Android on a stick: Using the MK808
Since the app that played YouTube videos on my Roku Player became unavailable I had been searching around for a good solution to stream online video content to my TV. I had been looking at newly announced devices like the Asus Qube or the Samsung Homesync and they looked good but seemed to be taking forever getting to market her in the UK. Another alternative was to get a cheap mini-PC with Android on it. Initially I had been reluctant to do this as they are very cheap and had mixed reviews. Would it be a waste of money? Then one day I saw such a device for £33 (including postage from China). It featured Android 4.1, a dual core processor, 1GB of RAM, 8GB storage and a power supply! It was time to take a risk so I ordered one. It turned up within a couple of weeks and the device I got actually has Android 4.2.2 on it! So it was time to see what it could do.
The first thing to note is that this device connects to your TV through HDMI. It then seems to select the best HDMI mode that your TV is capable of. My main TV is a few years old and doesn't support some HDMI modes. I made the mistake of powering up the unit before the TV, which resulted in it selecting the wrong mode and I got a "Mode not supported" message from the TV. Avoid this by powering up your TV first so it can negotiate the mode! The unit is turned up configured in a slightly bizarre way. You will need to switch on the setting to update the time automatically and set it to your time zone. Until you do this you probably won't be able to log into Google Play or YouTube.
The browser was also incorrectly set up. The unit has Flash already installed but it didn't work with websites as it had been switched off in the browser! Go to Settings -> Advanced and set Enable plug-ins to Always on. Also set the UA Agent to Android not iPad as IPads don't have Flash. You should find that websites with Flash now work.
I have been using my MK808 with a small Rii remote keyboard. This is about the size of a remote control with a keyboard and a small touchpad for the mouse. This works very well. There is also a slightly more expensive MK808B on sale which has Bluetooth connectivity which would enable you to save a USB port. If you go for an external keyboard like this the presence of the on screen keyboard might get annoying so the best option seems to be to install the Null Keyboard and set the keyboard to that. This will stop the on screen keyboard pop ups.
Interestingly, I also found that the MK802III Remote Client app works perfectly with the MK808. You can install this onto your Android mobile phone using it as the keyboard and touchpad for the device. Very clever!
I have been surprised as how quick this unit is. The browser is actually quicker than my tablet and the whole thing feels quick and smooth to use. On the 8GB model that I have it looks like about 6.5GB is available (the rest is the operating system). However there is a mini SD card slot in the side and also two USB ports (one full size and one mini - but an adapter is supplied) so you can connect external storage. I found that I could connect a 2TB external hard disc without problems. I have read that some people have had problems with the WiFi and the unit getting hot. I haven't noticed any WiFi problems yet, although it does sit about two centimetres from the router! I did a quick test using it further away from the router and didn't notice any problems. On the heat side it does get a little warm but nothing alarming yet, although I haven't overclocked it which I suppose could add to overheating.
What can it do?
As you can install apps from the Google Play store the device is potentially capable of quite a lot. My interest in it is watching web series from online video sources. YouTube, Blip, Vimeo (through apps) and Koldcast TV (through the browser) all seem to work perfectly - even in HD! I was also able to watch the near-live coverage of the Ice Hockey World championships through YouTube on the browser. For broadcast television catchup services the results have been more mixed. BBC iPlayer Big Screen seems to work through the browser but their mobile app doesn't support the device leading to a rather confusing user experience. ITV Player redirects you to their Google Play app which does not support the device. 4OD installs but does not play video and Demand 5 does not play through the browser. Interestingly TV Catchup works as does Spotify!
I tried to use Netflix with the MK808 too, but the picture is scrambled on videos. I have read that this is meant to work with the unit, so if anyone knows why this could be let me know!
Many other types of applications will install but obviously you do not have a touch screen with this so your mileage will vary. Interestingly I found that MIT App Inventor can be used with this device so you could experiment with using this to build TV apps!
So far I have been very impressed with the MK808. I wasn't sure what to expect, to be honest I wasn't expecting much but so far it has proved to be a delight. It is interesting to think about this in comparison with something like the Raspberry Pi which is in the same price range. That is of course quite a bare bones experience whereas this is almost consumer ready (with a few rough edges). What would happen if Google made a £30 "Nexus Box" or something along these lines? It feels we are very near to this being possible. If they could make a device that did not need reconfiguring out the box they could pretty much own the Internet TV space in terms of technology.