THE latest generation of set-top boxes is to be found not on the shelves of your high street electrical retailer, nor even necessarily elsewhere in the UK – yet they’re just as easy to get your hands on.
Chinese electronics manufacturers are targeting us in the west with innovative, affordable devices capable of turning your TV into a media centre more powerful than any Sky box. Miniaturisation means that in many cases these are not mere receivers but fully-fledged computers.
You can, for instance, get your hands on a Smart TV box that measures just seven inches by six and runs Windows 8.1, for less than £100. Once connected to your TV you can view anything you would on a regular PC, from the comfort of your sofa. Netflix, the iPlayer, YouTube and any other free stuff you can find, are all available.
You control the box with a mini keyboard that also functions as a remote control, and you can transfer videos and other files wirelessly between other computers on your home network, or the internet. It’s built around an Intel processor usually used for tablets, and a modest two gigabytes of memory. There’s no fan, so none of the operating noise of a larger PC.
At least two manufacturers are putting out boxes like this. The Pipo X7 is available to UK buyers on the Chinese website Geekbuying.com for around £76. Delivery within five days costs another £5 and you may also be charged VAT when the package passes through customs. Even so, you’ll pay less than £100 – though you may have a headache if you ever need to return it.
Microsoft has been keen to sell cheap licences to equipment manufacturers in the hope of weaning them off the Android operating system familiar from smartphones and tablets – which requires no licence and reduces the retail price.
The first results from Pipo and Mele are promising – but do bear in mind that Windows is a notorious resource hog, and those two gigabytes of memory will be spread very thinly when running your media player software on top. What’s more, the supplied 32GB of storage is mostly taken up by Windows itself.
Then there’s the cheap-as-chips Raspberry Pi mini computer, a new souped-up version of which has just been released. Media Centre software has been written specially for the Pi, and at less than £50 for a complete kit it’s still the cheapest way to hook up your TV to a mini PC.