I like small form factor (SFF) devices like Intel’s NUC (next unit of computing) platform, but it is not the only SFF platform around. While the smaller devices are handy as a PC, they can also do double duty as a digital signage platform, a media center PC, or even a small file server. Using one of these systems versus support built into a smart TV includes the use of a more powerful processor, more storage, and more connectivity options. The device is also under your control versus a smart TV, where you are dependent upon the manufacturer to provide updates—especially in this age of security issues.
I recently had a chance to give Azulle’s Byte 3 fanless mini-PC a test run (Fig. 1). This compact platform is a little larger than a NUC, but this allows more space for a 2.5-in SATA drive. It also supports M.2 SATA modules as well. The 2.5-in drives tend to be less expensive and available in higher capacities than the M.2 SATA flash modules. You also have the option to use a flash drive or a disk drive.
The Byte 3 sits nicely on a counter, but there is an optional VESA mount and Kensington Lock support (Fig. 2). The VESA support is standard on HDTVs, allowing the unit to be mounted on the back away from prying eyes and hands. The system has HDMI and VGA outputs allowing it to work with HDTVs and monitors. VGA support may actually be a good reason to choose the Byte 3 over a NUC that typically only comes with an HDMI interface. The video support can handle 4K displays at 60 frames/s. This puts it a step above the Azulle Access Plus, a fanless mini PC stick, that I reviewed previously. The stick only handles 1080p displays.
The system should support 4K Blu-ray, but you will need a USB drive that is compatible, as well as matching software. Cyberlink’s PowerDVD is supposed to support this.
The Byte 3 is built around Intel’s 64-bit, quad-core, N3450 Apollo Lake processor. This 1.1 GHz system has 2 Mbytes of cache and supports burst mode up to 2.2 GHz. The low-power chip eliminates the need for a fan, so the system is silent. It can get a bit warm if a SATA drive is included. A hard disk can add to the noise factor, but that tends to be limited unless the drive is failing. Of course, 2.5-in SSDs are silent.
The chip has Intel’s HD Graphics 500 built-in. I found the Intel configuration software to be useful since it allowed control of the display interface on an older Westinghouse HDTV I had handy. The default comes up with the edges of the Windows desktop clipped. This was not an issue with new 4K HDTVs I tried it with. If you run into this issue, adjust the custom aspect ratio.
The $199 version comes with 4 Gbytes of RAM and 32 Gybtes of eMMC flash storage. Doubling the amount of RAM ups the price to $337, and it is not field upgradable. The 4 Gbytes was fine for me, although I did add a Micron SSD (Fig. 3). The problem is that the bundled Microsoft Windows 10 Pro operating system takes up a sizable chunk of the built-in flash. There is enough for applications, and even Microsoft Office fits on it nicely, but an additional drive is handy if you plan on larger applications or using it for storing files such as videos.
The system will support an M.2 SATA and a 2.5-in SATA drive, but Azulle recommends that only one be used to keep heat and power requirements to a minimum. Not including M.2 PCI Express support makes a lot of sense for the Byte 3 for applications such as a media center or digital signage, because SATA is just fine for streaming video.
Even larger external USB 3 drives can be attached. The system has a number of USB 2 and 3 ports, including a Type C port. There is also an SD card socket for removable media.
There is not much up front other than the power button. There is a hidden IR receiver that works with the IR remote that is included with the system. This is likely to be used on a media center PC. The remote is a minimal controller with buttons for functions like muting and volume, as well as cursor control and selection. There is also a power button.
The remote is useful with an application like the Kodi home theater application. I connected Kodi to my MythTV backend that is hooked up to a Silicon Dust HD HomeRun network DVR device. It is useful if the system is configured for automatic log in and then starting Kodi, but that depends upon your application. Kodi can be installed from the Windows App Store.
The Bluetooth support is handy for wireless keyboard and mouse interfaces. Azulle also has a handheld keyboard remote that may be preferable for media center use. I found it handy for casual web browsing, as it has a full keyboard and is more functional than the IR remote.
The system has a Gigabit Ethernet port, as well as dual-band Wi-Fi. Both handle streaming video well.
Initial set up is easy since Windows 10 Pro is already installed. It is a matter of setting up an account. I prefer local only, but Microsoft tends to push its web-based account. This is useful for accessing OneDrive or other web-based file services, although I can use Dropbox with only a local account.
Installing the SATA SSD was a simple task of removing a few screws and plugging in the drive. Then it is a matter of adding the screws for the drive and closing up the box. The challenge is that the drive is now the D: drive unless you perform some gymnastics to make it a boot drive and set up Windows. Using the system with Linux allows LVM to be used to blend multiple drive partition into one, although mapping partitions on the SATA drive tends to be a better and simpler way to go.
The Byte 3 will not take on a Core i9 gaming machine, but that is not its intended application space. It provides plenty of horsepower for a 4K media center, and that is what I have been using it for so far. The VESA mounting support makes it very interesting for digital signage applications.