The Odroid XU4, a true desktop replacement?

In my pursuit of a low cost, tiny, low power consuming desktop replacement, I’ve taken delivery of a tiny Odroid XU4, recently. This promises to be more powerful than my Raspberry Pi2 but is still a tiny RISC (ARM) computer.

The bare board, odroid XU4
The bare board, odroid XU4

For me, it has three major advantages over the Pi. It has 2GB of Ram and three USB ports, two of which are USB3, which don’t share bandwidth with the ethernet port, as does the Pi. Thirdly, you can boot from an eMMC or microSD card. Oh, and its CPU has 8 cores.

Before I start, do take the advice from the Odroid forums seriously. When they say use Etcher for flashing your eMMC Card, use Etcher. DD appears to work but I hit a load of problems.

As it arrived, well thought-out packaging.
As it arrived, well thought-out packaging.

I bought my Odroid direct from Hardkernel in Korea. It arrived surprisingly quickly. (Total cost, with import duty and Fedex carriage and admin fees £139.86) It arrived very well packed with everything I needed except an EU/UK mains adapter, but I had one of those.

First point. This is sold as a development Board, very sensibly, as it is not nearly as easy to use as a Pi, mainly due to a less mature user community. If you have not been stretched enough getting a Pi to do all that you want then maybe you should take the plunge and try the Odroid.

My XU4 came with Ubuntu on a 32GB eMMC board. It booted quickly and immediately into Ubuntu Mate 16.04 kernel 4.9. I was impressed, until I hit a couple of showstoppers. First was a lack of Dropbox. I could find no way of getting this to run on this ARM computer. Secondly, video playback was poor which I later discovered was a problem with linux Kernel 4.9. Kodi just failed to work at all.

The case,
The case,

My troubles started when I tried to install Ubuntu with a 3.10 kernel on which, apparently, video issues are not apparent. Currently there is some sort of issue with kernel 4.9 and Odroid. If you are following this path, do not think that you can just do the same as with a Raspberry Pi. You cannot. I had deleted the boot sector from the eMMC card and so the XU4 had a lengthy stay in the resuscitation ward while I repented for the errors of my ways. I went as far as getting an RMA to return it before the helpful Odroid folks talked me through a cure.

I tried flashing my eMMC card using Etcher and DD through Linux and etcher through windows and also flashing three different SD cards with Ubuntu kernel 3.10. All to no avail. My XU4 would not boot. I could see all the files on my PC so the cards looked OK. I’ve included my comments on the Recovery tool usage, further down, in case they are of any use to anyone. Later, I discovered that Etcher works better through one USB port than another – strange. With one, I always got errors and the other, none.

I now have Ubuntu 16.04 kernel 3.10, Android 7 which is excellent and DietPi working, which is so full of promise but certainly not for the newbie. I have found DietPi just too limited for my current Linux knowledge and required usage. My current preferred OS is Ubuntu Mate 16.04 kernel 3.10, which after many flashes of the eMMC card (it seems to be very robust) is working flawlessly. I also have Android 7 on the SD Card which seems a little slow to boot but that might be more due to the speed of my card. In comparison, the eMMC Card is very fast.

A very nice touch is a handy switch that allows you to boot from either the eMMC Card or the SD Card, as you decide.

I am also using DietPi on the SD card, a minimal linux image that is powerful, very nicely put together, but not for wimps. It is not really designed for the desktop user, but I am using it as such and have met numerous problems, mainly of my making or lack of understanding but also becuase the current image (Aug 2017) has one or two major issues that require some work arounds.

Generally speaking, the Odroid XU4 is a fast board but the fan can be a bit irritating at times. You can buy a version with a larger heat sink and no fan. Yes, this is truly a development board. Hard work but fun. It might just prove to be my looked for tiny, low coast, low power requirements, desktop replacement, linked to a 2TB external hard drive, for data.

