Make your TV smarter with Android

May 2013

I can't believe it. I've just ordered yet another gadget. I already have three tablet computers, two computers, and an Apple TV set-top box that connects my TV to the Internet. My only consolation is that I used my Amazon points rather than money to pay for it.

I had to buy the $47 Mini PC MK808B, of course, because of the happy coincidence that two different people this week stopped me on the street to recommend it to me. It sounded so cool — and I'm an addict.

The Mini PC is a chewing-gum-pack-sized device that runs the Android smartphone software. You connect the Mini PC to your TV, which then serves as a screen for the device. Voila, your TV becomes a smart TV capable of running the hundreds of thousands of Android apps. You can stream movies, surf the web, play games, and more — everything that today's powerful smartphones can do.

Why would you want to do this? I'm actually already doing the same thing via my iPad and my $100 Apple TV settop box, and it's my preferred way of watching TV. My HDTV becomes the screen of my iPad. I have a ton of video available to me — a whole Internet's worth — and I don't have to pay the cable company a dime.

I have apps for TED Talks, Smithsonian documentaries, NBC Nightly News, and more; apps for free streaming movies, including Crackle, YouTube, and Movie Vault; and apps that let me stream full primetime TV episodes from ABC and CBS.

My iPad is already a convenient personal assistant that's always with me and that I use for email, calendar, news, weather, notes, contacts, podcasts, and more. And now I also use it to control my TV.

Plus, it's integrated: my favorite Internet content such as TED Talks is right there in the same simple interface along with network TV, for example. The big problem with smart TVs and Internet-enabled set-top boxes is that you typically end up with two different interfaces. (And yet one more remote for your collection.) The iPad solution is simple and elegant — all my favorite content in one place.

Another option for connecting some brands of tablets and smartphones to an HDTV is to buy a cable to connect the devices directly. A cable for my iPad costs in the range of $23–40.

Also, a new wireless technology called Miracast built into the latest high-end Android phones, such as the Samsung Galaxy S III, lets you use your TV as a screen for your smartphone. Some recent TVs have Miracast built in, such as those from LG. If your TV doesn't have this, you'll soon be able to buy an adapter for your HDTV's USB or HDMI port that will let it connect to your phone or tablet via Miracast.

The Mini PC is a good option if you don't have the type of Android phone that connects to an HDTV, either via cable or wirelessly, or a Miracast TV, and if you don't have an iPad or iPhone and an Apple TV. Some user reviews say you might need to be a little bit of a techie to set it up. Others say it's simple. Early models of the device had some problems with overheating, and dropped connections. But those glitches have pretty much been worked out.

Note, though, that since Android works via a touch interface, something your HDTV doesn't have, you'll also need an input device, such as a wireless mouse (less than $10 at Walmart), to control your Mini PC. I'm planning to use the wireless touchpad and keyboard that I use with my desktop computer.

You may remember my earlier columns in which I was searching for a cable-free solution. I tried the limited number of built-in apps in my Apple TV set-top box, but came to prefer connecting my old laptop to my TV. However, once I began using my iPad/Apple TV combination, that quickly became my favorite way of accessing Internet content on my TV.

The problem with cable cutting in the past has been that cable channels offer a lot of content that's not available via the Internet. That's changing. In the future you'll be able to subscribe directly to your favorite channels a la carte without having to pay a $100 monthly cable bill. HBO stirred up the industry in March when they announced that their HBO Go service would soon be made available in this fashion.

I predict that the approach of an app-based interface and a la carte channels is the future of television.

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© 2013 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

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