An anonymous phone-sized brown box of mystery materialized on my desk a little while ago – nary a single bit of text on it anywhere to give a clue to it’s provenance. Did I accidentally order another Chinadroid from eBay? Read on to find out what I discovered within it…
What is it?
As it turns out, it’s another tiny example of a PC using the Intel Atom Z3735F all-in-one chipset, the eponymous “Benton BT-VX5“.
If you’ve not read up on the Intel Z3735F, take a moment to read the Mele MiniPC review. The Benton crams a basic PC (quad-core cpu capable of 1.83GHz, 2Gb of RAM, 30Gb of solid-state disk, Wifi, HDMI, USB2, card-reader, and 32-bit Windows 8.1w/Bing) into a slab of aluminium about the same size as your palm. It’s capable of running pretty-much any regular Windows applications that can fit within those hardware specs, and therefore makes a good desktop replacement, or media-centre, network appliance, checkout controller etc as would any previous generation PC from 3-4 years ago. All this for under $230 delivered in Australia, or less than 2x the price of a Windows8.1 licence on it’s own.
How is it different to the Mele MiniPC I looked at last month?
Where the Benton MiniPC is different to the Mele MiniPC is in connectivity – you get (from left to right) a 2x full-size USB2, 1x MicroUSB2 (sort-of) 1x Micro HDMI, a MicroSD card reader, and a 3.5mm audio jack. There’s a hard-to-press power button on the far-right, a red power-on LED between the two USB ports, a barely-visible red “charging” LED inside near the HDMI socket, and absolutely no other bits visible anywhere else.
The Mele MiniPC offered most of these plus dual-display-capable VGA, 1 more USB, dedicated power, and wired LAN ports as well, for $30-odd more. The Micro-USB on the Benton MiniPC should really be considered a power-input port only though, as it’s got no other dedicated way to get power into it. WiFi and Bluetooth round out the wireless connectivity. But, it’s surprisingly heavy, so there must be more to it…..
The giblets within
I thought it’s weight might be down to the metal casing, but a quick quiz at the manual suggested it should have a battery inside it as well.
From the pics, you can see, the Benton MiniPC is packed with two 1500MAh Li-Ion phone-style battery packs, and the all-in-one circuit board that hosts the CPU, RAM and solid-state eMMC hard drive. Supposedly, you’ll get over an hour from those packs, provided they’ve been charged fully – I had initially charged mine from a USB phone charger for an hour or so, and the TV’s USB was then powerful enough to maintain the state of charge with desktop use.
It’s held together by some screws that are hidden under a stick-on cover on the plastic ends. The two USB ports are on a separate daughterboard that’s labelled as a VX5HUB.
As for the rest of the Benton MiniPC package, there’s only a slim manual, a Micro-HDMI->HDMI cable for display, and a Micro-USB->USB cable for charging it. You’ll need to come up with your own keyboard/mouse (Bluetooth or USB) to get started, an HDMI-equipped TV or monitor to use as a display, a WiFi access point to give it networking, and you should be good to go.
There’s no power supply, but given most recent powerboards have a USB-charging port, and USB chargers for phones are common enough, they don’t really need to provide one in the package. Power usage is under 10watts anyway (about $20-worth of power / year), and you’d be hard pressed to find a regular light bulb that uses so little power. The USB port on the TV that I use for testing was able to maintain the charge of the battery, so you could hide the PC behind a TV and connect just the USB cable and the HDMI cable. Not all TV USB ports might put out enough power to run this though, so if your TV does, it’s a bonus. One quirk of having a battery attached is that if Windows crashes, you’ll need to press and hold the power button for 10 seconds to power it off, as just pulling the USB power cable won’t do that.
Most of the manual is dedicated to explaining basic usage of the Windows8.1 interface, so I’ll not reproduce all of it here. The only common traps to watch out for are to charge it up before trying to power it on, and if a HDMI-connected TV has no sound, the audio will have defaulted to the analogue headphone socket, so you’ll need to dive into the Control Panel -> Sound applet to change the default to the TV HDMI digital audio.
What can you do with it?
You can do almost anything that a regular low-priced Windows desktop PC built on an all-in-one-motherboard can do, except play 3D video games.
