Android TV: Case Study of an Understated yet Meaningful Paradigm Shift for TV
Content and Flexibility
As I mentioned earlier most streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and YouTube are available on Android TV but the app selection pales in comparison to what Roku has to offer. Whereas Roku has streaming services through cable subscriptions like The History Channel, AMC, A&E, Disney Junior/XD, Nick Jr and normal Nickelodeon and Amazon Instant Video, the basic Android TV offers none of these. Sony has gotten a few exclusive deals for its televisions like one with Amazon Prime Instant Video.
While the basics can easily be found on both platforms, Roku has expanded beyond what anyone else has to offer. However, Android TV pulls ahead is its ability to customize beyond the normal streaming services. While the Roku offers no usable media browser (I say usable because there is one, it is just total and complete trash) Android TV offers Kodi (formerly XBMC) which when equipped can be a total media streaming platform itself and is finally available through the Play Store.
I largely prefer a digital movie collection for both my wife and I and when you have children, the last thing you want is sticky fingerprints all over your precious Toy Story collection.
Roku does offer Plex, but for the casual user who does not want a dedicated media server this isn’t an option and where the power of Android shines. Also being able to sideload applications (to varying degrees of success) is a large benefit to running the Android TV OS. For me personally I use both boxes in tandem. All of my Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, YouTube usage is through Android TV while my kids use the Roku for their shows and content. Other “Android” stuff just works on the Android TV as well. For this article I wanted to get screenshots from my unit instead of photos. So I plugged a USB keyboard into the TV along with a USB stick and hit PRNT SCRN for the screenshots and then copied them to the USB stick with ES File Explorer by navigating with a mouse.
Specific to the Sony TV and other TV manufacturers is the flexibility required to run the required TV features (color settings, input controls, changing the channel etc.) while using the Android TV OS as its front. In my opinion, Sony has done an outstanding job at this by interweaving all of your traditional controls into Android OS while not getting in the way or making it seem drastically different from what you are used to using. From what I have been able to figure out is that Sony is essentially running Android TV as its primary core, and is using some sort of overlay application that you use for OSD (on screen display) of quick changes of settings like color levels, speaker control etc. To explain:
You can change the color settings through “Settings” and have a fully material-designed view, or if you are watching a show through the built-in tuner or application, you can hit the “Action” button and choose color preferences and change it on the fly. The OSD handles your typical adjustments you are familiar with such as Audio, Video, PIP, Input control and the like; all of which is also available through the Android TV settings menu. While this solution is not a single cohesive application, it means that you aren’t stuck having to leave your app to get to the Settings menu to change your color setup.
Prior to purchasing my TV this was a sticking feature, I wanted the power and flexibility of the Android TV OS, but I did not want it to get in the way for the simple tasks me or my wife expect from a television. Google designed Android TV to do this very well and Sony executed as good as you could expect it to.
Ease of Use
Android TV’s interface is fluid and easy to use with everything being laid out for you without any confusing submenus or extra unneeded fluff. At times you would even forget you are using an Android TV and that is a great thing. It is meant to be powerful when you want it and out of the way when you don’t, after all this is a television and not a phone or tablet. The settings menu on the Sony TV are straightforward and easy to understand and connecting the device to your home Wi-Fi and Google account is, again, super easy and simple. The Android interface is controlled by a D-Pad with Enter key, Back and Home keys, and on my Nexus Player running Android N by holding down the select button to show recent applications. Sony actually ships its higher end sets with two remotes. One is your traditional fully functional remote, the other is a custom touch based remote with a swiping pad near the top and minimal functions, but it still is capable of running Android TV in its entirety. Keeping it simple like the tried and true methods of the Apple TV and Roku doesn’t do it any harm, and Google is to be praised for improving on their setup with a more powerful but equally simple layout. Its not like the first Google TVs had a remote with 80+ keys on it right?
There is also a remote application for Android devices, but I wouldn’t bother unless you really are going to lose your remote a lot. You will get a “Controller Connected” toast message as your phone toggles bluetooth to save power and whatnot and is generally distracting. It is also very basic with the most minimal of controls.
