Android TV, and by association Nexus Player, are the evolution of Chromecast. It essentially eliminates the need to use a middleman device like a phone or tablet if the user chooses, and allows them to interface directly with the device and TV in many cases. While it still retains all the functionality of Chromecast, a dedicated box allows for a much more robust and feature-rich system, as well as more room for future enhancements.
The Nexus Player is Google's first real go at a set-top box, and the first Android TV box available on the consumer market. It's the most Google-centric of all the set-top boxes, offering access to essentially all services El Goog offers, like Play Movies, Play Music, Play Games, YouTube, the Play Store, and more. This should be the box for those of us who are heavily invested in the Android ecosystem.
That said, the Nexus Player is still very new, and as a result it has a few...quirks. Some things just don't work as they should right now, and others simply need to be improved. But we'll get into all that as the time comes.
Let's do this.
- It's the first Android TV player. That might not make it great, but I'm pretty glad it exists – it can only get better from here. It's about time we have the full Google Play experience on the bigger screen.
- There's a lot of potential here. I'm going to honest: there just isn't a lot going on with Android TV right now, but that just means there's more room for improvement.
- It's still kind of janky. There are a lot of loose ends that need to be tied up here. For example, when the primary screen refreshes, oftentimes the suggested YouTube videos still link to what was previously in that spot. Nothing is more annoying than clicking a Whitechapel video and instead getting Jimmy Fallon.
- The Play Store is naked. There just isn't a lot going on in there, regardless of genre. I realize it's early, but the selection is substantially weaker than I expected. See the updated Software section.
- Only 8GB of storage. This is the same problem I have with Fire TV. There are some really cool games to install, but there isn't enough storage to install more than a couple at a time.
- Sometimes the controller/remote won't reconnect. When one is connected, the other won't reconnect some of the time. Other times, the remote wouldn't connect for whatever reason. This. Is. Obnoxious.
- The remote and game controller don't have the best build quality. I was pretty surprised at how cheap the remote feels. The game controller is a little bit better, but still nothing to write home about.
- No recent apps. What if I want to jump between two things, Google? Maybe I like playing Badland and watching YouTube at the same time. I want an easy way to do that.
On the outside, Nexus Player is an understated little box – imagine FireTV, but round. And with the word "nexus" instead of Amazon's logo. That's basically what the Nexus Player looks like. The back of the unit – which is where the the AC adapter, microUSB, and HDMI ports are found – is sort of indented, making everything more streamlined. I dig it. But really, you're not going to spend a lot of time looking at the device itself, so let's not spend too much time talking about it, either. What we can talk about, however, are the remote and game controller.
Remote and Game Controller
So the remote looks almost identical to FireTV's, just with fewer buttons. The overall design is incredibly simple, as it has a microphone, voice button, D-Pad, back, play/pause, home buttons, and Nexus logo at the bottom. That's it. The build quality is pretty meh, as the "enter" button (found in the center of the D-Pad) is pretty damn flimsy, as is the D-Pad itself. The other buttons are pretty much OK, and the rest of the remote is basically fine.
The backside has a nice little indention, which makes it feel quite comfortable to hold. The bottom half is where the battery compartment is – the remote takes two AAA batteries (included).
The game controller, on the other hand, is quite a bit different than Amazon's offering for the Fire TV. NP's controller offers fewer features, but considering Android TV is a [mostly] simpler system, that really doesn't seem to pose much of an issue. The controller offers most of the functions of the remote, but just like FireTV's, it's missing the voice button and a microphone. That makes it difficult to ditch the Nexus Player's stock remote for those who'd like to live a one controller lifestyle. Sorry, guys.
Build quality is decent on the controller, and it feels quite a bit better than the remote. That's a good thing, because it costs almost half of what Google is charging the Player itself. All the buttons have good travel and feel, the triggers are nice and snappy, and the shoulder buttons are springy enough to be satisfying without being too squishy. The only issue is with the power button - it has to be pressed pretty hard to turn the controller on. But for all the gaming NP will be used for, I think this controller is absolutely sufficient.
On the functional side, this is a basic Playstation-style controller. That's right, Google decided not to go with the much-loved Xbox-style controller, and opted for the side-by-side thumbsticks instead. Personally, I love it...but I'm in the minority of people who like the PS controller better anyway. Come at me, bro(s).
