Android TV: Voice search, gaming, and a simplified interface

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If nothing else, Google's efforts in the living room have been persistent: Google TV, Nexus Q, Chromecast, and now Android TV.

Google announced Android TV at Google I/O 2014 and it's the company's latest software platform designed to power set-top boxes, TVs, and even "micro-consoles". Android TV is designed to sit alongside Chromecast, rather than replace it, and it's built on the latest version of Google's mobile operating system, Android L.

Unlike the Chromecast, Android TV will feature a full onscreen interface and search capabilities. At first glance, the user interface looks much more straightforward than what was available on Google TV. Its blades of scrollable titles are similar to what's already on Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, or Roku.

There's also a neat feature that anticipates your viewing habits (like, say, the next episode of a TV series you've been watching) and brings that content right to the forefront.

Navigation is handled with a remote, smartphone, or voice search. Voice search worked really well during our hands-on demo: we were able not just to look for specific shows, but sub-genres like "science-fiction movies from the 1970s." Search was only working for Google Play and YouTube content at Google I/O, but the plan is for other apps and services to work with it, too.

There's no official hardware yet, but Google showed off a prototype developer box. It was small and thin, similar to the Fire TV, with HDMI and USB ports on the back, but the company emphasized that what we saw at Google I/O may not be what ends up going on sale later this year.

Google was also showing off a game controller, with a design that's similar to other console-style controllers. The thin TV-connected box that Google showed off might play tablet-level games, but Epic showed off an impressive desktop-level Unreal Engine 4 gaming demo in 720p, on additional hardware running on an Nvidia K1 processor. Higher-end Android TV gaming micro-consoles could be running this type of more powerful gaming hardware, which could theoretically be capable of giving game consoles a run for their money.

Google says Android TV devices should start arriving in the fall and there are a host of partners onboard, from TV makers like Sony and Sharp to set-top box and gaming companies like LG and Asus. Razer also made its own Android TV announcement, in the form of a micro-console dedicated to gaming. It's unclear how many pieces of hardware there will be, what they'll cost, or exactly when they'll be available.

In all, Android TV looks to be a definite improvement over Google TV, but it remains to see whether its benefits will be enough top the already popular $35/£30/AU$49 Chromecast.

Google also announced a host of updates for Chromecast at Google I/O, including Google+ photo integration and smartphone mirroring capabilities.

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