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Set-top boxes for your television seem to be the thing to buy these days, and it’s easy to see why. With a focus on streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Now, set-top boxes have become an easy and affordable way to add these networks and apps to any television without having to replace the actual device, which can cost hundreds of dollars. These boxes are also often much faster than the included applications on smart TVs, and even offer additional functionality like games or voice search using included remotes. With the massive popularity of streaming services and the affordability of boxes and sticks from Amazon, Google, Roku, and other companies, it’s no wonder these gadgets have become affordable gifts, making it easy to please everyone in your family and add a little more functionality to your old television.
Naturally, every company seems to be trying to find the right combination of specs, features, and price for the market at large. While Google offers their bargain budget Chromecast device as a way for consumers to gain access to streaming apps by simply using their Android or iOS devices, the company also offers a product line that compares closer to Roku’s higher-end products, the newest Apple TV, and gaming consoles like the Xbox One and PS4.
Called Android TV, the platform works as both a Chromecast device (thus replicating the function of their budget line) and as a full set-top box with a remote, visual interface, and a full set of apps and games. Android TV, first launched in 2014, is also a successor to Google TV, a little-used platform that Google originally launched back in 2010 that was built off of Chrome with the help of Intel and Sony. Instead, Android TV uses the Android operating system, complete with the Play Store and a full suite of applications available to the end user.
Unfortunately, there aren’t a whole lot of Android TV boxes for sale, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t find a good one. If Google’s Chromecast doesn’t offer enough features for you, and you’d rather have a real remote, a standard interface, and a complete set of apps and games, there are only a few boxes you should look at seriously. These are our favorite Android TV boxes on sale right now.
When it comes to standalone Android TV boxes, there still aren’t a ton of options on the market. Though Android TV has seen some success, espeically with Sony televisions including the OS by default, aftermarket boxes have lagged behind. That said, there’s a clear contender if you’re looking for the best Android TV box. Our favorite option in 2020 remains NVIDIA’s Shield TV, a device updated and refreshed just last year with an all-new design. NVIDIA has moved away from their classic angular box to a tube-shaped streaming stick designed to hide behind your television. It’s really unlike anything else on the market today, and it’s a great space saver if you’re looking to hide boxes behind your entertainment center. Like the design, the specs have been completely revamped. While the second-gen Shield TV continued to use the Tegra X1 chip, this new model has switched over to the Tegra X1+, a faster version of the chip that makes this one of the fastest set-top boxes on the market today. The Shield still uses 3GB of RAM, matching the previous generation, which should be plenty for something like a streaming device, and runs on Android 10, the newest version of Android TV. 16GB of storage is included on board, and the microSD card slot from the first-generation Shield TV has returned to allow for expandable storage. At $149, the Shield TV is cheaper than it has ever been, but it’s much more expensive than most other streaming devices on the market. As to why you’d spend that much money on a streaming stick, the answer is surprisingly simple: NVIDIA has offered enough features on the Shield TV to more than cover the asking price. That includes a redesigned remote, which features backlit buttons, voice search, and a switch to AAA batteries. It also includes a lost remote locator, so if you ever lose your remote, you don’t need to spend hours searching for it. Unfortunately, no longer included in the box is the Shield Controller. You can still find the Shield Controller on sale today separately, and the Shield TV works with any number of Bluetooth-capable controllers you might have lying around the house. Software-wise, the Shield TV is just as packed with exclusives and features you’ll want to buy the device for, especially if you fall into one of two camps: home theater enthusiasts and PC gamers. For the former, the Shield TV includes support for showing content in 4K with Dolby Vision HDR, making it one of the only Android TV boxes—and one of the few set-top boxes in general—to do so. It also supports AI upscaling, which should make your 1080p content look that much better. For PC gamers, it should come as no surprise NVIDIA, manufacturer of some of the most popular graphics cards on the market, has included their traditional suite of gaming applications on the device. As long as you have a supported graphics card and a network that can handle streaming, NVIDIA’s Gamestream application will allow you to beam your games from your computer to your television without having to use any sort of wires or cables for displays. If you aren’t a PC gamer, you can still take advantage of NVIDIA’s GeForce Now streaming platform for games, assuming you can drop the $4.99/month to play a wide library of games. Here’s the overall conclusion: if you’re dead set on purchasing an Android TV, the NVIDIA Shield TV is the one to buy. For $149, you’re getting a powerful 4K media box, complete with a full suite of streaming apps like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney+. The optional controller is wonderful for playing games both on and off the Shield TV itself, and the smaller size and footprint is great for storing under your television or inside your media center. This is in addition to all the classic software included with Android TV, including Chromecast. But the ultimate question you have to ask yourself is, for $199, is it worth getting the Shield TV, complete with all the benefits of Android TV and the Google platform, or for an extra $50, is the Xbox One S a better buy, even if only for the media content on the Xbox. The One S supports 4K Blu-Ray discs, along with most of the other streaming apps we’ve come to expect on set-top boxes, but it also has a full library of video games and exclusives. Ultimately, it comes down to your general preference. If you’re a die-hard PC gamer, the Shield TV will definitely offer you more functionality for your NVIDIA-based PCs. Likewise, anyone who doesn’t like gaming will also find the Shield TV is simply the better buy. If you’re a console gamer, however, it’s a difficult choice between dropping $199 on the Shield TV and adding just an extra $50 for all the bonuses provided by a One S. It’s a choice you’ll have to make for yourself, but for those who really want an Android TV, the Shield TV is the one to buy.
