Big Media in a Small Package
by Courtney M. Goodin
When I started looking at some of the new small PCs to host some of the video playback software tools I have written over the last two decades or so, I discovered a large number of choices from various manufacturers that were quite capable and surprisingly, small and inexpensive.
Many in the film and TV business have been stuck in the walled garden of Apple for so long, they haven’t ventured outside to see what is available to run some of the tools available or necessary to do our work. For on-screen video playback, most people are using the only small option available from Apple, the Mac Mini, which is overpriced and whose case is carved from a solid block of aluminum making it problematic to hide behind a display (no, gaffer tape won’t hold them). Besides video playback, many Production Sound Mixers are running a Mac Mini on their cart using BoomRecorder or Gallery Metacorder as a primary recording tool. They may have the need every now and then to run some utilities for Venue control or mixer configuration or sound file editing or conversion. A solution in the past has been to just install Windows on the Mac under Bootcamp or using Parallels, VR Fusion or some other virtual machine software. Well, that comes at a cost. A standalone license of Windows costs more than $100 and the virtual machine software another $79 or so and of course, if there is a hardware failure of the Mac, you lose both systems. Also, the Apple Bootcamp drivers and the virtual machine drivers are not very good and most don’t support hardware acceleration for video decoding. There is a solution that can be cheaper and more versatile, and that is a separate mini-Windows PC and a HDMI/USB KVM switch.
Intel started things off in the tiny PC market with their NUC (New Unit of Computing), which were small reference designs of single-board computers about the size of a two inch stack of CDs and about forty percent smaller than the Mac Mini. Then they introduced the first Stick PC that contained a full PC in a package about the size of a double pack of gum or a bloated USB thumb drive. Many of these are small enough to be stuck to the back of your monitor and are light enough (only 1.5 to 2.7 ounces) to support their own weight off the built-in HDMI connector. Some are completely fanless, so they make a good way to turn any HDTV or monitor into a full PC, which can be used on a soundstage or recording studio without having to worry about additional noise.
My use however, was for video playback on set, and I made some amazing discoveries in these small PCs. They are very capable of playing back HD (H.264 encoded) video. Specifically, I found that the units based on the Intel Bay Trail quad core Atom Z3735F chipset like the Azulle Quantum Access Stick PC and the original Intel Stick PC were even able to decode and play back up to nine HD video files simultaneously at full frame rate. This is very useful for simulating security video consoles or TV studio multiview displays. Although they are tiny, they are full Windows 8.1 or Windows 10 computers and will run any software that will run on your average Windows desktop. They support tenpoint touch screens and have built-in WiFi 802.11 a/b/n and Bluetooth 4. The most common configuration for these Atom SoC (System on Chip)-based machines is 2GB of RAM and 32GB or 64GB of eMMS storage for the operating system and programs and/or media files. Most have flush mount slots for a Micro SD card for additional storage that allows you to expand your storage an additional 32GB to 128GB pretty cheaply and is easily removable so you can pop it out and load it up with your video from another computer. Although these chips are actually 64-bit quad core CPUs, most use the 32-bit version of Windows since they only have 2GB of non-upgradeable onboard RAM, so don’t need the additional 64-bit OS overhead necessary for addressing more than two gigabytes of RAM.
The stick versions can plug directly into an HDMI port on any monitor or TV and some can even pull power from a nearby USB port on the back of the TV. (Most require about 2.5 amps of 5-volt power so beware; this may not work on your set.)
Newer versions of the small PCs use the next-generation Atom Cherry Trail line of chips like the X5-Z8300 that run a little faster base clock speed and include USB 3 support. But I believe that USB 3 support takes a toll on video playback performance and interferes with WiFi and Bluetooth throughput. On most of the Stick PC form factors, the antennas for WiFi and Bluetooth are just copper traces printed on the circuit board. And because of the tiny board, there is not enough on-board real estate to move them out of the range of the EMI from the CPU, GPU and especially, the USB 3 ports. This interference can reduce the range and increase packet loss in the WiFi and Bluetooth radios. This is especially problematic on a film set that is full of 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz RF pollution from wireless focus controls and HD video transmitters. Not to mention the hundred or so smartphones pinging the stage’s WiFi to pick up email, tweet or stream the latest YouTube meme while the idle on-camera artists await their moment of glory. Of the units I tested, only the Quantum Access Stick moved the antennas outside the case, which makes them much better at WiFi connectivity and fewer dropouts if using Bluetooth for streaming audio. The QA Stick also has the older Bay Trail chipset and it doesn’t support USB 3, which is a good thing for my use. The additional increased polling speed to support the USB 3 buss takes critical interrupt time away from the GPU and CPU for decoding and display. Of course, if your application doesn’t include playing back more than three or four video files simultaneously, you may not notice the hit on the video playback performance in the newer Cherry Trail Z8300, although the interference of USB 3 with WiFi and Bluetooth is still an issue.
The good news is that these fully functional PCs with a full licensed version of Windows 10 Home are priced around $100-$175. Some are even available for as low as $79 if you shop around. They are available from a large number of suppliers in a variety of configurations and cases with some supporting VGA ports and additional USB ports and LAN ports or analog audio outputs (All support digital audio embedded in the HDMI output). All use the Intel Graphics on-chip integrated GPU and the drivers support hardware (GPU) decoding of most compressed video and audio formats like H.264 and HEV or MP3. Because of the single-chip design and internal memory pipelining, this allows them to decode several streams of HD video simultaneously without putting too much strain on the CPU.
In my quest, I tested a variety of configurations and models from no-name units ordered directly from China with names like Tronsmart and VoYo to name brands like Asus, Lenovo, Intel or Azulle. Most had the same 2GB RAM and 32GB eMMC HD configuration, although some are available in 4GB RAM and 64GB or even 128GB eMMC hard drive.
