Tronsmart is a Chinese company that first showed up on my radar a few years ago when the company began offering small Android-powered TV boxes and sticks. But like many Chinese manufacturers, Tronsmart isn’t just making products with ARM-based chips and Android software anymore.
While the Tronsmart Ara x5 looks a lot like a small Roku-like box that you’d plug into your TV, it’s actually a full-fledged computer with Windows 10 software and a quad-core Intel Atom Cherry trail processor.
Geekbuying sells the Tronsmart Ara X5 for $150, and the company sent me a demo unit to test, and I’ve been using it on and off for a few weeks.
The Tronsmart Ara X5 isn’t much more expensive than an Android box, and if you really want to you can plug it into a TV to stream local or internet video, surf the web, play games, and do much more. But after spending a little time with the Tronsmart Ara X5 I feel confident calling it a real desktop computer… just a small, low-power one.
For a few days I’ve the Ara X5 as my only computer. I hooked it up to a keyboard, mouse and 1080p display and used the computer to write dozens of blog posts for Liliputing, do some light image editing, and stream music and videos over the internet. It was able to handle all of those tasks… just not as quickly as my usual work machine.
While there are some things I wouldn’t suggest trying on this little computer (like playing bleeding-edge video games), for the most part it can do anything a more expensive desktop PC can… it just does some of those things a little more slowly.
It takes a little longer to boot, launch programs, or open browser tabs than a machine with more horsepower. While it can handle some simple multitasking, things can grind to a halt when you try to do too much at once: Unzipping a 1.6 GB archive while using Google Chrome with a dozen browser tabs proved to be a bit much, so I had to wait for 7-zip to finish extracting the archive before I could do anything with the web browser.
But as long as you manage your expectations, the little computer can handle basic tasks including web browsing, document editing, and media playback with ease. And while it may not score as well on some benchmarks as Intel Braswell-powered systems like the Acer Aspire One Cloudbook and Aspire R11 convertible, in day-to-day performance, the Tronsmart Ara X5 actually felt more responsive than either of those laptops.
That said, if you’re looking for a high-performance machine, you’d probably be better off with an Intel NUC with a Core i3 or faster chip. What you get with the Tronsmart Ara X5 is an inexpensive, tiny, and fanless system that runs silently.
What you also get is some serious limitations. The little computer has an Intel Atom x5-8300 processor, 2GB of RAM, and 32GB of eMMC storage. All of those components are hard-wired to the motherboard, so while you can add external storage there’s no way to upgrade the memory or processor.
The Tronsmart Ara X5 measures about 4.7″ x 4.5″ x 1.1″ and weighs just over 7 ounces. It’s small enough to hold in one hand, but unlike an Intel Compute Stick-style PC, this computer is a bit too large to slide into a pocket.
But the Ara X5 has a more powerful processor than the original Intel Compute Stick, better WiFi, and far more ports.
On the back of the system you’ll find an HDMI port, microSD card slot, USB 3.0 port, a 10/100 Ethernet jack and a power connector.
There are two USB 2.0 ports, a headset jack, and a power button on the front.
The top of the little computer is covered by a glossy black piece of plastic with the Tronsmart logo in the middle and a small status LED near the front that glows white when the computer is running.
Under the hood the system features a wireless card with support for dual-band 802.11b/g/n WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0. Both of these features seem to work pretty well — I had no problem connecting to my 5 GHz WiFi router located two floors below my office or connecting to a Bluetooth speaker.
You could also probably use Bluetooth for a mouse and keyboard, but I used USB input devices while testing the PC.
Turn the system over and you’ll see a large vent covering the bottom of the computer. There are no fans in the case, so the Ara X5 uses passive cooling to dissipate heat.
While the computer does get a little warm at times, I haven’t noticed any serious performance issues even after using the computer all day.
You can also open the case by removing the screws hidden below the rubber feet in the corners of the case, but since there’s no easy way to upgrade most of the hardware there’s really not much reason to do that.
Tronsmart includes an HDMI cable and a power adapter with the computer.
We’ve sort of touched on this above, but you totally can treat the Tronsmart Ara X5 like a general-purpose computer. As you’d probably expect from a computer with an Intel Atom Cherry Trail processor, it scores a little better on benchmarks than models with Atom Bay Trail chips and not quite as well as models with Intel Celeron or Pentium Braswell processors.
But while I found the first two Braswell-powered systems to be painful to use due to frequent slow-downs, the Tronsmart Ara X5 has chugged along pretty reliably when I throw a lot of work at it.
Try opening 10+ browser tabs quickly and it’ll take a little while for them all to load (this is something I regularly do when compiling Liliputing’s Daily Deals post). But it will load them all without freezing or crashing. That’s more than I can say about the Acer Aspire One Cloudbook or R11 convertible notebooks.