Command Line

If you are a Linux user, here are some helpful commands:

3.10 image

9bb4088ef641e85e691d7aef1bc1a753 ubuntu-16.04-mate-odroid-u2u3-20160920.img

To change img.xz to img use xz as shown

xz -d -k ubuntu-16.04-mate-odroid-u2u3-20160920.img.xz

to find out which devices are mounted

df -h

To write the img to the eMMC card, I used DD (don’t), sometimes called Disk Destroyer – be warned.

sudo dd bs=1M if=ubuntu-16.04-mate-odroid-u2u3-20160920.img of=/dev/mmcblk0p1 conv=fsync

Must use sync several times to avoid data corruption

or use Etcher (Only use Etcher!!!!)

https://etcher.io/

To find out the Kernel number

uname -r

To add a new user

useradd -m new-user adds a new user with a home directory
eg  useradd -s <SHELL> -m -d <HomeDir> -g <Group> UserName
(from The Geek Stuff)
passwd new-user adds a password for new-user
\new-user ALL=(ALL:ALL) ALL gives new-user root access by using visudo to edit the sudoers file

Useful URLs

Useful information seems somewhat scattered, at present, there being no single comprehensive source of information.

Official Wiki https://wiki.odroid.com/start

Odroid Magazine. A comprehensive overview of the XU4 https://magazine.odroid.com/odroid-xu4

How to use the recovery tool:

I couldn’t use xz -dk as that reported “File format not recognised” so used Engrampa GUI instead to unzip the archive.
Then used DD, in my case

Code: Select all
sudo dd
if=android-4.4.4-alpha-4.9-sd2emmc_installer-odroidxu3-20170517.img
of=/dev/sdd bs=1M conv=fsync
[sudo] password for mate:
500+0
records in
500+0 records out
524288000 bytes (524 MB, 500
MiB) copied, 149.311 s, 3.5 MB/s

Then sync 5 times.

My tale of woe.

What’s the acronym for take all the forum advice seriously! TATFAS doesn’t trip off the tongue like RTFM.
I tried three different micro SD cards with almost the same result. Steady red and steady blue LEDS, fan on constantly, but no picture. This was with only the power supply and HDMI lead attached. Later, as discussed above, I discovered the reason why.

With two sd cards (both 8GB Kingston), the XU4 turned off after 2minutes 9 seconds and 2 minutes 0 seconds.(ie steady red LED, no blue and no fan). I am assuming that the third, a 32GB Samsung card was not functioning correctly (It had worked previously with an RPI2).

As I was about to give up, I tried booting from the eMMC card (32GB), no HDMI output but then suddenly I had a flashing blue light, the fan stopped and Android appeared on the screen. I wont bore you with the path I took to getting Ubuntu Mate 16.04, kernel 3.10 back on the eMMC but it took several attempts, a steep learning curve and included an SD installation first. The XU4 is not for the feint of heart. It is not called a development Board for nothing. However, it has great potential and a very good team and community behind it. Some other SBCs (Single Board Computers) seem to suffer from a lack of a dedicated community of developers, which are very important for us mere users and dabblers.

I have my desktop back
I have my desktop back

I have my desktop back. The Odroid etc normally live behind the monitor, out of sight.

Raspberry Pi and WD Labs

Western Digital Labs seem to have taken the RPi under its wings with this clever approach. It marries the Berry Boot multi boot approach with a 2.5 in HDD that is supposedly optimised for use with the RPi. In the photo, you can see the disk in its WD Labs case and the clever connecting lead that comes with it. This lead provides both power to the disk and to the RPi.

WD Labs HDD, connecting cable and an RPi2
WD Labs HDD, connecting cable and an RPi2

If you’ve not used Berry Boot before, it is a very clever idea. Download the Berry Boot zip file, and follow the instructions to get it onto your micro SD Card, in the usual way.

When you boot the RPi for the first time, you are given the option of installing one or more of the usual RPi distros, ie Raspian, OpenElec etc, but the clever part is that these are installed onto the Hard Disk Drive.

I have two RPis running in this way, one using a WD Labs 1TB HDD and the other a standard WD 2TB portable drive, in use mainly with Open Elec. Both have given sterling service for a year or more.

Raspberry Pi & MediaPi Case

Possibly the best known of the Mini-PCs, the Raspberry Pi has one huge advantage. It is very well supported. However, there are two large disadvantages, IMO.

