Google Android may have started out as an operating system for smartphones, but these days you can buy tablets, Android TV boxes, smartwatches, and other products powered by the OS. But for the most part Android is still very much optimized for touchscreen devices.
Jide has been working to change that. Earlier this year the company released a 2-in-1 tablet called the Remix Ultra which shipped with a custom version of Android called Remix OS. The software features a taskbar, a desktop, support for keyboard shortcuts, and support for running many apps either in full-screen mode or in smaller windows. The Remix Ultra tablet comes with a keyboard cover and touchpad, allowing you to use it like a laptop… and it kind of worked. But the Remix Ultra is also kind of expensive.
Now Jide is offering something much more affordable: the Jide Remix Mini is basically a small, low-power desktop computer that ships with Remix OS. After running a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise money (and awareness) this fall, Jide is now shipping the Remix Mini to customers.
You can pick one up from Amazon for $70.
Is the Remix Mini the best computer money can buy? No. It might not even be the best you can buy for under $100. But it does present an interesting value proposition: plug it into your TV or monitor and you can run more than a million different Android apps and games. Hook up a keyboard and mouse and you’ve got a desktop PC. Hook up a gamepad and you have a gaming system. Connect a Bluetooth remote control and you’ve got a media center. And the whole thing is very easy to set up.
But there are some limitations to what Jide has been able to do. While Remix OS goes a long way toward making Android feel like a desktop operating system, some apps refuse to run in small windows, while others refuse to run at all.
Since most Android apps were designed for touchscreen input, some can be awkward to use with a keyboard and mouse. And you’re generally stuck running mobile versions of apps like Office or Photoshop instead of the full-fledged desktop versions, which means you may be missing some features.
Remix OS does a pretty good job of making some Android apps feel like they were designed for desktop use, but there’s only so much the OS can do if apps don’t play along. If the platform takes off, maybe we’ll start to see developers create more apps designed for keyboard and mouse input.
The Remix Mini is easier to use as a desktop than most Android set-top-boxes I’ve used in the past few years. But it still feels a device with a bit of an identity crisis: it has a well thought-out user interface, some nifty built-in tools, and support for almost any Android app. But there are still times when it feels like the desktopness of Remix OS is fighting with the touchscreen apps it’s trying to run. And there are plenty of times when it’s pretty clear that you’re running an OS designed for mobile applications, not desktop apps.
It’s also worth noting that a big part of the reason the Remix Mini is inexpensive is because its hardware is pretty barebones. WiFi performance is acceptable, but not spectacular. The processor is powerful enough to handle most Android apps, but you might notice some lag if you try to run too many at once. And while there’s some support for H.265/HEVC video playback, I’ve found that some files play better than others.
There are also some design quirks that make this device interesting: for instance
there’s no status LED, the small green status light on the front of the device (which is easy to miss) glows as long as the device is plugged in, so if your display is turned off, it can be difficult to tell whether the Remix mini is on or off.
Jide sent me a Remix Mini to review, and here are some thoughts after spending a few weeks with it.
The Remix Mini is a small round black box with a design that looks a bit like a seashell or a pebble with one edge cut off. Thee back and bottom are flat, but the sides and top are rounded.
The little computer measures about 4.9″ x 3.5″ x 1″ and features a fanless design for silent operation.
All the ports are on the back, where you’ll find an HDMI port, two USB 2.0 ports, a microSD card reader, a 10/100 Ethernet jack, and a 3.5mm audio jack.
Under the hood the Remix Mini is powered by an Allwinner 1.2 GHz ARM Cortex-A53 quad-core processor with ARM Mali-400 MP2 graphics. The system featured in this review has a retail price of $70 and has 2GB of RAM and 16GB of eMMC storage.
Jide also offered a 1GB/8GB model during its Kickstarter campaign, but that version doesn’t seem to be available for purchase.
The Remix Mini support 2.4 GHz 802.11/b/g/n WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0, and seems to offer decent wireless performance and range.
There something you won’t find on the Remix mini: a power button. You turn on the computer or put it to sleep by pressing the top of the case.
