A basic requirement of the living room TV experience is making sure the interface and content are tailored for multiple users and people of all ages and tastes. Nearly six years after its launch, Android TV is still trudging along and lacking that essential feature even though a few of its competitors, like Apple TV, have already implemented it. Without it, the platform remains ill-suited for families and multi-user households.

Limited multiple account support

On a basic level, Android TV does support multiple Google accounts. You can add them by going to Settings > Accounts & Sign In, but this will only make sure that other authenticated email addresses are quickly accessible on the TV. They can be selected in Google Assistant, the Play Store, Google Play Games, and a few other apps, but they have to be manually changed, one by one.

Left: Adding more accounts in Android TV's settings. Right: Assistant lets you pick one.

This rudimentary multiple account approach has been available since 2016 and hasn't changed since. Your homescreen, installed apps, Play Next recommendations, search, and everything else is the same for all accounts. There are no proper profiles and definitely no age-appropriate restrictions when Android TV is launched.

One homescreen for all.

Bad experience for multi-user households

If you live with roommates, a partner, or family members, this setup hinders everyone's experience. Different users would have to agree on what the homescreen should look like for everyone and recommendations will be jumbled based on everyone's tastes and usage.

The main account holder has to choose between having an optimal experience (including getting Google Assistant, their own YouTube content, search history, and more) and giving everyone access to their data. Others have to manually switch profiles in different apps or give up on having any kind of personalized experience. Casting could be a workaround for them, but that means they can't benefit from any of Android TV's native apps and usability advantages.

 

Manual account switching in the Play Store (left), Play Music (middle), and Play Games (right).

This gets really tedious really fast. If you want to download an app you already bought from the Play Store, you have to make sure your account is selected; if you want to play a game and sync your progress and achievements to Play Games, you have to manually switch to your account; if you want to listen to your music, you need to select your account.

But perhaps the most annoying of all these is YouTube. It's likely one of the most used apps on the Android TV platform, and it doesn't allow for easy profile switching. Only one user can be signed in at a time, so anyone else who wants access to their history and playlists needs to open the app, go to the account tab, sign out the previous person, then sign in. In my house, we never remember to do this, and the end result is that my YouTube search, history, and recommendations have been influenced by my husband's watching habits.

Left: YouTube account. Middle: Signed out. Right: Signing in again.

Still, YouTube edges out Google Play Movies & TV, which simply doesn't recognize the existence of other users, or at least I haven't found out how to make it do that. There's no setting for switching accounts and the library always shows the main account's purchased and rented movies and shows.

Google Play Movies & TV lacks the manual account picker. 

If it's easy to agree on a few boundaries and best practices when you live with one partner, it becomes a lot more complicated when children or multiple roommates are involved, and that's where the Android TV experience suffers.

Third-party apps and their hacky workarounds

With no clear differentiation between users, third-party apps on Android TV have introduced their own fixes for the problem. Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Plex, Spotify, and other streaming and content consumption services have added their own multi-profile or multi-user switchers.

For some, like Netflix and Plex, the option is the first thing you see when you open the app; for others, the switch is more elaborate and requires you delve into settings or accounts. Sometimes there's a PIN or verification needed, but that's not always the case. There's no unified approach, each service has picked what works for it. The result, as you can tell is an inconsistent experience between Google's own apps and different kinds of third-party apps.

Left: Profile picker in Plex upon launch. Right: Spotify multiple user switcher.

The restricted profile isn't a real solution

The only solution Android TV offers for multiple users is the restricted profile. It's a secondary profile with fewer privileges that the main account can create, control, and PIN lock.

To set it up, go to Settings > Device Preferences > Security & restrictions > Create restricted profile. You can then enter the 4-digit PIN code and enable only a few apps of your choosing. A new Restricted profile icon pops up on Android TV's homescreen, which lets you quickly enter that mode.

Setting up a restricted profile.

Once you switch, a new homescreen pops up with the allowed apps, no Play Store access, siloed storage, and only some system settings. App behavior is a little wonky in my experience. For example, in YouTube, no matter what I did, I couldn't sign in with any account, and the experience felt like browsing in incognito. I was welcomed by lots of useless locally trending videos and the recommendations never adjusted to whatever I watched. Hiding inappropriate content was also disabled by default in the app's settings, and even if I turned it on, anyone could still disable it as it's not PIN protected. I suppose YouTube Kids would be better suited if you're using this restricted profile with children, but the app is not available in all countries.

To get out of the restricted mode, you have to enter the PIN, which supposedly only the main Android TV user knows. Putting the TV to sleep or shutting it down doesn't circumvent it, as you'll still be stuck in restricted mode when the TV turns back on.

Using a restricted profile.

While this seems like a potential solution for kids, it's still a far cry from proper multiple-account support. For one, you only get two profiles: the main one and the restricted one — no third or fourth option is available. Second, you have to remember to launch the TV and switch to it before letting kids browse their content; or you need to turn it on every time before you shut down your TV so if the kids get to it while unsupervised, it's already locked down. This places a responsibility on parents who have to always stay on top of which mode the TV is in.

For these two reasons, restricted mode feels more suited for occasional than daily use. It's something you'd turn on if you have temporary guests or if you run an AirBnB from time to time, but not a proper solution for partners, roommates, or an alternative to parental control.

Unlike Android smartphones (and possibly tablets), Android TV should have been built from the ground up with multiple profiles in mind. Yet we have decent multi-user support on phones and tablets, but not on the TV that usually sits in the middle of the living room and is used by everyone.

The Android TV experience is hostile to anything but a single-person household or room. The homescreen, apps, game progress, search history, Assistant queries, YouTube experience, and more are tailored for one user, and the only "solution" isn't really a practical longterm one.

The best way would be to present people with a profile picker when the TV turns on, let them choose the one they want, enter a PIN for verification, and be offered a fully tailored experience, no manual account switching necessary in any app. Sadly, that still seems to be far-fetched.