First, it’s powerful. It has a Amlogic S802-H quad-core processor, 2GB of RAM, 16GB of storage, dual-band WiFi, and other solid specs. Second, it comes with a wireless controller called the Remote+ that you can use as a remote, a microphone input, an air mouse, or a video game controller.
In other words, the Probox2 EX and Remote+ aren’t just designed to let you stream Netflix to your TV. You can also use it to search the web, play video games, and perform many other tasks without plugging in a keyboard… although you might still want a mouse, keyboard, or third-party game controller for some tasks.
W2Comp sells the Probox2 EX for $150, and the store sent me a demo unit to test.
It’s a speedy machine which is capable of running most Android apps without complaint. But while it has a custom user interface designed to make Android a bit more TV-friendly, the Probox2 EX is still running an operating system designed for phones and tablets with touchscreen displays.
That can lead to some inconsistencies in the user interface and problems running some apps.
So is the Probox2 EX worth the $150 asking price? IT depends what you’re looking for.
The Probox2 EX is a black box measuring 4.5″ x 4.5″ x 1″ and weighing about 7 ounces. You can easily hold it in one hand… but unlike an Android phone or tablet, you’re not really meant to.
Instead you put it by your TV and hook up the display with an HDMI cable. There are also AV and SPDIF ports for audio and video output.
You can connect to the internet over WiFi or Ethernet. The box has a 10/100 Ethernet port and supports dual-band 802.11n WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0. You can screw on an adjustable antenna which may help boost WiFi reliability. During my tests, I’ve found the wireless performance to be speedy and reliable.
There are two full-sized USB ports on the side, as well as a micro USB OTG port. You can use these to connect a keyboard, mouse, external storage, or other peripherals. If you plan to use the Remote+ that come with the Probox2 EX, you’ll need to plug its receiver into one of these USB ports.
The box has 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage, but you can also add removable storage thanks to the microSD card slot. It features Amlogic’s S802-H 2 GHz ARM Cortex-A9 quad-core processor and ARM Mali-450 8-core graphics.
On top of the Probox2 EX there’s a power button, and on the bottom there are a series of vents. The device can get a little warm when it’s in use for a while, but it never gets particularly hot, so I guess those vents do a pretty good job of allowing air to flow through the case.
The Remote+ that comes with the Probox2 EX is a small remote that fits comfortably in one hand. It features a power button, direction-pad, keys for some basic Android functions including Home and Back buttons, and volume buttons.
But there are also A, B, X, and Y buttons which you can use for gaming. Turn the remote sideways, and it looks a bit like a classic Nintendo-style gamepad. Ergonomically the remote feels better in portrait mode than landscape mode, but it’s nice to have the option of using a single remote for both basic navigation and gaming.
Unfortunately not all Android games will play well with the Remote+. Check out the performance section below for more details.
There’s also a button on the remote that you can tap to toggle between air mouse and gamepad functionality. In air mouse mode you can wave around the Remote+ like a Nintendo Wiimote to move an on-screen cursor. This lets you tap different parts of the screen or even type using an on-screen keyboard.
You probably wouldn’t want to tap out long email messages using this hunt-and-peck style typing.
Even entering long, secure passwords with an air mouse can get a bit tedious. But it’s nice to be able to enter URLs, search terms, or short usernames and passwords without plugging in a keyboard.
In the top left corner there’s also a microphone icon. Tap it and you can use the mic built into the top of the Remote+ for voice recording, search, or communications.
It can be a bit tricky to use the mic at times. Since the Probox2 EX is running a version of Android designed for phones and tablets, tapping the mic icon on the on-screen keyboard, or a search box triggers Android’s voice recognition feature… but then you have to quickly tap the mic button on the Remote+ before you start talking. It won’t turn on automatically the way the mic on a phone or tablet would. If you don’t tap the button quickly enough, Android’s voice recognition feature might time out.
You can also take the Remote+ and plug its USB receiver into a Windows computer if you want… but while the volume buttons work as you’d expect, Windows doesn’t always respond the way you’d expect (if at all) to the other buttons on the remote control.
Google plans to launch a version of Android optimized for TV screens this fall. It’s called Android TV, and while it’s based on the same software that runs on phones and tablets, it will have a user interface designed for use with a big screen and remote control instead of a small screen and your fingertips.
