Review: Ugoos UT1 Android Set-Top TV Box
Having owned an AppleTV for about a year or so, I wanted to have more options with an Android TV box. Although my AppleTV is jailbroken, it still has a very limited number of apps. There are no apps for HBO Nordic, Viaplay or our national TV companies that offer a lot of content via Android apps.
Ugoos UT1 comes in a neat and minimalistic package. It has the main device, AC/DC adapter, remote control and a business card of Ugoos CEO James Liu. The business card makes the package more personal as if I could contact him directly if I encounter some problems with the device.
The Ugoos UT1 has a nice set of modern and powerful hardware:
- Rockchip RK3188 28 nm Cortex-A9 1.6 GHz Quad-Core chipset
- 500 MHz 3D GPU Mali 400
- 2 GB DDR3 RAM
- 8 GB ROM Flash
- 2.4 GHz WiFi 802.11 b/g/n
- 10/100 Mbps RJ-45 Ethernet
- HDMI Full-HD 1080p output
- SPDIF optical digital audio output
- SD card reader
- Android 4.2.2 with Google Play
- Remote control
There are really cheap Android TV-dongles available but I wanted to have Ethernet connection and a remote control and there are no dongles that have them both.
Please note that there is no Bluetooth chip but you can plug your USB keyboard and mouse in and use them like you would with a computer. Navigation becomes really fast and smooth and typing becomes a delight. You can use them with USB cables or wireless versions, they all work. The right mouse button works conveniently as a back button in the GUI. Also special keys in keyboards, such as volume up/down, work. A good idea would be to use a wireless touchpad instead of a wireless mouse because with the touchpad you don’t need to a flat surface like with the optical mice.
The remote control looks really good until you realize that you only need the following buttons: Navi, OK, Back, Home, Volume+, Volume-, Mute and Blue (toggles normal navigation and pointer mode). So there are many buttons that don’t do anything. For example play/pause and fast forward or rewind don’t work at all. With this in mind, the remote could be much smaller. Luckily there is a remote app for Android mobile phones that is more useful than the physical remote.
As always I wanted to run benchmark tests to see that the hardware is up to its specs.
AnTuTu is one of the oldest benchmarking tool for Android mobile phones and has become the de facto standard.
Hardware performance puts Ugoos UT1 between Samsung Galaxy S3 and the likes of Google Nexus 10 and Samsung Galaxy Note 2. It sits right where it should be with the 1.6 GHz quad-core processor. Total score is 18,350 AnTuTu points.
GFXBench measures the graphic capabilities of Android devices. Here again Ugoos gets a slightly higher score than Samsung Galaxy S3. You can see the results above side by side.
3DMark is an old benchmark software that has earlier been used with PCs but recently they have expanded to mobile phone benchmarking. It measures 3D gaming performance. Again comparing the results to Samsung Galaxy S3: Ugoos UT1 got overall score of 3935 vs. Galaxy S3’s 2786. In graphics: UT1 3421 vs. S3 2325. In physics: UT1 8290 vs. S3 9121. Ugoos UT1 beat Galaxy S3 in overall and graphics score while it lost in physics.
Vellamo is a relatively new benchmarking software that focuses on two main areas: browser performance (HTML5) and CPU subsystem (CPU + memory) performance (Metal). HTML5: UT1 2097 vs. S3 1560. Metal: UT1 500 vs. S3 560. Again UT1 gains the upper hand in HTML5 performance but loses slightly in raw CPU + memory performance.
Booting the device takes surprisingly long, considering the powerful hardware it has. With the 31jul2013 firmware it took ca. 1.5 minutes and it fees like forever. When I updated the firmware to 14nov2013 it took half of the boot time away, lasting 45 s. The Ugoos logo has the Russian flag for some reason.
I wanted to have a special UI designed specifically for a TV box instead of the normal Android “app drawer” that I thought would not suit for TV use. The Ugoos user interface looked good in photos and would provide an easy to use access to all my frequently used apps. However, the Ugoos UI looks nice but it has many usability issues that you may read below.
There are different virtual desktops that you can dock apps to.
The pre-installed eHomeMediaCenter is a DLNA media player/server. I found that it works fine, except it does not display subtitles of DVD ISO images. That is why I use XBMC to stream DVD ISO images from my Synology NAS. It works perfectly, it can show subtitles and the picture quality is perfect. There is no jitter whatsoever as the playback is smooth. I also use a lot of Netflix, Youtube, Vimeo apps. Finnish media companies YLE and Nelonen have their own apps YLE Areena and Ruutu that provide content from their TV channels. At the time of writing MTV3 does not have its Katsomo app ready for Android. There is a portal app Teevee.fi but I could not get it to stream any videos. There is also HBO Nordic app but I do not currently subscribe to it so I do not know how it works.
One of the issues is that the content providers are not yet aware that their content is viewed on a large TV via Android TV boxes and thus the frame size is too small, compression is too aggressive and bitrates are too low. This is not a problem of Ugoos UT1 but of the content providers. For example YLE Areena videos look really bad because they are thought to be viewed on a small screen (4″-10″). Now this will improve over time when they realize that the content can be viewed on a 60″ TV :-).
