Review

Our review of the PiPO X7: The $128 quad-core Windows 8.1 mini PC

The PiPO X7 is everything good and everything bad you could ever want out of a mini PC. It came with headaches that'll leave you asking "why?" but those headaches are easily fixed and leave you satisfied fairly quickly. I unboxed the PiPO X7 a couple of months ago and since that post, my impressions of the device have changed quite dramatically. If you haven't already checked out that post I advise you to do it before reading my full review, if not for the contrast in impressions, then for the photo gallery of the PiPO X7.

Design, ports and expansion

The PiPO X7 measures 188mm x 150mm x 24mm, which is - more or less - the size of your average router. The front facing side of the device has, starting from left to right, a power button, an LED indicating whether the mini PC is switched on, two full-sized USB 2.0 ports, and a headphone jack input. Both the left and right sides of the device are just grills. Moving to the rear of the device there is an SD-card slot, two more full-sized USB 2.0 ports, a full-sized HDMI port, a 10/100 LAN port, and an input for the 12V DC-in. The rear of the device has a full-sized antenna for WiFi. The bottom of the device is just a large grill with a similar pattern to the grills on the left and right of the PiPO X7, along with the addition of four rubber feet for the mini PC to rest on.

The entire case is made up of two pieces of aluminum, where everything aside from the bottom panel is a single piece of metal. It comes in a number of different color configurations, including silver, black and gold-toned. Regardless of which color you choose, the bottom panel will always be in the standard silver. In my initial first impressions post I mentioned the Klingon-worthy bright red LED, but I got used to it pretty quickly. I'd still much rather a white LED, but it wasn't as annoying as I had expected.

Before moving onto the device's performance, I'm going to stop to explain my adventure with the PiPO X7. It's worth mentioning that any owner of the PiPO X7 will have to go through the same process if they want a usable device.

The PiPO X7 journey

Most manufacturers seem to want to test their devices to make sure they're defect-free. This wasn't the case with PiPO. It seems that the folk at PiPO must really not care about heat, as the device came with virtually no cooling whatsoever. The device has no fan making it fanless, but with fanless computing comes great responsibility. My journey began by having the PiPO X7 completely lock up every 10 minutes or so and, at the same time, Microsoft's built-in antimalware protection would spike up. Erroneously I thought that the latter was causing the former, similar to my laptop -- I own an ASUS UX21E Zenbook, and this is not only a common hardware issue but the kind folk at ASUS refuse to fix it. But with the Zenbook, the Disk Usage usually spikes to 100% when that happens. With the PiPO X7, the Disk Usage wasn't reporting that it was going that high. It was also unlikely that the PiPO X7's storage was summoned from fires of hell as was the case with the ASUS.

Five small heatsinks are stuck to a metal plate which covers the RAM modules and processor. The metal plates make contact with the chips through 1mm Phobya XT thermal pads.

Ignoring it, though, I proceeded to try to benchmark this thing. It took five hours to get through a single 3D Mark benchmark and the scores were something I'd seen from a Celeron back in the early 'noughties'. Clearly something was wrong, and it was likely to do with throttling. I'm familiar with smartphones and tablets throttling once they hit a certain temperature, but when touching the case of the PiPO X7 it was as cold as ice, and since aluminum is a good heat conductor, it should have been transferring whatever heat there was away from the PCB and into the case.

Or so I thought.

I installed a temperature reader and boy oh boy, this thing was hitting low 80's when just idling. The TJMax on this SoC is 90 degrees so I was literally edging the device the entire time. That's why it was running so slow: the processor would throttle itself lower and lower the closer it gets to the TJMax, causing the effect I was experiencing. Googling this phenomenon led me to discover that I wasn't the only one who had learned this, and there was already a community dedicated to modding the mini PC's cooling. I went ahead and purchased a set of aluminum heatsinks and thermal pads and began modding the device.

Eventually, after the mods were complete, the temperatures went down to high 30's when idling and high 40's to low 50's when streaming Plex or Netflix with a 1080p video playing in Windows Media Player. When doing a torture test on Prime95 it ends up in the mid 60's. The total cost of the mods was about $15. The above modifications are something that have to be done with the device, there is no "ifs" or "buts." If you plan on owning this device, you would have to perform the mods.

I could have either benchmarked it and reviewed it with an obvious disadvantage, or I could have modded the device and reviewed it as it should have been. At the end of the day it is a PC and it's extremely accessible to modify: literally 12 screws to tear the entire thing down. Given all of this, I decided to mod the device and review it with the mods. The final score, the performance tests, all of this should be taken with the knowledge that this is done with the cooling mods and not off the shelf.

A 5mm thermal pad sits directly on the underside of the processor and RAM modules on the other side of the PCB and links to the bottom plate. This was the easiest, quickest and most successful mod done, reducing the temperature by about 15 degrees on its own.

