A new crop of Android TV boxes featuring Amlogic S802 processors are starting to hit the streets. Like earlier TV boxes, they’re designed to let you run Android apps ranging from Netflix to XBMC to Asphalt 8: Airborne and other games.
But Amlogic’s new chip is said to be faster, offer better 3D graphics, and add support for 4K video playback, among other things.
So does it live up to the promise? Kinda.
Both devices are small boxes designed to hang out by your TV and each features a quad-core ARM Cortex-A9 processor, 2GB of RAM, and 8GB of storage, WiFi, Bluetooth, HDMI and Ethernet.
But there are plenty of differences which you’ll notice once you take these little guys out of the box and start using them.
Amlogic’s S802 processor is a 2 GHz, ARM Cortex-A9 quad-core processor with ARM Mali-450 graphics. While the official spec sheet mentions support for 4K videos, I haven’t found any 4K videos that play smoothly. You’re results may vary depending on the video files, formats, and Android apps you use to watch the movies. Note that I’m primarily concerned with the out-of-the-box experience in this overview… some users have reported that downloading firmware updates and custom codec packs has helped add support for additional videos.
The Tronsmart Vega S89 box also boasts support for H.265/HEVC videos, although I also haven’t been able to get any files in these formats to play smoothly.
The S802 processor supports up to 4GB of RAM, and unlike many earlier ARM chips, it supports Gigabit Ethernet on devices with the appropriate hardware. The first devices featuring S802 chip started appearing in the second quarter of 2014.
Rockchip’s RK3188 processor was released in 2013 and it’s also a quad-core ARM Cortex-A9 processor. But this chip features top speeds of 1.6 GHz, up to 2GB of RAM, and ARM Mali-400 graphics.
The RK3188 chip has been used in dozens of Android tablets, game consoles, and TV boxes over the past year or so, and while it doesn’t have all the features of Amlogic’s latest processor, it’s certainly no slouch.
Not only have people been using RK3188-powered devices to play Android games, watch HD video, and perform other common tasks… but there’s an independent community of developers that have been running full Linux operating systems such as Ubuntu on devices with this chip, turning Android TV boxes into Linux desktops.
Both the RK3188 and S802 chips are powerful enough for most basic tasks… but in my tests, the S802 processor is clearly faster. There are more details in the performance section below… but note that the RK3188 isn’t Rockchip’s newest processor: The company recently launched the RK3288 ARM Cortex-17 chip with Mali-T764 graphics.
Both the MK902 and Vega S89 TV boxes are small enough to hold in one hand, although the hockey puck-shaped Vega S89 is a little bigger and heavier than Rikomagic’s square box.
Each device features 2GB of RAM, 8GB of storage, a microSD card slot, 802.11n WiFi, Bluetooth, 10/100 Ethernet, AV ports, SPDIF, and full-sized Ethernet jacks.
The MK902 has 4 USB 2.0 ports while the Vega S89 has just 2. But the Vega S89 has a micro USB OTG port. Rikomagic’s box also has a built-in camera, which the Tronsmart device lacks.
But the Vega S89 has a power button on the box, something which the MK902 lacks. It also comes with a remote control.
Both the power button and the remote are of limited use — you have to press the power button to turn on the device after plugging it in, but once the device is turned on, pressing the power button won’t turn it off and
pressing and holding it won’t give you a shutdown prompt.
Update: If you hold down the power button long enough (about 10 seconds), it will shut down the device. But there’s no shutdown prompt. It just powers down entirely.
You can use the infrared remote control’s power button to turn off the display and enter sleep mode without actually completely powering down the box. This lets you bring the device back to life quickly. But if you want to fully power down the Vega S89, you’ll need to unplug it.
The remote has arrow buttons, number keys, media buttons, and dedicated function keys for home, menu, and back functions as well as music, browser, media, and app drawer keys. You can also enable mouse mode to move an on-screen cursor, but slowly moving a mouse with the arrow keys can be tedious.
I found it much easier to test this device by plugging in a wireless mouse and keyboard, especially since some Android apps such as YouTube and Netflix are virtually impossible to navigate without using the tedious mouse mode — they were designed for touchscreen input, not media center remote controls.
