You’ve probably heard many different things about Android TV boxes from people trying to sell you one.
They’re magic. They let you get any show you’ve ever seen and could ever want to watch.
Today, we’re going to set the record straight and talk about just what an Android TV box is (and isn’t) and what they’re used for.
What is an Android TV Box, and What Are They For?
An Android TV box is another name for a streaming device that runs on the Android operating system.
Depending on where you live, you’ll hear them called many different names, but they all refer to the same thing.
- TV box
- Streaming player
- Media player
- HTPC (Home Theatre PC)
- Kodi Box
- IPTV box
- Set-Top Box
No matter what you call it, each device does basically the same thing. Each lets you stream content to your television, either from the Internet or another device on your network.
That’s really all there is to it.
We’ll get into why all of the different names in a bit, but for now, let’s look at what you can do with an Android TV box…no matter what you call it,
What Can an Android TV Box do?
If you’ve got an Android phone or tablet, you’re already familiar with everything that an Android box can do.
- You can stream movies from Netflix or Disney+.
- Watch live TV through Sling or Hulu
- Listen to music through Spotify or Apple Music
- Catch up on the news with BBC, CNN, or Fox News
- Play games using your PS4 or Xbox One controller
- Watch my personal movie collection with Kodi or Plex
- Control your home with Google Assistant
- And much more!
Android TV boxes have access to the Google Play Store and other app stores like Aptoide TV, so you can install any of over 40 MILLION APPS!
How Does An Android TV Box Work?
Believe it or not, an Android TV box is more straightforward to hook up than your DVD player.
It connects to the internet to grab content from an app or local machine on your home network. So you do need to have an internet connection (or access to one) to make them work.
It then sends that content to your television through an HDMI cable.
When I said it was easier to install than your DVD player, I meant it.
You can set up an Android TV box with as few as two cables (HDMI and power).
Because they use the same apps as you have on your Android phone, you can usually transfer content between the two. For example, you can start a video on YouTube on your phone and then cast it to your Android TV box to play on your big-screen television.
Can an Android TV Box Work On Any TV?
I’m sure that there are SOME televisions that you can’t connect an Android TV box to, but they’ll work on almost every modern TV purchased in the last twenty years.
All you need to connect your Android TV box to your TV is an HDMI port. They started appearing on televisions back in 2004
Portable televisions or older TVs and monitors that don’t have an HDMI port could be a problem. If your TV has a composite (red, white & yellow), component (red, green, blue), or VGA ports (PC monitor), then there are adapters that you can buy to bridge the gap.
What Apps Will Work on an Android TV Box?
Android TV boxes can use any apps designed for Android TVs (more on them later).
Those apps are specifically designed for large format, 4K or 1080p screens. More importantly, they’re designed to work with remote controls.
Most people don’t have a touchscreen television, so swiping on your TV will only put fingerprints on it.
But here’s the good news: There are over 40 million apps designed for Android devices, and you can install any of them on an Android TV box.
There’s one massive caveat with that statement: Most apps were designed for your phone’s 1080 x 1920 resolution. They might not upscale to your TV’s 1080p or 4K resolution.
What this looks like is probably not what you’re thinking. Many apps will appear letterboxed with giant black bars on either side.
That shrinks your TV’s viewable area on each side, so it’s not the best-looking experience.
A few app stores, like the Aptoide TV store, cater to apps specifically for Android TV to make it easy to find the apps you want.
Android TV Box vs. Android TV
I’m going to throw you for a loop here, so stay with me.
Android TV is NOT THE SAME as an Android TV box!
And it gets better…
Some devices are BOTH and Android TV box and running Android TV, like the NVIDIA Shield TV!
We’ve already seen that an Android TV box is just a streaming box that runs the Android operating system. So what’s the difference between Android TV vs. Android TV box?
We need to know what Android TV is first, to understand the difference.
What is Android TV?
Google has been trying to gain a foothold in your home for years. When Android TV came out in 2014, it was already their second attempt at creating an operating system specifically designed for your television.
When the first generation Chromecast came out in 2013, most people thought that Google had given up on the idea of an operating system genuinely designed for television. But they were just biding their time until they unveiled Android TV the following year.
We’ll talk about Chromecast in a bit, so stay tuned.
Since it came out, most television manufacturers have started putting media centers on their televisions. Most of them are just stripped-down versions that can only open specific apps.
My Samsung TV with Tizen TV, has a ribbon along the bottom that can open YouTube, Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and others.
