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Google Nexus Player review: Android TV needs more apps, less Google Play store pushiness

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Nerdier tests: TabCasting and sideloading

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Interface pushes Google Play services

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.

The list of results when I said "Early nineties rom coms." Sarah Tew

Limited voice search that works

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.

Android TV's result for "What are the worst shows on television?" Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

RipTide GP2 on the Nexus Player Sarah Tew/CNET

Gaming: Better controls than a phone, but limited

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.

The optional $40 game controller. Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Conclusion

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.

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