A Window in to the future?
What is the Tronsmart Ara X5?When Microsoft put Windows 10 out for general public consumption, Tronsmart were very hot out of the blocks with Ara X5; so much so, in fact, that they could claim it as the World’s first Windows 10 TV Box. You can pick one up for between £100 to £130 online (October 2015) which is in line with the rest of the market for this class of device. We will be looking at its performance as a media hub, rather than an all-purpose PC, and seeing if Windows 10 is up to the task so early in its lifecycle.
SpecsThe Ara X5 features an Intel Cherry Trail X5-Z8300 processor which brings with it the promise of HEVC decoding, support for USB 3.0 and improved graphics performance over the last Cherry Trails. There’s 2GB of RAM on-board and 32GB of in-built eMMC storage. The X5 also comes with a licensed copy of Windows 10 64-bit and, unlike some of the last gen devices, the Ara can execute 64-bit code.
Design & ConnectionsIt is, by nature, a very simple little device consisting of a plastic shell – measuring 110x110x30mm (WxDxH) - which is shiny black on the top and gun-metal grey around the sides. There’s a power light on the upper surface which only glows when it’s on and connections are distributed to the front and back sides; front-facing are two USB 2.0 ports and a dual-purpose audio jack which can act as a microphone input or audio output for headphones and speakers.
At the rear are a Micro SD card slot, a LAN port and a V3.0 USB input, along with the jack for the supplied (UK) power adapter. We have to say that Tronsmart has placed the USB and HDMI ports a little too close together, meaning you’re going to need some form of adapter or extension lead if to use them both at the same time; there was sufficient space for a dongle used for our wireless keyboard/mouse but that’s a waste of the USB V3.0 speed advantage. Probably most important for media duties, the Ara X5 features a fan-less design and is, therefore, blissfully silent in operation.
SetupHaving discovered such a superb media setup using the Windows 8.1 Minix Z64W we were obviously keen to emulate, if not better, that. To that end we installed the latest stable version of KODI (v15rc2), in addition to the Netflix and Spotify Windows apps. Our favourite skin remains the beta FTV, which requires the latest GitHub version of Skin Shortcuts and Next up Service Notification scripts to be installed. Test media includes the highest possible resolution/bitrate content from BBC iPlayer, Amazon Instant, NOW TV, YouTube, Netflix, Tidal and Spotify, for internet streamed, plus a collection of test files over the network from a NAS and locally using a USB 3.0 storage device.
BenchmarksWe’re more interested in the real world performance of the Ara X5 than a series of scores but it should be at least somewhat useful to see how it stacks up against the Z64W, which features the older Intel Bay Trail-TZ3735F processor. Running the 3D Mark benchmarking app we got the following over 4 tests:
Tronsmart Ara X5 Minix Z64W Sky Diver 903 453 Fire Strike 185 Crashed three times Ice Storm 15,892 12,985 Cloud Gate 1521 1155
So we can see that the new processor is a fairly decent step up on its predecessor, particularly for graphics tasks, which translated over in much smoother running of games, at least simple ones. Let’s not kid ourselves that you could run the Ara X5 as a low-cost gaming rig, that’s not what it’s for, but for a spot of casual play it will do just fine.
Testing out speeds over the network and reading of local storage revealed good average performance from the X5. On our 152Mbs connection, with the Ara placed two rooms away from the router, we got Wi-Fi speeds of 42Mbs on both 2G and 5G, and wired speeds just over 80Mbs, which is more than ample for streaming anything, as things stand. Read speeds over USB (particularly the 3.0 port) were a bit lower than expected with a maximum read of 44 Mb/s and a write speed of just under 40 Mb/s, the USB 2.0 ports were close to 21Mb read and 16Mb write.
