I Recently wrote about the Apple TV’s rise to market and how it’s fueling the next generation of living rooms. Because we love all technology products here at Cool Blind Tech, it wouldn’t be fair to provide just one line of thought to low-cost computing. By all means, the Apple TV fits this term as well, though with very limited platform capabilities combined with an ARM processor.
Why is this ARM processor distinction so important? Traditional personal computers use x86 Intel or AMD-based processors, such as the Core i3, i5, AMD E1, or numerous other ones on the market. Cell phones use ARM-based designed machines, and Qualcomm has been leading that space for quite some time with their Snapdragon processors. Apple’s A-series chips are also ARM, and so are the Samsung Exenos line.
What you need to know is that ARM has lead the standard for cool and power efficient processors for quite some time now, hence their rise in mobile phones and tablets. X86 has enjoyed better performance but certainly higher power consumption. This lead Intel to design fanless processors, such as the Core M and Intel Atom chips. How well this “fanless” idea stacks up, though, is a different story, and we’ll see later in this review. For now, keep this in mind as you read about InFocus’ Kangaroo PC.
What? A Kangaroo PC?
Yes, you read that right. This computer is available on NewEgg for $99 or $150CAD. The Microsoft Store also sells it for the same price and in both the dock is included. On its own, the Dock will cost $39.
So let’s back up. What do you get for $100? Compared to other products, is this worth the deal?
- An Intel Atom z8500 processor, clocked in at 1.44 gHZ, with turbo-boost up to 2.24 gHZ.
- 2 GB of ddr3-1600 low-power ram. The ram is not upgradeable, as common for this form factor.
- 32 GB of built-in storage.
- A fingerprint reader, which works with Windows Hello.
- A dock, which includes an HDMI port, USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports, and an AC adapter.
- A small battery which holds up to 4 hours of charge.
- 802.11A/B/G/N/AC wi-fi, with Bluetooth 4.0. It uses an Intel chip.
- Ability to hook up to an iPad with included Linx software to provide touch and remote control capability.
- A switch that can trigger remote screenless access through VNC.
- Windows 10 home, 64-bit.
Not too shabby, right? The next competitor is the Intel Stick-PC, which costs $150 and offers similar components with a built-in fan and no battery or fingerprint reader. The Kangaroo PC beats this to the punch by providing a battery and dock-system which has potential for expansion in the future. InFocus has stated that docks with more ports will come later during the year. For now, we’re left with a computer which has some confusing limitations, a few issues, and some very interesting use cases that are no doubt worth a try to experience.
But can it fit inside a pouch?
Physically, the device is about the size of a 2.5″ portable hard drive, the smaller ones that use a laptop-grade disk. It measures 805 x 124 x 12.9 millimeters, so it would definitely fit the hard drive mold. If you know how the iPhone 6 Plus looks, you might get a clearer idea of this one, though it is a bit wider and perhaps less tall. Very light, the PC weighs 200G without the dock. When this dock is not attached, it’s pretty barebones. A logo adorns the center-top part of the machine, which helps with orientation. At the bottom, you will find small round holes which are used to secure the dock into place on either side. On the bottom center there is a port that looks similar to the old iPod connector: it’s also 40-pin, and is used to provide power to the kangaroo for charging and use.
The left side features a grill for ventilation near the bottom, and a Micro-USB and micro-SD slot in the center, vertically on top of each other. You can use this Micro USB to charge the battery, though at a much slower rate than the power-plug would do. The top is empty except for two more grills on the right, while on the other side you will find most of the other hardware features, with a round power button, fingerprint window, and switch going from top to bottom.
About the dock
The dock is integral to your Kangaroo experience. When you first open the box, it already comes attached, so that it fits the width of the box entirely. When detached, it is the size of a small adapter, only about 2-3 CM (an inch) in length. It attaches to that 40-pin connector mentioned earlier.
One difficulty I found is that orientation does matter with this one. Surprisingly, the dock will fit on in either direction, but will only function in one. It was difficult at first to know how it attaches, especially as there are no tactile indicators if its correct. Fortunately, there is a simple way of knowing! When oriented properly, ports on the dock are arranged as HDMI, USB 2.0, USB 3.0, and AC adapter. Simply ensuring that the round adapter port is on the right side will help you attach it firmly, every time, any time.