All that said, if you don't like the Nexus controller, the Player allows essentially any Android-compatible Bluetooth controller to be connected. Yay! ...but after using SHIELD Controller, I think I'd rather see the Nexus controller using Wi-Fi Direct. It's just smoother than Bluetooth.
That brings me to the biggest issue with both the remote and game controller: they don't re-connect properly about half the time. When one picks up a remote and hits a button, it's generally expected to see a response on the screen, right? Well, not with Nexus Player. Not half the time, anyway. The remote will blink a couple of times, then nothing. And on the occasions when it does re-connect, the game controller oftentimes won't. It's incredibly frustrating. And rage inducing. Hopefully, this is just an issue with my review unit and isn't the case with all NPs. If so, well, I feel bad for all of you who pre-ordered. Because honestly, there's absolutely no excuse for this. Bluetooth has been around long enough that issues like this shouldn't happen.
Storage and Wireless
Interested to know what, in my opinion, the biggest uncorrectable downside of the Nexus Player is? The limited storage - it's an 8GB system, 5.8 of which is available to the user. As you'll see later in this review, there are more than double the games than apps available on Android TV. You have to see the irony in that - it's a box designed to bring streaming shows, movies and music to your TV, yet it has twice the games than entertainment apps. But then, it only has eight gigabytes to store all those games.
On the wireless front, however, things are good. Nexus Player has Bluetooth 4.1 and 802.11ac 2x2. So, unlike Chromecast, it supports essentially all wireless networks, including 5GHz. At least there's that.
Update: So it turns out that Google didn't actually allow developers to begin submitting their apps to the TV Play Store till today, which is why content was so sparse on my review unit. That, of course, dramatically affected the outcome of this review, because more content means more value. Unfortunately, this review is a reflection of the experience that I personally had with the unit in its early state, and there's nothing I can do to change that now. What I can do, however, is re-visit the Nexus Player and Android TV in a few weeks to see what has changed on the content front, which will probably prove to be much more valuable than the software section you'll find below. That should also give Google time to work out some of the software kinks I experienced on NP, as well. Unfortunately, the hardware issues are still going to exist, but an improved app selection and overall software experience will make a world of difference.
So Nexus Player is Google's first Android TV device available on the consumer market. As such, it should provide a good first impression, right? While I would think so, that's not how it has worked out in my case. I have Roku, Fire TV, and Chromecast for comparison, and Nexus Player/Android TV offers what is easily the worst, most frustrating, inconsistent experience I've ever had on a set-top box.
Let's start with the primary interface. It's not bad – it actually reminds me a lot of Fire TV's interface – but it's not great, either. The most prominent section offers suggestions of things to watch on YouTube and Play Movies, both of which are based on other things that have been viewed on your account. This content also rotates occasionally, which keeps things fresh. The only issue with that, however, is that if you select a newly-listed video, it oftentimes opens what used to be in that same spot. For example, if the recommended video was originally a clip from Jimmy Fallon, but later changed to a music video from one of your favorite artists, the Fallon clip would actually play after clicking the recently-displayed music video. It's so stupid.
Just below that are all the apps installed on the device. My test unit came with Play Movies, YouTube, Play Music, Netflix, Play Games, and Songza all pre-installed. Realistically, they could've probably pre-installed every app found on Android TV's Play Store and left room to spare...there just isn't much selection right now, which makes me both sad and angry.
With that, let's talk about what a sad state of affairs the TV Play Store is in right now. For fun, I'm going to list every entertainment and music app available on Nexus TV. Ready?
- Food Network
- PBS Kids
- Bloomberg TV+
- TED TV
- Red Bull TV
- HuffPost Live
- AOL On
- Hulu Plus
- Madefire Motion
- TuneIn Radio
- TuneIn Radio Pro
...that's it – 23 apps. That is literally the entire selection of applications currently available on Android TV (excluding pre-installed Google Apps). If it's not, then Google is doing an absolutely wretched job of showing me what else I can do with this circlebox. It's incredibly discouraging.
Sadly, things don't get much better on the game side. The Play Store is broken down into three categories for games: TV Remote Games, Casual for Gamepads, and Action for Gamepads. The available titles in these categories vary, but here's the gist: there are 15 titles for remotes, 16 casual games for gamepads, and 19 action games. That's a total of 50 games, which is more than twice the amount of available apps. That's pretty amusing, because this is Android TV. Not Android Gaming Console. And with only 8GB of available storage, you can't even install two of the larger titles side-by-side (like Modern Combat 4 and The Walking Dead, for example).
