Getting to grips with a $60 general purpose PC

06 Nov 2012

I am writing this column on what may well be the future of computing, at least if Google has anything to say about it.

It is a mini PC running Android dongle that plugs straight into a TV’s HDMI port and, with a mouse and keyboard attached, makes a very strong case for a home theater PC replacement or, with Google Drive, even an all-purpose computer, all for under $60.

The unit I am using is branded as from Aigo, has a 1 GHz ARM CPU, a Mali 400-series GPU, 512 MB of RAM and just under 3 GB of available storage for apps and media content. It has WiFi, a micro SD slot and a USB port which can be used to host a hub to connect keyboard, mouse, more storage such as external hard disks and even a 3G dongle.

There is some poetic justice in the thought of plugging a dongle into a dongle to get it online.
Best of all, it runs Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich without any of those annoying vendor improvements that just ruin the experience in the name of product differentiation and, at first glance it runs it very well with full access to the Google Play market for apps.

YouTube runs in the big tablet curved theatre mode first seen on Honeycomb and selecting and playing clips with a mouse and cursor is a very pleasant, nippy affair.

Chrome installed and worked quite nicely, as did more ambitious apps such as the Google Drive office suite and most apps I tried out. However, non-tablet optimised apps look quite funny as a small portrait rectangle on the middle of a 40-inch screen.

As a media centre, it works quite well. On longer clips there seemed to be synchronisation problems between the audio and video streams. As a desktop replacement, well, Google drive works and I wrote much of this article with a keyboard attached to it, giving up only after my neck started aching looking up at my TV.

Odd though, that it has not caught on as much as I expected it would. At a major IT mall in Bangkok (Zeer, if you know the city), only two shops were selling these HDMI mini PCs and just one had one hooked up to a big screen to demonstrate. Perhaps that will change with the new wave of Android 4.1 Jellybean dongles coming up as then it will support Thai, as well as a whole host of other languages, that 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich does not.

The potential for a new wave of consumer empowerment is huge. Everyone used to talk about the first user experience being through the phone, but what about the TV? At this price, assuming that every home now has a simple LCD TV, the possibilities are enormous.

However, the price point does lead to a few corners being cut. This is essentially a two-year-old Nexus One-class CPU and GPU, one that never went beyond Android 2.3 Gingerbread, tasked with running an OS two generations later and a a resolution somewhat higher than most screens of that era too.

One naughty trick was to limit the number of background processes. This option has long been known by enthusiasts as a way of improving battery life and responsiveness. However, with it set to just one background process, many problems arise.

For instance, BBC iPlayer requires two programs to run, the browser and BBC’s own flash replacement (introduced now that Flash will not longer be supported going forward). This just results in a series of errors from the browser.

Youtube playback is nice and snappy, but for the same reason, one cannot like a video as logging into your Google account to like the video seems to spawn a background process that is immediately terminated.

The option exists to change the number of background processes allowed, but rather cheekily, the firmware has a daemon to keep resetting it to one no matter how many were set in the options page.

The keyboard works fine in Drive, but not in many other apps, such as YouTube, meaning that you need to use the mouse and on-screen keyboard. The TED app works fine except for the play icon remaining in the middle of the screen superimposed on the videos.

Then there is the ugly.

For some reason, the dongle just would not work with a VPN connection (which I use often to pretend to be in the UK to be able to run iPlayer, or the US to watch NetFlix and Hulu). There is a known bug in ICS that was fixed with 4.0.4. The fact that this dongle says it runs 4.0.4 but exhibits the pre-4.0.4 bug might mean that it runs an earlier version but just hacked so the about screen says 4.0.4. Too cynical? Perhaps, but it did come with the default Jellybean wallpaper installed too.

Then there is the modder community with a whole load of custom ROMs that is focused on ironing out the bugs and adding features on Android on the one hand, and running Ubuntu as a more general-purpose desktop replacement on the other.

Modders in the x86 world have long used lower-powered machines as home theatre PCs with either Windows Media Centre edition or open-source Myth.. Apple has its Mac Mini or, arguably, Apple TV. Apart from Android, Google also has its ChromeOS Chromebox and Google TV. None of which match the vibrancy of the Android ecosystem or its price.

Unless you live in the US or UK, Smart TVs, for all their zoning and content restrictions, suddenly seem bland compared to one of these sticks.

With a new generation of quad-core dongles just around the corner for around $70, one wonders just how this will take off. As more and more at the bottom of the pyramid go online and consume content, the networks had better be ready to cope with this upcoming revolution.

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