BYOPC: My Imperfect Little Woku

Posted on August 26, 2016 by Paul Thurrott in Groove Music, Hardware, Microsoft Movies & TV, Music + Videos, Windows 10 with 0 Comments

BYOPC: My Imperfect Little Woku

Here’s a quick follow-up to my previous “Woku” articles. At this point, I can make two generalizations: While workable, the PC is still uneasy in the living room. And this didn’t qualify as a BYOPC project.

You may recall that I first started discussing my “Woku” idea about two weeks ago. Like many Microsoft/Windows customers, I’ve been frustrated over time by the lack of an elegant and inexpensive way to access Microsoft entertainment services like Groove (music), Movies & TV, and OneDrive (photos) in the living room. What I really want is for Microsoft to port these apps to existing set top boxes like Roku, Fire TV and Apple TV. But our only elegant option right now is to buy an Xbox.

The Xbox One S is a fine machine, and I’ll be writing about its use as a living room entertainment hub soon. But it’s also expensive. What if we could build—or buy—a Windows-based Roku? Or what I call a Woku?

My initial idea was to keep it as cheap and device-like as a Roku, and I openly wondered whether an inexpensive Raspberry Pi 3 running Windows 10 IoT Core would do the trick. But as many readers pointed out, and as I confirmed, Windows IoT Core still doesn’t provide a Windows desktop, the Store, or the normal Store apps. So it’s a non-starter.

Next, I turned to a decidedly non-BYOPC approach: Use a mini-PC as a Woku. And here you have plenty of good options, from the Kangaroo PC I like so much to various “stick”-type PCs to low-end Intel NUCs. But a reader pointed me towards something that looks like a Roku or Apple TV device, the $96 MarsKing Wintel Box Mini-PC. I just had to check it out.

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The Wintel isn’t perfect, and not just for the same reasons that any PC that utilizes an Atom processor, 2 GB of RAM, and slow eMMC storage will never be more than barely adequate.

First, it dual-boots between Android and Windows. This may seem like a neat idea, but I was not (and am still not) interested in Android on such a device. The issue is that the dual boot menu you see when the device powers on slows boot time. And that if I leave the dongle forthe Rii 3-in-1 multifunction remote ($15) I also purchased plugged in to the device, it will never boot past the dual-boot screen. Grr…

Second, it appears that “made in China” comes with certain, ahem, risks. Just today, I received an alarming malware pop-up from Windows Defender. And it appears that Marsking—inadvertently, of course—used the AutoKMS malware to fake a Windows 10 activation on the device. I’m sure it’s all a misunderstanding.

malware

(I scheduled a return to Amazon, by the way.)

But the bigger issue here has nothing to do with this particular device or its maker. It’s that a PC is still not an elegant solution for the living room.

There are ways to overcome some of this, and I actually really like using Windows 10 on the HDTV, configured for Tablet Mode where the Start experience and all apps run full-screen. The Rii 3-in-1 multifunction remote offers “air mouse” capabilities, which work just fine, and of course you could sort-of solve the boot-time issue by using a better PC or by configuring it to never shut down in the first place.

Groove Music (PC version) on the big screen

Groove Music (PC version) on the big screen

Were I to really use such a device in my living room—and honestly, it’s a tough call between this and the Xbox One S, if only because accessing services like iTunes and Google Play are at least possible on any PC—I would personally go with a beefier PC, something with perhaps 4 GB of RAM and more storage. Remember, however, that the goal of the Woku was to come in around $100. Such a PC would be more than that.

And as inelegant as it is, you can also simply embrace the PC-ness of the Woku and get a wireless multimedia keyboard. A few readers recommended the Logitech Wireless Touch Keyboard K400 Plus, which is currently just $30 at Amazon. But I went with the Microsoft Wireless All-In-One Media Keyboard, which is even less expensive. Plus, I’m a fan of Microsoft hardware.

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Either way, you get some pros and cons. On the negative side, you need to take up a USB port with a dongle. But you get a full-sized keyboard, which can be handy, volume/mute buttons plus other multimedia controls, and the trackpad works well enough for selecting things on-screen. It’s no Roku remote, but then a PC really isn’t a Roku either.

Long story short, I’m sending back the Wintel (thanks for nothing China), but I’ll keep experimenting. Maybe with Kangaroo. But maybe with something that can handle 4K video. Either way, this isn’t technically a BYOPC project. And that was my original intent.

 

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