Google is promoting Google TV boxes to counter Apple's TV box but Google is not making much headway with manufacturers. In the meantime, there are a ton of Android TV boxes available today. So, what's the difference?
- Google TVs run a modified version of Android designed to work with remote controls and television sets.
- Android TV boxes run pure Android, and so are not optimized for touch-less interaction.
Hardware-wise, they are like Apple TVs: small plastic boxes with no physical input or output, no keyboard or screen. The keyboard function is provided by the remote control or a wireless keyboard; the screen function is provided by the TV screen.
There are very few Google TV boxes to choose from; there is a multitude of Android TV boxes. (I had a chuckle at the excitement expressed by Engadget and similar "tech" pubs at the possibility of Dell releasing an Android TV box maybe this summer; the market is already flooded with them.) This article is how to chose between competing products with confusingly similar specs. (My experience comes from owning two Android TV boxes.)
Specs to Look For
In general, you want an Android TV box with the following specs:
- A recent release of Android; ie, v4 or higher. (Older versions don't support as much software.)
- At least a dual-core CPU running at least 1GHz. (Single-core CPUs are simply too slow.)
- At least 1GB RAM for the system, and 4GB RAM for storage. (Less RAM means less room to run apps, and to store apps).
- HDMI output (to connect to your TV screen). If your TV does not have an HDMI connector, then look for a model that offers AV output via RCA composite or similar connectors.
- At least 2 USB ports. Make sure the unit supports remote keyboards, and so one of the USB ports will be needed for the keyboard transmitter. If the second port supports OTG mode, then you can hook up a hard drive to the Android TV box.
- An SD slot that supports at least 32GB cards. This lets you easily add RAM for storing more apps and even movies and music for playback. (You might see the SD slot referred to as "TF," which is the Chinese name for the same thing.)
If not SD slot, then you can plug a USB thumbdrive into one of the USB ports for storage and playing back movie files.
- RF port for the remote control. In theory, great; in practice, I find the remote controls poorly made, and so rely on a wireless keyboard
The good news is that all newer Android TV boxes have the hardware specs listed above; only older, cheaper units have sub-par specs.
Software to Look Out For
What is trickier are the software specs. There are two that are crucial:
- Google Play lets you access all the apps you've paid for
- Flash 11.x lets you playback movies on more sites
Now, all Android TV boxes usually include a third-party app site. Some vendors leave out Google Play, because then the TV box is cheaper to produce. But if the box does not include Google Play, then you suffer from either have to repay for apps you already own, and/or you will have access to a small fraction of the apps as are in the Google Store, or have to access the built-in app store software in Chinese.
Many TV boxes are made in China and are sold direct from China. This means that the default language of Android is Chinese, but fortunately it takes only a moment to switch to English. What will remain in Chinese, however, are the apps added by the vendor, such as for accessing their app store, playing movies, and so on. Fortunately, these can be ignored by downloading English counterparts from Google Play.
Most of these Android TV boxes come with a small amount of user interface customization, such as having giant icons on the home screen. Fortunately, this can be overcome by installing a home screen replacement from Google Play, such as Go.
All the Chinese-made Android devices I have (four, so far) have a screen for updating Android, but this has never worked for me, nor have I been able to access an update for any of these devices. So, another reason to buy one with a really recent release of Android.
Where to Find Android TV Boxes
I found my TV boxes on eBay, typically for $40 - $80, shipping included. Sometimes an importer will take the time to English-ize the box before selling them from a North American location.