10 things you need to know about the Safaricom Digital TV and Internet Box

Since last year, Safaricom has been selling an updated version of the media streaming device it debuted in 2015 dubbed the Safaricom Big Box. The updated Big Box, or Safaricon Big Box 2 as some of us prefer calling it, goes by the name “Safaricom Digital TV and Internet Box” in the market.

While its outside looks closely mirror those of its predecessor, the Safaricom Big Box 2’s feature-set sets it apart from the first generation device.

1. Android TV

Android is pretty much everywhere you look. It powers phones as the powerful Android operating system that you know and, probably, like us, love. It powers car units as Android Auto, it powers wearables as Wear OS and is gearing up to power the Internet of Things as an embedded operating system called Android Things. On the television front, we used to have Google TV like what could be found on this TV we featured a while back when it was heavily discounted on Safaricom’s e-commerce platform Masoko.

However, Google TV had lots of issues including lack of apps and whatnot. As a result, Google axed it and in its place we got Android TV 3 years ago as one of the usual annual goodie bag we get from Google during its developer conference, I/O.

Android TV comes pre-installed on some television sets. Like smart TVs from Sony, Philips and the like. Android TV can also be found on several set top boxes. No, not those many “Android boxes” that you can find on sale all in those Facebook buyer-seller groups you are in. Those ones most likely pack the software that made some of us not fall for the first generation Safaricom Big Box. You know, Android for phones but forced to play nice on big display devices hence it ends up being a big blown up phone on a TV with bits of it optimized and others just existing for the sake of existing. No, that’s not Android TV. We’re talking about something that does not make it painful to input text or navigate on your big screen.

It is this Android TV that one gets on the second generation Safaricom Big Box. Thanks to it, the possibilities of the Safaricom Digital TV and Internet Box are almost endless. It has access to the Google Play Store so once one is done setting it up, which is an easy and straight forward process by the way if you read the accompanying user manuals, one can go ahead and get several relevant apps. You know, Netflix, Kodi etc. Showmax, the Africa-centric streaming video-on-demand service, has its app pre-installed. As does rival iflix.

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The Android TV advantages don’t just end there. There is an accompanying Android TV remote app that you will be prompted to install while setting up the box or which you can install on your own later that reduces over-reliance on the remote control. More on the remote control in a bit.

2. Built-in Chromecast

The Chromecast is a media streaming dongle that one plugs in to a HDMI port on their TV and to a power source (a wall plug or a USB port on the TV can do) which acts like some sort of set top box only that it is not and it is entirely reliant on one’s connected smartphone since it has no remote controller of its own and its entire operation is premised on a user sharing whatever they’re viewing on their smartphone or other compatible computing device to their big screen i.e. casting.

The digital media player from Google has, over the last 5 years, completely changed the game and it has made “casting” capabilities an almost must-have feature on many phone and web apps that are for consuming media.

I would personally recommend the Chromecast any day any time. The problem has always been that while they are not hard to find locally, they are often overpriced.

Thanks to being on the Android TV platform, the Big Box comes with ready out-of-the-box support for Chromecast. What this means is that you can be viewing a trending video clip on the Facebook app on your phone and, at the touch of a button, “cast” it to your television for everyone in the house to watch or just for yourself to enjoy it over your more powerful home audio system that’s connected to the TV. The same is the case for other media apps. YouTube, VLC, name them. Heck, I have even taken to viewing some old videos I have stored in the cloud by casting them from the OneDrive app on my phone.

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3. Bluetooth remote control

One of the reasons why Android TV had to come into being was the need for something tailor-made for use on the television. You know, something easy that doesn’t have you tapping your remote endlessly. One of the products is the simple-looking remote control that the Safaricom Digital TV and Internet Box arrives with. The best thing, according to me, is how it works which is also the future of remote controls and much better than what we have universally at the moment.

The Big Box’s remote uses Bluetooth to connect to it. Not infrared signals as is the case with normal TV and other remote controls. The advantage here is that as long as one within range, they are able to control whatever it is that they are streaming on their TV or just, generally, anything, without having to maintain a clear straight line of sight as is the case with IR remote controls.

The Bluetooth aspect can be quite confusing at first when one is setting up the device since the remote’s batteries (included in the box) need to be slotted in so that the Big Box can detect it when it is initializing but once that is sorted, it’s a breeze from then on.

Unfortunately, the wow factor stops at just that. The remote does not have built-in microphones to let you use it for voice input, something that would be very ideal as Android TV includes the Google Assistant and of what use is the Assistant if you can’t talk to it?

4. Built-in SIM

The Safaricom Digital TV and Internet Box is a, well, Safaricom device. As such, obviously, it is mobile-first. Like the first generation Big Box, Big Box 2 also comes with an embedded SIM card whose number is provided on the retail packaging that the Big Box comes in as well as underneath the Big Box itself.

