Most people know Android as a mobile operating system, but it has taken over set-top boxes as well. Android TV boxes for streaming purposes abound.
These home media streamers provide an Android ecosystem for entertainment needs. Let’s find out which option is the best Android TV box of 2018.
What Is an Android TV Box?
An Android streaming box is, simply put, a set-top box which runs an Android operating system. Primarily, people use these for streaming media from the likes of Netflix, Hulu, and even home server software such as Plex. However, Android TV boxes can also function as gaming consoles for playing Android games, ROMs via emulators, and streaming from PCs.
There are two main varieties, though both are commonly referred to as an Android TV box.
One branch runs Android TV OS. As the name suggests, it’s a version of Android specifically engineered to display on a monitor or television screen. Its design allows for easy navigation with a remote or gamepad rather than touch controls.
The other variant runs a tablet-optimized version of Android. That means navigation with a remote works fine, but you’ll need to use a mouse or third-party remote for proper exploration.
App compatibility muddles the distinction between the two even further. Android TV boxes run apps created for Android TV OS. Therefore, not every standard Android app can install on devices running the set-top box iteration. Some Android apps can sideload onto Android TV OS gadgets, although functionality varies since those apps are designed for touch input.
What to Look for in the Best Android TV Box for 2018
When looking for the best Android TV box, you’ll want to consider apps, hardware, and use. The best Android box for Kodi users differs from a gaming-oriented Android streaming box.
Android Streaming Box Apps
App compatibility is key. Most apps should function fine on both tablet-optimized forms of Android and Android TV OS. This is especially true for common media applications like Netflix, Hulu, PlayStation Vue, and Crunchyroll.
However, a device for standalone apps such as YouTube TV, Sling, and Crackle differs from the best Kodi streamer. With the popularity of open-source media center Kodi, this is a major consideration. Although some Android streaming boxes come with Kodi pre-installed, the best Android box for Kodi will come with a clean version instead of one pre-loaded with pirate add-ons.
For gaming and game streaming, RetroArch, standalone system emulators, and Moonlight are available. Game compatibility varies by Android OS version as well as specific games.
Android TV Box Set Up
Consider how much work you’re willing to put into setting up your device. Are you able to sideload apps or willing to learn how? With either type of device, you’ll likely need to sideload some apps.
But navigation admittedly isn’t as intuitive on boxes running a touch interface-optimized version of Android since you’re not using a touchscreen. It’s doable, but you must switch into the mouse mode on your remote or employ a third-party offering with a mouse.
What resolution you’re outputting further determines which device is best. Because 4K is the next evolution in content delivery, there’s a bevy of 4K streamers. Many Android media players include this feature, yet few do it well.
Finally, think about what, if anything, besides streaming you’d like to perform. If you’re keen on gaming or game streaming, the Android box you pick differs from what you’ll want if you’re merely watching Netflix.
Android Streaming Box Processors
Architecture dictates performance of a processor. The ARM big.LITTLE configuration uses two processor types. While one is power-hungry, the other is weaker yet energy-efficient. Companies such as Amlogic, MediaTek, and Rockchip often employ the big.LITTLE architecture in their system on a chip (SoC) integrated circuits. While theoretically this provides balanced processing, it’s a bit misleading. These don’t really provide many advantages.
ARM’s DynamIQ technology is a more advanced iteration of big.LITTLE architecture with dual ARM CPU core cluster management and connection. DynamIQ allows for big.LITTLE configurations with as many as eight CPU cores on one compute cluster.
Although the Tegra X1 processor, used in devices such as the Nvidia Shield TV and Nintendo Switch, features paired Cortex processors, it’s not in an ARM big.LITTLE configuration. Instead, Tegra X1 processors show only Cortex A-57 cores with its Cortex A-53 cores reserved for low-power moments. Ultimately, even if a device uses a weaker big.LITTLE architecture, if it’s capable of driving 4K content, it should suffice for streaming video and media playback. A faster processor matters more with gaming.
For Android TV boxes, software remains a major pain point. Unlike PC operating systems, there’s little standardization for this platform. Many devices branded as an Android TV box merely run a tablet-optimized version of Android. When various Android streaming box options will receive updates is questionable.
Of the three Android boxes I own, the Nvidia Shield TV benefits from the frequent updates. My WeTek Play 2 did see an update to Android 6.0 Marshmallow and compatibility with the official Android TV Netflix app. The Mecool BB2 Pro instead requires a sideloaded version of Netflix.
Ultimately, look for a device that’s offered by a well-known company such as Nvidia, Xiamoi, or WeTek if you want regular software updates.
The Best Android TV Box in 2018
In determining the best Android TV box of 2018, we’ll focus on both varieties of Android set-top devices.
1. Best Android TV Box 2018 Overall: Nvidia Shield TV
If you’re looking for a top-notch Android TV box, our pick is the Nvidia Shield TV. This Kodi-capable device packs streaming, gaming, and even server use into one sleek package, making it perfect for cord cutters. The company offers an entry-level version and higher-end Pro model. Both versions sport 4K and HDR capabilities with compatible apps.
While both models offer expandable storage, the main difference between them is included storage space. The base model includes 16GB of built-in storage, whereas the Pro boasts a 500GB hard drive. As such, it’s capable of acting as a Plex server, making it one of the top Plex client devices and Plex server options as well.
But the Shield TV does more than video and music; it’s capable of playing games locally or via a network. This lets you stream PC games over the network and play on your couch. Plus, you can play ROMs through various Android emulators available for the Shield TV.
Google Assistant inclusion means that the Shield TV integrates into your smart home. If that’s not enough, the Shield TV can even record live TV and serve as a DVR for Plex Live TV.