As I touched on in the last section Sony needs to be given props for making the standard interface OSD as comfortable and recognizable as you would expect it to be. Google puts the input selection as a new horizontal menu on the home screen and it can also be accessed through the OSD by pressing the input key on the remote and then making your selection. This method makes something that we do every day on our TV’s simple to use from both interfaces.
To put it bluntly, Sony keeps all the things you normally expect to do with a TV easy, and then offers you a prettier more powerful way to do it using the Android TV OS. It is smart, simple, and the way it should be done. Colors, text, imagery all resemble Material design on Android OS and a minimal material dark and white text design for the OSD.
Installing new applications is as easy as it is on any Android device and can even be done through the Play Store web interface if navigating the Play Store on a TV isn’t your thing. Voice Search is top notch and can be accessed through a top menu above the home screen or by hitting the Voice Search key on your remote, it can be a little slow to activate and global search like that found on Roku or Apple TV (4th gen) isn’t yet present.
Also included on every Android TV is the Google Cast functionality that mimics a standalone Chromecast in both form and function. Chromecasts have been exploding with more and more applications and services utilizing it from the web to iOS applications. People love the Chromecast for what it does and how easily it does that, and when your TV comes with the functionality baked in, it is a win-win scenario.
My old TV was in my family for almost 9 years. When it was sitting brand new on a store shelf Android was still a year away from its first public release and the iPhone was only about 5 months old. A lot has changed in that time, and while I do not have the expectation that my new TV would last another 9 years, I do worry how my operating system will handle the future. Other manufacturers are designing their own OS’s from scratch or using Roku’s current OS and that is great to see, but none of them have the large developer and user base like Android does. Developers, though, are going to have a difficult time maintaining application updates and releases across an ever growing digital streaming device market, there are already over 6 major players at your local Best Buy. Android TV has an advantage over these since its OS will run a largely identical application to its phone counterpart and this is in large part due to Google’s foresight and wanting to make on-loading new partners easier.
Android TV is a maturing OS that has a promising and strong start. But Google rubbed a lot of content providers and creators wrong with Google TV as the lack of streaming content shows. But Google has been great at mending bridges and repairing ties when it can be mutually beneficial. As Sony showed with Amazon Prime Instant Video, partners are willing to work on Android TV they just need to ensure their content isn’t at risk due to the open nature of the Android OS and that Google will consider their interests when making decisions at the core of its OS.
When it comes to making a “Smart TV” the OS is likely a huge cost factor and can easily make or break the experience which is why so many budget sets are beginning to ship with Android TV and what made Android explode in the first place. Not everyone will go out and spend $100+ on a new digital streaming box if their TV ships with a usable, capable and fully stocked one right out of the gate that can handle everything the TV can. Once Google gets more partners for content they have the ability to surround the market leaders like they did years ago and choke out some of the very same competitors (LG is running WebOS on their 2015/16 TV sets) they faced when Android was young.
Android has excelled for years by empowering the smaller cheaper devices and now Sony, the Samsung of the Android TV world, is showing that works on flagships as well. For one of the worlds most respected television manufacturers to go all-in on Android TV means more then we think. We don’t know what the next 9 years are going to hold for home technology and that is what makes this industry awesome but incredibly risky at the same time. But as long as they are still using the tried and true HDMI cable I can still connect any mobile streaming box I want to for increased functionality. Google and Sony just need to make sure that I can still change my volume without closing my currently open application or causing a force close and all signs point to just that today, and down the road.
In my opinion Android TV on both a set-top box and running as a fully fledged and integrated TV OS is a capable solution and should not be undersold. They compete with the best when it comes to usability and have the best UI design across any competitor. It is built in a way that keeps simple tasks you are used to doing on your TV simple, and gives you greater power when you want it. The ecosystem has some maturing to do and some content providers to gather, but that’s exactly the same situation Android on phones had years ago. Android TV is built on a solid framework and one that has proven successful, let’s just hope that Android TV follows the Android phone path instead of the Android tablet one.
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