The Smart TV age is among us, and while many new TVs are being equipped with “smart” features, it doesn’t help you if you already have an excellent HDTV in your living room.
This is where devices like the Kogan Agora Smart TV Dongle step in. Featuring an HDMI connector on one end, a USB on the other, microSD and USB port on the side, the dongle is meant to bring your TV up to speed with streaming media and web surfing on the big screen.
Included in the box is the Smart TV dongle, a short HDMI extension, IR receiver, remote, mini USB cable and AC adaptor.
Connecting the Smart TV dongle is as simple as plugging it into a free HDMI port (using the extension if it’s awkwardly positioned), powering it using the miniUSB cable (bonus if your TV has a USB port that provides enough juice) and connecting the IR receiver. I was able to hide the dongle in a gap behind my wall-mounted 32″ LCD.
I was also provided with Kogan’s wireless keyboard and trackpad, which includes a small USB dongle of its own. It’s powered by a rechargable Nokia BL-4C battery. Slightly disappointing that you need to put a dongle into the only USB slot on your HDMI dongle…
The Kogan Agora Smart TV dongle runs a customised version of Android 4.0 on an ARM chip, and includes the Play store. Since it’s based on ARM (rather than MIPS as some Smart TVs do), you’ll be able to load most standard Android apps and games.
First boot runs you through a wizard to connect to your wireless network. Typing out a lengthy wireless code (or even a short one) using the included remote is somewhat torturous, so your best bet is to connect a USB keyboard if you didn’t buy the Kogan one.
You’ll then need to adjust the underscan to fit the image perfectly on your TV.
Once setup is out of the way, you’re presented with a simple menu screen offering up web browsing, video, music, photos and other applications.
This easy-going home screen covers up an unfortunately confusing, and at times downright frustrating user experience.
Starting with the multimedia functions, the Smart TV dongle doesn’t perform any sort of organisation beyond the folders you have on your attached storage (be it microSD or USB).
“Video” will show you a thumbnail grid of all the video files on your media.
Playback of even high-bitrate, high-definition video was smooth, and the video player includes the ability to adjust aspect ratios, select audio tracks and display subtitles.
None of these functions are labelled nor particularly clear, but they are available.
Disappointingly, there is no built-in function for accessing shared drives across a network, which would be a perfect fit for a device like this. With a lot of messing around, this can be rectified by installing 3rd-party apps such as ES File Explorer to access the network shares. In practice this worked as well, including streaming HD videos over an 801.11n network.
The problem with this solution is it’s even more frustrating to use than the integrated software. If you’re looking for streaming media off a NAS or other shared storage to your Smart TV, best look at something else.
I managed to load XBMC which also offers network streaming, but it was very unstable and often froze the unit.
“Music” offers up the same thumbnail interface as video, using the album art for icons. The player had not trouble with AAC files purchased from iTunes, but weirdly the music playback app doesn’t display the album art, track names or any other details, just the file name.
No playlist, no drilling down by artist or genre, it’s just a file player, rather than music manager. I also found it slightly unstable.
A potentially big plus of a Smart TV is browsing the web. On the Agora Smart TV dongle, web browsing is served up by the standard Android browser, with a grid of bookmarks on the “Browser” tab headed by an address/search bar.
The browser loads up full desktop pages, and renders them well, though heavy sites do take their time. Navigating using the arrow keys is a bit slow, but for checking the morning news from bed it works well enough.
Switching to mobile versions of websites helps immensely, typically displaying all the information without the clutter and bloat of their desktop counterparts.
Other bundled applications include:
- Google Play
- Amazon App Store
- QuickFlix – a TV show and movie rental service
- Adobe Reader
- Google Maps – difficult to use, and somewhat pointless
- Facebook – same as the standard Android application.
Having spent several weeks with the Agora Smart TV dongle I’m not really sure what to use it for. Having to load up a microSD card to watch videos and listen to music makes it far less useful than if it could pull those things straight off my network. Devices like the WDTV Live let you do this, and do it well. It seems odd that this functionality isn’t included, since all the prerequisite hardware is there, and it’s doable with 3rd-party applications (though frustrating that may be).
It also tends to get itself a bit confused, with odd pauses then rapid-fire movements as your button presses catch up. Scary messages when attempting to updating built-in applications (like QuickFlix) don’t help either.
Quickflix looks to be an Australian equivalent of Netflix, though their selection is far more limited than Netflix or the Apple iTunes Store.
One thing is for certain, the Wireless Keyboard+Trackpad (an extra $39) isn’t really optional, it’s a necessity. Any sort of typing, be it a wireless code, web search, or (heaven forbid) making a comment on a blog, you will immediately tire of using the standard designed-for-thumbs Android keyboard, using the bundled remote.
Overall I’m left disappointed by what the Agora Smart TV can do, but intrigued by what it could be with a software update. If Kogan added the ability to view network storage in the current interface, it would be a far more compelling proposition.
The Kogan Agora Smart TV Dongle can be purchased directly from the manufacturer.
Price: $99 (Smart TV Dongle), $39 (Wireless Keyboard+Trackpad)
What I Like: Compact, video playback performance, microSD slot.
What Needs Improvement: Erratic performance, network playback is a must, Keyboard+Trackpad is almost required
Source: Manufacturer supplied review unit