Best Buy Media Players of 2016
All I want is everything... in one little box
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412016 has been another stellar year in terms of developments in the video industry with 4K Ultra HD cementing itself as a meaningful mass consumer format by making it to Blu-ray disc and broadcast TV.
We’ve also seen the rise of High Dynamic Range (HDR), wider colour gamut (WCG) and the promise of higher frame rates (HFR) just around the corner. For the subject at hand, network video streamers, this means the demands have never been more challenging and trying to find a player that suits all your requirements is almost equally as difficult. In fact, we would go as far as saying, the ‘perfect’ streamer just doesn’t exist so you need to define exactly what you need from a streamer and then find which one ticks most of your boxes.
For instance, if you’re looking for services like HD, 4K and/or HDR, Netflix, iPlayer and Amazon Video it might be that your Smart TV could take up the strain, while a more dedicated device could take care of your local media content. If KODI (other media software is available) and compatibility with a wide range of audio and video formats are more concerning, there are some excellent alternatives, this year, but there are also some which are able to bridge the gap between all-round media compatibility while still offering the aforementioned streaming services.
Please note, this list is in no particular order of merit and all have their pros and cons:
The X9S is the flagship Ultra HD Android TV box from Zidoo and came to market at the beginning of October 2016 with some lofty claims. Naturally it can playback 4K video but also claims High Dynamic Range (HDR) capability as well as the promise of 3D playback and support for HD and immersive audio formats including DTS-HD and Dolby Atmos. Connectivity options are very good, also, and include an HDMI 2.0a out and a Gigabit LAN port as well as up to 802.11ac Wi-Fi.
In terms of media playback, the Zidoo X9S is right up there with the best of them but you need to use the internal player, rather than that of KODI, to get all the formats working and there is no support (as of software version 1.2.7) for Ultra HD content at 50Hz. The latest software revisions have also introduced some instabilities for network playback, so you may be best with an earlier version, while the X9S is not, and likely never will be, compatible with HD/UHD streaming services so it’s not for Netflix lovers. Still, for the most part, the X9S is a highly impressive Android TV Box which we’re happy to recommend. At December 2016 prices, the Zidoo X9S is available for around £119.
Wetek Hub / Play 2
Wetek has two current models on the market worthy of attention, although we’d even like to see another ‘inbetweener’ that dispenses with the built-in tuners of the Play 2. The Hub is by far the smallest TV box in the list, in fact it takes the term ‘little black box’ to a whole new level with its tiny form factor. The Play 2 – still undergoing review, by the way – is more than twice the size and boats 2GB of RAM to the 1GB in the Hub. Both have the capability to play HD Netflix and, with an upcoming update currently under testing, the tiny little Hub is capable of Ultra HD and 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus audio via the word’s favourite internet TV service. You also get the option, with both, to run the just-enough-operating-system based on KODI, LibreELEC, which speeds up performance as a networked player. Further still, there exist custom ROMS based on the Android TV OS for the Wetek’s that provide a more remote control friendly, leanback, experience. In the case of the Hub, in particular, that might be a welcome option as the supplied remote is very poor if you don’t use the infra-red extender supplied in the box.
The major downside of the Play 2, so far, has been in making the TV tuner useful as set up seems unnecessarily convoluted. Both have benefited from a regular flow of software updates, however, and Wetek is one of the manufacturers that can be trusted in the Android TV sector, in this regard. At Christmas 2016 prices, the Wetek Hub is available for about £95, while the Play 2 will set you back around £120; it might be worth the additional £25 for the extra memory alone, regardless of the tuner.
In many ways, the HiMedia Q10 Pro Android media player is highly comparable to the Zidoo X9S. The main difference is that the Q10 Pro has a built-in bay to accommodate a SATA hard drive while the X9S has an external port. Other connectivity options include an HDMI 2.0a port, a gigabit LAN connection, a composite video output and a pair of corresponding stereo audio jacks. There’s also both Toslink and Coax digital audio outs and a USB 3.0 slave, which is of particular use if you want to transfer over large amounts of data from a PC to an inserted SATA hard drive.
