I took delivery of my new SmartStick, from American company FAVI Entertainment, just a few days ago and to be honest I was expecting to see yet another run-of-the-mill Android mini computer that plugs into the HDMI port on your TV… I couldn’t have been more wrong! On the outside the FAVI SmartStick looks a lot like other Android mini computers, an over-sized flash drive but with a HDMI connector at the end. The build quality is excellent and the device doesn’t creak or groan when handled (often a sure sign of cheap plastic and bad manufacturing). The real surprise, however, comes when you switch it on… but I am getting ahead of myself.
Before looking at how the SmartStick works, it is worth noting the specification. The SmartStick comes in two models, the $49.99 4GB version and the $79.99 8GB model. Both have a single core Cortex-A9 ARM CPU running at 1GHz. The rest of the specs look like this:
Connecting up the device is simplicity itself. First the SmartStick plugs into the HDMI port on your TV. If the port is a little inaccessible on your TV, then the SmartStick comes with a small extension cable which allows the device to be plugged in away from the TV. Next the infrared receiver needs to be plugged in (as the signals from the remote won’t reach the back of your TV), this needs to be positioned anywhere on the front or in the front of your TV. It even includes a small sticky pad to fix it in place. Finally the power needs connecting. The SmartStick is powered by a mini USB cable (which is included) that plugs into a USB mains charger (also included).
The software is the real secret to the SmartStick’s brilliance. Other Android mini PC sticks and other Android media players use stock Android, which although we love and is very familiar to us, isn’t actually designed for TVs! Trying to perform touch gestures (like swiping) using a remote control or mouse isn’t easy! The SmartStick uses a special UI built on top of Android that is remote control friendly. The ‘Home’ screen gives you access to recently accessed apps along with any widgets that you have added. From here you can navigate (using the arrows on the remote) to dedicated sections of the user interface for Apps, Browser, Video, Music, Photos and Setting.
The Apps section displays a grid of the applications installed. The arrow keys in the remote are used to select and app and then pushing ’Enter’ starts the app. The device has full Google Play support and during my tests I was able to install apps like Angry Birds, YouTube and some benchmarking programs without any problems. The FAVI SmartStick also supports Netflix, HBO Go, Crackle, TuneIn Radio etc, all of which can be installed from the Google Play Store.
There is a ‘Home’ key on the remote which takes you back to, yes you guessed it, the Home screen. The Browser icon starts up the standard Android 4.0 built-in browser and the Video, Music and Photo icons find and display media files from either the internal flash memory itself, or from a USB flash drive plugged into the USB port or from a SD card in the slot. Videos play without any problems using the built-in video player and if needed other video players from the Google Play Store can be installed. The Settings icon takes you to the standard Android setting screen where you can connect to a different Wi-Fi network, uninstall apps, monitor the storage space and so on.
One of the accessories available for the SmartStick is the FAVI Wireless Keyboard with Mouse Touchpad. This neat little unit contains a small qwerty keyboard and track pad that work wirelessly with a small USB dongle which is inserted into the SmartStick. If the SmartStick used the standard Android user interface this device, or at least a USB mouse, would be absolutely essential for controlling the device, but since the SmartStick software is very remote control friendly the wireless keyboard unit is truly optional. There are a couple of scenarios where it would be useful: 1) If you do a lot of web browsing and want to enter URLs directly into the browser. 2) If you want to play games or use apps where using a mouse is necessary. In these two cases the keyboard unit is very usable. I don’t think you are going to spend hours playing games with it, but for occasional gaming and to help with typing it is well worth getting.
Testing the performance of what is essentially a media player is not really necessary, but because I like to torture any piece of Android equipment that I can get my hands on, here are the numbers for completeness. Starting with AnTuTu, the SmartStick scores 2899, which is low. For comparison the original Samsung Galaxy S, which also had a single core ARM CPU running at 1Ghz, scores about twice that, but here is the thing to remember, smartphones with single core CPU tend to be using displays with resolutions of 800 x 480 (or similar), but the SmartStick was running the test in 720p!
If the first test was verging on the unnecessary, the next test I did was out-of-control! Remember all this device needs to be able to do is play or stream video (which it can, at full 1080p HD using hardware decoding) and respond to user input. The SmartStick doesn’t need more CPU power than that. But this is Android Authority, so I ran the benchmark mode on Epic Citadel, the demo app of the Unreal 3D Engine. I was actually pleasantly surprised to see the device managed an average frame rate of 12.7 fps with a resolution of 1280 x 719. Not bad for a simple CPU on a media player!
Having used the SmartStick quite a bit I must say that it is fairly easy to use. Performing any of the main tasks like playing video or music is very simple due to the optimized user interface and the remote control is quite functional. As well as the ‘Home’ button and navigation arrows there are also keys for page up and page down and also a play/pause button. These extra buttons mainly work inside the SmartStick UI and aren’t necessarily functional inside other apps, but even apps like YouTube responded to the play/pause button. Using the wireless keyboard and trackpad is nice and once out of the SmartStick UI it becomes very useful. However, as I mentioned earlier, it isn’t essential. All the menus are simple enough to understand at a no point did I find myself wondering how to get to a certain menu or what to press next. It is clear that FAVI have put some thought into designing the UI.
There are a few bundled apps which also made using the device easier including Plex for Android, a Task Manager (for killing any apps running in the background), and the SmartStick Portal which recommends useful apps like Netflix etc., and also offers a way to check for any software upgrades that might be available.
The way the SmartStick converts a normal TV into an Internet enabled Smart TV is great. Although the device has a special remote control friendly UI, underneath it is full Android and access to the Google Play Store is testament to the device’s heritage. When used with the wireless keyboard and touchpad, browsing the Internet, reading your emails and playing games is easy. The built-in media and music player work well with the remote and only a few taps of the buttons are needed to get access to your media. On top of all that, the fact that it comes from an American company, shipped from within the US and only for $49.99, you really can’t go wrong!