Video playback with Remix OS on the Pine64

After spending far too long languishing in the “waiting for the right moment to do something interesting” pile, it was about time I did something interesting with the Pine64 that turned up in my mailbox three months ago. Reading up on other people’s experiences with the board was something of a disappointment – OS issues, driver problems, general frustration with progress seems to be the norm – so I thought I’d give something reasonably simple a try, and turn my hand to investigating video playback with Remix OS on the Pine64.

Setup

Getting set up was pretty straightforward – if you want a quick overview, here’s what you’ll need:

  • A Pine64 SOC, preferably with 2Gb of RAM. Remix will work on 1Gb, but it’s not going to perform well
  • An 8Gb or better SD card
  • Grab the Remix OS build for Pine64 from here – as of writing, it’s version 2.0 Beta. The zip file’s 1.2Gb in size and suitable for an 8Gb SD card, so set the download going now while you read the rest of this.
  • To write the image to your SD card you’re going to need an image writer – I’m partial to Win32DiskImager, which does the job nicely.

 

In Action

Plug in the SD card, HDMI cable, USB mouse and keyboard, apply power and off you go. I’d read that Remix can take a while to boot on first run, but it seemed pretty quick to me. Here’s what you’re greeted with once the boot process is complete – an Android-based OS that borrows a few features from the Windows world to give you a fairly useful and familiar desktop layout.

The Remix desktop on a Pine64
The Remix desktop on a Pine64

Fire up Google Play and you’ll be invited to sign in with your Google account. While that worked fine, browsing and downloading from Play was surprisingly frustrating. Some apps downloaded and installed fine, but in later sessions every single download would fail after a few seconds of inactivity, and following the suggested troubleshooting for error “” didn’t help. I guess I’ll have to come back to that later.

Another annoyance – no sound over HDMI 🙁 Apparently this isn’t enabled in Remix yet, so you’ll need either headphones or that old pair of desktop speakers you’ve got stashed away in your spares box to hear anything.

Video Playback (and the beauty of a VPN)

With the Pine64 sporting a Mali GPU allegedly capable of 4k playback, I was interested to see how well the Pine64 could perform as a dedicated streaming device. With Amazon Fire sticks and Chrome keys available for super-cheap, it would need to be pretty impressive to make this worthwhile as a platform. First up, a quick check of YouTube via Chrome showed that it worked pretty well. Full screen playback wasn’t what you’d expect if Chrome wasn’t maximized, which was annoying:

YouTube on Remix
YouTube on Remix

But if you have the browser open full-screen when you hit the full-screen button in the YouTube video player, then it does actually fill the entire screen and plays back remarkably well. Perfectly acceptable, but where’s the interest in that? Basically anything can throw a YouTube video onto a TV. Much more interesting would be to use a VPN to connect to countries overseas and try out their services without getting playback blocked by their geo-fencing. There are a hundred and one virtual private network providers out there, but if you’re looking for a recommendation I’ve been pretty happy with PureVPN – mainly because I managed to pick up a lifetime subscription for $50 a couple years back, and they’ve been reasonably solid ever since.

Setting up a VPN on Remix was remarkably easy – open the settings app, select the VPN icon, and fill in the details – you’ll find the list of PureVPN’s servers here.  From Afghanistan to Vietnam, they cover a remarkably long list of end-points, including all the majors. Hankering for a taste of the UK, I set up a connection to their London POP, established within seconds, and fired up the BBC.

BBC on Remix via VPN
BBC on Remix via VPN

After selecting a show to watch, I needed to download the BBC Media Player, an app that launches when you select any content from the BBC iPlayer website and handles playback of the media you’ve chosen – luckily Google Play was feeling cooperative, and it downloaded and installed with no hassle. Performance was surprisingly good, with windowed and full-screen playback being pretty much flawless.

Summing Up

The Pine64 running Remix is clearly still a work in progress. While I’m not entirely convinced by the hardware (Raspberry Pi 3 seems streets ahead) and the OS support is severely lacking for anything beyond basic use, it’s simple enough to set up as a video-streamer as long as the content you want is available via web-based means. Luckily, configuring the VPN was simple, and having a dedicated little box for watching the BBC is pretty neat for about $35 in parts. Unfortunately though, it’s not yet the “super computer for $15” that people were hoping for, and we can only hope that OS development continues apace to smooth out some of the  rough edges that still exist in the OS.

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