I also wouldn’t complain if Jide decided to throw in an extra USB port or two on a future model. If you plug in a keyboard and a mouse then you’re out of ports, which means you’ll need a USB hub if you want to connect a game controller, flash drive, or other peripherals. The good news is that the Jide Remix Mini seems to have no problem with USB hubs… and you could also free up some ports by using Bluetooth accessories instead of wired ones.
Remix OS is a work in progress, and it’s come a long way since I first wrote my impressions of the Remix Ultra tablet and Remix OS. The Remix Mini really does feel like a desktop computer the moment you start using it… at least in terms of the user interface.
Plug in a display, mouse, keyboard, and power cable and turn on the Remix Mini and it will walk you through a brief setup process. It takes just a few moments and then you can start using the little computer.
I should note that setup is only quick if you don’t run into a problem with the display settings: some users have had issues with the Remix Mini using a default screen refresh rate of 50 Hz on monitors that only support 60 Hz. If that’s the case, you may need to plug the computer into a TV or different screen, adjust the display settings, and then try it again on your other monitor.
At first glance, Remix OS looks a lot like Windows. There’s a taskbar along the bottom of the screen that shows icons for currently running apps, as well as shortcuts for apps that you’ve pinned. You can always tell which apps are actually running and which are just shortcuts because there will be little lines below apps that are open. Those lines shrink when you minimize an app and disappear when its closed.
When an app is running you can minimize or close it by moving your mouse cursor to the top of the screen and tapping a box or X, just as you would in Windows. Or you can right-click the icon in the taskbar and choose the “quit app” option.
On the far left side of the taskbar there’s a Jide logo. Tap it and you get a menu with all the apps installed on your device, a search bar, and a power menu with options to restart, shut down, or put your device into standby.
You can also tap a sort icon to arrange your app list by name, most frequently used, or last updated. From this menu you can also right-click on any app to pin it to the taskbar, view app details, or uninstall an app.
When you install apps they’ll also add shortcuts to your desktop, but you can delete those icons without uninstalling apps… although I’ve found that often uninstalling an app from the app menu does not remove its shortcut from the desktop.
Next to the app menu icon on the taskbar, you’ll also find a circle that you can tap to minimize all apps and show the desktop. And if you dig into the Remix OS settings you can also find an experimental option to show a back button in the taskbar (normally you’d click a triangle at the top of an app to go back to a previous screen or exit that app).
On the right side of the taskbar is a system tray that shows the date, time, wireless status and details. The volume control is also in this menu, as well as a three-line icon that you can tap to open a notification area that slides out from the right side of the screen.
In addition to showing notifications, this menu includes shortcuts for enabling do not disturb mode, toggling location settings, taking a screenshot, or auto-hiding the taskbar so that it only appears when you move your cursor to the bottom of the screen.
You can also access the Remix OS settings menu through a shortcut in the notification area or by clicking the Settings icon in the app menu.
This is where you’ll find settings for WiFi, Bluetooth, Ethernet, display, sound, language, security, and other functions. There’s also an update button that you can click to check for over-the-air updates, and an Exerimental Features option that lets you try Remix OS features that may not yet be fully baked. For example, there’s one that lets you simulate a 2-finger pinch-to-zoom action by pressing Alt+Ctrl on your keyboard while left-clicking with your mouse and then dragging to zoom in or out of maps, pictures, web pages, or other content.
One of the most important differences between Remix OS and stock Android is that you don’t need to run all of your apps in full-screen windows. There are Windows-like minimize, resize, and close buttons in the upper right corner of app windows, and if you tap the minimize button in many apps, they’ll automatically shrink to phone-sized windows.
You can use your mouse to drag on the left or bottom edges to make those windows larger. This allows you to view multiple apps at once. For example, you can have a web browser, chat app, and video player open and visible at the same time.
Some apps react better than others to resizing. While Word, Excel, Chrome, and Netflix all work well in small windows, Kodi media center tends to hide some elements, making it hard to navigate the app when it’s not running in full-screen. And Google Hangouts won’t run at all in a small window… which is particularly annoying since a chat app is pretty much the definition of a program that shouldn’t need to fill your 22 inch monitor screen.
While the ability to resize and move apps certainly makes Remix OS look a bit more like a desktop operating system, there are a few things that are missing. You can’t snap windows to the edge of the screen, which means that if you want to view apps side-by-side you’ll need to change their sizes and positions manually. You also can’t view multiple instances of the same app: so if you want to see two different web pages on the screen at once, you need to open two different web browsers.
