I have been using an old Windows laptop attached to my TV as a home media machine for several years now. My brother was asking how he could get something similar on a budget. It seemed to me that with the passage of time, there must be something more elegant out there than the rig I set up.
After looking around for quite a while, I stumbled on some fairly obscure Chinese products and an entire community of makers who have developed the aftermarket firmware to make these little computers run nearly flawlessly. For about $40 to your door (add about $15 if you want a camera and mic) these Android sticks you get at Engel.com fit the bill. They turn your HD TV into a well-performing Android computer, including Wi-Fi, HDMI, USB, Micro SD card interface, and Bluetooth v2. Add some memory (up to 32 GB on a micro SD chip or any USB thumb drive) and it’s a fine media player and web browser. It will run most Android apps.
It gets a little warm running 1080p vids, but I haven’t had any problems from that. Be sure to get the Finless ROM, a primo firmware that is just plain better than the firmware that comes from the factory. You can add it yourself but why? So far Engel’s product is the only one I have run into with the Finless ROM pre-installed.
There are several manufacturers of these machines and none of them are household names. To add to the confusion, there are counterfeits which are sold by some vendors. Tales of poor hardware and firmware abound, with broken Wi-Fi antennas, overheating and software conflicts being common themes. The proprietor at Engel.com, Gavin Engel, seems to have chosen his line carefully from the available models.
In the six weeks or so using it, I have added my favorite media player, office suite and the Firefox browser, but the included software will also work well. I had to ditch one added app that shut down Wi-Fi, but a quick uninstall of the offending program put everything right again.
For ease of use, add a USB hub, a wireless keyboard and mouse. If you are tight on money, download the app from Engel to your android cell phone that turns it into a perfectly serviceable keyboard and touch pad for this computer. I was using that app for a time before I got an aftermarket controller.
I notice that the Engel site has an “unbricking” service. The makers at the Freaktab bulletin board tend to push the edge of the envelope with their firmware experimentation, and there are numerous reports where they have run the little things right off the rails.I suspect this should not be a problem if you don’t go root with them. Some folks there have gone so far as to run Linux on the sticks.
These computers are tiny, they’re dirt cheap and they work. I just gave it to my brother for his birthday. I’m getting another one because these will run a 1080p video better than the rig I have, which pixilates like crazy at that resolution.