Buyer's Guide to
  Android Mini-PC's, Sticks, and Set-Top Boxes
November 2012
11 November 2012 - Spelling, General Edits

02 January 2013 - Additional Information, Grammar, Spelling
20 January 2013 - Graphic, Surround Sound Audio information, links


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Android Sticks
Basic Description:
Seemingly thousands of small, Android-powered mini-PC's have appeared on the market recently.  Media Players, Set-top Boxes, Smart TV Sticks, Mini-PC's... call them what you want, but essentially, they are miniature computers that run the Android Operating System.  In some cases, the entire device is meant to plug directly into the HDMI port like a  "Thumb Drive" plugs into a PC's USB connector.

Another way to look at it, and technically more accurate, is that these are Android Tablets without the Screen.  What good is an Android Tablet with no screen?  A lot, actually.  For less than US$100, these devices can convert your TV or monitor into an Internet-connected Smart TV.  You can surf the Internet, watch YouTube, rent movies, or play games from the comfort of your living room chair, and on what is probably the best screen in your house.

Not only that, but these devices could actually save you money.  Cancel your cable TV subscription, quit buying expensive games for your Playstation, Xbox or Wii, and you will have enough to buy the best of these Android devices, subscribe to several TV and Movie services, and buy dozens of the top Android games.

But buying one of these devices can be an intimidating step, especially if you are not an Android "Pro".  This article will explain these devices, and cover various features.

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Form Factor:
Android-HDMI-StickEssentially, these devices can be separated into 3 categories.  I'm making these terms up, but you'll see what I mean as we go through the rest of this guide:
Stylish_SettopSo which do you choose?  Essentially it comes down to portability. With a "Stick" device, you can take all your games, music, and even movies with you to a friend's house.  You can torture your relatives with Junior's first steps or last summer's vacation, right on their TV.  Business travelers can take presentations with them, as well as a trusted Internet platform, without the size, weight or conspicuousness of a laptop.

Let's go through all the features found on these devices, one at a time, so you know what to look for.

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Operating System:

Ice Cream SandwichThe operating system is the most essential part of these devices, so I will devote a separate section to this particular feature.  All of the devices covered by this article run some version of Google's Android Operating System (OS).  It's important to understand that these are not Google TV devices, despite the fact that some may even use that terminology.  "Real" Google TV devices run an Operating System (OS) that shares a common Linux heart with Android, but official Google TV products are totally different that what is described here.  Also, there are multi-media hard drive enclosures, some of which may run Linux, but those are not covered by this guide either.

For the devices described here, OS choice comes down to a choice between Android 2.x or Android 4.x.  You may think that choice is obvious, why go with an OS that is several years old?  Well, don't count Android 2.x out so fast.

Android 2.2 -- OK, I lied.  Do count Android 2.2 and earlier out.  Unless you are confident that the manufacture, or the developer community is going to provide an upgrade path (new firmware) for your particular device, I would avoid devices that ship with Android 2.2. Don't misunderstand me, Android 2.2 is a fantastic operating system, but too many modern apps require a newer version of Android.

Android 2.3 -- "Ginger Bread" -- Android 2.3 is only subtly different than 2.2, but in computers, subtle changes can make a big difference.  2.3 is more common, compatible with more Apps, and more customizable. It lacks certain DRM (Digital Rights Management) features that were added in Android 4.0.  This can be both a benefit, in terms of protecting yourself as a consumer, and a detriment, in that some apps, particularly those that provide access to protected media, may -- now or in the future -- require the DRM features present in 4.x.

Android 4.0 / 4.1  -- "Ice Cream Sandwich"/"Jelly Bean" -- Other than the fact that a device with Android 4.x on it is probably a newer, later generation device than one with 2.3 on it, and what is mentioned above, there is no real benefit to having Android 4.0 or and Android 4.1 on these devices.  No version of Android is really meant for these devices, and none are approved by Google for a Media Player or Set-top box.

The point?  4.x is better, but if a particular device has the hardware features you want, don't necessarily turn it down just because it ships with Android 2.3.

Why didn't I mention Android 3.0 ("Honey Comb")?  You have to understand that none of these devices are approved by Google to run any version of Android.  They are all kludges of the Android Open Source Project (AOSP), proprietary code and drivers, and usually poorly-tested "in-house" software.  Android 3.0 was delayed in being released as Open Source, and few of these devices use it.