There are Android versions of many existing desktop apps such as Photoshop, Firefox, or Word, some features may behave differently. Want to select text? You’ll need to long-press a word and then drag the indicators that pop up to the start and end of the text you want to choose, just as you would on an Android phone or tablet. It’s a slower, less precise action than simply left-clicking and dragging the way you would with a Windows app.
On the other hand, some features work exactly as you’d expect when switching between Windows and Remix OS. The Chrome and Firefox Web browsers, for instance, share a lot of DNA with their desktop counterparts. You can open a new tab, close a tab, or launch an Incognito/Private Browsing session using the same keyboard shortcuts you’d use on a desktop.
You also may encounter the mobile versions of some websites unless you’re using a browser with an option for pretending it’s a desktop browser.
All told, Remix OS seems to be a well thought-out reworking of Android so that it’s easy to use with a mouse and keyboard. The problem is that most Android apps weren’t designed specifically to be used this way. That’s not a big problem with most media players, web browsers, chat apps, office apps, or other software. But apps and games that rely heavily on touchscreen gestures can be difficult, if not impossible to use.
I felt the pain of trying to run touchscreen apps on a non-touch device most acutely when trying to play games. Since Android has native support for Xbox 360 controllers, I plugged one in to see if that made things any better, and sometimes it does… but only with games that are optimized for physical controllers.
Here’s what happened when I tried using a handful of games.
It can be difficult to navigate some menus without a mouse, but gameplay is pretty good using just a controller.
Note that this game can only be run in full-screen mode. There’s no option to minize it.
Dead Trigger 2
The game is optimized for touchscreens, and you’re supposed to swipe your finger on the left side of the screen to move and swipe on the right to change the camera angle. You can do that with a mouse — but only by moving the cursor to the left or right of the screen, which is awkward.
You can choose to use a gamepad instead, but you’ll need to customize the settings yourself by choosing which button to use for each action — and there are more types of actions than you’ll find on most game controllers, so you’ll probably still need have a mouse handy.
Final Fantasy IV
This game works perfectly with a gamepad. I have no complaints at all.
This racing game seems like it should be perfect for a gamepad, but the controls aren’t customizable and I found myself constantly wiping out since the trigger for stunts is easily confused with the one for moving left or right. More experienced gamers might fare better.
Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes
Like Final Fantasy, this game features RPG-style combat, making it relatively easy to play using just a mouse. But after playing through the introductory tutorial, I found myself unable to dismiss the final status message and continue playing.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
This RPG may have been developed originally for computers, but Android version is designed for touchscreens. You can play with a keyboard and mouse, but I found my Xbox controller to be worse than useless: it made the camera angle spin non-stop while it was plugged in.
Wind Up Knight
It took a little trial and error to find the correct buttons on my gamepad for each action, but once I did, the game was pretty easy to play.
Note that some of these games don’t run properly unless you go into the app details and switch to “full screen” mode.
Probably the best way to use a game controller with the Remix Mini is to load up a console emulator so you can play NES, GameBoy, Genesis, or PlayStation games, among others. these games were all designed to be used with a gamepad, and many emulators offer you the option of configuring your controller so that you can use an Xbox or PlayStation controller, for instance, to play Super Nintendo or Gameboy Advance games.
Keep in mind that while emulators are legal, the easiest way to find games that will run on those emulators is to download them from the internet… which is not usually legal. Proceed at your own risk.
Other apps were much easier to navigate, including media players such as YouTube and Netflix. I also installed the Kodi media center app and had no problems playing videos from a USB flash drive. You can also install Kodi add-ons to stream internet video from a variety of sources.
While I only tested the Remix Mini with a 1080p television, I was able to play some 2160p H.265/HEVC videos without any major problems, although some files played better than others. Your results will probably depend on the encoding methods used to create the files.
What makes Remix OS special is its support for desktop-style multitasking, but that only works if you’ve got the hardware to support running a bunch of apps at once. The Remix Mini mostly fits the bill. From time to time I’ve seen messages telling me that an app isn’t responding, but I’ve been intentionally pushing the little computer pretty hard.
