Does the world need another streaming device? Another living room app platform? With the Nexus Player streaming box and Android TV operating system, Google's answer is, "Sure, why not?"
Our answer? "Don't buy this one yet."
Like many of Google's products at launch, the Nexus Player, the first consumer device to run Android TV, needs more time to develop. Streaming device platforms get better with age (well, ) and I'm sure Android TV will mature in the coming months and years, but right now it's a mewling seal pup thrown into a swirling pool of sharks.
-- especially with its -- are the shiver of ravenous great whites in this analogy, and for now the Nexus Player is chum. Its main problem, lack of apps, is compounded by an interface that insistently pushes an unpopular content destination, Google Play Movies and TV, down its users' throats. Add in a relatively expensive price and sparse connectivity, and the Player is tough to recommend to any but the Google faithful -- who will probably still use their anyway.
Android TV has some solid fundamentals to build upon. Albeit limited for now, its voice search works very well and is easily the best feature. The Player can do everything the beloved $35/AU$49can, namely app-casting and screen mirroring. Tinkerers and early adopters who experiment may unlock even more capabilities, much like they do with rooting and ROMs for Android phones. Google, for its part, touts the open nature of the platform and the participation of eager app developers to help improve it. Then again, it made similar promises with , which is now dead.
Android TV is coming to actual televisions in addition to other boxes and, I'm sure, a stick or 10 in the near future. It's not yet available in the UK but that may also change in the future. Supported apps will expand, voice search will target more services and prices will fall. Until then, skip the Nexus Player and wait for Android TV to grow some teeth of its own.
Streaming puck comes full circle
When the original streaming "pucks" were released in fall 2010 -- the second-generation Apple TV and -- the design seemed brilliantly compact, minimalist and radical. Today it's the standard for streaming boxes. The Nexus Player's contribution to the genre is to go fully round, just in time for hockey season.
The box itself, manufactured by Asus, measures 4.75 inches in diameter and 0.75-inch tall, a hair taller than the square Fire TV box and about the same size. Meanwhile, the comparatively ancient Apple TV and Roku boxes seem more squat and less svelte.
The Nexus offers no indicator lights aside from a single blue LED on the bottom that glows during operation. It's button-free aside from a convenient bottom key for engaging Bluetooth pairing for things like game controllers and keyboards.
The remote: Not great, but better than nothing
The included physical remote is infinitely better than Chromecast's, because it actually exists. It's not quite as good as the clickers of the other boxes, but it still gets the job done.
Button selection is minimal, a la the Apple TV remote. I prefer the slightly less minimal button layouts of Roku and Fire TV, with their dedicated rewind and fast-forward controls, but Apple and Nexus make you use the cursor control. An inscrutable circle, not the standard house shape, takes you to the main menu. Like Fire TV, the crowning key activates voice search, accompanied by a flashing LED when the built-in mic is listening.
Asus' clicker also feels, well, clicky and kinda hollow, while the others feel slightly more solid and pleasing. Amazon's, with its soft finish, is my favorite. The Nexus remote uses Bluetooth, so like Roku and Fire TV it doesn't need line-of-sight to the box to work.
Google also has an Android app that mimics the physical clicker on your smartphone or tablet, including voice search, and also allows you to enter search terms using your device's keyboard. (There's no word on an iOS version yet.)
Speaking of keyboards the Player paired successfully with a few Bluetooth keyboards I tried, including the Samsung VG-KBD1500. As is often the case, however, their usefulness varied per app. They worked fine for searches within Netflix, for example, but didn't accept letter entries on Hulu Plus. Once Android TV adds the inevitable Web browser, they'll prove more useful., , and
Speedy, game-friendly processor, sparse connections
If you plan on using the Nexus Player for gaming, you'll be happy to note the relatively powerful "1.8GHz Quad Core Atom" processor and "Imagination PowerVR Series 6 Graphics 2D/3D Engine." It also has 1GB of RAM and 8GB of storage.
Amazon's box has similar specs, aside from double the RAM (2GB), while the Roku and Apple TV are much less powerful on paper. Roku offers a handful of "casual games" but nothing that's console-worthy. For all other functions, meanwhile, both Apple and Roku deliver fast response times (in particular, the Roku 3) with old hardware. The Nexus player also has slightly newer Bluetooth (4.1) and 802.11 Wi-Fi (ac) than the Fire TV.
Connectivity is sparse compared with other boxes: one HDMI (1080p/60), one Micro-USB (version 2.0) and a power jack. That's it. There's no analog video or optical digital audio output, no option to connect an Ethernet cable if you want (the Nexus Player is strictly Wi-Fi) and no SD (micro or otherwise).
According to a Google spokesperson: "The Micro-USB port is for developers. They can connect to the device and develop or debug their apps easily that way."
I tried connecting a Windows 7 PC via USB, but nothing happened. A quick search for "Android TV drivers" came up empty, aside from leading me to the page for the Android TV developer box, the ADT-1. The version of Android TV on my Nexus Player sample (Version 5.0, Build LRX21K) lacks some of the options described there (namely USB debugging), so I gave up at that point.
Dismal native app selection for now
Here's where the Nexus Player and Android TV get slapped out of the rink. The number of "native" apps on the Nexus player -- ones you can access via the main menu and are cleared to download from the Play store (and actually launch) -- currently lags far, far behind the Roku, Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV.
You can get access to many more apps using Google's Cast technology, the-like system that debuted on Chromecast and is now compatible with numerous other devices, including Roku, WDTV and plenty of smart TVs.
I watched HBO Go, Watch ESPN, Bloomberg TV and Vudu, all Google Cast-compatible, without any problems using my phone and the Nexus Player. I was also able to Cast from compatible browser apps, like Netflix, via both Windows and Mac Yosemite computers. There was no notable difference between the Casting performance of the Nexus Player and Chromecast in my comparisons--both worked great.
The problem is you have to pull out your phone, tablet or PC, unlock it, navigate to the app and engage casting before the video begins playing on the TV. That's easy enough -- provided your device is within reach, charged (NOT plugged in, charging in another room) and you don't have to sign back into the app (an issue I've run across many times, especially with HBO Go on Android) -- but for most of us it's still less convenient than using the dedicated physical remote that's already in-hand.
Then there's TabCasting, another feature from Chromecast that potentially allows the contents of Chrome browser pages to appear on-screen. It's still (rightly) marked "Beta" by Google, and in our experience is even less convenient than true Casting or native apps, and more prone to dropouts, stutter and other deal-breaking failures (see below).
So keeping in mind the hierarchy of app access ease -- native apps at the top (marked "Yes" on the chart below), followed by Cast-compatible apps and sites and Apple's AirPlay, and finally TabCasting and other screen mirroring solutions -- here's a revised version of our app and media service comparison chart by platform.
Major app support comparison
|Roku||Apple TV||Amazon Fire TV||Google Chromecast||Google Nexus Player|
|Time Warner Cable TV||Yes||No||No||No||No|
|NBA Game Time||Yes||Yes||Yes||No||No|
|"Radio" & iTunes radio||No||Yes||No||No||No|
|Google Play content||Yes||No||No||Cast||Yes|
I asked Google's spokeswoman about future app plans and was told, "We look forward to working with developers and content partners, but have no new plans to announce at this time." She cited the open Android TV software developers' kit (SDK) for new apps and games.