What Is Android TV, and Which Android TV Box Should I Buy?
If you’re in the market for a streaming set-top box and are also an Android user, you’ve undoubtedly considered Android TV. The thing is, this is a really confusing landscape: there are a lot of “fake” Android TV boxes floating around out there, and only a handful of official boxes actually worth considering.
If you came here for the short answer, I’ll give it to you straight up: buy an NVIDIA SHIELD and be done with it. It’s the best Android TV box on the market, bar none. That part is simple.
But if you’ve been on the hunt for a while and see the other options—Razer Forge, Nexus Player, Xiaomi Mi Box, etc.—including those weird “Android TV” boxes on Amazon, we’re here to help you filter through the fluff by explaining what not to buy.
What Is Android TV?
Android TV is more than just Android on a box that you connect to your TV. A lot more. Android TV has been specifically designed for the bigger screen—it has a dedicated interface, better controller and remote support, a specifically curated Play Store, and all the other goodness you’d expect from a streaming set-top box.
In other words: it’s not like plugging your phone up to the TV and hoping for the best. Just like Apple TV has a very iOS-like look and feel, Android TV retains the familiarity of Android in a much more TV-friendly package.
But much like Android phones, Android TV is available on many different devices from different manufacturers. Google isn’t the only one making Android TV boxes—Razer makes one, NVIDIA makes one, and some TVs even come with Android TV built-in. Android TV is a platform, like Android—not just one specific device, like the Apple TV.
So What’s With All These “Android TV” Boxes I See on Amazon and eBay?
If you go to Amazon and search for “Android TV” right now, you’ll get a lot of results. The thing is, most of these aren’t really Android TV boxes. They’re boxes that run Android and hook up to your TV.
See, these sorts of “shady” manufacturers are just playing on words here. The majority of these boxes aren’t actually running the dedicated Android TV interface because they don’t have access to it. Only the core parts of Android TV are part of the Android Open Source Project, and even those parts are not permitted for re-distribution, since it requires modification of the Nexus Player source code.
Instead, what these guys are doing is taking the original Android source code—the one that’s meant for phones or tablets—and turning it into a sort of hackjob piece of software that will run on a box that plugs into your TV. So instead of getting that slick Android TV interface, you get a phone interface on a big, non-touch screen. Yuck.
To make matters worse, many of these boxes don’t even have access to the Play Store, since that requires certification from Google. Those are the shadiest of all the boxes out there, as they’re often loaded with software of questionable integrity.
So why would anyone buy these boxes? Well, they might be tricked by the naming scheme—many of these boxes make themselves sound like Android TV boxes by calling themselves something like “Android 6.0 TV Box”—which is not the same as “Android TV”.
Other people may actually want these janky boxes, since they offer fewer restrictions. Remember earlier when I said Android TV has a specifically curated Play Store? That’s to ensure compatibility with the big screen. Some people may want access to everything—even if it’ll look and work poorly on a large, non-touch device like a TV. Different strokes, I suppose.
How Do I Know Which Boxes Actually Run Android TV?
Your best bet is to stick with boxes that are well-known. As I mentioned earlier, NVIDIA SHIELD (available on Amazon for $200) is hands-down the best Android TV box on the market—it’s fast, updated often, and well supported. If you want Android TV, you want SHIELD. It’s that simple.
But there are other boxes out there, like the now-outdated Nexus Player. This was actually the flagship box for the launch of Android TV, but is still very much relevant today and you can often find it at a fraction of the cost of SHIELD if you look around places like eBay. So if you’re looking to stay on the lower end of the pricing, there’s no shame in going with the Nexus Player—it’s still a very solid box. Just keep in mind that it is a little long in the tooth here.
There’s also the Xiaomi Mi Box, a 4K Android TV box with modest specs and a nice price tag: $70. Like the Nexus Player, it’s a little light on storage, but if you’re just looking to catch some TV—be it HBO Go, Netflix, Hulu, or whatever else—it should fit the bill just fine. If you’re looking to play some Android games, however, I’d probably shy away from this one.
The Razer Forge is another box that sort of sits in that well-known Android TV unit market, but for all the wrong reasons. It’s the only box that doesn’t run Netflix out of the box (seriously), and just isn’t very well supported by Razer. I think the intentions were good initially, but ultimately this box was a flop and I’d recommend staying away from it. If you’re looking for premium, go SHIELD. If you’re looking for affordable, go Nexus Player. There’s no reason to waste money on a Forge.
RELATED: Smart TVs Are Stupid: Why You Don’t Really Want a Smart TV
You could also get Android TV built-in to your next TV. There are a handful of modern smart TVs out there that have Android TV baked right into the set itself, which is convenient—but it like most smart TVs, it comes with downsides. Manufacturers like this generally skimp on the hardware so it’s nowhere near as powerful as a standalone unit. These baked-in options generally are also very rigid in terms of upgrades: no expandable storage or other potential upgrades that can be done on standalone boxes.
Android TV hasn’t had quite the takeoff that many of us had hoped it would, but that doesn’t make it any less of a great set-top box setup. NVIDIA has almost single-handedly changed the course of what Android TV would’ve been with SHIELD, as the company has really picked up Google’s slack in this segment.