Running Android on your living room TV isn't just a novelty enjoyed by hardware hackers these days, it's becoming big business. Over the past year, loads of budding new development companies have popped up, offering a variety of USB sized dongles and wireless TV boxes to bring the Android experience to your big screen TV.
With so many different devices available, we're going to take a look at just some of the best devices in the TV box, budget, and top of the line dongle categories.
I don't think I could start writing an article about mini PCs without mentioning one of the grandfathers, the Raspberry Pi. The hugely popular credit-card sized computer is no doubt the inspiration for the wave of mini computers we've been seeing lately.
The Raspberry Pi has always been a hobbyist's project; it comes in a couple of different hardware configurations, and is capable of running various Linux based operating systems, including Android 4.0. The $35 dollar model comes with a 700 MHz ARM CPU, 512 MB RAM memory and VideoCore IV GPU, which supports up to 1080p displays. Whilst that's technically everything you need hardware wise, you'll be left needing to pick up a case separately. Fortunately, companies like Piblow stock a few interesting cases if you don't want to leave the PCB lying around on your TV stand.
However there is one major problem with this device, from the point of view of the average consumer, as many people simply don't have the time or patience to tinker around with their hardware in order to setup their ideal configuration. Installing Android on your Raspberry Pi requires writing images to your SD card, and whilst this isn't any more difficult than installing a custom ROM, many people are put off by the thought of tinkering under the case of their device. Many Linux distributions also require users to work with command lines to get things working, rather than relying on more user friendly interfaces, which just isn't everybody's cup of tea.
The Raspberry Pi is certainly a viable option to get Android up on your big screen, and if you're a programming hobbyist there's a lot of fun to be had here, but there are some more user friendly ways to do it these days. So let's take a look at a few of the increasingly popular Android Mini PCs.
The Miniand MK802 is certainly one of the cheaper Android to TV dongles — it was recently on sale on Amazon for just $35. The device is inexpensive for a reason, as it features the very cheap Allwinner A10 system chip, which only costs $7 to buy from the manufacturer. The chip contains a single core Cortex-A8 CPU clocked at 1 GHz, and a 500 MHz AMD Z430 GPU. The MK802 comes in 512 MB and 1 GB DDR RAM memory variants, and contains 4 GB of onboard storage as well.
The little device also has a built in Wireless 802.11b/g receiver, so connecting up to your home network is an effortless process. It supports additional MicroSD storage for up to 32GB of video, music and apps. It also features a USB port so that you can add essential peripherals like a keyboard and mouse.
Running Android 4.0, the MK802 will give you access to all the ICS features, as well flash player video content, so it's perfect for steaming video in your living room. It supports up to 720p videos, and can be connected to your display through an HDMI cable.
There's very little to complain feature wise, the only drawback is the real lack of computing power, so you might see low frame rates if you try to play 3D games or run RAM intensive applications. The lack of dual or quad core CPU power will also result in sub-par performance in multi-threaded applications, or when running multiple apps simultaneously.
But for such a low price point, you can't really go wrong if you want to bring some basic computing power into your living room. If you decide on the MK802, you'll get everything you need to get started thrown in with your purchase, including an HDMI cable, charging kit, mini USB cable and mini USB adapter.
I know the naming is a little confusing, but the GK802 is Miniand's latest dongle sized Android Mini PC. The GK802 is the MK802′s steroid infused big brother, one upping the older device in pretty much every way, but comes with a larger price tag as a result.
For a start, you'll leap straight up to a Cortex-A9 quad-core processor, which clocks in a slightly higher 1.2 GHz. This provides much more power for gaming, viewing HD quality videos, and better multitasking performance. The device also packs in a tiny but mighty Vivante GC2000 quad-core GPU and 1 GB of RAM, which will definitely beef up your gaming performance.
The new dongle also throws in a few more features, adding support for Bluetooth connectivity, an enhanced wireless 802.11b/g/n receiver, and support for full 1080p videos. The inclusion of Bluetooth is an excellent decision, as it will let you use a wireless keyboard without using up your single USB slot, and adds the possibility to play games on your TV using a Bluetooth supported controller.
Interestingly the 8 GB of internal storage is contained on a microSD card, so the device technically has two card slots. The inclusion of a primary microSD card opens up the possibility for a much larger storage capacity, and for those who like tinkering around with their device, easier swapping out of operating systems and the ability to purchase slightly faster memory cards for even better performance.
Just like its little brother, the GK802 comes with Android 4.0 installed by default, and has support for an additional 32 GB storage via a microSD expansion slot. Again, it connects to your display via an HDMI cable and has support for USB peripherals.
