Recently, iPazzPort – known for their wireless media remotes – launched the Pearl. This little plastic ball (seen on the right side of my TV in the image above) and its accompanying remote are designed to be put in your living room and act as a central hub in your digital life. The people at iPazzPort were kind enough to send me one, and I’ve spent some time with it over the last weeks. Here’s what you need to know.
1. It puts Android on your TV
Much like the numerous “Android TV sticks” out there, the Pearl is an ARM-based mini-computer that runs Google’s mobile OS. It uses a slightly modified version of Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean). The Pearl can output 1080p video with audio over HDMI, but also comes with an RCA cable for older TVs.
2. It contains reasonably potent hardware
Inside the plastic white sphere, there’s a Rockchip RK3066 dual core Cortex A9 processor running at 1.6 GHz, 1 GB of RAM and 4 GB of storage. This is roughly equivalent to a good solid mid-range smartphone, and should be capable of running Jelly Bean quite well. There’s also a MicroSD slot if you need more storage. The remote slides into the top of the base unit so it’s always handy and charged. Nifty.
I did experience frequent slowdowns and a single crash while using the Pearl. I assume that’s a software issue, and I hope iPazzPort will support this product with frequent firmware updates. The software feels a little beta right now.
3. The remote has 129(!!) buttons
The remote that comes with the Pearl has more buttons than the average computer keyboard. It’s got a full QWERTY keyboard and a trackpad on one side, and a more TV oriented key configuration on the front. There are two d-pads (up/down/left/right), and a lot of dedicated Android buttons (home, settings) and app buttons (Facebook, Skype).
Probably my biggest gripe about the Pearl is the trackpad. Like with earlier iPazzPort products, I found it to be very very sensitive. It’s almost impossible the make a gesture without accidentally clicking something. It’s not very precise either, and I found myself resorting to using the d-pads whenever I could. A good, large trackpad could make the experience of using Android on your TV much more fun, but unfortunatly, this is not that trackpad.
The Apple TV remote has only seven buttons, and Google just introduced the Chromecast TV dongle that has zero. I guess less really is more, because the iPazzPort can be complicated and frustrating to use. Not in the least because of the next point.
4. Android was not made for TV
There’s a reason why Google’s own Google TV solution looks nothing like a stock android install. Android is designed around touch interfaces, and it really doesn’t work very well on a TV. This of course applies not only to the Pearl, but to most of the devices it competes against. Still, it’s my biggest take-away from writing this review.
Apps like Facebook and Instagram also tend to scale images to fit the screen’s width. On a 16:9 TV, this means huge images, and you have to click them to see them in full. So it’s not just Android itself that does poorly on a TV. Most apps are also not designed for this.
I did try the Pearl in a more desktop-like setup, with an HDMI monitor and a regular keyboard and mouse. That made it considerably more fun to use, but there’s a catch there too.
5. It doesn’t really do 1080p
When I hooked it up to a “Full HD” monitor, I noticed – more than on the TV – that things looked like they had been scaled up. Text wasn’t exactly crisp, and the Pearl didn’t seem to make very good use of my monitor’s resolution.
Using an app called “Screen Resolution & Density”, I found out that Android was actually running at 720p resolution. And with the OS running at 720p, you’ll never get 1080p videos to play at full sharpness. They’ll be scaled down by the OS, and scaled back up to 1080p like everything else for HDMI output.
That being said, my review unit came with a 1080p music video that played very well. Despite the resolution issue, it looked quite okay.
6. The software’s a little odd
The Android version that runs on the Pearl looks pretty stock. There are a couple of extra buttons on the bottom bar, all of which strangely enough have hardware equivalents and are therefore completely unnecessary. There’s also a theme selector with mostly really ugly themes. I found that I had to change the desktop wallpaper every time the device had been powered down, as the setting didn’t seem to persist.
There’s nothing about the software that makes it more at home on your TV. It seems to be the exact same Android version I’ve seen running on really cheap tablets, with a few tweaks here and there.
7. It’s not primarily a media player
If you’re planning to replace your Roku with this, or to get this instead of a media center PC, don’t. I tried the android version of XBMC and BSPlayer, and both had codec support issues. Some files would play well, other would stutter or have visual glitches. IPazzPort intended this device more of a living room computer, and while you might be able to find a player app that works better with your files, the Pearl is not currently a very good media player.
8. The remote is a wireless audio device
I have very little experience with wireless audio, so I was surprised to find a button on the remote that connects it to the base unit as a sort of phone handset. There’s a little speaker and a headphone jack for playback, and a microphone. The mic can be used for Google Voice Search, but I found the sound quality to be so poor that I ended up searching for things I didn’t intend.
9. There’s a camera too, but mine didn’t work
The base has a little webcam built into it, that you can use with Skype and other apps. But no matter what I tried, I could not get it to work. Apps would either crash or give me black screen when I pulled up camera functionality. I even opened up the device to see if something had come loose during transport, but I couldn’t find the problem. This is probably an issue with just my unit though, and a USB camera I tried did work.
10. The base can function as a WiFi hotspot
If you opt to connect the Pearl to the internet using the ethernet port, you can use the Pearl as an access point. I have no idea why anyone would ever need this, but there you go. It’s an example of how the Pearl tries to do everything at once, instead of doing the most important things right.
At around $125, the Pearl’s spec list sounds like it offers excellent value for money. But in reality, there are just too many little issues with this device to really make it work. With a better remote and an Android version geared towards TV, it might have worked. As it is right now, I would not recommend getting a Pearl.