In this class of machines, heat is your enemy and can cause a degradation of performance if the unit gets too hot. They all include Intel’s thermal power management in the EFI BIOS, which will throttle down the clock speed of some of the cores and even halve the GPU clock speed if the chip’s temperature exceeds a point that would cause damage to the chips or board. This speed throttling is dynamic and transparent to the user unless you are pushing the unit to the max (like playing back nine videos at the same time). Because of this, the Stick PCs from Intel and those based on their reference board design include a tiny fan (about ¾” in diameter) to help dissipate some of the heat when running full tilt. There is a slightly audible whine heard from these fans if you put your ear right down within a few inches of them, but it will probably be inaudible in most environments. The Azulle Quantum Access Stick has no fan and a sealed case without vent holes but surprisingly, in my testing, it seemed to be able to handle heat dissipation better than the units with fans and vents. Perhaps this is because of the case design that seems to be made of a metal or carbon particle impregnated plastic with a ridged surface on both sides to act like a heat sink to dissipate the heat over a larger surface area using simple convection. And as mentioned above, it is the only one that moves the antennas off the circuit board so they can spread the components out some to help dissipate heat.
Some of the larger units like the VoYo or the Kangaroo have internal lithium polymer batteries which can run the units for a short period of time from twenty minutes for the VoYo to several hours for the Kangaroo if you lose external power. This can come in handy on the set where things get unplugged by accident all the time without warning or you have to move from one location to another without having to shut down.
All the units mentioned here now come with Windows 10 installed and some are even Dual Boot with Windows and Android 4.4 installed. Although, those units with dual OS have a lot less free space available on the 32GB eMMC internal drive. Most with Windows only, have about 13GB-18GB free and the dual boot with Android drops that free space down to about 8GB to 12GB. However, all units reviewed here have Micro SD card slots so the storage can be expanded cheaply with 32GB to 128GB Micro SD cards. They will all run Microsoft Office full version and will do an admirable job running PowerPoint, Excel or Word. They can play Adobe Director files for interactive display. I have even run older versions of Photoshop (ver. 7) or Photoshop LE and other useful utilities like Video-to-Video encoding software or open source recorders/players like VLC and Audacity. They all have at least one full-size USB port (type A) and some add a second full-size or micro-size OTG USB port. The larger units also throw in a LAN port and USB 3 ports for interfacing external storage or adding additional displays. That’s right; with a small outboard Pluggable DisplayLink USB dongle, you can add an additional two displays. So, one of the small sticks can actually feed three different displays at the same time. If you want them to display 30-frame video at full speed, you may have to drop the resolution of the additional displays down to 720p. (A limitation of the USB 2 port.)
Although there is not room in this article to review them, if you need an integrated touchscreen display, there are many Windows tablet PCs available using the same chipsets as the stick and all about one-fourth the cost of the cheapest iPad. Also, small laptops like the Lenovo 100S or 2-in-1 (tablet/laptop combos) like the Vulcan VTA1005XBM 32, are under $200. I’ve even found eight-inch tablets like the CHUI H8 with 1920×1080 ips touchscreens and USB ports and external HDMI connector for around $150.
CONCLUSIONS AND CAVEATS
For my use (video playback sources), I found the Quantum Access Atom Z3735F units to be the best. Their lack of USB 3 (which I don’t need) improves their performance and the external antenna makes the WiFi and Bluetooth performance much better. If I can find them, I prefer the Windows 8.1 OS for playback. I can install a thirdparty UI like “Classic Shell” to deal with the lame 8.1 tile-based user interface and get back to an interface more like Windows 7. Windows 10 improved the user interface somewhat, but the problem with Windows 10 is that Microsoft removed the ability to turn off automatic updates in the latest versions and one thing you don’t want is to suddenly have your on-set monitor tell you to stand by while it downloads five gigabytes of “important” updates. You can turn off automatic updates in Windows 8.1 and as long as I don’t use these devices for surfing the net to questionable websites, I don’t have to worry about viruses or security holes. If I’m not using WiFi to remotely control the unit, I can just put the OS in Airplane Mode. None of these units come with keyboards or mice, so you will have to add a Bluetooth or USB keyboard and or mouse or touchpad. I am partial to the iPazzport mini- Bluetooth keyboard (model KP-810-19BT). It is about the size of a small TV remote and has a built-in touchpad for mouse control and thumb-operated keyboard with all the keys of a full-sized keyboard, including F1-F12 and cursor arrow keys. This unit is small enough to slip in my shirt pocket or stick behind the monitor with a little Velcro. Besides the Bluetooth version, they also make an RF 2.4 GHz model that has a mini-USB dongle. These can be had for under $20 if you shop around on Amazon or eBay.
Tip: If you are stuck with Windows 10 and need to be on the internet for some reason, you can change an advanced setting in the network configuration panel to treat your WiFi access point as a “Metered” connection. This will prevent Windows from automatically checking for and downloading updates over any wireless connection designated as “Metered.” However, if you plug in an Ethernet cable that has an internet connection, it will suddenly go to town downloading tons of updates without asking permission. This, while it happens in the background, can adversely affect video playback smoothness or worse case, ask you to restart the computer after it finishes downloading.
The small Stick PCs are small enough to slide two or three of them into the pouch on my laptop case with their small power supplies and a small iPazzport wireless keyboard/touchpad and be ready for any video playback “emergency.” You know the one, where the Director or Producer comes up and says, “I know we didn’t talk about it but can you put up this animated logo on these three sixty-inch displays that the Art Director built into the set last night?” You can save the day and maybe even get a little more box rental for the extra video source feeds.