Updated: With Google’s Nexus Player now seemingly discontinued we’ve updated this guide to replace it with the newly released Gem Box, which sports a range of gaming options in addition to being able to easily install Kodi/XBMC.
Original article below…
If you’re not using Kodi/XBMC, you’re missing out. There are other ways to do it, but if you’re looking for the easiest way to download movies, music and TV shows from the internet and put them back on the biggest screen in your house, Kodi’s the way to go.
Here’s the catch: if you’re going to use Kodi (the new name for XBMC), you’re going to need a device, either a home theater PC (HTPC) or a streaming box, to put it on. Unfortunately, though, finding the right one can be tough.
You have a huge number of choices at your disposal. Kodi can be installed on most Android TV-based devices with relative ease, and versions of the software can also be installed on a traditional computer.
There are also boxes you can buy which have Kodi pre-installed on them, however it’s here you’ll have to be careful. Since Kodi is open-source software, a number of third parties have been modifying and selling it with third-party add ons that enable piracy.
Since we don’t know anyone who likes lawsuits from the Motion Picture Association of America, we have made every effort to include only those Kodi boxes which use a stock form of the software, without any piracy-enabling add ons.
And while you might think that there aren’t many clean boxes out there, there’s actually a huge range of choices, from budget boxes to powerful machines capable of delivering 4K UHD content – all of which you can find on the pages that follow.
The Nvidia Shield, with its Tegra X1 processor, is one of the more powerful machines on this list, which means that it’s more than capable of streaming videos at 4K resolutions.
This level of power also has several other benefits. You don’t have to worry about graphically intensive skins slowing down your media experience, and the system can also be used to both play and stream games when you’re not using Kodi/XBMC.
Since the Nvidia Shield runs Android TV as an operating system, Kodi can be easily installed from the Google Play store, and its use is officially sanctioned by Nvidia.
The only downside of the Shield is its cost. With a starting price of $200 (£150) it’s one of the more expensive boxes on our list but, for the money, you’re getting a powerful streaming box with enough horsepower for a range of other applications.
Amazon Fire TV
The Amazon Fire TV is an enormously popular streaming device, and with good reason. Its price ($100/£65) is exceptional considering it offers 4K streaming, and its 2GHz quad core processor means that it’s a snappy and responsive device.
There’s a big drawback to the Amazon Fire TV though, and that’s its exclusive use of Amazon’s own marketplace for installing apps. This means that in order to install Kodi you have to perform a process known as ‘side-loading’.
This isn’t particularly difficult, but if you’re someone who doesn’t consider themselves to be technically minded then there are better choices on this list.
If you’re willing to go through a slightly more involved process to set up your device, however, then the Amazon Fire TV is an absolute bargain.
Cubox i2 (US-only)
The Cubox i2 has a couple of strong arguments to be made in its favor. Coming in at only $90 it’s darn cheap, and it comes with Kodi pre-installed to minimise the amount of time you’ll spend setting the device up.
That said, the Cubox’s 1GHz dual core processor is low-powered compared to others on this list. Plus, it doesn’t support 4K playback, and it isn’t available outside the US.
If having Kodi pre-installed is a major selling point to you then you could do a great deal worse than take a look at the Cubox, but spend just a little more money and you’ll get a much more powerful machine with only a marginally more involved setup process.
CompuLab Utilite (US-only)
Unlike the Cubox, the CompuLab Utilite is certainly not lacking in the power department. Its 1.7GHz quad-core Snapdragon 600 is more than powerful enough for most streaming needs, which is why it’s surprising therefore that 4K playback isn’t supported on such a powerful device.
Instead of installing the traditional Android version Kodi on this machine, however, you’ll actually need to jump operating systems to install a Kodi-flavored Linux distribution.
This in itself isn’t particularly tricky (it’s comparable in difficulty to installing Kodi on the Amazon Fire above), but at this price ($192) and without 4K playback, the Utilite probably doesn’t deserve your purchase.
