Minix Neo X7The Minix Neo X7 Android set-top box with the latest quad-core Rockchip RK3188 ARM Cortex-A9 chipset is probably one  of the most eagerly awaited Android set-top box of late. It has finally arrived and we are thankful to Minix for providing us with a review unit.

For many, the main reason why the Minix Neo X7 is eagerly awaited is because of Minix’s solid reputation for coming up with great looking and well designed products. Minix is also one of the rare manufacturers that really pays attention and listens to complains and feedback from their users. In fact, they even have a Facebook page where everyone is allowed to drop comments. Minix is also constantly providing feedback and announcements on upcoming products as well as new firmware releases.

To have a company who reply to users’ concerns and constantly providing feedback and improvements to their products goes a long way in gaining customers’ confidence. Minix’s products may not be perfect but it is reassuring to know that someone is listening when I have a concern about their product.

First Impressions

First of all, I must say that Minix made the right decision when they decided to revert to the tried and tested “black box” design for the Minix Neo X7. The device’s initial product reveal showed a box that looked like the back end of a Lamborghini car with tail lights and all. It was not very well received so Minix reverted the design to more or less what the X7′s predecessor, the X5, looks like.

The X7′s simple but classy looking simple black box is more pleasing to the eye and it is something you wouldn’t mind placing next to your existing set of high-end AV equipment. The housing is a made from a matte black soft plastic that looks and feels good. Minix has the best looking Android set-top box in our opinion.

The biggest update to the new design is just the addition of a socket to attach the included WiFi antenna. The antenna is not some cheap piece of plastic but it looks really good and would not look out of place on some military equipment.

Minix Neo X7 with antenna

The Minix Neo X7 comes with a simple IR remote with a few essential Android interface buttons such as Home, Menu and Back as well as four-way directional buttons. It runs on 2 AAA batteries which are not included. The X7 has a built-in IR receiver. The remote is extremely basic and using it to control the Android OS user interface that is designed for touch control can be quite frustrating. However, having an IR receiver also means that you can replace the remote with a more full featured remote like a Logitech Harmony.

Minix Neo X7 included items

Minix does sell an RF enabled “air mouse” remote separately that provides better functionality. Alternatively, you can also use any of the RF keyboard+mouse combo devices available. These devices are very popular among Android Mini PC and set-top box users.

At the back of the unit are a HDMI port,  reset button hole, a digital Toslink audio port, 2 full-sized USB ports, an Ethernet LAN port and the DC power port. On the right side of the device is a power toggle button, a 3.5mm audio jack and a microphone jack, another full-sized USB port, a SD card reader and a micro USB OTG port.

Minix Neo X7 rear

On the left side of the device is the socket for the antenna and the only thing on the front is a hidden blue LED light that lights up when the unit is switched on. The LED cannot be seen when it is off. However it is quite dim and I didn’t even notice it the first few times I switched on the unit.

Minix Neo X7 Specifications

The Minix Neo X7 is powered by the quad-core RK3188 chipset. The RK3188 is an extremely popular quad-core chipset among the China manufacturers because it performs very well in most Android benchmark tests and even besting popular quad-core chipsets like the Nvidia Tegra 3 and Samsung Exynos 4412.

It comes with 2GB of DDR3 RAM and 16 GB of NAND Flash storage space. Additional storage can be added by either slotting in an SD card up to 32GB in size or by attaching a hard drive or flash drive to one of the USB ports.

For wireless connectivity, the Minix Neo X7 has dual-band 2.4/5.0 GHz WiFi 802.11 b/g/n. Coupled with the impressive looking external WiFi antenna, it seems Minix has taken a lot of effort to make sure that the Minix Neo X7 does not suffer from one of the most common problems among Android mini PC devices – poor WiFi connectivity. As a further backup, you can use the wired Ethernet LAN port instead for the best connection.

Bluetooth 4.0 is built-in as well. Most devices come with Bluetooth 2 or 3 so it is a nice touch. However, since the X7 is not a battery operated device, the advantage of having BT 4.0 LE is less significant.

The Minix Neo X7 also comes with Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean. It supports up to 1080p video output but it has a 720p kernel. This means that although the video output is 1080p, internally, the X7′s video output is actually 720p that is then upscaled to 1080p.

Minix Neo X7 Performance

Minix released two firmware updates for the X7 is the 3 weeks after it was launched. You can look at it as a product being rushed out with buggy software or a responsive manufacturer that is quick to resolve problems identified by the users. We rarely see such support and such a quick release of firmware from the China brands. While all of us would prefer bug-free firmware and products that work perfectly, firmware updates has become the norm rather than the exception even for the top brands in the market. Therefore, I prefer to see this in a positive light.

Having to perform a firmware update provides me with a first hand experience on the updating process. The update process is not an easy process but this is something that is not within Minix’s control. The update process depends on the chipset that is used. For Rockchip, updating the firmware requires downloading the firmware and a special updating tool to a Windows PC. There is currently no tool for other operating systems.

