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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
Image Credits: Vintage TV Via Shutterstock