Streaming content is a hot market today, allowing consumers to watch streaming content on your big screen at home. The availability of very high speed Internet and affordable pricing, has resulted in streaming playback completely eroding away cable in countries such as United States.

The streaming media player market has been advancing with big players such as Apple (Apple TV), Roku, Amazon (Fire TV), and Google (ChromeCast, ChromeCast Audio) providing various devices. The manufacturers of televisions devices add to the variety, by implementing proprietary or locked down operating systems providing streaming video, browsing and entertainment options. Some in recent times have solutions using the Google Android TV framework.

However smart televisions with proprietary operating platforms can be limiting, as you depend on the services and updates provided by smart TV vendor, and they can be minimal and slow, and as it goes you are unlikely to get much updates after the product has been in the market for 1-2 years. The devices with Android TV framework seemingly a better proposition, but the cost of devices are on the higher side (at present).

UPDATE: Companies such as Roku have now starting partnering with smaller TV manufactuers to include their media streaming chipsets into the TV, which would mean better updates and more reliable media streaming capabilities.

But there is a more flexible and budget friendly alternative, which are Android TV based products, especially the low cost Chinese devices that can make your non-SMART TV or “locked-down” smart TV more open and cabple.

Android TV from Chinese vendors have been in the market for quite some time, and initially popular in the “Android stick” format, these have now grown into a mini PC/Apple TV like form factor, offering more expansion capabilities and higher performance.

What can these Android TV devices do

Most of these devices come with Google Play installed or with alternate application stores, but if not you side load it, or install the application directly by downloading the APK from Internet site.

So in a nutshell you should be able to do the following,

  • Play video and audio from connected devices (USB flash drives, USB hard drives, Micro SD/SD cards, etc)
  • Play streaming video via apps and browsers (Youtube, netflix, etc)
  • Play Android games (more about it later)
  • Browse the internet, use social apps, etc
  • You can even use it as a mini PC, edit documents using Android apps (Google docs, Microsoft Word/PowerPoint for Android, etc)
  • Web cams can be connected via USB (but again which brands are supported is matter of pot luck), and if it does work, you can use it with Skype, Viber, etc.

I also found this useful article on the same topic – http://www.cnet.com/news/what-you-can-watch-on-the-new-apple-tv-vs-roku-vs-fire-tv-vs-chromecast/

Gaming and applications have limitations due to the lack of some capabilities that are found with mobiles/table devices such as Gyro, Accelerometer, GPS, etc. The omission of these sensors is understandable as these are marketed mainly as media playback devices, but I noticed that some games and apps refused to install or work without these sensors. The fact that there is no “standard” for an Android TV device also makes it hard to real build a proper inventory of what will work on your Android TV device.

Hardware

The Chinese android TV units are powered mainly by 3 chipset providers, Rockchip, Amlogic, and AllWinner. For many these names may seem like “Whatda… “, but do note these are not small names in the industry, as they have a huge market share. These three chipset makers have been at each other over the years, and are now into the 2nd-3rd generation of chipsets, that are focused mainly on media playback, with a decent support for playing games on your big screen.

For those skeptical about these chipsets, the older generation of these are used by leading names such as HP, ASUS, etc in their Chromebook devices which are well accepted in the US market, offering on par performance to the current generation Intel Atom devices. The more recent chipsets are leaving the Intel devices in their wake when it comes to performance.

Intel may lay claim to highly advanced manufacturing tech, and the Chinese counterparts maybe 1-2 generation behind from a manufacturing tech, but when it comes to mobile processors they have partnered with ARM who are more than 1-2 generations ahead in design and performance.

However, if you want to use the device for more than media playback, there seems to be a massive amount of Intel Atom based mini PC’s which are also competing in the TV box market that run Windows 10 or Windows 8.1. Most are powered by the Intel BayTrail Z373x range of processors, and the newer crop are powered by the similar powered but more efficient Intel Cherry Trail Z8xxx range of processors. Intel BayTrail units have not seen Android support, but the newer Cherry Trail has Android 5.1 distros. However, these units are almost 2x the price of the ARM based TV boxes.

