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The newest thing in old dumpster-dived computers

January 24, 2017

mk808b-quadcore-android-stick

Even though the parkade that my homeless friend “J” sleeps in is blocks closer to the McDonald’s in the 1400 block of West Broadway Avenue than the parkade that I sleep in, I was still halfway through my Big Breakfast this morning (January 24) when he finally showed up—ostensibly to get his first coffee of the day.

However, the way that he was hovering behind my chair and rooting through his backpack, I could tell that along with buying coffee he was going to try selling me some bit of garbage that he had found while dumpster diving the previous night.

And yes, with a flourish and an expression that was both questioning and hopeful, he offered me a jumbled handful of computer hardware.

There was a wall plug, various-ended USB and HDMI cables and some wee little USB dongles—all of which were jet-black and plugged into an equally black, highly engineered, plastic box about the size of a short chocolate bar.

In addition to connection ports and grills (likely for heat dissipation), one edge of the box bore a bar-coded serial number sticker and there was white branding on the two largest sides if the box, which read: “MINI TV for Android Quad-Core MK808B Plus” and “H.265 high efficiency video coding”.

My friend had no idea what it was and a first glance I took it for some kind of device to bring computer to a TV or TV to a computer—perhaps not unlike the Hauppage WinTV stick for receiving digital TV on a laptop, which I found two years ago in a dumpster.

hauppage-stick

All I’ve done with the USB TV tuner I found in 2015 is run its picture in this post.

Either way, I wasn’t overly interested in the “MINI TV” stick that my friend had found and I politely declined to buy it—first when it was offered for $5, again when it was marked down to $2 and finally when it hit rock bottom at $1.50.

J complained that he needed the money for bus fare (as if homeless people pay bus fare).

I laughed and waited until his dejected self was just about out the door of the restaurant before I offered to lend him $2.

He jumped at the loan but then couldn’t be bothered to take back his doo-dad (it having more or less served its immediate purpose).

Anyway, he was coming right back and left it with me so that I could find out on the web what exactly it was and how much it was worth.

Tower computers don’t tower like they used to

The specs on this MK808B Plus would've been unbelievable 20 years ago, amazing 15 years ago and lackluster anytime in the last decade.

The MK808B Plus specs would have been unbelievable 20 years ago, amazing 15 years ago and lackluster anytime in the last decade.

By the time J returned I could tell him that what he had dug out of someone’s dumpster was a 2013-vintage computer-on-a-stick, valued at about $40 and designed and marketed principally to turn an ordinary home TV into a “smart”, Internet-capable, TV.

For his benefit, I described the MK808B Plus as sort of modern day tower computer which needs to be hooked up to a separate computer monitor and keyboard. Strictly speaking though, it’s a headless (without a screen) Android tablet, squeezed into a case about two-thirds the length of a Coffee Crisp chocolate bar.

In addition to its 1.5 Ghz quad-core ARM processor, the MK808B Plus has 1GB of RAM, 8GB of internal Flash storage (3GB of which is used by the OS) and accepts SD cards up to 32GB. It has 802.11 Wi-Fi (often described as weak) and Bluetooth connectivity. It also has the built-in ability to decode most common video formats.

It has four ports: One full-size USB-A port, for peripheral devices; one USB mini-B port for charging; another USB mini-B port for installing on-the-go firmware updates and a mini HDMI port, for connecting to an output display.

Software-wise, it’s pre-installed with 2013’s Android 4.4 operating system (reportedly rooted to give the user complete control) as well as a selection of Android apps. Importantly it’s designed to allow the user to install new firmware/OS updates.

By default it uses the MediaBox user interface but this can be swapped for the Android version of the popular Kodi home theatre interface.

In its strict guise of being a low budget smart TV-maker, the MK808B Plus is designed to connect to a TV’s HDMI port and pair via Bluetooth with a wireless TV remote control, such as the Mele F10.

But it is a full computer and it can just as easily be connected to an HDMI-equiped computer monitor and to a peripheral keyboard/mouse, via USB port and/or Bluetooth.

However, it cannot be connected to a laptop screen—not without first installing some software and/or changing some operating system settings on the stick itself. All I could do today to test it was to check that it at least drew power from the wall plug.

Assuming that the MK808B Plus is in complete working order I would expect that with a little ingenuity a person should be able to replace the mobile Android OS with an ARM processor version of the Linux desktop operating system (and maybe, someday soon, Windows 10 for ARM).

In fact, since 2014, a project called Linux Mini-PC has been selling a MK808B Plus stick pre-installed with Ubuntu Linux as well as offering the downloadable Ubuntu firmware for the MK808B Plus.

Less than the sum of its parts?

Paradoxically the charger and cables are almost worth more than the computer stick.

Paradoxically the computer stick’s charger and cables are worth almost as much as it is.

While the actual usefulness of the little old stick computer may be questionable, there is undeniable value in its wall charger and various connection cables:

  • 1 USB type-A wall charger: about $10
  • 1 USB cable type-A Male to USB type-mini-B Male: $2-$12
  • 1 HDMI cable full size to mini: $12-$48
  • 1 USB cable—type-A Female to Mini-B Male: $2-$12

But even after I explained all of the above to my dumpster diver friend—and as much as he needs to make money to feed himself and support his drug habit—he still didn’t want to be bothered with the computer stick and all of its impedimenta. He had apparently washed his hands of it for good.

So I acquired it for free.

Well, not quite for free. Based on the usefulness of the cables and wall charger alone, I ended up telling him to keep the $2. Click the images to enlarge them.

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One Comment
  1. Angela permalink

    I loved this story! Thanks so much for sharing!

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