But since the Shield runs Android TV OS, many apps aren’t natively compatible. You can sideload most Android apps, though these may not run as intended. Take a look at apps only available via sideloading on Android TV.
In all, because of its bevy of entertainment offerings, ease of use, and sheer brawn, the Nvidia Shield TV is the best Android TV box for 2018—if money is no object.
- Android TV OS
- Easy to use
- Tons of apps
- Capable of gaming and game streaming
- 4K and HDR
- Capable of running a Plex server
- Kodi and Plex access
- Able to record over-the-air (OTA) TV
- Smart home control
- You must sideload non-Android TV OS apps
2. Best Android TV Box for Kodi Use: WeTek Hub
At almost $200, the Nvidia Shield TV is not for everyone. Non-gamers and those less concerned with power features might prefer a more affordable option. The WeTek Hub is a small yet beefy streaming device featuring a tiny footprint and 4K streaming compatibility. It’s also the best box for Kodi since it comes with it pre-installed.
However, the WeTek differs from the Shield TV in that it runs a tablet-optimized version of Android. So certain apps are a bit clunky and require using mouse mode.
Altogether, with its 4K capability, Kodi pre-installed, and fantastic app compatibility, the WeTek Hub ranks among the best Android TV boxes.
- 4K capable
- H264 compatibility
- Kodi pre-installed
- Tablet-optimized version of Android means lack of compatibility with many Android TV apps
- Clunky navigation of vanilla Android apps with remote
3. Best Android TV Box Plus DVR: AirTV Player
The AirTV Player is a fantastic Android TV box which, like the WeTek Hub, pairs streaming with live TV. Its onboard over-the-air TV tuner allows users to watch broadcast TV and streaming channels from one consolidated device. Though the AirTV includes a TV tuner, you’ll still need an antenna.
With 2GB of RAM and 8GB of onboard storage, it’s an Android streaming box with modest specs. The AirTV runs a full version of Android TV, not a mobile-optimized version of Android.
While an Nvidia Shield TV is just a bit more expensive, the AirTV player still has its market. The AirTV is best for users seeking a basic device which combines OTA channels with streaming services. If you don’t care about gaming and advanced streaming, such as Plex playback, it’s your best choice.
- Reasonably priced
- Includes OTA tuner
- Streaming and live TV capable
- Modest hardware
- Requires OTA antenna (sold separately) for live TV and DVR use
4. Best Budget Android TV Box: Xiaomi Mi Box
The spartan Xiaomi Mi Box is easily the best budget Android TV box. It’s a median between a stick streamer like the Fire TV Stick and more comprehensive streaming devices like the AirTV. It runs Android TV OS, not a tablet-optimized iteration of Android.
For less than $100, the Mi Box packs a punch by delivering 4K streaming. Unfortunately, the default 4K setting at 60Hz suffers from performance issues, so you’ll need to drop it to 30Hz or even 24Hz for a usable 4K frame rate. But for 1080p streaming, the Mi Box handles video impeccably.
It’s tough to complain about such an affordable device, and presumably, if you’re willing to snag a 4K television set, you’ve got no problem swinging for a more expensive streaming device.
- Less than $100
- Runs Android TV OS
- Solid 1080p
- 4K compatible
- Uneven 4K performance
5. Beat Cheap Android TV Box: MXQ Android Box
Although it’s not a well-known brand, the MXQ Pro is a budget-conscious option. With an Amlogic S905X SoC and Android 7.1, the MXQ Android TV box is capable of pumping out 4K video. With a small footprint, four USB ports, and 2.4GHz Wi-Fi, it’s certainly serviceable.
Don’t expect anything as beefy as the Nvidia Shield TV or features such as DVR, though. The MXQ Android box doesn’t run Android TV OS either. And outfitted with a mere 1GB of RAM, it’s unqualified for gaming. But for basic streaming purposes, the MXQ Android box is tough to beat.
- 4K capable
- Android 7.1
- Not a well-known brand
- Runs mobile-optimized version of Android
6. DIY Android TV Box
While you can buy an Android TV box, you can build one as well. It’s not difficult, though it takes more work than a pre-built unit that works out of the box. For instance, you can install Android on a Raspberry Pi or a number of Raspberry Pi alternatives. You can even use cheap PC parts to cobble together a DIY Android TV box.
As with any do-it-yourself project, this isn’t for the faint of heart. App compatibility varies, as will performance since there’s no standardized hardware. Instead, this allows you to choose your own adventure with hardware and software. Because this is a DIY venture, system updates may not come often. However, it’s a fun, simple, and cost-effective way to make an Android TV box.
- Total control over hardware and software
- Lots of options
- Potentially challenging
- No official user support
These Are the TV Droids You’re Looking For
While the Nvidia Shield TV, WeTek Hub, Xiaomi Mi Box, AirTV Player, and MXQ Android box are the top Android TV box devices available in 2018, you have plenty of choices. But be careful what you select. The landscape is riddled with poor-quality Android TV streaming boxes for low prices. Often, the adage “you get what you pay for” holds true. Moreover, certain Android TV streamers include versions of Kodi pre-installed with pirate add-ons.
What you select boils down to your needs. For 4K TV owners, gamers, and cord-cutters, the Nvidia Shield TV remains the best choice. If you want something more affordable, check out the WeTek Hub or AirTV. The Mi Box clearly wins the budget category with its incredibly affordable price point and excellent features.
You may even consider picking up multiple Android boxes. Whichever you choose, make sure to install the coolest Android TV apps on it. And if you’re still not sure and are deciding between Android TV and Google Chromecast, our comparison should help.
Image Credit: Justin Ormont/Wikimedia Commons