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Taking what is, essentially, an Android smartphone and whittling it down to something the size of an old-fashioned pack of chewing gum, is pretty impressive. It's not a particularly attractive packet of gum, but considering it will spend its time hidden behind your flat panel TV, this isn't a major factor to consider.
There isn't much more to know about the dongle, itself. You stick the pointy bit in the TV, there's a mini-USB port on the side that the power supply plugs into and there is a micro-SD card slot on the back, in case you need to expand its 4GB of internal storage.
Take a look at the picture of the nearly useless remote before you commit to buying an Agora Dongle, though. As part of keeping this gadget's price down, the Dongle comes with a severely limited remote, with a five-way navigation pad for controlling most of the system. Remember, this is Android, so there are many, many occasions when you are going to want to input text, and doing this with a five-way pad is majorly tedious. Kogan also sells a wireless keyboard separately, which we have used throughout this review, and we recommend you add it to your shopping cart if you decide to order a Dongle for yourself.
If you buy the Dongle, you need this keyboard (or something similar).
The software on the Agora Dongle is based on Android Ice Cream Sandwich (4.0.3), with a custom overlay designed for TVs. Given the stock Android experience on previous Kogan products we've reviewed, we were impressed with how clean and easy-to-use this custom system is. There is a row of tabs across the top of the UI housing the major sections of the system, including Apps, Music, Movies, Photos and Settings. There is also a Home tab with your most recently accessed apps, and space for two Android widgets, like Facebook or Twitter.
Set up is easy, with a wizard when you first use the Dongle. Once you are connected to a Wi-Fi network and you have connected a Google account, you are on your way.
The custom UI is clean and well laid out.
The performance of the system is mostly a pleasant and seamless experience. Jumping between menus is fast and without much lag, and most apps load without fuss. There isn't an option to multitask on the Dongle, which is a shame. This isn't a part of a regular TV experience, but it is something we found we needed a few times when reviewing this unit. The web browser is a highlight, especially for anyone who has used a web browser on a Smart TV or game console in the past. It is slower than most smartphones, but is OK for quick browsing in a pinch.
We did experience a few crashes and restarts while reviewing the Agora Dongle. One notable crash occurred after we attempted to set the output display resolution to 1080p, up from the default 720p setting.
Out of the box, there are a number of apps pre-loaded for you to use. Amazon's Kindle app is there, in case you want to read a book, there's TuneIn Radio to, well, tune into internet radio stations, too. Facebook and Twitter are installed, along with apps for viewing PDFs and some Office compatible documents.
There is, in theory, a few hundred thousand other apps to install, as well, given that you can connect the Agora Dongle to the Google Play store. We didn't have so much luck testing this side of things. The Dongle accepted our Google account details fine, but the Play Store would not download the apps we requested. We tried a number of work-arounds, without success, including trying to push apps to the dongle via the desktop browser interface. This last attempt was foiled, because the Dongle didn't show up on our list of devices.
Luckily, Kogan offers a 14-day money back guarantee on all products, so you would be within your rights to return it if you have a similar experience.
We did manage to test media stored locally, including a 1080p video file, played from a micro-SD card we installed. It took a long time for the media on the SD card to be displayed in any of the media tabs, but once it was available, it played without complaint.
For AU$99, the biggest competitor to the Agora Dongle is one formidable foe: Apple TV. On the surface, these seem like products with a similar purpose and an identical price tag. Scratch below the surface and we'd argue that these are two very different beasts, and whether you choose one or the other may come down to the tech you already own. Apple TV, for example, works best with an iOS device in your hands. Apple has developed companion apps so that you can control Apple TV with either an iPod, iPhone or iPad, and you can easily share media from these devices using Apple's AirPlay media streaming protocol.
Apple TV is also much more about Apple's digital content sales. All of the major media menus on an Apple TV deliver colourful advertisements for the content you could be watching or listening to, after a quick, painless purchase. The same isn't true of the Agora Dongle. It doesn't really push content to you, though you can rent movies through Google Play, and it doesn't play nice with other Android smartphones or tablets. There's no media streaming on offer out-of-the-box, though we suppose you could download the Twonky app and give that a try (and we would have if it wasn't for that pesky Google Play error).
The Agora dongle can also browse the web and install third-party apps; things the Apple TV won't do. But that said, you have to wonder how many apps you'd want to download and whether your TV is the best medium for the web. Apple TV is also way more polished, and when you're relaxing after a hard day at the coalface, the value of this shouldn't be underestimated.
The Agora Smart TV Dongle is a great idea and is reasonably well executed. We stumbled across a few obstacles as we reviewed this unit — the use of Google Play and a few unexpected restarts — but largely, our experience was positive. The nicely designed user interface helps a lot to makes the Dongle usable, though we can't stress enough how much you need the additional keyboard accessory, or a wireless USB keyboard of your own choosing.