All told, it’s nice that the Tronsmart Vega S89 comes with a remote control, but it’s not quite useful enough to replace a traditional mouse and keyboard, or at least an air mouse like the Rikomagic MK704.
The MK902 has an external antenna, which you would think would mean it would offer better WiFi reception than other Android TV boxes… and that might be true. I didn’t really encounter problems with my WiFi signal using this box. But the Vega S89 was able to connect to my router’s 5G WiFi network while the MK902 only recognized the slower 2.4 GHz network.
After running a series of speed tests, it became clear that performance can vary greatly, but on average, the Tronsmart Vega S89 was able to achieve higher download speeds than the Rikomagic MK902… although both were fast enough to handle HD video streams from Netflix and YouTube.
|WiFi down||6.09 MB/s||9.8 MB/s|
|WiFi up||2.73 MB/s||1.87 MB/s|
|Avg of 5 tests||Avg of 5 tests|
What these test results don’t show is that when I downloaded a large data file for the 3DMark benchmark on each devices, the S89 finished the download in about half the time it took the MK902.
Software and user interface
Rikomagic’s MK902 ships with Android 4.2 Jelly Bean while the Tronsmart Vega S89 comes with Android 4.4 KitKat. Like many Chinese TV boxes, the software on each device seems to be a bit of a work in progress.
For instance, Geekbuying tells me that there’s a known problem with audio/video synchronization in XBMC on the Vega S89, but that Tronsmart plans to fix the issue with a future firmware update. Some users have also found that rooting the device has allowed them to tweak performance.
Also like many Chinese TV boxes, you may have a hard time finding some apps in the Google Play Store when using these devices. That’s because while both boxes are technically capable of running virtually any app that will run on an Android phone or tablet, the Play Store might not think they’re compatible. I ran into more problems finding apps with the MK902 than the Vega S89… but every app I did download ran just fine.
There are plenty of devices that let you stream internet video, play games, or surf the web on your TV. You could buy a Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Google Chromecast, Apple TV, or other device made specifically for this purpose.
What sets boxes like the S89 and MK902 apart are their versatility. Yes, these devices let you run Android apps on the TV… but they let you run most Android apps on your TV. That includes apps that aren’t officially available for the Fire TV or classic Google TV boxes like the Vizio Co-Star or Asus Cube.
On the flipside, there are some apps available for other platforms which are not available for general-purpose Android devices. The most glaring example is Amazon Instant Video. While you can use one of these boxes to stream content from Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Vudu, Crackle, and many other popular video sites, Amazon support isn’t included (although you may be able to sorta/kinda get it to work if you install a web browser that still supports the outdated Adobe Flash plugin for Android).
The MK902 user interface looks almost exactly like what you’d get with an Android phone or tablet. There’s a home screen with room for icons and widgets, a tray on the bottom of the screen with buttons for home, back, recent apps, and settings, and on-screen buttons for volume controls, since there are no hardware volume keys.
There’s also an on-screen power button which you can use to power-down the device. But since there’s no physical power button on the box itself, you’ll need to unplug it and re-insert the plug to turn the MK902 back on again.
Tronsmart’s Vega S89, on the other hand, has a home screen that was clearly designed for a TV. There are large tiles and icons for frequently-used apps and shortcuts for groups of apps including Online Video, Music, and Settings. You can also customize the home screen with shortcuts to frequently used apps, or select “My Apps” to see a list of all the apps installed on your device.
The Vega S89 hides the notification tray when you’re on the home screen, although you can pull it down from the top of the screen if you’re using a mouse. You also won’t see any home, back, or recent apps buttons on screen — you’ll need to use the remote control or another supported device to access those functions.
That can be a problem when navigating some apps — especially multi-column apps like the latest versions of Netflix and YouTube. I’ve found that it’s nearly impossible to switch from one column to the next or select a video you actually want to play in Netflix without using mouse mode on the remote control… and scrolling a tiny bit at a time to select your video takes forever.
So while the Tronsmart Vega S89 app launcher looks better on a TV than the MK902 stock Android app launcher, it’s pretty clear neither device is running an operating system that’s fully designed for use in the living room.