Honestly, the whole experience has me scratching my head.
Considering its dedication to all things voice, it makes sense that Google is making that a prominent feature of Android TV, as well. Right now it works pretty well, and it even does some of the things that people currently use Google Now for. It will tell you the weather (you'll have to specify the location at the time, otherwise it just displays the weather for Mountain View) and things of that nature. It won't, however, set a reminder or some of the other more "advanced" features of Now. I would love to see this become a more robust feature on Android TV.
Since ATV is entertainment-centric, Google has done a pretty decent job of bringing relevant content to search. For example, when searching for a movie, it will not only return results for that movie on Play Movies, but also related titles, the cast of the movie, and relevant YouTube videos. The same happens for music artists. It's pretty sweet.
Google Play Movies, Music, and YouTube also bring voice search along for the ride, but most other apps, like Netflix and – get this – the Play Store don't offer the feature. In fact, the Play Store doesn't have a search option at all. Considering it only has approximately four apps available right now, that doesn't really surprise me. But as more things become available, searching will be necessary. Assuming developers adopt the platform, that is.
This is another watered-down area of Android, but in this case I think that's actually a good thing. Simplicity is what matters with a TV interface, and Google has done a good job of that here. The goal is to keep users out of the settings menu and watching/playing as much as possible, so you'll just find the bare essentials:
- Google Cast
- System sounds
- Storage and Reset
- Date & Time
- Keyboard (why?)
- Remote & Accessories (Bluetooth)
- Personal (Account)
And that's pretty much it. Developer options can also be enabled in the normal way, but there really isn't much of a reason to do that outside of, you know, actually being a developer.
Everything is pretty straightforward in the settings menu, but it's worth noting that you have to actually go into the storage options to find out how much space is left. The first screen only shows the total storage, not the available storage. That info is tucked away on the last frame of the storage menu. ಠ_ಠ
Lastly, I want to point out that Android TV only supports one Google account. No multiple logins, no user switching. Whatever account it's set up with is the one you'll use the rest of the time. Fortunately, it doesn't sync things like GMail, so you don't have to worry about other users digging through your personal stuff.
For all of its shortcomings, I will say that Nexus Player actually performs pretty well. Everything on the system is snappy, which is a pleasant surprise. I haven't had a lot of experience with modern Intel chips, but much of what I have was a pretty poor experience (save for the Acer Iconia Tab 8, perhaps). Since this is such a simplified version of the OS, however, it seems that the Atom is able to make the best of it.
Aside from storage, which I feel is the biggest shortcoming of this device, I think Google really skimped on that extra gigabyte of RAM. The single gig found in the Nexus Player gets the job done, I suppose, but I have a feeling that's going to make this device age much quicker than it should, especially as more developers bring their apps to the platform. Larger, intense games are going to be held back by the hardware, which isn't a good look for this already struggling player. On one hand, it's currently being held back by its lack of content; on the other, the hardware is likely going to hold it back in the future as more apps/games become available. I don't want to say it's set up for failure, but...things aren't looking promising.
On the bright side, if you just use it for a TV-viewing experience, then hopefully it'll deliver everything you need at a reasonable pace. Eventually, anyway.
I'm going to be as blunt as possible here: Android TV simply isn't ready for the consumer market. It's lacking a lot of good content, and what it can provide on the TV front can be done with Chromecast (aside from a dedicated interface). If you want gaming, this still isn't your box – get something like SHIELD Tablet, which is much more versatile and has a lot more games. The controller is also better, and it runs great in console mode. Sure, it's more expensive, but it's more device, too.
But if you're after a good set-top box, Roku is still the way to go. With the recent addition of Play Movies, it can do nearly everything that Nexus Player can do, short of Play Music and games.
Ultimately, I just think Google is pushing this out too soon. Maybe it's because the holidays are coming up, maybe it's because the Nexus 9 and 6 were both ready and they wanted to put out a triad of devices. Maybe it's just because pushing out stuff before it's ready is what Google does. Whatever the reason, Android TV just needs more time in the oven, the Nexus Player will need a hardware refresh sooner rather than later, and neither of those things is good for the consumer.
If you like to be on the bleeding edge, don't mind the limited content, or just want to see Android TV grow (which I hope it does), then by all means – buy a Nexus Player. But if you're in it for the content, then you're just better off looking at either Roku or even Fire TV.