Like the Zidoo, this HiMedia also uses its built-in player, as a ‘wrapper’ solution in KODI to achieve playback of the more exotic content. It was the first standalone player we reviewed able to play HDR (High Dynamic Range) video and it has better support for 3D than most as well. There’s also flawless pass-through of HD and replay of hi-res audio to place on the pros list, while its handling of extremely high bitrate content is some of the best we’ve tested to date. There are some ‘micro-stutters’ where 3D playback is concerned, the wrapper solution doesn’t seem so integrated as the Zidoo and you can forget about HD, or above, from Netflix, Amazon et al. In a new development since we reviewed it earlier in 2016, there is an update to Android 7 (Nougat) available which adds extra DRM (digtal rights management) privileges.
In terms of an absolutely dedicated media streamer, with only very limited scope to run apps or add-ons, the Popcorn Hour A-500 stands out on its own in the list. On paper, the A-500 is a near holy grail of a product for those that like to stream their locally stored media collections with support for 4K and 3D video, including menus and subtitles, HD audio passthrough and gapless hi-res audio playback among the feature set. All of that functionality comes at a price, of course, with the Popcorn Hour A-500 available for around £238 - so it’s not the cheapest, by a long way. The dedicated nature of the A-500 means it might be easier to setup, for some, than a more all-purpose device.
The build quality of the A-500 is excellent with its brushed, black aluminium casing both looking and feeling the part. The major disappointment, connectivity-wise, is that the HDMI port is v1.4 compliant, only, so the A-500 is limited to 4K at up to 30 frames per second and nor is there HDR support. We also find the interface lacking and the scraping of movie/TV show posters, fan art and metadata is no match for KODI. On the positive side, when it comes to compatibility with video and audio formats, there are few to touch the Popcorn Hour A-500 at this time. It might not quite handle everything but it’s pretty close, including support for all the most used HD audio codecs, 3D video – including menus and subtitles and hi-res audio files. The manufacturer also supports the A-500 very well with software updates and the supplied remote is excellent and includes a backlight for late night operations.
Strictly speaking, the Minix U1 Android Media Hub was a 2015 release but it’s still the company’s flasgship player and recently the recipient of its eleventh software update, demonstrating that Minix is very much committed to supporting its devices well after release. Like all the boxes we’ve seen from this particular manufacturer, the U1 is very well engineered with high build-quality and much more than adequate built-in cooling. The U1 comes with a detachable antenna, which transmits a Bluetooth 4.1 compatible signal as well as playing its part in the dual-band 802.11ac 2 x 2 MIMO Wi-Fi capability, which is currently about as good as it gets in domestic wireless products. There’s also Gigabit LAN, HDMI 2.0 and three USB ports by the way of connectivity options.
On a personal note, as 3D is only of minor importance – not that’s it is totally incapable- the U1 is my go-to network media player using the manufacturer's own fork of KODI – Minix XBMC- which has also been kept updated in line with the U1’s software updates. Ignoring HDR content, the Minix U1 just simply seems to get almost everything right and the device runs extremely smoothly. Pair it up with the A2 Lite remote, which is similarly very good, and the U1 is also excellent with a range of other Android apps, reflecting its very strong overall performance. If it weren’t for the lack of HD/4K streaming apps, the U1 would be all I’d need for the foreseeable but, like we said, you can’t yet have it all…
OK, this is another 2015 device but the NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV is as close as we’ve come to seeing a perfect all-in-one device and it's still very relevant. It does YouTube and Netflix in 4K (and HDR for the latter) and has its own HD (possibly soon to be 4K) BBC iPlayer app; you can even get Amazon up to 1080p by sideloading and it runs as both a PLEX server and client with the possibility to mount networked storage to the operating system. It also virtually has its own fork of KODI – SPMC – tailored to the highly impressive hardware, which supports just about everything you’ll need, although 3D playback is again limited.
The device is also very well supported by NVIDIA who are clearly a big hitter in the video tech world and its capable of running some very graphically impressive titles either from the hard drive or via GeForce streaming. The current downsides of the SHIELD are that the media remote is an optional (and expensive) extra with a limited number of buttons and that stock is hard to find. We have a fair inkling that’s because NVIDIA is readying the release of the SHIELD ANDROID TV 2 at CES 2017, which would be a welcome beginning to the new year!
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