Android takes another step towards domestic domination with this paperback-sized smart TV box. The Kogan Agora Internet TV Portal plugs into your telly and showers it with gifts: a web browser, games and all kinds of apps for video on demand, social networking and news.
But of course Android was never designed to drive a TV, so there are a few compromises balanced out with some neat tricks to make it work on your flatscreen. The Kogan Agora Internet TV Portal runs on Android 2.2 Froyo, rather than 2.3 Gingerbread or the tablet-specific Honeycomb. That's not the end of the world though, as the differences between 2.2 and 2.3 are largely irrelevant for a box that sits under your TV, has no cameras and can easily be controlled from a QWERTY keyboard.
There's no “skin” on the operating system so it does look exactly like an Android phone blown up to huge proportions. There’s no touchscreen control but instead you get a remote that works like the Nintendo Wiimote. Wave it at the screen and a pointer follows your movements. Hold the big button to "touch" the screen and click on icons, trace paths or drag things around. It's a bit twitchy, especially if you're close to the screen, but from a distance it works well enough to get you around the interface.
Do you speak Android?
About that interface – if you're a paid-up member of the Android Army you'll be flying around it in seconds, but anyone less familiar with the OS is likely to do a lot of head scratching, especially as there's no manual in the box, only a link to a brief set-up guide in PDF format.
Thousands of apps
The best news is that there's full access to the Android Market. That doesn't mean everything you can download will work, but at least you get the chance to rifle through over 200,000 apps, many of which won't cost a penny. The BBC iPlayer app plays ball over Wi-Fi and puts out a strong picture and fulsome soundtrack, but if you want your iPlayer through the Ethernet connection you'll have to go via the browser, which is a bit more fiddly. Likewise with the ITV Player app.
A wider range of TV options opens up if you're prepared to use the web rather than apps. TVcatchup.com will stream UK Freeview channels for nothing so long as you're in the UK, although you don't get the full-screen experience of the dedicated apps. Let's be frank. This can't replicate the tidy multichannel experience of a satellite or cable service – but it'll have a damned good try.
The box itself has three USB ports and an SD card slot, so if you want to play back video from elsewhere that's easy enough and there's no shortage of apps to do the job. Unfortunately there’s not enough processor power to play HD movies, but lower quality downloads and rips are handled well enough.
Games games games
As a games machine the Agora Internet TV Portal won't beat a dedicated console but a surprising amount of games do translate well to the format. There's no way to pinch-zoom and no multi-touch simulation (even with Kogan's optional wireless keyboard and trackpad combo), so that pretty much rules out favourites such as Tank Hero and Cordy, but it hits the spot where it really matters. Yes, you can play Angry Birds on it. Well, so long as you don't mind playing permanently zoomed in.
Drawing trails for the planes in Air Control with the remote is an embarrassingly imprecise exercise but others such as Missile Defence (Missile Command to older gamers) and Fruit Slice could have been made for it.
And that's the story all over. A mixed bag, but a fun bag. Text entry with the remote and the onscreen keyboard is farcical. Combine that with a bug that often selects the last item in a menu whether you want it or not, and it’s essential to add a hardware keyboard. Fortunately you can just plug in any USB keyboard for instant relief, along with a USB mouse to aid navigation and make loads of those games more playable.
Twitter and Facebook
Once you've got reliable text input you can start Tweeting and Facebooking, either via the plentiful apps or the browser. The social networking side of it then becomes a realistic proposition, and because you've got those memory card ports and a proper file system you can even upload pics and videos.
The geekier members of the Stuff team are rather excited by this approach to TV smartening, but if you want a simpler, more refined experience, take a look at Sony's SMP-N100 and LG's ST600 Smart TV Upgrader. Some would say the Agora Internet TV Portal isn't a smart TV box at all, just a tablet without its own screen. And they'd be right, but who wouldn't want a 46-inch tablet?
More after the break...
Kogan Agora Internet TV Portal
Not the telly box for everyone but Android fans will revel in its infinite tinkerability