Smart TV boxes, dongles, and sticks offer a great way for owners of older TV sets to access popular streaming services and apps with ease.
In recent years, the market for these devices has grown, with a myriad of options in all shapes and sizes available from South African.
Most of these boxes allow users to use a version of the Android operating system on their display through a simple HDMI connection.
This gives them access to iterations of many apps they could typically use on their smartphone, including streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Showmax.
Often shoppers will find numerous of these devices for around R500, which may seem like a good deal.
Unfortunately, however, many of these TV boxes boast weak hardware and lack the proper software support to run apps and the Android UI effectively.
MyBroadband spoke to Nology Product Manager Grant Robertson to hear what features and hardware specifications consumers should look out for.
Nology is a distributor of the Ematic AGT419 4K streaming box in South Africa.
Software and certifications
Robertson said that the software and certifications of an Android media box were the most important attributes to consider.
“You want the Android TV OS, Netflix, and Google Certification on the box,” Robertson said.
These elements were generally a good indication that the hardware had passed the necessary testing to provide solid performance in navigation and streaming.
Robertson said that Google Certified streamers come with software straight from Google itself, without any alterations or changes in the code.
“In turn, this often means that a Google Certified streamer is more stable and secure than an uncertified streamer,” Robertson said.
“Additionally, with a Google Certified box you can rest assured that the unit will be patched and updated regularly,” he added.
Android TV vs Android mobile
Google Certified Android streamers also come pre-loaded with the Android TV versions of Google Play, YouTube, Google Video, and others, Robertson stated.
It should be emphasised that Android TV is different from the Android mobile OS often found on cheaper streaming boxes like the MXQ Pro.
Google has optimised this OS for use on TV displays, with functionality focused around remote button navigation, whereas Android for mobile primarily operates through touch navigation.
Generally, this means that apps and the UI simply run better on Android TV than Android mobile when used on a display.
Robertson said because of this, certain app developers have elected to only run their apps on a Google Certified device.
Examples of this include MultiChoice’s DStv Now and Showmax apps.
Beware cheap options
Robertson said that consumers should be wary of cheap Android TV boxes in particular.
“The biggest issue is that if a manufacturer is saving costs with inferior or older hardware, they are also more than likely running older operating systems, offering zero updates or support, and have skipped any required certification,” he cautioned.
“It is important to read and understand the specifications fully, as this is one area that manufactures can ‘hide’ and ‘mislead’ what really is under the hood,” he added.
Robertson said that two specific components which were often misrepresented were the CPU and Wi-Fi module.
“Some Android media streamers use a CPU called S905W which – although supporting 4K resolution – has limited processing power and can only manage that resolution at 30 frames per second,” Robertson said.
“This CPU has also been shown to be around 30% slower than its S905X counterpart found in most mainstream streamers,” he said.
In addition, manufacturing costs are further lowered by using older and slower Wi-Fi modules.
“Cheaper units will often use the older 802.11n standard (Wi-Fi 4) running on a single – and often congested – 2.4GHz band only,” said Robertson .
He said these streaming devices would most likely never pass either Google or Netflix certification.
“This leads to a subpar experience and huge frustration when trying to stream content or even navigate the menus,” he stated.
Due to the factors noted above, Robertson advised that Android media streamers which will be used to connect via Wi-Fi should support the dual-band 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5) standard for operation on both 2.4GHz and 5GHz spectrum.
Ideally, however, Robertson recommended that users buy a device that includes an Ethernet port, as a fixed cable connection was still the best option to connect the box to the Internet.
In addition, he advised consumers to look for smart TV boxes with local support, which could be very useful in the event of a malfunction or when you require assistance in using the box.
Furthermore, buyers should search for reviews of the unit they are interested in to get an idea of what to expect from it.
Google provides a helpful list of all the Google Certified smart TV boxes which run the Android TV OS on this page, which also indicates whether a particular model is Netflix or Amazon Prime Video Certified.