Saturday 10 February 2024

REVIEW: HUNSN [CWWK] RJ36 Fanless MiniPC - Intel i3-N305 (12th Gen "Alder Lake-N", 8C/8T, 32EU iGPU). And comparison with the Raspberry Pi 5.

Another year, another upgrade to the sound room MiniPC! 😁 Honestly, for audio streaming purposes, I could easily just use the very low power MeLE Quieter2Q as a Roon endpoint with multichannel capability discussed in 2022. As usual, "Bits Are Bits" so this upgrade is not about sound quality, just fanlessness, and higher processing speed on tap.

Recently, I saw this interesting article for an Intel i3-N305 MiniPC and thought it might be fun to try a fanless low-power but reasonably fast machine. The i3-N305 CPU consists of 8 Intel 10nm 12th Generation Efficient-cores (E-cores) with a 32 Execution Units (EU) iGPU; significantly faster than the last miniPC I reviewed which was the Beelink EQ12 with Intel N100 CPU - 4-core, 24EU.

So to give this a try, I bought the HUNSN RJ36 off Amazon, standard retail "barebones" unit since I figure I could buy the DDR5 RAM and M.2 SSD drive myself. Current price about US$375 before RAM and SSD.

The OEM company who makes these computers is CWWK. Similar computers can be found with the Topton brand name. There's no logo or name on the box itself which to me is fine - brand names are not important to me for many tech products so long as performance, build quality and reliability (which can only be determined over time) are adequate.

The computer came reasonably well packaged, generically double-boxed with foam cushioning, without much fanfare:


Inside, we have the computer and 12V/5A switching power supply.

Box contents: fanless computer, power supply, warranty card, a few extra screws.

The computer feels solid, weighing about 1.3kg, measuring approximately 7"W x 5.3"D x 2.25"H. While I'll be using it as a consumer for my audio-video purposes, notice the appearance. This is not your usual consumer-oriented machine! It's meant to be a "firewall appliance" unit with a more industrial design which is more apparent once we talk about the ethernet ports.

Perhaps the most obvious thing you'll notice is that the box doesn't contain any multipage manual on paper, on CD, nor drivers. That sheet of paper inside the plastic bag is just the warranty card. This lack of even a basic manual can make it a little daunting for inexperienced PC assemblers. These days, most things can be found online with a little Google search although I did not see a formal manual there either. Nonetheless, I found the installation reasonably straightforward. I'll do what I can in this post to discuss the install. (You can check the CWWK website to see if you can find a manual and keep an eye for firmware updates here.)


Above, we see the front of the machine. There's a power button (blue LED when on). To be honest I have no idea what that recessed "G" button is for. The on/off mini switch sets the default when the machine is plugged in whether it turns itself on/off; I've left it as 'on' so that when there's a power failure, the machine will self-start. Nice to have easy access to the "CLR CMOS" button in case I make a BIOS change and the machine doesn't boot. Good selection of dual USB 3 (5Gbps) ports, and 4 USB 2.0 (480Mbps) up front. There's a "TF" (TransFlash) slot which is basically a generic microSD; a convenient feature to have.

Notice the 2 WiFi/Bluetooth antenna cutouts. You can stick a WiFi/BT mini PCIe card inside and run the antenna through these cutouts connected with pigtail wires. Thankfully I have wired ethernet through the home so this is not needed; remember, there is no loss of sound quality with WiFi so long as the connection is reliable and we're transferring audio data losslessly.


Behind, we have 2 more USB 2 (480Mbps, not actually SuperSpeed) ports, both an HDMI 2.1 and DisplayPort 1.4 for video, each capable of 4K/60Hz/HDR10. And notice the 4 ethernet ports which are fast, lower power Intel I226-V 2.5GbE. And then of course the 12V DC barrel plug for the switching power supply. There's also a grounding point under the power plug.

With the multiple high-speed network ports, this device is designed to operate as a "mini firewall" and custom router using applications such as pfSense (see this intro for more) typically running on UNIX-type operating systems like FreeBSD or Linux. The nice thing about today's generic hardware is that this box is compatible with more consumer-friendly, GUI-based operating systems like Windows and Ubuntu.


Looking underneath, we see some pre-cut holes for VESA mounting. Also a round central vent section that can accommodate an "8010" (80mmx80mmx10mm) fan if you have any concerns with adequate cooling.

