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Review: Cloudnetgo CR9, Quad Core Android Mini PC

cloudnetgocr9

The batteries are just here for size comparison, they have nothing to do with the product :)

The cloudnetgo cr9 is a Mini Android PC on a stick. For those who join us for the first time, these are super tiny PCs that you plug to your TV’s HDMI port in order to transform your dumb TV into a smart TV. As these sticks run Android, you basically get access to all the android ecosystem, and that includes apps such as Netflix, Amazon MP3, Twitter, facebook, gmail, youtube, but also all the library of android games. Think of it as a Roku box or an Apple TV, with much more flexibility, in general much more raw power, and a lower energy footprint.

Rikomagic is the market leader on these android HDMI sticks with its MK802 brand. But there are many clones and competitors out there, and I was lucky enough to receive a CR9 from cloudnetgo in order to test it.

You might remember that I tested the mk802 IV, Rikomagic’s own Quad Core mini PC, and I was not really impressed. Not that it was a bad device in itself, but the software on it had many annoying flaws (wifi issues, video issues,…), and at roughly twice the price of its older brother the mk802 III, I didn’t see the benefit.

The CR9 is cloudnetgo’s own Quad core Mini PC, and its specifications are basically the same as the MK802 IV. But does the CR9 overcome the limitations we found on the MK802 IV? Let’s find out :)

Where to buy

I couldn’t find the CR9 on Amazon so far (shame), but it can be bought on Aliexpress, a reputed subsidiary of alibaba. Aliexpress is a marketplace dedicated to shipping (mostly) Chinese products to the rest of the world. I’ve used them several times and never ran into an issue.

The cloudnetGo CR9 can be found for $82 here

Specifications

Here are the full technical specs of the CR9. If you have looked around for Quad Core mini PCs, these specs will not surprise you as they are very similar to all the other Quad core Android sticks out there:

  • CPU RK3188 Quad Core
  • Main Frequency Cortex-A9 1.8GHz
  • GPU Quad-Core 2D/3D OpenGLES2.0(AMD Z430)/OpenVG1.1 (Mali-400 ,500Mhz )
  • OS Android 4.2
  • RAM 2G DDR3
  • Memory Flash 8G Supports
  • WiFi 2.4G BCM AP6210
  • Bluetooth 4.0 Version
  • Micro SD T-Flash 2G,4G,8G,16G,32G(Maximum support 32GB)
  • Ports HDMI(Mate),Micro TF card ,USB host2.0,USB OTG,USB power port, LED(Blue)
  • Accessory HDMI cable,USB power cable,user manual, USB power adapter (5V/2A) USB-OTG
  • Unit Size(mm) 110*40*10.5mm

The Rockchip RK1388 Quad Core CPU is the key here. It’s a very low power consumption arm CPU, with an embedded Mali-400 quad core GPU. The Mali-400 is a pretty impressive chip, as it guaranteed smooth 1080p playback even in the very first single core mini PCs last year. The CPU’s Quad Core itself helps with multitasking.

A note on the 1.8GHz here, just like I’ve seen for other Mini PCs, the claims that this runs at 1.8GHz seem dubious. For previous sticks, it was clear to me that the announced frequency was actually the sum of the CPU + the GPU frequency, so with the GPU announced at 500MHz I would be inclined to say the CPU actually clocks at 1.3 GHz, although some benchmarks tell me it runs up to 1.6GHz, so I am a bit confused here. But definitely, except on the box, I haven’t seen the 1.8GHz mark. But fair enough, all competitors do the same, and for all I know, that’s a standard way of measuring this in the industry, when the CPU and the GPU are technically on the same chip.

On the paper, this is a quite powerful device for a reasonable price ($82), but we’ve seen with the MK802 IV that bad quality firmware could ruin the nice firmware, so let’s dig deeper

Unpacking and first impressions

cloudnetgo-cr9-package

The package contains what is now the “norm” for these devices: an HDMI adapter, a mini usb to usb adapter, a manual (mostly useless if you have ever used Android before), the device itself, and an A/C adapter.

The A/C adapter is a nice thing to have, as some of these devices don’t include it, and that has led people to confusion regarding the device power consumption in the past. Let me state it here again: You’ll need at least 1.2A at 5V to power the device, but 2A (the power adapter provides that) is recommended.

The HDMI cable is optional, as the device already has a male HDMI port integrated, but if somehow it doesn’t fit right in your TV, you might need the cable.

As far as the device itself is concerned, the cloudnetgo tries to dissociates itself a bit from the mk802 series, with rounded corners, but overall that’s the same overall shape we’ve been used to for the past months with all these Android dongles. Basically the shape of a big usb key.

cloundetgo-cr9-device

This makes the device extremely tiny by the way, compared to whatever electronics you already have in your living room. To give you some perspective, the cloundetgo cr9 is about 5 times smaller (in volume) than an Apple TV or a Roku, and about 200 times smaller than a PS3.

