FAVI has brought out an Android stick that turns "any TV into a Smart TV", that's the pitch, and it's not far wrong as long as your TV has HDMI, you have a nearby port where you can juice up the dongle via mini-USB - and if you don't mind pushing an arrow around the screen every now and then.
The FAVI SmartStick is an Android PC-on-a-stick with a 1GHz ARM processor and 1GB of RAM. It comes with 4 or 8GB of storage and packed with a dinky remote control starts at $49.99 - which works out around £30 at today's rates - but it's one of a handful of such sticks that have been springing into the market over the past few months and serve to demonstrate just how good they can be. Other Android sticks released over the past few months include the MK802, MK809, CX-01 and UG802.
The bundled remote isn't as nice as the one shown in the video.
The FAVI was supposed to be with us in October, but actually arrived just before Christmas (too late for review) so we took advantage of the Christmas break to fire it up and see just how easily one can add intelligence to a dumb television.
The stick itself is typical of the breed - less than 10cm long and just over 3cm across, but light enough to be held in place by the HDMI plug projecting from one end. Power is provided over mini-USB, ideally from a spare USB socket on the back of the TV though our trial set was too dumb for even that so we used the bundled transformer. There's also a socket for the included IR sensor, which has a long enough wire to reach the front of the TV and take commands from the remote.
Which is important as (in common with most sticks) there's no Bluetooth support. Keyboard and/or mouse have to use the (full size) USB socket, though it works fine with a wireless dongle and for basic use the bundled remote is perfectly sufficient.
More annoying is the lack of audio jack. The only way to get sound out is via HDMI (at least until Android starts supporting USB sound devices), which means that as a media player the stick is very much a video device unless one is happy to run the TV while listening to music.
But as a video device the stick works perfectly. Android 4.0 is skinned with a TV-happy interface, allowing left/right/up/down navigation from the remote and while the device defaults to 720 the resolution is easily upped to 1080. Google Play is preinstalled so new apps can be easily downloaded, though many (such as NetFlix) don't support direction-based navigation so one is obliged to shuffle an arrow around the screen or buy some form of air mouse.
The BBC's iPlayer can be navigated using directional keys, and worked fine even if the Android navigation was a little stretched out on a TV screen. NetFlix was a little more patchy, and seemed vulnerable to network dropouts which happened more often than they should thanks to the limited Wi-Fi range.
When the stick was within few metres of an access point then video played back fine and the experience was what one would hope for, but from more than that quality dropped off sharply and once an internal wall was added the device was all but unusable for video.
The stick also includes Android's web browser, and websites render perfectly well on an HD TV though navigation is clumsy as ever. Websites work using the shuffled-pointer, but specialist apps are much preferred.
The problem with Smart TVs is the bet one has to make on the platform - many of us hang on to our sets for half a decade despite the industry's attempts to get us into annual upgrades. Adding changeable intelligence is easy, and a thirty quid stick is more sustainably upgraded next year. So as long as your Wi-Fi coverage is very good, and you don't want Bluetooth, an Android stick might be a good way to go. ®