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
they are miniature computers that run the Android Operating System. In some
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.
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
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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Essentially, 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:
- "Sticks" - very
small devices intended to fit directly into an HDMI port, or at least
sit behind the TV connected with a short cable.
- "Slim Set-Top" - These
are thin devices intended to sit on or near the TV.
- "Mini-PC's" Larger boxes, usually more square, with more
and PC like features such as fans and stamped steel construction.
So 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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The 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
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
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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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.
: 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
pump 1080p video out an HDMI port. If application load times, or
3D gaming is important to you, of course more processor power is
: 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
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
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
: 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.
: 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
: Somewhat surprisingly to me, few of these devices
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.
: 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
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.
: 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,
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
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.
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.
: HDMI also carries digital audio, so in
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
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
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
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
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).
: 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.
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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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:
- Android is fundamentally designed for touchscreen input, but
none of these devices have a touch screen, and they will not make your
TV screen a touchscreen.
- Most Android implementations support a keyboard and mouse (or
device that emulates a
mouse) as secondary input devices, but support for such devices in any
given app may be questionable or non-existent.
- You will be sitting in front of your TV, likely without a desk or
suitable surface for using a mouse. You may want to stand to play
Some 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:
- QWERTY Input -- Selecting text for Searches, URL's, etc. by
navigating around an on-screen keyboard, or entering text from phone
keypad-like buttons is tedious and detracts significantly from using
such a device.
- Direct manipulation of on-screen objects -- In both games and
general use, you must have something better than a 4-way button.
For this, there are 2 basic choices: A mini touchpad
or inertial (possibly called gyroscopic or accelerometer).
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.
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
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
Android Market (Google Play),
and Android App Compatibility:
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
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 Linuxslate.com Forums.
Forums for this device
Android Stick Forum on XDA-Developers
Deal Extreme sells literally hundreds of
Android HD Media Players
Review of the I Go Go Magic Pro (With Video Review)
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