Every streaming device, from your aging Blu-ray player to your Roku, has limitations. At some point, you’re going to want to stream a service that your device doesn’t support. When that happens, your only big-screen option is to plug a laptop, tablet, or smartphone into your HDTV. That way, you get a real operating system with complete flexibility.
But that’s a hassle. These devices aren’t designed to be controlled from across a room. And even when they have remote controls, they’re usually not that good.
The Satechi Smart TV Box offers a way around this. It’s a streaming device, designed specifically for plugging into your TV and controlling from across the room. But it runs Android. If your Android phone or tablet can do it, the Smart TV Box can probably do it, too.
Okay, not everything
Of course it can run the obvious apps, such as Netflix and YouTube, but that’s no big deal. But if you’re partial to a particular Android video player that doesn’t support Chromecast, here’s a way to play it through your TV. And if there isn’t an app, there’s at least a web page you can access.
My screen of favorite apps I’ve definitely never installed KeePass on a set-top box before.
And it’s not limited to video apps. I successfully installed Dropbox and KeePass on the Smart TV. KeePass was particularly useful. I could log into a service by copying and pasting the password—much easier than typing one.
Not that the Smart TV can co everything that an Android phone can. You can’t make calls, and it doesn’t have a camera. And while it comes with Google Maps, there’s no point to receiving GPS directions through your television.
Out of the box
The Smart TV Box measures 7.5 by 5 by 1 inches. On the back you’ll find an on/off switch, along with Ethernet, optical, HDMI, AV/Audio, USB OTG, and DC power ports.
The box contains 8GB of internal flash storage. If you need more, there’s a full-size SD card slot on the left side, along with two USB ports. But the ports serve another purpose. You’ll need a wireless mouse and keyboard (more on that later). Of course, if you buy a wireless mouse and keyboard packaged together, they’ll only need one port.
I recommend a wireless (not Bluetooth) keyboard and mouse that connect with a single USB dongle.
Also in the box you’ll find an HDMI cable, an AC adapter, and the remote control. Oddly, the remote doesn’t come with batteries. The thin manual doesn’t help much.
When you plug everything in and turn on the physical on/off switch, the Smart TV Box goes into its remarkably efficient standby mode. How efficient? My Watts Up power meter estimated that it would burn about 0.02 watt/hour if left in standby for a month. Apparently that’s enough to make a red LED glow and respond to the remote control’s power button. When fully on and streaming HD video, it burned about 4 or 5 watts.
The Smart TV Box supports both Ethernet and Wi-Fi. Setting up Wi-Fi required selecting my network and entering the password. But since at this point I was only using the remote, that was no easy chore. Imagine the pop-up onscreen keyboard on an Android phone, spread out across the width of a 50-inch screen. But you can’t simply swipe or tap the letters. For every letter, number, or punctuation mark, you have to move one key at a time with a TV remote control to the right key, then press the OK button.
Mouse, keyboard, and remote control
Entering text is considerably easier with a mouse and easiest of all with a keyboard, and it’s good that the Smart TV Box supports both of these. The problem is that you really need all three to fully use this device.
The remote is pretty basic, and awful for entering text.
The remote control feels cheap and lacks any form of backlighting. It has Back and Home buttons that any Android user would know—but no Recent Apps button. The Pause/Play button is near the top, making it difficult to hit.
Worse, that Pause/Play button only works with the Smart TV Box’s native media players intended for playing local content. If you want to pause while streaming something off the Internet, the remote won’t do you any good. You’ll need a mouse for that.
The mouse, of course, makes it much easier to select an item on the screen. A right-click acts like the Back button, but there’s no equivalent for Home. If you want to do something with an app other than launch it—for instance, move it to the desktop—your only option is to use the remote’s arrows and OK button.
This is the home screen, but once you get it all set up, you’ll probably spend the most time in the Favorites tab.
Since neither the remote nor the screen offers a Recent Apps option, there’s no obvious way to switch between running apps. How do you do it? The same way you do in Windows: Alt-Tab on the keyboard.
So you really do need all three. While testing and playing with the Smart TV Box, I found myself juggling the remote, the mouse, and the keyboard (and my laptop, but you probably won’t have to do that). I always seemed to need the one I wasn’t holding.
Like Android, but odder
Aside from juggling multiple input devices, Android users will be generally at home with the Smart TV Box, but not entirely. At times, the Smart TV Box’s version of Jelly Bean can be difficult and counterintuitive.
For instance, the Home screen is taken up primarily with a few apps that Satechi is currently promoting. A smallish box on the left, called the desktop, has a smattering of apps. You can add or remove apps, but the way to do it is anything but obvious.
Adding apps to the desktop could be a lot more intuitive.
Okay, here’s the trick: Go to the Apps screen. Using the remote, select an app you want to add or remove from the desktop. Click and hold the OK button until a menu pops up. Select Desktop.
Other problems: The apps, both the ones that came with the Smart TV Box and those you downloaded, appear on screen in a random order. You can’t alphabetize them. And the tool for adding apps to Favorites pops up a single-column list—in seemingly random order—that disappears as soon as you click a single app.
With all of Android’s apps at its disposal, the Satechi Smart TV Box offers tremendous versatility for a set-top box. But the learning curve is steep and even after you’ve reached the top, it’s a clumsy device to use.