*Updated for 2020!
People ask me all the time…What is an Android TV box and what can they do with it? On this page, you will find the answers.What can you do with it? How is it different from similar products on the market? And why might you choose an Android TV box over some of its competitors?
What Is An Android TV Box?
An Android TV box is simply a TV box running the Android operating system. This is the same operating system as the one running on your smartphone, tablet, and millions of other devices throughout the world.
Usually, the operating system is slightly older than the OS running on your phone; it might be Oreo (Android 8) or Pie (Android 9). But pretty much all of the apps you can run on your Android smartphone, you can run on your Android TV box.
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OK, But What Is A TV Box?
You’ve probably heard a lot of different terminology being thrown around sites, forums, and social media groups. These may include:
- Streaming media device
- TV box
- IPTV box
- Set top boxes
- Media streamer
- Kodi box
- And my personal favorite, the Android TV box.
They’re all basically the same type of device – something that gets content from your home network or the Internet to your television.
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If You’re New To Streaming Devices And TV Boxes, Then This Is The Place To Start.
Think about the differences between these devices as the differences between MP3 players.
Remember MP3 players?
A long time ago, it seems, I worked in a “big-box” electronics store. No, not the blue one. I worked at the red one that closed its doors back in 2009. Back then, we had thousands of people coming in the store looking for iPods.
But, like Apple, they didn’t make enough to go around, so we had to sell what we had. And what we had was a lot of generic MP3 players.
People would come in asking for an iPod and the first question we would ask was, “Do you want an Apple iPod, or are you looking for an MP3 player?”
That usually resulted in a confused look. Most people thought they were the same thing.
We had to take the time to educate people on all the other options they had. A lot of times, an iPod really was what they wanted, and that was cool. But, a lot of other people just wanted the best device and, in their case, the best device didn’t come with an Apple sticker in the box.
All these boxes and streaming devices are pretty much the same thing. A TV Box, a media streamer, and a set-top box are all pretty much the same thing, just with different names.
Why So Many Different Names?
When you look at this picture, what do you call it? Hint…it probably depends on where you’re from.
Where I am in North America, these devices are normally called streaming devices or streaming media players. Sometimes, they’re mistakenly called Roku boxes, even though they may be made by Amazon, Apple, or one of the many other manufacturers I cover on this site. Let me give you an example of something similar.
Depending on what part of the country you’re in, you call that sugary, carbonated beverage Pop, Soda, or even Coke (even when it’s not Coke). So, unless it’s actually a Roku you’re talking about, please don’t call it a Roku box. It can create confusion for you and the person whom you’re talking to.
In Europe, they’re generally called Kodi boxes due to the popularity of installing Kodi and some of the streaming add-ons that are available. They can also be called IPTV boxes because it’s much easier to find an Internet Protocol TV (IPTV) service on that side of the Atlantic than here in the U.S. To put it simply, IPTV is a way to get live TV over the Internet.
If you’re in Asia, then chances are you’ve heard them called TV boxes. Personally, I prefer calling them TV boxes. It is a more generic term, sure, but the device can do so many things that it just makes more sense.
One last thing. You can also see the term mini-PC. TV boxes can certainly be considered a mini-PC, but I think that lumps them into a category they don’t quite belong in. A mini-PC can also include any small-format computer like an Intel NUC (Next Unit of Computing). They can usually do everything your desktop PC or laptop can do. Some TV boxes can replace your desktop, but they’re the exception, rather than the rule.
What Makes It An Android TV Box?
And how is it different from Apple TV or a Roku Box?
So, it should now be pretty clear what the difference is between an Android TV Box, Apple TV, Roku Box, and other brands. They are hardware produced by different companies that run different operating systems but to deliver broadly the same services.
It is just pretty much just like the difference between the latest Samsung phone running an Android OS, iPhone running an iOS, and a Windows Phone using a WP-OS. They all achieve pretty much the same thing but use slightly different hardware and software approaches.
