A computer on a stick, OEM Systems Co.'s Android 4.0 Mini PC is the smallest computer ever sold to consumers. Better still, the $70 stick will run Google's full Ice Cream Sandwich operating system on any screen you attach it to, making it a tempting set-top box, an inexpensive second computer for the kids or a super-portable PC that fits in even the smallest pocket.
Click to EnlargeAt first glance, the Android 4.0 Mini PC, which measures 3 x 1 x 0.4 inches and weighs just 1 ounce, looks like a large USB Flash Drive. Though it won't win any fashion contests, the tiny matte black plastic device has a geek chic aesthetic.
The top surface is adorned with a picture of Andy the Android wearing headphones and the words "Android 4.0 Mini PC" in a high-tech font. Covered in a glossier plastic than the rest of the device, the Mini PC's front surface houses a full-size USB port for connecting to peripherals such as mice and keyboards.
Click to EnlargeThe top side contains a mini USB port to connect the system to power. The left side has a gold-colored mini HDMI port for connecting to a screen while the bottom surface holds the micro SD slot, which can accommodate cards up to 32GB in size.
The Android 4.0 Mini PC comes ready to go out of the box. To get started, you first use the bundled mini HDMI-to-HDMI cable to connect to a TV or monitor. If your monitor does not have an HDMI port you can always buy an HDMI-to-DVI adapter. Just make sure you configure your screen's input settings to accept YPbPr color instead of RGB or you may get weird colors.
Click to EnlargeAfter connecting to the monitor, you must attach some kind of input device, preferably both a mouse and a keyboard or a keyboard that has a touchpad built-in. Since there's only one available USB port, you'll want to either attach a hub, a keyboard with a pass-through or a wireless keyboard/mouse set that uses a single dongle.
Those who plan to use the Mini PC primarily as a set-top box may prefer a palm-size keyboard remote such as the Logitech DiNovo Mini or Visiontek Candy Board. In our testing, we used a Verbatim Mini Wireless Slim keyboard/mouse combo.
To power on the Android 4.0 Mini PC, you must attach its mini USB port to a USB power source. You can use the bundled mini USB-to-USB cable to plug into either a powered port on another device, such as a hub, or you can get your own USB-to-AC adapter, as none is included.
Because the Android 4.0 Mini PC has no power switch, the moment you plug it in it boots to Ice Cream Sandwich, a process that took 1 minute and 7 seconds. That's reasonable for an Android start time, but hoped for better. When we started the device for the first time, it booted directly to the standard Ice Cream Sandwich desktop. Only when we wanted to use Gmail or Google Play market were we asked to enter our Google account credentials.
However, before you do anything else, you'll want to go to the settings menu and configure your Wi-Fi connection, as the internal 802.11b/g/n wireless card provides the Mini PC's connection to the Internet.
Shutdown and Sleep
Though the Android 4.0 Mini PC can go to sleep and dim your screen, it has no shutdown option because it has no power button. By using a third-party app called Quick Boot, we were able to restart the system without yanking the plug. Quick Boot also has a Power Off option, but it doesn't actually turn the power off; it just freezes the screen until you pull the plug.
OS and Software
Click to EnlargeAs its name implies, the Android 4.0 Mini PC runs a stock version of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. Its makers have not added any kind of skins or enhancements to Google's OS, but that's just fine with us. Users unfamiliar with Ice Cream Sandwich will be particularly pleased with the recent apps menu button, which not only shows you thumbnails of all open apps, but lets you close them by dragging them off to the side.
In addition to some key Google apps (Gmail, YouTube and the Google Play market), the system has a file manager, stock browser, music player, and HD video player. Considering that the Mini PC has access to the Play Market, we were able to download and install a variety of apps, including system benchmarks, screen-shot apps, games and more.
OEM Systems Co. only includes a handful of additional apps, including "Angry Birds Space" and a few Chinese apps that Western buyers probably won't use: video-streaming service PPTP, QQ instant messaging app and PPS.tv, another video service.
Controls and Navigation
Because we're used to navigating through Android via touch, controlling the Mini PC via mouse and keyboard didn't feel natural at first. But after using the device for a few minutes, we understood that, in order to long-press an item, we had to long-click it with the mouse. To swipe, you hold down the mouse button and move the pointer. Because the right mouse button takes you back to the home screen, we found ourselves accidentally ending up back at the desktop when we clicked it, expecting to get a context menu like we do in Windows.
Users can type using the mouse alone, but we found the experience slow and frustrating. Stick with a physical keyboard.
Because the device does not have power or volume buttons, taking screen shots was also a challenge. Fortunately, after installing third-party screen shot app KastorSoft, we were able to capture images.
Any app that requires an accelerometer will not work properly. For example, when we tried to play the Jet Ski racing game "Riptide," we were unable to turn. By default, the game requires you to tilt your phone or tablet in change positions. However, changing a setting in that particular game allows you to use a compatible controller, if you have one.
