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Review: FAVI SmartStick

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March 21, 2013

We review the FAVI SmartStick, which promises to turn your TV into a Smart TV

We review the FAVI SmartStick, which promises to turn your TV into a Smart TV

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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?

Among others, the SmartStick has ports for the infrared remote sensor, and a mini-USB port

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.

Android

The SmartStick's interface is clunky

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.

Hacker-friendly

What is this? You're encouraging us to root the SmartStick's software??

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.

Clunkiness

Walter White looked like crap in Netflix on the SmartStick

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 awkardly-named 'SmartStick Wireless Keyboard with Mouse Touchpad' is a solid accessory

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

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About the Author
Will Shanklin Will Shanklin is Gizmag's Mobile Tech Editor, and has been part of the team since 2012. Will has a Master's degree from U.C. Irvine and a Bachelor's from West Virginia University. He currently lives in New Mexico with his wife, Jessica.
  All articles by Will Shanklin
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6 Comments

Thanks for the review.

Kris Lee
21st March, 2013 @ 06:15 pm PDT

I agree, Will, with most of your review. I purchased one back at the beginning of the year - mostly as a way to view our home videos on our TV over WiFi. My experience with the interface is similar: "clunky". I also purchased $40 keyboard, and have real trouble getting the touch-pad to work properly... I think it's a range issue. This definitely would benefit from an upgrade to a multi-touch, almost "simulated" touch screen type controller.

I have had pretty good luck with the Netflix client, tho. The app functionality has been improved with a recent firmware update (which did not install properly the first time, sparking fears of having bricked my then-new toy, but visiting their support forums and following their re-install instructions got things back on track.) Display quality improves as a show buffers (I have a fairly slow connection) and looks as good or better than what we view on our Wii (which granted, is @ 480, but still...) However, the Netflix client suffers from the controller's limitations, it seems, so pausing or trying to navigate to a different portion of a show is often troublesome.

I also did not like the Plex software as a media streaming option - although I really appreciate that they bundled the ~$6 client for free. My issue was more with the server, as getting it to set up correctly on my home PC was too much of a pain. I ditched it in favor of simply using my router's DLNA server and the very nice & free "MediaHouse" android client by Diwakar Bhatia. Does great.

All in all, I thought conceptually it would be great to have Android on our TV, but as you've mentioned, it doesn't work so great in real life. Hey, "Bad Piggies" won't even play. That says it all!

MzunguMkubwa
22nd March, 2013 @ 08:48 am PDT

... but if it came with a second dongle that stuck to the opposite corner of your TV and gave you basic gesture control ...

Darick Nordstrom
22nd March, 2013 @ 10:19 am PDT

If one were to look up sites like DX.com or geekbuying.com one could find a number of similar sized quad core + 1 gb ram + Android 4.x.x devices selling around the same price range. Some of these behave more like tablets , sans display or keyboard, with pretty good quality media streaming. Most also have USB On The Go.

What I need and am looking for is an Android tablet replacement that will allow me to log into my ISP's wire line internet service. Rudimentary HTTP + torrent downloads would be a bonus.

pmshah
24th March, 2013 @ 09:18 pm PDT

I dunno... isn't the Vizio Co-star kinda' better?

Also -- and maybe this is just me -- but in our case, when we finally technologically upgraded our lives a bit recently, and got a larger flat-screen, 1080p, LCD TV (not huge, mind you, but just a little larger; on sale... great price), and a new Windows 8 tablet for Mary-Anne, and a new Windows 8 desktop-replacement notebook for me (neither of which were on-sale, and so I'm already planning on being ticked-off in a few months when I see them for half of what we paid)...

...suddenly her vintage, 2007-era, 32-bit Vista SP2 Dell notebook with just enough RAM, processor and hard drive oomph on it to run any of the top five free or open-source HTPC software products out there seemed like a good thing to re-purpose as an HTPC; and so it ended-up going on a shelf under the TV (sitting atop an Antec brand turbo-blade-style cooling pad, of course; and with the entire enclosed shelf area vented/exhausted by a 32cfm, super-quiet, always-running fan) and becoming just that.

Yes, in order to watch TV channels through it (and also so that we could make it a DVR so we could finally de-commission our old VCR... yes, we still had one of those running) we had to add a USB-connected Hauppauge external tuner (we went ahead and got the highest-end one, also on sale). Once that was added, though, pretty much anything and everything we could possibly need to do in terms of internet connectivity and browsing, TV/movie watching, music listening, etc. -- and so, then, everything else that this Smartstick can do, plus much more -- was right there.

The trick, of course, was finding an all-in-one remote that'll properly control the on/off and volume of the TV, yet its channel up/down and digits control only the cable box, and then everything else on the remote controls the HTPC. Yikes! That was a challenge.

