Android TV Boxes: What Are They, And What Can They Do?

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High-definition video is not the easiest task that can be thrown at a device – far from it – but, even so, mobile processors have become incredibly good at showing 1080p video without lag or stuttering on a wide range of displays. This, combined with the low power, makes smartphone hardware ideal of streaming television.

Companies like Apple, Roku and Western Digital have already capitalized on this with their set-top boxes, but now a new wave of Android options has hit the market. Typically available for between $60 and $100, and often sold as a “Google TV” or “XBMC Streaming” player, these simple products seem attractive at first glance. But are they really up to par?

What’s Defines An Android TV Box?

641px ARM powered Badge.svg    Android TV Boxes: What Are They, And What Can They Do?

There’s no hard definition of what an Android device must do to be considered a “TV box.” The term is not official, and is used for a simple reason; the devices are in the shape of a small box. Most are no more than 5 inches wide and two inches tall, and some are much smaller than that.

Since the category is not standardized, the hardware inside could be anything Android-compatible, but most products use relatively old dual-core ARM processors based off the Cortex A9 core, which was cutting-edge a few years ago. Some even use A5 cores, which are positively ancient.

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mali400   Android TV Boxes: What Are They, And What Can They Do?

The GPU is very often the Mali 400, a standard GPU from ARM to accompany its Cortex cores. Though also rather old, this part can handle 1080p video without much trouble, and can decode a wide variety of video formats.

Most of the devices offer 1 GB of RAM and between 4 and 8 GB of ROM storage, so you’re not going to be storing much HD video content on the TV box itself.

While the hardware isn’t advanced, these products do tend to run Android 4.2. Some advertise themselves with popular terms like “Google TV” and “XBMC.” This is often misleading. Google TV is a smart television platform that is separate from Android, and references to XBMC are usually little more than a vague promise the user can make the software work.

What Makes An Android TV Box Different From An Android Mini-PC?

androidboxvsstick   Android TV Boxes: What Are They, And What Can They Do?

Nothing.

Android TV boxes often use the exact same hardware as smaller Mini-PC sticks. And as if that weren’t enough to confuse you, some mini-PC sticks call themselves a Google TV Box, even though they’re not a box and don’t run Google TV.

Generally speaking, the TV boxes are both more expensive and more powerful than the sticks. While both tend to use Cortex A9 cores, the boxes are usually dual-core, while most sticks have a single core. Boxes also tend to have more ROM and include additional video-out options. But some sticks are dual-core, and some sticks have equivalent storage.

androidtvbox2   Android TV Boxes: What Are They, And What Can They Do?

The most important difference is not the box itself, but the peripherals. A lot of devices sold as a TV box come with additional AV cables not found on a stick (you’ll have to buy them yourself) and a remote. Unfortunately, the remote often doesn’t work properly, and in most cases it doesn’t offer everything you need to control the box. These run Android, not Google TV, so you’ll need a mouse to navigate the interface.

What Can An Android TV Box Do?

For the most part, these products have access to the same apps and functions found on any other Android 4.0 device. They can run Android apps, including a web browser and many games. And they can be rooted (if they’re not in the first place) to run what normally wouldn’t be allowed.

There are ways to get creative. Don’t want an OUYA, but want to play Android games on the big screen? Then try the G-Box Midnight with a controller of your choice. You can also install media players like XBMC, or just download the streaming apps normally available from your provider of choice (like Netflix), and navigate the device with a wireless keyboard and/or touchpad.

It should be noted, however, that many phones can also be hooked up to a television, and older devices are available at a low price. The $100 you spend on an Android TV box could buy you a Motorola Droid X, LG Optimus Elite or Samsung Galaxy Exhibit. There’s also the mentioned stick PCs, which often sell for $50 or less.

Should You Buy One?

Probably not.

The Roku 3 sells for $98, which is very close to the price of many Android TV boxes. Apple TV is $95, and Western Digital’s TV Live is $89. All three are reliable and easy to use. Their hardware is not much different from the plethora of TV boxes on the market, but because they run a customized OS dedicated to media content, they are fully compatible with their supplied remote and play 1080p video smoothly.