Okay, so let's remove the 12 screws that hold this case together (4 front, 4 rear, 4 bottom) and open up to have a look:


Pretty clean board layout. We can easily see the single SODIMM DDR5 slot that can accommodate up to 32GB. Notice the "daughterboard" which provides an extra M.2 SSD provided through the Mini PCIe slot. Then there's the primary M.2 slot (green). There's also a SATA-III connector inside should you choose that. There's not much space inside there, so a SATA drive might just "hang" inside there loosely if not secured to the bottom plate, but I suspect it'll be fine so long as you don't vigorously shake it around.

For my installation, let me just run it "clean", removing the SATA cable and that extra M.2 daughter board:

And let's put in a Corsair Vengeance 16GB DDR5 SODIMM (US$45), and Silicon Power 512GB NVMe M.2 SSD (US$40) inside - total price of the machine as tested is around US$460:

Note: DDR5 memory compatibility is important. Initially, I tried some inexpensive T-Create DDR5-5200 but could NOT get it working with this computer (no start-up screen or beep when turned on). Stick with major name memory brands like Corsair or Kingston at 4800MT/s.

I see from the white sticker that this motherboard is the "CW-AL-4L-V2.0 N305" revision, firmware dated 2023-09-27 which can be found here.

Nice and clean installation. Underneath the SSD M.2 would be the Mini PCIe slot for WiFi/Bluetooth card.

Here's a peek down the motherboard where we can see the presumably copper block interface between the CPU and case used as heatsink:


On the other side of the copper block, if you look further down, is another chunk of metal and thermal pad providing contact between the Intel 2.5GbE network chips (TDP 1.3W each) and the case.

Tip: By default, when the computer goes to sleep, USB is powered off and you cannot wake it up using your keyboard/mouse. There is no BIOS setting. If you want to keep the USB ports powered during sleep, you can move the JPWR1 jumper to the front 2 pins like this:


All ports including USB2 and USB3 ports can now wake with your USB device. Ideally, I believe it would be better to have some ports not be powered. For example, it would be nice to plug in a USB 3 stick and when the system goes to sleep, no power goes to that port.

The system is based on AMI BIOS and you'll notice a beep from the machine when it starts. The beep is rather annoying and can be turned off in the BIOS settings.


Notice that I've also disabled the "Wake On LAN" feature here since I want full control of when the machine turns on/off. As a playback endpoint, I only want it to turn on when there's someone in the room listening or watching content.

Here's the default setting for turbo TDP:

Looks like we're targeting 20W Power Level 1 by default which might be a bit of an "overclock" since the official TDP aims at 15W average.

When I installed Windows 11, it did not find the Intel I226-V drivers automatically, and I had to grab this Intel Ethernet driver package (currently version 28.3). Go into Device Manager and allow the computer to find the driver for each of the unrecognized ethernet devices. From there, the computer can go online and Windows will install the rest of the necessary drivers like the Intel GPU driver.

Here's a look at my machine's HWiNFO64 data:


Benchmarks:

So how fast is this computer? Let's start with a look using Linpack Xtreme which is good for both benchmarking and checking system stability:


Not bad at all. 114 GFLOPS average performance is impressive, and is a significant increase over the 67 GFLOPS of the stock Intel N100 Beelink EQ12 reviewed last year. Looking at my Kill-A-Watt meter, I see that the total system power usage is around 35W running the benchmark (which drops to a total of 15-16W when idle). Since this is a fanless machine, let's run a stress test to see if there's any thermal throttling over time at stock speed:


Looks good. Hammering the CPU at 100% continuously over 1.4 hours with Linpack, we're not seeing any deterioration in processing speed to suggest throttling due to excess temperatures (remains >114 GFLOPS across 20 runs). However, it does get quite warm with internal temperatures around 70°C and notice the SSD temperature even hits 81°C during this time (ambient temperature here at home around 21°C). The case (heatsink) gets hot to the touch during this test as you might expect and it gets pretty uncomfortable to hold. Realize that this is edge-case stress-testing since I do not ever expect the machine to be running at continuous 100% capacity beyond a few minutes here and there for my use!

