There’s so many options for cutting down on your cable bill and adding a media center to your television. Most notably, there’s Roku, Amazon Fire, Apple TV, and Google Chromecast. There’s an interesting new contender on the market: the $69 VidOn Box. While VidOn can do a lot of the same things, it is a very different product. The VidOn box is powered by Android and runs XBMC Media Center with 1080P output. Both XBMC and Android OS are ridiculously powerful and versatile, so VidOn could quite possibly be the ultimate media center.
The VidOn box looks like “set top box”, or accessory for your TV that specializes in playing media. It’s a sleek little box wrapped in a copper-colored metal. It’s not much bigger than an Apple TV, but looks arguably more premium. The front is all black, and the back has ports for optical audio, two USBs, HDMI, ethernet, and the DC power jack. There’s also a WiFi antenna if you don’t have an ethernet cable running nearby.
It’s funny to think about, but all of these media players are essentially just smartphone hardware. The VidOn box is one of the few that actually runs the smartphone software too. VidOn is powered by a Cortex A7 Quad-core CPU and has 1GB of RAM with 8GB of storage. Don’t worry about the 8GB storage, you can plug in your own external hard drive. It has 802.11n WiFi, runs Android 4.4, and will play virtually any video format (seriously). There’s a sleek IR remote control included that’s pretty basic. It has just 10 buttons. The box supports 3TB of media plugged into it and can read up to 8 USB devices (with a powered hub). You could potentially download every DVD and BluRay you own (including 3D) to a hard drive as “image files”, you can then play them all on XBMC with the menus, bonus content, and all.
Set up is easy and straight forward, though it does require you to sign up for a VidOn account (boo). There’s actually a premium VidOn membership that allows you to access your media from anywhere; the box comes with one year included. There’s only a couple cables required: HDMI (not included) and power. Once you’re set up and logged in, you get to the VidOn interface, which most people will recognize is just an Android launcher. There’s a few apps there, including the XBMC app (which can be opened by default), YouTube, and Hulu Plus.
XBMC is an open source application that’s been developed for over 10 years. It’s a free media center that will run on almost any operating system, and it does a lot. It can stream tons of content from the internet, and there’s a bunch of popular “apps”, but the beauty of the application is its ability to organize and play all of your locally stored media. It identifies your content (movies, music, TV shows) and downloads movie information, cover art, plot summaries, and other meta-data. The result is an absolutely beautiful layout of all your ready-to-play media. The layout/theme of XBMC is very customizable, so you can really make it your own.
XBMC plays just about any format, even if it’s separated into a bunch of RAR files (torrent people know what I’m talking about). There’s a bunch of playing options and tweaks. You can even download subtitles. XBMC can play 3D content, Blu-ray content, and can output HD audio. You can control XBMC from your phone, and you can even see all of your media on the app so you don’t have to navigate through menus. In addition to playing media, XBMC displays news and weather, and it can run programs and games. There’s a bunch of different networking options so you can stream media over various types of networks or FTP.
The device is powerful enough to pretty much do anything. It handles HD content perfectly and with little stutter. The worst aspect is the remote. It relies on an IR signal (old technology already) and the range is very weak. The remote will make VidOn feel very slow. I recommend hooking up a keyboard and perhaps a mouse to get through the setup. Streaming content from network computers worked perfectly, even over WiFi. I did have some issues with audio falling out of sync, but you can adjust that pretty easily in XBMC.
You may be thinking that VidOn doesn’t really sound like it’s in the same class as Fire Stick, Roku, Apple TV, etc, and you’re right. VidOn isn’t really internet TV, by default it’s a media center that’s fantastic at organizing and playing your media. The beauty is that with a little work and a better remote, it can pretty much be anything you want it to be. It can be an Internet TV, a game machine, an always on picture frame and news machine. With Android (and/or XBMC) you have all the power. Android does allow you to download virtually any video streaming app. Unfortunately, it seems a lot of them are locked down when it comes to outputting via HDMI (that’s not to say it can’t be done, though). I had no luck with the HBO GO and Showtime Anytime apps.
VidOn is indeed a very interesting and powerful device. It’s similar to having a computer hooked up to your TV, and at an extremely affordable price point. You can hook up a mouse and keyboard (or all-in-one) via USB and it will feel no different. It takes some time and effort to get it optimized it to your liking. VidOn is going to appeal to a very niche market as you can do a lot, but not so easily. Most people would rather just have a machine that they can plug in out of the box and start watching stuff. That said, I’m the niche that would spend a couple hours making this the ultimate TV companion.
Currently, VidOn box is listed as sold out, but regularly sells for $69.99 from Vidon.me. It comes with free shipping and a 45 day money-back guarantee.
The Good: Endless possibilities, XBMC is the ultimate media center, Looks amazing, WiFi works really well, Good ports, Solid price point, 1080P
The Bad: Remote is IR and it can be slow to react, Experienced some audio syncing issues, Had trouble getting digital audio formats to work, No HDMI, Some Android apps won’t output video