I have been using and testing Android Mini PC devices since the MK802 Android mini PC back in mid 2012. The MK802 is arguably the very first Android mini PC device to achieve significant success. Since then, dozens of other similar devices have been released. Some were obviously clones while others offer significant upgrades to the hardware offering faster processors and more memory.
Although the MK802 was marginally successful, it was far from what can be considered achieving mass adoption. Buyers were mainly tech savvy hobbyist users who were attracted by the idea of a USB thumb drive sized mini computer that runs Android and can be easily hacked to run customized ROMs as well as Linux. I also believe that many of the buyers were fans of the Raspberry Pi which had supply issues. Those who couldn’t wait just turned to the MK802 which was cheaper and had better hardware.
The original MK802 was rather unstable and many complained about WiFi stability and connectivity as well as over heating problems. However, its relative success also meant that the open source scene was rather robust with many hacked firmware versions as well as versions of Linux available for the device.
While I am a big fan of the original MK802 and have used and tested many of the subsequent devices, I have to admit that the Android mini PC still does not have what it takes to be a consumer device. Despite the fact that the Android OS is a popular and familiar operating system with hundreds of million users, I would not recommend an Android mini PC to a non-tech savvy person.
The seeds of this article was sown by Ben El-Baz, the Marketing Manager at Allwinner Technology. Ben asked me what I thought would help increase mass market adoption of Android TV sticks and set-top boxes. I put my original thoughts into a few paragraphs in an email to Ben. However, I feel that my thoughts would be of interest to Androydz.com readers and I have decided to expand that few paragraphs into the full article you are reading now.
Hardware evolution of the Android Mini PC
The Android mini PC has gone through 2 unofficial hardware evolution since the original MK802. The first was the update from the single-core ARM processors to dual-core. The original MK802 was powered by an Allwinner A10 SoC with an ARM Cortex-A8 CPU and a Mali-400 GPU. For the dual-core devices like the MK808, UG802 and Neo G4, the SoC of choice was the highly popular Rockchip RK3066 with two ARM Cortex-A9 CPUs paired with a quad-core Mali-400 GPU.
The Rockchip RK3066 based devices quickly dominated the scene. The RK3066 chip proved to be a significant upgrade to the Allwinner A10. From benchmarks, the performance of the RK3066 is comparable to the Samsung Exynos 4210, the same chip that powers the Samsung Galaxy S2.
The next hardware evolution was from dual-core to quad-core. At the same time, most devices also came with an upgrade in both RAM and ROM. RAM was generally 2GB, up from the 1GB that was common on dual-core devices and 8GB ROM became to norm instead of 4GB.
For quad-core devices, Rockchip again dominated the scene with their successor to the RK3166, the RK3188. The RK3188 had 4 ARM Cortex-A9 processors and a faster quad-core Mali-400 GPU. Some of the devices came with competing quad-core SoCs from other manufacturers like the Allwinner A31 and the Actions ATM-7029 but the RK3188 remains the most popular choice.
Again, Rockchip’s flagship chip proved to be a great performer when it bested or equaled other popular quad-core processors like the Nvidia Tegra 3 (Nexus 7) and Samsung Exynos 4412 (Samsung Galaxy S3) in benchmark comparisons.
It can be concluded from the above that it is not the lack of hardware power that is holding back the mass adoption of the Android mini PC. The latest quad-core models pack easily out-muscle devices like the Apple TV and Roku 3. The Apple TV has a single core ARM Cortex-A9 that is based on the dual-core Apple A5 and 512MB RAM. The Roku 3 has a dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 processor.
Perhaps we should look at the software side of things instead.
Software evolution of the Android Mini PC
The MK802 was first launched with Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) installed. Official ROM upgrades to Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) was also made available.
As for the dual-core and quad-core models, the latest Android 4.2 is available either officially or unofficially.
While firmware upgrades are easily available for popular models like the MK808 due to great support from the community, the upgrade process is not something that can be easily performed. Certain models like the ATM based ones do come with firmware update software that check, download and install the latest firmware but most do not.
On the other hand, for those who use an Android mini PC for common tasks such as media playback and web browsing, the difference between Android 4.0, 4.1 and 4.2 is not significant. While features like a better notification system is of importance on a phone, it is less so on an Android TV stick device.
The problem lies not on whether the device runs the latest version of Android OS but on the fact that there is little or no customization of the OS to make it run well on a device that has no touch screen.
