WhaleTech: Smarten up your old HDTV

When we called for some people to help with the blog, one of the people that responded was Donovan Jackson.  You may know a little about Donovan already as he’s a Blubbergeddon participant as well as a regular in the Comments Section.  Donovan is also in the professional business of words, running his own New Zealand Copywriting company.

This is his first post for WhaleTech, which will appear under my name, but the future ones will be posted under his own name as we will trust him with a key to the blog.

Welcome  aboard Donovan!

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Smarten up your old HDTV

Love your smartphone? Of course you do. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could get your old or even new TV to do just half of what your handset does? Of course it would, and you can with an Android TV box.

While most of us are familiar with the Apple TV (and its limitations – no browser, really?) and some of us are aware of Smart TVs that cost thousands of dollars, an Android TV box is a simple and pretty cheap way of turning any TV with an HDMI port into a fully functional ‘smartphone-like’ computer.

The little gadgets are typically about the size of two matchboxes placed end-to-end. I’ve got three of them, one for each screen in my house; the most recent addition is a Rockchip CX919.

Hooking it up

The gadget connects to the TV via an HDMI port; it also and has a Micro-SD slot for expansion and can connect an external hard drive via a USB On The Go port. Power is supplied via a wall adapter (slightly annoying, would be nice if it could have drawn power from the TV’s USB port). An essential extra that you will want and need is a wireless air mouse; the size of a traditional TV remote control, this is a 2.4GHz directionless device that delivers a full QWERTY keyboard and, when you wave it around like a wand, controls a mouse pointer.

Before we get into any technical specs, let’s look at what this thing can do. The CX919 is supplied with Jelly Bean (Android 4.1.1) so fire up the TV and you’re presented with a screen which resembles that of a smartphone. If your ancient TV supports it, output is 1080p.

App time

The first step is to hit the Google Play store.

Since your TV is now essentially a pretty powerful computer, the Play store means getting whatever you like from the million-plus apps available. The usual suspects are the Chrome browser (which syncs with all you other devices, if you’re a Chrome user), YouTube, a multimedia player like MXPlayer or Vplayer, a file browser (ES File Explorer works well) and whatever your heart desires.

About those specs. The CX919 has a quad-core 1.6GHz processor, 2GB RAM and 8GM ROM. It also has a Mali 400 GPU. Techies will recognize this as a powerful setup; non techies just need to know that this means a fast, responsive device. While the built-in Bluetooth isn’t that big of a deal, what is, is the WiFi b/g and especially n. Couple the gadget with a Wireless-N router (mine’s a Belkin N300) and a media server (mine’s a Western Digital MyBook Live 2TB) and you can stream your music and movies to your screen.

With several TVs in the house being fairly typical these days, putting your media into a central location then having the ability to watch it where you want to is pretty handy.

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What makes Android a winner?

Now, I’ve tried an Apple TV and while a great device, it is severely limited. As mentioned, no browser. Worse than that is the fact that it has to be coupled with iTunes if you want to stream stuff – and then you can only stream the file formats that Apple thinks you should use.

The Android TV boxes have none of those limitations. If you find a file you can’t play, chances are you’re just an app away from solving the problem.

Want a smart TV today? Look into Android TV boxes. They’re cheap, deliver far more power and capability than you’ll find on even the latest Smart TVs (which tend to carry price tags north of $2000) and with an air mouse, deliver way more control than you’ll get from a Smart TV or Apple TV remote.

Cost: Google is your friend. TradeMe is your other friend. Search Android TV box. The CX919 wholesales at around US$73 and retails in NZ at around NZ$200 (it is a ‘top of the range, latest greatest). An Air Mouse (Measy MC11) retails for around NZ35.

 


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  • James Stephenson

    I may have to consider chopping in my CRT TV, but hell it works fine and it’s only 15 years old.

    • Until my kids stop trying to draw on it or run their cars over the facia of the TV, the 29″ CRT stays right where it is.

  • Red

    I’ve tried one… It was great while it lasted, which was about 3 weeks…. zzzzzap & dead…. Shite build quality on that particular unit from China, so buy from a Kiwi retailer. When u get a good one? (and I’m sure I was just unlucky…) and you’ll never go back. I could run a wireless keyboard and mouse into it, which was super handy too. Android all the way… it has quirks. but not being tied to the i Hitler store is the big bonus.