The case of no audio jacks
You might have noticed that among this review’s sections, I never mentioned audio jack support. This was perhaps the first puzzlement I faced when using the Kangaroo. Indeed, audio comes through HDMI by default, though you can easily attach a USB soundcard or use Bluetooth for outputting sound. The very curious case here is that “speakers” are listed in Windows’ sound properties, and there does exist an Intel SST Audio device which provides both a speaker and HDMI audio outputs. This makes me feel as though in the future, docks with a headphone jack are quite possible — so as long as it can interface with the proper hardware inside. For now though, you’ll have to contend with providing sound in some other creative way. The good news is that the dock does not require power from the AC adapter to work. This means that you could always have 2 USB ports at your disposal. Since one of these is a 3.0 port, you could buy a hub that provides one or two additional USB slots and have enough to power all your accessory needs.
Setting up and initial use
With computers like these, knowing when it is turned on is more difficult at times for some. There are lights to indicate various power states, so you can rely on that to know when things change. From the factory, there is a “ship lock” implemented, which means that until you plug it into power, the Kangaroo will not turn on. This is to ensure that the power button does not get pressed during shipping. Plugging it in is very simple, only requiring the power brick and included extension chord for operation. You might have to push in the end of the plug into the round port, especially if it feels loose – the final attachment is very snug and secure.
It only takes one small press of the power button for things to start computing. While there is no hard drive, pressing the underside of this PC to your ear will reveal a small static sound of the various chips at work. You can use this sound to know what is happening. The dock is hot-pluggable, which means that you can attach or detach it at anytime, even if the computer is working. If you detach it, power will switch to the built-in battery seamlessly. So it’s a laptop… In the form factor of a desktop.
If it’s attached to your television and everything is configured right on it, sound will automatically come through as HDMI audio. Pressing Windows + Enter will launch Narrator, or you can press Windows +U to open up other accessibility options. Windows 10 setup is simple and very responsive, though be warned that if you connect to wi-fi networks right away, it will download the November update instantly, which will cause you to wait hours upon hours as it installs. Oy, Microsoft. I skipped Wi-fi and used a local account to get things going.
Performance and heat consumption
Now comes the knowledge I mentioned earlier about ARM and X86. Intel chips that use turbo boost do so based on the temperature of the processor. This Atom chip can go all the way up to 2.24 gHZ, which isn’t bad for a low-cost processor. It probably puts it slightly on-par with the Celeron 2957U, or any low-end chip such as found in the HP Stream laptop as well. With no fan though, we get a different picture.
Depending on your use, the Kangaroo will run from either “mildly cool” to “toasty warm.” While there are vents on both sides to help air the unit, location and placement will make the ultimate difference for performance and heat. Place the Kangaroo on your carpet or a bed, and you will notice temperatures slowly creep up to 79C. Place it on a wood table or even a metal ledge, and things will top out in the upper 50S (Celcius.) Upper 50s is not bad, and the max this processor is designed for is 90, so you can push the clock up a little. However, I would recommend getting a chill-pad or fan, directing it towards the sides of the unit to keep air passing through it. The truth is that when this machine hits 83 Degrees, it will begin to throttle speeds extremely. Videos will glitch, and everything will slow down. People who want to use this as an entertainment system should consider mounting it on a cool surface (a wall that is perhaps near a window isn’t a bad choice) or using a quiet 1200-1700RPM fan to get air moving. If you’re using it when out and about for your web browsing or casual e-mail needs, the temperatures are good enough to work without slowness.
This is quite different from the Lenovo Core M laptop I use also. When that machine hits barely warm (mid-60s,) it will instantly become an old old dinosaur. That one also lacks a fan, and while Intel’s idea of competing with ARM is noble, it’s just not there yet. In larger form factors like tablets, the Intel Atom chip is fine as there is more surface area for heat to go. In small limited and portable desktops like these, a fan is essential, or at least proper techniques for mounting it on a cool surface.
Let’s talk numbers!
Geekbench is a good indicator of performance. The Intel Atom z3735 scored an average of about 2150 points. I ran Geekbench both when the little PC was moderately toasty and when it was more passively cooled. The good news? My score was 2753 when it was moderately warm, and 3218 when it was not-so-warm. This indicates that the atom chip here at least is not as agressive with throttling at higher temperatures, though will knock itself down after a certain point.
I also did some SSD tests on random and sequential file reads / writes. This PC scored a solid 51 MBPS, and around 200 for reads. Unfortunately, for random, smaller file writes, you seriously drop to only about 4-5 MBPS. It’s EMMC storage though, not really an expensive solid-drive solution. Out of the box, there is about 17 GB free, which is not bad for installing some programs. A micro-SD card for documents and downloads is a must though, and will seriously help your performance improve.
