The connected living room has been the next big thing for several years now. The fruition of that promise, though, has been mostly limited to set-top boxes, game consoles, and Smart TVs with confusing software. In other words, the "connected living room" looks about the same as it did two years ago. But that hasn’t stopped companies from pushing out new devices that try to shake things up. Read on, as we review one such device: the FAVI SmartStick.
What is it?
FAVI’s pitch is that it will “upgrade your HDTV to a Smart TV in an instant.” The company accomplishes this with a tiny device that’s about the size of a USB flash drive – the SmartStick.
The SmartStick is tiny (91 mm long). Plug it into your TV’s HDMI port (via a bundled HDMI extension cord), hook up the included power supply, and voila: Smart TV.
FAVI’s user experience is a notch or two above the UX of many of the integrated Smart TVs on the market ... but, unfortunately, that’s not saying much.
The SmartStick runs Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, and includes Google's suite of Android apps. You might think that running the thousands of apps in Google Play would make this a must-have device.
Think again. Most Android apps are useless on a TV. The list of apps that you'd want to use is relatively small: Netflix, HBO Go, Crackle, Spotify, Rdio, Pandora ... Maybe you could add web browsers and email clients to that list. Maybe. For the most part, Smart TVs are all about streaming media.
(one big omission is Hulu Plus, which you can install but can't play)
There are other ways to get your content onto SmartStick. In a thoughtful move by FAVI, the device ships bundled with Plex media center. After you install the companion client on your PC, it will stream your local media to your TV.
In addition to either 4 GB or 8 GB of internal storage, the stick also sports a microSD card slot (up to 32 GB). So there are several non-streaming ways to load up your favorite movies.
Running Android opens opportunities for SmartStick. On FAVI's website, the company even offers a rooted download of the SmartStick firmware. At least in theory, this opens the door to some exciting support from the development community.
Though we haven’t seen much home brew activity on that front yet, it’s rare to see a company so openly encouraging the hacking of its software.
On the other hand, maybe the SmartStick’s software could use some hacking. Android is made for touchscreen devices: smartphones and tablets. When you try to run it on a TV, it ain't pretty. Even when using FAVI’s wireless keyboard with touchpad (sold separately for US$40), the software feels clunky. It’s a far cry from using an Apple TV, Roku player, Xbox 360, or PS3. A far cry.
One of the biggest problems is that the Google Play version of Netflix – probably the most-desired app for a device like this – doesn’t offer a smooth experience on the SmartStick. Every stream I tried to load greeted me with an unexpected buffering delay. I often watch Netflix on other devices, and have never run into this problem.
The worst part, though, is that Netflix’s picture is subpar on the SmartStick. Even after setting the device’s output to 1080p (and connecting it to a 1080p TV), Netflix programs that should look quite sharp looked ... muddy. Breaking Bad looked like a movie from the 1980s picked up by rabbit ears from a local TV station.
Okay, I'm exaggerating – but it didn't look good. On Apple TV, the same episode – also on Netflix – looked outstanding.
Whatever the reason for the low streaming quality, it only adds to an already clunky experience. Despite FAVI’s best efforts, the SmartStick's software wasn’t designed for televisions. It's hard to get past that.
Who is it for?
The best thing going for the SmartStick is its price: US$50 for the 4 GB model, $80 for the 8 GB model. If you’re comfortable using your own wireless mouse and keyboard, you can have an instant smart TV for half the price of Apple TV.
If you want to throw down an extra $40, you can add FAVI's "SmartStick Wireless Keyboard with Mouse Touchpad" (above). It's a solid addition to the SmartStick, giving you a full QWERTY keyboard, as well as home, back, menu, and search keys. The touchpad gives you a mouse cursor in the Android interface (a strange prospect in itself). It works about as well as a trackpad on a mid-grade PC laptop: solid enough, but no multitouch, and nothing mind-blowing.
Then there's the matter of cost. By the time you add the keyboard remote, you're paying about as much as you would for the newest Roku or Apple TV. These are much better values, with interfaces that feel at home on a TV.
Unfortunately, this leaves the SmartStick as a niche device, with limited appeal to hackers, and heavy Plex or XBMC users. It isn't an elegant solution to any problem.
It's a novel idea: plug a flash drive-sized computer into your HDMI port, and enjoy an instant smart TV. But this iteration of the SmartStick isn't there yet. If the developers cook up some more native-feeling software, it could be a hit.
... for now, though, we'd tip our hats to FAVI for the effort, but say "pass."
Product page: FAVI SmartStick