Review of the MK802 (Android mini PC)

by ps3iso on October 13, 2012

The MK802 is a series of extremely small computers (the size of a USB stick) running Android (also compatible with Linux). They are also extremely cheap and use little power, which makes them an interesting gadget if you want a low consumption computer in your house, and/or turn your dumb TV into a smart TV. After a friend recommended one of these devices, I bought one, and this is my review.

The MK802 is a computer the size of a USB stick, with 2 usb ports, a mini hdmi output, and a micro SD slot. There are several versions in the series (MK802, MK802+, MK802 II), with some variations in the performance of the CPU or the amount of Ram. The main selling points of the device are its extremely low price (I got mine for $52 + shipping) and low power consumption, which, coupled with a reasonably good GPU (the Mali 400), makes it an interesting device for watching digital videos, or having a small multi-purpose computer constantly on.

The model I got appears to be an MK802+. I say “appear” here, because the MK802 is a popular Chinese device that has dozens of clones, and it is easy to get fooled. Although the one I bought was advertised as an MK802 II, what I got looks closer to the specifications of the MK802+. The insane amount of clones of the MK802, but also the increasing popularity of those mini PCs, actually makes it difficult to choose the one that fits you the best, but I’ll discuss other options at the end of this review. If you are interested into getting the MK802, make sure you get a model with at least 1GB of Ram, and double check the CPU (some clones have a Cortex A7 instead of the advertised A8 or sometimes A9. This is the case for mine, and could explain some of the issues I am running into).

My goal with this device was to use it the way it is advertised for: turn my TV into a smart TV by connecting it to an Android computer that I would use mostly to play videos and music, a bit to read emails and browse the web, and potentially as a bittorrent client that would run overnight.

Long story short, for $50 you get what you pay for. The MK802 is a very interesting concept, which fails in some areas because of the limitations of its CPU, but gets the job done if you don’t mind tweaking it a little bit, or if you accept some of the slowness it comes with.

First impressions

The first impression is that the device is indeed really small (feels like a big USB stick, basically). It got me extremely excited initially because I was convinced this could replace my current media center (a Sony Vaio laptop connected to the TV) and free lots of space around the TV (Yes, when you live in Tokyo, the space taken by a laptop close to the TV *does* matter).

Besides the device, the package contains a few accessories such as an HDMI cable, a mini-usb to usb adapter, the AC adapter. Each of these would easily cost 5 bucks in your typical store, and contribute to make the device feel even cheaper (I mean this in a positive way).

Set up

You will need to plug the computer to your HD TV with the provided cable, and find a way to control it. This can be done either by plugging a usb mouse to the device itself, or, more conveniently, get a wireless keyboard/mouse system to plug with the device. Other people use an app called “DroidMote” to control the device with their phone, which I didn’t test.

I personally bought the Logitech K400 ($35), a small (but not too much) keyboard with an integrated touchpad, which is used to “simulate” the touch screen you would usually have on an Android tablet or phone. Integration of the MK802 with this keybaord was instant, it simply worked out of the box.

Other than that, there’s basically nothing to do to setup the device. Plug it in to your TV, and plug in the A/C adapter, that’s it (side note: the MK802 does not have a power button, you just unplug the power if you want to turn it off…)

Real plug and play is always nice :)

Since it shipped from China, my device was preinstalled with some Chinese apps (including a P2P video application called PPS, which happens to also have American movies… I might keep that one…). An old version of youtube was also preinstalled… The Play store is accessible from this device, although not all applications will accept to install directly (for example Netflix) and might need to be sideloaded (download the apk from someplace else and install it directly). On that subject, the device is rooted, so tinkering with it, or installing custom roms is extremely easy.

After playing a few hours with the device to get used to it, I got mixed feelings. At a first glance the device promises a lot (“smart TV”, “HD video”, “games”, “internet browser”…), but when actually using it, I ran into multiple issues. Not everything is bad though, the device has lots of good points, so read along.

