A Look Inside, Performance, Ubuntu, and Conclusion
A look inside the LIVA X
The LIVA X can be easily opened with four screws, a nice change from the previous model which snapped together and was challenging to re-open. Once inside there is a pretty beefy heatsink on the bottom that makes contact with the SoC and memory via thermal pads, which we see here when removed. (Also note the wireless combo card installed on the right side of the board.)
We're looking at a very slightly different Intel Bay Trail-M SoC containing the N2808 Celeron core, a 4.5W TDP dual-core part with a 1.58 GHz base speed and up to 2.25 GHz "burst" speed, and 1 MB cache. Performance gains with this LIVA are going to come mainly from the increased system memory than this very minor spec increase from the N2807 core found in the original, which differs only slightly in max burst speed at 2.16 GHz.
Next we see the other side of the motherboard, with its open mSATA slot on the left.
Still roughly the size of an SSD
Installing an mSATA drive here is the only way that the LIVA X officially supports a Windows 7 installation, as there is no boot support using the built-in eMMC storage for the elder version of Windows. The setup allows boot compatibility to be set to "legacy" mode, and the storage options in system setup allow AHCI to be disabled (when using an mSATA SSD) if needed as well.
In the review of the original LIVA I mainly used subjective observations to describe performance. The results from common benchmarks were going to be so comparatively low that it made more sense to try some real-world scenarios for testing. There won't be any gaming benchmarks (after all, is it really all that interesting to report single-digit FPS numbers?), or synthetic CPU benchmarks. That’s not was the LIVA is about. For this review I will again stick to a few observations, though (as before) I will start off with a simple hard disk benchmark to see if the new review sample’s larger 64GB eMMC storage offers a speed boost over the original:
LIVA X (64GB eMMC) results at left, LIVA (32GB eMMC) on the right
Big improvement here! Far beyond the difference in capacity (64GB vs 32GB) this improvement is overall speed shows that we're dealing with much faster eMMC. Everything from installing Windows to boot time and file transfers is faster with the X.
Network performance was very good with the new LIVA, though it is hard single out performance numbers from the inlcuded wireless card or onboard NIC considering the LIVA X's modest SoC (which is more likely to be the bottleneck here). Just as with its predecessor, the LIVA X's networking performance is more than adequate to stream HD content in your home or fully realize the speed from a typical broadband ISP (I experienced zero slowdowns with my 60 Mb/s cable connection with either LIVA).
Under Ubuntu 14.04 I was pleasantly surprised to find that the X's wireless card (this time based on the Ralink 3290 chipset) was immediately picked up by the OS, and required zero configuration to connect to a wireless network. In fact, I was connected to my home Wi-Fi during the setup process straight off my USB stick.
The one aspect of the original LIVA's performance that presented the biggest challenge was playback of HD content through a browser using Adobe Flash. Sadly, the experience hasn’t changed with the LIVA X. If you’re playing back video from a file, resolutions up to 1080p are smooth up to high bitrate MKV files. But even 720p videos on YouTube (using the latest graphics drivers, latest version of Flash, most up-to-date versions of each browser) produced choppy video with obvious dropped frames. 1080p Flash presents a true worst-case scenario, and is basically unwatchable.
When switching YouTube to the HTML5 player suddenly HD playback was smooth (no surprise here). Flash is a surprisingly demanding program when you get down to lower-end hardware like this, and with the LIVA X's processing power (essentially the SoC of a tablet) Flash playback will not be up to the level of standard PC.
Temperatures and Power
I managed a 44 °C (above ambient) max temp with 1080p flash, 46 °C (above ambient) with high bitrate 1080p video from MKV via VLC. Not bad considering the CPU was constantly at 100% during these long playback tests; certainly nowhere near overheating. In general the LIVA X was in the 20-30 °C over ambient range.
Power consumption was no higher than the original, with a max of just 9.3 W recorded during 100% load and 4.8 W at idle. The idle draw was a bit higher with this upgraded version, but we're still talking about single-digit numbers here!
The LIVA X running Ubuntu 14.04 LTS
Once again I used Windows 8.1 for all testing, as this is the version of the OS supported by the LIVA out of the box (again, you must install your own mSATA SSD for Windows 7 support). Ubuntu Linux is supported by this new LIVA as well, and the original LIVA performed better overall with this OS in the first review. In the interest of brevity I have left out a deep dive into different operating systems, though this could be revisited in a future post. Briefly I will say that Ubuntu worked very well again with the X, and had the added benifit of painless wireless networking this time (see networking section above).
The LIVA X includes a VESA bracket which allows for simple attachment to a TV/monitor. With the built-in wireless card and HDMI output (with audio over HDMI) this becomes a very easy living room PC option. Even though the Flash performance woes preclude some of the most demanding streaming, switching your YouTube preference to HTML5 will alleviate that problem for the most part, and this can still competently play back HD content from local storage or over your network.
No, the LIVA X can’t replace a desktop, but it really isn’t supposed to. A passively-cooled mini-PC just doesn't have the horsepower yet. It’s faster than the original LIVA, and if it begins to sell for the same low prices we’ve seen from the current model then it will remain a compelling option as a small lightweight system for many tasks. It could be implemented as a small server, a media player, a retro game player, or as a full Windows desktop for productivity without the size and power requirements of a full desktop.
The LIVA X consumes a trivial amount of electricity and fits just about anywhere (especially with the option of VESA mounting). The added USB 2.0 port is helpful, as is the modified design with the USB ports on the front. Faster storage and more memory helped make the X a better multi-tasker than the original, and if you haven’t seen one of these you might be shocked at how much you can get from a desktop the size of a small sandwich.
The pricing of the new LIVA X is higher than the original, as the base model will carry an MSRP of $209.99 compared to the original LIVA's $179.99 starting price, and the 64GB capacity of the LIVA X has an MSRP of $249.99. It isn't hard to rationalize the increase in price once the improvements over the first LIVA are considered, but it's still going to make a buying decision much harder. For the additional $30 ECS has replaced the SoC with the next incremental model up, increased DDR3 memory, added a USB 2.0 port, and added a VESA wall mount.
Bottom line, the LIVA X slightly outperforms the original LIVA, and it looks a little nicer, too. This new LIVA X is a versitile little machine that is tantalizingly close to being a fully capable Windows system. While the original LIVA can be found for around $150, we will have to wait and see where this one will fall in the retail space. While the top model's $249.99 price tag enters Intel NUC territory, this is a complete system with storage and memory onboard. Untimately I was left underwhelmed by the difference compared to the earlier LIVA in daily use, but it's an iterative product that improves on the original in subtle but noticable ways and adds enough value to help justify the higher MSRP.