The purpose of the TV box is to make it as easy to access your favorite content on your television as it is on your cell phone. You can access the likes of Netflix through its native app for Android, making it a more seamless and enjoyable experience.
Netflix is one of the world’s best streaming services, so having their interface work seamlessly on your big stream is a priority.
The different TV Box operating systems have different launchers, which have a different look and feel when it comes to using your favorite apps and navigating between them.
Android TV Boxes come with the MINIX launcher as standard. But since Android is an incredibly customizable operating system, if you don’t like the launcher that came with your device, in most cases, you can simply add a new one and start using that launcher instead.
There’s one important thing to remember here, though:
THERE IS A BIG DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ANDROID TV AND AN ANDROID TV BOX.
Follow along, because here’s where it could get a little confusing.
Android TV vs TV Box
At the I/O conference in 2014, Google launched Android TV. It’s a system that organizes your content into one platform for easy organization and searching – including Google’s own voice search functionality. You can find out all about the official Android TV here.
If that sounds familiar, it should.
Android TV is Google’s attempt to run your media hub. We’ve seen similar efforts over the years from Microsoft (Xbox), Sony (Playstation and connected Blu-ray players), Roku, Amazon, Apple, and the list goes on and on.
Android TV is the second attempt from Google in this space – the third if you count the Chromecast. Google TV was their first attempt at ruling your living room, but it never really caught on.
The difference between Android TV and an Android TV box, lies in the operating system itself. Android TV is a special version of the core Android OS. Android TV can’t run every app, at least not without rooting your device. But, the apps that it can run are specifically designed to be run on your television rather than a touchscreen.
Why is that important? Well, let’s use Netflix as an example. If you’ve used Netflix on your smartphone or tablet, then you’ll remember swiping up and down to scroll through the list of genres. Once you find what kind of movie you’re looking for, you can swipe left or right to see what’s in that genre.
How exactly do you swipe on your TV set?
So, the Netflix Android TV app was built from the ground up to use the remote control rather than a touchscreen. It’s the same for every other Android TV app.
What’s the catch? You can only get Android TV on a higher-end, newer Smart TV, say 2015 and later. It’s also available on a handful of high-end TV boxes like the NVIDIA Shield.
Not everyone can afford a new high-end TV or need something as powerful as the Shield. Android TV boxes offer similar performance, minus a few features, for a fraction of the cost.
Who Should Buy An Android TV Box Instead Of A Roku, Apple TV, Or Fire TV?
Well, that depends on you.
Streaming devices like the Fire TV, Roku, and Apple TV are great. I have nothing against them…well, maybe against the Apple TV, but that’s understandable, right?
Anyway, they’re extremely easy to use. I gave my eighty-year-old mother a Roku 3 and she was able to learn how to use it in a few minutes. Does it do everything that my NVIDIA Shield does? Absolutely not. Can it run every app like my MINIX Android TV box can? Nope.
ANDROID TV BOXES GIVE YOU FLEXIBILITY
With a streaming device like Roku, you have to live in their world, their ecosystem, and run their apps. You don’t have much of a choice if the app you want isn’t available.
Thankfully, Plex is available on most systems. But, if you want to run Kodi on your Roku, tough luck. Same goes for your Apple TV. If you want to install it on your Fire TV, you’re going to have to jump through some hoops and sideload the app manually.
If I want to install Kodi on an Android TV box, all I have to do is go to the Google Play Store and click install.
That goes for hundreds of other apps as well.
Android TV boxes may have their drawbacks. They can be time-consuming to set up correctly, and they may need to be tweaked on a regular basis as new firmware comes out.
But if you’re the type of person who loves having the option to install whatever you want and tweak your system to really make it yours, then you’re just the person who should get an Android TV box. If you’ve just bought your first box, then you’re going to want to see our Android TV box setup guide to get you up and running fast.
FAQs About Android TV Boxes
What Channels Are On The Android Box?
