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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, usually) 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.
Roku, Apple TV and even Amazon Fire TV -- especially with its new $39 stick -- 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 Rokus to stream Google Play 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$49 Chromecast can, 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 Google TV, 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.
When the original streaming "pucks" were released in fall 2010 -- the second-generation Apple TV and Rokus -- 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 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 Logitech K480 , Microsoft Mobile Keyboard , and 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.
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.
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 AirPlay-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.
|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.
TabCasting using a Windows PC and Chrome browser worked just as well as via Chromecast. Web pages loaded fine, but with video I often experienced sub-par quality even with a powerful computer and a fast network. I watched "The Hunger Games" on Amazon Instant, for example, and although it did play, the image was quite soft and subject to stutter and hitching motion during camera movement. Via Fire TV or Roku's Amazon app, it looked pristine.
Like Android for phones and tablets Android TV is "open," creating the possibility that developers (official and otherwise) will come up with ways to augment the app selection more quickly than Google itself. I tried one such early solution, Sideload Launcher by Chainfire, but couldn't find any compatible apps, or ways to get them onto the device.
Aside from the main Android TV menu, you can also access apps from the Google Play store -- another kind of sideloading or at least "stealth" availability. Ones that are compatible with the Nexus Player can then be pushed to the device, as long as it's associated with your Google account. Most we tried are not compatible (the Nexus option is grayed out), but at least one, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, was able to be downloaded and played fine, even though it's not listed as an option anywhere on the Android TV interface. I assume it will arrive soon; Google's rep didn't provide any more information when I asked about this issue.
I'm sure there will be plenty of hacks available soon to open up more apps, via the Play store and otherwise, for intrepid users. For now, however, the Amazon Fire TV offers better sideloading potential.
When most people I know actually rent or buy an individual movie, TV show or album today, it happens on one or two platforms: iTunes or Amazon. But did you know Google has its own service, Google Play Movies and TV? What about Google Music? They actually exist, but almost nobody uses them.
Annoyingly, they're front-and-center along with YouTube on the Android TV interface. We complained about Fire TV's interface pushing Amazon content, but at least Amazon has a popular media service. The same goes for Apple TV with iTunes. But neither one is as "pushy" as Android TV with Google services.
The tiled interface looks a lot like the Xbox One's at first glance. It's very responsive on the powerful Nexus Player and has a relatively clean, uncluttered look with a central bar of four large thumbnails, above a row of icons for apps, another for games. Search is rightly prominent, and I like that the background changes to reflect the currently highlighted item.
At first the bar seems like a great way to surface recently watched or useful content from multiple services, but during my time with the device it only seemed to display (upsell?) things from Google's services, including YouTube. Scrolling far enough to the right I did hit a recently watched show from Hulu Plus, but no matter how many Netflix shows I watched, one never appeared there.
Prominent thumbnails showed The Walking Dead and Sons of Anarchy, for example, but when I selected them the only choices offered were pay-per-episode ($1.99 and up) or Season passes ($9.99 and up) on Google Play. As a Netflix and Hulu Plus subscriber I could watch most of those episodes for free, but since Android TV doesn't surface results from those services, via the main interface or search (voice or text), it feels like it's trying to rip me off.
Again, we had similar complaints about Apple TV and especially Amazon Fire TV. Roku, meanwhile, offers an interface that's blissfully agnostic and customizable, and universal search that hits all of these services and more, allowing you to choose the "free" shows you have access to and easily decide which service to buy from. It also, as of last week, also supports Google Play.
As with Fire TV, the most impressive feature of the Nexus Player was a voice search that consistently, correctly recognized stuff I said. I conducted a brief test comparing the two boxes' voice search and they were both very good at recognizing TV show title names, for example.
Even more impressive is how Android TV performed with more general searches, beating out Fire TV handily. "Fantasy movies" was recognized by both but the Nexus' results were much more relevant, with "The Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter" prominent (compared with "Inkheart" and "Ashura" among Amazon's top results). "Science fiction new releases" worked better on Google, too, with relevant movies, YouTube videos and TV shows broken out separately ("Transformers: Age of Extinction," Divergent," "The 100," and "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D," for example). Meanwhile, Amazon delivered "Primeval" (2007 TV show) and "The X-Files" (1993) among its top results.
Again, the problem with Android TV's search is that results from Netflix, Hulu Plus and other apps are not returned. Instead you're just funneled once more to results from Google TV and Movies, Google Music or YouTube.
Fire TV, by contrast, can return results from Crackle and Hulu Plus (Netflix results, albeit promised, are still MIA), although those results are presented on a secondary screen after any result from Amazon Instant Video. Roku, it bears repeating, searches more services than anyone and presents them according to cost--and using the Roku app for iOS or Android, you can also search via voice.
Google is depending on developers to expand voice search too. A spokesperson told me, "We provide an open API for any app to support voice search. DailyMotion and DramaFever are a couple of early partners that have implemented this and we're expecting many more!"
At the moment, hitting the Nexus remote's voice search button while within an app like Netflix or Hulu Plus has no effect, while Amazon's always seems to be accessible. Google told me that apps that do support voice search, when they become available, will allow it once you're within the app.
Judging from the tepid response to Fire TV and PlayStation TV , there's little pent-up demand for a "micro-console" that plays less demanding games on the big screen. But if you're someone who enjoys that sort of thing, the Nexus Player should work just as well as the Fire TV.
One game we tried extensively, Riptide GP 3, played smoothly and looked as good as we expected on a 60-inch LCD TV. I played a round or two with Scott Stein using the same game on the Fire TV and while I thought they both responded similarly, he felt the Fire TV was a tad smoother.
I also played Modern Combat 4 and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas on both devices. Both looked softer than Riptide on the big screen and the controls on the shooter seemed a bit laggier, but both were still very playable, and basically the same on both devices.
I also encountered some bugs and glitches. Trying to install The Walking Dead, it just kept booting me out of the menu and never worked. Badland, included on my test unit, failed to launch at all. At one point the Nexus player hung during Modern Combat's initial load and I had to back out to the main menu to get it to respond, but that was a minor glitch that didn't come up again. Your mileage may vary.
Between the two optional controllers, I definitely preferred Fire TV's with its offset, Xbox-style thumbsticks and play/pause media buttons, but both felt solid enough and made playing the game significantly easier than using a touchscreen. Nexus is also compatible with other Bluetooth controllers, like Nyko's.
Just like apps, the selection of games on Fire TV is better than on Android TV for now. That said, your favorite game might be "stealth" available via the Google Play store as I described above with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. More games are appearing quickly, too; a couple new titles popped up over the weekend prior to this review publishing, including Final Fantasy III and The Wolf Among Us.
The main limitation for gamers is storage space. Both the Nexus Player and Fire TV have a relatively paltry, nonexpandable 8GB, which a few fat games will eat up in no time. With just a few small apps and Riptide, Modern Combat, GTA and the non-functional Badlands installed on the Player, I got the dreaded "Your device is out of space. To uninstall apps you don't want, go to Settings > Apps" message when I tried to add The Walking Dead: Season 2.
If Android TV simply added native apps for Amazon, HBO Go and Spotify it would instantly become competitive with those other platforms, especially if it came in a device that cost less than $100 (cough, Fire TV stick, cough). But for now that's not happening, and honestly I'd be surprised if Amazon, perhaps the most versatile video streaming app of them all, ever hit Android TV.
The world is moving toward forcing users into one ecosystem or another, which makes nonpartisan devices without skin in the game, namely Roku, that much more valuable. I still have hope that Android TV can be a similarly agnostic and recommendable platform, but right now it simply isn't.