Built-in Google Home functionality makes controlling your smart home devices a snap; 4K HDR support delivers bleeding-edge quality video.
Built-in Chromecast connectivity is inconsistent; PC gaming requires a separate gaming computer or a monthly NVIDIA game-streaming subscription.
The voice-controlled remote is simple and elegant; the price is half that of the competition.
Underpowered hardware can sometimes struggle with 4K content, and Xiaomi’s product updates are inconsistent.
If you’re in the market for a media streaming box, it can be hard to tell which one of the dozens of available options is right for you. Apple has its Apple TV boxes for using content in its ecosystem, and, of course, you find Roku everywhere, but what about Google? Interestingly, Google gets web content on TV screens with two different approaches: Google Chromecast and Android TV.
Android TV is a unique operating system developed by Google that’s different from (but based on) the same code as its Android mobile OS that’s commonly found on smartphones. Where regular Android is designed for touchscreens, Android TV is designed for use from the couch with a remote. Android TV is a perfect mix of Android OS flexibility and a “lean back” interface. It’s dead simple and it streamlines streaming.
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Read our shopping guide to get the low-down on Android TV boxes, then check out the grid above to see our most recommended options.
Finding good information about Android TV boxes can be especially challenging because of a related – but completely different – product: streaming boxes that run the traditional Android mobile operating system. These so-called “Android TV boxes” are TV boxes that run Android, but they’re definitely not boxes that run the Android TV OS. Confused yet?
Here are the key differences.
Android TV boxes run the Android TV operating system, which has exclusive versions of key streaming apps like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Video. Streaming boxes running Android TV tend to be on the pricier side and are made by manufacturers you’ve heard of. More importantly, Android TV boxes include powerful hardware and elegant remotes and are designed to provide a solid user experience from top to bottom. If you’re ever wondering if a streaming box is running Android TV, the packaging will say “Powered by Google” in addition to the Android branding.
Streaming boxes running Android mobile OS are typically made by Chinese manufacturers and commonly marketed as “Kodi boxes” because they include the popular Kodi media center app. Streaming boxes running Android mobile OS can be frustrating to use with a remote, since so many of the apps are designed for touch-specific controls (like sliding, pinching, and zooming). If a streaming box says it runs Android but doesn’t explicitly have Google branding, it’s very likely a streaming box running Android mobile OS.
Unfortunately, both products market themselves under the moniker of “Android TV,” so you’ll need to pay especially close attention when comparing models. If you’re ever in doubt, remember that streaming boxes running Android mobile OS will almost always include information about the processor in the product title, and proper Android TV boxes are more typically branded.
Some, but not all, Android TV boxes bring even more functionality to the party by including exclusive gaming and DVR apps, such as the following.
Many Android TV boxes include Google’s own Live Channels app, which enables you to use an optional over-the-air HDTV antenna and tuner to receive and record local broadcasts. With Live Channels, you can watch and manage your DVR all within the same user interface as your web-streaming apps.
Android TV distinguishes itself from the competition by offering these key features.
While it does require a bit of additional hardware, Android TV is the only streaming box platform that has DVR functionality baked in by default. Google has made it simple to add a tuner and an antenna, and that means you can start watching and recording your locally broadcast content within minutes.
Many Android TV boxes include Google’s voice-activated digital assistant, so if you’re a fan of Google’s voice-activated capabilities, an Android TV box with this feature is a must.
Although support for 4K resolution and high dynamic range (HDR) is typical across high-end streaming boxes, it came to Android TV first, and updates have only improved the picture quality over time. Make no mistake: Android TV is one of the best streaming platforms for those who demand the best picture quality available.
Android TV boxes range in price from $80 to more than $250, depending on features.
Inexpensive: You’ll find budget Android TV boxes that do the basics, but not much more, for $80 to $100. Android TV boxes in this price range are great for traveling or any situation where you want to stream TV in a pinch. However, the underpowered hardware may frustrate you. If you’re looking for a secondary box, you don’t have to spend a ton, but if you want an Android TV box that will work as your primary TV source, you should plan on spending more.
Mid-Range: You’ll find entry-level options from key players in the market for between $100 and $250. Android TV boxes in this range will be light on storage, which may or may not be important to you. If you need to keep costs down but still want reliable hardware, stay in this price range and plan on adding more external storage later.
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Before buying an Android TV box, consider these tips.
Run the system updates first. Google publishes regular updates to the Android TV operating system, and these often include critical security updates. Once you set up your Android TV box, get the most recent updates before doing anything else.
If you’re a gamer, buy a spare Bluetooth controller. Most Android TV boxes connect to remotes and game controllers via Bluetooth. If you plan to do any multiplayer gaming, or if you just want a spare, pick up an extra Bluetooth game controller.
If you’re new to using the Google Play Store for buying and renting your TV and movies, sign up for Movies Anywhere. If you’ve already got a lot invested in a non-Google service for movies and TV, fear not: Movies Anywhere is a service that makes your purchases from other systems available for streaming. For example, if you’ve bought a lot of movies from iTunes, you can still stream many of those movies to an Android TV box with Movies Anywhere.
Q. What are the differences between Google’s Chromecast and Google’s Android TV boxes?
A. Google Chromecast devices are intended to receive content from other devices – they rely on users “casting” audio or video from their phones or tablets and then make that content available on a TV screen. In contrast, Android TV boxes are standalone devices that don’t require any additional hardware and can be used with a remote control. Both Chromecast and Android TV have unique interfaces and hardware designs.
Q. Can I watch cable TV on an Android TV box?
A. It depends. Some cable TV providers offer Android TV apps that enable direct access to their cable TV lineup. More commonly, cable TV providers give you a login that can be used with channel-specific apps. (For example, you could log in to the HGTV app or the Lifetime TV app individually.) Many Android TV box owners opt for subscriptions that provide cable TV channels over the internet, such as YouTube TV, Sling TV, DirecTV, or PlayStation View.
Q. Can I connect an external hard drive to an Android TV box?
A. Yes. All Android TV boxes have USB ports for adding more storage. If you’re planning on using external storage for DVR recordings or personal media, just about any USB hard drive will do. If you’re hoping to use external storage for gaming (which has unique requirements), get an external hard drive with its own power source for best performance.
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