Forget about multitasking

The first problem was that the device is slow every time the CPU needs to be used. This is frustrating when switching between applications, starting a new application that wasn’t already running (you’ll get a “This application is not responding, do you want to close it?” more than you want to), loading a webpage, typing (autocompletion is slow), reading emails…

Basically after a few days of thinking about this, I found a goodt way to summarize this: Every activity that requires lots of interaction between you and the device  takes too long and brings frustration (typing, clicking,switching a lot between apps, reading many emails…).

Some of you might want to decide this makes it a crappy device and stop reading here. I know I almost decided to throw the device away at that point. But then again, I realized this is not what this device really is for. There are actually lots of things that can be done with a computer which don’t require too much interaction with the user. In particular, I’m thinking of watching videos (you start your movie once, then enjoy the movie without having to interact with the computer for then next 90 minutes), or a more “passive” usage such as an ftp server or a bittorrent client.

Local Video playback

After all, the MK802 is mostly advertised as a video player rather than a computer, so I decided to focus on this, and use it for “browsing” and email only when I have no other device handy.

I was overall satisfied, but not impressed, with the video playback performance of the MK802. Let me give details.

The MK802 ships with the Mali400 GPU a low cost GPU with good performances in video decoding. If you remember my review of the DroidX360, the MK802 is actually roughly the same hardware without the screen and the gamepad.

The MK802 is average at playing local videos from the memory stick or the internal memory. I would say it’s hit and miss, depending on the player you use and the video format. Overall, it’s been a frustrating research (I would expect any device nowadays to play any video I throw at it, without me having to reencode the video to the “perfect” format or whatever), but I believe I found a player that works well with most of my videos.

VLC was overall disappointing. For some reason, some videos that play extremely fine in VLC on my 2 year-old android phone, are very laggy/pixelated on the MK802 with VLC. I blame it on the software decoding engine, and the fact that the CPU (+ probably the whole device’s hardware) is not really great. I would not recommend VLC (as of today) for this device.

The integrated video player (called Super HD, I don’t know if it is available on the Store) has been doing ok. I was initially confused by its interface (couldn’t find a way to quit playback), but now that I understood it, I am quite satisfied with it. That being said, one of my high bitrate MK movies though kept “pausing” for 2 seconds every five minutes for no good reason though. It wasn’t even HD video so I am a bit worried.

BS Player was promising, and it has a cool “auto download subtitles” feature which is really nice for tv series, but I couldn’t find a combination of settings (Hardware decoding / software decoding, etc…) that didn’t not have audio sync or pixellisation issues.

In the end, I was recommended MX Player, which so far has been the best player on this device. It offers some customization that seemed to work great for the MK802. In particular, using hardware video decoding in combination with software audio decoding got rid of some of the audio sync issues I had been running into with other devices. Sadly, some specific video files refuse to play in hardware mode, such as the m4v files created with the iPhone4 profile in handbrake.

MX Player offers good movie playback on the MK802, even for HD

In conclusion, local video playback on the MK802 seems to work generally ok as long as you find a video player that works for you. MX Player has given me perfect results so far. Other players shouldn’t be dismissed as I suspect the results can also depend on your specific hardware and the Android rom running on your device

Video Streaming

I’ve been using mostly 2 video streaming services on this device: Youtube, and Netflix. Basically Youtube was disappointing and Netflix was surprisingly good given my situation.

The youtube app is preinstalled on the device, but you’ll want to upgrade it, as it is a very old build. Sadly, in my many tests, Youtube playback had severe A/V sync issues. Audio plays too early, or too late, or gets progressively delayed… it seems to depend on the video, sometimes it’s barely noticeable, and sometimes it’s just impossible to watch. I wouldn’t say it’s all bad, but it can become frustrating. I have read on some forums that this could depend on the Android version installed on the device, and it’s possible  that a different firmware could solve this. I think this could be related with how I had to set up hardware video playback %but* software video decoding in MX Player… Since the youtube app does not have such advanced settings, I cannot test if that would help.

I was gladly surprised by Netflix on the other hand. Since I live in Japan, I am going through a VPN in order to access my Netflix subscription. For those of you outside of the US who might not know, Netflix is a monthly-fee based video streaming service, they offer an “all you can watch” service for $8 a month, with an ok catalog and a few recent movies and tv series (I’ve spotted a few movies that just made it to the theaters here in Japan). To this $8 monthly subscription, I need to add $5 a month for my VPN, which allows me to access the service through and American IP. (Netflix is in theory reserved to US residents).