After a summer of leaks, Google finally unveiled their newest Chromecast device this past October, and it’s the first ever to be eligible for this list. While it technically runs “Google TV,” don’t be fooled—this is an Android TV box through and through, and it seems likely that Google will rebrand their television software sometime in the near future. At just $50, this is the Android TV box to buy today if you don’t need the power of the Nvidia Shield, combining the simplicity and low-cost of Chromecast with the clean interface and huge app selection provided by Android TV. This fourth-gen Chromecast—technically called Chromecast with Google TV—features a revised design, taking the rounded design of the third-gen Chromecast to its fullest extent yet. It almost looks like an egg that plugs into your television, and comes in three fantastic colors: blue, white, and a salmon-shaded pink. Of course, the appearance of a device designed to plug into the back of your television doesn’t matter if it can’t hold its own against Nvidia’s Shield, which still edges out top pick for this category due to its sheer power. With the device in our hands though, we have great news: it’s smooth, fast, and makes for a fantastic way to watch all of your favorite entertainment through the web. It’s not the most powerful device on the market, but with 2GB of RAM and an Amlogic S905X2 SoC, it’s more than capable of outputting 4K video with support for HDR playback. More interesting than the performance, perhaps, is the remote. Although it may seem like Google took inspiration from Apple’s TV remote, it’s feels far better in the hand than Apple’s controversial remote. A sleek color-matching design with minimal buttons give access to home, back, pause and play, mute, and a circular D-pad that looks straight from an old iPod. Below these buttons, you’ll find shortcuts to Netflix and YouTube, and the YouTube button can be set to launch the usual app or YouTube TV. At just $50, it happens to be one of the best streaming boxes available today, and well below the cost of the Nvidia Shield TV. It might not be as powerful, but it’s a worthy upgrade regardless.
The Mi Box S from Xiaomi represents a totally different segment of the market for Android TV. Instead of going after high-end gamers with a powerful streaming box like NVIDIA has done, Xiaomi has aimed for a portion of the market that wants a low-cost entry into Android TV without having to use Chromecast. The advantages of buying the Mi Box S over the Chromecast are simple: you can still use Cast on any iOS or Android device you have in your collection, but the Mi Box also supplies you with a true UI, a physical remote, voice commands, and more, allowing for a more traditional set-top box feel. Xiaomi has even aimed high for the 4K HDR market, making this one of the cheapest boxes on the market that allows for streaming 4K content to your television, priced at only double the cost of the budget Chromecast model. And while we’d love to say the Mi Box S lives up to its promise, the situation’s a bit more nuanced than that. Though Xiaomi were a fairly unknown company a few years ago, you’ve probably heard of them by now. The brand is huge in China, manufacturing Android phones running heavily-skinned versions of the operating system called MIUI, the company hasn’t done as much business on our own shores. The Mi Box S represents one of their only products to reach the US, and while it’s certainly a big accomplishment for Xiaomi, the company’s lack of name representation over here probably hasn’t done it many favors in terms of sales. The product can be difficult to find for sale online, and often the price has been increased over other models. Once you get your hands on the product though, you’re likely to find a product that looks far closer to the streaming and set-top boxes other manufacturers have created over the past few years. It’s a small black plastic box with rounded corners and soft edges, looking similar to earlier versions of the Apple TV or newer Roku boxes. The remote, meanwhile, is similar to what we’ve seen from Amazon’s own box, with a small, narrow rectangle with several buttons for back, home, and voice commands, along with a circular D-pad. The box also includes power and HDMI cables, the latter of which is a nice touch on a box as cheap as this. The power connector is a bit too short for our tastes, unfortunate for a proprietary connector such as this, and while we wish the device used something like Micro USB or another more universal connector, it’s something that can be fixed with an extension cable. As for specs, this isn’t anywhere near the powerhouse we covered above with the Shield TV. There’s a Cortex 2.0GHz quad-core processor, 2GB of RAM, and a measly 8GB of storage that can be expanded by using the USB port supplied on the back of the device. In theory, these specs should be enough to power the device at the 4K resolution it natively outputs at—in fact, the device ships with 4K enabled by default—but the reality of the Mi Box S unfortunately proves otherwise. There are plenty of software stutters and hangups in 4K mode, and while switching to 1080p mode solves these issues, having to use 1080p on a box that advertises itself as the cheap option to 4K streaming feels like a loss overall. That said, we are thankful that the box seems to use standard Android TV software instead of the MIUI software that shipped on earlier geo-restricted devices. What you’ll find here is the exact same Android TV seen on any other box, with the same support for apps and games on the platform. Unlike with NVIDIA’s box, you won’t be seeing any game streaming options. This is a pretty standard streaming library, and although it was missing a big app, as of January 2020, you can finally stream Amazon Prime Video. Of course, the box also functions as a Cast device, making it easy to use your phone to stream content that doesn’t exist in app form on Android TV. So where does that place the Mi Box S? Well, like the NVIDIA Shield TV before it, it too exists mostly to satisfy die-hard Android users while unfortunately creating a space where replacement devices might be a better idea for the vast majority of users. If you can get by without using a remote, the Chromecast Ultra runs you just $20 more, while also streams content in 4K HDR without having to deal with the stutters seen on the Mi Box S. The Roku Premiere+ and Amazon Fire TV devices also exist for around the same price, and also support 4K and HDR streaming while providing an Android TV-like UI and physical remote, albeit without actually using Android TV as the base OS. But for those looking for a dedicated Android TV device without ponying up the cash for the NVIDIA Shield TV will find the Mi Box S satisfying overall, especially if they’re willing to part ways from the 4K streaming options the box doesn’t fully live up to. The Mi Box is a good piece of starting equipment for anyone looking to dive into the world of Android TV; unfortunately, it’s simply not a perfect platform, and unless you’re dedicated to the world of Android, competing products from Amazon, Roku, and even Google themselves might represent a better option.
If you don’t see an app that should be here, let us know what it is