We run you through some of the key terminologies in this rapidly expanding, but potentially confusing product sector. There’s a lot these things can do…
CPUThe Central Processing Unit (CPU) is the chief component governing the performance of the device. You will find examples that are dual- quad- and even octo-core, running at various clock speeds measured in GHz (gigahertz). As a rule of thumb, the more cores and GHz a device has, the better it should perform. It’s not all about speed and power, however, and the various chipset manufacturers have their own strengths and weaknesses. Well known CPU manufacturers include AMLogic (AML), Rockchip, MStar, AllWinner and Intel. Some are better than others at updating their SDKs (Software Development Kits) which, in turn, allows the box manufacturers to improve performance via firmware updates.
GPULike the CPU, Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) come with a variety of core capacities and clockspeeds and, again, more is usually going to be better. In terms of video playback, the GPU isn’t really the component you need to worry about (that’s more down to the CPU) but if you want to game on your Android box, you’ll want one with a powerful graphics processor.
RAMWithout wishing to be repetitive, the more Random Access Memory (RAM) capacity available to the CPU/GPU, the better, as it allows for larger amounts of data to be temporarily stored therein. Some apps - particularly games – call for very large amounts of data to be kept in memory and if there’s not enough room, your device will run sluggishly and video performance will suffer. Having plenty of RAM will also allow you to run multiple apps more efficiently and we’d say the bare minimum is 1GB for a media box.
HDMIThe overwhelming majority of Android TV boxes only allow for video output from a High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI). We refer to this as the HDMI port/connection and the majority of boxes come with a 1.4b version, allowing for resolutions up to 3840x2160 (Ultra HD/4K) pixels at up to 30 frames per second. We will shortly see a lot of boxes supporting HDMI version 2.0 which will bring with it ‘4K’ video at up to 60 frames per second. There are even a few devices on the market with an HDMI input to allow for HD video capture.
USBAs per your PC, the USB ports on an Android device open up a lot of options in terms of adding storage and using peripherals. An obvious use-case would be to playback media files on a USB stick, or hard drive, and the advent of USB 3.0 means that even Ultra HD files with HD audio should present no issues to this storage medium. Most boxes on the market currently only support v2.0 but that will change in the near future. You could also use the USB port for keyboards & mice, games controllers and other peripherals but anything requiring PC drivers is not likely to work.
Digital Audio - Toslink/CoaxThere are quite a number of soundbars, and older AV Receivers, that don’t have an HDMI input so if you want to take multichannel audio to one, you’ll want a device with a dedicated digital audio output. These connections in two flavours, the more common Toslink variety as well as Coax(ial) so check which your audio device has before committing to buy.
Wi-FiFor streaming HD audio and video around the home it is preferable to use a wired connection but that isn’t always possible. So, if you have to use WiFi it is better to have an Android TV device that supports both the 2.4 and 5Ghz radio bands. Better still, if your router supports it, a device supporting the 802.11ac standard will provide excellent bandwidth for streaming. That said, there are many factors that can affect your wireless home network and you might well be fine with the more usual 802.11n support.
LANAs said above, if you can go with a wired connection do so and if your Android device has a Gigabit Local Area Network connection, you will be getting the maximum available bandwidth on the market right now. It is more usual for an Android TV box to have a conventional RJ45 LAN port, however, which will give you a maximum data throughput of 100Mbps (Megabits per second) against the 1000Mbps of a Gigabit connection. To be fair, this should be more than sufficient for even 4K video streaming but if you want to use your Android device to transfer large files over your network, you might want to go Gigabit.
BluetoothBluetooth is a pretty versatile connectivity technology and you could use it to pair any number of peripherals to your Android box. Games controllers, remote controls, keyboards, headphones and even soundbars & speakers are amongst the most popular use-cases but not all the boxes support Bluetooth so if you anticipate a need, check the specifications out.
SD/MMC Card SlotYour typical Android box will come with either 8GB or 16GB of built-in data storage but you can expand upon it by using data storage cards inserted in to a small slot. Using this method, expandability capacity varies but most will state up to 32GB, although some can go much higher than that.
AndroidThis is the basic operating system (OS) which runs the device and it will be familiar to many as it’s the same as that seen in numerous phones and tablets on the market. If your mobile device isn’t made by Apple or Blackberry and it’s not a Windows Phone then it is Android. The majority of Android Boxes run Android (KitKat) 4.4.X but there are some emerging running on Android 5.x (Lollipop). Depending on the manufacturer, your device may have an upgrade path from KitKat to Lollipop but we wouldn’t get too hung up on it, at this time, as there are more important factors to consider.
FirmwareOn top of the base Android OS, the manufacturers apply their own software to customise the look and add special features to their device and this is known as firmware.
OTA UpdateAn Over The Air (OTA) update applies to the manufacturer’s firmware version and simply means that new versions can be downloaded to the device via the internet. Not all manufacturers offer this facility but it is a good sign when they do that the device will be well supported throughout its life-cycle.
RootingThe process of Rooting an Android device grants special user privileges and, in some cases, Android TV devices come pre-rooted, in the firmware, to allow them to perform tasks and functions otherwise beyond the scope of their operating system. In those cases, you really don’t have to worry yourself any further on the issue but some advanced users might want to gain root privileges to devices that aren’t and this can usually done by using a programme called Towelroot. If you don’t know what rooting is and you don’t know why you want to root – leave well alone as you could damage your device and it will inevitably void warranty.