Finally, the battery. In my testing through a day of work, it lasted a full 5 hours (from 8:00 AM to about 1 PM.) I was not pushing it super hard, but doing what a normal person might at a coffee shop or when not connected to a screen. One thing to note is that Windows will not tell you time remaining on the battery, only percentage.
Another interesting fact is that the Kangaroo PC comes with 64-bit Windows. At boot, we have about 800 MB of ram to work with, but 64-bit operating systems will naturally use a little bit more ram to begin with. The problem is that installing 32-bit is impossible. Trying so will result in a “This EFI-based system cannot install 32-bit” message from Windows Setup. The solution would be to switch it to legacy (BIOS)mode, however looking at the f2 setup menu only shows a handful of minimal options, such as virtualization and secure boot. I suppose that’s the good news, though: With secure boot, you can install Linux and have a product which is more powerful than the Raspberry Pi, with x86 compatibility to run servers or other operations with very minimal power. To enter the boot menu, turn off secure boot and press f10 during power-on.
Even more weird is that many of the drivers provided on The Kangaroo Support page also have 32-bit components. I’m shaking my head right now: Is 64-bit really needed for a computer like this?
The fingerprint reader: Matching Apple in technology
With the iPhone 6S, Apple introduced a more advanced fingerprint reader. It is speedy, fast, but definitely not the only one that can be just as good. The Kangaroo PC has blown my expectations away for the performance of fingerprint scanning. To set it up, first set a numeric pin for your account, then you go to Settings > Accounts > Sign-in options, and press setup next to “Windows Hello.”
Your device just got more personal. Say goodbye to entering complex passwords and start using Windows Hello to unlock your device, verify your identity, and buy things in the Store using your fingerprint.
After you press next, you just have to place your finger onto the little window on the right-side of the Kangaroo a few times. NVDA (or your screen reader of choice) will read the progress bar as it advances.
At your next log-on screen, you’ll have the option of using your fingerprint or pin, or if you are connected to a Microsoft Account, its password. It’s absolutely amazing though to just touch my finger to the reader and be in with no keyboard interaction. This makes the Kangaroo PC very appealing for families that wish to share it in one room and use it for simple tasks. If you do biometric authentication for all people, you’ll no doubt have profiles and abilities to share one machine.
What’s this for? Conclusions and thoughts
I was unable to test the iPad Linx software, as I have an iPad 2, which seems too old to run it. People have had success with it though using an iPad Air or Mini, and it would make for an interesting control device. Keep in mind that audio is not supported through this iPad app, and your screen resolution is limited to a paltry 1024X768. Yikes!
The VNC Action switch seems more like an extra feature for now, as it requires configuring VNC for remote headless access.
However, there lies one really good use for this device. With something like NVDA Remote and or JAWS Tandem, you could connect back to a more powerful machine and use it for your tasks, plus the Kangaroo for streaming music. Not only will you get more battery this way, but can easily make this PC feel more powerful. Of course, if you have a laptop, then perhaps using that and not messing with connecting a separate keyboard / sound device to a computer could be more appropriate. However in casual environments, the Kangaroo is light enough to fit in a pocket and with a small enough keyboard + soundcard, could become the ultimate portable rig, even smaller than a laptop. Just don’t blame CoolBlindTech for any weird comments you might get from others for using it without a screen, OK?
Other potentials abound. Want to run a mud, Icecast, or a more powerful web server? The Raspberry Pi might be good for this, but for Windows-only applications or more powerful Linux tasks, this is a better buy. You also get WI-FI with Bluetooth, which is definitely more than the Pi has.
To those who would like to use this as an entertainment device, Windows or a fresh Linux distro will give you more bang for your buck than an Apple TV might, provided you wish to work on setting things up and taking your time on configuring all the features you need. With an Apple TV, you’re partially paying for the price of having all of this pre-configured and working out of the box through an app store. However, the Kangaroo would give you a web browser, and has no limits on what apps are available. You could even play gaming titles, though mostly audio games like BK III or low-resource Windows ones. Definitely not Crysis! (Maybe on low-frame rates it might work?)
Overall, the Kangaroo fills a niche, a niche that has an itch. An itch to switch to more efficient, fanless computers. It’s not perfect, as evidenced by some of my cooling issues and Intel has a ways to go until they perfect the cool silent performance of ARM chips. This is certainly not as bad as the previous bay-trail Atoms were, but a person should not have to place heavy considerations onto where they place their computers. Kangaroos should be free to roam around where ever they please, from Australia to Canada, and not worry about how much they heat up in each place. Alas, for now, environment will play a crucial role into how your experience is with this little guy.