The market for streaming boxes and sticks to feed our TV habit is really taking off right now. The prerequisite of decent broadband speeds and Wi-Fi networks is in place for many. As more and more people cut the cable, or look to expand their options with content streamed from the Internet, more products are being released to fill the need. The problem is that they all offer something a little different and no one has nailed the perfect blend just yet.
Google’s first foray into this space didn’t go well, but, as many successful people will tell you, you have to fail before you can succeed.
Google’s first foray into this space didn’t go well, but, as many successful people will tell you, you have to fail before you can succeed. We’ve now caught a glimpse of what the next attempt, Android TV, might look like, courtesy of The Verge, and it appears to be an entertainment interface that couch surfers will find it easy to come to grips with.
Aping the competition and throwing in a remote isn’t going to be enough, so what does Android TV need to do to win your affections and your hard-earned cash?
The current offerings
The Chromecast was something of a surprise hit. It revealed a gap in the market, delivering a cost-effective solution for people looking to upgrade their existing TVs to Smart TVs. We took a look at Chromecast and its competitors not too long ago, but that was before Amazon Fire TV landed.
Amazon has upped the ante, because the Fire TV is more powerful than the competition, the remote offers limited voice search, and there’s an optional game controller for an extra $40 that effectively turns it into an Android game console. Of course, it’s a fair from perfect solution.
At least for now, voice search only seems to work with Amazon’s Instant Video and Vevo, so it won’t search Netflix or your other apps. If Amazon doesn’t implement a universal search function, then you could end up paying for content unnecessarily and the feature is obviously hobbled. Amazon isn’t really interested in directing you elsewhere; its game plan is all about locking you into its ecosystem and making money through content sales.
Roku is an early leader in this space with a series of set top boxes and a streaming stick. It still offers more channels than any of its competitors. It’s not looking to build a walled garden. It has innovated with a remote on the Roku 3 that allows you to plug headphones in and watch TV without bothering the rest of the room. There’s also a very simple, seemingly obvious feature to the Roku platform – universal search.
Apple TV is a natural choice for people with iPads and iPhones, but the underpowered and overpriced box could use an update. If you’re not already invested in Apple, and you don’t want to be tied in, then it doesn’t make sense for you.
There are plenty of other options in this space, from the cross-platform EZCast, to mini Android PCs, to the Ouya console. You can use a big name game console like the PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, or Xbox One. You’ll also find it hard to buy a new TV today that doesn’t offer built-in streaming capabilities, although the choice can be limited and the interfaces can be torture to use.
What Android TV could deliver
Having tried out many of the existing options it’s clear that there’s room here for someone to do it right. What would make Android TV a winner? Here’s our wish list:
- It obviously needs a wide range of apps, including all the big players like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and HBO GO. This will probably be a challenge because of the nature of competition in this space, but Google should be able to entice developers.
- It needs a decent remote control and the option to use your smartphone, tablet or laptop instead. Ideally the remote would be RF, using Bluetooth or Wi-Fi Direct, rather than IR so line of sight is less important and you can hide the box.
- It should also support universal voice search through the remote and it should return clear results with “free” content first. For example, if a movie you want to watch is in Netflix and you have a subscription, put that result ahead of the pay to view version in the Play Store. If you want to limit your search to a specific app then that should be a possibility too.
- It should be powerful enough to load menus, scroll through them, and fire up apps quickly. It should also have dual-band, dual-antenna MIMO Wi-Fi and an Ethernet port in case you want one.
- It should have the ability to stream from Chrome tabs, like the Chromecast, but handle it better (this is still a Beta feature right now). If it did this and currently unsupported plug-ins like Silverlight, Quicktime and VLC worked, then it would be a real USP.
- It should have an optional game controller and access to the Play Store game library.
- It should have support for surround sound and an optical audio out port for those that want it.
- It should know what you’ve been watching on any of your other Android devices and allow you to pick up where you left off.
- It should allow you to mirror any smartphone, tablet, or laptop screen.
Bring in Google Now
The leaked report on Android TV included a document stating “Access to content should be simple and magical.”
Google Now integration could be exactly what Android TV needs to stand out from the crowd
The idea of Android TV having a powerful search function and being able to recommend content and understand what you want sounds tailor-made for some Google Now integration. It could handle your voice searches and learn what you like to watch to return intelligent search results and good recommendations. How about a Google Now card that pops up on your phone when you get home, which you can then tap to fire up the latest episode of whatever you’re addicted to on your Android TV?
Smart TVs are still the future
It’s about time that someone fulfilled the potential in this space and Google is well-placed to do it, but the Fire TV is far from the last competitor we’re going to see entering the market this year. There’s also no telling how much longer the box or stick demand will last because built-in solutions in the latest smart TVs are always going to be preferable if they can nail the same experience.
LG is already taking a different direction with its new range of webOS smart TVs. If the future fight is to get manufacturers to adopt Android TV as a built-in platform on their new range, then Google has to act fast and demonstrate something truly compelling.
What do you think, excited about the prospect of Android TV? What must Google do to win you over to the idea? Tell us what you think in the comments below!