Pre-installed comes a number of apps, some international, some Chinese. These are some of the pre-installed apps: WealthTV, Flixter, dittytv.gtv, Pandora, IFoodTv, Crystal TV (Russian live TV channels), Viki (Korean, Taiwanese and Telenovelas), Post TV, CNN, Fox News, eBay, S&TV Kids Free, SPB TV, Tumblr, FREEdi YT Player and Wifi Display.
I found that I could install almost all Android apps from Google Play. One exception was the NBA Game Time app (League Pass). Now if you know me or have been following my blog, you should know that I am a huge fan of the NBA. NBA Game Time app was the main reason I bought the TV box because my kids often use my iPad 2 and my wife watches TV series via Netflix on Apple TV so I wanted to have a device of my own. Luckily there are four options to install NBA Game Time app on Ugoos UT1. You may read the details below.
XBMC was one of my main reasons to buy an Android TV box. I have had the habit of copying all the kids’ DVDs into my Synology NAS as DVD image files while I have kept the original discs in a safe place without the fear of them scratching or otherwise damaging the discs. XBMC can scan the movie directory over network and fetch metadata of the movies (titles, cover art). It can mount the DVD images and play them as if it was inserted into a DVD player. If you have included the menus in your image, it will display them as well. If you have included subtitles in your image, it can display them as well. It can do much more but I use it only for playing DVD images off of a NAS over network.
XBMC cannot be found in Google Play but it can be installed from various sources. I tried two different versions: one from the official XBMC website (choose Android ARM) and the other was Ugoos provided version that supports hardware GPU. Both worked perfectly. I personally don’t use 1080p Full-HD resolution but some users have reported that the official version is not smooth with 1080p because the official XBMC release does not support GPU. If it did, then the 3D GPU Mali 400 could take some decoding and rendering load off from the CPU. Apparently the XBMC nightly builds do support GPU but I have not tested them. The smoothest video playback I got using a special Beyond XBMC build.
When I tried to install NBA Game Time app from Google Play, I could not find it at all in Google Play. I found that really odd because I had installed the NBA Game Time app on my Xiaomi Mi-2 successfully from Google Play. However, as of writing there are three different versions of NBA Game Time app in Google Play: the regular Game Time, Game Time for Tablets and Game Time 2013-2014. None of the three is displayed when searched from Google Play with the Ugoos. But there are four ways to install it and I will start with the easiest method.
1. Find an installable apk. If you search the Internet you’ll find apks on many web sites. I found NBA Game Time in apkgator.com. Soon you will however realize that this is not a good option because the app updates in Google Play and sometimes the old app from the apk does not work anymore. The websites don’t usually update apks very often so you are out of luck but if you own an Android phone you can update the app with it. It requires some knowledge and effort though.
2. Install/update via an Android phone. You can install the app onto your Android phone, extract an apk out of it, transfer it to Ugoos and install/update it there. First install the app from Google Play just like you normally would. Then extract it to apk with Apk Extractor. It will create a single apk file with all dependencies that you can transfer to Ugoos with your preferred method. I used FTP server on my Xiaomi Mi-2 and I browsed to it with Chrome on Ugoos. But you can use other methods as well, dropbox, email, etc. This way you can update the app every time it updates in Google Play but it requires setting up the transfer and manual labor so there is a better way but it requires some dirty work.
3. Root + Market Helper. There is a handy app called Market Helper that spoofs the device identity and allows the installation of incompatible apps from Google Play. It needs rooting as it requires some special permissions to change system files that are normally write protected. You can read more about rooting below. After rooting the Market Helper lets you to choose which device you want it to mimic. I chose Samsung Galaxy S3 and it worked perfectly. You must visit your Google Dashboard with your Ugoos UT1 after changing the device identity for it to activate. Then you may open up Google Play and install any app that are normally “incompatible”. There is one downside to this method: it is not permanent. The device identity is reverted when you shut it down and boot it. I wanted to make the change permanent and get the benefit of auto-updates.
4. Lie about Ugoos’s identity to Google Play (permanently). The device identity is located in build.prop text file but unfortunately it is system protected so it is not possible to edit without rooting the device. You can read more about rooting below.
After rooting I was able to edit build.prop file as I followed this tutorial. I copied the text values from a system dump to mimic Samsung Galaxy S4. There is a delay after the device is updated in Google Play so it is not changed immediately. I was not able to get Google Play to think my UT1 was Galaxy S4. Also, after rooting, I lost the ability to use the great Rockchip Mobile Phone Remote as they could no longer connect. I ended up flashing the factory ROM (14nov2013) update from Ugoos’ Download Center but the mobile remote control did not work any more.
Please note that using the Ugoos UT1 does not require rooting. You can install and use Netflix, Hulu, or other apps without rooting. The rooting is only required if you plan to change write protected system files or use apps that specifically need a rooted Android device.
Apad.tv forum has a good tutorial how to root Ugoos UT1 and I followed it to root mine. You need to have a Windows PC so if you don’t own one, you can borrow a Windows laptop from a friend or relative. The guide is pretty straightforward, however I was not able to install the drivers that came with the zip but there is an alternative method that worked for me.