The cloudnetgo CR9 plugs into a female HDMI port on my TV. We also need to plug in the A/C adapter, and a way to control the device. This can be a mouse or a keyboard you’d plug to the USB port, but since we’ll want to use it as a “smart TV”, a usb cable would not be very convenient, so most people plug a wireless controller to their Android stick. In my case, I have successfully used the MK702 II Air mouse (our review of the MK702 II here) on the CR9, as well as the Logitech K400, a keyboard with an integrated touchpad. Both worked really fine and I recommend either one with the CR9. Depending on how much typing you expect to make (will you be doing lots of twitter, facebook, gmail, and internet browsing with the device?) you might prefer a keyboard like the K400, but if you plan to use the CR9 as a media player, an air mouse might be a better fit.

The MK702 II worked out of the box on the CR9, and as soon as we turned the power on, the device booted. Boot time is about 40s, which is in line with the competition.

The main screen is a nice wallpaper with the Android tablet interface. If you’re a seasoned Android user, nothing surprising here, but if you’ve never seen a computer plugged in to your HD TV, the first impression is pretty cool :)

cloudnetgo-cr9-mainscreen

The device chips by default with a few tools, including a file explorer, and audio and a video player, and eHomeMediaCenter which is basically a media manager specific to the Rockchip CPU. Except for maybe that app, you will in general want to replace the default apps with better alternatives from the google play store, but it is nice to know that the device will work fine, out of the box, as a reasonable media center.

Besides those preinstalled apps, the OS is a vanilla Android 4.2. I’m not going to make a lesson on how to use Android today, but one of the first things you’ll want to do is configure your Wifi, and go to the google play store to download more apps, in order to turn the device into your all-in-one Smart TV.

Video

The MK802 IV was plagued with several issues related to video. In particular, Netflix did not work correctly on the latest 4.2 firmware. The issues seems to be shared by all the RK1388 devices, and I was ready to bet that the cloudnet cr9 would have the same issue. To my surprise, it wasn’t the case: The latest version of Netflix (straight from the google play store) worked out of the box on the CR9.

cloudnetgo-cr9-netflix

A side note: for those of you living outside of the US, Netflix is an awesome video streaming service, unfortunately it is restricted to US residents (this is not entirely true as Netflix is progressively expending its support in other countries, but the best selection of movies and TV shows is in the US). Thankfully there are techniques to bypass this restriction, and I have a tutorial on how to configure your Android device to watch Netflix from outside the US. If you are into US TV Shows or hollywood movies, I strongly recommend it. They also have a great selection of shows for kids.

Some people have also mentioned  that RK1388 devices have stutter issues with HD videos. In light of this, it felt to me that sometimes the playback on Netflix wasn’t as smooth as I would have expected, but I am not sure if I was really seeing a problem, or just trying to create the problem…

People who have mentioned these stutter issues also mentioned the same problem playing local HD files, and that at least I can guarantee, did not happen to me. I’ve been using MX Player for more than a year on all of my android devices, and this is by far the best video player I have found for Android. It played videos great on the Dual core MK802 III, and it does even better on the Quad Core cloudnetgo CR9. And to be perfectly clear, I am talking of full 1080p HD, not 720p. Playing local 1080p videos on the cloudnetgo CR9 is a breeze.

Another video application I have tried is of course youtube. There is nothing special to say about it, it basically plays extremely smoothly, including HD content. I did not run into any Wifi issues or video performance problems with youtube on the CR9.

cloudnetgo-cr9-youtube

Last but not least in my video tests, XBMC. XBMC is the king of the video managers on many devices. It’s a great way to sort and manage your TV shows and movies. Sadly XBMC by default is not hardware accelerated for playback on Android. What this means is that HD videos will not play smoothly on the default XBMC version. Thankfully alternatives exist. First of all, a hardware accelerated port of XBMC for android called libstagefright is available. I tested it, and to be clear, it helps a bit, but is still not good enough for 1080p local video files. But fear not, as another fork of xbmc, the xaf custom build, takes another approach, by letting you use MX Player in XBMC, instead of the default XBMC player. I found this to be the best possible experience, to get both the hardware acceleration from MX Player and the great file management system from XBMC.

An additional note on that, some people have told me that the libstagefright XBMC port works perfectly fine for them and has no performance issue. I’ll be bold and say that these people have not properly tested the port. I have tested this on several RK1388 devices with various 1080p files, and I can guarantee that XBMC, “as is” cannot run 1080p files on these Quad Core mini PCs, which is why the MX Player “hack” is currently the best approach by far. Maybe if I have time one day I’ll make a video.

Verdict: the CR9 is a very decent video player. With the combination of Youtube, Netflix, MX Player, and XBMC, I am able to basically play all the videos I want.