More than anything, Android boxes run into trouble because they try to solve a problem almost no one has. People who just want to watch video have had their needs served for some time. Android TV boxes only make sense to people who have a desire to customize and tweak for the fun of it, but as said, those same people have better options in the form of cheap phones and less expensive Android stick PCs.

Conclusion

The market for inexpensive Android devices is growing, but remains difficult to navigate and full of lackluster products. There are only a few, like the G-Box Midnight MX2 and Rikomagic MK802, which have received generally favorable reviews.

Even then, the use of such products can be limited unless you’re willing to do some work, or purchase a wireless keyboard/mouse – in which case, you’re paying as much or more than you would for a Roku or Apple TV. If you’re in the market for a media center, James shared 5 setup options which you might want to read about.

Do you agree that Android TV boxes have yet to hit their stride, or have you found one useful for your home theater? Let us know in the comments.

This review contains affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

Image Credits: Vintage TV Via Shutterstock

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31 Comments - Write a Comment

Reply

likefunbutnot

One of the big arguments for a TV box as opposed to an HDMI stick is that the boxes frequently have extra connectivity options. The sticks usually need a USB hub at the very least in order to be useful.

I’d also suggest looking for one that provides an Ethernet connector. 802.11 isn’t necessarily the best tool in the world for a tiny computer that’s stuck behind a bunch of metal boxes and/or sources of EMI.

Not all Android mini-computers are created equal. Android minis typically don’t have the kind of hardware specs common to top-tier phones and tablets. It’s definitely worth spending a few extra dollars to get a box that supports more than 1GB RAM for example. Furthermore, depending on your expectations for application support, you may find that some products are better than others; only a small minority of minis can run Android XBMC, for example.

Now, as to whether one might be worthwhile, here’s the problem with Apple, Roku and WD TV boxes: They don’t do enough on their own. The Roku frankly NEEDS a Plex Media Center in order to reliably play back local content, and Roku users pretty much all know the pain of not having direct access to Youtube as well.

The WD TV Live has decent-but-not-perfect support for local content via DLNA, its own local ports and network shared content. And it does Youtube and a small subset of streaming content services – it has some serious omissions like Amazon Instant Video and support for non-local Plex Media Servers.

The AppleTV in its default configuration is more or less an iTunes client. Yes, it can load Plex for iOS. It can load Youtube. But it won’t talk to local non-iTunes media sources, won’t properly talk to Amazon Video and I have yet to find a DLNA Server that can relay video to iOS. Older, jailbroken AppleTVs have hacked-on support for XBMC (which also opens up access content not accessed through iTunes), but they also have hardware limitations that prevent display of 1080p video.

Android STBs do at least exist in an ecosystem where users can pick and choose their functional requirements. I have a Pivos XIOS in my back bedroom specifically because it supports XBMC, giving me the user interfaces and application support that I want and an uncompromised ability to access online services.

It should be noted that there’s a difference between Android STBs and Google TV STBs. Google TV devices only support a tiny subset of Android applications and have a much more limited user interface, but having a Google TV device registered on your Google account also gives you the ability to “Send to Google TV” from various Google Services and software, something that’s not possible with other Android devices.

likefunbutnot

… and just to amplify one more thing: The reason these fiddly Android boxes are useful is that closed platforms like AppleTV, Roku and Boxee all come with a lot of compromises of their own.

No one is making a perfect set top box. These Android boxes are pretty much the only things out there with a reasonable assurance of accessing the widest array of streaming content as well as a full selection of local media. You can’t just assume that one particular STB is going to be able to do all the things you might assume an STB can do.

Having owned and used a whole bunch of these boxes, the issue becomes the likelihood that two or more different set top boxes will be needed to access everything versus having access using one box that might have a somewhat more complicated configuration.

Reply

Condor

Excuse me if I’m missing the point, but isn’t the Raspberry Pi essentially a ‘TV Box’. I know it doesn’t come in a box, but cases are available. It runs beautifully well with Openelec or Rasbmc. There are plenty of guides out there to help any tech-savvy user configure to their liking, and at £35 ($50US?) it’s cheaper – not to mention it can be used to do any number of other things just by swapping the SD card.

