Android TV is exciting. It's beautiful. The idea makes sense. And you should probably steer clear till Google gets its shit together. Until it does, the $100 Nexus Player just isn't a good buy.
The $100 Nexus Player is the first set-top-box to run Android TV, a new fork of the Android operating system designed for your living room's big screen. It runs Android apps, plays Android games, and streams your Netflix and Hulu too. Plus, it doubles as a Chromecast, so you can sling things to your TV (or even share your screen) from a laptop, tablet, or phone.
The Asus-built box is about the size and shape of a hockey puck, and houses a quad-core 1.8GHz Intel Atom processor to shoulder the load. But the Nexus Player's problems have nothing to do with horsepower.
People who would normally buy a Roku or Chromecast for their streaming media fix, but now want apps and games too. People who are considering Amazon's $100 Fire TV, which also does apps, games, and streaming—but without Google's seal of approval, or access to its wide world of downloadables.
Easy. Just plug in power, an HDMI cable (not included), and stick the Nexus Player anywhere you want. Then, spend the next five minutes wrestling with one of the world's most uncomfortable pack-in remote controls.
There are two nice things about the pack-in remote: 1.) technically, it works, and 2.) it uses Bluetooth so you don't need a line of sight to the set-top. The not-so-nice things involve the horrendous amount of effort it takes to click its five primary buttons, and the sudden stop your thumb encounters each time you press down. Not to mention the way the remote rotates in your hand when you try to press, unless you're holding firmly. I lovingly decided to name my remote "Carpal Tunnel" after my first 26-character marathon. (I have a long Wi-Fi password.)
I haven't spent much time with the Fire TV remote for comparison, but it'd be hard for me to believe that there's a worse one out there than this chinzty hollow thing. The Apple TV remote, by comparison, feels like a finely crafted dream.
Mercifully, you don't actually need the Google TV's remote to type in your Google ID and activate streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, as you can do those with a smartphone instead. (You can do everything with a smartphone once you download the Android TV Remote app.) And once that's taken care of, you're in business.
What kind of business? I'm glad you asked.
Android TV looks brilliant. The layout is about as intuitive and powerful as could be. You start on a home row of videos that Google recommends for you, ostensibly using fancy algorithms. Scroll to any one of them, and beautiful cover art fills the background of your screen. Click on any one of them, and they'll instantly start playing, with surprisingly little buffering.
Want to search for something instead? It's one click upwards, or you can even just press the Voice Search button on your remote to ask for what you need. Want to open an app or play a game? Just a click or three downward to scroll through the rows of wonderfully spaced colorful icons representing each application. As you add more apps, new rows automatically form, 10 apps to a row. It's quick enough to get around that I can almost forgive the terrible remote.
There are just three jaw-dropping problems with this system: 1.) The home row recommendations are broken, 2.) Voice search won't get you anywhere, and 3.) The app selection is dismal.
Let's start with door number three.
Ready for some bad news? Android TV has a cut-rate, tightly curated version of the Google Play app store instead of the real McCoy. Right now there are just 74 apps and games, combined, and you can't even play 35 of those games without an optional Bluetooth gamepad at your side.
When you start up the Nexus Player, it comes pre-installed with Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Songza, and Google Play Movies & TV. Not bad, I guess, and there's more where those came from. My personal favorites, Pandora and TuneIn Radio, are easily downloadable for your listening pleasure. You can even keep them playing in the background while you play games or surf YouTube for your next video.
There's also comedy to be found on DailyMotion, music videos via Vevo, and both PBS Kids and TED can educate and entertain. Crackle and iHeartRadio too, if you want. But that doesn't mean there aren't some major gaps. Gaps like any kind of sports programming at all, unless you count Red Bull, no Twitch or UStream, and no premium cord-hopping apps like HBO Go or Showtime Anywhere.