But those laptops are faster at some things, such as transcoding audio and video files using VirtualDub or Handbrake. So if you’re not a heavy multitasker, you might be better off with a Braswell-based system. I should also note that both of the Braswell systems I’ve tested were Acer laptops that came with some bloatware, while the Tronsmart Ara X5 doesn’t seem to have anything other than Windows 10 and its default apps pre-loaded.
You probably don’t want to use a low-power, fanless desktop with an Intel Atom processor for serious gaming. But this model does outperform most Bay Trail systems in graphics benchmarks, so it should be able to handle some older games.
Casual web games and Windows Store games designed for cheap tablets should also run easily on the Ara X5… assuming they’re optimized for mouse and keyboard input.
The Atom x5-8300 processor with Intel HD graphics also supports 2160p video playback in some formats (and some media players) and it has some support for H.265/HEVC video as well.
I’ve found that it can take a little bit of trial and error to find the best ways to watch those videos. For instance, I tried 2160p MP4 versions of Big Buck Bunny in the Windows 10 Movies & TV app, Kodi media center and VLC media player. The 30 fps version of the movie played smoothly in all of those apps, but the 60 fps version stuttered a bit in Kodi.
I also tried a 720p 60fps MKV version of Big Buck Bunny and it played perfectly in the Movies & TV app, stuttered in VLC, and was basically an audio play in Kodi.
Meanwhile, a 1080p ts file from libde265 was able to play perfectly in Kodi, but poorly in VLC and it wouldn’t even load at all in Movies & TV.
As for web video, I’ve had no problems streaming content from YouTube, Hulu or Netflix (using both the website and the Windows 10 app). I did find that 4K video streamed smoothly from YouTube when using the Edge web browser, but 4K YouTube streams were a little choppy in Google Chrome. 720p and 1080p video from all sites looks good in both browsers.
CNX-Software reports the computer can work with 2160p displays, but since it only supports HDMI 1.4, you’ll be limited to 30Hz or lower screen refresh rates.
In a nutshell, if you plan to use this computer with a 1080p display, you’re probably good to go, although some video apps might struggle with some file formats. Results might be a bit more mixed if you’re hoping to use a 3840 x 2160 pixel display, but with a little fine tuning, you can probably find settings that will work.
If you plan to use the computer as a glorified media streamer, all you need to do is plug it in and turn it on. But if you’re planning to use it to handle your downloaded or ripped music or movie collections, you’ll probably want to add some external storage.
Once you’ve installed a few programs on the computer, you’ll be lucky if you have a few gigabytes of disk space left for your files. The first time I turned on the computer I found that less than half of the 32GB of built-in storage was available. After installing Kodi, LibreOffice, and a few other apps, that figured dropped below 5GB.
So if you plan to download a lot of movies or connect a USB TV tuner to record live TV, you’ll want to invest in some external storage.
Fortunately there are a few different options for adding storage. There’s a microSD card slot for removable storage and three USB ports which you can use to connect a flash drive, hard drive, or other external storage device. You could also connect to a shared network drive or network-attached storage device.
Another thing to keep in mind about the built-in storage is that while the Ara X5 has solid state storage, it uses relatively slow eMMC storage. With read/write speeds in the 81MB/s and 21MB/s range, the storage is actually slower than some hard drives. Since there are no moving parts it’s quieter and harder to break though.
Like what you’ve heard about the Ara X5’s hardware, but not sure you want a machine that runs Windows 10? You can run other Ubuntu or other Linux-based operating systems… but you might need to do some work to get audio, WiFi, and other features to work properly.
The Tronsmart Ara X5 was one of the first products to ship with an Intel Atom x5-8300 processor. It’s taken me a little while to do a thorough review, so it’s hardly unique in the market anymore — there a number of other TV boxes and many tablets with the same chip.
One of the limitations of this chipset is that it only supports up to 2GB of RAM. But after spending some time using the Ara X5 as a desktop computer for researching and writing blog posts and as a media center for streaming internet video, I can say that the machine performs reasonably well with just 2GB of RAM and 32GB of storage.
Just keep in mind that multitasking will take a hit if you’re running a resource-intensive task like creating or extracting a large ZIP file or transcoding video files. But unlike some other inexpensive, low-power machines I’ve tested, the Ara X5 didn’t complain too much when I opened more than a dozen web browser tabs including one with a YouTube video.
The system isn’t a lot more powerful than the Bay Trail systems we’ve seen over the past few years, so I’m not sure I’d recommend upgrading if you already have one of those.
But it does offer decent WiFi performance, decent support for a range of video formats, and a fully licensed Windows 10 installation which lets you run millions of apps… assuming you’ve got the disk space for them.
Overall, I think this machine is certainly worth the $150 asking price if you’re looking for a small computer to use as a home theater PC or an inexpensive, low-profile, and silent desktop.
Thanks again to Geekbuying for providing us with a demo unit for this review.