On the theme of highly powered devices without 4K playback, we next have the Gem Box. Its price ($99/£89.99) is significantly lower than the Utilite’s however, not to mention the fact that its Android configuration makes installing Kodi a breeze.
However, despite a moderately powerful 1.5GHz quad core processor, the Nexus Player doesn’t support 4K playback. If the lack of pixels doesn’t faze you and you don’t mind Full HD playback, then the Gem Box’s easy Kodi installation and ample gaming options (which include streaming over both steam link and Game Fly) might make this box exactly the droid you’ve been looking for.
Raspberry Pi 3
This recommendation comes with a caveat: If you’re someone that doesn’t like to get their hands dirty, you should probably move on to the next pick. No one in the history of computing has ever called the Raspberry Pi 3 an easy-to-use device.
Fundamentally, the Raspberry Pi is intended to be used as a basic tool to get people coding, which means that installing Kodi on it requires a heap of time and effort.
It’s also underwhelmingly low-powered, with just a 1.2GHz quad-core CPU. Installation of Kodi is handled once again with a Kodi/Linux hybrid, it doesn’t support 4K, and in its stock configuration it doesn’t even come with a case. As in, you literally just get the circuit board.
Plain and simple, the Raspberry Pi 3 is a device for hobbyists. But, if you’re into the whole DIY scene, you’re in for a great deal of fun with this box. (Again, actual box not included.)
Razer Forge TV
Much like Nvidia, Razer is a company with an extensive background in gaming hardware, so it’s unsurprising that the Forge TV comes with a beastly 2.7GHz quad-core Snapdragon 805 processor. What is surprising, however, is its price.
At just $100 (£85) the Razer Forge TV is one of the cheaper devices on this list, and its Android OS means that Kodi setup is once again a breeze.
The only problem with Razer’s first foray into streaming boxes is that it doesn’t support 4K streaming so, if that’s important to you, then you’ll need to look at a more expensive alternative.
WeTek Core (UK-only)
The WeTek Core is as close as we’ve found to the perfect Kodi streaming box, which is why it’s such a shame that it’s not available in the US.
Its 2GHz Quad Core processor provides a good amount of power, which is important since the WeTek supports 4K playback. It’s cheap at just £96, and it’s also the only box on this list to include a TV tuner, which means that it can even playback live TV.
It’s even got Kodi pre-installed, so you shouldn’t have any trouble with this machine if you just want to plug it in and get watching straight away.
As well as not being available stateside, it’s also disappointing to see that the WeTek Core only supports Wi-Fi up to 802.11n rather than the newer 802.11ac … not that it really matters. For best results streaming 4K you’re going to want to hardwire it into your network using the gigabit ethernet port anyway.
Matricom G-Box Q2
The Matricom G-Box Q2 is, for the most part, a quite adept streaming box. It packs Android TV, making Kodi just an easy app installation away.
It’s also 4K-compatible, has a nippy quad core 2GHz processor and is even available at a reasonable cost in both the USA ($100) and UK (£89).
The one odd omission? No gigabit ethernet. The G-Box Q2’s ethernet speeds top out at 100gbps, which could potentially bottleneck 4K streams. That said, at least it includes the latest wireless-ac standard of Wi-Fi.
Build your own!
The beauty of Kodi (and XBMC before it) is that it’s so configurable as a piece of software. It makes sense then that you may want to go all out and completely configure the hardware you use as well.
Kodi can be installed on most desktop machines, which means that assembling a box out of ordinary PC components will work just fine. If you’re someone who maintains a desktop PC with regular hardware upgrades, then your old hardware can go into your new Kodi box.
This also means that if a part of your system becomes outdated further down the line then, in theory, it’s just a simple case of swapping out that component for an upgrade.
Is your Wi-Fi card outdated? Just rip out the old module and replace it. Processor getting a bit long in the tooth? Simply kick in to the curb and replace it with a shiny new one.
This is probably the most expensive method on this list, but the resulting satisfaction from having built an HTPC entirely yourself is worth the effort it takes several times over.
If there are any amazing pieces of hardware you think we’ve missed then please let us know in the comments below!