We are currently at a breaking point where cheap Android TV boxes become powerful enough and viable enough to do the following while running Linux:
1. Be a server: self-hosting data, fediverse, home NAS
2. Be a TV box: 1. web browser, 2. other multimedia options, 3. games
3. Be a makeshift PC replacement (run office applications, photo editing, etc)
Concerning #1: If you have followed the news then you have witnessed that censorship is increasing and that the nature of it is most alarming. Over the next years, big tech and politics-driven manipulation of online information will only get worse, until the internet essentially devolves into a kind of TV program suitable for only silent, mindless and conformist consummation. In the wake of this happening, enough people are slowly waking up and realize: We can't just blindly put all our data and digital lives into the hands and dictatiorships of giant companies anymore. That is why we need to step back from those ill relationships and towards alternatives like the fediverse, that have already been worked on for the benefit of the greater good. As more and more ordinary and "technologically helpless" people are turning to the community for solutions, we should have all the answers.
Concerning #2 & #3: Many people have smart TVs now. A lot of them aren't even running Android and they do not support any or proper web browsers in order to lock people into vendor schemes. But even on Android, many apps do only work in a makeshift shorthand manner, meant to be just barely enough to work with on a tiny phone when a PC is not available. Office doesn't work well and can't be used in a productive manner, most uncommon hardware addons like basic game controllers are not working for game emulation, if there are server apps they tend to be unreliable, there are not proper video/photo/music editors, etc. etc. This is absolutely not the case on desktop Linux distributions that run on x86 and ARM virtually all the same.
The TV box has evolved away from a dumb DVD player-alike thing with classic remote controls and is moving towards being a mini-PC with mini keyboard remote or full keyboard and mouse as standard, that people need for things they just can't practicably do well enough with their smartphones. In fact nowadays, most ordinary people rather primarily use their smartphones and do not even want to have a real PC around. Like described, Android performs well on smartphones, but the entire ecosystem has always been and will always be far too misfit for the TV environment to exhaust the true potential and benefit a TV box could have in people's lives.
Here is were Linux comes in, and this could turn the tide on Linux marketshare: We, the people from the Linux community, are not only providing a solution, with enduser-friendly server application environments like Yonohost or Docker, to the problem of big tech vs. our privacy, freedom and democracy. We also provide an operating system that fills an unfilled market nieche: the TV box as both a media center and mini-PC, a kind of "most things ordinary people often most need but nothing too serious" kind of solution. One that isn't controlled by big tech, and one that is born out of free choice and their choice for freedom. Never again has it been so convincing for people to switch to Linux by their own volition.
The Rasperry Pi or similar boards are all in all a good option here. But unfortunately they are neither advertized, nor sold nor priced in a manner that would appeal to and convince the average Joe to buy it. In fact I would rather buy the Rasperry Pi, if I was only buying it for myself: to have it easier. But I am not thinking of myself here. I am thinking of the bigger picture and the greater good that would come from even lower cost.
Think of this: Before the Rasperry Pi existed, you could have simply used an old notebook or a thin client with GPIO card to do the same job. Yet in the very long era of thin clients, no one was thinking of all the great magical things you can do now with the Rasperry Pi. That is because back then they weren't magical at all at higher price points. When you run the Pi now, it consumes barely any power. Hosting your own data or controlling the doorbell, heating or hydroponic garden over wifi feels like a delight. You have so many awesome possibilites to enriche your life. But when you pay $10 for powering the Pi per month, like you would have paid for an old thin client, all those great things feel rather unpleasant. They aren't so advantageous or helpful anymore and leave a very bad aftertaste. A $30 TV box is about as capable as a Rasperry Pi and the Rasperry Pi is about as capable as some thin client from back in the day. The lower cost is all there was that made all the difference. And it is what opened up widespread use, large communities sourrunding it and so many benefits that just weren't really good benefits at all when the technology was more expensive.
That is how a $30 TV box running Linux will be cornerstone technology. And a thin client or Rasperry Pi kit for $100 sadly were not.
$30 will currently get you a 4GB/64GB Cortex-A55 with Mali 31 GPU. Those specs are far than enough.