Secondly, you need to put the Rockchip device into flash mode by pressing the reset button at the back of the unit. You’ll need a paper clip for this. Next, you will need to install the proper driver for your PC depending on the Windows version and whether it is 32 or 64 bit. The rest of the process is relatively easy. A more detailed explanation of the process can be found on my RK3066 firmware update article.

If the above sounds daunting, note that firmware update is something that most Android mini PC device users have to go through if you want to fix most of the bugs or unleash the full potential of the device. I must say that Rockchip should come up with a more user friendly way for updating their devices. Devices based on Amlogic can just download the firmware on to an SD card or USB flash drive, stick it into the device and start the update app. The app takes care of everything else and no PC connection or paper clip is required.

The Minix Neo X7 comes with two different launchers once it boots up. The first is the stock Android OS launcher while the other is the customized “grid” launcher which is designed for the included IR remote. The grid launcher has big icons for the most common apps and setup page. Even the apps listing page has big icons. The blown up icons look blocky because they are not designed to be blown up so big.

While the included IR remote is functional, it is not an ideal device for controlling the X7 unless all you do with it is to use as as a video or music player. Entering text using the remote is a torturous experience. I would highly recommend using a mini keyboard with a touchpad or an air mouse type keyboard.

Rockchip has a pretty good built-in video player that plays just about anything I threw at it. I tried out my usual list of sample videos and everything played including an MP4 file that has refused to play on all the other dual core RK3066 devices I tested. However, while the video played fine, the audio file was badly out of sync. Other than this, I had no video playback problems otherwise.

As for streaming video, I downloaded the latest Netflix app from Google Play Store and it installed and ran fine on the X7. It plays in full screen mode and the sub-title font is big enough to be easily read. I had problems previously with really tiny fonts that made reading sub-titles almost impossible. The X7 comes with a hide menu button to get full screen video playback.

Web browsing feels great on the X7. With the quick quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM, opening multiple browser tabs and watching Flash videos didn’t pose a problem at all. Except for the fact that the 720p kernel caused everything to look a little larger than usual on a 1080p display, it felt very much like browsing on my laptop computer especially if you hook up a mouse and keyboard to the X7.

The Minix Neo X7 has support for the Google Play Store and most of the apps are listed as compatible with it. This is a big plus point as many devices only have limited Play Store support and require a custom ROM update to open up the support.

Gaming also works great on the Minix Neo X7, if control is not an issue. This is a big “if” because most Android OS games are designed for touch screen and/or accelerator control, two things that the Minix Neo X7 doesn’t have. One way to get around this is to use a game controller. The X7 comes with an app for setting up an external controller. I tried it out by pairing it with my wireless Logitech F710 gamepad. While the pad was detected, some of the buttons including the right directional stick were not mapped correctly. This is a problem that required some additional setting up but not many Android mini PC devices even recognized my F710 gamepad right out of the box.

Once I got the gamepad mapping fixed, playing games that supported a gamepad controller like a Shadowgun feels very much like playing on an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 except that the graphics quality is perhaps a notch or two lower.

As for WiFi, Minix has the WiFi problems licked once and for all. I don’t have a dual-band WiFi router but the WiFi is great. I could pick up a few extra WiFi points on the X7 that even my Samsung phone didn’t pick up. The antenna is not for show and it does improve the WiFi. Thumbs up to Minix for listening to its customers and fixing the problem on the X7.

Conclusion

The Minix Neo X7 is one of the best Android mini PC devices I have come across in terms of the hardware features and software stability. For those who have been reading horror stories about WiFi connectivity problems on the Android mini PC devices, you can rest assured that the X7′s dual-band WiFi and high-quality external antenna ensures that this is no longer a concern.

The Rockchip RK3188 provides the extra boost that makes multi-tasking and 3D gaming a much smoother experience compared to the older dual-core devices. The response is fast and there is no lagging. I did not really spend much time with the X7 prior to the firmware update but the latest firmware is very stable. There aren’t any major issues such as the OS freezing up or random reboots. Google Play Store support is good so you don’t have to rely on a custom ROM to get better compatibility.

The Minix Neo X7 is still not for everyone although it comes close. Like all Android mini PC devices, they should be considered as mini computers rather than comparing them to single function devices like a media player. The Android OS is probably not as user-friendly as those type of devices primarily because of the lack of a touch screen. If you want a media player, you are better off buying a dedicated media player. Having said that, I am surprised that no one has bothered to come up with customized launcher apps that are targeted at Android mini PC users. While the number of users is probably a tiny fraction compared to phone and tablet users, it should still be significant enough for it to be worth the effort.

Until then, I am still vary of recommending an Android mini PC, even one that is a cut above the rest like the Minix Neo X7 to someone who is not comfortable with getting his or her hands dirty with firmware updates. For those who are game for it, the Minix Neo X7 gets a strong recommendation from us.