BYOPC: Use a Mini-PC as a “Woku”

Posted on August 13, 2016 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware, Windows 10 with 0 Comments

BYOPC: Use a Mini-PC as a "Woku"

A few days ago, I wrote about building a Windows 10-based Roku-type device that one could use to inexpensively and elegantly access Windows 10-based media apps and services in the living room. But you may not need to build anything: You could of course simply use a very low-end Windows 10 PC instead.

I’m still going to look at the BYOPC (“build your own PC”) options, too, of course, including whether Raspberry Pi 3 and Windows 10 IoT Core will meet this need. (In fact, all of the Raspberry Pi 3 equipment I need arrived just this morning.) But in looking through the comments to BYOPC: Let’s Build a “Woku,” I was quickly reminded that there are other ways to achieve this goal.

The most obvious is to use a mini-PC. This can be a stick PC, like Intel’s Compute stick. It can be something like the Kangaroo PC, of which I’m a fan. Or … it could be an intriguing Roku-looking device that “Narg” mentioned in the comments, the MarsKing Wintel Box Mini-PC.

81yjdAc0XfL._SL1500_

The Wintel Box costs just $96, but that’s really close to the roughly $100 I wanted to spend on this BYOPC project. (That price isn’t arbitrary: $100 is roughly the price of a typical Roku, Apple TV or Amazon Fire TV.) Coupled with the Rii 3-in-1 multifunction remote($15) I also purchased, the total cost here is about $110. So … Not too bad at all. (Especially since that price includes an HDMI cable.)

What you get in this solution is a really low-end silent and fanless PC, with the key advantage being that it’s Intel-based, so all the software we want will definitely be available. The specs are similar to other low-end PCs of this day: It’s powered by an Intel “Bay Trail”-era quad-core Atom Z3735F processor, 2 GB of RAM, and 32 GB of pokey eMMC storage (with 13 GB of 21.5 GB free at first boot). Connectivity is good, with 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi 802.11 ABGN and Ethernet, as is expandability: The device includes 2 USB 2.0 ports and microSD. Video-out is via full-sized HDMI. And it includes Windows 10 Home.

woku2

So, that’s all very basic, and very common. But what I like about the Wintel Box is that it looks like a Roku or Apple TV. This thing will look right at home in any living room cabinet, alongside your HDTV.

The question, of course, is whether it will work elegantly enough. To find out, I set it up and was surprised to discover two things right up front: This device actually lets you dual-boot between Android (which I’ve not tested yet) and Windows 10.

dual

And the version of Windows 10 that is included is from July 2015. So I needed to install updates, which happens slowly—very, very slowly—on this kind of device.

That said, I was happy to see that MarsKing had configured things pretty nicely for a 2015-era Windows 10 setup aimed at the living room: The system ships in  mo mode (smart), so everything is full screen. But the Start menu, curious, was not configured to be full screen out of the box. So I changed that while updates installed.

start-full

I also made some other changes aimed at living room usage, such adding the Touch Keyboard icon to the taskbar.

But I needed to test that remote as well.

remote

The Rii 3-in-1 multifunction remote works like a standard remote, a mouse, and a keyboard (in the latter case, via a mini keyboard on its back), which I suppose explains the 3-in-1 bit. It requires a USB dongle, which takes up one of two available ports, but if it worked properly that would be all one would need anyway. (During initial setup, I used a normal keyboard and mouse, taking up both ports, to expedite things.)

And it’s actually pretty usuable. The Rii is a so-called “air mouse,” meaning that you move the onscreen cursor around by picking up the remote, pressing OK to activate it, and then moving it around: The cursor tracks your hand movement using motion sensors, and that OK button works like a right-click button on a mouse.

It can be a little hard to use for precise selections, like trying to hit the little “x” on a tab in Edge to close it. But for the day-to-day needs in the living room, it should work fine: You can easily hit big targets like Start tiles or the Play/Pause button in Movies & TV.

That said, the on-remote media buttons don’t work automatically, and pretty the Home button brings up … Edge. For some reason. The Menu and Back buttons don’t do anything either. The volume buttons worked, at least, as did Mute.

So clearly there is a software utility need. But that utility does not seem to exist. As it turns out, Rii, like MarsKing, is a Chinese company. And their web site is as empty as it is inscrutable.

OK. So it’s usable as-is, and I’m sure there are more reputable companies out there with decent air mouse-type remotes that are actually supported by software utilities. (If you can recommend such a thing, let me know.) In theory, the concept is sound.

What that leaves is actually using this device in the living room. As I write this, the device is offline, upgrading to Windows 10 version 1511 (yes, really), so this process may take much of the day. I’ll report back, but my gut feeling so far is that this kind of solution—using this device, specifically, a Kangaroo PC or other mini-PC, or a stick-type PC—isn’t a horrible solution … assuming you can pair it with a remote that really works.

More soon.

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