Touch screen versus keyboard and mouse
Touch screen OSes like Android and iOS have developed over the years to work well intuitively with a touch interface. Running Android without a touch screen reminded me of the days when Microsoft tried adding a touch interface to Windows. You get the same awkward situation but it is the reverse situation now.
While Android does support a mouse and keyboard control, it doesn’t feel right. To make it worse, most users are not using an actual mouse and keyboard. The Android TV sticks are usually attached to a TV and therefore an air or gyro mouse or a touch pad are often used instead. These devices are often less sensitive and the task of controlling a mouse cursor and clicking on elements on a TV screen can become arduous.
What the Android mini PC needs is an interface that is customized for a TV remote type of control. A good example of this is the interface used for XBMC. XBMC is still a very complex and sophisticated app that is far from easy to setup but the interface itself is intuitive.
Another example of a good front end is Mizuu. The layout and design looks good although it is also mainly designed for a touch interface but it works relatively well using a mouse-type control.
The lack of a good user interface is the main reason that I am still using my trusty old WDTV Live as my main media playback box in my living room. The WDTV Live is practically ancient considering how fast technology advances but it does what it is designed to do and does it well.
It has a very simple IR remote control with just a few buttons but it is sufficient to navigate around the WDTV’s jaded but effective interface. I have to admit though for other tasks such as searching or browsing YouTube videos, it is only for those with the patience of a saint.
Better peripheral support
The Android mini PCs have excellent support for USB mice and keyboards plus storage devices such as memory cards and USB flash drives. However, anything beyond that is a little iffy. This is not unexpected on a smart phone or a tablet as adding USB peripherals is not a concern.
On an Android mini PC however, the versatility of the device is a great selling point. It is a huge factor in choosing the Android mini PC over an Apple TV. However, this huge selling point may become a moot point if installing a USB webcam and holding a video conferencing call using Skype requires a degree on Computer Science.
Okay, I may be exaggerating but only a little. There is very little information from the manufacturer on which peripherals are compatible and which are not. All this while users have been relying on trial and error reports from other users. This is definitely unacceptable for a mass market consumer product especially when the retailers market these products as compatible for Skype video conferencing for example. The reality of it is that only a handful of webcams will work and some jumping through hoops may be required.
Another area where good peripheral support is crucial is gaming. While a huge number of Android games are designed with touch screen controls in mind, there are many great Android games that actually work better with a physical controller rather than a virtual on-screen one. Again, game controller support is still very much a trial and error and pretty much fragmented. It is because of this gaping hole, Android game consoles like the Ouya and GameStick has identified a market. It is rather ironic as both the Ouya and GameStick are nothing more than customized Android mini PCs with customized game controllers. In fact, both these consoles pale in comparison with the latest quad-core devices when it comes to pumping out graphics.
If there had been better standardization for game controllers and better support for hardware controllers, the Ouya and GameStick might not have existed today.
A recent trend that I have noticed of late is products that are being rushed out with the latest Android version installed even though it is obvious that a lot more work is required on tweaking the firmware before it is ready for release. All this is done just for the sake of putting a bullet point on the packaging that espouses the fact that the device comes with the latest and greatest version of Android. Firmware stability has taken a backseat as a result and unfortunate users are sometimes stuck with products that are barely usable.
Calling for better software
I can see the Android mini PC heading towards one of two possible outcomes. If things continue as they are, Android mini PCs will never go beyond what it currently is right now – a hobbyist’s gadget that has limited target market that may eventually die out. The Android mini PC producers need to step back from the hardware race and use software to differentiate themselves from the competition. At this very moment, there are about a dozen RK3188 quad-core Android Mini PCs that are indistinguishable from each other besides the brand our physical look. Users are getting confused and eventually will get bored of seeing the same product over and over again except for the name and look.
The other possible path is that Android mini PC manufacturers take heed and improve on the software with the aim of producing a true mass market product. This innovation can either come from the current crop of manufacturers or from new players including the big name brands. Earlier this year, Dell released details on Project Ophelia, an Android mini PC device but little has been heard about it since then. I do believe if any of the big brands do come up with a device of their own, we will see significant innovation on the software front.
As an Android mini PC user and a fan of gadgets, it would be sad to see the Android mini PC disappear into obscurity. It is a great device with extremely powerful hardware at an unbelievably low price. The only thing that is preventing it from fulfilling its full potential is on the software side of things.