If you want Google or Apple software running on your big screen TV as well as on your phone, you’ve got a few options: On the Apple side, the Apple TV box, and on the Google side, the Android TV platform built into sets from the likes of Sony and TCL, and also showcased very well on the Nvidia Shield TV.
So at the end of 2019, is it the Apple TV with tvOS or Android TV that’s on top? Should you just pick the one that matches your phone, or is there more to the story? Are Apple and Google actually really serious about developing software and apps for screens that can stretch to 50 inches and more?
We sat down with an Apple TV 4K running tvOS, and a first-gen Nvidia Shield TV running Android TV to compare the user experiences, the app selection, and the choice of features on both these platforms. If you’ve got your own experiences of these two platforms to share, we’d love to hear about them in the comments below.
As you might expect, if you’ve used Android on any screen larger than 7 inches, the Android TV interface is rougher around the edges than its Apple counterpart. Both Android TV and tvOS take the familiar approach of using rows of icons showcasing your apps and your content, and both are easy to navigate.
On the Android TV side, certain apps—including YouTube, Plex, Spotify and Twitch—will feature certain content you might like right on the home screen (like a recommended YouTube video or a daily playlist from Spotify). Further down the screen you get your apps, then your TV inputs (if you’re using an Android TV set rather than a box), then settings.
The Apple TV interface is a lot more polished. It’s fair to say! You get big previews of what you’ve got ‘up next’ in your various apps, though obviously there’s some preference towards Apple services. You don’t get the same kind of previews for recommended content on app icons that you do with Spotify and YouTube on Android TV, for example.
There are really two interfaces on tvOS on Apple TV now: The main TV app, which Apple wants you using most of the time, and which brings all your movies and shows together across all the apps you’ve got installed (with some notable exceptions, including Netflix). Then there’s the older rows of app icons, where you can get at your games, photos, and music—everything that isn’t video or tied into Apple’s ecosystem (like Netflix).
Searching is more or less comparable across both services, though the Apple interface is nicer to look at and yet less comprehensive. Both tvOS and Android TV let you search with your voice as well as typing, and both will surface results from various apps as well as finding matches with actors, artists and so on in addition to movies and shows. Again, Android TV seems to have the deeper hooks into more apps, returning results from apps including Netflix, YouTube, and Spotify that don’t appear on the Apple TV.
When it comes to actually getting inside the apps, the interfaces are largely the same across both the Apple TV and Android TV devices: Open up anything like Netflix or Amazon Prime Video or Spotify, and you’ll get the same sort of interface whatever platform you’ve chosen to go with on your television.
There’s no doubt tvOS on the Apple TV offers a more elegant and neat interface than Android TV, though the latter is a little more customizable and flexible—just the same as on phones. Once you get into the apps themselves there’s not too much of a difference, but overall it’s a win for Apple.
At this stage in the tvOS vs Android TV game, there are few video and music apps that appear on one platform and not the other. Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Plex, and new entrant Disney+ are present and accounted for on both the Apple and Google systems, as are apps from HBO and Showtime. You can get Spotify and Tidal on both too, and local media player extraordinaire VLC.
Apple Music is not available on Android TV, despite being available on Android phones and tablets. You can’t play movies and shows you’ve bought from iTunes either—if you’ve invested a lot of money buying digital goods from Apple, then you’re not going to be able to get at that media from an Android TV device.
There’s no Apple TV Plus app on Android TV, as you would expect, and the web interface doesn’t open up in the Android TV browser (at least not when we tried it). You can open up the Apple TV Plus web app on a laptop, and then beam it via Chromecast to an Android TV, at a push—it’s not super smooth, but it’s watchable, if you don’t mind having a laptop open next to your TV all the time.
On the flip side, Google Play Movies & TV isn’t available on the Apple TV, though if you have purchased movies and shows from Google’s digital platform, then you can get at them through the YouTube app on tvOS—it’s a bit of a workaround, but it’s fine.
Outside of the big video and music apps, both tvOS on Apple TV and Android TV are obviously struggling to attract developer interest. Android TV has more utilities, like VPNs and file managers, while tvOS has more lifestyle apps, covering cooking, fitness and so on. Apple just about wins out here—it has a Twitter app, for example, unlike Google and Android TV.
When it comes to gaming, obviously Apple Arcade is a big plus for the Apple TV, though Android TV has a decent selection of games too. The bottom line is if you want to game on your big screen, then Apple TV is the way to go—it has major titles like Alto’s Odyssey, Lara Croft Go, and Canabalt that aren’t available on Google’s system.
The balance shifts if you get an Nvidia Shield TV rather than a TV set with Android TV on board: Nvidia’s box gives you access to the GeForce Now streaming platform, which means Fortnite, the Lego games, and many more become available to you. It supercharges the gaming potential of the Android TV, though Apple Arcade probably still has the edge if you can spare another $5 a month for it.
Google Assistant is available on Android TV, and Siri is available on tvOS and Apple TV, for running voice searches, getting the weather forecast, and more. Google Assistant is the smarter app overall, but Siri has more specific tricks for big screen content: You can use it to turn closed captions on and off, fast forward and rewind, and so on.
Android TV devices can be controlled by a remote app for Android, while the Apple TV can be controlled by a remote app for iOS. Both are broadly similar in terms of functionality, though Apple’s is better designed. These apps really come in handy when you need to type something, like a search or a username.
Every Android TV doubles as a Chromecast, which means you can beam over audio and video from any app that supports the Google Cast standard—that’s a big selection of apps, including Apple Music for Android. Just about the only major app that doesn’t support casting is the TV app for iOS, so iTunes content is still off the table.
The Apple TV supports AirPlay, so again it’s very easy to beam audio and video across compatible devices—iPhones, iPads, and Macs. If you want to get your Mac screen up on an Apple TV you can use Airplay, but Android TV is more flexible here because you can cast your desktop from Chrome on Windows, macOS, or even a Chromebook.
If you already run your life from an iPhone and a Mac—and particularly if you’ve bought dozens of movies from iTunes and subscribe to Apple TV Plus—it makes no sense to get Android TV. You might want to get both an Nvidia Shield TV and an Apple TV, if you have enough cash and enough spare HDMI ports on your television set.
If you’re mostly on Android and Windows day-to-day, the choice is slightly harder, mainly because Apple doesn’t put its apps on Android TV, but Google does put its apps on Apple TV. You’re probably still going to want to pick an Android TV or a Shield box though, just for the easier integration with Chromecast and Google Assistant and so on.
If phones, tablets, and laptops didn’t exist, an Apple TV running tvOS would probably just edge out anything running Android TV for most people in 2019—there’s better app support, a more polished interface, and more consistent software updates. Android TV isn’t a long way behind though, and has a few smart tricks of its own, particularly on the latest Nvidia Shield TV devices.