By contrast, Android TV is a full-fledged operating system that gives you the flexibility to add whatever apps you like.
Now for the confusing part…
Android TV comes on media streamers like the NVIDIA Shield as well as televisions, and that’s why the Shield TV is BOTH an Android TV box AND Android TV.
In reality, it’s not something you need to put a lot of thought into. The average user will be able to do most of things on either device.
Android TV Box vs. TV Box vs. Kodi Box
It’s common for people in different parts of the world to have different names for things and Android TV boxes are no exception.
As I mentioned earlier, the same device can be called a TV box, media streamer, IPTV box, or a host of other names, depending on where you are.
By far the most common are either Android TV Box (or just TV box) or Kodi Box.
Because they run on the Android OS, it’s common to hear them called Android TV boxes, or simply TV boxes, throughout the world. Occasionally you’ll hear other devices like a set-top box or cable box simply called TV boxes, but that’s incorrect.
A set-top box or cable box is the device that your cable company gives you so they can make sure you’re legally using their service. In the past, you used to have one cable box per television, but some companies will let you use one box per household.
We’ve already talked about how an Android TV box is more like a Roku or Amazon Fire TV than your old cable box. In fact, the Amazon Fire TV IS a type of Android TV box because it runs a customized version of Android 6 (source).
If you live in Europe, you’re probably used to hearing Android boxes referred to as Kodi boxes or Kodi players.
Kodi, which was initially called XBMC for Xbox Media Center, is one of the most popular media centers in the world. Like Plex, Kodi lets you access your own media from a local machine on your network.
What made Kodi so famous was the open-source addons that its community developed to stream movies and TV shows from the Internet directly.
According to the MPAA, there were approximately 38 million Kodi users worldwide. Many of them used some sort of Android box to stream their content, so it’s no wonder that people started calling them ‘Kodi boxes.’
They all do the same thing: stream content to your television.
Android TV box vs. Amazon Fire TV
As I said earlier, the Amazon Fire TV is technically an Android TV box.
According to Amazon, a Fire TV is any device that runs a specific version (or ‘fork’) of the Android OS. Fire OS 5 was the first one to come out and is based on Android 5.1 (Lollipop). Fire OS 6 is based on Android 7.1 (Nougat).
Both are specifically optimized for their hardware, so the performance is good, even though they’re outdated versions of Android.
Android TV box vs. Chromecast
The Chromecast is a unique device, even though it was also designed by Google.
Chromecasts are primarily designed to take streams from your phone or computer and display it (cast it) to your television.
There’s a new Chromecast with Google TV, which has a version of Android TV, but it just came out in late 2020.
Many televisions have Chromecast built-in. If your TV doesn’t, the Chromecast is a simple, inexpensive HDMI dongle that does the same thing.
I have a Chromecast on one of my older televisions, and it’s built-in to my living room TV. I don’t use it very often, but it’s helpful when I find a video on my phone that I want to share with everyone else in the room.
Content is limited to the major apps: YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, etc.
You’re not allowed to install your own apps, so you’re out of luck if you want to watch something different.
Android TV Box FAQ
Are TV boxes legal?
Absolutely. Even though the major manufacturers and movie studios hate Android TV boxes, they’re perfectly legal. But, like most things, you can do illegal things with them, which could get you into trouble.
It’s easy to find news articles about dodgy Android boxes that let you stream movies that are still in the theaters directly to your living room television.
And, in fairness, you can configure any of these devices to do that. Depending on where you live, that may not be entirely legal. But if that’s what you’re looking for, it’s pretty easy to do because these devices are so flexible and tweakable.
At its core, though, an Android TV box is just a media player.
Are Android TV boxes free?
Android TV boxes aren’t free, but they’re not expensive either. Most range in price from $50 up to $150. Anything more than that had better be cutting edge technology or come from a company that provides excellent service.
It’s common to see scammers at county fairs or flea markets trying to sell Android boxes for $300-$400 each. Their sales pitch is that you can get ‘free movies and TV for life.’
Don’t fall for it.
These scammers aren’t selling you anything that you couldn’t do on your own by following a video tutorial on YouTube.
Where to Buy Android TV Boxes
Although many different companies make Android TV boxes, you can find a pretty decent selection of them on Amazon. If you live outside the United States, companies like Geek Buying or GearBest will ship anywhere in the world.
I recommend digging a little deeper and trying to find a terrific company to buy directly from the source. Going through the manufacturer will usually get you better support and firmware updates. When a new model is coming out, it’s common to see them offer discounts for existing customers.