And, of course, finding a small, wireless HTPC-style keyboard with built-in pointing which didn't suck (most of them do, you know) was also a challenge.

The software was free, though... heck, even old Vista's version of Windows Media Center (WMC), as long as it's up-to-date and configured properly; and as long as it has a couple of fairly well-known (and also free) add-ins such as, for example, a few of the things that are what's listed, here...

http://bit.ly/ZoZ6sG (bit.ly-shortened link to LifeHacker article)

...plus, maybe, the freeware (for personal use) Media Browser (sadly, 2.51 Hydra is the highest version that will work with Vista, but so what?) is WAY more potent than I ever realized. I'm actually quite pleasantly surprised by it, in fact. And, yes, I mean that even in the face of that most out there say that XBMC or even Plex is/are better.

For those who eschew WMC and even XBMC, but kinda' like Plex for its ease of both setup and use; yet they want something a bit smaller and less resource-intensive that just plain works, almost no matter what you throw at it, then I confess to being quite surprisingly impressed with the freeware MediaPortal...

...which, in turn, works seamlessly with a couple of products that Hauppauge recommends for use with the aforementioned external tuner... thereby kinda' bringin' everything back full-circle.

Yes, of course, all those things, combined, cost more than the FAVI Smartstick and its companion keyboard, even combined...

...but ohmygod, what a difference in usefulness and utility! It's like comparing a car -- no, actually, more like a limo -- to a motorcycle... and by "motorcycle," I mean, in this case, more like a dirt bike.

Seriously, it's so night-and-day better that paying more for everything needed to turn a just-enough-oomph-in-it 2007-era Vista notebook, plus a USB-connected 600GB external hard drive that I had lying around, plus a USB-connected CD/DVD/Blu Ray player-only drive I bought for like, seriously, less than twenty bucks, because it's not a burner also, just a player...

...what all that cost more than such as the Smartstick just seemed like a such bargain in order to have the seriously-cool, full-blown HTPC thing going on, that we have now. Seriously... there's just no comparison.

Add NetFlix to it all, and away you go (and remember that because it's a full Windows PC, one needn't buy any hardware for Netflix; and because of all that, one can also get Hulu and quite literally every other similar service out there, all in the browser (or by means of an app, if there is one)! Plus we can web browse, and Google search... even email (though I hate using a TV for those things)... sky's the limit.

And typing "sky" just now made me think of Skype, or our other favorite for video calls, Tango... both of which are on on the notebook HTPC; and both of which work seamlessly with the extra little webcam that I happened to have, and which I neatly attached to the top frame/bezel of the aforementioned LCD TV screen so that Mary-Anne's family in the Philippines, and/or old friends and co-workers from Singapore, and Germany and other places where she's either worked over the years, or to which they've moved, or whatever, can all video-call her (and vice versa), and she can just pause the TV and then Skype or Tango with 'em to her heart's content... all without missing so much as a beat.

All that Tagalog and/or Illocano talking, though, usually sends me (and the cat, too, curiously) to my den...

...where, lo and behold, my desktop replacement notebook is connected to the HTPC via the home LAN, and so I can either resume the TV program or movie (if Mary-Anne doesn't want me to wait for her) or I can watch anything else... right on either the notebook's screen, or the 20-inch external monitor connected to its docking station!

So, I dunno... this Smartstick is definitely cool... but just not cool enough... not even for its price. And it's definitely not better, in any case, than Vizio Co-Star...

...and NEITHER of them is better than re-tasking a now out-of-date, but still well-running Windows machine -- as long as it has enough processor, RAM and hard-drive oomph -- as an HTPC!

We just couldn't be happier... and are actually ticked-off at ourselves, now, because we didn't do it earlier. We're old farts, though (or at least I am), and so we get to be behind a little and no one makes at least too awfully much fun of us. Being in IT for going-on 40 years, though, you'd think I'd have done it before now. Go figure.

Gregg DesElms
26th March, 2013 @ 02:31 pm PDT

I got one of these early February after trying a smart TV that I not liking it. Smart stick was good if I set up a playlist to watch on You Tube and didn't have to keep searching for programs to watch. It never suggested programs I watched but generic shows. Crackle worked with buffering if I set up a playlist on my computer and sent it to the smart stick rather than searching on the small keyboard, touch pad not real good, all too slow.

Still needed original remote that came with the smart stick for a number of things. Play Store was useless.

This is May the smart stick quite, no power, no signal, no nothing. I used it rarely, I had the 4G model. Now it is dead. The Smart Stick had a 4 month life, died young. Good idea, needs improvement and a much longer life.

jasneskis
15th May, 2013 @ 10:47 am PDT
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