Many Android devices can be used with a TV, but they aren’t all “Android TV” devices. That’s a very important distinction to make when shopping around. You don’t want to end up with a spyware-ridden knock-off—so here’s what you need to know.
One of Android’s greatest strengths can sometimes be one of its greatest weaknesses. As an open-source operating system, there’s nothing to stop any ol’ manufacturer from putting the Android Open-Source Project (AOSP) on a device. But not all Android devices are created equal—you need to be careful when deciding which one to hook up to your TV.
A Brief History of Android on TVs
Google’s first foray into TV interfaces was “Google TV” in 2010—not to be confused with the modern Google TV. The original Google TV devices weren’t very popular. Cable companies and streaming services didn’t like the platform, and there just weren’t many devices on the market. It was one of Google’s many failed products.
However, there was some small but growing demand for smart boxes that could be connected to a TV around that era. A lot of companies were trying to figure it out. The first Apple TV was launched in 2007, the first Roku came out in 2008, and there were interesting devices from smaller companies, such as the Boxee Box. It was a wild time.
If you wanted Android on your TV then, however, there wasn’t really a solid option from an “official” source. This opened the door for a wide variety of “Android TV” boxes from no-name manufacturers. Many of them didn’t have any sort of TV-optimized UI—it was literally just Android displayed on a big screen like someone blew up a tablet to five feet across. To say it was less than ideal would be an understatement.
Eventually, Google launched Android TV in 2014 with a dedicated UI for TV screens, better support for remotes, and APIs for TV apps. The company has also repurposed the “Google TV” name for an updated version of the Android TV interface. Still, despite the emergence of official Android TV devices, the old-school knock-offs persist.
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Android TV is Still Android
Android TV and Google TV look very different than the Android you see on phones and tablets. However, Android TV is still very much Android at the core. You can do pretty much all of the same things you would do with an Android phone, just in a different way.
For example, some people might opt for an off-brand Android set-top box to sideload apps and games. It’s possible to sideload apps on an official Android TV device too. Whether you have the Android TV or Google TV flavor, you are free to sideload to your heart’s content. Heck, you can even sideload Android apps on an Amazon Fire TV.
Of course, that doesn’t mean all apps are going to work correctly on Android TV, but that’s the case for off-brand Android boxes too. You’re always better off using the version that takes big screens and remotes into consideration.
RELATED: How to Sideload Apps on Android TV
You Don’t Have to Pay a Premium For Android TV
Price may also be one reason why some people gravitate toward the generic Android boxes on Amazon—and a very big reason, at that. There was certainly a time when official Android TV devices were more expensive, but that’s far from the case nowadays.
Walmart sells an Onn-branded official Google TV streaming box with 4K support and a physical remote for only $20. Google’s 1080p version of the Chromecast with Google TV is only $30, and the 4K version is only $50. If you don’t like the Google TV skin, you can opt for the Tivo Stream 4K with the traditional Android TV UI for only $30.
There are so many great official Android TV and Google TV options available these days. It just doesn’t make sense to buy a no-name box to save a few dollars.
Chromecast with Google TV (HD)
The HD version of the Google Chromecast has full access to the TV Google Play Store, and has an integrated remote with Google Assistant.
Your Security Is at Risk
Perhaps the biggest reason why off-brand Android TV devices should be avoided is security. Some of the most popular knock-offs on Amazon have been discovered to contain clickbots that secretly click on ads in the background to generate money for the manufacturer.
That’s what has been found on some very popular Android TV devices on Amazon, specifically those branded as “AllWinner” and “Rockchip.” One user discovered the AllWinner T95 box was connected to a large botnet of other devices infected with firmware. It was being used to click on ads, but it could easily be used for more nefarious purposes. The problem was confirmed by a security researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
Google has officially addressed this problem, too. It mentions that devices built with AOSP are being marketed as Android TV devices, and they may even include the Play Store and other Google apps. However, a device with the Play Store installed is not necessarily Play Protect certified.
You can look to our own guide for installing the Play Store on Amazon Fire tablets as an example of this. Those devices are not certified by Google—they’re Amazon through and through—but as Android devices, they’re still capable of running the Play Store. It’s the same story with no-name Android TV boxes.
Given the disaster that could result from malware having access to your device and your Google account, it’s certainly not worth saving a few bucks—only to spend a lot more than that cleaning up the security mess and identity theft on the other end.
How to Buy a Safe Android TV Box
There are a few key things to look for when buying an official Android TV device. First and foremost, you can check the Android TV website for a list of Google’s partners. Brands listed here are making Play Protect-certified Android TV devices.
You can also check on the device itself to see if it’s Play Protect certified. In order to do that, you’ll simply need to open the Play Store, select the profile icon in the top right, and go to “Play Protect.” You’ll be able to see if your device is certified under “Play Protect certification.”
If the device is not certified, you should seriously consider returning it. There are so many good streaming devices available at every price point. You don’t need a security risk attached to your TV.
The bottom line is it simply doesn’t make sense to go with a no-name white-box random “Android TV” pick off Amazon or eBay when you can get a proper first-party Android TV box for almost the exact same price—but with better support, better security, and better build quality too.