While Android is familiar to many people as an operating system on tablets and smartphones, one infant industry also benefitting from its rise is the mini-PC business. Mini-PCs (also labeled media hubs) use existing mobile processors coupled with Android to produce simple, low-cost devices that can theoretically replace a more expensive desktop PC. In practice, most products sold thus far have fallen short of that ideal, but new products are constantly pushing the category to new heights.
Enter the Minix Neo X7, a quad-core Android computer that typically sells for $150 online. This price puts it at the expensive end of the market, but buyers get what they pay for. Standard features include 2GB of RAM, 16GB of internal storage and more ports than some laptops. At a glance, the Neo X7 looks like it could be real alternative to a traditional Windows computer, but can the average consumer live with one?
Moving the bar
While its simple black exterior isn’t luxurious, the Neo X7 is built to a reasonable level a quality. Many competitors suffer from very basic flaws like poorly aligned panels, incomplete labeling, or materials with mismatched colors. The Neo has no such issues and, if it was made of higher-quality plastic or metal, would be on par with the Roku 3 or Apple TV.
All of the custom interface elements look terribly amateur thanks to low-resolution graphics and poor design.
Connectivity borders on the absurd. The right side of the device includes separate microphone and headphone jacks, a USB 2.0 port, a USB on-the-go port and a card reader. Around back there are two more USB 2.0 connections, HDMI, optical audio out and Ethernet. Our only complaint concerns the lack of USB 3.0; having it on at least one port would be nice.
The interface that tries, but fails
Simply throwing the Android operating system on a monitor or television doesn’t lead to a good experience. Unlike many alternatives, the Neo X7 at least tries to deal with the issue through a custom home screen that provides quick access to apps, Web browsing and popular sites (like Facebook). The interface works well with the bundled remote, too, making media use more tolerable.
Unfortunately, Minix’s work is spoiled by some equally serious flaws. All of the custom interface elements look terribly amateur thanks to low-resolution graphics and poor design. And while users can accomplish some tasks without resorting to the standard Android UI, there’s still the occasional need to visit it. This forces you to hop back and forth between interfaces – a complaint that will be familiar to many critics of Windows 8. Most buyers will need to do some customization to make the Neo X7 enjoyable to use, but options are limited, as most home-screen enhancements for Android are designed for smartphones, not desktop computers.
Worse, Android’s lack of advanced display configuration plagues this device, making an ideal picture almost impossible to achieve. You can compensate for overscan and underscan, but controls for gamma, color and refresh rate are unavailable. Even resolution is limited to handful of options, and our unit wouldn’t go beyond 720p when connected to 1680 x 1050 monitor.
Mostly fast enough
The custom interface doesn’t go far enough and Android still doesn’t play well with a keyboard and mouse.
Subjectively, these scores translate to a smooth experience. Apps launch quickly, YouTube videos play without issue, and Netflix runs without a hitch. At times the device does hang for no apparent reason when switching between menus and apps, but it resumes within moments. This is a problem we’ve noticed on other Android devices, so it’s probably not a fault of the hardware.
While the quad-core processor is more than adequate, the same can’t be said for the Mali 400 GPU. Also designed by ARM, this was cutting-edge technology two years ago, but today it lags behind the best tablets and smartphones. We registered a 3DMark Ice Storm score of just 3,998, which is about on par with the first-gen Nexus 7, and around three times slower than the Nexus 4 or HTC One. While this level of performance is good enough for many games, the most demanding titles may suffer low frame-rates on this device.
Minix’s powerful Neo X7 is notably better than the mini-PC competition in both build quality and performance. Though far from luxurious, the X7 is at least utilitarian, and its lack of flash is made up for by an incredible buffet of ports.
Yet, in spite of these advantages, this still isn’t the low-cost desktop or media hub most people are looking for. The custom interface doesn’t go far enough and Android still doesn’t play well with a keyboard and mouse. Most apps work poorly without touch input, and there are many small glitches, like buttons that don’t animate when clicked, and the touch keyboard’s annoying habit of appearing exactly when it’s unwanted.
Those looking to stream media content will be far better off with a Roku 3, while those who want a cheap computer should instead look at a Chromebook. Minix’s efforts have merit, but until Android implements better keyboard and mouse controls, only so much can be done.
- Decent build quality
- Gobs of ports
- Strong CPU performance
- 16GB of internal storage
- Custom interface lacks polish
- Android isn’t a good general-purpose OS
- Poor graphics performance
- Expensive (relative to the competition)