  1. 1 GB of memory seems insufficient even though the processor has four cores and has graphics acceleration. This limits this Mini-PC’s performance.
  2. Any Pi build seems to end up with a spaghetti of leads.
Media Pi
1 GB of memory seems insufficient even though the processor has four cores and has graphics acceleration. This limits this Mini-PC’s performance.Any Pi build seems to end up with a spaghetti of leads. (OK, my MediPi could be tidier!)

Then along came the Media Pi box. No need for a USB hub and all the leads are neatly contained within a cleverly built box. I bought one designed for the Pi 1 but installed a Pi 2 so the remote does not work, but that was half expected. There is now a newer box for the Pi 2 which, hopefully, overcomes this.

So, if you like the Pi or just want a tidy Kodi setup and don’t mind it being a bit larger than most of the current Mini-PCs, maybe the Media Pi box is for you. It is shown here running with a 2TB 2.5inch spinner, all tidily enclosed within the box, and a tiny WiFi keyboard.

Media Pi
Media Pi

One tip that wasn’t obvious to me. Use a 32GB class 10 or faster micro SD. Build your Pi using Noobs and select both Raspbian and one of the Kodi implementations and you can run both operating systems. Just select which one at start up. You should find that any problems that you hit will be easy to solve in the large Pi community.

However, there is a better solution. See RPi and WD Labs

If all you want to run is Kodi, a smaller and much cheaper alternative is one of the little streaming Android boxes. You just need to add a powered external hard drive and it will play all of your media through your HDMI TV.

The Mini-PC Explosion

16l-boxA new genre, the Mini-PC is rising in importance in the market place. Current machines are supplied with Windows 10, usually installed on an internal eMMC solid state drive. Some can be dual booted with Android but none are supplied with Linux installed. Neither does the Linux community seem to support this segment of the market, yet.

The Mini-PC is based on either the Intel Bay Trail or Cherry Trail chip set, and the so called Atom processors. Intel seem to be using the Atom name to cover a wide range of CPUs aimed at the battery efficient Android market.

Some of the earlier Bay Trail CPU/chip set Mini-PCs are still on the market, at around £70 and provide excellent value for money, IMO. The newer Cherry Trail CPU/chip set Mini-PCs seem to be aimed at the media centre market.

Currently, the top of the range is the Intel Atom x7-Z8750 Processor that can run up to 2.56 GHz. Launched Q1’16, it will support 4GB RAM. The earlier CPUs will only address 2GB and their burst frequencies are lower but most seem very capable CPUs. You pay your money, up to £150 at present, and take your choice. My current system is based on a Quad Core x5-Z8300 running at 1.45Ghz with a burst frequency of 1.84Ghz and plays HD video very well. No, it is not a gaming machine, but does everything that I throw at it very well, using Xubuntu.

Some of the other systems currently for sale that I found on Amazon UK, are:

  1. MINIX NEO Z64-W, Intel Mini PC Windows 10 Edition. Intel Z3735F
  2. GULEEK i8S Pocket Mini PC Windows10 Android4.4 2GB/32GB, Bay Trail CR Z3735F, 1.33GHz, up to 1.83GHz
  3. Stoga Umin SVJ001 Windows 10 mini PC with 2MP Camera, Bay Trail Z3735F 1.8GHz, 2GB/32GB
  4. PowerLead Ptox P1030 Windows 10 Mini PC Bay Trail Z3735F 1.8GHZ 2GB/32GB 2MP Webcam
  5. DroidBOX Wintel W8 PRO Windows10 Mini PC 1.84ghz CPU Cherry Trail Z8300 2GB/32GB
  6. JUSTOP G-PC i10 Windows 10 Mini PC Intel X5 Quad Core Z8300 1.84Ghz 2GB/32GB Expandable With Extra SSD Bay
  7. Sumvision Cyclone Mini Micro PC 2 Windows 10 Cherry Trail Intel Quad Core x5-Z8300 1.84Ghz 2GB/32GB USB3.0 Launched Q2’15 4 Core
  8. Tronsmart Ara X5 Plus Windows 10 Cherry Trail Z8300 Quad Core 1.8G Gen 8 Graphics GPU 2G/32G 2.4Ghz/5Ghz LAN HDMI H.265 XBMC BT4.0 USB3.0
  9. Plater Beelink BT3 MINI PC 4K Intel Atom x5-Z8300 2GB/–40GB Local Disk(D:)–20GB
  10. Plater Beelink BT7 Windows Intel Atom x7-Z8700r 2M Cache DDR3 4GB/64GB

The Sumvision Cyclone Mini Desktop

Unless you are a ‘gamer’, why do you still need a desktop PC? Maybe for you, a Tablet or a Laptop will suffice, but for me, I want a full size keyboard and a large screen and do not want to be plugging those in and out of a laptop.