To sum up, the Miniand GK802 is one of the most powerful mini Android PCs around, and has everything you'll need to bring high quality gaming and video content into your living room. You can pickup the dongle for just $99 from the Miniand website.
The iMito MX2 is the perfect compromise between performance and price, placed just between the high end GK802 and the budget MK802 both in terms of hardware and cost.
This little Android device comes with a 1.6GHz dual-core Cortex-A9 processor and a pretty powerful Mali 400MP4 quad-core GPU, the same GPU used in the popular Galaxy S2. This hardware setup is powerful enough for gaming, HD video, or pretty much anything else you can think of. The MX2 also has 1GB of DDR3 RAM and 8GB of internal NAND flash storage.
Again it comes with an HDMI connection to hook it up to your display, and a microSD expansion slot with support for up to 32GB of additional memory. Like the GK802, this dongle also has Bluetooth support for wirelessly connecting your important peripherals, and an enhanced 802.11 b/g/n WiFi receiver to connect to your home network.
Interestingly, the iMito MX2 comes with Jelly Bean (Android 4.1), rather than ICS. So you'll get access to some of the more recent Android features out of the box with this dongle, compared with most of its competitor devices which are still running 4.0.
The reason I'm mentioning yet another USB sized device is because, in my opinion, the MX2 is the perfect balance of price and performance. Costing around only $65, $34 less than the GK802, the iMito MX2 still gives you good gaming performance and full 1080p video. The addition of Bluetooth for better connectivity gives it a massive advantage over cheaper devices which require you to plug everything in via a single USB slot.
Moving on to a slightly different product, the Smartdroid TV box isn't as powerful as some of the other dongle sized devices and it costs a little bit more. But this TV box comes with some useful additional features which are definitely worth a mention.
On the inside it's essentially an MK802, so it will feel a bit lacklustre if you're looking to play Android games on your TV. The Smartdroid is using the same Allwinner A10 chip, but this time the Cortex-A8 processor has been clocked up to a slightly heftier 1.2GHz. The box only comes with 512MB RAM, and I couldn't find a 1GB variant, so you'll probably see the device start to stutter if you try to run too many applications at once. The TV box also runs Android 4.0, but has a 32GB capacity SD/MMC card slot instead of the more common MicroSD expansion.
But enough of the comparisons, the developers have made very interesting design decisions with the Smartbox which might just make it the perfect device for your Android TV setup. Firstly, they've added an additional USB port to the TV Box, so you don't agonise over which accessory to assign to your precious USB slot. There's also an Ethernet LAN port, so if you're not using a wireless router, or have your TV close to your modem, you'll have a choice of networking options.
More importantly, this device supports both HDMI and older RCA video connections. All the dongles I've covered only have space for one connection type, with HDMI being supported simply because it's the most commonly used port type in newer displays. But this is obviously no good for older TVs, as there's no way to cost effectively convert digital HDMI signals to older analogue ones. However if you're using an older TV which doesn't have an HDMI or DVI port, this device should still hook up to your display.
You'll also note in the picture that there's a remote control. Possibly one of the best features of the Smartdroid Box is that it will work just like a regular TV using a remote. You'll be able to point and click your way around the Android interface, without having to install third party applications like DroidMote. This makes navigation much more akin to Android's touch screen roots than using a mouse, although it's difficult to tell how well a remote will work with typing or playing games.
Miniand also offer virtually the same product which also comes with a remote control, called the Mini Xplus TV Box H24.
The Android mini PC market has exploded over the past few months, with companies offering higher performance and more user friendly devices than ever before. To be honest, I've barely been able to make a dent the number of different dongles and TV boxes there are out there, but I've hopefully managed to give you a sample of the major categories.
In the end it all depends what you are looking for when it comes to an Android TV device. If you simply want to add online capabilities and video streaming to your non Internet TV then a cheaper dongle, or remote control ready box will suit your needs. Users interesting in having a bit of power behind their purchase, but who don't want to venture into cheap tablet money territory, will get the most out of dongles like the iMito MX2, Miniland 803, or UG802II, which pack enough power to easily handle HD video and casual gaming.
I'd only really suggest the likes of the GK802 to the real enthusiasts, who have to have the fastest piece of kit. For surfing the web, steaming music, or watching video, a quad-core device is total overkill. Alternatively, if you're looking to play Android games on your TV then it might be best to wait projects like OUYA to hit the shelves, as you'll receive better support for controllers and game libraries.
Let us know what you think about any of the devices listed here, or your experiences with any of the ones I've missed out.