What’s the draw of the Nexus Player, a $99 set-top streamer that’s the first device to run Google’s Android TV platform? It’s not the apps: Roku and Amazon Fire TV have way more of those. It’s not the option to play games with a real game controller: The Amazon Fire TV does that, and its library of controller-optimized games is bigger. And it’s not the HDMI cable, because the Nexus Player doesn’t come with one.
But there actually is a big draw: The Nexus Player and Android TV are the closest a platform has come to a usable form of the Web on your TV—the parts of the Web curated by Google, at least. The player solidly combines voice search, YouTube integration, and Google Cast—the same “throwing” technology found in the Chromecast—to grab pretty much any Web video you’d want to watch and place it on your TV screen.
This web-savviness sets the Nexus Player apart from other set-top boxes, even though the Asus-made hardware looks much like all the rest, with its HDMI port, MicroUSB port, and shuffleboard-puck size. Another thing that sets it apart is the great on-screen interface (powered by the brand-new Lollipop). The ease and clarity it brings to the on-screen browsing experience points to a bright future for Android TV. But it’s still a work in progress.
The biggest problem is the same one that’s dogged all of Google’s attempts at a television player: a slim selection of apps. You can download some apps via the Nexus Player’s own Google Play storefront, but the shelves aren’t well stocked. This is a TV-only version of Google Play. Sure, the Player can run Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Pandora, but I’d be hard-pressed to name any box or smart TV that doesn’t. Among the other Player-installed apps are iHeartRadio, Songza, Crackle, Plex, Food Network, and Bloomberg TV+. There’s also a robust app called Plutowith videos from Funny or Die, GoPro, and a Fail channel with a show called “Fails Nutpunch Faceplant Wipeoutz.”
What the TV version of Google Play doesn’t have is native apps for Amazon Prime Instant Video, HBO Go, Spotify, Showtime Anytime, MLB and other popular offerings you’ll find on Roku, Amazon Fire TV, and smart TV platforms. If you buy this Nexus box, you’ll still have to buy another to get those channels.
Hardcore cord-cutters will still want one, though. Because while the Nexus Player is skimpy on native apps, there’s a workaround: it doubles as a Chromecast. Rather than download apps to the player, you can put Google Cast-ready apps on your phone or tablet and stream them to the Player. By adding the Google Cast extension to the Chrome browser on your computer, you can also cast anything (except for Silverlight and QuickTime content) to your TV.
The Nexus Player is skimpy on native apps. But there’s a workaround: it doubles as a Chromecast.
On the mobile side, there are a lot more Google Cast-compatible apps: HBO Go, MLB Watch ESPN, NPR One, and Rdio among them. And the ones I tested worked with the Nexus Player, but with tradeoffs. For one, video quality through Google Cast was spottier and more prone to dropouts than with the apps that run on the Player natively. Also, controlling playback through a phone, tablet, or laptop feels more like queuing up a PowerPoint than kicking back and watching TV. On the bright side, handoff features between the Player and other devices were nice: I could cast HBO Go from my tablet to my TV, stop watching, and then pick up where I left off on my phone.
For better or worse, to get the full value of the Nexus Player, you’ll need to be comfortable using Google Cast. And while Google Cast is an awesome differentiating feature, it’s far less compelling as the only way to enjoy HBO Go, Amazon Instant Video, or Spotify on your TV.
Outside of Netflix and Hulu Plus, the main source of big-name movies and shows on the Nexus Player itself is Google Play Movies & TV. Unlike subscription services like Amazon Prime Instant Video, Google Play Movies & TV is a pay-per-view service. There’s no all-you-can-eat plan, just a dim-sum cart—plenty to watch, but it’ll cost you every time. One annoyance is that the default price listed for each movie is for the SD version; it’s not till you click through to buy it that you realize the HD version costs at least $3 more.
App limitations aside, Android TV itself is well designed as a set-top platform. It brings Android 5.0 Lollipop’s “Material Design” look to the big screen, where it shines. The interface is clean, sharp, and airy, and it’s much more colorful and engaging than the darker menus on Roku and Amazon Fire TV. It looks and feels more like a game console; on-screen selections fill the screen in a vibrant circle-wipe animation. The remote is perfectly simple, and there’s a voice-search microphone on top of it.
On other set-top devices, YouTube is generally a lousy cordoned-off experience; you go into a dedicated YouTube app and clumsily type in search terms. Here, YouTube is a powerful, streamlined content engine for the entire system.
The system’s homescreen displays a top row of recommendations based on content you’ve watched and apps you’ve installed. I wish there was a way to curate what appeared there, like an ability to give more weight to certain apps or search queries. Instead, after installing the Food Network app, I got a lot of Chopped and Guy Fieri showing up there. But for the most part, the Player’s YouTube integration makes suggestions more useful and engaging than most.
This is the hidden magic of the Nexus Player. On other set-top devices, YouTube is generally a lousy cordoned-off experience; you go into a dedicated YouTube app and clumsily type in search terms. Here, YouTube is a powerful, streamlined content engine for the entire system. You say “Talking Heads” or “chicken piccata” or “corgi puppies” or “how to tie your shoes” from the homescreen, and you get an instant queue of classic concerts, recipe videos, dogumentaries, or tutorials. This is the best YouTube device I’ve ever used; it surfaces content you didn’t know existed and can entertain you for hours.
Because it works so well, voice search is a high point of the Nexus Player experience. It quickly became my primary method of finding content. I can’t say that about the voice features on my own TV and phone, which I rarely use. From the main menu, pressing the remote’s microphone button and speaking brings up search results across YouTube, Google Music, Google Play Movies & TV, and a tiny sliver of the Web (weather, sports scores, and movie showtimes). The voice recognition gets confused with foreign-language queries—“Trois Couleurs: Rouge” became “Walk Alone” and “Krzysztof Kieslowski” became “Kristoff get wireless key”—but worked nicely otherwise.
For Web searches, the results certainly could be better. A voice search for “college football scores” or “today’s NFL games” will only bring up a single game—either the last game played or the first one coming up—but stating the name of a specific team gave me what I wanted. Movie showtimes are better, as saying “movie showtimes” will bring up a menu of films showing locally, and saying the name of a film brings up an info card about it with one-click access to local showtimes.
Because it works so well, voice search is a high point of the Nexus Player experience.
The system froze a couple times during my testing, which nobody wants. But rather than having to unplug and replug the box like you do with Roku, there’s a button on the bottom of the Nexus Player that shakes it out of its coma without having to reboot. The same button puts it in Bluetooth pairing mode, which lets you use the separately sold, AA-powered Gamepad for Nexus Player ($40).
As a gaming device, it suffers from the same lack of good content. But once the number of controller-compatible titles in the Google Play Games store bulks up, the Nexus Player will become a promising low-cost gaming console, too. Playing Badland with the controller added an extra sense of gravity when the protagonist(s) were heavy, and Asphalt 8 translated very well to the big screen with console-style controls.
Google has big plans for Android TV. A few TV manufacturers are expected to offer sets with the platform built in, which may help its app ecosystem grow. It’s not there yet: Google Cast can mirror things you’re watching at on your browser or mobile device, but most users will prefer having it all accessible on-screen. Once its app selection catches up, look out. Android TV’s smooth interface and interplay with Google services stand out in the streamer field.