Benchmarks

Some benchmarks both of my own testing and extracted from popular recognized web sites are included. The key is that almost all of them are more than good enough for FullHD video playback, and only when your requirements go complex (2k/4K video, 3D video, gaming, etc) that you need to look into specific chipsets and quality of the device.

Let us first look at the Vellamo scores, and here i have compared the venerable HTC One M8 phone (featuring the Qualcome S801 chipset), and Cube i6S Tablet (Intel Z3735F chipset) against the TV box chipsets, all running Android.

Here we see that on the browser performance many of the top end chipsets (S812, the RK3288) do well, a surprise being the lower cost s905 coming stronger than the more powerful RK3368.  All the chipsets have decent peformance, as even low end AllWinner H3 performs better than the Qualcom Snapdragon S400/S410, which is low/mid tier smartphone chipset.

Move on the processing performance, we see the the TV box chipses such as S812, RK3288 actually have more computing power than the Qualcomm 801.

TVBoxVellamo

 

Though i am including Antutu scores, i am not so happy about this benchmark because manufacturers have learnt to trick this app by detecting and going into high performance mode (HTC in particular!)

However here again we see that all chiipsets except AllWinner H3 and the older Amlogic S805 providing ample performance.

The Intel Z3735F proving it is an competitive option, as it performs in the same class as the top end chipesets from the Chinese manufacturers.

TVBoxAntutu5

Since these devices are always planned for use with direct power, and that are placed in much large form factors than a tablet or phone, the chipsets can actually be cranked up, and also have better cooling.  The chinese chipsets have taken this queue, and the offer a real decent performance when in comes to processing.

Form Factor

Most of these devices look the same, with minor changes in the acutal layout.  A typical unit would look like the following,

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Changes that you may depending on the playe ryou get,

  • The number of USB ports may be 2/3 or 4
  • Some have microSD card slots, some have a full size SD card slot
  • Some may not have the AV port
  • Some have multiple HDMI ports including an HDMI-in

A format that used to be popular but is now loosing popularity among chinese manufactuers is the STICK format.   These pack the same hardware in a much more dense format, and the main drawback is that they feature very little expansion ports.  I have owned one of these a long while back, and after a while the USB port for power just came apart.

androidstick_crop

Buying tips from a hardware perspective

  • If your main requirement is to play video and audio formats, don’t pay extra for the 2GB memory variants, a standard 1GB with 8GB of storage is more than sufficient for your needs
  • If gaming is an additional requirement, 2GB is not the only requirement, purchase a product with a more powerful graphics unit. For instance the S802, S812 and RK3368 chipsets are the better options
  • For video playback Amlogic chipsets (S805, S905, S802, S812, S805) are highly regarded, with the Rockchip units having less capble support for some formats, and similarly with Allwinner also having problems
  • For pure horsepower if your need is beyond video, then the RK3288, RK3368 and S812 and S802 chipsets are top togs, which are almost 1.5-2X more powerful from a graphics point to the other chipsets
  • The slowest chipset is the AllWinner H2 and H3 units currently, but they are also cheap. And if you play only standard file formats up to full HD, these units are definitely good enough and provide ample processing for media playback and general application use.
  • The number of vendors providing these TV boxes are many, and in some cases the same vendor will use different brand names, with different build quality standards. Which is the better quality device is an open question !
  • If you expecting to connect to a NAS, specially using Wi-Fi, then you need to research hard, as the main area these cheap units cut their cost is with the Wi-Fi chip, and antenna.  Most offer rather poor Wi-Fi performance but the more higher priced units come with more powerful and better Wi-Fi implementations including support for 5G networks.

Software

The devices all come with base Android, but at the initial site you may not realize that as these are hidden by a customized launcher to make it more easy for navigation using a basic remote. However, delve deep, and you will find that underneath is standard Android.

The majority are currently running on Android 4.4 (KitKat), with some chipsets supporting Android 5.1 (Lollipop). However, don’t bother too much about the Android version, as Android 4.4 and above is more than fine, as its more about the video formats, and reliability of the chipsets.

I noticed that each vendor had their own launcher, some bringing a useful option, and some making things you would want to do complex by hiding.

Unusually I liked the Android 4.4 units, as it had an easy to access POWER off button + screen shot button, and also still gave direct access to Android features exactly like a tablet. But from a perspective of hiding Android and making it more like a dedicated media device, the Android 5.1 wins, as it hides the Android internals and provides the launcher a fully customized view.