If I’m wrong I’d love to know why!

likefunbutnot

To answer your question, they are, kind of. The Pi is a cheap single board computer kit with a fairly low-speed CPU (usually a 700MHz single core that might be overclocked). The Pi comes with absolutely nothing but itself, so you’ll wind having to come up with a chassis, card reader, USB hub, input solution etc. on your own.

The Pi is kind of a low-spec device even by the standards of low-spec Android/Linux devices. It can decode some HD video and there are purpose-made OS distributions for various things, but as a general-purpose device they’re definitely a step down.

Reply

Ed

I have the g-box midnight, and it is not too bad.
Youtube works fine with no stuttering. Watching 720p mp4 videos work without stutter. Flash videos through the Dolphin browser are also fine to watch.

I have the resolution set to 720p and have very little issue. The only stuttering I get is from watching flash videos downloaded from TV Portal. I have not tried XBMC on it. Nor have I tried Netflix, since others have said Netflix either doesn’t work or stutters. MX Player works great.

The box works well enough for me. You should have a keyboard hooked up to it during setup and/or always. I have a wireless usb dongle keyboard with built in trackball that works great. I also use ethernet without issue, though some apps will only recognize a wireless or cell phone connection. For those few programs like Droid Loader I temporarily disable ethernet and use wifi (with the box being about 3 feet from my router).

So if you want a box for web browsing and flash videos/youtube, music, photos, mp4 video, GMaps, Weather and some light gaming this HDMI box at 720p is fine. It’s on 24/7 and has never locked up or overheated. I also use it as a cheap Samba file server too. For the price, it adds “smart functionality” to my TV. That said, if I could build a linux box with no moving parts or fans for $200 or less, I would much rather go that route.

likefunbutnot

I’m under the impression that the G-box isn’t quite as well supported as the Pivos units are as far as Android boxes go, but I’m also under the impression that many of the operations working on the brand name units are run by about five people.

I think the argument for the STB really comes from being a fanless, low-power, (nearly) instant-on device.

It’s definitely possible to build a $150 fanless Linux machine. You’ll wind up with something like a dual core Atom ITX system that will have a hard time decoding HD video, but it’s a start. For maybe another $30 you could get Radeon 5450 or something that would address that issue, but that machine will be substantially larger and won’t really be an instant on system, either.

Ed

Yes. A few years back, I did build a linux machine for about $220 that was ITX with a low wattage AMD processor (don’t remember the cpu model). The heatsink was fanless, but huge. The powersupply had a fan and the hard drive was not SSD. It had ATI graphics and HD decoding was fine – again, only 720p. It was just a bit larger than a shoebox.

My goal is a $200 or less fanless device 4-8GB RAM (more ram hopefully = no swap file), x86 compatible, SSD (doesn’t have to be large – 64GB would be fine). It would have an external powersupply, be smaller than a shoebox and it should be powerful enough to run 720p video in a virtual boxed OS as well.

I’m hoping the new Bay Trail Atom processors coming out this fall will make this happen. Linux would be the main OS, and I could hopefully have Android x86 on the virtual box ideally or just dual boot it if the virtual box is too slow. Always on, so instant boot is not a big deal.

Thanks for your input.

Reply

Zinc Whiskers

Quad-core is the norm now…the RK3188 chip being the most popular. The Minix Neo TV boxes are a good option especially the new Neo 7.

The big difference between the boxes and the stix is the available ports…wired ethernet being most important for me.

The WDTV will play almost any file and can access windows shares whereas most of the competition needs a DLNA server.

The Roku will also run the Plex client…whereas Apple and WDTV will not.

likefunbutnot

I know it’s at least possible to get Plex on a 3rd gen AppleTV. If I remember right, you run a program on a proper computer that then basically treats Plex as if it were being AirPlay’d on the Apple TV.

That being said, there’s plenty of other things that don’t work right on iOS because of stupid Apple restrictions and I wouldn’t recommend that anyone buy one.

