[Update December 26, 2017: I’ve posted a new version of this post entitled “What’s the Best Android TV Box (2017/2018 Edition)?“. I’ll leave the post below to have an historical perspective]
I often get asked which TV box to buy, or what the best Android TV box is, and the answer is the TV box that fits your needs for the lowest price point possible. Considering there are around 2 millions apps for Android, they are multitudes of use cases, and you can’t provide a single answer for everybody. So I’ll provide a list of things to look for beside the processor, and three TV boxes that I think are worth considering, before providing alternatives for people who want cheaper devices.
There are still a few things you may want to specifically look for before purchasing an Android TV box:
- History of regular firmware updates – If a company provides regular firmware updates, your device is likely to get better and better overtime. The cheapest TV boxes normally follow the ship-and-forget model, so you can’t expect any improvements, unless some community members offer custom firmware. OTA (Over-the-air) updates
- Support forums – That’s obviously a plus, as the company and other members should be able to help you, especially if it is a common problem.
- 4K Support – If you want to purchase a device that will support 4K videos, you should look for devices with HDMI 2.0 for 3840×2160 or 4096×2160 output up to 60 Hz. Also make sure 10-bit HEVC/H.265 codecs are supported up to 4K @ 60 fps, and optionally VP9 codec.
- 5.1 or 7.1 HD audio pass-through support – In case you own an amplifier or A/V receiver capable of handling Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Atmos, DTS HD Master, DTS HD High Resolution, or DTS:X, you really need to check the reviews on this site or others, as many devices fall short despite claiming support. So far, I’ve never seen Dolby Atmos and DTS:X supported, but normally they should at least fall back to respectively Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master.
- Automatic frame rate switching – This is the ability of the device to match the monitor refresh rate to the video frame rate to avoid a phenomenon called micro stutter, which makes the videos not as smooth as it could be at regular intervals, and especially noticeable when the video is panning. if this is properly implemented, e.g. 24 fps videos played using 24 Hz on the monitor, then micro-stutter disappears.
- DRM support for HD and UHD video streaming – If you’re paying for video streaming services like Netflix, you’ll have to make sure they are specifically supported, with Widewine Level 1 DRM necessary, but not sufficient condition for playing the videos at HD or UHD (4K) resolution. Most devices can only stream videos in SD resolution due to the lack of proper DRM and a hard-to-get “Netflix license”.
- Thermal design and storage performance – Many Android TV boxes have similar specifications, but IMHO, two key design choices are especially impacting the performance between apparently similar devices. Some TV boxes will overheat over time, leading to poor performance after a few minutes, while others with proper cooling will perform the same over hours. Fast storage will ensure the device boots quickly, apps load fast, and the device does not get slowed down while apps are installing or updating in the background.
- History of regular firmware updates – MINIX is known to update the devices for about a year or so.
- Support forums – MINIX forums are quite active, and you should be able to get help from there.
- 4K Support – HDMI 2.0 up to 4K @ 60 Hz is supported, with very good support for 4K 10-bit H.265 and H.264 videos. VP9 is not supported.
- 5.1 or 7.1 HD audio pass-through support – Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD audio pass-through is working with the most recent firmware & Kodi/SPMC version.
- Automatic frame rate switching – OK
- DRM support for HD and UHD video streaming – Netflix can only play with SD resolution, and only Widewine Level 3 is implemented.
- Thermal design and storage performance – The device has a large heatsink with excellent cooling leading to constant performance, and the internal storage is one of the fastest I’ve ever seen in an Android TV box
So as long as you don’t really care about Netflix HD, or HD playback in other premium apps, I’d definitely recommend looking into this product. You can read MINIX NEO U1 review for details, and bear in mind that some bugs have been fixed since my review including HD audio pass-through.
- History of regular firmware updates – WeTek is providing updates to their devices over an extended period, and their are also one of the rare companies to provide OpenELEC and Linux images for their devices.
- Support forums – You can get support on WeTek forums, which are also fairly active.
- 4K Support – HDMI 1.4 up to 4K @ 30 Hz is supported, with decent support for 4K H.265 and H.264 videos, as long as you don’t try to play 4K @ 60 fps videos. VP9 is not supported.