Under the hood

Specifications and connectivity

The PiPO X7 has a Baytrail quad-core Intel Atom Z3736F which has 2M of cache and a turbo clock speed of 2.16 GHz (1.33 GHz standard). It comes with 2 GB of RAM (made by Samsung) and 32 GB of storage. It supports the standard 802.11n/g/b WiFi and also supports Bluetooth 4.0. It has "Intel HD Graphics" as a GPU -- I have no idea what that is but it seems to be on the lower end of the scale. It doesn't have gigabit Ethernet, but it does support 10/100. The WiFi speeds were all stable and strong which was something I had initially been concerned about.

The entire thing idles at 7W or so, so you're able to keep it on 24/7 without much concern about electricity usage.

Benchmarks

I kept to 3D Mark for benchmarking. The PiPO X7 scored a little over 14,000 in the Ice Storm tests, averaging 63 FPS and 61 FPS for the first and second graphics tests respectively.

While these are not the world's greatest benchmark scores, they're really not that bad, and because the BIOS is so open you're actually able to dedicate as much RAM as you want to the GPU (the standard is 32 MB I believe) which should increase graphics performance.

Video playback

I experienced absolutely no issues whatsoever playing back any type of content. This included everything from Netflix through to Kodi, as well as all sorts of weird and exotic file types. Whatever you can play on Windows can be played on this device.

I multitasked video playback, including playing things on Netflix in one tab and playing back a YouTube video in another, and at the same time playing a 1080p video in Windows Media Player. It all worked as smooth as you would expect, which was extremely reassuring as to how far the Intel Atom has come in the last 5 years or so.

The OS and bloatware

It came with a full-blown installation of Windows 8.1 (with Bing). Although the processor is 64-bit capable, it comes with just a 32-bit version of Windows. The operating system is as you'd expect, having all of the bells and whistles of a normal Windows 8.1 installation. I won't cover the standard Windows 8.1 bloat, but it is worth mentioning that the PiPO X7 comes with one free year of Microsoft Office 365 with the Office Suite pre-installed.

It booted up within seconds as you'd expect from a Windows machine and receives updates just as frequently as any other Windows machine.

The BIOS on the PiPO X7 gives a user so much freedom that it hovers on being borderline destructive. The user is able to change everything, and by everything I mean everything. The OEM hasn't restricted a single thing, giving the user the ability to destroy their mini PC without even realizing it (such as by accidently disabling the USB ports and thereby permanently disabling the mouse/keyboard). If you know your way around a BIOS (and I don't just mean experience, I mean for those who literally program them) then you'll really enjoy what the PiPO has to offer in this regard.

Accessories

The PiPO X7 only comes with a 12V DC power plug. Nothing fancy at all from this end, but in essence there really isn't anything else they're able to bundle with the device. I can't remember whether or not it came with an HDMI cable, but I'm fairly certain it didn't.

Final thoughts

Let's get a few facts down: the PiPO X7 has a very capable SoC, the case feels extremely solid and the internals seem to be great for the price. I can't recommend it enough for anyone who just wants to browse the web, do some word processing or watch a few movies. If you're the type to crunch nested loops in MATLAB or do some high-end video editing then this might not be for you, but this is more than enough for a large section of the market.

..after the mods. Without the cooling mods, the device is the type to collect dust on your shelf. But I really don't think it's that much of an issue or a deal breaker. The mods take five minutes to perform and can be done by a toddler with steady hands. Yes, they're annoying to do, but they're cheap and it works wonders. I'm not sure why PiPO overlooked such a critical element of their mini PC, especially considering they're not at all new to building such devices and have a plethora of existing devices without such ridiculous cooling problems. Without the mods, I give the device a solid 2/10, with two points for effort. With the mods, however, the score will be much higher: it is everything you could ever want from a $128 mini PC (yes, we want 802.11ac, USB 3.0 and gigabit Ethernet but look at the price) and I can't see it slowing down any time soon. Factoring in the cost of the cooling mods, the price of the mini PC is still extremely reasonable.

If you're after a mini PC as a media center or a simple computer for your parents or children, then I can't recommend the PiPO X7 enough. But there is one more caveat: the PiPO X7 has been discontinued and has been replaced with the PiPO X7S, which is basically the same thing but flashed with dual-boot Android and Windows. You can reflash it with a Windows-only BIOS if you want, and I received the Windows-only version for this review. It is possible that they have fixed the heat issues in this latest revision, but I wouldn't bet on it.

tl;dr willing to spend five minutes to mod it into perfection? Buy. Expecting it to be buttery out of the box? Pass.

A big thank you to our friends at Gearbest who supplied the device for this review and put up with me while I spent a couple months modding and experimenting with it. If you are interested in picking one of these up, Gearbest has the PiPO X7S (the dual-boot variation) available for sale at $128 with free shipping.

 

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