Cheap Android set-top TV Box
I have been doing my best to test the validity of the old adage “you get what you pay for”. With some minor exceptions, the adage seems to be holding true. However be it curiosity or be it stupidity, I have decided to test it once again with the Tronfy s805 MX Android TV set-top box (the name just rolls off the tongue doesn’t it?). After making sure all of my Apple devices were turned facing the wall so they didn’t have to see me bring in an Android device into the home, I connected the Tronfy MX box and used it almost exclusively for the better part of six months. Did I finally get what I paid for? It has happened once before…
The design is compact, simple and blends into the background of your entertainment centre as a more high-end model would.
I purchased the box for $65 (Canadian, about $50 USD) and after plugging in a non-sanctioned power supply, quickly removing it once the smell of burning plastic entered my nasal canal, I decided to purchase a second unit. Maybe I did not get what I paid for, but arguably I got what I deserved for using the wrong power supply. In my defense, the supplier I got it from shipped the Tronfy MX Box with a European style plug that does not work in my Canadian outlets without an adapter. Although an adapter was included, it was loose, flimsy and was a clear fire hazard as it continually ‘popped off’ without any real reason to other than its poor design. For the second attempt, I verified the input and output requirements for the device before connecting an extra adapter from my scrap-yard I call an office and to the surprise of no one, it worked much better this time.
Specs and the overall experience
The Tronfy MX Box operates on Android Kit Kat and includes the Google services, giving us access to YouTube and the Google play store. A lot of knock off Android devices do not include the Google services, making them relatively useless without a lot of effort, and so I was very happy to see the MX Box include them.
Google Play is one of the keys to making a good set-top box and it is fortunately a part of the Tronfy MX Box.
The Tronfy MX box has a S805 Quad Core ARM processor, 1GB of RAM, 8GB of storage space and supports 1080p video playback. While we can debate the merit of these specifications, what really matters is the experience while using it – is it able to play content without skipping and buffering all the time? Can it play games competently? The truth is that this is highly dependent on your network, but on my very typical network, my local movies and streaming Netflix content would play just fine. Admittedly sometimes it took a little bit longer to load than I would’ve liked, but once it started playing it would play without flaw 95 times out of 100, and the few times it didn’t work immediately, rebooting the device solved the problem. I did notice that the range of the WIFI radio was not as good as my Apple TV, however it was on par with the Roku and is worthy of note as this may factor into your experience.
While the overall performance is ‘good’, it’s not the level of experience you would expect from a name brand. Furthermore, if you are ever in need of end-user support or expect software updates, prepare to be disappointed. If however you are fine with troubleshooting on your own when necessary and have no expectations of software improvements in the future then you should be fine with the device ‘as-is’.
The Tronfy MX Box includes two USB 2.0 ports, an SD card slot and OTG micro USB port as well as an HDMI, 3.5 audio jack and SPDIF port.
Of course it also includes a (120v / 0.5a input) power input as well as an Ethernet port and both WIFI and Bluetooth functionality. The wide variety of connectivity options and ports make the Tronfy MX Box one of the best devices I have seen, short of a full-fledged PC, for enhancing the base capabilities with the connectivity options. You can add additional storage, game controllers, a wireless keyboard and mouse, or with use of an RF Dongle in the USB port, you can connect other remotes if you desire (and should, as we will discover.)
But wait, there’s more!
The Tronfy MX Box also includes some wireless display options such as support for Google cast and Miracast that allows you to display content from your phone to the big screen.
Now how much would you pay?
What about Apple Airplay? While the packaging of the box advertises Airplay support, I was never able to get it to function, even with 3rd party apps. I have not been able to isolate the cause (I tried a few phones on various versions of iOS as well, but to no avail) but perhaps you will succeed where I have failed. So I would say that it does NOT support Airplay, but there is a chance, when the stars align just right, that it could work but as a PSA to my fellow Apple fans – do not count on the Tronfy MX Box working with Airplay.
She’s got the look.
By default, the Tronfy MX Box displays a custom launcher containing a myriad of spelling mistakes and un-intuitive design choices, but at least it works and looks more like it was designed for a television set in mind as compared to stock Android.
“My recommend” is that you use a spell-checker next time.
You can switch over to a more stock Android launcher if you wish or install more custom launchers so you are not stuck with the default launcher. While it is functional with the default launcher, as a design snob I quickly removed it in favour of the aptly named ‘TV launcher’ available from the play store. Consider this 3rd party launcher “My Recommend” as well.
One of the greatest strengths of this device and ultimately its greatest weakness, is the fact that at its core, the Tronfy MX Box is an Android phone in ‘box form’ and is not much different than connecting your phone directly to a television (without the native ability to make phone calls of course). You can install games, streaming media apps, social networking and productivity apps – even fart apps if you’re into that kind of thing (admittedly, that could be entertaining with surround sound speakers). Anything that you could put on a Kit Kat Android phone, you can also put on the Tronfy MX Box.
