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Cheap Android TV boxes – are they worth it?

Cheap Android TV boxes – are they worth it?

A supplemental to last week’s blog post on the “Internet of Things,” one thing we get asked about a lot is inexpensive Android Set-Top or TV boxes; and if they could be security issues as a result. 

“Cheaper isn’t always better.”   It’s one of my mantras – not only in the shop, but even in my own personal life.  Sure, I like to save a buck, as much as the next person.  The problem with that is, when cost-benefit is done solely for the sake of saving dollars, you wind up opening yourself up to issues that could cost you money down the road – or worse. 

I’ll use an example using real life examples, but I’m going to refer to as “Brand 1,” and “Brand 2.”  Prices are as of 10/17/2023; and are provided for the purposes of comparing value and security.  

NOTE: Because the brands and specific names of the devices themselves have been eliminated, this is by no means meant to be a scientific  or research deep dive, this is only meant to offer a chance for someone who may be considering items such as these to be shown a point of view that offers a security and support point of view and how I, personally, evaluate such items when considering adding them to my digital ecosystem – not so much a review on the products themselves, “as such.”  I would consider this compare and contrast more a matter of personal opinion, and me sizing the devices up for myself – so you can see how I do it, which may offer you a perspective for sizing devices up for yourself. 

“Brand 1” is a well-known name brand set-top device commonly used for streaming on a television.   It is a well-known brand that also manufacturers TVs with its streaming software platform built-in, and does seem to take the concept of intellectual property protection and attacks from malicious sources quite seriously.  In appearance, the devices are sedate looking, and utilitarian.  Not at all unattractive – but it’s definitely designed to “blend in” and not be obtrusive or overly obvious.  It has its own branded operating system, that is easy to use and quite attractive.  The Ultra supports 4K and HDR, Dolby Vision and includes onboard Ethernet along with Wi-Fi.  The Express version does not have these options.  The Ultra version of Brand 1 supports 5GHz Wi-Fi, as well as 2.4GHz.  The “Ultra” version of this device, as of the date of publication, could be had for $98.99; the “Express” version could be had for $39.00.   

“Brand 2” is a device that purports an Android 10.0 TV experience.  The device itself is quite attractive looking, and is immediately eye-catching.  The first thing I thought of when I saw it, is “this looks cool.”  The brand is a company I have never heard of, and I couldn’t immediately find any support on from the manufacturer.  The angular design is quite trendy for someone who wants to portray being digitally “current,” and likes to have their devices on display.  Brand 2 has two USB-A ports, onboard Ethernet, an onboard Micro SD card slot (listed as TF).  Brand 2 lists only support for 2.4GHz Wi-Fi.  This device could be had for $29.00 and doesn’t appear to have any “Express” or “Ultra” versions.  The device also boasts a 6K video output. 

Now, let’s compare and contrast the two devices – for the sake of each device being compared to a similar, I’m going to compare “Brand 1” in the Ultra configuration only, against the Brand 2 device.  Because I’m not posting exactly which devices these are, while I did include comments on their aesthetics, I’m not going to be evaluating them from an aesthetic perspective.

From a price perspective, Brand 2 is the clear victor.  Couple this with the fact it says it puts out 6K video for that price!  Brand 2 has a definite advantage in the terms of price.

From an output perspective, Brand 2 appears to clench the victory again.  Assuming that both points are true, Brand B puts out a 6K picture.  Now, whether or not this is an “upscaled” picture, or a pure 6K picture, that can’t be ascertained at this point – but, it is worth mentioning. 

When it comes to reliability and security, the shoe seems to go on the other foot.  Brand 1 is extremely well known, common, is easy to find support and a knowledgebase for on its website, and has specific mentions to the fact it keeps its devices updated and takes issues surrounding malware and prevention of it, seriously.  With Brand 2, I couldn’t find much of anything, outside of the device being listed for sale.  I couldn’t immediately find any support, knowledgebase channels, etc. (That said, I’m not saying they don’t exist – the device could be re-branded, and the true manufacturer hidden – I just couldn’t find them with a basic websearch, looking for support options.)

This, to me, when it comes to Brand 2, is a major concern for me.  Its very possible that the device remains supported post-purchase for awhile, but I’m not seeing any direct evidence of it (couple that with the fact that Brand 1 is a well known brand who specifically makes references to updates and efforts to combat malware).  In my mind, this pushes Brand 1 kind of at a neck-and-neck standpoint for me at this point.  Brand 2 offers apparent considerable performance – for a great price; however, it looks like a higher price and a familiar, premium brand name on it may wind up also offering more support and security, in Brand 1. 

Recently, I came across a video from one of my favorite “techie channels,” Linus Tech Tips.  In it, Linus and his team specifically tackle this question: “Are cheap Android TV boxes okay?” was the basic premise.  Linus and his team had a strong answer: NO. 

While I could re-hash what Linus and his team came up with, I’ll do you one even better – I’ll provide the more entertaining option, and let you watch here! But most importantly, Linus and his team came up with a point that is VERY important: *EVERY* device they tested, had malware.  

Now, this is very important.  Because, “malware” can mean, really anything; and they didn’t get too specific in the video about what kind of malware, and what it was capable of doing – but, I think it’s reasonable to conclude, that for a security minded person…  any malware is bad, and if we know about it, our first instinct is to get rid of it.  Sure, it could just be skimming user data just to steer marketing at you.  But, at the same time, malware may lay in wait, waiting for that credit card number to get ticked into the device – or an email address or password.  Because we simply don’t know, and this, to me, is a major concern – this pole-vaults Brand 1 well into first place for me, at this point.  

It is worth mentioning, that the specific devices I looked at (both Brand 1 and Brand 2) were not evaluated in Linus’ video – BUT, Brand 2 was a very similar device to any one of these.  It could have very easily been selected if it were in the list that day for them to chose.  That to me, makes me feel that Brand 1, the brand-name device, is the way to go here.

The axiom from my father rings through my head right now as I write this:

“You get what you pay for…”