Remember to enable “USB debugging” in the settings before attempting the procedure.
The device came with firmware version 31jul2013 (July 31, 2013) installed. Although the Ugoos’ Download Center there is a newer 14nov2013 version available, I could not update it via Settings → Advanced Setup → System Update. It does not say “update unavailable” or “you already have the newest firmware” or anything else so it remains unclear if it can even establish a connection to the firmware servers. Anyway the *.img file Ugoos provides is pretty useless unless you have the update (flash) tool and know how to use it.
I found RKBatchTool from freaktab.com forum. First connect UT1 to your PC via USB cable. Then shut it down from the power switch on the back. Then find a sharp object (a paper clip) and push the recovery mode button down as shown in the picture. Keep the button pushed down and switch it on from the power switch. It will boot into a special recovery mode. Windows will install the driver but if you have trouble with the driver, please install Moborobo. After drivers have been installed start RKBatchTool. It should show green “2-1-2″ in “connected devices”. Then browse for the new *.img file and select “Restore”.
It will begin by formatting the flash. Please note that all installed apps, settings and user files are erased. Then it will start flashing and will inform you when it is done with a green “Restore Done” text. Ugoos UT1 will then reboot itself couple of times.
Unfortunately the newer 14nov2013 firmware ROM has a nasty bug. As soon as it boots it will display an error: “Process android.process.acore has stopped”. If you click “OK” it will reappear after a few seconds. This will render the device unusable. After googling about the error, I found out that it comes from the Contacts Storage cache data. It can be cleared in Settings → Apps → All → Contacts Storage → Clear Data.
Unfortunately Ugoos UT1 has several usability issues – some are because of the Ugoos user interface layer on top of Android and some are because of Android itself. First of all, most of the Android apps are not designed to be used with a remote control. Some support “tabulatory navigation” where you move to the next element by remote control arrows but almost all require “touch” and scrolling of which the latter is impossible to do with a remote. Touch support is handled by a special key on the remote which toggles between normal mode and pointer mode. When it is pressed, a “mouse pointer” appears that you may move (slowly) around the screen to simulate a human finger touch. Without saying this is not very user friendly.
Fortunately Rockchip has made a special Android remote control app that makes it a bit easier to use. RKRemoteControl lets the mobile phone display to be used as a touchpad. With the touchpad, the navigation and scrolling becomes a lot faster. You can scroll with two fingers. Also pinch-zoom works if the particular app supports it. The virtual keyboard makes all typing a breeze. I would not use the device without the Android remote app.
The other usability problem is the Ugoos UI which looks nice but when you use it for a while you will find out some annoying things. The first problem is the home screen.
There is a dominant “Featured Topics” which looks like it could be a widget tile of some sort. But it is not. Featured Topics are basically links to Facebook, CNN, eBay, Flixter and Google Play apps. They don’t update and their contents cannot be changed by the user. Next there is a large clock and a calendar left to the Featured Topics. The problem is that the calendar does not display any calendar events. Next is the “Desktop” area below the calendar. This could be a handy way to dock (up to six) most used apps to the home screen. It is a good idea but every time an app updates, it is removed from the desktop dock. It can be added back but it is really annoying extra work. The lower part “APPs”, “FAV”, “Video”, “Folders” and “Browser” work as virtual desktops where you can dock different apps onto. However the apps are removed from these too upon updating.
Ugoos UT1 vs. AppleTV
Having both Ugoos UT1 and AppleTV it is easy to tell the differences. The AppleTV is super easy to use, basically just three buttons on the remote: Menu (back), four-direction navi button and OK (select). That is it. But with great usability comes simplicity and you can only use the apps that Apple has chosen and approved for you. The app variety also depends on where you happen to live so for example in the US there are different apps than in Europe. The apps that Apple have approved (e.g. Netflix, NBA, YouTube, Vimeo) do work flawlessly. But if you liked to stream content from you DLNA server or NAS, then you are out of luck, unless you jailbreak your AppleTV. Additionally, it is not possible to jailbreak AppleTV 3 so things become complicated. Ugoos UT1 is really difficult to use if you have used AppleTV. With toggling back and forth between regular navigation and cursor mode can drive you crazy. Also the UI feels really slow and laggy compared to AppleTV. The Android mobile phone remote control makes the use much easier but it still is far, far behind AppleTV. On the other hand, it is possible to install virtually any Android app to Ugoos UT1 so the possibilities are endless.
Where to Buy?
I bought mine from eBay for $105 (ca. 76 €) including shipping. You may also find one in GeekBuying, ChinaVasion or DealExtreme. The same hardware can be sold under different brands, for example “Kaiboer F4″.
- Sturdy and stylish aluminum chassis
- Reliable Ethernet connection
- Remote control
- Virtually all Android apps from Google Play
- Android phone remote control to ease navigation and typing
- Slow to boot, no standby mode
- Apps are difficult to use with physical remote control
- Updating apps remove them from desktop/docks
- Sluggish GUI on top of Android not actually giving any extra value
- No Bluetooth