To some degree, the siloed app collection makes sense. People are going to expect entertainment apps to work with that crummy little remote, and that means you can't just expect an app designed for touchscreens to work. But it's less of an excuse when the Amazon Fire TV has a practically identical remote and fills in many of these holes.
And when you get to the game section and realize that Google is currently only promoting a tiny fraction of the games that support game controllers—not even all of the best ones, like Minecraft, Grand Theft Auto, Sonic the Hedgehog, Dead Trigger, not to mention classic console emulators—it feels arbitrary. Why can Android TV buyers play Modern Combat 4, but not the newer Modern Combat 5? And the way the Google Play Store is set up on Android TV, as tightly curated lists, it doesn't feel like there's room to browse a larger catalog even if one existed.
That doesn't mean there aren't great games on Android TV, including ones you can play with just the tiny remote. I got lost in Badlands and Riptide GP2 for a while, and games like those might be a particularly nice surprise for people who think they're just getting a streaming box. But a microconsole this is not. I wouldn't dare spend $40 on a Bluetooth game controller, even the fairly nice one that Google's offering, unless I knew without a shadow of a doubt that games would thrive on this box.
And though it worked fine for games likethe single-button Badlands or the five-button Riptide GP2, you still won't want to play anything fancy with the crappy bundled remote.
Of course, availability might be a moot point because the Nexus Player only has 5.8GB of storage, and games like The Walking Dead can easily fill up a gigabyte each. I filled up that entire capacity in a single afternoon, and the entire UI slowed down substantially until I freed up space again.
Believe it or not, apps and games weren't the main reason I wanted an Android TV. I was most looking forward to having Google predict what I'd like to watch next. So over the course of the weekend, I watched and listened to a variety of programs across Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Google Play Movies & TV, Vevo, and more to see how the stream would respond to my choices.
Most of the time, it didn't. It turns out that Netflix doesn't integrate with that system at all. No recommendations whatsoever. Hulu Plus and a few other apps threw up recommendations after I installed them or ran them for the first time, but none of them seemed to have anything to do with my clearly stated interests. Hulu knows full-well how much I love Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic's chemistry in Castle. It's on my Hulu watch list. So why wouldn't it recommend the next episode? Instead, Hulu seemed to think I might like seeing the second episode of a show I've never watched before. That's just dumb.
So I fired up an episode of Castle manually... only to find Android TV wasn't keeping track of what I was actively watching, either. No cards popped up in the suggestions tray to let me resume watching my show. Or the YouTube video I watched next. Or the Google Play movie after that. The pick-up-and-resume functionality that works so wonderfully on Chromecast doesn't apply to the Android TV interface as of today. Only dedicated music apps get their own "Now Playing" card on the home row.
YouTube was the one app that did clearly pay attention to my interests, but only in the most useless of ways: One seemingly harmless vid of Emma Stone on Jimmy Fallon filled my feed with a cascade of popular actresses taking on ridiculous challenges on late-night television. Thanks, Android TV.
With my feed now full of movies I didn't want to buy, shows I didn't want to watch, and Jennifer Lawrence viral videos I didn't have time to see, I figured it was time to start dismissing some of Google's recommendations and choosing my next selections more carefully. That's when it hit me that there's no way to do any such thing. You either give Google positive reinforcement to keep handing you shit you don't want... or else the recommendations just stay there. You can't get rid of them at all.
It's particularly frustrating when Google's choices are ones you've already seen or own. "Okay, Google, I liked X-Men: Days of Future Past. Sure, I'll watch the trailer again. I'll even add it to my wishlist. But I'm not going to spend $5 on movie I just saw in theaters. Why is it still taking up a slot on my TV screen? Oh, I see: you take up six of the best slots on my home row to advertise whatever your best-selling films and shows are on Google Movies & TV? Great. And if I search for a movie, you'll only show me results from Google Movies, even if I can stream free with my Hulu or Netflix subscription? Fantastic."
At least you can turn off recommendations on a per-app basis if you dig deep in a settings page.
