Minix Neo X7: Make Smart Your Dumb TV

I recently bought a Samsung Smart TV but as I expected it is not smart at all, but I consider it pretty dumb. Actually is not the TV that is stupid, but the the real stupids are the Samsung developers and managers.. but this is another point I may analyze in depth in another post. So to add some grey matter to my TV I decided to buy a mini PC.

The first choice one must take when want to buy a mini PC is the processor architecture: ARM vs Intel/AMD. The Intel/AMD choice usually implies an overall higher spending both to buy the mini PC itself and for the higher power consumption due to this kind of processors. On the other hand an Intel/AMD mini PC is general purpose, linux can be installed easily (without any rooting, hacking, rom-cooking, kernel-installing, etc.),  and I think is the best choice to build a fully featured home server and media center if the money are not a problem for you. On the other hand the ARM choice allows to buy a very cheap mini PC, generally equipped with Android, that has a very low power consumption and because of this,  it has become the most diffused choice in the last years. The draw backs of this choice is that android is not designed to run on mini PC and many apps needed to build a fully featured home server are missing or incomplete. One may think to install Linux on the mini PC to exploit the power saving hardware while benefit from the Linux features. This in fact can be done, but installing Linux on an ARM hardware is still a pretty complex operation: one have to root its device, flash a custom boot loader, and install a version of Linux that probably miss some video driver (that won’t allow hardware acceleration), wireless driver, etc.

My choice fell on the save-money solution: ARM. So I decided to buy the Minix Neo X7 after many hours of research trapped in the paradox of choice , because it seems to be the ARM mini pc with the best hardware, best number of ports and best design up to now (even though in few days Minix will release the Neo X8).

Here, I’m not going to describe all the fantastic hardware specifications of this mini PC, which can be easily found on the web, but I just want to share the limitations I found while using the Neo X7 with the stock Android after 4 months of use, so that you can decide if this Android mini PC can be the right solution for you.

Neo X7 limitations:

  • HDMI-CEC not implemeted
    • This means you can’t use your TV remote to control the Neo X7 or XBMC

Android limitations:

  • The WiFi channel can’t be changed from the default channel 6 when using the wireless hotspot feature.
    • I use the Neo X7 as an access point connected to a router used as a repeater, but if the Neo X7 is on the same channel of the Neo X7 the two interfere with each others (this is actually a very specific use case).
  • Some apps distinguish between the connection to the Neo X7 through WiFi or through wireless hotspot.
    • As an example Airdroid won’t work in the default way if the wireless hotspot is active, so it is necessary to activate it through the thetering plugin to make it work correctly.
    • Some other apps just don’t work if the WiFi switch isn’t on (even though a connection can actually exists between the PC and the Neo X7 through wireless hotspot or cable).
  • Some apps for android don’t have all the features of the desktop counterpart.
    • Spotify for android does not support natively a lyrics plugin.
    • There isn’t any torrent app that have all the features of the desktop client applications (like Transmission for linux). For example the speed time schedule feature can’t be found in any android torrent app.
  • VNC server for android are very unstable (one I tried let the screen go black just after boot, and I need to unplug the power cable to reboot the Neo X7), this implies that is not possible to control the Neo X7 from a PC while someone else is watching a TV program in the TV where the Neo X7 is connected.
  • All the apps are graphical and the command line tools are very limited.
    • As an example I wanted to merge two videos remotely on the Neo X7, but I can’t do it comfortably through SSH because tools like mencoder are not present on android.
  • Some apps are designed to read and store data only on the SD card
    • This implies that is not possible to read the data stored on an external USB hard drive, because its path is not the default expected by the app.

To sum it up even though the Neo X7 is a great piece of hardware, the main problem is that Android and its apps are designed for phone and tablet and not for mini PCs, so that many features are missing and the user experience is degraded. If the your needs are not so high the Neo X7 with Android can be considered a perfect mini PC, but if you want to use it as a fully featured home server many tweaks will be necessary (and so many hours of work).

In the next series of posts I wish to share with you some guides that will guide you through the process of making the Neo X7 a fully featured android based media center and possibly home server.

Persistent Okular Review Tools
Minix Neo X7 DIY VESA Mount