In terms of raw power, it scores higher than 2013 Nexus 5 smartphone or Nexus 7 tablet in the AnTuTu benchmark, but lags behind newer devices like a Google Nexus Player TV box or Nexus 5X smartphone.
In terms of day-to-day performance, the Remix Mini felt pretty zippy when running most tasks, but occasionally a game would slow down for a second or an app would become unresponsive.
The biggest problems I had came when I tried to pretend I wasn’t using an Android device at all. My original plan had been to write this review on the Remix Mini. But when I fired up the WordPress app for Android, I realized that its simple editing tools were a little too simple for writing a long article.
Next stop: Firefox. The WordPress editor loads perfectly in Mozilla’s web browser for Android, but once I started writing I noticed some pretty serious lag. I’d type a word and then I’d have to wait a second or two before it showed up on the screen. After rebooting the Remix Mini and trying again, there was less lag, but it was still a little too annoying to spend any serious amount of time writing that way.
So I tried using the WordPress editor in Google Chrome. The lag was gone, but I got fed up with text selection and other quirks and eventually propped up a laptop next to the Remix Mini so I could write on one computer while referring to the other for test results.
Your results may vary depending on what it is you’re trying to do with the Remix Mini. But for me, it’s not able to replace a traditional notebook or desktop computer for work purposes.
On the other hand, it’s not a bad option if you’re looking for a relatively inexpensive device to turn your TV into a PC. You can install Kodi, Plex, or other media center apps and stream internet video from Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, and other apps.
It might be a bit tougher to navigate those apps on the Remix Mini than it would be on a TV-optimized device like a Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast, NVIDIA Shield or Amazon Fire TV. But unlike those devices, the Remix Mini can also run web browsers, office software, and just about any other app available for Android. So while I probably wouldn’t recommend replacing a Windows, Mac, or Linux desktop with a Remix Mini, it can be an inexpensive way to bring some desktop-like functionality to your living room.
This could also be a decent computer for people that don’t expect desktop apps to behave in any particular way: at $70 it could be a good option for kids or adults that haven’t spent a lot of time with computers. They might not notice how the OS sometimes seems to be at odds with the apps it’s trying to run.
In the pat few years I’ve used a lot of devices designed to let you run Android apps on a TV. Many of them are basically running stock Android software with a custom app launcher that’s supposed to be easier to use with a remote control… but they all tend to struggle from a mismatch between the operating system and the intended use case since they run apps that aren’t really designed for TVs.
The Remix Mini is something a bit different. You can use it as a media player, but really it’s positioned as a small, inexpensive desktop computer that runs Android apps. The user interface has been optimized for desktop usage. Android has been tweaked to let you resize and move windows. And you get real support for multitasking.
Overall, the Remix Mini makes a pretty compelling case that you can use Android as a desktop OS… or at least that you’d be able to do that if more app developers added desktop-friendly features to their apps. Even without any real help from app makers though, Remix OS does a pretty good job of making many smartphone and tablet apps feel like they’re supposed to run on a desktop computer.
Just don’t expect top-of-the-line performance from a $70 device with a mediocre processor. And don’t expect mobile versions of desktop apps like Firefox, Chrome, Word, and Excel to behave exactly like their desktop counterparts.
Right now if you’re looking for a media streamer, it’s hard to recommend the Remix Mini over a Chromecast or Amazon Fire TV Stick. If you’re looking for a tiny PC, you might be better off with an Intel NUC (or Compute Stick). And if you’re looking for a game system, you might be better off with an Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, NVIDIA Shield, or a real console like an Xbox or PlayStation system.
But if you’re looking for a jack-of-many-trades, master-of-none device, the Remix Mini fits the bill. It’s also one of the cheapest devices you can get that will really let you play around with Remix OS so you can judge the potential of this Android fork for yourself.
And without a doubt, the star of the show is the operating system, not the hardware. In fact, it’s likely that the Remix Mini will get better over time. Jide is constantly rolling out updates to Remix OS that fix bugs and offer new features. I thought the operating system was pretty interesting when I first used it in March. Since then Jide has improved notifications, made it possible to run more apps in windows, enabled support for resizing those windows, and much more.
Thanks again to Jide for providing us with this Remix Mini demo unit.