Zinc Whiskers

Plex Connect isn’t quite official…so it wouldn’t surprise me if Apple “fixed” it soon.

My WDTV will “see” my Plex Server and displays tiny movie poster icons…just doesn’t have the beautiful standard Plex UI.

likefunbutnot

That’s your WDtv being semi-functional with a DLNA server, which is something else that’s built in to Plex Media Server.
DLNA video servers can be really weird about negotiating connections. You might find that music and pictures work just fine even if video doesn’t.

However, the really valuable parts of Plex come from Channels support and Remote Libraries, and simple DLNA clients aren’t doing surgery if those things anyway.

ben

Can any of these android boxes create a local wifi (lan) hotspot, inorder to stream (dlna) video or just provide access to files plugged in via it’s usb?

Also is miracast support simply a function of Android 4.3, or is it unrelated?

I’ve been meaning to get any android device that can connect to a bluetooth LTE (4) device I have, if the android box can do it all, it’s a no brainer!

Reply

Inge

There´s really no need to buy a separate keyboard/mouse if you own a decent smartphone (any os) and use a free remote app. I use both alternatives to control my android box, but I very seldom prefer the keyboard, and there´s really nothing the phone can´t do in it´s place.

brett threadgill

what apps are available? I’ve look at a couple but i’m not sure i’m looking at the right ones. thanx

Reply

Jeff Schallenberg

The sticks and boxes have the advantage of a full Android experience (browser, Play Store, gaming) compared to the limited functions with Roku,
Apple TV, WDTV.

A couple of advantages of the box format over the stick:

– the box is easier to cool since it’s bigger, leaving room for a larger heat sink and more ventilation. Also, it sits on a shelf beside the tv, not tucked up behind the display.

– better wifi reception, since the box is not behind the tv, and many boxes have an external rubber-ducky antenna.

Reply

jemal

I am new at all this if someone can tell me about how much of ur data plan is used and how to burn the least amount of ur data plan and if these devices somehow cut back on usage

Reply

Cyrille Berger

I don’t know for the US, but here in Sweden, there is a reason to go for an android box, they support more streaming services.

Reply

Jay

I use the ViewStationXL Android TV Box and don’t have any problems. It used the Dual Core MX and a H/W ACC build of XBMC. Decodes 1080P no problem. The reason the Android/XBMC combo is a winner is because they’re basically both open source, free, and very flexible. Main Stream media player blow. I can’t believe people still use Netflix and pay for it! Less than a hundred gets you weak sauce. 125-200 can get you a solid box with an antenna and a nice remote. Almost all of the Android TV Box manufactures cut important corners to be the cheapest. Doesn’t make sense.

Reply

GFX

Excellent article!
Are there any Android TVBox solutions to connect analog LCD monitor with only VGA port? I want to use my monitor as a TV (DVB-T, mpeg4).

CTB

I think there is a solutions to connect analog to digital monitor even your old monitor. CipherTV Box works with both analog and digital tv sets. Most android tv boxes doesn’t have on this features.

Reply

AJP

So my parents are getting older, travel and have a northern and southern home now, with Grand kids in the middle. I thought a android TV box with Camera would be simple and easy for them to keep in contact with the family and gands, but reading this I am not wondering what the hack to to do and wondering if I will be opening up a ling year of tech support calls with them instead of happy family connections.
THANKS

Reply

Andy

Hey, Matt, what do you think about Minix Neo X7? Looks like a nice device, going to buy it. But not too many reviews on the net…
http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00ECW1J8Y/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B00ECW1J8Y&linkCode=as2&tag=dfgecvb-20

Reply

atomatic

I am also very curious and shopping around for the best Android TV Box/Stick. There are zero reviews on most of these devices so purchasing one is pretty risky.

I also see all of the latest devices have the exact same specs so I am waiting for one with a faster processor and GPU.

Currently I am waiting on the first reviews on these

IPPLI Mars i2
http://www.amazon.com/IPPLI-RK3188-Cortex-Android-Bluetooth/dp/B00F5URF4E

and
IPPLY Mars i8
http://www.amazon.com/IPPLI-RK3188-Cortex-External-Antenna/dp/B00FZEYJ4O

They seem very interesting but again the same specs as every other device and NOT ONE REVIEW ANYWHERE.