    • Donovan Jackson

      I prefer to buy local even though it costs a bit more, that way when it goes zzzzzzzap (or if anything else happens) I’ve got a neck to wring!

  • Welcome aboard Donovan…nice gadget too…might have to give one of those a try.

    • Donovan Jackson

      Cheers Cam.

  • JeffDaRef

    Donovan – interesting stuff!
    By my own admission I am a self-declared technotard, even reading this made my head hurt!
    Where could I get assistance for someone to come and set this all up for me and I just pay them to do it?

    • Donovan Jackson

      It’s actually super simple to set it up Jeff. If you can use a smartphone, you’ll be able to get this chap working. It is literally as simple as plugging the bastard into the wall socket, connecting it to an available HDMI port and tuning the TV to the right input. Adding the remote is also super easy – plug the tiny dongle into the USB port on the Android box and it’s done; no need to pair the device or anything like that. The whole job should take less than 5 minutes – and you should have a Chinglish manual with it to provide entertainment, if not guidance…..

      • JeffDaRef

        Great thanks – hours of fun ahead for me and my tiny dongle…

        • Donovan Jackson

          Enjoy in moderation, I’m given to understand that too much of that sort of thing is bad for the eyes..

      • Mark

        Very interesting,thanks for the contribution.Can this be used as a PVR? Is it just a matter of finding the right software on the play store?

        • Donovan Jackson

          You would need one that has a built-in TV tuner for that, Mark – as the TV signal doesn’t come through the Android box (and therefore can’t be recorded by it). Personally, I’ve given up on broadcast TV, as with a suitable internet connection, you can watch whatever you want to on-demand. For example, YouTube is absolutely chock-full of full-length movies (mostly older ones, but 90% of the new stuff coming out of Hollywood is utter dross, anyway – I mean, Fast and Furious 60000? Come now) and that’s just the one obvious option.

          Look here for some detail on Android boxes which have built-in tuners.
          http://android-minipc.azurewebsites.net/index.php/2013/06/potential-personal-video-recorder-pvr-add-ins-with-hdtv-tuners/

  • Refn8tor

    There is an app called Air Playit that will wirelessly stream any audio/video from a Windows PC (the server) to an iPhone/iPad/iPod (the client). No file conversions, no iTunes, plays any format. And once your media is streaming to your iPhone/iPad/iPod, then you can re-direct it to the Apple TV (and therefore your HDTV) using the mobile device to control it all. A game changer if you have a lot of media files (ahem) on your PC but don’t like the shoddiness of the Android world..

    • “the shoddiness of the Android world”

      Hmmmm.

      Or you like the freedom of the Android world.

      (Let the war commence)

      • Donovan Jackson

        Sharks patrol these waters….

        • PC / Mac

          Betamax / VHS

          I’m a veteran :)

        • Incidentally, a lot of people who have an opinion about Android have it based on Android 2 or 3.

          And you know, we have to acknowledge that for some people Android is just not the right answer. However much I am a ‘droid/Google fanboi, I would buy my mother an iPad.

          • Donovan Jackson

            Agreed. My wife prefers her iPhone and Macbook Pro and hasn’t a clue how either one works. When people who aren’t techies ask what they should get (iPad or Android) I recommend iPad. It is the gold standard for a reason.

      • Refn8tor

        Hehehe. No chance. “Which o/s?” is such a first world problem.

        Back in the 70’s we had this sort of shiznit …

        http://www.retronaut.com/2013/06/10mb-computer-only-5995/

        It’s been downhill ever since.

  • Agent BallSack

    Awesome stuff..going to have a look into this! Cheers Donovan

  • GregM

    I could use one of them for sure, cheers Donovan!

  • sheppy

    If only it’d support the WTV file format over a network I’d get one – all my TV is recorded on Windows 7 Media Center and as its working well I don’t fancy changing it!

  • Dr Stoat

    Or buy an Ouya – I got mine as a backer from Kickstarter but they are now on sale – android-based gaming console with a wireless controller. You can download free games as well as any android app. It runs XBMC fine and streams fine. Probably cheaper and easier than the setup above but YMMV.

    • Donovan Jackson

      Gonna look into that thanks Dr.

  • Jack

    Great article! It seems Android TV boxes like CX919 are becoming new generation home entertainment centre. Look forward to reading more blogs from you, Donovan.

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