The Probox2 EX doesn’t run Android TV. It runs Android… on a TV. That means the software running on this device is virtually identical to what you’d run on an Android tablet… but it includes a custom home screen that is designed to make Android easy to navigate with a remote control.
There are large icons for categories including Movies, TV Shows, Music, and Games. You can use the arrow keys on the Remote+ to switch between categories and choose apps you want to run. You can also view all of your installed apps, or customize categories. Want Netflix to show up in the TV Shows category and Youtube to show up in Movies? You can do that.
What you can’t always do is find apps that work well without a touchscreen… or at least a mouse. The Probox2 EX features the Google Play Store and allows you to download just about any app you’d like… but some apps can be tough to navigate using arrow keys because you need to use swipe gestures to access some menus or options. While swiping makes a lot of sense on a tablet, it’s an odd way to interact with a TV.
Fortunately you can use the air mouse feature of the Remote+ to swipe… but good luck trying to use a single remote control to emulate multi-touch gestures.
I was able to navigate YouTube, Netflix, and other video apps using a mix of arrow key presses and air mouse functions on the Remote+. It works… but it’s not quite as user friendly as using those apps on an Android tablet or using TV-optimized versions of those apps on a Roku.
Certain Android features such as notifications and the Quick Settings panel are also a bit tricky to use on a TV. You don’t see the status bar at all on the home screen of the Probox2 EX unless you use the Remote+ air mouse (or another device) to swipe down from the top of the screen. That’s a good thing if you don’t want to see notifications… but it can be a bit confusing if you do.
While you can slap a TV-friendly home screen on Android, we’ll probably have to wait until Google releases a version of Android that’s meant to run on TVs before things like notifications that are designed to be swiped away with a fingertip will disappear.
The Probox2 also has a settings menu that’s optimized for big displays and remote control-style navigation, but if you want to access more advanced settings, you’ll find another settings menu: one that’s clearly designed for phones and tablets and not big-screen TVs.
But there are a few reasons you might want to consider a device like the Probox2 EX instead of a Roku. It comes with the XBMC media center app pre-installed, supports Miracast wireless display features, and it also has its own media player which can automatically detect music or videos connected to your network via DLNA-enabled devices. I was able to stream audio and videos from a shared network drive with no problems.
And there are games… the Remote+ was designed with gaming in mind. So how does it work as a game controller? That depends on the game.
I tested a few different titles and saw mixed results.
- Riptide GP2: The remote was automatically detected by this racing game, but the game thought it had shoulder buttons and other keys that it doesn’t actually have. This made it impossible to perform some actions and made the game basically unplayable.
- Asphalt 8: Airborne: This game had the same basic problem: it thought there were more buttons than the remote actually has. If you don’t need to brake, that might not be a problem… and you *can* try to drive a race car without ever braking. But it’s probably not a good idea.
- Rayman Jungle Run: This game doesn’t use a gamepad-style controller, but you can play it pretty easily in air mouse mode since you just need to tap the screen to control the action. It actually plays pretty well in this mode.
- Robot Unicorn Attack 2: You can play this game using the air mouse by tapping different parts of the screen.
- Wind-up Knight: Finally! This game works perfectly with the Remote+ since it recognizes the remote and allows you to use the gaming buttons as intended. I only played through the first few levels, so it’s possible that you might need more buttons than you have at later levels. But it was kind of exciting finding a game that seems fully supported at least at the starting levels.
If you’re looking for an Android-powered device for playing games on your TV, the Probox2 EX could be that device. But you’ll probably want to invest in an Xbox or Playstation-style controller that will work better with games like Asphalt or Riptide. And you may have to sift through a sea of touch-friendly games that were never really meant to be used on a TV to find games that will work on a big screen.
Or you could buy an Ouya for $100. Sure, it’s not as powerful as the Probox2 EX and it doesn’t have full access to the Google Play Store, but it has a game store that features titles that you know will work on the console.
If there’s anything that makes the Probox2 EX software experience attractive, it’s the jack-of-all-trades (if master-of-none) quality of the box. While not every Android app works well on a TV screen or with a wireless remote control, there’s nobody to tell you that you can’t at least try to run your favorite apps on the Probox2 EX.
