If you’ve got a smart TV, you might be have heard people talking about “Android TV Boxes”, “Kodi Boxes” or even “XMBC boxes” and wondered what they are or why on earth anyone would need one when so much is built into modern TVs.
Well, in its purest form an Android TV box is one that runs Google’s Android operating system and gives you access to the vast array of apps available on that platform, including the Google Play Store. However, many just use Android as a base to build their own user experience and might not provide access to the Google store. However, they’ve still managed to become known by many as Android TV boxes.
So for this article we’re going to take the widest definition – a device you can stick into your TV’s HDMI port and use to stream content from either your phone or from apps that you can download….and yes, those apps do include Kodi….which we will explain. If you already know what it is, and are basically here to find out how you can get streaming everything your heart desires, then skip the next section and go straight to the product reviews.
So What Is Kodi?
Kodi (previously called XBMC, i.e Xbox Media Centre) is a free, open-source piece of software that can be installed on Android devices and is designed to be a centre for all your media. Seems pretty innocent – and it is.
However, the makers of Kodi make no restrictions on the type of content you can watch using the device. So some are using it to install certain “add-ons”, that let you stream basically any content. The range of shows you can get is truly staggering, but this is because so much of it is infringing copyright.
So there’s nothing illegal about Kodi itself, but you can use it to watch some programmes that you really should be paying for.
With that disclaimer out of the way, here’s our rundown of the best Android TV boxes and devices.
Amazon Fire Stick – Best All Rounder
OK, so it’s not an Android TV in the truest sense, as you are not able to access the Google Play store directly (though you can sideload standard Android apps using this tutorial). However, the Amazon Fire Stick does have an impressive number of apps of its own and covers off all the big names like Netflix and BBC iPlayer.
The remote is a little small for our liking, but the controls are kept simple and intuitive (and a tiny bit reminiscent of the early iPods). It’s relatively inexpensive and is pretty speedy. As you would expect from Amazon, the app itself is slick without being showy and well, the whole thing just works from the moment you pop it into your HDMI slot.
Its compatibility with Kodi is also a huge plus. Following one of the many guides online it took us about half an hour to bash through and get streaming.
It’s also coming soon with Alexa voice, which means you don’t even have to go to the effort of pressing buttons when in the middle of your latest binge session. This version is cheap at 40 dollars, but you will have to hand over double if you want the new 4K version.
You can also get the Amazon Fire TV, which had the added advantage of being able to handle 4K. However, the new version of the stick is able to match this, so we would advise going for the smaller device.
Nvidia Shield Pro – A Behemoth
Its design makes it obvious that Nvidia want to position this as the choice for gamers and they’ve packed it with the full power of a console, driven by the impressive Tegra X1 processor. We bought Tombraider from the Google Play Store to test out this device and found it to be a seamless experience, without a hint of judder. Access to the store also means you can install Kodi and its add-ons simply.
The 2017 version has been reduced in size and comes with a remote, showing that while gaming is its sweet spot, the Shield also has plenty for the avid viewer. Nothing on this list handles 4k and HDR pictures better.
It also has Google Voice which, while we marginally prefer Alexa, is a nice feature to have.
The trouble is the price. It’s not cheap, but you can see where the extra money is going. If you absolutely need the top notch experience then this is your pick, but if you already have a gaming machine, go for a simpler option.
Gem Box – The Budget Gaming Option
We thought we’d mention this for those who like the look of the Nvidia but have a slightly light wallet – it doesn’t have 4k and only has a processor that runs at about half the power, but its also half the price, runs Kodi equally easily and overall is a serviceable option for gamers from a relatively unknown brand.
ABOX A1 – A Strong Option At A Low Price
For those with value front of mind, this is an excellent Android TV box and is currently under £30. There aren’t many frills, for example it doesn’t have Bluetooth and gaming is a bit of a stretch for a box of this spec. However, it is a very competent piece of kit, runs Android 6.0 and comes with Kodi pre-installed, making it the best no hassle budget offering on the list.
The only slight let down is the remote, which we found was slightly unresponsive when we were further away from the TV, so maybe skip this one if you have a large living room.
Leelbox Q1 Master – Speedy Mid-Range Box
This is another nice little media centre that, while it isn’t exactly a household name, performed well in our tests. As with the ABOX it’s clearly been designed for Kodi and has this preinstalled, but what really impressed us was its speed when dealing with a number of apps.
It’s not going to win any design awards and it did crash once while running Kodi (over about 10 hours of testing). At its current discounted rate, we reckon it’s worth a punt.