Best TV set-top boxes: 6 options

Table of Contents

A TV box makes it easy to access movies and TV series in good quality.

According to a study by M-video-Eldorado , in 2022, 75% of TV sales in Russia were models with smart TV . With such TVs, you can not only watch TV programs, but also access the Internet from the built-in browser, turn on streaming services and YouTube on the big screen. If the old TV still shows well, you can make it smart using a special set-top box.

External “brains” are also relevant for modern TVs. Many smart models either support only a limited set of applications or are very slow. A good set-top box solves this problem much cheaper than switching to a top-end TV with a powerful processor.

Now dozens of models are sold in Russian and Chinese stores, and their prices vary from 2,000 to 25,000 rubles. I studied the current consoles in different price segments and took the most interesting ones for testing. The result was a rating of the best TV set-top boxes in six categories.

Team criteria

When compiling the selection, I relied on the range of marketplaces, my experience in testing TV set-top boxes , as well as reviews from owners and reviews from specialized publications.

I selected several popular models that the editors of Tinkoff Magazine purchased for testing. I was guided by the following criteria.

Form. Smart set-top boxes are available in two versions:

  1. Stick. The miniature device is slightly larger than a flash drive, but instead of a USB connector it is inserted into HDMI on the TV. There is usually no room for additional ports on sticks. The stick will need additional power – it can be connected to  the USB port of the TV or to a charging adapter for smartphones.
  2. TV box . A small box that is connected to the TV with a cable. The boxes have more connectors for connecting devices. In addition, the spacious case allows you to install a more powerful processor, which would overheat inside a small stick.

Operating system. Most gadgets run on Android. This OS comes in two types – like on smartphones and a specialized Android TV. Here are all the possible options:

  1. Android TV. The interface is adapted for TVs – the menu is designed in the form of large visual cards, and recommendations from installed online cinemas are displayed on the main screen. Only specially developed applications are available in the Google Play store. But other services can be installed separately by downloading the APK file .
  2. Android. Set-top boxes with regular Android turn your TV into a large tablet. You can install any applications from the official store on it, but on cheap TV boxes they will slow down due to too weak chips.
  3. Apple tvOS. The only modern set-top box not based on Android is produced by Apple. It is a smooth and well-thought-out operating system with tight integration of the manufacturer’s services and devices. For example, you can easily turn your iPhone into a remote control or instantly stream files from your MacBook via AirPlay. The only downside is that you probably won’t be able to use Apple TV for anything Apple hasn’t thought of.
  4. Proprietary OS. Set-top boxes from Yandex, Sber and some other companies run on a modified version of Android TV. Their capabilities are very limited compared to “regular” consoles. For example, they do not have access to Google Play, and the selection of online cinemas is strictly limited by the interests and agreements of the manufacturer. They also have their advantages – for example, the “Salute” assistant in the SberBox console, who can order food to your home and book tables in cafes.

DRM keys. Content in legal online cinemas is protected by special licenses – it can only be played on devices that have passed paid certification. Small manufacturers rarely spend money on a full set of DRM keys and add only a basic level of protection. Because of this, many streaming services will not show 4K content, and some like Netflix will not work at all.

If the set-top box has a certificate, the box will most likely have logos of popular streaming services, and the remote control will have corresponding buttons for quick launch.

Resolution and HDR. Most TV set-top boxes are capable of playing video in 4K Ultra HD, but very budget models only support Full HD 1080 p.

HDR High Dynamic Range allows content to be played back on a compatible TV. There are several HDR standards, but the most advanced of them is Dolby Vision. Many Chinese players do not support it, since you have to pay royalties to add this standard. Therefore, in budget models, HDR 10 is more common – less advanced, but compatible with most modern TVs.

Processor and RAM. A weak processor will not be able to run high-quality videos, and the interface and most applications will be slow.

Try to focus on the model year: budget set-top boxes in 2021 may be faster than more expensive models from two or three years ago. RAM affects the speed of operation and the ability to quickly switch between applications – for normal operation you need at least 2-3 GB.

Storage device. Applications are installed on the built-in memory – the more, the better. Regular programs don’t weigh that much, but it’s better to have at least 5-10 GB of reserve for downloading movies for offline access. Remember that the operating system takes up 3-4 GB of the declared volume.

Internet connection. Most set-top boxes connect to the network via Wi-Fi, but many also have an RJ-45 port for a LAN cable. The most common Wi-Fi 5 standard does not always cope with smooth loading of heavy 4K content. Therefore, it is better to connect the set-top box via a wire, so as not to suffer from load times and jumps in picture quality.

Ports and connectors. Most often you won’t need anything other than HDMI, but USB ports and memory card slots open up additional options:

  1. HDMI. The most common input for transmitting audio and video on modern TVs. There are several types, but the optimal one today is HDMI 2.0 , which transmits a 4K signal at 60 frames per second.
  2. “Tulip” RCA. Used in old TVs. If you are buying a console for your dacha, it may come in handy. Through the “tulip” you can transmit video with a resolution of no higher than 1080 p and sound in regular stereo.
  3. USB. Allows you to connect flash drives and hard drives with movies. You can also connect mice and keyboards via USB to make using the browser more convenient. It is advisable to have at least one USB 3.0 or 3.1 port – according to the old USB 2.0, large files can be read with stutters.
  4. SD or microSD slot. Compact memory cards do not stick out from the case and do not spoil the view. The capacity of modern microSD reaches several terabytes. But most inexpensive TV set-top boxes do not accept cards larger than 256 GB.
  5. Optical audio output S PDIF. Used to output sound to a home theater receiver or soundbar.
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