A complete Android system for your TV – not a Chromecast, not an adapter for your phone – no additional hardware required. Android “TV sticks” are mini computers running Android. They have no screen, instead they output directly through HDMI to your HD television. They’re pretty powerful little machines – the equivalent of a mid-range Android tablet – and easily outgun a Raspberry Pi for only a few more pennies. There’s a wealth of existing Android apps to choose from – so is it worth getting one, and precisely what can you do with them?
Today we put two on test, both priced similarly at around $80 purchased directly from China. The first is a brand name synonymous with “Android TV stick” – Rikomagic MK802 IV; the second, a generic unbranded MK812A RK3188 Android Smart Mini PC. Both are built around the latest Rockchip RK3188 quad-core system-on-a-chip consisting of am ARMv7 CPU and Mali-400 GPU.
Note: we bought the Rikomagic MK802 IV in a set with a wireless keyboard and “air mouse” device for testing purposes, so whoever wins the Rikomagic MK802 IV will also receive that. It’s not a part of the review today though, and the same keyboard was used to test both devices.
Rikomagic MK802 IV
The box itself is nothing special, but the lid lifts off to reveal the demure TV-stick encased in black spongy rubber. The build quality of the device is immediately apparent – it feels solid, with a plastic cap protecting the protruding HDMI plug.
The Rikomagic MK802 IV is designed to plug directly into an HDMI socket; it looks like a seriously oversized USB stick, but is otherwise completely discreet.
Also inside the box
- USB power adapter (USB cable is not detachable – this can only be used for power)
- HDMI extension cable
- Mini-USB socket to regular USB socket converter for full-size OTG cables.
Thankfully, an HDMI extension cable is provided provided if the Rikomagic MK802 IV doesn’t fit your television. Although the manual claims it should draw power from HDMI, this didn’t work for me. With the power cable tugging on one end, it felt a little unstable so I used the HDMI extension instead.
- RK3188 quad-core
- 2 GB RAM
- 8 GB internal storage
- Built in WiFi B/G/N and Bluetooth
The stick has one USB “host mode” socket for peripherals (though be aware you won’t be able to use particular high power devices), an OTG mini-USB port, and an additional mini-USB port for power only. Don’t confuse the two – a handy label is provided on the back.
Generic MK812A RK3188 Android Smart Mini PC
Presented in an attractive grey box with magnetic flip-top lid, the generic MK812A RK3188 Android Smart Mini PC feels cheap from the get-go thanks to the white, flimsy plastic case. It’s designed to be placed flat, on a shelf underneath your TV or near it. At the time of writing, a black plastic model has also been released – this wouldn’t look quite as terrible beneath a TV, I suspect.
Apart from the form factor – a 1 cm thick credit card shape – this MK812A RK3188 Android Smart Mini PC has two USB host ports (one more than Rikomagic), a headphone socket, and a built-in video camera and microphone. Crucially, this adds Skype and Google Hangout features out of the box.
Also in the box
- HDMI cable
- Mini-USB cable (for power)
- USB power adapter
It’s easier to confuse the ports though thanks to the low-profile labelling.
After holding down the power button for a few seconds, a horribly out of place red light indicates the unit is on.
The unit booted directly into an Android desktop adorned with calendar and clock set for Shenzhen – luckily, the underlying system language was English.
One immediate difference was the addition of a camera icon on the launch bar. Curiously, launching it takes a screenshot, rather than launching a camera application as I was expecting.
- RK3188 quad-core CPU
- 1 GB DDR RAM
- 8 GB internal storage
- Built-in B/G/N WiFi and Bluetooth
Unlike the Rikomagic, this MK812A Android Smart Mini PC came pre-loaded with a good number of apps, though nearly all are designed for the Chinese market. A few highlights:
PPTV is a movie and TV streaming service, similar to IceFilms; it holds a wealth of pirated Western, Korean, Japanese and Chinese content, but hidden behind a complex series of menus. For what it’s worth, it mostly worked.
AtHomeVideo Streamer creates a webcam server for you to view your living room stream anywhere in the world, and includes motion sensing and alarm functions, but it crashed every time I tried to change the default password.
The device also came with XBMC installed; not the XBMC remote, but the full version of XBox Media Center.