The Benton MiniPC comes out of the box running genuine activated Windows 8.1 with Bing 32-bit version, just like the Mele MiniPC – there’s no CD-Key sticker, as the key is buried in the firmware somewhere – the Magical Jellybean Keyfinder will happily extract it for you. It’s upgradeable via a physical key upgrade pack (5VR-00140 around $140 delivered), and this product key, once entered, upgrades the base 8.1 O/S to 8.1 Pro in a few minutes.
As with the Mele MiniPC, you can easily remote-control it with the free Google Remote Desktop app over the Internet or your local network, and dispense with the keyboard/mouse if you plan on using it to run a TV or act as a headless network storage appliance. The beauty of using Google Remote Desktop is that there’s no fiddling with routers required to expose and find the PC across the Internet. I’ve read that if you turn off the display it’s attached to, a PC like this may go to sleep or stop responding to remote-control apps – I didn’t experience this, but there are apps out there that will emulate a monitor when there isn’t one connected.
The nominal 30Gb of hard drive space gets reduced by the provision of a Windows recovery partition of 3.7Gb, so around 22-24Gb of space is actually usable by you for files.
It’ll make a decent remote-desktop client, and a low-power file sharer / downloader box (more storage could be connected via USB2 or Flash Memory). For media playback, USB2 is plenty fast enough to stream video from. The only caveat I can think of is that the battery needs to be charged up for it to work, so if you load the CPU to max all the time, you might find it’ll run the battery down after a few hours even when plugged in. Use it to make a dumb TV smarter by installing Kodi or Windows MCE – head over to the Mele MiniPC review to see the details on doing all of these things, and more, with it.
Usually, when you open up a new PC for the first time, you expect to spend ages taking a whipper-snipper to all the bundled crapware and trial offers – not with this one though. The only bundled software I found were a couple of little mystery icons hiding in the tray near the time/date – “PC Remote Control” and “Control Centre”.
The “PC remote Control” is a listener for a free companion Android app by Thread Technology that lets you use your Android phone as a mouse across your local WiFi network. Perfect if you want to use this as a TV media centre and just need to navigate menus / press enter, as the app does not have any keyboard inputs for typing.
To use it, download/install/open the Android app, then go to the Benton MiniPC and find it’s IP address by opening the PC Remote Control in the tray, then on your phone, enter the IP in the Android app. It acts as a virtual trackpad with left-right mouse buttons on one screen, and offers arrow-key/Enter key emulation, along with Power/Windows and audio controls, when you swipe to it’s other screen. If you want to use this all the time, I’d suggest reserving the PC’s IP in your router so it does not change across reboots.
The “Control Centre” app gives you shortcuts to power, on-screen keyboard, calculator, and microphone, plus a quick summary of the hardware specs pulled from the mainboard.
If you click on the pic to get a bigger view, you’ll also see the Atto Disk bench scores – over 60mb/sec write, and over 170mb/sec read – better read than any consumer-grade spinning disks, although it was a little slower than the disk included in the Mele MiniPC (100w/220r).
There are lots of uses for a PC this tiny, cheap and low-powered – In-car computer or caravan media player (no moving parts to bump, and it’s easily powered by a cigarette-socket USB adapter), digital signage display controller, with source material on easily-swappable SD memory cards, web pages, or upgradeable over the network, scanning station for pickers and packers with a USB scanner, headless VPN-connected “downloader” (for content located far away from Australia’s content landords and their archaic business models), a bargain-basement cash-register or restaurant system, a budget web-server for intranet use, and so on. I’ve stuck one to the back of a 24inch PC monitor to make a cheap all-in-one PC for the boss.
You can update the Windows 8.1 install to Windows 10 on this unit during the free upgrade period, but as of 25th August 2015, there’s no official Win10 driver for the included Wifi chipset. You can use the Win8.1 driver though, as it’s the same – there’s a walkthrough on upgrading, and links to the driver, at ChinaGadgetReviews.
Value and summing up
I’ve seen similar PCs to this overseas for USD 150 – the local price in AUD is a little higher, but you get local warranty and faster shipping in exchange. For someone who wants the familiarity of Windows on a single TV or monitor, for very little dough, this is ideal. If you want more connectivity and two displays, consider the Mele MiniPC instead.