Tronsmart Ara X5 KODIProbably the first thing to get out of the way, when comparing to our KODI experiences on Windows 8.1 to Windows 10 is that it seems to run that bit better on the older operating system at this time, in terms of responsiveness, load times and navigating around menus. That’s certainly true for the main line releases, at least, although there are development releases that might improve on that. We had the device hooked up to an Ultra HD Sony X8505C and various 1080p TVs around the home, and we were able to select both 3840×2160 & 4096×2160 output resolutions with the Sony. In terms of using it as a desktop, the Ultra HD resolutions aren’t really workable as refresh rate is capped to a maximum of 30Hz as the HDMI output is 1.4 only; for playback of Ultra HD movies, a refresh rate setting of 24Hz is most appropriate. It’s probably worth noting we did have some issues with HDMI CEC, on a couple of the TVs, needing it to be disabled or else we wouldn’t get a picture; we can’t necessarily lay the blame at the Ara’s door here but it’s worth noting if you run in to the same problem.
Starting at the top of the resolution tree, playback of Ultra HD files up to 30 frames per second was excellent through KODI. We have test files in .mov, .mp4 and .mkv encoded in H264 which all played back and, impressively and somewhat surprisingly, KODI switched between 24, 25 and 30Hz output frequency correctly when required. The Aria X5’s hardware is unable to cope with Ultra HD content encoded in HEVC (H265) which puts some question marks over its usefulness as a 4k player, long term, but it plays Full HD HEVC material very well. The same goes for nearly all our test 3D files, although we couldn’t get ISO to play through KODI and it looks like it currently needs external software to make that work.
As the 4K playback was so good, we weren’t expecting any issues with 1080p and that proved to be the case. With hardware acceleration set to Auto Detect and ‘Adjust Display Rate to match video,’ in the KODI Video settings, all framerates were successfully detected and outputted at the correct refresh frequencies; we can’t emphasise enough the positive impact this has on watching video content.
On the audio front, we’re still waiting for Intel to release drivers that will allow passthrough of 7.1 HD audio and, judging by how long it took them with Windows 8, we might be waiting a while but we had no issues with any 5.1 material. Fans of the TIDAL add-on may be dismayed to know that lossless quality is no longer possible through KODI but since you can get it the desktop app or go through the Chrome browser (using Chrome Launcher) it’s but a minor inconvenience; Spotify fans are still well catered for by the KODI add-on since it’s lossy in the first instance. The other KODI compromise, since we last reviewed a Windows box, is that the Amazon Instant Video add-on is only showing standard definition content, at the moment, and we really hope that can be fixed as, other than the Ultra HD service, it was the best experience out there for Prime customers.
- Will play pretty much anything
- Capable of 4K/Ultra HD up to 30fps
- Relatively powerful, in class
- Fully licensed Windows 10
- USB 3.0/HDMI ports too close
- Windows 10 currently lacking mature drivers
Tronsmart Ara X5 Review
Should I buy the Tronsmart Ara X5?The Ara X5 makes for a highly capable media device with excellent video and audio support, via KODI, and a suite of Windows software to mop up just about everything else. The device is attractively designed, very discrete and runs absolutely silently so it’s ideal for a living room, yet has more than enough power to play 4K video up to 30 frames per second. The chipset even supports HEVC decoding, although that’s limited to 1080p because of the hardware, so it’s not as future-proofed as some of the Braswell devices soon to release. You can pick the Ara X5 up for around £100, online, which we think makes for very good value, especially with a licensed copy of Windows 10 included, so we have no hesitation in bestowing Tronsmart with an AVForums Recommended Award.
What else could I buy?As an, almost, like for like alternative the Minix Z64W is an excellent choice although it doesn’t have 4K or HEVC capability. The drivers for Windows 8.1 are more mature, however, and we found standard KODI a slicker experience on the Minix. Stepping out of the box (excuse the pun), we think the Chromebox is almost as good as it gets, in the small-form-factor market, provided you’re not going to rely on Chrome OS to deliver. If you fancy something that comes with a conventional remote control, then Android is the simplest alternative and there is none better in that category than the Minix X8-H Plus, which is still (just about) our all-round favoured go-to device.
Networking, Internet, Streaming quality8
Value for Money8
Our Review Ethos
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