To disagree with the article, these Android TV boxes are way better than the dedicated media boxes such as Roku. You can do a lot more with Android. Input is actually not a problem if you get a pointer remote, called an air mouse, which uses Gyroscopes and typically has a mini keyboard on the backside. There are dozens of these on Amazon. So the interface is open, the input can be great with the right gadget, and there are a lot more features available to the Android platform than Roku etc.

Reply

Mike

I have a Android TV box MX special edition with XBMC preinstalled with all the goodies. Amazing pretty much unlimited content have every TV show ever made. Self updating get all the newest movies. Live pay per view, Channels from around the world. Incredible stuff. Want one contact me I will hook you up with all the goodies.

Adele

Mike where do I purchase the MX special edition with XBMC TV box

Reply

Jp

None of those that you mentioned as alternatives have web browser, roku and apple tv don’t play external files.

Only google tv devices and the boxee box are comparable to these android devices, but they are more expensive.

Reply

Winston

Hi there, thanks for taking the time to write this article. However, I couldn’t disagree with your conclusion more. You are comparing between Android TV devices with Roku, WDTV, and Apple TV??? That’s like comparing apples (apologies for the pun) and oranges. Those three devices are closed systems. With Android you pretty much have access to the entire one million plus apps on the Google Play Store – that makes for one VERY versatile device. I’ve owned two media player devices from ASTONE, good for what they are, but sooooo crippled by their limitations. My MiniX G4 is so good, that I don’t even watch regular TV anymore! Combined with an ‘air mouse’/remote/keyboard device it’s like the ultimate media center system, all for about $70!!! Every time friends come round they are ‘wowed’ by my inexpensive system that puts to shame their ‘dumb TV’s’.

Reply

Cil

I so disagree with your conclusion. I have a Tv box and a tv stick and they are much more versatile than the renomed devices you mentioned. I can run any app from google play store and firmware updates usually come way faster than what Sony, Apple or any other major device maker can do. If a version of a said app won’t work properly or “is not compatible”, we can always try different ones by picking up the apk from other sources or other devices we own. Most of these devices come rooted (for people that like to tweak, this is a must). There is a higher probability that the manufacturer will listen to us (see the official support for MK808 for example).

Reply

Mullet

Hi There

What I want out of such a box in the UK is ability to access BBCiplayer, ITV and STV player, 4OD and others but I also want internet browsing and ability to send emails via gmail. It needs to have good wireless access because the WiFi router is too far away in another room.
Therefore AppleTV, Roku and Boxee are unsuitable. It needs to have HDMI output to my TV and 1 S/PDIF port as well as at least 1 USB to attach a wireless keyboard dongle (preferably 2 so that I can also attach other drives). From what I have read a smart TV box with RK3188 Cortex-A9 Quad core 1.8GHz CPU with 2GB SDRAM and 8GB Flash drive running Android 4.2.2 should do. There seem several on the market all made in China that sell on Amazon for about £60 ($100) but all seem to have bad reviews. Does anyone have such a box and does it perform as required, if so what is it, a link would be appreciated.

Reply

Karl Roberts

You didn’t mention ebay, which have many fantastic products and I bought one for around £49.

For £49, A9 Dual Core, 1GB DDR3, 8GB Storage, 400-Mali GPU, HDMI, USB, SD-Card, AV Composite etc… Android 4.2 and Custom XBMC loaded.

You also forgotten that it can be hookup to an older TV like mine, which is a Sony 32″ widescreen via the AV composite connection. The quality is great. DVD standard quality.

The reason why some people moaned about video stuttering is because their wireless isn’t fast enough. I noticed once your wireless go faster than 15 to 20Mbps the video is very smooth and flawless.

Reply

geoff gibson

hi Im a relative Technofobe and most of this stuff is baffling for me!! can someone tell me if I have a smart TV and virgin TiVo what I would need to be able to have access to new films etc.

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