Kulture

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The Android HTPC Project Pt 2

Posted on January 7, 2013 by | No Comments

A few days ago I shared my thoughts about using Hardkernel’s ODROID-U2 for an Android based HTPC. I decided that it’s such a good idea that I’m going to try and build an Android based HTPC. The plan is to build an Android based HTPC that offers as many full fat HTPC features as possible. This HTPC is never going to be a full fat do everything in one box kind of solution like my last HTPC build was. This build will have it’s strengths as well as weakness which is what I’m going to cover.

I haven’t received the hardware yet, the web site advises that “Shipment Schedule : in 7 working days from your purchasing.”, so I haven’t had a chance to play with it yet but from what I already know this is what I think it’s strengths and weaknesses will be.

Strengths

  • Small foot print and low power consumption

If you have one that is smaller than everyone else’s you wouldn’t usually brag about it unless you’re talking about your HTPC. People are obsessed by size and always want something that is smaller and faster, this build will tick those two check boxes. The PCB measures a tiny 48 x 52 mm or roughly half the size of a credit card. It will also consume less power than a normal HTPC thanks to the ultra low power requirements and high power efficiency of the hardware used in this build.

  • Low cost and Great per dollar performance

The first PC I ever had (it was actually the family PC but I used it the most) was a 386 SX @ 66 MHz, with 4 MB (yes mega bytes) of RAM, a 300 MB HDD, and it ran Windows 3.11. At the time it was a beast and IIRC it cost over $3K. The hardware used for this build is a lot faster and more powerful in orders of magnitude, it will have more memory and storage, it will have a better display than the first PC I had. Best of all it will cost considerably less than the first PC I had. The performance per a dollar that you will get from this build will be hard to match or beat. It’s bat sh!t crazy how far hardware has progressed in a relatively short amount of time and how cheap it has become. I always find it amazing that the phone I have is 10x faster, has more RAM, storage, and a faster internet connection.

This build is going to be a bit more expensive than a low end media streamer but that’s because I have opted for a 64 GB eMMC module, if you opted for a 8 or 16 GB eMMC module then you can bring the cost down. However it’s still going to be cheaper than other high end media streamers and full fat HTPCs.

  • Customisable and flexibility

The problem with media streamers is that they aren’t customisable, if you need or want new features you are stuck waiting for new firmware updates that may never come from the manufacturer. Additionally if the remote for your media player gets lost or broken you have no way of using the media player, it becomes an expensive novelty paper weight unless you buy a new remote from the manufacturer (who most likely won’t be shy about charging you an unreasonable price for a new remote) or get a remote (like a universal remote) that works with the unit. Because build is running Android it means that it’s infinity more customisable than any other media player. Games and apps, and anything else the Google Play store offers can be downloaded to this HTPC. If the remote, keyboard, or mouse breaks you can simply get a new one.

  • Blissful silence

With no moving parts there is no noise to ruin your favourite movie, TV show or music. A silent HTPC is the holy grail of HTPCs. Many people are obsessed by silence and try to build a completely silent HTPC but fall short. This build is guaranteed to be silent.

Weaknesses

  • Not be perfect

But then what is perfect? Is anything ever absolutely undeniably 100% perfect? This isn’t a commercially developed Android HTPC solution, it’s more of a hack than anything else, so some things might not work properly or at all. There are some things you might just never be able to do without a full fat HTPC like watch and record multiple TV channels at once. Because of the hardware used not all apps will work. The hardware doesn’t have GPS, a gyroscope, any phone functions etc… so apps that require the afore mentioned bits of hardware just won’t work. But then a tablet doesn’t have any phone features and people love those things so the missing hardware probably won’t be missed because it won’t be used anyway even if this build had a GPS there wouldn’t be any use for it since the HTPC doesn’t go anywhere ergo a GPS would be pointless and drive up the cost of the hardware.

  • No built in Bluetooth or 802.11x Wireless connectivity

The lack of built in Bluetooth or 802.11x Wireless connectivity means that you will have to use USB Bluetooth and Wireless adapters which will occupy the only 2 USB ports. However you could get around this limitation by using a USB hub if you need more USB connectivity.

  • Not easily repairable or upgradeable

Unlike full fat HTPCs if a part of the hardware dies like the USB ports, the CPU, RAM, GPU, ethernet port etc… you will have to purchase a whole new unit (the same applies to media players) instead of just replacing the defective part. Additionally you won’t be able to upgrade this HTPCs parts like you can with a full fat HTPC, the same applies for media players.

Initial conclusion

If you use a HTPC mostly for streaming media and want more flexibility than a media streamer affords then an Android based HTPC might just be the ultimate HTPC. However if you want a full fat HTPC that can record TV as well as everything else then an Android based HTPC might not be the right solution for you. It will depend on what you need and want from a HTPC as to whether or not an Android based HTPC is going to be the best solution for you.

There are other Android hardware solutions about like the Giada Q11, NEO G4 Android 4.0 Dual-Core Google TV Player, MK808, J&Ws MINIX NEO X5 and their MINIX NEO G4, or the Mele A3700. Those solutions have some advantages but hardware isn’t one of them, the best of any of the afore mentioned solutions only sports a dual core CPU, less storage, and half the RAM that the ODROID-U2 has. Additionally the other solutions are ready made bits of kit which isn’t half the fun of going the DIY rout.

The strength of this build is that it will be the perfect device for streaming media over the network, either your LAN (i.e. from another PC on your home network, or maybe even a NAS), or over the internet. There are plenty of great apps available on the Android platform for streaming audio and video, and with the Google Play store you will have a million more options. The hardware is powerful enough to decode 1080p video and high bit rate audio like FLAC files which is why I imagine that this build will be the ultimate streaming box.

Ultimately this is just a fun DIY experiment to explore what is possible with off the shelf hardware and software to see if it’s possible to build an Android based HTPC that is comparable in price to media streamers and a full fat HTPC while also offering as many full fat HTPC features.

What I do know so far is that the strengths of this Android HTPC far outshine it’s weaknesses. Although the strengths and weaknesses might turn out to be different to what I have predicted but I’ll only know that once I get the hardware, play with it, get the software up and running I’ll have a better idea and I’ll do another write up. So make sure you come back for updates.

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