Speaking of the SSD, let's have a look at the speed of the Silicon Power 512GB M.2 SSD (PCIe 3.0 x 4) I stuck inside:

Nice and fast sequential transfer consistent with the rated M.2 speed, much higher than the Beelink EQ12 last year although the random transfer speeds are about equivalent. As expected, this is significantly faster than SATA III SSDs.

As usual, I'll use AIDA64 Extreme 6.88 to get a breakdown of memory (Corsair 16GB DDR5 SODIMM), integer, and floating point performance compared with other machines (I see version 7 is out, but for now, I think version 6 is fine).

Memory Tests:           Read (MB/s)    Write (MB/s)   Copy (MB/s)    Latency (ns)
HUNSN RJ36 i3-N305       33834           32040          30869          42.4
Beelink EQ12 N100        31480           29051          27778          44.9
Beelink Mini S           15910           17470          15860          60.8
MeLE Quieter3Q N5105     16959           22453          19042          66.9
MeLE Quieter2Q J4125     10409           10631          12860          93.5
Beelink Ryzen 7 4700U    36173           35510          29360          99.8
Intel NUC 6i5SYH         32161           45606          36301          66.1
Intel i7-7700K Server    31323           33913          31512          61.9
AMD Ryzen 9 3900X        49044           45780          46165          77.1

CPU Speed (Int): CPU Queen  PhotoWorxx(MPx/s)   ZLib(MB/s)  AES(MB/s)  SHA3(MB/s)
HUNSN RJ36 N305   41135       21699              446.7        24270        1288
Beelink EQ12 N100 22647       16139              219.2        21796        801
Beelink Mini S    22293       7383               188.0        19420        515
MeLE Q3Q N5105    20157       8640               144.5        15822        431
MeLE Q2Q J4125    19156       6771               120.4        9301         365
Beelink 4700U     49409       20336              422.8        48864        1534
NUC 6i5SYH        18092       15463              119.3        6101         553
i7-7700K Server   54240       20647              392.4        20509        1874
Ryzen 9 3900X     124348      29694              1191.3       107024       3705

CPU Speed (FP):   Julia    Mandel    SinJulia    Ray-Trace(kRay/s) FP64 Ray-Trace
HUNSN RJ36 N305   19999    10069     2329        4163                 2059
Beelink EQ12 N100 11439    5778      1124        2188                 1176
Beelink Mini S    7462     3967      1003        1244                 677
MeLE Q3Q N5105    5604     2974      1003        1034                 533
MeLE Q2Q J4125    5835     3179      1112        933                  499
Beelink 4700U     50212    27457     8003        8750                 4870
NUC 6i5SYH        11358    6126      1603        2417                 1352
i7-7700K Server   38236    20577     5422        8160                 4505
Ryzen 9 3900X     113102   59539     20537       21413                11413

Memory speed of the single Corsair DDR5 stick is a little faster than the Beelink EQ12 and quite close to the dual-channel DDR4 RAM in the Beelink Ryzen 7 4700U. As you can see, the i3-N305 processor approaches 2x the speed of the N100 for floating point benchmarks, while still higher performance, it's more variable on the integer tests. It also handily beats the Intel i5-6260U NUC 6i5SYH from back in 2016 and even close to the i7-7700K with integer performance!

As I have done in the past, here are the UserBenchmark results for this machine:


Overall looks fine and above 50%ile of all machines running these kinds of parts. I'm not sure why the Corsair DDR5 is measuring a bit on the low side; but points-wise it's compensated by that high CPU percentile score (perhaps due to the 20W PL1 turbo?). UserBenchmark is really pushing for their paid "pro" account so going forward I probably won't be using this benchmark much especially since I'm often a little suspicious about whether the percentile ranks are really apples-to-apples. I suspect many of the submitted results are from folks running overclocking tests that might not be truly stable daily use settings.

As you can see, the Intel UHD integrated graphics score is nothing to write home about at only 5.88% which is still better than the 3.5% of the N100 CPU. This is not the kind of machine one would be playing anything more than the casual 3D game with!

Despite the lack of 3D prowess, the power of the 32EU iGPU allowed for smooth YouTube 8K/60Hz playback (scaled down to 4K) with little frame drops - for example, let's try this 8K video of London:


That 0.24% drop will not be noticeable. Certainly very reasonable for a low-power machine with shared DDR5 RAM. The iGPU is capable of decoding and encoding HEVC/H.265 (both 8 and 10-bit), AVC/H.264, VP8, VP9, and JPEG. AV1 has hardware decode only. As a HTPC device used for audio/video consumption, it would be unlikely that the end user would care much about encoding abilities.

