What Is the Android TV Platform from Google?

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Android TV in a Nutshell

Nvidia Shield Remote
Nvidia Shield Remote. Image Courtesy Nvidia

Android TV is an Android-based operating system for your TV. It can be used on standalone devices like DVRs and game consoles as well as a platform that can be embedded in devices like smart TVs. Android TV devices can stream videos and run games and other apps. 

Android TV is a reworking/rebranding of the Google TV platform. Google TV was a flop for multiple reasons, including industry hostility (TV networks actively blocked Google TV from streaming their content) a clunky user interface, and a gigantic TV remote.

Rather than repair the brand, Google started from scratch and introduced the Android TV platform, this time with the blessing of the networks that once shunned the idea of streaming content on TVs. 

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More on Android Smart TV

Android TV Sony
Sony Bravia TV with Android TV. Image Courtesy Sony

 Many current TV sets are "dumb." They only allow you to watch TV shows broadcast over the air or through connected devices, and you are forced to watch the show as it airs or use some device (a DVR) to watch the show for you as it comes in on your cable and then replay it later. In addition, your dumb TV set does not know which shows you prefer to see and which shows you want to skip. 

You can get around some of this by using a DVR, as they usually have a suggestion engine and allow you to program your viewing preferences by watching series at a time. That works well as long as nothing interferes with the physical recording of your show (such as the power going out or a storm disrupting your satellite dish.)  Both the dumb TV and the DVR model are inefficient. An increasing number of viewers just bypass this whole inefficient process and get rid of cable TV entirely.

The idea behind smart TVs is that not only do they allow you to connect to the Internet, but they allow the TV to add services and suggestions (and yes, ads) tailored to your preferences. There’s also still an advantage to keeping your cable subscription if you like it, since many cable channels have online streaming available for subscribers. That gives you a TV that can stream your show on demand, stream other services like Netflix or Hulu, hold the library of individual movies you’ve digitally purchased, and play Android games or use other apps, such as weather services or photo albums.

Although there are big advantages to having a smart TV, there really has not been a lot of industry agreement on a smart TV platform. That means if you buy one smart TV and you want an upgrade or switch brands, your apps and preferences do not follow you. Google is hoping that Android TV provides a common platform for smart TVs and other devices to make for a better consumer experience (and because they own the platform).

Sony and Sharp currently offer 4K  Android TVs in the USA. Philips also makes an Android TV, but it is not available in the USA as of this writing. 

One caveat - although your Android TV apps are portable in general, some have specific system requirements that may prevent them from running on other devices. Some manufacturers use this to make exclusive apps. 

 

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Android TV Game Boxes and Set-top Players

Courtesy Google

You don’t have to get an entirely new TV to take advantage of the Android TV platform. You can also use standalone set-top devices, such as the Nvidia Shield and Nexus Player to give you many of the same features. Both are capable of streaming at up to 4K resolution, provided you have a TV (and the bandwidth) to support it. 

In fact, a Nvidia Shield or Nexus Player may be a better choice since they cost less than a new TV and leave you free to upgrade and replace your TVs and players independently.

The Nvidia Shield also offers some exclusive titles and GeForce Now, a streaming game subscription service (think Netflix for games) for $7.99 per month. 

The Nvidia Shield is currently priced at $199

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Android TV Apps and Accessories

Apps for Android TV
Screen Capture

Just as Android phones can play apps, Android TV has the capability to download and play apps from Google Play. Some apps are authored to run on multiple platforms from phone to TV, and some are specifically designed for TVs or game consoles. Because Android TV is designed to be a common platform, that means (generally) you could replace your Sharp Android TV with a Sony Android TV and still keep all your apps.

Casting:

Just like with the Chromecast, you can cast shows from your Android phone or your computer (running the Chrome Web browser and Google Cast extension).

Voice Control:

You can control Android TVs using voice commands by pressing the voice button on most remotes. This is similar to the Amazon Fire TV and other voice-controlled.

Remotes:

The remotes for Android TV vary by manufacturer and go from something that mostly looks like a traditional TV remote to a simplified touchpad with voice control. The “remote” for game boxes like the Nvidia Shield are game controllers that also can be used to control TV viewing options.

The predecessor of the Android TV, the Google TV, had a remote that was literally a full-size keyboard. While it was great for Web searches, it was an incredibly bad idea for controlling basic TV functions.

If you’d like to skip the remote, you can also use an app on your Android phone. Many TVs also offer an iOS version as well.

Accessories:

Android TV allows for a lot of potential accessories, but the most commonly available accessories are cameras (for video chat and games), alternate remote controls, and game controllers. Your phone usually also counts as an accessory since you can use it to control the Android TV, as does your laptop.

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What’s the Difference Between Android TV and Chromecast

Chromecast
Chromecast. Courtesy Google

The Chromecast is a super cheap ($35 or less) streaming device that you can hook directly into the HDMI port of your TV and stream content from either your smartphone or your laptop (using the Chrome Google Cast extension). There’s also a Chromecast designed around streaming music to your stereo system instead of video content to your TV.

Android TV is a platform that can run multiple different types of devices, including TVs, set top players, and gaming consoles.

Android TV gives you the same casting ability as a Chromecast plus:

  • Storage space – Android TV devices have storage space to store apps and media. Many also allow you to expand the storage with USB hard drives.
  • Apps – The Chromecast cannot run apps. It just streams content. Android TV allows you to run apps you download from Google Play (or potentially other Android app stores.)
  • Games – Yes, games are a type of app, but games deserve a special callout here since Android TV allows for a better game experience in many ways than your Android phone does, including game console remotes and multiplayer games.
  • Smart TV – manufacturers are better able to make Android TV part of your regular TV watching experience with a remote that controls both Android TV and standard TV functions.
  • Video Chat – with a camera accessory or TV with embedded camera, you can use your TV for Google Hangouts and have a much more natural communication experience.
  • 4K Video - If you're lucky enough to have Google Fiber or another really fast connection, you can stream 4K content on an Android TV. Chromecast does not yet support this. 

Android TV Alternatives and Competitors

Android TV is not the established platform for all smart TVs as much as Google would like it to be. Competitors include Roku, Firefox OS, and Tizen, an open-source, Linux-based platform developed by contributions from Nokia, Samsung, and Intel. LG is reviving the old Palm WebOS platform as a smart TV platform. 

Apple TV and Amazon Fire aren't designed as open-source TV platforms, but they are competitors in the streaming TV market, and they both offer solutions that include apps, streaming video, and music. 

The Bottom Line - Do You Need an Android TV?

If you only want to stream Netflix and YouTube  shows to your TV, you could get by with a much cheaper Chromecast or one of many other cheap streaming devices. If, however, you want to play multiplayer games and host video chats, Android TV is an option. That said, look at set-top players rather than a TV embedded with Android TV. You will still get more value for your money by buying a “dumb” TV and using a device to make it smart.

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