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Budget Android brain for your dumb TV

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The "A-Link SmartTV" box is one of many low price Android devices on the market now intended to be connected to your TV. Some are even shaped like USB memory sticks but instead of a USB connector at the end they have a HDMI connector, allowing you to just attache your Android device to the back of your TV.

These devices uses an unmodified, generic version of Android. The A-Link uses Android 4.0.3 (Ice Cream Sandwich) and it still has all the "Flight Mode" and "Ring Tone" options under settings. Although the user interface has not been modified in any way for use on a large screen TV, it works surprisingly well. The main challenge concerns controlling the device as it lacks a touch screen but there are several Chinese "Air Mouse" devices on the market that works a bit like a Wii controller using a built in gyroscope. Typically, these controllers also include a tiny qwerty keyboard.

The A-Link looks like a traditional set-top-device and comes with an 850 MHz Cortex A9 single core CPU and a Mali 400MP single core GPU. It also has 4GB of flash memory for storage. It is Google Play compatible so installing applications is very simple. Software such as Angry Birds, Google Maps and Chrome works very well. Other applications that are supposed to be compatible don't even start, such as Youtube and Flickr.

I have personally used different set-top-boxes as media players in the living room, showing media files from a NAS Samba/Cifs mount. So how does this cheap Android box stack up agains for example the Xtreamer Sidewinder 2 that I have most recently used?

Quite well. The Xtreamer is a dedicated media player and does what it does very well - but it is plagued by OS bugs that crashes the whole device all to frequently and makes using it a slow and "nerdy" experience. Since the A-Link uses Android, the OS is feature rich, polished and quite user friendly - making for a far more pleasant experience.

The A-Link's capability as a media player depends entirely on the media player software you chose. The BSplayer is a capable and easy to use player that can play movies from remote Samba mounts. Unfortunately the BSplayer can not make use of hardware accelerated video decoding when playing files over Samba mounts, only when playing files from local storage such as an SD card. Since the A-Link is "rooted", it is possible to use the application CifsManager to create a Samba mount to the NAS on the operating system level and then use BSplayer or any other player to open the remote files as if they where local. This is not a good or user friendly solution, but it works very well and the device is capable of playing full HD h264 compressed video. Without hardware acceleration or video decoding, the CPU struggles to play back even the simplest h264 encoded SD video and drops quite a lot of frames.