Storage and Peripheral Support
Through its USB connection, the Android 4.0 Mini PC supports wireless keyboards, mice and USB flash drives. Most USB hard drives should work, too, though a USB 3.0 Buffalo Hard drive was not recognized when we plugged it in. Android-friendly game controllers should work as well, but we're not aware of any external webcams that work with Android. When plugged in a Creative Labs webcam, the system failed to recognize it.
Click to EnlargeThe Android 4.0 Mini PC and its AllWinner A10 CPU are supposed to be capable of displaying content in resolutions up to 2160p, well higher than full HD. Unfortunately, due to a software or driver error, the Mini PC displayed the OS at only 720p resolution. When we attached the device to two different 1080p televisions and a 1680 x 1050 monitor, it outputted at 1280 x 720, not the screens' native resolutions. A rep from OEM Systems told us that they are working on a software fix to allow higher resolutions.
Fortunately, the 720p resolution desktop still looked sharp even on a 50-plus-inch Samsung TV. Considering that most Android apps aren't written for 1080p or higher resolutions, we doubt most users will notice the difference.
The Android 4.0 Mini PC is definitely good enough to serve as your media server. When we played 720p YouTube videos of "The Avengers" and "Prometheus" trailers, motion was sharp and smooth. Performance was limited only by our office bandwidth. After installing the Netflix app, we streamed the movie "Thor" smoothly. When we played a 1080p local MP4 video trailer for "Skyfall," the image was crystal clear and subtle details such as Daniel Craig's eyes really popped.
The Mini PC's 1.5-GHz AllWinner A10 CPU and 1GB of RAM make it fast enough to play HD video, enjoy casual games and perform everyday tasks such as surfing the Web, reading email and editing documents. Navigating through the OS was usually smooth, though we occasionally experienced a lag when opening apps or starting major tasks such as opening a new video for playback. Surfing the Web was generally responsive, though the browser sometimes was slow to render pages with a lot of flash or other plug-ins.
In testing the Mini PC, we found out that the AllWinner CPU that's labeled as 1.5-GHz actually comes underclocked down to 912 MHz. Adventurous users may be able to increase the speed of the Mini PC by using overclocking software. However, several different overclocking apps we tried, including SetCPU, failed to show any speed greater than 912 MHz on their menus. An OEM Systems Co. rep warned us that the device might overheat if clocked higher.
Creating and editing both spreadsheets and word processing documents in Google Drive was smooth, provided we had good connectivity. In an area with weak Wi-Fi, we had better luck with offline tools like Notepad, a simple text-editing app.
We would not, however, recommend the Mini PC as a gaming system. When we tried to play the high-end games "Shadow Gun" and "Bladeslinger," each crashed before it was able to show us a single image. The game "Riptide GP" was extremely laggy until we turned down the graphics to the lowest possible setting.
On synthetic benchmarks, the Android 4.0 Mini PC got very modest scores. On AN3DBench, a test that measures overall graphics prowess, the device got a mere 5,413, more than 2,000 points less than the 7,196 category average for tablets. When we ran Quadrant, a test that measures overall performance, the Mini PC scored just 1,271, far below the 2,369 tablet average.
The Android 4.0 Mini PC won't outperform most Android tablets or phones, but it provides a whole series of usage scenarios. Because of its video- playback ability, support for external storage devices, and built-in browser, the Mini PC makes for a pretty capable set-top box, particularly when it's paired with a wireless keyboard.
With the Mini PC attached to your home theater, you can watch streaming services like Netflix and Hulu Plus, play your offline video files, play "Angry Birds" or even check your mail on the big screen. Though some tablets and phones offer HDMI-out capability, none are this small and convenient -- or cheap.
If you attach the Android 4.0 Mini PC to a monitor, it can serve as an Internet station and secondary PC that you keep in the kitchen or the kids' rooms. One of the most compelling uses of the device is as a truly portable computer. Security-conscious users can literally carry the Mini PC in their pockets and plug it into a screen and keyboard only when they want to use it. Because they've kept the device physically secure, all the data and even the OS itself are hidden from prying eyes.
In addition, OEM Systems Co. and a few other Chinese vendors have started selling the same device under different model names. However, as of this writing, OEM Systems is the only company that offers the device through a major U.S. website, Amazon.
Norwegian company FXI has developed the Cotton Candy, a more powerful computer-on-a-stick that runs your choice of Ubuntu or Android and features a dual-core Samsung Exynos processor and has a Bluetooth radio in addition to Wi-Fi. However, the Cotton Candy isn't being sold to consumers yet and the few developers who've been able to order one have paid the much-higher price of $199.
Click to EnlargeThe Android 4.0 Mini PC is the lightest mass-produced computer we've ever seen. Though it's not as powerful as most phones or tablets, this device delivers strong enough performance to use as a secondary computer or set-top box. With its extremely low price, early adopters can afford to get the Mini PC just to play around with while mainstream consumers can deploy it in the home.