Looking to do a spot of office productivity work on a shoestring budget? In that case, you could do a lot worse than the Beelink A1. This Android-based thin client has a lot to offer for the right audience.
- Latest mainstream version of Android
- Very affordable
- 4GB of RAM
- Great design
- Only 16GB on-board storage
- UI could be better
Computers come in various shapes and forms: portable laptops, monstrous desktop or gaming PCs, and miniature HDMI dongles, or even some that are integrated into a keyboard or a wall power plug.
The Beelink A1 is sold as a TV box, as the name indicates, but is just as useful – if not more – as a thin client, especially for small and medium-sized businesses that may want to move away from expensive and complicated Windows-based setups to embrace the cloud.
The A1 is absolutely tiny and will comfortably sit in an adult hand. Its dimensions (76 x 76 x 17mm) mean that it can be hidden almost anywhere, but the lack of a VESA mount means that you won’t be able to fix it securely to a monitor.
The manufacturer opted for a white finish all round except for the base which is bright orange. The device’s plastic shell means that the bill of materials can be kept to a minimum while ensuring adequate heat dissipation thanks to an aluminum heatsink just under the surface.
The front is adorned with a white LED display which provides the time and system status at a glance, which can come in handy. Despite its size, the A1 manages to cram in two full-size USB ports (one of which is USB 3.0), one microSD card reader, one full-size Gigabit Ethernet port, a full-size HDMI port and an audio jack.
Bearing in mind that this is a sub-£50 box, we were surprised to find that it had 4GB of RAM (albeit DDR3), something that will definitely be helpful for future versions of Android, or if you intend to run more memory-hungry applications.
Beelink opted for a quad-core CPU – a Rockchip RK3328 – clocked at up to 1.5GHz. It supports 4K at 60Hz, H.265 and VP9 formats as well. The choice of the Mali-450MP2 remains unexplained as it is a GPU that is nearly six-years-old, and doesn’t come with architectural improvements found on later models.
The small storage capacity (16GB) is probably the only worry, although the presence of a microSD card slot mitigates our concerns – note that the thin client also sports 802.11ac Wi-Fi connectivity and Bluetooth.
As expected, the A1 is powered by a 5V2A (10W) power supply unit with a proprietary connector. We’d have preferred a microUSB affair as it would have allowed portable battery chargers to be hooked up to the device.
Usage and performance
The tiny box is simple to operate: just power it on and you’re ready to go. There’s no button to press – you will land on a standard grid homepage that resembles a dashboard. Sadly there are limited configuration options.
There’s a handful of applications: a memory cleaner, media player, file explorer, music player and a proprietary app store. Fortunately Google Play is present (but not YouTube or any other Google apps).
There’s even a camera app which will be of no use (obviously), and the bundled Android 7.1.2 OS means that you get most recent new features. You can also use this box as a Wi-Fi hotspot, although you’ll need to use the wired internet connection in lieu of wireless.
Don’t expect the A1 to be a pacey roadrunner. It will be fine with mundane and office productivity tasks, but anything remotely taxing is likely to bring this system to its knees, especially games.
Having a poor video subsystem means that benchmark results for graphical tests were far below what we’d expect, with the A1 scoring zero frames per second on Antutu’s demanding 3D Marooned test.
The A5X Max is a better version of the Beelink A1 – at £45 (around $61) it’s a couple of quid cheaper (at the time of writing), but offers a staggering four USB ports, a full-size SD card reader, as well as an SPDIF port. Just note that it is a bit bigger and only available in black.
The MX9 Pro has an external antenna – which is great for improving wireless connectivity – and twice the amount of storage. It only has one USB port, though, but does come with an SPDIF connector and a microUSB port. At less than £50, it is a steal.
If you are after something different, the R-TV R10 certainly fits the bill. It is slightly more expensive at £57 (around $77) but has a distinctive circular shape. From afar it looks like a posh speaker, and the device shares the same specs as the A1, but with twice the amount of on-board storage.
There’s a lot to love about the Beelink A1 and anyone who has an Android smartphone will immediately feel at home with it. This box packs a lot of technology into such a small space, and its finish is as good as it gets for such a cheap price tag.
A decent amount of memory combined with a recent Android build means that businesses should be able to use this device out of the box with little concern over security issues or compatibility.
Our only real complaint is that the on-board storage is on the stingy side, but adding a microSD card should alleviate that. There are other solid alternatives in the same ballpark price bracket, and picking the right model for you will ultimately come down to your budget and priorities.