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Hardware Features
Features and PortsAs mentioned, there seem to be thousands of these devices for sale on eBay, and from various Chinese vendors.  Let's look at a somewhat "laundry list" of features, and you can decide what particular hardware or interfaces you need.

CPU:  Again, don't be fooled into thinking you need the absolute latest.  Also, as seen in some previous articles on this site, some manufactures or vendors are not exactly --uh -- "technically accurate" about things like processor speeds.  If the "specifications" mention the SoC (System on Chip) that the device is built around, spend just a few moments independently researching that chip family. Wikipedia is a great resource for a quick check.  If the reseller says it is dual core, does that SoC really include dual core processors? Does it have a GPU (Graphics Processing Unit)?
Most devices with a decent implementation of Android, and at least a 1 GHz SoC with a GPU can pump 1080p video out an HDMI port.  If application load times, or 3D gaming is important to you, of course more processor power is important.

RAM: Again, beware of "over zealous" advertising. With a caveat for heavy gaming, 1 Gig is enough.  More is always better, but I would not turn down a device with as little as 512M if it had other features I liked.  Remember, we're not running a Microsoft OS on these things.

Built-in Flash Memory (NAND):  Most of these devices sport a Micro-SD slot (Previously called Trans Flash or TF).  Given the low prices of MicroSD cards, the amount of internal Flash storage is not really that important. Also, the whole idea behind these things is that they are "cloud players".  They play files that are stored elsewhere.

SD card Slot, or Micro SD Slot
:  OK, I'm going to contradict myself again.  After the above lecture on "cloud computing", and how local storage is "passe'", I'm going to tell you that an SD card slot of some sort is important.  People that visit and want to torture you with their vacation pictures, movies or mp3 mixes may not know how to set up an add-hoc media server.  Popping in an SD card is quick, and intuitive.  A MicroSD (Also called Transflash) card can be slotted into an SD card adapter, and used in an standard SD card slot, but obviously, the other way around is not possible.  External multicard readers take up a USB slot, and may not work in Android.

Power: Powering the device may seem trivial, but like the other features, it deserves some thought.  First, none of these devices are powered by the HDMI port.  The HDMI specification states that only 5 Volts at 50mA is available.  These devices are remarkably power efficient by even the standards of just a few years ago, but they are not that efficient. A Dual or Quad core device running at high load (i.e. sophisticated gaming or decoding 1080p video) can require nearly 2000 mA (2 Amps). Even if the TV has a USB port, it is unlikely that it will provide enough power. Also be warned that the quality of the USB Power Adapters that are included with some devices may be poor.  I have had several fail with in days of their arrival from China. Android Sticks that use a USB power connection can be powered with most 2.1 Amp USB power adapters (such as those that state they are capable of charging an iPad).  This is important while traveling, as it can cut down on how many chargers or "Wall Warts" you have to carry. In addition, an iPad compatible travel charger may be more reliable, and have features such as folding prongs. If the Android Stick has the same type of connection (MicroUSB or MiniUSB), as your mobile phone, you can use both the same power adapter and the same cable to charge your phone.  If the Android device uses a coaxial power connection, then you must pack the AC adapter that came with the device when you travel.

WiFi:  As mentioned, these units share a basic circuit design with Android Tablets and like Tablets, almost all of them have WiFi.  Today, that includes 802.11n for most (but not all) of these devices.  If you are using your device for a quick check of your email while hooked up to a hotel room TV, the built in WiFi is a great convenience. However, if you are in a crowded apartment building with 20 overlapping WiFi access points, don't count on watching streaming high-def video over a WiFi connection.  Also, don't be fooled by an external antenna.  I'll take a tiny internal chip antenna, and a good 802.11 driver over a lousy driver and a whip antenna any day.  Unfortunately, you cannot really tell how well the WiFi works until you are actually using the unit in a given environment.

Wired Ethernet (RJ45):  Unless you can count on an optimum WiFi connection, you'll want a wired Ethernet connection for streaming HD video.  Also, don't assume that RJ45 connector on the back supports Gigabit Ethernet.  Unless It says it has Gigabit, and you trust the vendor or have researched the chipset, assume 100MB Ethernet.