However, desktop PCs take up a lot of real estate, and watts. As a consequence, I’ve been examining other options such as an:16l-box

  • Android box – quiet, runs cool, small but limited in its functions.
  • Raspberry Pi2 – quiet, runs cool, and almost does the job, but wont quite do all I want to do. Raspian, IMO, is a very sound solid operating system though.

My third attempt is with a mini-PC, in the guise of a Sumvision tiny box. It is called a “Sumvision® Cyclone Mini Micro Small Multi Media Desktop PC 2 Windows 10 Full 4K HD H.265 Smart TV Box Cherry Trail Intel Quad Core x5-Z8300 1.84Ghz 2G”.

Specifications

Gulp. First off, it is not a 1.84Ghz CPU, but a 1.45, which can be overclocked to 1.84, if you want it to run hot. It has a large heat sink underneath, but no cooling fan. This proved to be  a problem.

16l-heatsink

I have to admit that, for all its shortcomings, I am impressed with this computer. It might have only 2GB RAM and only 32GB of eMMC storage, but it runs very fast under the installed Windows 10. I’m assuming that Windows 10 also carries out some sort of temperature control function, but as I deleted it soon after this arrived, I have not investigated further.

However, I wanted a flexible Linux computer so, after a number of false starts (Emmabuntus, Solus 1.2), I managed to install Xubuntu which ran very fast and does all I want it to do, but wasn’t robust. Initially I installed Xubuntu on an external hard drive, connected through the one USB 3 socket and was surprised at how fast it ran but again, this would lock up regularly. The advantage was that I had a large home partition and could run Win 10 if I so desired, but I didn’t. My second attempt was to install Lubuntu on the internal eMMC drive and use the external drive for the home folder. Once the external drive went to sleep, that did not work well. Later I discovered that this was an overheating problem.Rear View

Thus, Xubuntu on the internal flash. Even with all my regular programmes installed on the flash drive, there is still plenty of room left. Of course most of my data is on the external drive, it runs HD TV Video well and all the usual Linux Debian packages but, again it locked up after a while.

My setup

One problem, that I couldn’t overcome was one that I’ve hit, too many times, with Intel chipsets before (Cherry Trail in this case), in that they are not all well supported in Linux. I couldn’t get the sound chip to work under any flavour of Linux (Intel SST Audio Device (WDM)).

With three USB ports, one of which is USB3, WiFi, and bluetooth, this is quite a versatile PC. I’ve only had to add a USB3 hub, a cheap USB audio dongle and an external drive to get these features to work. WiFi, Bluetooth and the SD Card reader are not working either. That doesn’t concern me but it will concern some. However, it boots to the desktop in less than 30 seconds.

USB3

I’m impressed and I’ve reclaimed a lot of desktop ‘Real Estate’ but have yet to get a truly stable system working. Solus 1.2 is almost stable but is easy to lock up. Debian 8 is the most stable, so far, but I have yet to get a clean and fully working install as I can only work as Root for some reason.

Undoubtedly, I’ve invalidated the warranty, but Sumvison does provide a Win 10 image that you can download, put on a USB key and return the Mini-PC to its original state. I did try this more than once and it works well.

In summary a great desktop office replacement, at a good price, that is versatile, quiet, tiny and energy efficient and is much less expensive that an Intel NUC and some of the NUC competitor equivalents, but I’ve yet to get a fully functioning stable Linux distro to install. (I have learned a lot about UEFI in the process. Euck! I know it is secure against root kits, but working with it is just horrible.)