Music

I have been less thorough with Audio testing, but the typical applications worked fine for me: Spotify (you might want to see my article on unblock-us if you want to access this US-only radio service from outside of the US), Amazon MP3 (I just love that this app lets me play my music from the cloud, as the CR9, out of the box, only has 8GB of internal memory), and Cube player (a nice MP3 player with cool 3D graphics)

Other applications

One of the benefits of these android devices is that unlike devices such as the Apple TV, they don’t need any complex jailbreaking to do fun stuff. Although they usually aim at making your TV a smart TV, they can pretty much be used for anything you’d use a computer for. I mentioned Web browsing, facebook, twitter, gmail (which all work fine), but I’ve also extensively used the device as an FTP server inside my house, and as an “always on” torrent downloader.

This can be achieved super easily with just a few apps available on the play store.

For the FTP I use Andreas Liebig’s FTP server. This app is extremely easy to set up, and this lets me use the CR9 as a shared drive for all members of my family. Typically, I’ll copy movie files from and to the CR9, in order to watch them directly on the TV.

For torrent downloads I use aDownloader (although the latest version of that bittorrent client is waaaaay less good than what it used to be, because they had to cripple the app in order to follow some google store policy updates… more on that later, but for now I’d suggest to use an older version of the app). The device has achieved very decent download speeds on bittorrent, the limitation in my case being in the writing speed of the SD card rather than the network itself.

Bittorrent cloudnetgo cr9

You can achieve very decent bittorrent download speeds on the cloudnet go cr9

I want to emphasize that this is one of the main benefit of these mini android devices, the possibility to do pretty much anything you want with them, unlike the more restrictive boxes like the Apple TV or the Roku. There are pros and cons to both worlds, and the Apple TV gives you a very unified experience, but the cloudnetgo CR9 and other Android mini PCs basically let you do much more than just a media player (although they’re very good for that purpose).

Gaming and performance benchmarks

I have not tested the CR9 with any games yet, but I’ll assume, based on my other tests of RK1388 devices, that it is a decent device for gaming in terms of performance. What remains to be found is a good wireless gamepad to go with that, I am open to suggestions if you have some.

In terms of pure performance of the device (which matters a lot for games), I ran both the antutu and quadrant benchmarks. It is interesting to note here that these benchmarks refused to run on the default firmware on the MK802 IV, while they ran without a problem on the cloudnet CR9. Additional indication to me that cloudnetgo have put some efforts in providing a good working firmware for their device, unlike what Rikomagic has done with the mk802 IV. Bonus points to cloudnetgo for that, as I think the “battle” now to gain market shares for these companies lies in the quality of their hardware and software, rather than just the raw performance.

The numbers are quite good, in line with Rikomagic’s MK802 IV, see screenshots below

antutu-couldnetgo-cr9

quadrant-cloudnetgo-cr9

Wifi Signal

One of the issues of the MK802 IV on Android 4.2 was a consistent problem with Wifi connections. It was never clear if this was a hardware or firmware problem, but people had to physically hack the Antenna of the device in order to get some decent Wifi signal. I am happy to say that I didn’t have any of these issues on the CR9, Wifi signal is reasonably strong out of the box, with the default firmware.

Power consumption

In my tests I’ve found that the device will run generally fine with 6W of power. 5W leads to random reboots of the device. When adding an external usb hard drive that draws power from the device, I need a total of about 10W. As a matter of comparison, this basically means the device uses less energy to run for 1 week than my living room’s air conditioner needs for 1hour. Based on this, and despite the fast booting time, the device is pretty much always on for me (That is not the case of my TV, which uses much more than that :) )

Accessories

I have been able to use the following accessories successfully on the Cloudnet go CR9. If you have other suggestions of working peripherals, feel free to comment below :)


Conclusion

For $82 (price at the time of this writing on aliexpress) , the cloudnetgo CR9 is an extremely good device. Keep in mind that the device runs a Vanilla android, with all the pros and cons that go with it. It will let you install everything and tinker it as much as you want. This might not be the perfect device for non tech savvy people, but will be extremely satisfying for those of you with a geeky side. Don’t get me wrong: out of the box, it offers a very good experience, the features work as expected (which I couldn’t say of the MK802 IV). One question remains for me, is this simply better hardware than the mk802 IV, or a better firmware, or a combination of both? In any case, today, the cloudnetgo cr9 is now my “make your HD TV a smart tv” device of choice, replacing the MK802 III I had been using for several months.

4 Responses

  1. B

    Hi,
    What is the URL for that special XBMC build with MX Player? =)

    I am having a terrible time with video stutter on the Rikomagic IV – sending it back. Hope this one is better =)

  2. […] reviewed several of these quad cores in the past (including the MK802 IV and the cloudnet go CR9), all of them running on the Rockchip RK3188 CPU. All of these devices however had terrible issues […]

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