And there’s at least one simple way to make some media apps a bit more TV-friendly: install Cheapcast. This is a free Android app that lets the Probox2 EX (or other Android devices) act like a Google Chromecast.
When the Cheapcast is running, you can fire up Netflix, YouTube, Google Play Movies, HBO Go, Twitch.tv, or other apps on your Android phone or tablet, tap a button, and send the video to your TV while using your phone or tablet to play, pause, fast forward, or rewind.
The Probox2 EX also comes pre-rooted, which means you can access that require root privileges including Titanium Backup, Root Explorer, or apps such as Complete Linux Installer which lets you run Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora or other desktop Linux operating systems alongside Android using VNC… although after spending an hour or two fiddling with the installer, I haven’t had much luck getting anything other than a command line to show up myself.
The Probox2 EX has an ARM Cortex-A9 processor at a time when devices with faster or more efficient architectures are starting to arrive. But it does have one of the fastest Cortex-A9 chips around. The Amlogic S802-H processor is a quad-core beast that scores well in benchmarks, and more importantly, seems to be able to handle just about any task I can throw at it.
The box boots quickly and feels pretty zippy when it comes to launching apps or loading web pages.
Wireless performance also seems pretty good. It connects to my home network almost instantly and the signal stays strong. I downloaded several games which use around 1GB of data and didn’t lose my internet connection while the downloads were in progress. I’ve also streamed a number of HD videos over the internet with no problems.
Theoretically the Probox 2 EX should be able to support 4K HD video, but I don’t happen to have a 4K display handy. I did connect it to a 1080p monitor… and the box decided to output 720p content to that display. There may be ways to get true 1080p output, but out of the box the device is optimized for 720p displays.
In terms of raw benchmarks, the Probox2 EX seems to have a lot of raw CPU power: it’s one of the fastest systems I’ve tested to date… but I tend to test inexpensive systems and haven’t spent any time with an Android device featuring a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 or newer CPU or an NVIDIA Tegra K1.
Still, the Probox2 EX scores higher in CPU-specific benchmarks such as AnTutu than several of the fastest tablets I’ve reviewed recently: the Asus MeMO Pad 8 and Asus Transformer Book T103 featuring Intel Atom Z3745 Bay trail processors. It also scores nearly twice as high as a 2013 Google Nexus 7 with a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro processor.
The Probox2 EX is about evenly matched with that Nexus 7 when it comes to graphics performance… at least as judged by the 3DMark benchmark. Both devices trail behind the Transformer Book T103 in that test.
The Probox2 EX might be one of the best TV boxes running Android at the moment… but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily something you should buy.
First, you’ll notice that I’m trying not to call devices like this Android TV boxes anymore… because Android TV will soon mean something else entirely. Google plans to roll out its own version of Android optimized for TVs, and it probably won’t just be the tablet operating system with a custom app launcher thrown on.
Google’s new Android TV software might also be a bit more locked down than the software that’s available on devices like the Probox2 EX, and it’s not clear if Chinese device makers will be able to use it without Google’s explicit permission. So we may see official and unofficial TV boxes running different versions of Android in the future.
Anyway, the thing about the Probox2 EX is that while it lives up to the promise of letting you run Android apps on a TV… the truth is that many Android apps weren’t designed to be run on a TV. A wireless remote control just doesn’t behave the same way as fingers on a touchscreen.
But the Remote+ that comes with the Probox2 EX does help. It has air mouse capabilities which let you do many of the things you would with a toucshcreen (or mouse), and while the gamepad buttons don’t work perfectly with every game, when you do find a game like Wind-up Knight that works with the Remote+ you can get a pretty great gaming experience.
At $150, the Probox2 EX is more expensive than a Roku, an Amazon Fire TV, or an Apple TV. And it’s not really as good as those boxes at the one thing they do well: allowing you to easily find and play videos, music, and other content from hundreds of sources.
But the Probox2 EX has a powerful processor, a fairly large amount of storage, expansion options thanks to the USB and microSD card ports, and a versatile operating system that allows you to customize your experience by installing just about any app that can run on Android… whether that app is designed for TVs or not. I’m not ready to replace my Chromecast with a device like this yet… but I can certainly see how it might appeal to some folks.
Thanks again to W2Comp for providing Liliputing with a Probox2 EX and Remote+ to review.