16l-contents

Update. After several attempts, and after climbing the steep UEFI learning curve, I have installed Solus 1.2 which seems to be working in a very stable fashion, word processing and changing video formats which is usually a challenge. I had to reinstall Win10 using the Sumvision download on to a USB key, then increase the size of the EFI partition, then install Solus 1.2 on an external USB3 Hard Disk. It has plenty of space and runs remarkably well. I’m not sure if all the effort was worth it, but I have reclaimed a lot of desk real estate. I have one or two issues with Solus, though, and as I cannot seem to get registered on the Solus forum, this has been abandoned.

Update 2. I think that I am finally beginning to understand this machine, or rather what works and what doesn’t.

This has worked for me, but I feel that there must be a simpler way to get Linux on this computer. Delete all partitions on the internal drive, then install Ubuntu. This will create its own EFI partition, but will not run in a stable form. Now you can install Debian, Solus, Ubuntu or whatever, on an external USB3 drive and it will run in a stable fashion, using the EFI partiton that the first install created. I’ve achieved this with Debian8 and Ubuntu 16:04 so far. But do note, that if, for some reason, the internal drive gets corrupt, it all goes to pot but this can be rectified by booting into a USB distro then using gparted to check and fix the internal drive. This computer will not work well with a corrupted partition on the internal drive, even if you are not using this drive. I do not understand why. However, all my many attempt to install some Linux distro, or the other, on this internal drive has ended in failure (but see below).

My Cyclone is running surprisingly quickly and in a fairly stable fashion, under Ubuntu installed on an external drive, connected through the USB3 port.

Update 3. One Ubuntu install failed and the reason given was that it might be due to an overheating computer. As I have had experience of overheating RAM that took a long time to diagnose, I deployed an old ZX81 trick. Mr Sinclair’s RAM packs would overheat and the solution was to place a carton of mik, from the ‘fridge, on the RAM pack (very 1980s) to keep it cool, so with some frozen ice in a container, placed on top of this Cyclone, I reinstalled Ubunutu. I have given it some fairly heavy work to do and it has worked faultlessly so far, if kept cool. Next, work out a cooling system!

Unless like me, you have suffered from bad tooth ache, that kept you up for a few nights, so with nothing better to do, I had the time to sit quietly and fiddle with all of this, you might want to pay the extra for an Intel PC stick that has its own cooling fan and I assume (?) runs better but will it be any better supported under Linux? I’ve no idea but if you’ve read this far, good luck.

Update 4. I’m convinced that running Linux gives this computer an overheating problem, despite its heavy use of heatsinks.

Heatsink
Heatsink

I tried adding some handy CPU heatsinks underneath and on top.

16l-cyclone-6

This seemed to improve the situation, but I still managed to lock up the computer when pushing it hard.

Next was a home made case using an old CPU cooling fan, running slowly, at 5 volts, so it was quite quiet.

16l-cyclone-2

I have decided that the most stable set-up for this computer is to use Win10, as delivered, on the internal drive, then run Linux on an external drive. I’ve used a USB3 flash drive for the swap file and UEFI file, now it is under testing to see if I was right about the overheating. Time will tell, but so far, my setup is performing well.

16l-cyclone-7

As there seem to be several variants of this computer on the market which, I assume, are all using the same motherboard, this must be an experiment worth pursuing. Time will tell.

Update 5.

I’ve managed to install Xubuntu 16.04, and now 16.10, which run faultlessly, 16.10 on the internal SSD, although with no sound, bluetooth, WiFi nor SD card support. As before, ethernet is fine and a USB sound adaptor has fixed all that I need to fix. Ian Morrison appears to have done a lot of work on the Intel Compute stick, but I couldn’t get his ISO to boot on my Sumvision BayTrail.
There is further advice about running the audio on Bay Trail computers, at 01.org  but this is beyond my current technical competence.

Update 6

6 months on, this system is proving to be very stable and useable. However, if you also want to run Win 10, you can still download a win 10 image from Sumvision, put on a USB stick, and using F7 on boot up, boot into the USB stick and re-install Windows. I have decided to do this as I want, very occasionally, to boot into Windows 10 as well as retaining my Linux partitions on my USB drive..