A pleasant little 4K surprise.
When we first received the pitch email about this product, we were quick to dismiss it. Positioned as a mini-PC designed to power retail displays, it seemed to be rather irrelevant to our audience – we’re pretty sure that specific audience reads “Point of Sale Monthly”. However, after taking a quick glance at the specs, we realised we’d found a hidden nugget of gold that would actually work pretty damn well as a media PC, for an incredibly low price. Let’s explain why this mini-PC is actually much more capable than something designed to deliver images to large displays in the middle of a shopping centre.
At the heart of this tiny box is Intel’s new Apollo Lake architecture, in the form of a J3355 CPU Processor. This was released in the tail-end of 2016, making far less of a splash than the new Kaby Lake processors, and it falls under the Celeron brand. Now, according to Intel’s very own website, all Celeron processors shouldn’t be capable of delivering 4K video. However, the SoC Celeron chip in the DX30 does indeed support hardware acceleration of a wide-range of video codecs; H.264, VC-1, WMV9, HEVC and VP9. It seems that the Intel website might need an update…
Compared to most desktop CPUs, this chip looks like a very underpowered critter. With a Turbo frequency of just 2.5GHz and a maximum TDP of a mere 10W, this is no i5-killer. But the secret ingredient here is Intel’s integrated HD 500 (Gen 9) graphics, which have been overhauled since the last version; Intel claims a 45% performance upgrade over the previous generation. The two video outputs come in the form of HDMI 1.4 and DisplayPort 1.2. The good news is it that even this aging DisplayPort 1.2 port can handle a single 4K stream at 60fps, though the HDMI 1.4 is limited to 4K at 24Hz. Unfortunately there’s no support for HEVC Main10 with this CPU, unlike Kaby Lake, which means it won’t be able to handle Netflix’s 4K streaming service, thanks to its stringent security.
The other outputs on the rear of this tiny box (194mm long by 160mm wide by 43mm tall) consist of four USB 2.0 outputs, a PS/2 port for your keyboard, Gigabit Ethernet, and twin RS232 outputs (one of which also handles RS422 and RS485). On the front side are twin USB 3.0 Type A connections, perfect for hooking up your remote control dongle. Thanks to the chips extremely low power usage, it uses a fanless cooling system, so there’s absolutely no noise from the system when it’s in operation.
Like most Shuttle boxes, you’re going to need to add a few extras to get it off the ground. Firstly, there’s no memory, with twin DDR3L SO-DIMM slots ready to handle memory speeds of up to 1866MHz with a maximum capacity of 8GB. So that’s another $80 or so to the equation. There’s also no hard drive, and you’ve got two options for fulfilling this need. A standard SATA 6Gbps connection will handle a 2.5-inch drive, while there’s also an M.2 slot for speed demons. The good news is that utilising the M.2 port doesn’t require you to remove the integrated 802.11b/g/n card, which has its own dedicated port. An external power pack is included, but it’s tiny, so you won’t need to worry about hiding it. In fact, the entire box is small enough to fit onto the back of most TVs, provided they come with a compatible VESA mount.
If there’s one issue with using this as a media player, it’s the Realtek ALC662 sound chipset. According to Shuttle, this is only capable of 2-channel high definition audio, but heading to the Realtek website reveals that it’s actually ready for 5.1 channels. Again, it seems somebody needs to update their website…
With a total cost of ownership of about $400, this is a nice little jewel that we’ve uncovered. It’s totally silent, very small, and ready for 4K playback, making it an ideal media player to stream your 4K content over your home network.