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Good start for StarHub's Android box

The writing is on the wall for cable set-top boxes.

Viewers are cutting the cable cord and switching to paid streaming services, such as Netflix, that let them watch shows on demand on almost any device with a screen.

Pay-TV operator StarHub is well aware of this trend.

Back in 2015, it launched its StarHub Go service for these cord-cutters. StarHub Go offers selected TV programmes, including HBO Go, without requiring a StarHub pay-TV subscription.

It is now going a step further by putting its StarHub Go app in its first Android-powered media streaming box, the imaginatively named StarHub Go Streaming Box.

Android TV boxes have gained notoriety in recent years as a conduit for copyright infringement. They can easily be preloaded with apps that supply pirated content.

  • SPECS

    PRICE: $199, (free six-month subscription for StarHub Go Family Pack)

    INTERFACES: Ethernet, USB 3.0, HDMI 2.0

    STORAGE: 8GB (4GB user-accessible)

    WIRELESS: Wi-Fi 802.11ac dual-band, Bluetooth

  • RATING

    FEATURES: 4/5

    DESIGN: 3/5

    PERFORMANCE: 4/5

    VALUE FOR MONEY: 3/5

    OVERALL: 4/5

But unlike these boxes that typically run a smartphone version of Android - which is not ideal for TV viewing - the StarHub box runs Android TV (based on Android 8.0 Oreo), a variant designed for TV platforms and used in certain TVs from brands such as Sony and Philips.

It looks like most media streaming boxes - a black plastic unit slightly larger than my palm.

It has a single USB port that can be used with an external storage drive to expand the limited 4GB of usable internal storage. It does not have a microSD card slot.

Also included is a remote control that connects to the StarHub box via Bluetooth. It has just a few buttons and feels cheap.

This remote control has a built-in microphone. Press and hold the Mic button to issue voice commands to the integrated Google Assistant in the Android TV platform.

I used Google Assistant to search for TV shows, though its success rate is far from perfect, often giving results from YouTube instead of the videos from the StarHub Go catalogue.

You can also ask the Assistant other queries, like the weather.

During the initial set-up, the box asks for your StarHub Hub ID and Google account. The first one lets you access streaming content from the StarHub Go service while the second is needed to download apps, games and movies from the Google Play Store.

StarHub has tweaked the default Android TV interface such that its own StarHub Go launcher is the first thing you see on starting up.

Scroll to the end of the tabs at the top to reach preloaded non-StarHub apps and games, like YouTube and the Google Play Store.

The box supports 4K content, but StarHub does not yet offer any 4K videos. While 4K videos are available from the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime, these apps are currently not supported, though StarHub says it is working on it.

You can probably side-load the smartphone version of the Netflix app, but the experience will not be optimised for TV viewing and you will not get 4K videos either. Thus, your best bet for 4K content is from YouTube.

It also has built-in Chromecast, so you can stream content from compatible apps, like Spotify, to the StarHub box from your mobile device - both devices must be using the same Wi-Fi network.

Although Android TV supports games, I would not recommend playing games using the StarHub box. It felt laggy in Crossy Road, which has simple cartoonish graphics. No game controller is included, although you can connect your own.

At $199, the StarHub box is expensive compared with the Android TV boxes in the market.

On the other hand, its Android TV interface is better and it will not come riddled with malware.

The actual cost is reduced if you factor in the six-month StarHub Go Family subscription included in the price. Worth $89.40 in total, the Go Family package consists of more than 50 channels, including BBC Earth HD, Cartoon Network and Bloomberg TV.

As an Android box, StarHub's version is not as good as the Nvidia Shield TV (which costs about $260 from Amazon). The Shield TV has 4K content from Amazon and Netflix as well as the graphical performance to be a game console.

If watching StarHub Go on the big screen is your goal, you can also buy a cheaper Chromecast dongle for your TV, seeing as the latest version of the StarHub Go mobile app now supports Chromecast.

• Verdict: StarHub's media streaming box has a few kinks to iron out, notably Netflix support, but it is nonetheless off to a good start.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 12, 2018, with the headline 'Good start for StarHub's Android box'. Print Edition | Subscribe