Netflix is slow to start, but once the movie is started, it’s great!

Despite accessing the service through a lowend device, with a VPN, Netflix works fine for me. Movies take a little while to start, but once in, I haven’t seen any problem. In particular, they have a relatively clever system that switches automatically between SD and HD when the system detects your bandwidth is low, and this is relatively smooth. For $13 a month this is an extremely good deal as a foreigner in Japan, compared to the local offers that start at about $20 a month and don’t have a selection comparable to that of Netflix in terms of American movies (although both Japanese offers and Netflix have a terrible lack of French movies, but what can you do…)

It’s worth noting that Netflix over Wifi is one of the reasons I chose the MK802+ rather than the MK802, as the MK802+ is supposed to have a better Wifi hardware, at least from what I read in some reviews and product descriptions.

Two tricks were involved for me to get Netflix to work on the MK802. One is that I had to sideload the apk because the Google Play Store would tell me my device is not supported. The version that was recommended to me is Netflix 1.8.1, and a quick google research will help you find it. Once installed “manually” like this, I had no problems running it. The second trick was that my Android firmware did not have the “VPN” menu in its settings. This was simply solved by downloading a free app called VPN-Menu, which simply puts a shortcut to the VPN settings on your main screen.

If you live outside the US, a VPN subscription will make the MK802 much more interesting as a connected media player

Note that I didn’t try Hulu as I read the Hulu Plus app does not support this device. In addition it is my understanding that Hulu Plus has advertising despite being a paid service, which is not the type of stuff I am looking for (plus, I had already made my mind on going with Netflix)

Using the MK802 as a passive “always on” computer

The MK802 is advertised as a Media player, but I’ve also been successfully using it as a local FTP server in my house, as well as a low power consumption bittorrent client. For this, I have been using respectively apps names FTPServer and aDownloader New from the google play store.

Both worked fine, although initially they were not able to write on the SDCard, just on the internal memory. This is a simple permissions problem which was solved by following this guide.

Note that if you have a good internet connection, the writing speed to the external SD card might be slower than your download speed on bittorrent. This is not a real problem, just a sign that you could even be downloading faster

Gaming

I haven’t tested the MK802 for Gaming. However, it ships with the same hardware as the DroidX360 (see my review here), which to me means it could be a great device for Emulators, but will not be good enough for recent Android games that are demanding lots of 3D resources. The flaw of the DroidX360 was its integrated gamepad, but since the MK802 doesn’t ship with controls in the first place, it can probably be coupled with a USB controller for some nice old school emulators. The following pads have been reported to work with the MK802: Logitech Rumblepad 2, Classic USB Super Nintendo

Other uses

Technically, the MK802 is a fully working ARM computer. This means lots of cool stuff can be done with it. I’ve talked to people who tested both the MK802 and the Raspberry Pi, who ended up being more impressed by the MK802 than the Raspberry Pi. As most gadgets these days, Linux distributions are already available for the MK802, and appear to be pretty stable. It seems however that a few things need to be ironed out in regards to the graphics drivers.

Running Linux on the MK802, as a low cost, low power consumption server is just one of the additional uses one can have with the MK802. You can only think of it as your portable computer, that tiny usb stick you bring to your friends’ place whenever you want to show them some pictures or movies on their own TV, without having to bring your laptop, etc…

Additional hardware considerations

The device has 2 usb ports and supports usb hubs (here’s a cheap one from Amazon that works well with the MK802). Nevertheless, it is a really low power device and will not be able to provide power for too many usb devices connected to it. I have a usb drive with no external power (relies on the usb connection for power) which works but regularly disconnects from the device because of the lack of power. If you plan on connecting many usb devices to the MK802, you will want to make sure their have an external source of power (I’m thinking of hard drives in particular)