Linux currently has (like it always had) 2% market share on desktops. Something needs to change, not to convince ourselves more that our own logic is sound, but to bring more ordinary "non tech" people in. who are not knowing the same things we do and make decisions based on different premises and imperatives. If we could push Linux up to only 15% market share, then most software companies that currently ignore Linux (like Adobe) would also develop for Linux to make more profit. At this point, Linux would snowball into widespread use because it had more advantages than using Windows. This wouldn't just be a great victory for software freedom and thus our freedom while using software, but it would also lay the foundation for a consciousness on digital freedoms and other cultural freedoms as well, where today only ignorance prevails.
What catches ordinary "non tech" people is also impression and convenience. Like a phone just resets and you can sell it, you can plop out your SD card into the next TV box and merely use the internal user-storage of Android for backup files. You can dual-boot Android, just try Linux out, no harm done. It comes fully assembled and doesn't look weird. Believe me to ordinary people who basically know nothing about technology, things like this are huge. Not only but foremost because they can easily imagine how to move forward with and treat it like other things they already have used before (like a phone or TV).
I didn't say it will be easy, just that this is how things are and could be. There are several problems to be solved and some are not easy to solve.
Like on PCs, Linux doesn't ship pre-installed on Android TV boxes and it needs to be distributed afterwards. Here I could imagine, that people could turn to local computer/Linux clubs to have it done for them for free. Or they could, worst-case, mail their box to someone in their country who will install Linux for them. It is probably the biggest hurde to get people to make this first step. But as people are now losing faith in big corporations, the return to community-driven options is only logical.
Then there is the technical side of things. And this is where we come in and I am asking for your help here: As I gathered, virtually all the cheap TV boxes with really good specs are (and always were) Amlogic devices. As you know there are hundreds of devices and they even often require reverse engineering, while the manufacturers don't play ball. So supporting Amlogic in general seems more like a fools errand. **However**, for us to support just one model every 2 years per generation is not: It absolutely is the smartest move we can make for everyone. We make the cheapest and fastest box work smoothly and as good as it gets, as a team effort. And this is the box we recommend as a community, that all people then can buy and profit from.
I believe so strongly in the value of this vision and the power and potential of all the converging events described, that I want to create a seperate website, which will serve two purposes: 1. to coordinate the project, provide a better dedicated space for knowledge and development. 2. To describe the idea to ordinary consumer-type people, so that they can easily understand what it is, what their options are in software and hardware and and what advantages they get. There are many recent technologies from the fediverse and related, like Yunohost and docker, that even most tech-savvy people know nothing about and hence can't draw implications from. A dedicated site would quickly explain all those things, in a carefully thought-through manner to specific audiences, provide demos and tutorials and so forth and thus not be as convoluted and difficult to ingest as the post that you are reading right now on this forum.
From what I gathered, there isn't anything happening like that here or elsewhere at all. But admittedly, I haven't searched for it days on end either. I know of Balbes who seemed to be the one-man-army for Amlogic devices but now it seems he has quit? And SteeMan kind of took his place? I have been reading some on the Forum, and learned a few things about the general situation and gained insight to very very few scattered technical details. But there are thousands of pages on this-and-that sourrunding the topic from the last years. And it is totally impossible to work through all of it. This forum is about enduser support mostly, and no seperate dev forum seems to exist there are just bits and pieces here and there.
This is why it would be really really helpful if someone very experienced (like Balbes?) could write a crash course for other devs who have not worked much beyond the basics with TV box hardware.
This crash course should contain all the endpoints where dev support is needed, the technical nature of the problem, some details around it and maybe even a quick guide how to possibly tackle them. Of course this shouldn't be a lengthy tutorial, and only be as long as the person has time to spare. In essence it should just be the insights and pitfalls in the deciding details that someone with experience has gathered.
We could then expand on that crash course and work through all the issues. But let's first see how many people really jump on to this train, or if this will be a one man show. That would be kind of sad.
Personally I don't have much experience in hardware hacking and I can't desolder SMD parts or read EPROMs or anything like that (I suppose that isn't required, ever?; hopefully). I did work in IT most of my life, so I have all sorts dev exeperiences and am a Linux expert. I worked with microcontrollers and kernel drivers before, but not much. I dived a bit into uboot and drivers 2 years ago for my current box, but I still have to learn quite some with the hardware specifics. I have a ttl serial dongle of course. I am willing to learn whatever it takes.
As for the question of "which box?": Please make a recommendation. I believe the X96 max plus is the best candidate for last year and as a start.