Wait a second. This can’t be right. That mini-PC is running Windows!
Yup. You got it. MINIX has released two versions of the Neo Z64 mini-PC and one of them is running Windows.
Still with me? Good, because this is actually a good thing. Let me explain.
Let’s get the most obvious difference out of the way. The MINIX Neo Z64W is running Windows.
Microsoft dropped the hardware requirements as well as the cost for Windows 8.1 with Bing. Tired of losing marketshare to Chromeboxes and Android tablets, Microsoft announced a completely free version of Windows last Spring. What does that mean? What’s the difference between that and the regular Windows 8.1?
As it turns out, not a whole lot. The tradeoff for a free version of Windows is that there are a couple of default choices made for us during setup. The default search engine is Bing, of course, and the default web browser is Internet Explorer 11. The setup process is more streamlined than before, only taking a few minutes. Both of these initial options can be changed at any time, so feel free to run Chrome, Firefox or whatever Internet browser you want.
MINIX Neo Z64W Specs
Hardware wise, the MINIX NEO Z64 Windows version and the Android 4.4 versions are identical. Both come with an Intel Atom Z3735F CPU running at 1.33GHz. This processor is based on the 64-bit Intel Bay Trail architecture. Couple that with a 32GB eMMC storage and 2GB of DDR3-1332 RAM, and this box is surprisingly capable. The Intel HD Graphics is integrated on to the motherboard, much the same as Intel’s desktop offerings. There’s not too many details available on the specs of the GPU, but SiSoft Sandra showed 832MB of DDR3 available for the board itself. I’m inclined to believe this is shared with the system memory.
Since this is a Windows installation, the eMMC storage is allocated into three main partitions, so you won’t get the full 32GB. There’s a 100MB system partition, a 4.1GB restore partition and a 24.79GB main partition that the OS resides on. Even though there is a restore partition, I recommend that you backup your Windows 8 product key, just in case. Otherwise, there’s a handy recovery tutorial here.
As far as ports, there’s the layout is very similar to the MINIX NEO X-8 series. There’s 2 USB 2.0 ports, an HDMI port, analog audio-out\headphone port, and a micro-SD card slot. The front of the device has an IR receiver, which is used in the Android version of the Z64, but not for the Windows version. Rounding out the case is a small blue LED power light on the front and the main power button on the right hand side. The wireless antenna is not removable, so you won’t be able to swap it out if you want to increase the wireless range.
Unboxing and First Impressions
MINIX has always had very good quality packaging, and this one is no exception. There’s an obvious change in branding on both the MINIX Neo Z64W and Neo Z64A versions though. Instead of the usual black and green packaging, MINIX went for the familiar blue and white to emphasize this miniPC has “Intel Inside.”
Most mini-PCs have graphics on the outside of the package highlighting specs and features. The Z64 takes this a step further and puts them on the inside as well. While it may look cool, this is a little uneccesary, in my opinion. The only people who will see this are people who’ve already bought the device. You don’t need to sell them anymore, so I think this space could be better used for something else.
Because it uses Windows, there aren’t many accessories that come with the MINIX Z64 Windows. There’s no need for an OTG micro USB cable since any updates will come via Windows Update. Likewise, there’s no infrared remote control because Windows won’t recognize them. What that leaves is the AC adapter and an HDMI cable, as well as a short set of instructions and a product catalog.
Setting up the MINIX Z64 Windows version
Setup is ridiculously easy. There’s no DVI or VGA connection, unlike a full size PC. Most monitors built in the last five years should already have an HDMI connection. If yours doesn’t have one, you can always get an inexpensive VGA-HDMI adapter or a DVI-HMDI adapter.
There are no product keys to enter and only a few standard choices to make – mostly involving security settings and how to get updates. As I mentioned before, you’re stuck with Internet Explorer 11 and Bing, at least during the setup process.
Once you boot to Windows, everything should look pretty familiar. The good news is that, if you like Windows 8.1, you’ll feel right at home with the MINIX Z64. The bad news is that if you hate Windows 8.1, everything you hate about it is here too. The silver lining is that the upgrade to Windows 10 will be free when it’s released later this year.
