The VidOn Box is a small media player that runs Google Android and comes with the popular XBMC/Kodi media center application pre-loaded.
There’s no shortage of devices that fit that description. But there are a few things that make the VidOn Box stand out.
First, it’s one of the nicest-looking devices of its type I’ve seen (I actually include some unboxing photos later in this review, because it’s unusual to find an inexpensive device of this type that actually has such nice presentation).
Second, it has a custom user interface that’s clearly been designed to put media front-and-center. The VidOn Box isn’t the only Android-based media player to take this approach, but it does a better job than most — there’s even an option load XBMC on startup instead of showing the home screen. You can still find Android notifications and settings if you look for them though.
The third unusual feature is that VidOn’s expecting to make money based on subscription services rather than just hardware sales. The VidOn Box comes with a 1-year VidOn membership, but if you want premium features after your first year is up you’ll have to pay for a subscription. Last but not least, the process of applying firmware updates is quite a bit easier than it is on many inexpensive set-top boxes.
All of these things make the VidOn Box an interesting media player… whether they make it a good media player depends on what you want to use it for.
VidOn sent me a box to test for this review. You can pick up a VidOn Box plus a 1-year membership from VidOn for $70.
The VidOn Box features an Allwinner A31s ARM Cortex-A7 quad-core processor with PowerVR SGX544 MP2 graphics, 1GB of RAM, and 8GB of storage.
On the back of the box you’ll find an HDMI port, 10/100 Ethernet jack, two USB 2.0 ports, and S/PDIF as well as a power jack and an adjustable antenna for the 802.11n WiFi.
At the front you’ll see a small infrared receiver designed for use with the included wireless remote. It will glow white when the box is turned on.
The box is made of plastic, but it has a classy metallic look thanks to a gold-colored plastic panel that wraps around the top and bottom. The front and back are shiny black.
Update: VidOn tells me there’s a reason the gold portion looks metallic. It’s made of aluminum.
It comes in an attractive, well packaged black box that also includes an instruction guide for setting up the system (basically it tells you how to plug it into your TV) and a Top Up Card with a scratch-off code for your first year of VidOn Membership.
Note that with only two USB ports, there’s not a lot of room for connecting peripherals. You can plug in a keyboard and a mouse — but then there’s no USB port free for a flash drive or other storage devices. So you may want to use a USB hub or choose your peripherals carefully.
There’s no slot for an SD card or microSD card, and this box is missing one other thing: an HDMI cable. You’ll need to supply your own.
There’s an infrared remote control in the box with buttons for home, back, menu, volume, and power as well as direction keys and a select button in the center.
You’ll have to remove a bit of plastic from the battery compartment before you can use the remote for the first time, and when you do this you may notice that the remote uses a watch-style CR2032 battery instead of the AA or AAA batteries more commonly used in remote controls.
The remote feels pretty good in the hand. It’s thin, light, and made of soft touch plastic that has an almost velvet-like feel. But if you want to run just about any app other than XBMC, you may need a mouse or a different remote control.
For instance the YouTube app allows you to use the wireless remote to navigate to the search box and an on-screen keyboard to enter a search term. But once the results popped up, I couldn’t actually click on any of them with the remote. I had to plug in a mouse.
This is the problem with most devices like the VidOn Box which use the smartphone/tablet version of Android. No matter how much companies spruce up the home screen and user interface to make them easy to navigate with a remote control, the apps themselves expect you to be using a touchscreen and they may not play well with remotes.
Fortunately XBMC works pretty well with the remote, which is good because the main selling point for the VidOn Box is probably its XBMC features.
In fact, that’s pretty much what the $15 per year (or $2 per month) VidOn Membership gets you: access to VidON’s custom version of XBMC features (as well as a few other hardware and software features such as support for HD audio passthrough).
When the VidOn Box first runs, you’ll have to navigate through a series of setup menus to connect to the internet, adjust your screen resolution, and check for updates.
Once that’s finished, you’ll see a screen showing your installed apps, as well as a few recommended apps which you can download (including Hulu Plus, YouTube, and Netflix).
You can also navigate to Files or Settings tabs.
From Files you can view files stored on the built-in storage or on a USB drive or on a shared network drive or UPnP device. You can also select any audio or video files you find through this file browser to start playing them immediately, with no need to launch XBMC or another media player app.
The Settings tab lets you adjust network, display, audio, and other settings. Overall the settings are far more remote control-friendly than the default Android settings menus.
But if you want to find features that aren’t easily accessible in the VidOn Settings, just select the Advanced option to see the tablet version of Android’s settings menu.
That’s not the only place you can see the VidOn Box’s Android roots: you can also swipe down from the top of the screen with a mouse to view the notification/status bar.
But overall the VidOn Box doesn’t feel as much like an Android device as some media players I’ve tested. You don’t need to login with a Google account at all when you’re setting up the device — but you do need to create a VidOn account from the VidOn website and enter your top-up card code in order to use the box.
If you do want to use the Google Play Store though, you can. It’s loaded on the box and once you login with your username and password you can download and install third-party apps. Just don’t expect them all to play well with the infrared remote control.