That said, you can do things with these boxes that you wouldn’t easily be able to do with a Fire TV, Apple TV or Chromecast. You can install XBMC Media Center. You can use QuickOffice. You can turn them into Linux desktop computers, or home media servers.
Those features could help justify the $100+ price tags on these TV boxes for some users. But if you’re looking for something more user-friendly, get a Roku or Chromecast and save yourself some money.
Benchmarks only tell part of a story, because while they attempt to measure CPU and graphics performance, they don’t always measure it in a way that reflects real-world performance. What’s more, device makers have been known to cheat benchmarks by artificially boosting performance only when certain apps are running.
That said, one of the quickest ways to pit one device against another is to throw a few benchmarks at it, so I fired up AnTuTu, AnTuTu X, and 3DMark and they all seem to agree that the Vega S89 is much faster.
|3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited||3781||7841|
|3DMark Ice Storm||3377||7731|
That’s hardly shocking, since we know the S89 has a 2 GHz chip with Mali-450 graphics while the MK902 has a 1.6 GHz CPU with a Mali-400 GPU. But it’s nice to see it confirmed.
In terms of day-to-day usage, both devices take a minute or two to boot, but feel pretty responsive once they’re up and running. You can switch between apps quickly, and most apps load much more quickly on these devices than on an old-school Google TV box like the Asus Cube, which has a much slower Marvell Armada 1500 dual-core CPU.
On the other hand, the Asus Cube and other Google TV boxes are designed for TV, which means the user interface is meant to be navigated with a wireless remote control and most app should be remote-friendly as well. Google is expected to launch a major update to its TV platform this year, and it could mean we’ll see an even more TV-friendly version of Android in the future… which could make boxes like the S89 and MK902 feel even more like someone hacked together a TV box using a tablet operating system.
Anyway, back to performance, I had no problems with video streaming from Netflix or YouTube on either box, but when it came to local video playback I wanted to see how each box handled some tricky file formats including 4K video and H.265/HEVC video.
Long story short: I couldn’t find a video player that could perform either task with hardware-accelerated support… which means that video playback was choppy at best, and non-existent at worst with most of the files I tried.
I tested 720p, 1080p, and 4K versions of Tears of Steel, as well as some DivX HEVC versions of the movie. The only app I tested that could handle every file format was MX Player… but it would only play the files using software decoders, not hardware decoders.
Neither device could really handle the 4K video without turning it into a sort of photo slideshow. The lower-resolution videos tended to have issues with audio and video being out of sync, but there were fewer problems on the Tronsmart Vega S89.
If you try less challenging files such as 720p or 480p H.264 videos, you probably won’t have problems on either device. But if you have dreams of using one of these devices to power your 4K television, the out-of-the-box experience isn’t great. You may be able to find workarounds by rooting, tweaking, or installing other third-party apps — part of what makes TV boxes like these appealing is their versatility. But again, for ease of use, you might be better off getting something that’s designed (and tested) to handle basic tasks without a lot of tweaking.
All things being equal, if I had to choose one of these boxes for use as a media center, I’d probably get the Tronsmart Vega S89. It has a faster CPU, better graphics performance, and stronger wireless reception. It also ships with a newer version of Android and has a more TV-friendly user interface as well as better support for apps from the Google Play Store.
That said, the MK902 is also reasonably fast, has more USB ports, reliable WiFi performance, and a built-in camera. It might be a better choice if you want to plug in a number of external devices such as USB storage, a mouse, keyboard, or game controller.
As of May, 2014, we also know that you can run Ubuntu and other Linux distributions on the MK902 — something that hasn’t yet been proven for the Vega S89. You can even buy a version of the MK902 with Ubuntu pre-loaded.
Since it’s been on the market longer, there’s also a bit of a developer community for the MK902, allowing you to install custom ROMs and other system tweaks. So the MK902 might be a better option if you’re looking for a mini PC and not just a media center device
But even though the Tronsmart Vega S89 is new, there are already custom ROMs and other tweaks for it as well. Note that for the purposes of this overview, I haven’t tried any custom ROMs on either device, nor have I rooted them.
In the end, neither of these boxes makes me want to replace the Windows-powered home theater PC in my living room or the Chromecast plugged into the TV in my basement. But they could meet the needs of some users who don’t already have home theater solutions they’re happy with.