- 5.1 or 7.1 HD audio pass-through support – Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD audio pass-through is working with the most recent firmware with Kodi or SMPC 16.x.
- Automatic frame rate switching – OK
- DRM support for HD and UHD video streaming – Netflix HD is supported as they have all the proper licenses.
- Thermal design and storage performance – The heatsink is not especially large, but I have not noticed any performance degradation over time during my testing. However, the internal storage is not quite as fast as it could be, so you may experience some slowdowns when installing apps in the background, or when the boxes does other I/O intensive activities.
WeTek Core is more suited to people wanting to watch Netflix in HD, or prefer a pure Linux experience (OpenELEC). You can find more details in WeTek Core review, and just like with NEO U1, several bugs have been fixed since I posted the review close to 6 months ago.
Price: $110.32 via WeTek website.
- History of regular firmware updates – Nvidia has provided several firmware updates since the device was released, and version 3.1 even upgrade the Android version to 6.0 marshmallow
- Support forums – An active SHIELD Android TV board is running on Nvidia Geforce forum.
- 4K Support – HDMI 2.0 up to 4K @ 60 Hz is supported with support for 4K H.265, VP9 and H.264 video playback.
- 5.1 or 7.1 HD audio pass-through support – Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD audio pass-through has been supported since OTA 2.0 firmware (The latest firmware is now version 3.1)
- Automatic frame rate switching – OK for Kodi and Plex at least.
- DRM support for HD and UHD video streaming – Netflix HD & 4K are officially supported
- Thermal design and storage performance – I could not find reports of overheating or throttling for SHIELD Android TV, and while I could not find the storage benchmarks, I’ve seen reviews saying the device performs well in all conditions.
Nvidia TV box will also be a better than any other TV boxes available so far if you are interested in 3D games. The main downside is the higher price, especially if you don’t happen to live in a region or country where it’s been officially released. It’s also running Android TV by default, which limits the number of apps in the play store. It’s however possibly to install a full (unofficial) version of Android.
Price: $199.99 on Amazon US, going up to around $245 with the gamepad when shipped to the US. If you live in some other countries the total price may go up to $300 to $400 once shipping, US forwarding, and taxes are taken into account.
While the three boxes above have performance above the rest, not everybody wants to spend $100 or more on a TV box, so I’ll propose some alternatives.
- MXQ S85 – This box is based on Amlogic S805 processor, and while the manufacturer does not provide direct support, Freaktab provides some alternative firmware, it’s one of the most popular device around (based on the traffic I get), and it was my best value for money TV box at the end of 2014. So if tyou don’t mind about Netflix HD, 4K videos, and want something decent for 1080p H.264 and H.265 videos, it could be a good choice. MXQ S85 now sells for about $38 shipped.
- Zidoo X1 II – This device supports 4K video playback of 10-bit H.265, and 10-bit H.264 up to 4K output @ 60 Hz. You’ll also get regurlar OTA firmware updates from Zidoo. However, don’t expect Netflix HD (SD should be OK), and some Android apps may feel slow due to the low-end GPU, so it’s better used exclusively as a media player, rather than an Android mini PC. Zidoo XI II is sold for $49 on GeekBuying, Banggood, or Aliexpress.
- Raspberry Pi 2/3 Board – I’m not myself a big fan of using development boards as media players, since Android TV boxes price are now so low that you’ll end up paying more with a board once you had the extra accessories, potential codec fees, and the enclosure. In the case of Raspberry Pi 2 board, the VPU is also limited to 1080p30 without H.265 support, except with some hacks that may not work for all videos. Raspberry Pi 3 board does support H.264 1080p60 natively. However, some people disagree, with most of their content being 1080p24 / H.264, so Raspberry Pi board fit their requirements, even with 3D MVC support, and thanks to software developed over the years, they believe think it may be one of the best media solution available. This is a Linux based solution, as Android does not run properly on the boards.A complete media player kit based on Raspberry Pi 2 or 3 would cost $70 to $80.
I hope this post will help some people making an educated choice when purchasing a TV box.