Something for everyone
The market for these little do-it-all devices is really taking off as more and more people move away from physical media to streamed content.
This year alone has seen new devices from Apple, a new Amazon Fire TV, NVIDIA enter the market and Roku release a new streamer, albeit only in the USA for now. Add in to the mix the innumerable boxes from manufacturers you might not have heard of and you’re left with a pretty confusing market place to dissect. Most devices now offer Ultra HD 4K local streaming but some will let you at the UHD content from Neflix and Amazon, whilst others are more specialist media hubs and centre their focus on running media centre software like KODI.
But, never fear, AVForums has been running the rule over the market for the last twelve months and here are our best players of 2015 and beyond. Please note the devices aren’t placed in any order of preference as there isn’t one box to rule all. At least not yet.
The Neo U1 is designed for those looking to be ready for the future, with a HDMI 2.0/HDCP 2.2 output, capable of supporting 10-bit 4K Ultra HD video at up to 60 frames per second, 7.1 channel HD audio pass-through and it runs on Android 5.1. The impressive spec sheet doesn’t end there, as the Minix Neo U1 is blessed with a new-generation AMLogic S905 processor, 2GB of RAM and 16GB of unified eMMC 5.0, i.e. fast, flash storage. If you can live without 3D, and let’s face it most us can and do, the Minix Neo U1 is a superb little media hub which will play virtually anything you care to throw it, now and in the immediate future. Minix has also created an excellent, tailored version of KODI which takes advantage of all the horsepower on offer and it definitely outshines the built-in media player so we’d definitely recommend you use it. The only real thing we can see putting off those folks who don’t do their research is the price; you can pick a box with near matching specifications for less than half the price of the Neo U1 but that would come with a high risk of little to no manufacturer support and, more than likely, a boatload of bugs that would go unfixed. If you want a quality product you have to be prepared to pay the premium and that’s exactly what the Minix Neo U1 is - a class above the vast majority of the players on the market.
The HiMedia Q5 is another very strong contender and it also receives excellent manufacturer support in terms of software upgrades. To our knowledge this - along with its HDD equipped sister product the Q10 - is the only Android box with (sorta) out-of-the-box support for both 3D ISO and 7.1 HD audio. It will set you back about £99 in the UK and boasts a Quad-core HiSilicon Hi3798C (ARM A9 family) processor running at 1.5 Ghz. As with most in this price bracket, there’s an Octa-core Mali-450 GPU and 2GB of RAM, plus 8GB of built in flash storage. Wi-Fi capability is restricted to the 2.4Ghz (a/b/g/n) band but Gigabit LAN could be more than compensation for some. It’s with local and networked stored media where the HiMedia Q5 really shows its mettle and it handles virtually everything you care to choose to throw at it with ease, via KODI or the built-in player. HiMedia has also recently improved the handling of content encoded at 23.976 frames per second (most movies and Blu-rays and usually labelled as 24p) and it now plays them without any stutter at all. Unfortunately, the Q5 can’t automatically detect framerates from internet streamed content, so you’ll need to manually adjust the settings, and there is the small complexity in installing a special ‘wrapper’ app to get the best playback. The HiMedia Q5 is an excellent Android TV box, competitively priced, with some unusual native abilities that others can’t match out-of-the-box.
The NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV is getting better and better as a media streaming device and it’s definitely the reference point in the streamer/micro console space. The likes of the new Apple TV, Roku 4 and new 4K Amazon Fire TV have a real fight on their hands with this new contender. It is incredibly powerful and, especially with the gaming side of things it offers possibilities and quality the others can’t match. You also get access to the Google Play store, albeit a slimmed down version, but it’s one of very few boxes entitled to stream Ultra HD Netflix. It’s more future-proofed than the latest Fire TV with 4K support at 60 frames per second, too, but it could use a few more native apps for streaming. KODI performance was generally excellent, with full support for automatic refresh rate switching, available right now, and support for the SHIELD TVs ability to pass-through 7.1 HD audio is on the way. It might not be quite yet the perfect media player but it is an awesome little all-in-one solution for those that want to game and stream video.
This is actually the second generation Fire TV but the first product in the family to support Ultra HD 4K resolution. It follows the successful launch of the predecessor in 2014 as well as the low budget,Fire TV Stick. On the face of it, the biggest upgrade the second gen 2015 Fire TV brings over the original is that support for Ultra HD 4K resolutions but there’s also been a significant change under the hood with a major update to the operating system. The 2015 Amazon Fire TV (2) is widely available for £79 although it’s worth looking out for promotions as they are reasonably frequent and typically shave £15 off the asking price. Even at full retail, the 2015 Amazon Fire TV is an extremely competitive media streamer with an excellent range of services; it’s currently the only one to support Ultra HD streaming from both Amazon Instant Video and Netflix - a fact, alone, that will make it a must have for some. There are plenty of other key apps, besides, including BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, Demand 5, YouTube and Spotify, plus there’s the ability to load it with thousands of Android apps not available through Amazon’s app store’ the most popular of those being the open source media software, KODI. The second generation Fire TV is not only an upgrade on the older model, in terms of the 4K services, it’s also noticeably quicker through menus.
To turn the Chromebox in to the superb little media hub it can be requires a little effort in installing the KODI-centric operating system OpenELEC on it, but it’s definitely worth the bother. Essentially the Chromebox comes as a small form factor PC running Google’s Chrome OS and even the entry-level model from ASUS will do the trick nicely. The entry-level ChromeBox features a 64-bit Intel Celeron 1.4GHz processor, 2GB of RAM, Intel HD graphics and an inbuilt SSD which provides ultra-fast boot times and very quiet operation. Once you’re up and running with OpenELEC, it flies with unbelievable slickness and support for media file types is incredibly comprehensive with it playing just about everything bar 3D ISO. As a media hub, the ChromeBox is close to being peerless and for something costing around £160 that’s not a bad achievement!
So that’s a look at five our favourites from this last 12 months and we’ve many more reviews on the way with the likes of the Wetek Core waiting in the wings for testing. We should also give mention to the Raspberry Pi 2 which we’ve yet to review but seems to punch well above its weight in respect of its price versus performance and we should be getting our hands on one of those, too, so we can put it through its paces.
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.