A96mini: Android TV box review
The A96mini is an Android TV box, like so many that you can find at online retailers like Amazon, GearBest and Newegg.
Android TV boxes are known to be inexpensive. The A96mini currently retails for $39.99 on Amazon as of this writing.
During my review of the A96mini, I really wanted to answer one question.
Why buy an Android TV box when you get a streaming device with a vast library of native apps for almost the same money?
An Amazon Fire TV Streaming Stick with an Alexa Voice Remote costs the same, but will give you access to 10,000 apps and games. For about $10 less, you could get a Roku Express, and tap into to 3,500+ streaming channels.
A96mini promises to be a lot of things – a web browser, music hub and media streamer with the ability to pipe Netflix, games and YouTube to your TV in a snap.
But Android boxes like A96mini are largely used for Kodi, the controversial open-source media center. Kodi is often incorrectly identified as the culprit of delivering pirated movies and shows.
To be clear, it’s actually the add-ons (essentially apps) created by third-party developers that enable such streaming. For the record, I do not condone use of these third-party apps. But it’s important to note that Kodi isn’t to blame for how people are using its software.
This week, Amazon took steps to reckon with the sale of Android boxes on their site that are sold as “fully loaded” with these third party add-ons.
All is not lost with Kodi, or with Android TV boxes like the A96mini.
There are many legal uses for the software, which I’ll get into below.
So is the A96mini worth the money?
It may depend on what you want out of a streaming device.
Android TV box vs Android TV
The most important thing to know about Android boxes is that they should not be confused as Android TV devices.
They are two completely different animals that are not related.
Android TV is a specific brand of software developed by Google. It’s currently available in a small number of streaming devices and smart TVs.
The list streaming devices using Android TV is short.
NVIDIA SHIELD TV: Streams 4K HDR content. Netflix, Amazon Video and has high-end gaming.
Xiaomi’s Mi Box: Has many of the same features as NVIDIA SHIELD, but costs far less.
Razer Forge TV: The breakout Android TV device in 2015 that is a games-first platform.
You can still find the ASUS Nexus Player for sale on sites like Newegg.
Smart TVs that operate with Android TV include the Sharp AQUOS and Sony BRAVIA.
Android TV has been gaining momentum both in popularity and its uses.
NVIDIA SHIELD TV and Xiaomi’s Mi Box have 4K HDR streaming, Google Cast and voice-controlled remotes.
NVIDIA announced plans at CES 2017 to broaden SHIELD TV’s capabilities by making it a smart home hub. The NVIDIA Spot – a golf ball sized microphone — is the accessory that will make it happen. The Spot is expected to be released later this year.
The A96mini has an Armlogic S905X Quad Core ARM Cortex A53. It operates on a wireless 2.4GHz bandwidth or with an Ethernet port. Connecting to my WiFi router was very easy.
The CPU is described in its product summary on Amazon as one that “makes sure the box (is) running stable and smooth to load movies, pictures and games without buffer.”
During my testing that happened over the course of a week, loading apps was never a problem. Launching them was difficult at best.
I got Netflix to work after many hang-ups and freezes, but the picture looked gauzy. A software update didn’t help much.
The Google Play store had many apps that I was interested in using. I subscribe to PlayStation Vue, which also lets me use a vast selection of TV Everywhere apps.
I couldn’t stream PS Vue or most of the apps that I wanted to authenticate with my account.
The FXNOW app quickly got up and running, but the picture quality wasn’t on par with a Fire TV device or Roku.
Downloading the apps from the Google Play Store was difficult until I connected a wireless mouse to the A96mini. The remote control wasn’t very responsive with navigating through the Google Play Store.
Using A96mini with Kodi, YouTube
A96mini performed best with Kodi and YouTube. They’re featured prominently when you first boot up the A96mini. You’ll get much better performance with a wireless mouse instead of the remote control.
I used a VicTsing MM057 2.4G Wireless Portable Mobile Mouse, which required no software installation. Right clicking allowed me to back out of menus and apps, which seemed harder to do with the A96mini remote control.
The power cord was a bit short at just over three feet long. That could be a problem when your TV isn’t too close to an outlet.
I did a software update after hooking up my A96mini to my home network. I do this with nearly every piece of hardware that I test out, even ones that proclaim to have automatic software updates.
It can also be an indicator with how well your hardware is going to serve you long term.
In the oncoming age of the Internet of Things, updates to devices arrive more frequently from software updates than through releasing new hardware.
A96mini came with Kodi v16.1. I updated to Kodi v17.1 “Krypton” to see how well it would work. A96mini comes loaded with Android 6.0.
Through Kodi, I was able to tap into my live OTA feed coming from my HDHomeRun Extend that I have running on my home network. The HDHomeRun add-on for Kodi worked well, along with its PVR menu. Add-ons like this and others – all legal – can be found on the official Kodi web site.
The YouTube app showed a bright, crisp picture, but worked best when using a mouse to navigate.
Should I buy an Android TV box?
Aside from using it for Kodi or YouTube, A96 mini responded quickly when it was connected to a local hard drive. You can also connect a USB drive.
The web browser performed well, and could serve as an inexpensive way to surf around on the Internet on your television.
There are two USB ports which can be used for connecting a keyboard and mouse. You have to buy the keyboard or mouse separately.
If all that appeals to you, then an Android TV box might be for you. There is a wide variety of Android TV boxes on sites like GearBest.com, but they vary in price and ability. Some cost upwards of $70 or $80.
Personally, I’m a bigger fan of an Amazon Fire TV, especially the gaming edition.
Streaming devices that operate with the actual Android TV software like NVIDIA SHIELD TV or less expensive Mi Box will also be a better purchase if you are intent on 4K streaming and gaming.
Do you use an Android TV box? What’s your favorite device? Let readers know in the comment below.
Founder and Editor of The Cord Cutting Report. Before launching the site in 2016, he worked for more than two decades as a staff writer or correspondent for a number of daily newspapers, including The Boston Globe. His enthusiasm for tech began with the Atari 2600. Follow @james_kimble