There’s a new Chromecast in town, only it’s not so much a Chromecast as a little Android TV dongle with Chromecast built in... but that’s not right either, because it’s running Google TV rather than Android TV... I know, I know. If you’re wondering exactly what this new software platform is, and how it relates to the new Chromecast, we’ve got you covered.
You may remember Android TV originally rose from the ashes of Google TV, years back. Well, the new Google TV isn’t replacing Android TV (yet). Instead it’s an extra interface layer or skin on top of Android TV, a little bit like the extra layers that Samsung, LG, Sony and the rest put on top of Android on mobile.
To put it another way, Google TV isn’t replacing Android TV, it’s running on top of it—though it might end up running on top of it pretty much everywhere, in which case it’s likely that we’ll all start referring to Google TV rather than Android TV. Android TV is still doing the low-level jobs like installing and running apps, though if Google TV is installed you won’t see Android TV at all, as it includes all the necessary features and settings. Confused yet?
In Google’s words, it’s “a new entertainment experience designed to help you easily browse and discover what to watch.” That sounds like what the Apple TV app is trying to do, too: bringing together Apple TV+ and your other streaming services in one interface.
And that’s the major change here: Google TV will consolidate your apps and streaming services into one unified interface. If you search for something—with a voice command through Google Assistant, for example—then you should see matches from all the apps you’ve got installed (again, like the Apple TV app).
You’ll also see a mix of different apps—Prime Video, Disney+, YouTube—in the various sections of the For You screen. There are Top Picks, Trending on Google, and various other categories (like neo-noir films, for example). We’ve even spotted Apple TV+ titles in there—you can’t actually watch them, of course, but you can add them to a watchlist. The only place this aggregation doesn’t seem to work (for now at least) is in the Continue Watching panel, as we only saw Google Play Movies & TV titles here.
That watchlist is a really useful feature, allowing you to keep track of multiple titles across multiple services (and it’ll sync with other devices too—just Google “my watchlist” on a device that you’re signed into). But there are some annoyances, though, like the way you sometimes get pushed titles that you need to pay extra for, rather than content you can already watch as part of your subscriptions.
When there are multiple ways to watch something, like buying something to keep forever or streaming it for free, for example, then these multiple options show up when you select the title. Everything is well presented and well laid out for the big screen, and of course the new Chromecast comes with a remote, so you don’t have to rely on a phone or laptop.
Google says it’s using some smart algorithms behind the scenes to figure out what you might want to watch next, across any of your apps, and to stop that aimless scrolling before you settle on something. There’s also a Live TV hub you can watch, but for now it only supports YouTube TV.
As with plain old Android TV, you can ask Google Assistant questions about the weather and sports scores while you’re watching something or scrolling through one of the menus. There’s also an ambient mode, where you can put up your old Google Photos, which matches the existing Chromecasts.
Another Chromecast feature that’s now been integrated into Google TV is the ability to bring up the feed from one of your Nest cameras on screen. We’re presuming Google Assistant on Google TV will eventually become just as powerful as it is on your phone, if it isn’t already.
Everything has been given a dash of digital paint, and while the layout of the interface is very Android TV-esque, the actual visuals are more fluid and modern-looking. This Google TV ‘skin’ is being pushed out to other devices over time—it’ll hit Sony Bravia sets in 2021, for example—even though the underlying OS is still Android TV.
The other significant update is to the Google Play Movies & TV apps, which will be rebranded as Google TV apps over time, starting with Android. All the same features and functionality will still be there, but it should make it easier to jump between devices. The Google TV app on your phone will do the same job as it does on TVs, aggregating search results across multiple services.
This very much matches up with Apple’s approach, blurring the lines between streaming apps and setting up one consistent interface across devices and screens of different sizes. Meanwhile, everything you’ve previously bought to keep on Google Play Movies & TV can be found in the Library section of the Google TV app (and on Google TV on Android TV).
Google Play Movies & TV is out, Android TV is retreating into the background, and Google TV is very much in—that’s the basic gist. All of this is going to take time, though, with Google TV currently only available on the new Chromecast dongle, and the associated app only available to people in the U.S. for now.
Whether the best Android TV device in the business, the Nvidia Shield TV, will get a Google TV facelift remains to be seen, but it seems likely. In a few months, Google TV should be much more widespread, and ready to take on Apple TV—which will give us yet another way of measuring the two tech giants against each other.