So, you are looking for a new TV streaming device to upgrade your entertainment system.
If you are looking at one of the options from one of the major names, such as the NVIDIA Shield, any Amazon Fire TV device, or even (shudder) an Apple TV device, you can’t really go wrong.
These are all made by big-name manufacturers with a reputation to protect, so they are going to deliver that full 4K, smart home voice command experience they advertise.
But if you are just looking for a standard Android TV box, you will find that there are hundreds of them on the market, all with very similar specs. The main things that seem to be different are the branding and the price point.
So, how do you know which of these are decent TV boxes that will work well with your home entertainment system, and which are cheap boxes that will probably disappoint?
Well, that is what this article is all about. We are going to go through the things you should be looking for when choosing a good Android TV box.
If you want to skip straight to the best Android TV boxes that we recommend, check out our list here.
A Word Of Warning
Almost every Android TV box you see for sale this year will be capable of delivering 4K picture quality. Some may even be capable of delivering 6K or 8K (if only the content was available to stream).
But, if you buy a cheap Android TV box for less than $100, you will not be able to watch Netflix or Amazon Prime Video in 4K. You will be limited to 1080pp HD.
Why? It’s not because the boxes aren’t capable of delivering the picture quality, but rather because they are not authorized to access this content in 4K.
To ensure the integrity of the 4K content and that it always looks good, Netflix and Prime Video limit access to their 4K content to “authorized devices.” While most of the devices from big-name companies such as Samsung and LG are authorized, almost none of the devices made by small Android TV box manufacturers are authorized to access these streaming services in 4K.
So, if accessing content from the big-name streaming services in full 4K is a priority for you, you will need to invest in a premium box. In fact, the only device for under $100 that we have seen that can access these services in 4K is the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K.
Important Android TV Box Specs
If you read the descriptions given by Android TV box sellers, you will believe that they are all capable of delivering 4K at lightning-fast speeds.
While they will all no doubt be capable of delivering 4K (and why would you buy a box that can’t), how well and how quickly they will do that depends on what is under the hood.
The four main things to consider when judging the specs of an Android TV box are the processor, memory, storage, and Wi-Fi/ports.
There are three major companies making most of the processors for Android TV boxes: AmLogic, RockChip, and Allwinner.
Two of those aren’t worth your time (or money).
Allwinner has developed a reputation of promising amazing specs and rarely delivering. Their older A80 chipset was the driving force behind the Tronsmart Draco, which I dubbed the biggest disappointment of the year. The official Team Kodi developers flat out refuse to help their members with Allwinner devices who have problems.
My advice is to steer clear.
RockChip based devices look great…on paper. Once you start digging in, the flaws start to rear their ugly head. RockChip gets decent video playback quality, but they need their own specialized version of Kodi to do it called RKMC (RockChip Media Center).
CNX-Software said that “Kodi not working so well is an understatement.” Koying, Kodi’s former Android code maintainer, has officially stopped support for RockChip CPUs. Wrxtasy on the official Kodi forums puts it even more bluntly: “No support from the Kodi project for this chipset at all.”
My impression of RockChip is that they’re dedicated engineers who want to move on to the next big project without worrying about supporting the current processor that people are still buying.
In my opinion, AmLogic is the most popular Android TV box processor manufacturer, and the only one worth buying. But it’s not just my opinion…Most of the major manufacturers have moved towards AmLogic processors. You’ll find versions of AmLogic’s processors powering higher-end boxes from Wetek, MINIX, and Vero.
My advice: Stick with an AmLogic chip in the S9 series that supports a quad-core.
In their review of the 8 GB OnePlus 5T, AndroidCentral went into a lot of detail about how a phone uses RAM and whether Android can really use more than 4 GB. Since most Android boxes use the same operating system as a smartphone, the principles are the same.
Memory is what makes the operating system go, so more is always better. The hiccup is that there’s a practical limit to the maximum amount of RAM you can use.
Right now, that limit is 4 GB.
Most smartphones only have 4 GB of RAM, and only the newest devices like the Samsung S21 are now coming with 8 GB. But if you don’t really need more than 4 GB of RAM for your smartphone, you probably don’t need it for your TV box.
My advice: Memory is your biggest bang for the buck. More is always better, but anything more than 4 GB is a waste.
