[2013-07-06] A Smart TV On The Cheap

Bored by the usual fare on Indian television and needing a little flexibility with what I can watch on my TV and when I can watch it, I have always wanted something like the so-called “Smart TV”. However most such TV-sets seem to cost almost twice as much as a regular TV-set and are invariably laden with terrible software. Set-top boxes like Apple TV, Google TV, Roku, etc. are either not available in India or are available at almost double the price minus half the features (e.g. Hulu and Netflix). Some of them are also not flexible enough for my needs.

I toyed with the idea of using a Raspberry Pi for this purpose, but it needs quite a few add-ons first (case, keyboard, mouse, Wi-Fi connector, etc.) to be useful and is also not that cheap in India. So I was on the lookout for an Android Mini PC that turns a regular TV into a Smart TV - a small and cheap set-top box or stick running Android on an ARM SoC that connects to your TV via HDMI and to the Internet via Wi-Fi (you can see some examples on Miniand and Liliputing). The most famous among these devices are the MK802 and its successors. It is even supposed to be available in India as the Micromax Smart Stick, although I have never seen it in a store here. Micromax didn't respond to my enquiries about its price and availability either, so I'm not sure just how you're supposed to go about buying it.

On one of my recent travels, I chanced upon a few of these Android Mini PCs in a store and bought the Auxtek AT-01. It cost me the equivalent of about INR 4,850. I also picked up a small Ranger Palmtop Wireless Keyboard With Touchpad to go with it, which cost me an additional amount roughly equal to INR 2,300. The AT-01 seems to be running a slightly-modified Android 4.0.4 (Ice Cream Sandwich) on an Allwinner A10s ARM SoC that can run at 1.2 GHz. It has about 1 GB of RAM and about 2 GB of flash-storage, supports Wi-Fi as well as Ethernet, has two USB slots, a micro-SD slot, a camera and a basic remote (without a QWERTY-keyboard). The Ranger keyboard and touchpad complements the AT-01 nicely, making it actually usable. It connects to the AT-01 using Bluetooth via a USB nubbin that comes bundled with it.

Auxtek AT-01 and Ranger Keyboard

The AT-01 comes with the expected set of apps (some media-players, a browser, YouTube, Skype, Facebook, etc.) and some pointless ones (Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja, an office-suite, etc.), given the available input mechanisms. I was able to install several other apps from the Play Store and even via APKs. Some of these apps work well enough with this device, some not so well. The media-players are able to play all the formats I've thrown at them so far and perform well enough to be usable. The Wi-Fi antenna doesn't seem to be that great though and has trouble maintaining a good steady connection in an area where, for example, my iPad and iPhone work perfectly fine. There are also occasional jitters in the system's overall performance that are slightly-irritating.

Android has been shoehorned into working for these Mini PCs and it shows through in many places - large on-screen keyboards covering most of the display appear everywhere text-input is needed, even though the wireless keyboard obviates the need for them (I couldn't find an option to suppress them); scrolling with arrow-keys and PgUp/PgDown is painful when the system is expecting swipes on a touch-screen. Many third-party apps are not tablet-ready, so their smartphone-based interfaces look ugly on a TV.

The major performance-updates brought about by Android Jelly Bean are sadly not available on this device - the “Check For Updates” option keeps telling me that I have the latest firmware. I haven't been able to find a trustworthy Android Jelly Bean build for such a device elsewhere. I haven't been able to locate the Auxtek web-site either, that is, assuming one exists.

By the way, this is the first time I am using Android on a regular basis, though I have been a long-time iOS user (on the iPad and the iPhone). The most important difference is the ease with which I can share files between different apps - search for a file using one app, download it using another (Loader Droid), explore it using a file-manager (ES File Explorer) and play it using a media-player (MX Player) - just like on a PC. Another important difference is that I can easily install any app using an APK instead of installing them only via the official app-store without jail-breaking my device. On the other hand, most of the apps I have tried so far don't seem polished enough and have various quirks that make them a little difficult to use, unlike on iOS where the apps I care about look well-designed and just work.

All that aside, this device works well enough that we have drastically reduced watching regular TV. The considerable flexibility offered by such a device - whatever you want to watch whenever you want to watch it - makes regular TV seem quite quaint in comparison, if not maddeningly-frustrating. Surely this is the future of TV, whether the entertainment companies like it or not.

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