While it's great that there's 8K content out there for testing and viewing, I don't really think there's practically a need. IMO 4K is more than enough for home video for the foreseeable future with normal TV screen size and sitting distances (as per discussions of "retina" resolution, sort of like how 16/44.1 CD-resolution is more than good enough for most home audio).

No problem running Kodi for movie playback with HDR10 capabilities and audio bit-streaming including lossless Dolby TrueHD-Atmos over HDMI to a receiver.


Summary:

Computer technology marches forward. The HUNSN/CWWK RJ36 MiniPC is an example of a reasonably fast (>100GFLOPS on Linpack), fanless machine that a tech hobbyist can use for audio (multichannel) streaming and 4K HTPC playback purposes; which is of course what I intend to do in my sound/media room. One should be able to get the barebones computer up and running easily for less than US$500 with reasonable quality DDR5 SODIMM RAM and M.2 NVMe drive (or just buy a 16GB/512GB pre-configured machine for example). Of course, unless you intend to use this machine for more general computing tasks, trimming down to 8GB RAM and less storage space would be enough for just streaming or movie playback apps.

While I have no concerns at all using a quiet miniPC like the Beelink EQ12, the fact that this machine is fanless is ideal for computer audiophiles. I bet going from a quiet PC to a fanless one more than likely represents a change more significant than any high-end cable! At least the noise reduction without a fan spinning is objectively real - as opposed to subjective testimonial claims. 🤔

Feature-wise this machine has all I need for my home audio-visual media playback as well as audio-related computing. Notice that unlike more consumer-oriented machines, there are no audio input/outputs nor the consumer-friendly USB-C ports. As noted above, I wouldn't mind if a few of the USB ports would power off when the machine is asleep (like the USB 3 ports) while the JPWR1 jumper is set to still provide power to a few of the ports such as for the keyboard/mouse to wake the machine from sleep/hibernation.

As you probably have seen in my previous articles like this, I prefer to save power and so will "power limit" these computers in the BIOS when used in the media room. We'll talk about this and how I'll set up the machine in my AV room later... (Follow-up article here.)

--------------------

Thoughts on the Raspberry Pi 5...


As we end, many will know that the Raspberry Pi 5 was released in October 2023; I see that the current price on Amazon is less than US$120 for the 8GB model. Given all the features, that's pretty good I suppose.

Speedwise, the new quad-core 2.4GHz Broadcom BCM2712 Cortex A76 CPU will be a significant step up from the Pi 4, it even has PCIe 3.0 x1 (8Gbps) capability if you want to try an external GPU. Historically, I've built a number of Raspberry Pi "Touch" devices for my own music streaming but currently not sure whether I'll grab a Pi 5.

You might be wondering how a fanless machine like this Intel MiniPC compares to the Raspberry Pi speedwise. It should come as no shock of course that the difference is significant.

One way we can compare is with cross-platform benchmarks. Simple floating point benchmarks like Linpack could be useful - the Pi 5 scores around 30 GFLOPS, Pi 4 about 12 GFLOPS (see here). A more sophisticated one is Geekbench currently at version 6.2 which calculates scores based on the routines in common tasks like file compression, browsing, PDF rendering, text processing, image manipulation, etc. Let's compare benchmark results with this HUNSN MiniPC (i3-N305), the Beelink EQ12 (N100), desktop AMD Zen CPUs, and the Raspberry Pi 4 and 5 results found here from the company themselves utilizing active cooling:


As you can see, the Pi 5 has made significant strides forward. The single-core results are affected by architectural improvements and clock speed while multi-core results also depend on the software's ability to take advantage of parallel threads, memory speed, and power limits. Notice that the HUNSN/CWWK i3-N305 machine already achieves better single-core performance and similar multi-core speed as the first-generation "Zen 1" AMD Ryzen 1700 desktop I built back in mid-2017. Not bad at all for a fanless box! With 100% CPU load, the whole i3-N305 system draws around 50% of the Ryzen 1700 CPU alone!

