minix over the Hannspree was the fact the form allowed it to run much cooler so we didn’t get any performance issues we got with the dongle-like device. WiFi capability is restricted to the 2.4GHz band.
What’s in the Box?As stated above, there is no remote/packaged control system so you’ll need something to fit the bill prior to getting it up and running. You are provided with an HDMI cable and the power supply and, at a pinch, we guess you could get by with a USB mouse to get going but those on-screen keyboards get tiresome pretty quickly.
SetUpHaving installed numerous little media boxes over the last few months, we knew precisely what we wanted to achieve with the Z64W prior to setup. First and foremost, this was to be a KODI setup with the idea that all our favourite streaming services – Netflix, Amazon Instant, YouTube, BBC iPlayer, Spotify & Tidal – could be integrated in to one slick user interface, along with a small requirement for networked and local media management. My personal favourite way of doing this is by using the FTV Skin which is styled on, and to all intents mimics, the user interface of the Amazon Fire TV but obviously isn’t only populated by Amazon’s own content. You need to be running KODI 15.xx (Isengard) for the FTV skin to work properly, in addition to having the latest Skin Shortcuts and Next up Service Notification scripts installed. With all that done, it’s then a case of setting up the skin so that your menu items (Movies, TV Shows, Music etc) correspondingly display the content you want to see, in widgets, by ‘favouriting’ the particular item in KODI, e.g. highlight Netflix List and favourite than add it as a widget to the home screen. It is simple, we promise.
Media PerformanceThe Minix Z64W boots up from a cold start nice and quickly and you should be at the Windows home screen in around 35 seconds. You could speed that up and boost performance, a little, by using Launcher4Kodi but for various reasons we decided not to, instead we just put KODI in to the Autostart folder of Windows and ran it in full screen mode, which worked well enough and KODI was loaded within 50 seconds from a cold boot. One small issue we did encounter was that the video signal over HDMI wouldn’t always be picked up by the TV after the box had been idling for any length of time, which necessitated either a quick double tap on the power button, on the device, or the one on the keyboard.
In terms of consolidating all our favourite streaming services, both video and audio, here the combination of a Windows PC, KODI and the FTV skin proved peerless, if not quite perfect. The ability to group, for instance, your Netflix and Amazon lists in to one very attractive interface is just brilliant and you can use any addon with Library support within KODI to create your widgets. Each submenu item (Movies, TV Shows etc) can have eight individual widgets that can be categorised however you like and drawn from which ever source you require. In my case, I watch quite a lot of BBC History Documentaries (it’s my age) and the kids like a Teen TV drama so it’s just a case of going through your addons to find the stuff you watch most frequently and then adding it as a widget. You can also pull in your local or network stored content, or even from the ‘cloud’. To be fair, it can take quite some time to setup but once you have the hang of it, the results are slick!
The integration of Netflix proved the most challenging and we were drawn between two methods. The easiest way is to use the NetfliXMBC addon - and this is the only method which will deliver library integration - but it requires a degree of key mapping in order to be easy to exit out of, whichever you choose. The alternative method is to use Advanced Launcher where a simple BAT file will instruct KODI to launch the Windows App. Both methods take you out of the KODI environment, however, as NetfliXMBC launches either Chrome or Internet Explorer to play your chosen content. Somewhat surprisingly IE11 is the best choice with Chrome limited to 720p. We had feared the background processes of both Windows and the browser might impact on the streaming but it came up to full resolution quickly and played smoothly. The caveat to this is that once you’re out of KODI your chosen default Windows screen refresh output takes over; KODI will do it automatically but Windows can’t. The majority of content I watch from Netflix, I know to be 1080p24 so, somewhat confusingly, the best option to choose in the Intel Graphics settings is 1080p23. There is a 1080p24 setting but since 1080p24 generally means Full HD at 23.967Hz the other option worked better
All our favourite things, in one place. At last!
