The ill-fated Google TV (a predecessor to Android TV) was released in October 2010 and was supposed to be Google’s foray into the television space that was still anyone’s game. Launching with partners like Logitech, Sony and Intel and following up with LG, Vizio, and Asus; it was Google’s game to lose.
But following a lukewarm reception, a strong start by the relatively new digital streaming box “Roku” and hardware blocking by major providers like NBC, ABC, Hulu and Viacom (essential life blood for a digital streaming service), Google TV was sent out to pasture in 2014 with the SDK being officially removed in June. Despite all of this, a spiritual successor was nigh. At Google I/O, also occurring June 2014 ironically, Google announced Android TV by handing out the ADT-1 digital media player. Launching alongside Android 5.0 Lollipop, Android TV embraced Material design and a more cohesive OS by closely resembling the phone and tablet version of Lollipop, a far cry from the largely closed source Honeycomb Google TV boxes.
Since its inception, the set top box has had a relatively slow launch with 3 major hardware partners, 1 which has failed on multiple fronts (Razer Forge), 1 that has had a lackluster response (Nexus Player), and only 1 truly “successful” device (Nvidia Shield). But where Android TV has really shined is in its partnership with Sony by being the primary OS for its entire flagship TV line since early last year. Philips, Sharp and a host of other mid tier manufacturers also have launched Android TV powered devices but to a more reserved degree.
So how is it living with Android TV today, and how much hope is there for the future? Strictly living in the minority I have 2 Android TV powered sets in my home, one is a Nexus Player being the sole streaming box for my bedroom and another being the high end 2015” Sony XBR55X850C 4K HDR-enabled television in my living room. I am a cord cutter so aside from the Roku 3 also in my living room, these Android TV sets are the daily driver for my viewing experience. On the following pages I’ll break my thoughts of Android TV as a whole into the Interface, Performance, Content and Flexibility, Ease of Use and The Future.
When it comes to our phones we are typically in the pursuit of change and customization. From launchers to icon packs part of what makes Android different is the ability to truly make it yours and OEM’s have this same luxury skinning and rebranding Android for their own benefit and use cases. Android TV, though, is more like Android Wear. TV manufacturers and users have less control and flexibility when it comes to the look and feel of the OS so the experience between the Sony and Nexus Player are generally the same, which is a fantastic thing. Google puts its own spin on the traditional TV streaming box layout of a wall or grid of tiles which you navigate with a D-Pad by offering multiple layers of horizontal grids. It may seem like a small thing but the difference in UI look and feel is quite apparent.
The top layer consists of recommendations based on your usage. Currently not all applications are supported, but this space is generally filled with Google Movies, Hulu, Netflix and YouTube recommendations. It is a nice thing to have, but beware if you have children. It is partially based on your viewing history but it is also largely based on your perceived demographic and this can cause some erratic recommendations from Hulu or YouTube and the always entertaining thumbnail from some obscure show on Crackle showing more of something then you want your kids seeing. I recommend using the settings menu to tailor the content that may be displayed instead of turning it off altogether since it can show movie trailers from YouTube or Music you may be interested in and is generally useful.
Below the recommendations are more horizontal grids separated into streaming applications, apps and games. You have the option to curate these into frequently used, A-Z or a custom layout. All of your applications get dumped here so some curation is needed, I have found that setting it to frequently used will cause the good stuff to flow to the first few columns and the rest to fade out to the right.
Drilling down into the applications the experience is very good to excellent. Google designed applications like Google Play Music, the Play Store and Google Movies make beautiful use of Material design and are quick to navigate. Other applications like Netflix, Amazon Instant Video (only on the Sony), and Hulu utilize their own interfaces that are the same between Roku and Android TV. I have no problem with this as the less interfaces to learn and for developers to have to think about and design, the better; even if this leads to a less cohesive experience on a single platform.
The Settings menu is exactly what you would expect. It is based on the same rectangular tile layout as the home screen and is laid out in a way that is easy to understand and is fast to navigate. (Side Note: Android N seems to be changing this to a sidebar hamburger menu. Personally I do not like this layout but it may allow access to the Settings menu without leaving an application which would be beneficial. Time will tell if they move this direction.)
In comparing the interface to the Roku I would take Android TV over it every single day. The Roku has one of the most boring layouts with the Apple TV as sort of a crossbreed between the two, they are functional but leave much to be desired. Android TV is flexible, eye catching and appealing without giving up any of the speed or ease of use.
So I need to start this section off with a major disclaimer. My Android TV boxes are that, Android TV boxes and not video game consoles. I will never spend $50 on a controller for my TV box, that is what my Xbox One is for. The #1 thing a digital streaming box needs to do is play content without getting in the way and Android TV does that very well. My general bevy of applications is Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play Movies, Google Play Music and Kodi.
Generally both forms of Android TV handle these great without hiccup or issue. Outside of Google Play Movies I have never had a stutter while watching 1080P content on either a streaming application or through my MP4 encoded movie collection with Kodi. I have had some recent issues with Hulu Plus on the Sony TV while watching 11.22.63, after playing for a while it appears to drop frames and stutter especially during motion and panning shots. A reboot or cache clear for the application traditionally fixes it.
While Hulu is quiet about its 4K streaming capability Amazon, UltraFlix, and Netflix play 4K content like a champ without any issue on the Sony TV which draws me to the conclusion that the Hulu Plus app is the problem and not the OS itself. On the topic of 4K (UHD) content, the built in applications can handle both 4K and HDR 4K video and the Sony X850C plays both beautifully. Keep in mind though that many streaming boxes like the Xbox One, PS4, Nexus Player, as well as the Apple TV 4th gen and Roku 3 or lower don’t currently support 4K content; so having this built in is a plus instead of having to purchase a player just for 4K.
People who want to run full HTPC’s through their television are still best to build out a quality HTPC solution, Smart TV’s and Android TV are just not powerful enough for it. The NVidia Shield might be, but a proper HTPC is still a better solution… For the typical user the experience found on Android TV largely mirrors that of the Roku and Apple TV: it is smart, smooth, and reliable but you may need to reboot it from time to time if you start to have issues with stuttering, lagging or slowness like any device and neither are geared towards power users.