A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of unboxing the Tronsmart Ara x5 Plus, provided to us by Tronsmart itself. So how does the cheap and cheerful Windows 10-powered TV box stack up to a few weeks worth of real world use?
The Ara x5 Plus's chassis is an inoffensive box with a small footprint, not much bigger than a Lumia laid flat on the ground. The top of the device features a clean, glossy laminated surface with a flat Tronsmart logo: more than enough artistic flair for this device.
I would perhaps even call it "sleek" if it weren't for the bulging antenna sticking out. The antenna is so big relative to the body the device itself that very noticeably upsets the weight balance when holding the device up, not that you'd be doing that often. The antenna's size and weight is surprisingly problematic, as it makes finding a home for the TV box near a TV quite difficult if your plan is to cram it into one of the TV's shelves.
The placement of the ports are for the most part pleasant, and there's ample numbers of them, including a high-speed USB 3.0 port found in the back. The only port complaint I have about the design is the location of the microSD card slot: while I imagine most users are unlikely to swap out the microSD card frequently, I do believe making it somewhere more accessible than the back might help make this device more flexible, if a bit less visually appealing.
It's fanless, so there's no noise to speak of.
You'd think that'd be the end of the story, but that isn't always the case. Not all fanless computer systems are made equal, as some replace the sound of moving air with the sound of electric whining, which can be just as unpleasant, if not more so.
Thankfully, I could detect none of such nonsense from the Ara x5 nor its power adapter, and even if it did emit some noise, I doubt it would affect daily use of the device, as it would most likely be drowned out by the TV it resides next to.
While Intel's Atom lineup has made massive strides from the pathetic reputation they once held, even the latest 14nm Cherry-Trail Atom x3-z8300 found in the Ara x5 Plus isn't what I'd call pleasant.
While embarrassingly slow at first, the Ara x5 Plus did confirm my initial suspicion that the device's performance would increase a bit after the first few hours of installing updates and sorting itself out. Unfortunately, this didn't make much of a different.
Basic tasks using Universal Store apps were pleasant, but web browsing with anything more than 4 tabs or any variety of modern, bandwidth heavy website simply slowed the device to a crawl. Edge performance stuttered a lot, and while Chrome worked a bit smoother, it still didn't exactly set the world on fire. The device only features 2GB of RAM, but honestly the paltry RAM was the least of its concerns.
To be completely honest, while I didn't enjoy the Ara x5's agility properties, I have a hard time blaming it squarely on the hardware, as I think Windows 10 could still use some optimization, especially with low powered devices. I've seen this same middling performance (albeit to not as harsh an extent) when my Surface 3 transitioned to Windows 10, and it features the top of the line Atom x7.
As a general computer, it's mediocre.
But as a movie streaming device, it does quite well.
After the painful trek to loading the website or app, 1080p 60fps streaming and movie playing is superb and stutter-free. I unfortunately do not have access to an external Blu-ray player to be able to test out its performance properties in that arena.
For its intended purpose, it performs decently, on top of being dirt-cheap. However, if I'm completely honest, I have a hard time seeing the merit of using this device purely as a TV streaming device, as there are so many even cheaper alternatives already available.
What gives this device the edge over things Amazon's, Google's, and even Apple's TV-based offerings is that it's a full Windows 10 PC, and enjoys all the privileges such a lifestyle entails. But it's so unpleasant to use as a general purpose PC that I wonder what makes this more compelling than say, an Amazon Fire TV Stick and a laptop on your lap, or even that same laptop connected to Microsoft's Wireless Display Adapter.
For those people who would need a full computer to play movies on a TV, this would be a great complement to their living room environments. I just have a hard time envisioning scenarios where that's necessary given all the other more convenient and cheaper options available, unless of course we're talking less about Netflix and more about PirateBay. That's another story entirely.
You can buy the Tronsmart Ara x5 Plus here.
Update: corrected the name of the device to the Tronsmart Ara x5 Plus.