Performance and Testing
Since both devices use an identical system chip inside, performance on common apps was nearly identical; for these, I’ve given an overall impression below to avoid repeating myself. Where differences were found, I’ve detailed them separately.
Videos take along time to load and the interface feels buggy; skipping forward in a video would send me into an endless loading loop. If you sit and watch something from the beginning though, HD videos do playback smoothly.
I used BSPlayer to test, with hardware acceleration enabled. Low quality MP4s – karaoke videos I’d downloaded off YouTube – streamed fine from a network Samba share. DVD quality videos were generally fine too, though there were some glitches. 720p and 1080p MKV files were unplayable over the network – stuttering and skipping frames everywhere. An internet speed test measured the connection at around 8 MB/sec, and I haven’t had problems on other devices before.
From a local source – class 10 microSD card or USB storage device – 1080p MKV content played perfectly.
3DMark showed reasonable results on both systems:
- Rikomagic MK802 IV: 3170
- MK812A RK3188 Android Smart Mini PC: 3850
- Nexus 7 (2013 model): 6876 (source)
Despite the generic model having less RAM, it actually outperformed the Rikomagic MK802 IV. This could be an anomaly due to background apps, so consider the overall score of both systems to be in the region of 3000-4000. It’s not a bad score, either way.
However, good luck finding a compatible 3D game to actually play on these things. I quickly gave up after realising most racing games relied upon the ability to tilt a device; although I was using a motion-based air mouse / keyboard, this didn’t send the same control signals as actually tilting a phone or tablet. Dark Avenger, a 3D dungeon delver and one of the most popular free games in the Play Store at the time of writing, refused to let me past the opening screen of “touch screen to start” – despite letting me click on the ads. Casual, simple-tap games are going to be your bread and butter here – Candy Crush Saga and Cut The Rope run just fine. Although the hardware is clearly capable of more advanced 3D graphics, the control system isn’t (you might have more luck hooking up a PS3 controller).
This was only possible on the generic MK812A Android Smart Mini PC, because Rikomagic doesn’t ship with a camera. I assume you could add a USB camera to the Rikomagic device, but I’m not judging them on things you could do if…
The app failed to notify me of a call request – despite every iPhone, iPad and computer in the house merrily chiming away immediately with the notification. Manually starting the Hangout worked fine. You can see the image quality below; audio quality was also clear and acceptable on both ends, even when the user was sitting on the sofa far away from the mic.
It’s difficult for me personally to find a use for these. At a base level, they are a functional and cheap Android mini-computer. As a media center, they’re great with a local source, but not so good over a WiFi network. As a gaming machine, you’ll need to spend a good bit of time setting up some decent controllers and stay well away from any games that use tilt controls. As a general internet browser, they are functional – but frankly your phone or tablet would be better, if you have one.
There’s also the issue that Android isn’t “TV aware”. I’ve mentioned that many games just don’t work; but more serious is the fact that upon logging in to Google Play, your email account is automatically setup along with rather public notifications that announce who you’re getting email from. And then there’s the altogether more serious issue of half-masking passwords, so each letter is revealed one at a time – clearly not something you want on a 50″ screen that everyone can see. On-screen keyboards are displayed despite the fact there’s a Bluetooth keyboard connected. I’m sure dedicated Android users will instruct me in the comments that these can all be disabled, so they can safely ignore this. For the rest of us, Android just isn’t ready for the TV screen yet.
For someone who doesn’t have a computer, mobile, or tablet – I can certainly see some value in these. Smart TVs are all the rage, but they’re rarely all that smart – plug one of these in for a complete, powerful, and customisable Android experience for less than $100. If you were impressed with a “Raspberry Pi as a PC” concept, you’re going to thoroughly love either of these Android TV sticks.
How do I win the Rikomagic MK802 IV and MK812A RK3188 Android Smart Mini PC?
You may enter by submitting your name and email address. You’ll receive one entry simply by doing so.
After that, you’ll also be offered various methods to earn additional entries. They range from sharing a link to this giveaway on social networks; to commenting or visiting a specific page. The more you participate, the higher your chances of winning! You will receive 5 additional entries into the giveaway for every successful referral via your shared links.
This giveaway begins now and ends Friday, September 20. The winner will be selected at random and informed via email.
Congratulations, Claire Turner! You would have received an email from firstname.lastname@example.org. Please respond before October 13 to claim your prize. Enquires beyond this date will not be entertained.