The integration of Amazon, Spotify and Tidal was far more seamless, with each playing from within their respective KODI addon but the lack of Library integration on both music streaming apps is a slight annoyance. Still, with the ability to Favourite individual elements within them (Favourite Artists, Playlists etc) and then add those as widgets to the Music submenu, we’re hardly complaining. Tidal has recently made changes behind the scenes, however, so you can no longer stream lossless audio through KODI, unless you ‘do a Netflix’ and create a browser launcher.
The general audio/video output and performance of the Z64W was excellent with native support for all the major codecs, containers, framerates and frequencies as part of the Intel chipset. We did note that some content played through the iPlayerLite addon was played back at the wrong frequency, with some 25fps material outputted at 24Hz but virtually everything else you care to throw at it will look and sound great. The chipset supports HDMI pass-through of 5.1 Dolby Digital and DTS but anything above won’t work well. You can output DD 7.1, Dolby TrueHD 5.1/7.1 plus DTS HD Master and DTS HD High Resolution as PCM but if you want those ‘special lights’ to illuminate on your AV Receiver, you’ll need to investigate VidonXBMC, which is a paid-for piece of software.
As with the Hannspree Micro PC, with its shared chipset, the Bluetooth performance of the Minix Z64W was disappointing. We experienced frequent drop-outs when streaming to a couple of Bluetooth equipped speaker systems we have about the place; we also tried using a USB Bluetooth dongle plugged in to the Minix which yielded perfect results, so the built-in transmitter is clearly a bit suspect.
- All the versatility of Windows
- Silent running
- Superb integration of major streaming services
- Runs very quickly and cool
- You can play anything
- Bluetooth isn't great
- Chipset has issues with 25fps content
- Some knowledge required to setup properly
Minix Neo Z64W Review
Should I buy the Minix Z64W?As ever, it depends what you want but if you are looking to build a media hub with incredible flexibility, albeit with some compromises, the Minix Z64W is a great platform on which to do it. Having tested a device with an identical chipset, we were quite surprised just how well the Minix coped with the demands, especially given it has only 2GB of RAM and a entire Windows Operating System on its back. Running a boot straight in to KODI setup, the Z64 was up and running in under 50 seconds, with interface navigation and load times within the software pleasingly responsive and fast.
The Windows platform allowed us to integrate absolutely all our favourite streaming services, including Full HD Netflix, under the one roof and, bar X86 based devices running OpenELEC, we don’t think there’s another means of acheiveing that. Furthermore, the latest version of KODI brings with it excellent automatic video frequency switching, together with a skin (User Interface) and some features that make it an unrivalled content discovery platform. Based on the Amazon Fire TV’s UI, it allows you to group all your favourite media – streaming services, local, network, cloud – in to an incredibly gorgeous and slick interface which makes getting at what you want to watch, listen to or even play, (if you’re a gamer), unbelievably easy. If we’re looking for negatives, from an audio visual perspective, the Bluetooth transmitter is weak, video content captured at 25 frames per second was sometimes output incorrectly and there’s no HDMI pass-through of HD audio but the overall experience was still superb.
We’re not saying the Minix Z64W is for everyone but if you’re prepared to put in a little research and effort, you can be rewarded with the best platform for legal streaming services we’ve tested to date. Highly Recommended.
What else is there?
So let’s say you want Full HD Netflix & Amazon Instant integration in your setup, for starters, then you will need to look at the Fire TV or Fire TV Stick but then you’ll lose out on correct video refresh rate frequency switching and TIDAL. If you’re not bothered about HD Netflix, then you can achieve everything else with the Minix X8-H Plus, which brings with it HEVC Ultra HD decoding; or if 4K isn’t important, have a look at the X8 Plus. The HiMedia Q5 boats the most comprehensive support of local media, with 7.1 HD audio and 3D ISO playback out-of-the-box, whilst if you just prefer the Android experience, over Windows, the Z64A provides an unsurprisingly excellent alternative to this model. Horses for courses, once more.
Networking, Internet, Streaming quality9
Set up, Menus, Remote8
Value for Money9
Our Review Ethos
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