The Play Store, like friendship, is magic.
This ability however, is not as impressive as I made it sound – the apps in the Play Store are built around developers expectations of a touch screen, and so while you can download and install nearly any app in the play store, unless it is connected to a touch sensitive screen or touch enabled remote control, you may not be able to use them. Assuming the apps work at all, the layout and interfacing is far from ideal on a big screen television for the most part as the Tronfy box cannot install ‘Google TV’ specific apps and is limited to the Android apps in the Play Store.
Netflix, YouTube and the need for a better remote
The two biggest offenders of this ‘phone layout on a big screen’ layout issue are sadly Netflix and YouTube, which are essential apps for a television box.
YouTube is all but unusable on this device as it relies on a touch interface to scroll and select a video. ‘Mouse Mode’ will help select a video, but offers nothing to help scrolling the screen to see other videos.
The bundled remote can toggle between ‘directional button’ navigation and a ‘mouse mode’ that will display a cursor on the screen that can (slowly) be manipulated from a distance. Unfortunately navigating these apps is a very miserable experience the bundled remote – scrolling is all but impossible, the precision of the ‘mouse mode’ is dubious, learning what works and what doesn’t on 2 of the most standard apps in history is frustrating and it is clear that the layout was designed for a finger on a phone, rather than a remote control. You can improve the experience by purchasing a touch pad and keyboard remote, but the experience is still lacking in elegance when compared to a more capable Android box such as the NVIDIA Shield.
You must use ‘mouse’ mode in order to select a show on Netflix. Awkward and un-intuitive, especially for children or man-children who continue to watch cartoons such as myself.
If you are going to purchase this device I highly recommend you use The RII remote (at an additional $20) in lieu of the original remote. The experience completely changes for the better with this more capable remote, but if you do not want to invest any more money, the bundled remote will technically work – mind you it will cost a small fortune in ‘swear jar’ fees.
Seriously… get this remote.
At this point you may be tempted to dismiss the Tronfy MX box, however before you close this tab and go back to looking for videos on how to win the lottery (for example), we have not yet spoken of where this box really shines – its ability to run KODI (formerly known as XBMC). If you are unfamiliar with KODI then I urge you to take a look right now because it is very much a game changer. In short, KODI can help manage and play nearly any and all of your local media. The Tronfy MX Box includes a full-fledged version of KODI pre-installed, but you can also install it from the play store if need be. KODI runs at a very decent pace – not perfect, but definitely acceptable to the average user. It can read data from the SD card slot, USB connected devices or connected network devices such as a NAS – and yes even Apple’s Time Capsule router/NAS.
If you ever wondered whatever became of me…
On top of it, even on the Tronfy MX box, KODI can also take advantage of the plethora of established add-ons as well. By comparison, popular competitive boxes such as the Apple TV 3 as well as the Roku cannot run KODI at all. Even an overpriced jail-broken Apple TV 2 does not run KODI as well as the Tronfy MX Box does.
More than meets the eye!
While Kit Kat is far from the most recent Android operating system, the flexibility of Android, to some extent, ‘future-proofs’ this device, as there exists many alternative uses for the Tronfy MX Box once it has outlived its role as a TV box. For instance, A few months ago a friend of mine sold me a ‘fixer-upper’ arcade cabinet. I was able to connect the Tronfy MX Box to a screen and joystick controller to make a pretty mean retro emulator arcade!
Do you think the king would notice if I ordered a replacement Ball of Light at a discount from China and used the saved gold on a pafu-pafu girl instead?
The ability to be re-purposed almost indefinitely places this device in the same functional league as a Raspberry pi where it can be used to do just about anything your imagination can come up with. While you can do a lot of the same with a Raspberry Pi, arguably the MX Box is much easier to use for the ‘creative, but less tech savvy’ individual even if the Raspberry Pi is cheaper.
This is a tough one – the Tronfy MX Box is pretty impressive for what it is, but it is far from a top of the line device. It really depends on who you are and what you want. If you are looking for something simple that can play content and apps fairly well, then perhaps give this box a look. Ultimately, it will not impress those who have used more advanced boxes, but for an introductory system, the Tronfy MX Box is a solid competitor. Unfortunately, at the $65 asking price and knowing that it is utter rubbish without an additional $20 remote, and possibly requiring a region-specific adapter, we are looking at a minimum $85 total investment (or more if you break one before you can write your review… for example). By comparison, you can get a Roku or Apple TV3 for that price, although will loose out on KODI. If you can grab it on sale, then I definitely recommend it as a ‘starter’ box – it is a perfectly competent device, but I am not sure it is worth $85 when all is said and done. A pity, because I genuinely like this device.
Although it does have Google Chrome support, which offers its own advantages…
Thank you for reading. You could help me out by liking and sharing this article. By doing so, you help me continue my quest to purchase and review the most mediocre products one can imagine. Ok… maybe it is not the most noble cause, but it would help if you shared this post regardless. Thank you and until next time!