Cleaning up a Hisense Android TV

As a sequel to the previous post about trying to block Youtube ads on a TCL Roku TV, I purchased (and almost immediately returned) a very cheap Hisense Android TV. The main reason for this purchase was the existence of the Smart Youtube TV app, which blocks ads.

Immediately, out of the box, the first problem I noticed was that the UI looked and ran like complete garbage. Visually, the screen was dominated by grids of thumbnails from various services I don't even use (so, ads), animations were super sluggish and jerky, and there was a very noticeable delay between pressing a button on the remote and something happening on the screen.

Another thing that was immediately apparent was that everything was blurry. It turns out that Android TV apparently renders all of the UI in 1080p by default, even on 4K TVs.

Thankfully, this can be fixed using another feature that drew me to the Android TV platform: access to debugging tools, or adb. Getting a shell on the device is as easy as connecting it to the LAN and enabling USB debugging, which is done in exactly the same way as any ordinary Android phone; go to Settings->About, tap Build Number 7 times, and enable USB debugging under Developer Options.

In the shell, two commands can be used to set the resolution and play around with the scaling.

wm size 3840x2160
wm density <300-600>

The changes take effect almost immediately on the TV, causing the UI to look much crisper, but also run even slower. Additionally, some UI elements do not display properly at this resolution, and some fail to display at all. When this happened, those UI elements also did not function properly, meaning, buttons on the screen became unpressable. In spite of this, the TV was still functional enough to watch Youtube videos, so I pressed on.

To help alleviate some of the slowness, I followed some advice I saw repeated on many forums and used the Developer Options menu to limit the number of background processes to just 4. I'm not sure what the original value was, but this change, as well as increasing the framerate of the UI animations in the same menu, made the TV slightly more usable. It at least seemed to respond to button presses on the remote slightly quicker.

One final thing I did was force close and disable many of the built-in apps that I did not plan on using, as well as remove pretty much everything from the home screen. This made me feel a little better, but didn't seem to have much of an effect on the TV.

A couple other concerns also remained:

  1. It turns out 65" is way too big for our living room. We wouldn't be able to view the TV comfortably without rearranging all of our furniture, and even then, it would still be too big.
  2. The audio was a noticeable downgrade from our old TCL Roku TV. I've messed with the settings, checked and unchecked all the boxes, and I cannot find a configuration that at least matches the audio quality of our old TV. We could purchase a soundbar, but that's another $150+ purchase just to make this TV usable.

I should also mention that the build quality was pretty bad, with the whole body of the TV being super thin, flimsy plastic. You get what you pay for, but our other TV at least feels somewhat solid and not like it's going to bend and snap in half under its own weight.

After all the tweaking I did, the performance could almost be described as... tolerable, for the price. Obviously, you can't expect much from an Android device when you scrape the bottom of the barrel for hardware, but this TV is borderline unusable. It makes old $50 Amazon Fire tablets seem fast, and the fact that the UI elements of the OS itself aren't rendered in 4K on a 4K TV (and thus cause everything to appear blurry) out of the box is just sad. It also constantly hangs and freezes for 5-10 seconds at a time, seemingly for no reason.

I'm still not sure how this happened, but in a pathetic final struggle to please me as I attempted to traverse the ultra slow menus to reach the factory reset button, the TV started cycling through a bunch of its apps, opening them one by one as I sat there and watched without pressing any buttons. I eventually managed to get to the factory reset button, only to find that it was displaying improperly and unclickable, due to having changed the resolution to 4K.

I did some research on other Android TV devices and found that the most recommended device, even after all this time, still seems to be an Nvidia Shield, released in either 2017 or 2019. At the time of writing, they're on sale for around $175. So, if we eschew the smart TV and instead opt for a smart device that plugs into a dumb TV, we're still looking at around $350-$400 for the TV and Shield, plus a possible $150 for a sound bar if the audio is as bad as this Hisense TV.

It's looking like our best option may be to plug an Nvidia Shield into another TCL Roku TV, since those at least function at a basic level, in our experience, and we can probably pick up a used one for pretty cheap.

All in all, a pretty bad first impression for Android TV, but it mainly comes down to performance issues and other problems that are specific to this particular model from Hisense, so I'm not writing off the entire platform yet. That said, this is definitely a lot more work than our Roku TV, which just worked out of the box, while looking and sounding perfectly fine. This whole thing almost has me considering just paying for Youtube Premium, but a couple years of paying for that adds up to about the cost of an Nvidia Shield, which I can block Youtube ads on.

UPDATE 2021/03: I pay for Youtube Premium now...

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