Bluetooth: Somewhat surprisingly to me, few of these devices have Bluetooth.  Bluetooth is a quick and easy way to "beam" an occasional picture for display on your TV, or to allow use of a Bluetooth keyboard/mouse combination without taking up a USB port with a "Dongle".  Again, in this "Cloud Computing" world, it's not essential, but it's a feature I'd like to see in more of these devices.

3G: I know this article is starting to be like a bad day at the NASCAR races, but I have to throw the yellow caution flag again. "Supports 3G" does not mean a device has 3G.  At best it means that there are drivers and settings panels for an external 3G USB modem.  Unless the pictures show a SIM card slot or tray, ignore any reference to 3G.

HDMI:  Given that all of these devices have HDMI, then why is HDMI a "feature"?  Truth is that all HDMI connectors are not created equal.  There's MiniHDMI, MicroHDMI, and full-size HDMI ports.  There's also HDMI 1.3, and HDMI 1.4.
Again, it is important to think of exactly how you are going to use the unit.  If you are considering a "Stick", is there actually room for it to fit directly into the ports on your TV?  Will you need an adapter or extension cable?  HDMI cables are not cheap. If you need to run out and buy cables and adapters locally, it can be a significant percentage of what the entire device cost you.  Look at what cables are included when comparing deals.
The HDMI 1.4 specification includes an Ethernet link between the 2 devices.  As of this writing, I am not aware of any of these devices that support that feature.  In addition, since none of these devices are "Approved" devices from major manufactures, they probably will not negotiate the connection with your TV.  This usually is not a problem, but it may limit the maximum resolution you can view.  It also makes HDMI 1.3 vs 1.4 somewhat of a mute point.
Other Video Connections:  Today, HDMI is the de-facto standard for connecting entertainment video devices.  A simple adapter will also convert HDMI to DVI.  However, there may be cases where you are forced to use a different video interface.  Not all hotel rooms have modern TV's.  Similarly, if you plan on doing a presentation, not all offices have projectors with digital inputs.  Lastly, as mentioned above, it's always possible that there is some incompatibility, and the HDMI connection simply fails.  In these cases, a legacy connection is desirable.  VGA is very common for both TV's and Projectors.  Component video is perhaps less common and less convenient, but may be present when others are not.  I would forget about composite video for anything but very casual viewing of photographs.

Audio Connections
: HDMI also carries digital audio, so in most cases, separate audio connections should not be necessary.  If, however, HDMI is not available, or the TV is cannot decode the HDMI digital (such as when an older TV is used with an HDMI --> DVI adapter), it may be necessary to use a separate connection for audio. What if you have a separate surround sound audio system? Depending on the TV, it may be possible to use the TV's Audio outputs to route the sound from HDMI to your Receiver/Decoder.  The opposite may also be true.  Some receivers have HDMI connectors that decode the audio, and pass on the HDMI connection. Again, even if your hardware has such outputs, expect occasional compatibility problems.  An optical connection directly from the Android device to your audio Receiver/Decoder is the best option, and many of the more versatile Android media gadgets have a standard optical (S/PDIF) output.  S/PDIF copper (RCA Jack, usually color coded orange) connectors are also found on some of the larger, "Mini-PC" like devices, as are analog Left and Right audio outputs.
You may think that given that the Device has USB ports, you can simply plug in an additional USB audio device to recover any missing audio connections.  This may work in some cases, but a given Android implementation may or may not have the drivers for such devices.

Another Word about Audio:  As of this writing, most Android Moive Player apps, (and possibly the Android OS itself) do not know how to pass 5.1 digital surround sound through to the HDMI or S/PDIF outputs.  So even if you have a movie file or stream with a 5.1 stream in it, and the device decoding the audio does digital surround sound, you will probably only get stereo audio.  It's not really a problem, but if you expect full home theater performance out of a $75 device the size of an Altoids tin, your expectations are totally out of line (for at least another month).
Click for larger, annotated image
USB Ports: All of these devices have USB ports.  But again, there is subtlety in the details.  First, there are USB host ports,  USB OTG ports and USB power ports.  There are Full Size USB ports, Mini USB ports, and Micro USB ports.  You can count on using one full size port for your input device (see the next section).  You can connect a USB Mini-hub to a single USB port, but then you are going to have even more stuff hanging off the back of your TV.  USB Flash Drives, and a USB Bluetooth Dongle are some of the other things that may require full size USB ports.  Some devices include a USB OTG (On The Go) adapter cable to allow the USB Mini port to be used for a second full size peripheral device, but again, there can be compatibility issues. Many of these devices use a Mini USB port as the power connection, and that port may or may not be a functional USB data port.  Unless you really need the compact size, go for a device that has several full-size USB ports.