The minimum storage you will probably see on an Android TV box these days is 8 GB, and the standard maximum is 32 GB. Though you will see a few of the more expensive boxes coming with 64 GB or 128 GB.
You wouldn’t buy a smartphone with less than 128 GB of storage, and it’s not uncommon to see options with 512 GB. So, why is storage so limited on Android TV boxes?
Most of us use our Android boxes for streaming, so we’re not downloading files to the internal storage. If we’re installing apps, they’re small enough to fit on an 8 GB device without too much trouble. When the manufacturers are trying to cut costs any way they can, why spend their development money for a larger storage drive if their customers aren’t going to use it.
If you want lots of storage for your own content, most devices come with a TF card slot that allows you to expand your storage to a TB, or more, depending on the device. Manufacturers are expecting you to use this option, or an external hard drive, to store your big media files.
My advice: Go with at least 16 GB to give yourself a little cushion. But make sure that the box has expandable storage to at least 1 TB or USB 3.0 for a fast connection to an external hard drive.
How you connect to everything…is everything.
If you don’t believe me, just think back to the last time your internet was out. How long did it take before you were huddled in the corner, crying like a baby?
Wi-Fi: Make sure you’ve got at least 802.11 ac. Anything less and you’re going to be stuck watching that spinning status circle instead of watching a video.
Ethernet: Gigabit Ethernet is still the preferred method to connect to the internet. It’s not a necessity, but it’s as close to one as you’re going to find in this article.
You’ll only need one – fast Wi-Fi or Gigabit Ethernet – depending on how you connect. For example, I don’t care about the Wi-Fi on my NVIDIA Shield because it’s hard-wired with Ethernet. My Fire TV Stick, on the other hand, relies on the Wi-Fi signal, so the Ethernet connection doesn’t matter.
HDMI 2.0: This is a requirement for 4K at 60 frames per second. So don’t even consider buying a device without this feature.
USB 3.0: While USB 2.0 is perfectly decent, USB 3.0 has a connection speed 10 times faster. So, if you plan on watching content that you have stored on a hard drive, you need USB 3.0.
Any of the Android TV boxes you look at that have the above specs will also have all the other necessaries you need like H.265 hardware decoding.
They will also no doubt run on Android 9.0 or 10.0, and we don’t recommend choosing anything that runs on an earlier version of the operating system.
But not to put too fine a point on it… If you are looking at an Android TV box that costs less than $100, there are a few things it certainly won’t have.
It won’t have:
- Access to Netflix/Prime Video in 4K
- Dolby Digital Sound technology
- Intuitive voice command remote
- The possibility to integrate with smart home systems (Alexa or Google)
These features have become standard on all premium TV boxes, so if they are something you assumed would come with your Android TV box, be aware that these are not features that come as standard with more affordable options.
Getting Started With Your Android TV Box
Android TV boxes are designed to be easy to use. Once you have made your selection, they are pretty much “plug and play.” Plug them into your TV, connect to your Wi-Fi, and then start downloading apps just like you would on your Android smartphone (from the Google Play Store).
But while that all sounds very simple, getting your Android TV box setup just the way you want, perhaps with a specific remote or Kodi, can be more complicated than it sounds.
If you want step-by-step guidance, check out our guide to setting up an Android TV box here.
Do you have any other advice for shoppers looking to purchase an Android TV box? Share them in the comments section below.
Really a well written article Tim. I had never read a description of WIDEVIDE before. Heck I didn’t even know it existed, ha ha. I also think your 2018 buyers guide is right on target and should be a primer for every new Android box purchaser.
I sent an inquiry via email but, have not heard back. Did you receive it. it was about seeking your recommendation on an Android mini PC.
Hi Jeff. I have a couple of guides: Check out my Best Android TV box article, my Best Fully Loaded Kodi Box article for some suggestions.
Is the Amlogic S905X cortex a53 and the ARM cortex a53 the same?
Thank you for your help. I bought a t9 tv box with a kodi 18.0 beta 2 and it satisfies me. The only thing is that i can not go into the kodi standard, advanced and expert settings because i can not find the master lock code anywhere in all the different menus. Other than that i’m quite happy. Thank you for your time.