I’ve mentioned that the device is slow. However in some attempts I’ve seen that connecting the MK802 to my network with a LAN cable rather than Wifi (with a USB to Ethernet adapter – this one works) made some things obviously faster, such as the browser. My guess is that this reduces the load of the CPU, and allows it to spend more time on the browser without having to compete with the Wifi. Just a wild guess, I’m just saying it can help with performance. I decided to not go with this, because I really like the idea of this device not being full of cables all over the place (the A/C cable and the HDMI cable already feel like one too many cables… not that the MK802 II directly has a male HDMI output which allows you to plug it in directly in a TV without the need for a cable)

Alternatives

When I mentioned the MK802 to some friends, I discovered that many clones or alternate devices are available. Some of them look extremely promising (with dual core CPUs rather than a single core like the one on the MK802, which could solve most of the issues I’ve ran into with the MK802), while others are just clones of the MK802 that are simply redesigned and sold at twice the price. Here are a few that are worth mentioning:

The XIOS DS Media Play ($115) has been recommended to me as an “MK802 Killer”. Reading the Amazon reviews and its specs, I can see it has a possibly faster processor (Cortex A9 rather than mine which is an A7), but that overall it is running into similar issues. The XIOS seems, like the MK802, to be a nice idea with lots of potential, that could be wasted because of the amount of research one has to do in order to find the right apps that would work for it. It seems the latest firmware fixes lots of issues, but at more than twice of the MK802, I am not sure if I want to get another “so so” product

The UG802 ($73) is definitely the same concept as the MK802, but it has a better processor which is dual core. Seeing a few videos on youtube, the UG802 is significantly faster than the MK802. It is also a bit more expensive, but still below the $100 bar (note that the MK802 can be found for as low as $44 these days). If money is not too much of a concern, I would say the UG802 would be a better bet than the MK802, unless you are looking for a device with a big community. The MK802 has already a large community of users, which means more custom roms, etc… that was one of the reasons I chose it over the UG802.

Assuming you don’t get a lemon, the UG802 seems like a better choice than the XIOS above. If you care about linux support, custom roms, help from the community, the MK802 might be a better choice. Rikomagic also announced an MK802 III, which will have roughly the same specs as the UG802, with hopefully the same amount of community support as the MK802. That would be the best of both worlds.

Conclusion

The MK802+ is an extremely cheap device that can be very interesting if you want to transform your TV into a smart TV. If, like me, your PS3 has become a glorified media player, I really suggest you give a try to the MK802 or one of the other Android Mini PCs described above. In terms of multimedia, the MK802 does much more, much better, and at a lower power consumption, than the PS3.

I would strongly recommend the MK802+ for the following:

  • HD Video player for your own local files (MKV, MP4) – MX player recommended.
  • Netflix
  • as an overnight Bittorrent client. Leave the device on all night for downloads (aDownloader New recommended)
  • FTP Server in your house. Low power consumption, couple it with either a reasonably big SD card (sadly the max supported seems to be 32GB) or an external USB hard drive
  • Emulators (GBA, SNes, N64, etc…), if you add a wireless or usb pad to the device.

I would not recommend the MK802+ for the following (not that it is not terrible at doing most of the things below, just not convenient enough compared to my current setup):

  • Youtube: video is good, but too many audio sync issues (this might change, depending on the Android firmware installed on your device)
  • Browsing the web or reading emails. Typing is too painful, and the loading times are terrible
  • Advanced gaming with the latest Android games. The device simply does not have the horse power
  • Hulu plus has been reported to not work fine with this device
  • Multitasking: again, the lack of horsepower will make switching between applications a nightmare. Don’t hope to run the bittorrent client in parallel with your movie player, for example…

For these use cases, the UG802 or the upcoming MK802 III will be better choices.

Recommended accessories for any Android USB stick:

  • A Wireless keyboard/mouse system will make the device your perfect smart TV. I am very satisfied with Logitech’s K400 ($35).
  • If you plan to connect many devices to your MK802, a USB hub ($8) will be needed
  • Many people complained about a weak Wifi power, an Ethernet to USB adapter ($20) has helped me with performance and network
  • If you want to use it as an FTP Server or a Bittorrent client, an external hard drive ($100 for 1TB, works fine but in my experience disconnects once in a while because of the lack of power provided by the MK802).
  • For gamers, a compatible gamepad such as this one ($25)
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