Are Android boxes a cable killer?

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There are few things people complain about more than their TV bill. We’ve all heard or said some variation of, “I pay all this money, but I only watch a few shows!” Some people cut the cord and opt for a streaming service like Netflix. Others go the DIY route and set up an over-the-air antenna (they’ve come a long way since the rabbit ears of the '80s). Still, most of us keep on paying, because in most cases you can't get those “few shows” anywhere else.

Or can you?

Rumblings and whispers of “the box” have been popping up everywhere: around the water cooler at work, on university campuses, even on Facebook groups for neighbourhood moms. The stories follow a familiar pattern – a friend of a friend has a magical box that lets them watch all their favourite shows, sports, and anything else they can think of, for free. They may have found it on Kijiji, or bought it online, or picked it up at a local computer shop. A quick Amazon.ca search for “android box” leads to listings with names like MXQ, M8S, MyGica, and thousands of others, and you can even pick them up at Best Buy. Everyone’s box is slightly different, and they range in price from $50 to $250, but they all promise the same thing – unlimited television, free of a monthly cable subscription. But what exactly is this box, and how does it work?

Generally, what people are talking about are small boxes that plug into your television and run a version of Android, the operating system that you may have seen in some form on a Samsung or LG phone. And that’s how these boxes work – they run phone apps that connect to websites that stream the content you’re looking for, whether it’s a live soccer match or the latest episode of your favourite HBO show.

Now for the million dollar question: is this legal?

I’m not a lawyer (so don’t take my opinion as legal advice), but common sense tells me that there are three parts to this equation: the box, the websites the box is connecting to, and the viewer (that’s you).
The box itself isn’t illegal any more than a computer or phone is, because technically you can just use it like a Roku or Apple TV and only use clearly legal apps and services like Netflix if you wanted to. However, if you advertise that its primary use is piracy and preload apps specifically designed for that, like dozens of Kijiji sellers, you may find yourself on the receiving end of a lawsuit from Rogers and Bell. The listings that are coming under scrutiny usually say something along the lines of "enjoy FREE movies, TV shows, Game of Thrones, live sports, NHL, NBA, MLB," which is an ad for copyright infringement if I've ever seen one.
The websites that broadcast copyrighted material without permission are definitely doing something illegal, and they get taken down frequently, so that's a simple one to answer.
And you, the viewer, are caught in a weird grey area: since you’re only streaming the content but not downloading it, the laws aren’t totally clear, according to Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa:

“Those accessing the streams are unlikely to be infringing copyright, however. The law exempts temporary reproductions of copyrighted works if completed for technical reasons. Since most streaming video does not actually involve downloading a copy of the work (it merely creates a temporary copy that cannot be permanently copied), users can legitimately argue that merely watching a non-downloaded stream does not run afoul of the law.”

Maybe you figure you’ll take your chances in that grey area. Then the question becomes, do these boxes even work the way you want them to?

That depends on how much you love TV, and what you’re willing to put up with. There are a number of frustrating problems with these boxes.
First, they can be slow and clunky to navigate, not nearly as easy as flipping to your favourite cable channel.
Second, because the websites that serve this content are clearly illegal, they get taken down all the time, so your box has to constantly play a cat-and-mouse game of trying to find new websites to replace the old ones.
Third, the software can be very buggy, and these boxes frequently crash in the middle of using them; this can be a problem if you’re trying to watch something like live sports.
Fourth, much of the content available is fairly low quality, so if you’ve been spoiled by HD, you may want to think twice.

If you’re willing to put up with the legal risks and all the other caveats, an Android box may be something to consider. But if convenient access to TV is important to you, you’re better off sticking with what you’ve already got.