But the biggest benefit to a Windows mini-PC is that its easy to find hardware and software that will work on it. Anything that will work on your Windows 8.1 desktop or laptop PC should work on the Neo Z64. In fact, every single piece of Windows certified hardware I tried worked. This included webcams, external hard drives, micro-SD cards, keyboards and mice. Even most of the airmice I tried worked – even within Windows itself.
There are a couple of things to be aware of, though. Obviously there’s no CD\DVD drive, so any software will have to be installed over the network or over a Wi-Fi connection. Not a huge deal. At worst, you can connect to another PC on your network and share the DVD drive for the installation.
More importantly, the Intel on-board GPU isn’t exactly a graphics powerhouse. It’s fine for watching videos and some basic gaming, but I wouldn’t try to do anything too intense like hardware video encoding. More on benchmarks in the next section, though.
Speedy Boot Times
I saved the best for last: The bootup time is ridiculously fast. I’m not sure if it’s because of the eMMC storage or that Windows 8.1 with Bing is less bloated than its bigger brother. And I don’t really care which it is.
Here’s the important part. Booting to the desktop from a completely powered down state is under 10 seconds. This is about half the time of my heavily-modded desktop PC running Windows 7 Professional on an solid-state drive. The official specs from Intel and MINIX clock the bootup at 10-15 seconds, but my version came in at 9 seconds on average.
One of the biggest selling points of Android mini-PCs and Chromeboxes is that the bootup was so fast. The MINIX Z64 Windows version gives them a run for their money.
Benchmarking a Windows PC is a bit different from an Android device. Some of the tests, like 3dMark’s Ice Storm and Ookla’s SpeedTest will work no matter what platform you’re on. Other benchmarks that I normally run are dedicated Android apps like AnTuTu 5, so they obviously won’t work here.
The MINIX Neo Z64 Windows version tested about as well as expected in the majority of the tests, so I won’t bore you with too many details. Two tests stood out, though. I ran the Octane benchmark using both Internet Explorer 11 and Google Chrome. I knew there would be a difference, but I wasn’t prepared for this big of a difference. Running Octane in Chrome resulted in a 67% higher score than running the same test in Internet Explorer 11. The final numbers for Google Chrome was a score of 5296. Internet Explorer 11 came in at 3164.
What I was most curious about was how the graphics would perform, since Intel’s on-board GPU isn’t known for being a powerhouse. 3DMark has a few more options for Windows PCs than they do for Android devices, so I ran them all. Ice Storm resulted in a score of 10697, which puts it on par or even slightly better than many other devices I’ve tested. After that, though, the 3DMark tests go downhill quickly. CloudGate scored 1092 and SkyDiver scored a measly 429. This isn’t too surprising considering they’re designed for mid-range gaming PCs, not mini-PCs, but I was hoping for a better score anyway. If you’re looking for a gaming PC, this isn’t the best choice. It doesn’t mean that you can’t play games, but you may be limited to less graphic-intense options.
Video Performance and Kodi
As we know, benchmarks don’t really mean much anyway. What we all care about is video performance, right? The Z64 isn’t rated for 4K video, so the maximum resolution I could get in Windows was 1920 x 1080. The Z64 does have the new MINIX adaptive refresh rate switching common to the X8 lineup as part of the new firmware. Through XBMC\Kodi and VLC videos played very smoothly as you can see in my Z64 video review here and above. One note about that, the video does appear to stutter a bit because the Z64 was also capturing the video through Snagit, while simultaneously playing the video files. That’s two pretty intensive processes going at the same time, so I’m willing to cut them a little slack on that. Without capturing the video, playback was much, much smoother.
The MINIX Neo Z64W has some pretty impressive features. The Intel hardware gives pretty good performance, even if the specs are a bit middle-of-the-road. It goes to show that if you’ve got the right CPU, then 2GB of memory is good enough for a lot of tasks.
Windows, obviously isn’t for everyone. But that’s part of the benefit of the Z64 in that it comes in both Windows 8.1 and Android 4.4. The Windows version should be aiming at a different market than the Android version – and that’s OK. Having Windows on your mini-PC means its easier to use the Neo Z64 as a replacement computer. If you’re still stuck on Windows XP or (God forbid) Windows Vista, this is a really good, low cost option.