Media Playback

These players all tend to market the Kodi (Formerly the XBMC player) which is a fully featured media playback app. You are also free to install other players such as MXPlayer, which can sometimes provide better playback depending on the type of video or audio format.

Support for subtitles

One of my friends wanted to see subtitles in one our native languages (Sinhala), and i looked to see how it could be done.

  • Kodi – The approach documented did not work, on how to register a new font
  • MX Player – Provides the ability to select a font, and also select a subtitle file. This enabled the subtitles from a different font to be rendered
  • VLC Player – Selecting the .SUB file worked without any font requirement. Selecting the SRT file did not work.

Android vs Windows TV boxes

  Android Windows
Applications ·         Large, Most applications from Google Play store ·         Any Windows desktop applications

·         Windows Store (limited)

Browsing ·         Any browser that supports Android ·         Any browser that supports Windows
Data Dongle support ·         No

·         Does not detect dongles, and the APN capability is missing in most

·         Yes

·         You can attach a USB dongle, and configure it to work, and also use your device as a hotspot

Gaming ·         Many Android games, but limited as games check for sensors, and GPS and the lack of these stop the game from installing or playing

·         Most of the TV boxes can play most basic games, and the higher end boxes can take on the high end games

·         Gaming compatibility is a bit of a concern, as the GPU used by these players are a bit outdated compared to the latest tablet and phone chipsets

·         Windows desktop games and Windows Store

·         However playable games might be a small number as the gaming GPU capability on these devices are poor

Support for Game controllers ·         Need to test, as there is no set standard ·         Most
Microsoft Office ·         Many office compatible options, + the recent Android version of Microsoft Office ·         The full power of office desktop as long as you get a license J
Web Cam support ·         Limited, no real guarantee or compliance ·         Any web cam that has drivers for Windows 8.1 or 10 will work fine

Gaming support

I installed several popular games and tested with the following devices,

  1. Standard USB keyboard and mouse
  2. Xiaomi Game Controller
  3. Mini keyboard with built in trackpad

When I installed several popular games (mainly arcade racing and the popular Angry Birds editions), these were the observations.

  1. Some games refused to install indicating the said platform was not supported (possible detecting the lack of sensors)
  2. Some games refused to load, though the installation was successful
  3. Navigation within the game only with a game controller was not possible, and I had to use the remote, or a mouse to select to navigate back, etc
  4. Game controller did not work with all games (E.g. Angry birds), as these were optimized for touch devices. However you could play the game very fine with a mouse, but that option was only good if you used this as a computer (not ideal to play such games while sitting on a bed).

Buying tips

  • There are “big name” Chinese brands with good support, and there are “very good” clones as well as “terrible” clones, and externally and visually even from a launcher perspective it might be hard to differentiate
  • Since most of the users will be using this play to play downloaded content, the downloaded content tends to be encoded in various ways which are not industry standard, and can pose a challenge
  • The latest 3D formats, high frame (60fps, 4K) may not play very well, even if the chipset says it does. However not many of the users are likely to be downloading 4K video
  • Stability of the device depends on the firmware and specific hardware revision. Unfortunately, there is very little guarantee of the hardware revision you are getting, and finding the precise update for your firmware is not readily available.
  • Firmware upgrades are hard to find, as though wireless updates (OTA) is there, it rarely works, and manually updating is a messy and nerdy process
  • The standard remote provided with most units are only good for basics, you are best advised to invest on what they call an “Air Mouse”, effectively a wireless mini keyboard which has a full keyboard, a trackpad, and in some advance units the full-fledged gyro capability to allow game playback. There are options to use your mobile as the keyboard, by installing apps, but the compatibility can vary

Personal observations

Chipset Observations
Amlogic S802
  • Good stability
  • Played video formats (up to full HD) without any noticeable issues
  • Top end performance
Amlogic S905
  • Had a few crashes, cause seems to be when memory use is high
  • Played video formats (up to full HD) without any noticeable issues
  • Good performance
Rockchip RK3229
  • Very good stability
  • Played video formats (up to full HD) without any noticeable issues
  • Good performance

 

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