Without doubt, Plex is one of the best media applications you can and should install if you are serious in building an organized disc-less home theater system. It works by creating an digital media ecosystem of server where all your movies are indexed and cataloged, and player(s) to connect to the server and stream the movies. I can create a long blog post just to share all the great things that I love from Plex, but I will save both my time and yours to go straight to their website to know more about it and download the apps.
For years, my Mac minis had been the primary device for both Plex Media Server and Plex Home Theater (the player). Started with the old 2010 Mac mini with 2.4GHz Core2Duo processor which served me well for over 3 years. Then as Plex functionality grew, C2D processor no longer held up to directly convert my movie files and stream it to mobile devices. I then upgraded it to Mac mini 2012 with 2.3GHz Quad Core i7 processor, which has been able to handle multiple devices without breaking a sweat.
A dilemma was faced when I needed a better working station as my Macbook Air was no longer enough to serve for web development jobs I had been doing in my home office. Initially I was thinking to buy an iMac with Fusion Drive, but then I had an idea to use my i7 Mac mini instead since it actually had a superb processing power. The idea was, it would still run Plex Server since I would not watch movies and working at the same time. The challenge was to find a suitable device to replace the Mac mini for the player as I had to move it out from the bedroom. The simple solution would be to buy another Mac mini, but was very uneconomical and unpractical because I did not need another server. So the search began…
Considering Plex’s excellent multi-platform adoption, I could easily buy a Chromecast for less than $40 and install Plex app there. But I needed more than just a video streamer. It would be playing high definition media files and connected to my Yamaha YSP-2500 soundbar, so certain requirements were needed:
- handles 1080p movies
- supports Dolby Digital and DTS encoding
- good design
- space saving
There were a few contenders at the time, including Intel NUC, Roku and Raspberry Pi 2. All seemed like good options, but did not qualify to all the specifications.
Enter MINIX NEO Z64
After a thorough market research, I discovered about MINIX NEO Z64 and it was the closest one to meet all my requirements. It comes in two flavors: MINIX NEO Z64A which is basically an Android TV box and shipped with Android Kit Kat 4.4 and MINIX NEO Z64W is actually a micro PC shipped with Windows 8.1 Bing Edition. The MINIX Z64A retails at around $130 and came with and IR remote, while the Z64W is slightly more expensive at $160 due to the Windows 8.1 license and it does not come with IR remote.
The coolest thing is, you can install Windows on MINIX Z64A and vice versa, following the instructions provided by user Gadget Friendly on MINIX forums.
Under the hood these models have the same hardware specifications:
- Intel Bay Trail (Intel Z3735F, 64-bit) CPU
- Intel HD Graphics GPU
- 2GB RAM
- 32GB eMMC ROM
- 2 x USB 2.0 ports
- MicroSD slot
- Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n
- Bluetooth 4.0
- 1 x Headphone jack
- 1 x HDMI port
- 1 x Ethernet jack
I decided to order Z64A because I wanted to try Plex for Android first. I had only known Plex on Mac OS X and iOS environments, but both Android and Windows versions were new territories for me. I was not sure if there would be limitations as Plex player compared to my Mac mini.
In addition, I also bought the MINIX NEO A2 Lite which is a wireless keyboard and air mouse. This was necessary for me and is highly recommended to make your life easier when required to type during inital setup, browsing or searching for anything. Otherwise you would be stuck with the on screen keyboard. The A2 Lite works on both the Android and Windows OS versions.
Some sellers sell both MINIX NEO Z64A and A2 Lite in a bundle which could save you some bucks.
The Z64A came with the following inside the box:
- 1 x MINIX NEO Z64
- 1 x Remote controller (remember: the remote is not included on Z64W)
- 1 x AC power charger
- 1 x HDMI cable
- 1 x USB cable
- 1 x user manual
The main device is well built with very compact form and is have strong resemblence with the Apple TV, except for the wi-fi antenna. At its price point, there was nothing to complain about the build quality, if not better than I had expected. I had seen Android TV set top box with ugly casing and finish.
MINIX NEO Z64A with Plex for Android
Installation was very straightforward: just plug it to a power source and TV, some initial setup then I was ready to go. As a standalone media player, the Z64A came with Kodi which is another excellent multi-platform media manager and player so you could easily use it independently. However my quest was to make it work with my Plex Media Server and I did not want to bother migrating years of media collection to a different system, so the next step for me was to install Plex for Android from the Google App Store.