SideloadingSideloading is the process of installing an app by means other than any App stores you have installed on the device. The vast majority of Android boxes come preloaded with the Google Play Store but if there’s an app you want that isn’t, you can sideload it in a number of ways; USB, via browser, over the network or from the cloud are all ways in which it can be done.
APKAn Android application package (APK) is the file format used to distribute and install application software (apps) on to the Android OS. If you’re sideloading something, it will be an APK file.
LauncherThese apps are alternatives to the stock Android homescreen and all the devices we’ve reviewed come with their own. A launcher is responsible for the look and feel of the homescreen, managing the grid of apps/shortcuts and then, well, launching them. A lot of the boxes allow for some degree of homescreen customisation by letting you place your most used apps there but, this being Android, you’re completely free to install any launcher you like.
KODI, formerly known as XBMC, is a free and open-source media player software developed by the XBMC Foundation and, quite frankly, is the reason most people want to get themselves an Android TV device. It is extremely versatile and can be used to conglomerate most, if not all, of your local, networked, cloud and streamed media content in to one easy-to-use interface. Many manufacturers ship their devices with their own customised versions (forks) of KODI as it allows them to tailor special functionalities specific to the chipsets used in the device.
Repositories and AddonsKODI comes very much barebones, in terms of functionality, and you will therefore need to install the necessary addons to achieve your goals; think of addons as you would an app for your phone, tablet or computer. There are thousands of KODI addons, some official and others not, and they can be installed in two ways; it can be done on a standalone basis or via a repository which is basically a collection of various addons. The advantage of the repository method is that it means your addons will be updated automatically.
SkinThe Skin is the name given to the User Interface you elect to use within KODI. By default, you will be presented with the ‘Confluence’ skin but there are dozens of alternatives you can use and we think Confluence is looking very long in the tooth. Our personal favourite is the FTV skin, which is modelled on the UI of the Amazon Fire TV, but other good ones include Amber, Aeon , Mimic, Eminence and Nebula which all make content discovery that much easier. It’s definitely worth ‘having a Google’ on this subject as it is down to individual preference.
OpenELECBased on KODI, OpenELEC is a free and open source operating system which can be installed on some Android TV devices. As it is just basically dedicated to media centre duties, it is very small in size and, therefore, boots up quickly and has very low overheads on the processor, meaning it will run very quickly and smoothly. You will need to check if your device has a version of OpenELEC available for it and for its individual installation method(s). It’s not for the first time user and some computer literacy is required.
‘Special’ Video & Audio Features
Ultra HD 4KIt probably hasn’t escaped your notice that the entire video industry is shifting its attention towards the Resolution Revolution. Forget Full HD/1080p, the future is 4K/Ultra HD and there are plenty of Android devices that support the increased resolution – it’s four times that of Full HD, for reference. At this time there are precious few with HDMI 2.0 outputs (see above), however, so if you have serious Ultra HD intentions, it may be worth hanging fire until there are more HDMI 2.0 capable boxes on the market.
HEVCThe other potential limiting factor in an Android devices’ 4K capabilities is in its ability to decode the High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) codec, or otherwise. HEVC/H265 is destined to be the de facto compression technology used in Ultra HD video delivery and it is, therefore, an important consideration for the future.
Multichannel / HD /Atmos Audio pass-throughIf the next wave in home cinema video is Ultra HD, then in audio it is all about object based design. The two formats set to dominate are Dolby Atmos and DTS:X and whilst the latter is, as yet, not possible on an Android box, there are a few that can passthrough Atmos, in addition to passing through and even bitstreaming up to 7.1 channel HD Audio files. We can only think of couple with this capability out of the box but a few can do it using VidOn XBMC (paid-for software) and the new round of chipset announcements should mean far more TV boxes will support these features in the near future.
3D ISOAs per HD audio support, at this present time there are very few devices that can playback 3D video in the ISO (full disc image) format. Again, it can be achieved using VidOn XBMC on a few devices but precious few can do it ‘natively’.
Automatic Refresh Rate SwitchingDepending on what you’re watching, and what part of the world it originated from, video content is delivered in a variety of frame rates. The most common are 24, 25, 30, 50 and 60 frames per second and it’s important for best playback that your box is outputting at a screen refresh rate – measured in Hz- that matches, or is equally divisible by, the framerate. For 30 and 60 frames per second video, we would want a 60Hz output; for 25 and 50 frames per second, it should be 50Hz; whilst 24 frames per second warrants its own 24Hz output signal. The ability of a box to automatically, and correctly, switch screen refresh to 24Hz (usually 23.967Hz actually) is key as most movies are shot at 24 frames per second. Again, there are not many Android boxes capable of this function, at the moment, but we think it’s one of the most important features.
SMBIf you have attached/inserted plenty of storage to your Android TV box, then you might want to use it as a media hub from which other devices on your network can access its stored files. A box with SMB aka SAMBA (Server Message Block) network sharing protocol support will allow you do this quickly and simply.
HDMI CECHDMI Consumer Electronics Control (CEC) is a feature designed to allow the user to command and control other CEC-enabled devices connected to the TV. So, quite simply, if your Android Box supports the CEC function, you should be able to control it using your TVs remote control.
As ever we will be keeping this guide up-to-date as new products and technologies emerge but, in the meantime, if you have any thoughts, questions or suggestions, please don't hesitate to use the Discussion Tab.
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