December 4, 2022

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STRONG Google TV stick: How does the cheaper Chromecast 4K alternative work

Since Google launched the new version of Android TV with the Google TV interface, this has been mostly exclusive to Chromecast HDMI sticks and, more recently, to some select TV manufacturers like Sony and TCL. STRONG has launched one of the few Android TV HDMI devices with Google TV in the Italian market With the SRT41 media streamer. It’s a product that responds to one of the major issues with smart TVs: the inevitable obsolescence of the software platform. Unlike smartphones, where manufacturers pay more attention to the release of software updates, maintenance of software platforms over time in the TV market is quite rare. The danger is that after a few years, the Smart TV component begins to lose support from existing applications and services or the ability to access new applications and services. But a switch of this type can also be used to restore the brightness to old TVs, which originally lacked advanced smart functions, but are fully functional. STRONG solution, In addition to offering all the features of Google TV, it also supports 4K video up to 60Hz and in HDRat a list price of € 10 lower Chromecast with Google TV from Google, € 59.90 compared to € 69.90.

What changes from the outside as well as from the inside

The price difference compared to Google Strayer isn’t dramatic at all, but on lower-margin products it does matter and implies that hardware differences are to be expected. The design is, first and foremost, clearly more anonymous than Google’s Chromecast’s iconic design: a large black stick, with an HDMI connector on one end and a micro USB port on one side for power.

We also find the power supply with a USB cable, as well as a small HDMI extension to facilitate installation in the event of a very narrow hub. The power supply to the classic STRONG switch requires 5 V / 1 A on USB and, unlike Google Chromecast, can therefore be connected to a USB port on the TV (with the drawback that it will turn off with the TV and at each power switch you will have to wait for boot).

The hardware platform is based on the Amlogic S905X2 SoC, i.e. A slightly less powerful version than the one installed on Chromecast 4KThe S905X3, with its four-core ARM Cortex-A53 1.8GHz CPU (instead of the 1.9GHz Cortex-A55), lacks all the AI-enhancing elements of the superior model. The SoC supports decoding the latest video codecs including HEVC and AV1, as well as MPEG-4 AVC and VP9. Like the Chromecast, the STRONG Switch comes with 2GB of RAM and 8GB of storage for the operating system and apps. Wi-Fi connectivity is interesting, Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) and Dual Band and no shortage of Bluetooth 5, which is necessary to pair the remote control with a built-in microphone for voice commands, but also for peripherals such as controllers. The specification talks about HDMI 2.1 output, but the video output actually goes up to 4K at 60Hz and the advanced functionality of the new specification is not supported.

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The accompanying remote is the classic Google TV, but with the great addition of keys for direct access to Disney+, Netflix, Prime Video and the inevitable YouTube. In addition to the usual buttons for volume, program change (to control TV via HDMI-CEC), change of source, home, Google Assistant and settings, we find a button for selecting Google TV user profiles.

Dolby Vision and HDR not ‘always’ turned on when enabled

The main features and the graphical interface are those of Google TV, which does not leave much room for customization by the hardware manufacturer. However, it is worth highlighting some aspects related to the configuration of the product from the point of view of audio and video output. STRONG SRT 41, like many products running Android 11, does not support dynamic frame rate switching. By default, the device automatically takes the maximum resolution that the TV it is connected to supports: in the newer, it will therefore be 4K at 60 or 30 Hz.

The switch supports HDR, HDR10, and HLG formats, but not Dolby Vision and, from what we’ve seen, there are important limitations: HDR can be set at the system level or turned off, but it cannot be automatically activated based on the content. Nor is it practical to change the setting manually before playing HDR content: switching from one video mode to another, in fact, involves restarting the device, with Android’s relative boot times.

It must be said that those who opt for an HDMI stick usually do so to pair it with an older TV, which probably supports 4K video playback but not HDR, so you might turn a blind eye. However, in this specific aspect, Google’s Chromecast is ahead.

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On the audio side, there are no specific settings, except for the parameter that should regulate the pass-through output for audio encoders. There are three options: automatic, tight shutdown, and “depending on device compatibility” pass. In fact, we have verified that only the first option ensures that Dolby Atmos audio for streaming services passes to the TV, otherwise with both Netflix and Prime Video, the sound goes to the TV in a simple 5.1 way. For the rest, the settings are the basic settings for Google TV.

The user experience is the Google TV experience, with some limitations

Google TV doesn’t need much of an introduction now. This is a version of Android TV where the home is strongly geared towards recommending content from major streaming services and using Google Assistant, rather than the classic network of apps.

The Play Store is there, but it must be called up via voice commands and the device supports the apps available for Android TV. Compared to the version of Google TV available on Chromecast devices, as on TVs, we find a low integration of Netflix, whose contents do not appear among those suggested in the various sections of the interface but only in search results when implemented through the Google Assistant or checkbox. Search.

The STRONG dongle is Netflix certified and therefore offers 4K and even HDR playback from this app and, as mentioned earlier, supports Dolby Atmos audio from major video streaming services.

During our tests, regardless of the first few seconds after booting up or updating background apps, We’ve always found Google TV’s interface navigation to be smooth and responsive, as well as within the main applications. Response to voice commands is also quick. We’ve had some problems specifically with Prime Video. With the output set to 60Hz, we noticed smooth playback of 4K content. Amazon’s original series “The Rings of Power”, in particular, probably due to its high bitrate, creates many issues with playback stability, with frozen frames, and audio out of sync. Overall with Prime Video, we noticed smoother playback by manually setting the video output to 24Hz, and even better by lowering the resolution to 1080p. Although the data sheet technically talks about HDR10+ format support, Prime Video still appears in HDR10 on this device. On the contrary, with Netflix, we did not notice problems with playback regardless of resolution and frame rate, apart from a slight lag in the interface when playing a 4K video.

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We also tested the switch with GeForce Now cloud gaming using a Bluetooth controller, but even if the service was technically working, over Wi-Fi we found a significant lag that makes it virtually impossible to get any title in the stream to work properly.

Discreet, but pay attention to the price

Ultimately, STRONG stick delivers the classic Google TV experience, with a flexible and responsive interface and broad support for all major streaming services, even in 4K, HDR and with Dolby Atmos audio, as well as all the apps of the Google TV ecosystem. Compared to its direct competitor, Chromecast with Google’s 4K TV, Dolby Vision support and more complete HDR management are largely missing out. Chromecast also recently received an update to Android 12, while the OS here is still stuck at version 11. Also, considering some issues with Prime Video, saving just 10 euros might not be worth some of the trouble. At the same price, there’s also Amazon’s Fire Stick 4K as an alternative, which also offers Dolby Vision support, although it offers a less powerful processor and less RAM. Basically, a product is evaluated based on the price at which it is found in comparison to the alternatives.