5. Several connectivity options

The Safaricom Digital TV and Internet Box provides several connectivity options.

There is Bluetooth, which, as highlighted above, is used to pair the remote control. It also lets users go online by plugging in an ethernet cable if one prefers a wired connection. Wireless options include Wi-Fi, where one can connect to any wireless network they have access to, it doesn’t need to be a Safaricom one or associated with the mobile network operator. The other option, which is what makes the Big Box 2 stand out from the other set-top boxes in the market is that it also has access to a mobile network. In this case, the Safaricom network. With its embedded SIM, it is ready for use this way right out of the box. One just needs to get the necessary data bundles to get going.

If you opt to go the data bundle route, which can be done online (safaricom.com/bigbox on the Big Box’s web browser see this handy FAQ for more) or by dialing *400# on your phone (and… see below screenshots) then you have the option to purchase various bundles meant just for the Big Box.

With data bundles, the Safaricom Digital TV and Internet Box can be your standard home router as you can use it to access the internet on your other devices… computer, smartphone etc.

6. First step towards making your home smart

You have probably heard of talk of the smart home. Well, in a nutshell, the smart home is the future of our homes. The future when everything in the home is connected and talks to each other so as to make our lives easier. The problem here is that I am using the wrong tense. The future is already here.

With the Safaricom box you can start laying down the building blocks for your dream smart home. I gather that this is more for the nerds like myself and others and less of an incentive for the rest but hey, everything has to start somewhere, right? My friends have now gotten used to seeing me barking some commands like a mad man to my TV and, much to their amusement, it responds.

How do I do that? Easy. I have a Google Assistant-powered smart speaker that I bought a while back. I was using it just for playing my curated fire Spotify playlists and the usual question and answer that everyone engages the Google Assistant in. Then I got the Safaricom box and things changed. Through the Google Home app, which is what one uses to set up the Safaricom Digital TV and Internet Box, I was able to pair the Big Box to the smart speaker and now I can just yell from anywhere and the TV responds. This, alone, is the reason I will be keeping this device for a while. Well, until this starts selling and I can afford it.

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7. No memory card slot

Unlike other set top boxes and even its predecessor, if I am not wrong, the second-generation Safaricom Big Box does not have a microSD card slot. Unless I missed it on my unit, it’s simply not there. For me that makes a whole world of difference since I always have a spare microSD card tucked in somewhere that I can use to shuffle content between my phone, my computer and any other device. In the case of the Big Box, my insistence on its existence is because it would make it easy to use the next feature on this list.

8. You can sideload apps

It is easy to install apps you may want to use on your TV that are not available on the Google Play Store for one reason or the other. Terrarium, Mobdro, name them. Ordinarily, that would entail downloading those apps, putting them on a microSD card, going to the Big Box’s settings and enabling the right settings and then sideloading them. However, since the Big Box 2 lacks a microSD card slot, as noted above, we have to make lemonade with our lemons. Good thing it has a USB port (I wish there were more) which we can use for this purpose since downloading directly using the default Android browser is an exercise in futility. It will work but I found it quite a tiresome process since it was a bit buggy.

9. You can add peripheral devices

Mention of a USB port means one thing… peripheral devices. Yes, you can add these. Unfortunately, I do not have a wired or wireless keyboard with me to see if I can key in things just like I am used to on my computer. But I do have lots of mice around me and I tried them on the Safaricom Big Box 2 and they worked. My (wireless) Logitech mouse connected just fine and took advantage of the Big Box’s Bluetooth to pair with its dongle. As did several others that I use for various purposes that I also tried on.

While the Big Box’s remote control and accompanying mobile app are just as capable, nothing beats the convenience of a mouse. The good thing is that the mouse appears to work just about anywhere and everywhere something that has made me permanently assign one of my mice to the Big Box. Or how else would I have found out that the web browser is buggy as hell?

10. Terrestrial TV access

One of the biggest selling points of the Safaricom Digital TV and Internet Box is that it’s not just all about making your TV smart, assuming it wasn’t a smart TV in the first place, but also doubles up as your ordinary decoder, something that most Android boxes and media streamers lack. So, if you’ve been in the market for a DVB-T2 decoder, you can as well kill two birds with one stone by getting it. Just plug in your aerial’s coaxial cable and you’re good to go.

One more thing…

One of my quarrels with the Safaricom Digital TV and Internet Box is when it comes down to what really matters at the end of the day: the price.

At Kshs 9,999 (basically, 10K), it’s not as cheap as I would want it to be. Sure, those who are already subscribed to Safaricom’s home internet product, Safaricom Home Fibre, can get it at a discounted rate of Kshs 5,999 but I feel that that should’ve been the device’s price for everyone to begin with.

If you can afford it, you can’t go wrong with the Safaricom Big Box 2. It’s worth it.

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Have something that you believe I need to have a look at? Hit me up: echenze [at] androidkenya.com