On a side note, we can see the generational jump in single-core performance between the various AMD "Zen" processors. In particular the 3900X (Zen 2) and 5700X (Zen 3) both have boost clocks up to the same 4.6GHz suggesting the ~25% single-core gain mostly is due to architectural improvements (things like instructions per clock and unified L3 cache pool). While there are speed gains, with modern CPUs, applications need to leverage the multi-core performance.

Assuming each generation results in an evolutionary doubling of overall multi-core speed, with the future "Pi 6" in 2 or 3 years, the performance should be about the speed of the Beelink EQ12 (Intel N100). It'll probably take another generation after that with the "Pi 7", maybe around 2029-2030, to hit the performance of this HUNSN/CWWK i3-N305 machine though while hopefully maintaining a low price. Let's see if this guess is correct. 🤔

It's not surprising that in practice, a Pi 5 currently would still be insufficient as a general-purpose computer as discussed in this article. SBC's like the Raspberry Pi are great to build projects with (GPIO access, HAT boards) and as "appliance" devices (like music streamers, network filters like Pi-Hole, DSP processor). A bit more computing power still needed though before they can be used comfortably as general purpose computers running a graphical interface (we'll get there in the next generation, maybe the "Pi 6" around 2026?). Alternative SBCs like the Orange Pi 5 and Rock Pi 5 B are already capable of about twice the speed of the Raspberry Pi 5 with higher core count at reasonable prices although not as popular. The other piece that would be important is iGPU performance which we haven't touched on in this comparison.

One more thing, given the competitive prices of miniPCs these days, buying a Pi 5 with all the accessories you'll need (nice case, power supply, at least microSD if not inexpensive small 2242 SSD with M.2 adaptor), probably won't be saving any money over an already assembled N100 PC with better I/O features and Windows 11 (like this MINISFORUM UN100L with 16GB DDR5, 512GB SSD). The miniPC would be significantly faster; easily usable as a basic desktop computer. We're quite far from the idealized US$35 SBC for a modern Raspberry Pi these days!

--------------------

Sneak peek at the heroic audiophile Wizard/engineer at work!
Achieving "magic" from technology. Or at least what some want you to believe...

I hope that's an interesting look at the computer hardware side especially for the audiophiles who might not be up-to-date or familiar with this stuff. As usual, whether computer-tech or audio-tech, the products make sense; there's no magic to this (especially computers!).

Any company that sells dramatic "magical" tech products typically with no demonstration of objective capability deserves to be viewed with strong skepticism and concerns raised among consumers to be cautious. At least when it comes to audiophilia, let's make sure over time to change our culture so we become more objectively tech oriented and less impressed by the testimonials of salesmen and companies. For me, that's the overarching goal for this blog. And I hope when you're out there on forums, in audio clubs, chatting with dealers, and friends, we all do our part to make sure we properly (and calmly!) educate those who have been caught in the orbit of an industry with advertising dollars typically pushing hype based on extreme subjective-only views.

As usual, I believe it's certainly fine to express one's subjective opinions on sound quality, fit and finish, features we desire, and other non-utilitarian elements of consumer ownership. But pure subjectivity is no way to impress upon others the idea of high-fidelity, and it's simply ridiculous as rational audiophiles in the 21st Century to speak about things like "low noise" and "low jitter" without demonstrating the facts around such claims for any product given the availability of measurement equipment capable of examining details beyond human hearing.

Enjoy the music and videos everyone. Happy Lunar New Year. 🐉

14 comments:

  1. Ha Ha! Love your AI-extrapolated avatar...Still has problems with the fingers but the background is very revealing. I'm pretty sure you don't have blue eyes though. ;-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey there Gilles,
      LOL. Yeah, AI image creation can still get things pretty odd with fingers and toes. :-)

      Alas, that's not my wizard since my guy's a lot scarier than that; and indeed not blue-eyed!

      Delete
  2. The price of Pi certainly has gone up. It's no longer something you want to order at the diner anymore, even if this one won't spike your A1c. On another note, the Hunsn looks like it can do everything someone wishing to run a stand alone HTPC could ever want. More expensive than the N100 machines, but a good deal more powerful.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, exactly Phoenix,
      I'm sure the Pi 5 would serve nicely as the heart of upcoming music streamers providing faster response time. Even though more expensive, I imagine it should not be too much for something like the Boulder 812 DAC/streamer which currently uses the Pi 4 internally, but with an MSRP of >US$9000!