You shouldn’t really think about your TV Box as coming with “channels.” It is not the same thing as a cable subscription. It is a device that lets you cast the other services you want to access – such as Netflix and Prime TV – on your television screen. It doesn’t really come with any channels included; you have to procure these yourself.
Most of your favorite TV channels – such as ABC, CBS, CW, Fox, NBC, and PBS – all have streaming services, so you can access their programming without the need for a TV antenna or a cable subscription. Simply go to the website for your favorite channel and they will explain how to access it. Most of them have handy apps in the Google Play Store.
Can You Watch Normal TV On Android Box?
Yes, because there is an app for that – or more accurately, several apps. Again, your Android box is just a tool for streaming content. It is up to you to find the content you want to stream.
But all the big TV channels have apps available that let you stream their channels life and also catch up on what you have missed. There are also services, such as Direct TV, that bundle a few popular channels together for streaming on your box. These feel a lot like cable TV but are delivered via your TV box rather than a cable.
How Do I Use An Android TV Box?
TV boxes are designed to be easy and intuitive to use, much like your smartphone. In general, all you really need to do is plug your TV box into your internet router, and then into your television, and the interface will appear on your screen.
The box, which usually comes with a dedicated remote, will then talk you through the simple set up process to get you to download your favorite apps. Many of the most popular apps, such as Netflix and YouTube, will already be installed.
Downloading and setting up apps on your TV box is pretty much the same as on your phone. If you want to do something different, like change your launcher interface, some more complex steps are required.
But one of the great things about Android is that there are so many enthusiasts out there figuring out how to get the most from the system. So, you should be able to find help and instructions with just a little Googling.
Do I Need An Android Box If I Have A Smart TV?
Smart TVs are televisions that come with a lot of the functionality of TV boxes built in. You can even buy a Smart TV that uses the Android TV operating system. So, for most people, if you have a Smart TV, you don’t need an Android TV Box. The Android Box is unlikely to add much functionality than you already have.
Is There A Monthly Fee For An Android Box?
An Android TV Box is a one-off purchase of the hardware and software, much like when you buy a computer or a gaming system. You don’t have to pay any ongoing fees to Android TV.
But that does not mean that an Android TV Box is free to use. Like your cell phone, your TV Box is pretty useless without a good internet connection.
Also, your Android TV box is hardware that lets you access content on your TV. While you don’t need to pay monthly subscription fees for the box, you may well need to pay them for the content. If you want to watch Netflix, Hulu, Prime, or other services on your TV Box, you are going to need to pay those subscription fees.
What Should I Look For In An Android Box?
What you should look for in an Android TV box depends on your priorities. Are you interested in the best quality picture? Do you want rapid response so there is no waiting (loading screen of death!)? Do you just want something cheap to stream Netflix? If you know what you want to do with your device, you can prioritize what you need.
As a general rule, look for a box with a recent version of the Android operating system (certainly nothing older than 7), so that it will not become dated too quickly. Other priorities should be a quality processor, as this often dictates speed, and enough space to store and manage your favorite applications. On top of this, if you have a 4K TV and want to take advantage of its picture quality, choose a box that can deliver this.
Do You Need Internet For An Android Box?
Yes. An Android TV box lets you stream programming on your television, much like you do on your phone. And just like your cell phone, it needs an internet connection, whether you are streaming live or downloading to watch later. If you want to get the most out of your TV Box, you will need a strong internet connection.
An Android TV Box is one of many devices available to convert your television into a smart TV, so you can stream all of your favorite content directly to your big screen.
It works with the Android operating system, very similar to that of Android smartphones. But there are also alternatives available, such as Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV.
The benefit of Android TV over many of its competitors is that it is flexible. With Apple, for example, you are generally tied to using Apple’s apps, Apple’s ways. Android’s operating system is open source. So, while your Android TV box will come with a great launcher and lots of native apps, if you prefer to do your own thing, you can go ahead and customize your box as much as you want.