Unfortunately Plex for Android did not really work well for me because of the native support of the media formats. Many of them could not direct-play and had to be transcoded by Plex Media Server on-the-fly. This lead to one very particular problem: it lost the original media file’s quality in particular the surround audio encoding (DD/DTS). I could not accept this.
Then for a short time, I managed to live by using Kodi by adding the PleXBMC plugin. It allowed me to connect to my Plex Media Server while using Kodi’s media player which supports more formats including Dolby Digital and DTS. But this set up was not meant to last also. First I had to settle for losing the nice Plex interface, then it took extra few steps to open up my media library, finally the plugin had few bugs which prevented me to connect to Plex Server from time to time for no obvious reason.
The time came to test the Windows version of MINIX Z64.
MINIX NEO Z64W with Plex Home Theater
Following the instructions given, I have to say anyone who have done clean install of Windows on their PC before should not face much problem. Just a reminder that you need to purchase your own Windows license when upgrading from Z64A and while the CPU is 64-bit, MINIX NEO Z64 only supports Windows 32-bit version. MINIX also officially provided the BIOS conversion files and Windows drivers.
Next step is to install Plex Home Theater for Windows (32-bit version). Nothing special about it, just like installing other Win application. Upon first launch, I was asked to connect to Plex account and it detected my Plex Media Server immediately. Happy to say, PHT has very consistent interface between the one for Mac OS X and one for Windows.
The tricky part is with the hardware setup. PHT requires you to set the right hardware support in order for it to work smoothly. In particular the audio, you want to make sure your audio system actually supports any of the preferences options, whether it is for Dolby Digital, DTS, DTS-HD and so on. Failing to do this and you might get stuttering playback. It took a few attempts for me to got this part right.
Once all set, I played some of my favorite movies. The MINIX Z64 + PHT were able to play all the movies on my media library. Most of them are in MKV format with DTS or Dolby Digital 5.1 or 7.1 audio. Surround channels were distributed accurately and it had no problem handling up to 1080p resolution.
Some other reviewers mentioned that the Z64 was able to handle 4K videos. I haven’t tried this myself because I do not have 4K TV and while the CPU is able to decode 4K video, it would be pointless if the HDMI port is not version 2.0 which is required to deliver the output to UltraHD TVs.
Another interesting subject is the latest buzz in digital video format: HEVC h.265 support. H.265 format allows even better compression for HD movies. Unfortunately it is hardware dependant and Intel Bay Trail does not have the hardware support. It would be awesome though if MINIX could release future products with CPU that is compatible with HEVC H.265. They have the NEO X8-H Plus, but it only comes with Android OS option therefore no PHT.
Since my Plex setup relies so much on good networking to stream from my home office upstairs to my bedroom, this is the only element that I am quite disappointed with MINIX NEO Z64. The wireless connection is not that good despite the external antenna. I ended up having to buy TP-LINK RE200 AC750 Wi-Fi Extender and connect it to the ethernet port to get the best and most consistent network connection.
IR Receiver on Windows
You would probably interested to know that the IR receiver is not working when running under Windows. I still cannot understand why MINIX has not created the driver to support it. But the A2 Lite keyboard works flawlessly, so it is not a deal breaker.
Using It as Plex Media Server
While NEO Z64 has just the right hardware to play common media formats, I would not recommend it to use it as Plex Media Server. Particularly if you are planning to use it to serve multiple devices that require transcoding. It does not have enough beef and you still need to invest on a better machine for the server.
Getting into the third month with the Z64W + PHT setup, I am very happy with it. It is a solid replacement for the player. Compared to $500 Mac mini, it is a huge money saver with only 1/3 of the price plus it uses less energy. The concept of releasing a product that allow customers to select between Android and Windows is very interesting. I hope MINIX will continue the development of this product line and improving a few shortcomings mentioned above.
Update November 2015:
Late October 2015 Plex officially introduced Plex Media Player as the successor of Plex Home Theater. Currently it is only available for PlexPass users and in 64-bit version for Windows 7+. Since MINIX NEO Z64 only allows you to install Windows in 32-bit version, unless Plex Media Player will be available for the 32-bit OS, you may not be able to install it ever. However I am going to keep my fingers crossed. Besides, Plex Home Theater is still a very solid and mature application and I have no doubt it will still be able to play most files served from Plex Media Server for many years to come.