If I haven't convinced you yet that Android TV is a half-baked product, I'm not sure what else to say, but I should probably let you know that there could be more serious issues under the hood as of today. One of our review units never managed to connect to Wi-Fi at all, and mine was spotty too. Several times over the weekend, it lost connection even when other devices in my house were working fine, and I needed to pull the plug to get it to connect again after it stopped in the middle of a movie.
Several apps also froze or outright crashed while I was watching, including one during a long, successful jet skiing session in Riptide GP2. You can force close apps from a settings page, unless they totally lock up the entire system and cause it to reboot—which happened to me once as well.
Oh, and I had the damnest time keeping the optional $40 Bluetooth game controller actually connected to the Player. It kept unpairing itself.
The interface looks and feels great. I really want the promise of Android TV to be realized, because there's a lot of potential here.
It's pretty damn cool that you can voice search for any actor, director, series (or even more esoteric requests) and get a list of films and their cast, complete with pictures of each person, from Google's Knowledge Graph. It's even cooler that you can jump straight to YouTube video clips of those folks in action. Did you know Xander Berkeley was the secret bad guy in Air Force One? I found out the best possible way: watching Harrison Ford punch him out.
5GHz Wi-Fi makes the $100 Nexus Player less choppy than the $35 Chromecast dongle for screen sharing in particular. The Wi-Fi performance isn't noticeably different otherwise.
You can actually sideload apps onto the Nexus Player if you set it to developer mode (tap on the build number seven times in a row) and hook up to a computer over USB, but I haven't had a chance to thoroughly test that yet.
You can also lock down the whole Android TV interface in a "restricted mode" so kids only get access to the apps you choose, which is super easy to do, but the whole interface gets sluggish and parts of it start breaking (the recommendations queue and voice search) as soon as I launched into that mode.
Google didn't get it together before launch. The software doesn't feel remotely complete. It didn't get partners to properly integrate their apps with the platform's most intriguing features, like recommendations and voice search. It didn't do a great job with its own apps, either.
Without working recommendations or universal search, Android TV feels like it's designed to sell movie and TV rentals. That's an issue that plagues Fire TV as well, and it totally turns me off.
Volume was often way too loud or way too quiet, because it's not normalized across applications, and there are no volume keys on the remote to quickly fix that. Which means you've always got to have two remotes handy. Which doesn't make a lot of sense, since Google already figured out how to let you control volume with your phone on the Chromecast dongle. Why not Android TV too?
The Nexus Player is actually worse for casting Netflix than the original Chromecast, at least right now. Instead of using the Player as a dumb receiver with your smartphone as the controller, the Netflix app tries to let you use the shitty pack-in remote instead. The result, for me, was that my phone was no longer able to pick up and resume the stream, nor change the volume.
No multi-user support means no way for my friends and family to share their purchases on the big screen.
Do you like being on the bleeding edge of technology so much that you will pay for something that's broken and hope that it improves? Even then, the Nexus Player is a hard sell. The software is so clearly unfinished, with references to missing features here and there, that I can't help but think Google will fix it at some point down the road. According to Google, updates are easy: Google and app developers can seamlessly push updates to the software without requiring you to approve them one by one.
But I don't know that the Asus hardware is sound, either, given the technical issues, and 5.8GB of storage with no microSD expansion is painfully small.
And if you aren't a fan of beta testing Google products, you should definitely wait, or move on. The box I have under my TV set isn't remotely ready for primetime. I wouldn't dream of giving one to a parent or grandparent right now. If you really want a simple box with Google Movies + TV, you can now get that on a $50 Roku. The Chromecast is still a great deal at $35 if you don't mind using your smartphone. And the Amazon Fire TV already does most of what the Nexus Player set out to do at $100.
I genuinely had some fun watching movies and playing games on the Nexus Player, and I would genuinely buy an Android TV that had access to anything close to the full bounty of the Google Play store. Maybe by the time Sony and Sharp build it into televisions, it'll actually be smart.
Photos by Nick Stango.