The Picture at right shows how an Android Stick can be expanded with standard USB peripherals. All of the devices shown were actually working.  There were some issues capturing images video from the webcam, but live pre-view did work. The USB Audio adapter did not work when plugged into the hub.  The hub is not powered.  Note also that there are 2 open USB ports on the Keyboard. Click on the image to see a larger, annotated version that describes each USB device.

Magic_ProCamera: There are Android apps for a variety of Video and Audio Chat protocols, and with a suitable VoIP provider, real phone calls are possible over these devices. Yes, taking video calls on the living room TV is still somewhat geeky, or at least not yet mainstream, but in addition to the novelty, it is quite practical.  Telephony is a part of Home Theater Convergence that should not be overlooked. In support of this, some of these devices have built-in cameras and microphones.  (Example: the I-Go-Go Magic-Pro shown at right). If you plan to add a USB Webcam via one of the USB ports, think again. As with a number of other USB peripherals, drivers for a given Webcam will be hit-and-miss in Android.  Built-in Webcams should work with most Android Apps, but it will, of course require that you orientate the device so that the camera is pointed where you want it.

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Input Devices:
Fly-Air-Mouse-KeyboardHow we interact with these devices makes a big difference in the overall experience of using them.  Here's a few important points to think about when considering input devices:
Keyboard_TrackpadSome of these devices ship with simple remote controls.  This may be adequate for navigating around the Android User Interface (UI), but to get the most out of these devices, you ether need to purchase one that includes a better input device, or budget both the money and USB ports for a specialized input device.

 You'll want your input device to have 2 basic features in addition to general navigation and basic operation buttons:
Even if you are not into gaming, it can help to think about how you would play Angry Birds.  This may sound silly, but I'm not the only one who thought of this.  A video review of the I GoGo Magic Pro shown above mentions the same thing.  Angry Birds requires you to manipulate on-screen objects, and to be successful, you must do so with some accuracy.  If you can play Angry Birds successfully, you can probably use the entire device comfortably.

Playstation 2 Keyboard Most of these input devices include a wireless USB module that is going to occupy a USB port.  Some run on disposable batteries, while others are recharged from USB power.  Inertial devices allow you to navigate the UI, and play games simply by waving the device in the air.  They can also be used on your regular PC as a presentation device.  Some include other features such as laser pointers, IR universal remotes, etc.

A Full size wireless keyboard, or something such as the PS2 wireless keyboard/trackpad that I use with my MythTV system (shown right) will also work, but the convenience of a device the size of a TV remote makes for a better experience.

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Android Market (Google Play), and Android App Compatibility:
screenshotAgain, some advertising from Far-East vendors are a bit liberal with the "Supports Android Market" term.  Yes, some devices may support an Android Market, but does it support The Android Market -- in other words, the official Google Play Store?

Read the advertisement carefully, and if provided, look at the screen shots. Even if a given device turns out not to support the official Google Play store, it may be possible to "fix" with a little hacking as is described on this site. (Check the forums for other Android devices or other Android forums and sites.)

Beware that Google, and other Content Providers know what devices are being used, and some may not allow "un-official" or rooted devices to purchase or rent certain content.

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The Android-based Mini-PC's and Sticks described in this article are an inexpensive and fun way to turn any TV or Monitor into a "Smart TV".  As always be cautious of advertising found on some of the "lesser-tier" Chinese vendors' websites.  Think about what features and I/O ports you will need, and budget in a good Input device, and a few cables and adapters, and make your choice.

Please discuss this article on the Forums.

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Links: Forums for this device
Android Stick Forum on XDA-Developers
Deal Extreme sells literally hundreds of Android HD Media Players
Talkandroid Review of the I Go Go Magic Pro (With Video Review)

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