Among other things, the company says what sets VidOn XBMC apart from the free version of XBMC for Android are features including 1080p hardware acceleration on devices with supported chips, Blu-ray menu navigation, 5.1 channel S/PDIF and HDMI audio passthrough, a curated list of add-ons, and more.
In practice, I found that some of the add-ons I downloaded didn’t work all that well. Some video files I was able to play with other apps didn’t open properly in VidOn XBMC. And generally for my purposes the app felt an awful lot like the free and open source version of XBMC/Kodi which doesn’t cost $15 per year.
On the other hand, VidOn promises pro support and updates to subscribers as well as additional features which could be released in the future.
Your results may vary, and it’s worth pointing out that VidOn is a sponsor of XBMC/Kodi development.
If you want to give VidOn XBMC a try without buying a VidOn Box you can just buy a membership and install the app yourself. It officially supports devices with Allwinner A20, A31, and A31S processors as well as hardware with Amlogic S802, S805, and S812 chips.
Other VidOn apps available from the Google Play Store include the VidOn Player for streaming content from your PC to your phone, tablet, or TV boxand a VidOn Remote app that lets you use your phone as a remote control for XBMC (but not for other apps).
The VidOn Box has a quad-core ARM Cortex-A7 processor and 1GB of RAM, so it’s not surprising that it doesn’t score as well in benchmarks as other recent devices with higher-power hardware.
The Rikomagic MK80 with an Allwinner A80 CPU, the Probox 2 EX with an Amlogic S802-H processor, and the Rikomagic MK902 II with a Rockchip RK3288 chip all ran circles around the VidOn Box in the Antutu, CF-Bench, and 3DMark Ice Storm tests.
But if all you want is a decent media player that can handle 1080p videos and some online media, most of those devices are probably overkill.
The VidOn Box was able to handle most H.264 video files I could throw at it… although performance may differ depending on the file format and video resolution.
I had no luck playing H.265/4K videos in XBMC, and while I could get some higher quality videos to play in other apps, playback was choppy at best.
The VidOn Box got a score of 472 in the AnTuTu Video Tester benchmark, which puts it ahead of devices with Rockchip’s RK3288 processor when it comes to video playback (but not general performance) and older devices such as my Nexus 5 smartphone.
But newer devices with Allwinner A80 processors score much better in this test.
As a basic XBMC-based media player, the VidOn Box is a decent little device that would probably sell for an even lower price if VidOn would sell the thing without a membership card.
Things get a little trickier when you venture into the world of third-party apps. As I’ve mentioned, the YouTube app is practically impossible to use unless you plug in a mouse or use a third-party remote control or air mouse.
The same is true of games, web browsers, and other apps which weren’t really designed to be used with a remote.
Devices that are designed specifically for use in the living room need different user interfaces than those which are designed for you to hold in your hands — and VidOn did a pretty good job of making the VidOn Box into a living room-friendly machine with a home screen, settings, and XBMC apps that all work well with the included remote.
But once you start installing apps from the Google Play Store you’ll find yourself encountering app after app that expects the VidOn Box to have a touchscreen, which it does not. That leads to a generally inconsistent user experience.
For example, I’ve found myself having to deal with 3 different on-screen keyboards while using the box. There’s the Android keyboard which pops up when you’re searching with the web browser or in the Google Play Store, the XBMC keyboard which appears when you’re using the media center app, and a different keyboard which appears when you’re interacting with VidOn Box settings.
This is why I still prefer media players like the Amazon Fire TV, Google Chromecast, Google Nexus Player, or Roku to boxes like VidOn’s which use the stock version of Android. While you can theoretically install more third-party apps on the VidOn Box thanks to the inclusion of the full Google Play Store, when you’re using a Nexus Player or Fire TV Stick you know that all of the third-party apps available for download are apps that will run properly on your device.
Plugging in a keyboard, mouse, or gamepad can help in some situations — but I noticed when I was setting up the VidOn Box that it doesn’t recognize keyboard input in the settings menus. This means that you’ll need to enter your username and password with the on-screen keyboard, which can be annoyingly tedious if you have a long, secure password. You also need to enter the same username and password again the first time you run the VidOn XBMC app.
One more performance note: during the first few hours I was testing the VidOn Box, the device crashed and/or rebooted unexpectedly a number of times. But after a while it stopped doing that. I have no idea what caused the crashes, but the system has been pretty stable ever since.
Overall the VidOn Box is a nice looking little device that lets you run XBMC on your TV. But there are plenty of other devices that will let you do the same thing.
But unlike the Fire TV Stick, the VidOn Box has 2 full-sized USB ports, an Ethernet jack, and S/PDIF. It’s also designed to run XBMC out of the box and you can even set it to boot straight into the media center.
The main reason to buy the VidOn Box over other Android-based media centers is probably its custom user interface and the VidOn Membership which gets you access to special features and support. It’s up to you to decide whether those features are worth the $15 per year VidOn will charge after your first year’s membership expires.
Thanks again to VidOn for supplying us with a demo unit.