      Yeah, the i3-N305 machines will cost a bit more than an N100 - especially for fanless designs. Definitely at a level now where even with a bit of power-limiting, this should be more than enough computing power for the sound room! We'll of course talk more about this next time...

      Delete
  3. Thanks for another thoughtful article. I continue to believe that N100 mini PCs hold the sweet spot for media-focused computers. The HUNSN preconfigured with RAM and SSD that you linked comes in at nearly $500.

    Based on a Youtube review that Robtech did (https://youtu.be/bYVNq_l8_9A), I bought a Morefine M8S with 16GB DDR5 and 512GB SSD for about $160 before Xmas (it costs $175 today on Amazon - the price moves around a bit). Robtech's review measured the fan noise at close to zero - and my own experience confirmed this. Also, it runs at lower power vs. i3 Mini PCs.

    I used to use SBCs (Pi 4 with a passive cooling case and Odroid N1), but they're falling behind vs Mini PCs. In addition to disappointing price/performance, the Pi 5 now appears to require active cooling and does not have hardware video acceleration other than H264.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks William,
      Yup, I agree! When it comes to value, for sure, the N100 MiniPCs is a deal that's really hard to beat :-). Fantastic price you got there for a 16GB DDR5/512GB SSD model!

      I didn't know the Pi 5 dropped H264 acceleration (I believe still has H265/HEVC decoding, no hardware video encoding at all apparently). I guess they must believe end users would be happy with software decode. Even though I believe H.265 is clearly becoming more popular, it dose seem a bit premature to be dropping H.264 hardware decoding at this time in history especially if using a high-resolution screen for video playback.

      Delete
    2. My apologies, Arch, and other readers. Pi 5 supports H265/HEVC hardware decoding - not H264 as I wrote above. Other video formats, including H264/AVC, are done in software.

      Delete
  4. Nice review, Arch! That little box is pretty impressive.

    BTW - Digikey has plenty of Pi 5 8GB in stock for $80. For my cheapskate 2-channel streaming - audio-only purposes, I have had good luck with $30 "T95" Android boxes (re-flashed with an Armbian distro) running LMS and Squeezelite. I was motivated to build several of these during the Great Pi Shortage Crisis.

    See my project here: https://www.jwtaudio.com/projects/an-alternative-to-raspberry-pi-for-lms

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nice wtnh,
      Rock bottom price and an interesting project! I read the updates and I hope the system is running stable for the last number of months...

      Over the years, I've used these TV boxes for running Kodi (like this) but never got in and install a server like you did.

      I wonder comparatively what the Geekbench 6 result would look like compared to the Pi or MiniPC with these little TV boxes!

      Delete
    2. Other than price, there is not much you can expect from these cheap little boxes. I think the ones I have are quad-core A53 ARM-based, clocked at around 1.7GHz with 2GB of RAM. I have not bothered with benchmarks, but I'm guessing they are at about Pi 3B+ performance levels. In any event, running LMS and streaming to 2 players simultaneously only uses about 2-3% CPU on the (headless) server, so they are suited to the task. I have not used Volumio etc. having been a long-time (20 years) LMS user, so can't speak to how they would work with other server software.

      So far, the Inovato Armbian distro has been perfectly stable. I have not had time to experiment with other distros - maybe in the future.

      For Pi-based systems like my other player projects, PiCorePlayer uses a version of TinyCore Linux, which runs entirely in RAM. No SD card corruption on power loss. It is super stable and has run on my boxes for years.

      Delete
    3. Another thing I have been thinking about is buying a bunch of cheap ARM boards and configuring a cluster to "scale out" the performance. You could run Kubernetes (for example) on this platform and achieve a very good price/performance ratio. Super geeky though.

      Delete
    4. Yeah wtnh, a cluster of TV boxes. That's indeed very geeky :-).

      Hey if you do it, lemme know! Would love to see what kind of performance you're getting (and what kind of power draw)...

      Delete
  5. Thank you for providing such an excellent post. By the way, if you are seeking a current Stud Bolt Manufacturer in India, go to this website and grab the best stud bolts.

    ReplyDelete