Google’s return to Android TV hardware is long overdue and I’m here for it
Google’s relationship with media streaming hardware is a bit haphazard. While the company has sold several generations of Chromecast devices, they’ve had a mostly hands-off approach to Android TV. Interestingly, Google actually released the very first Android TV device, the Nexus Player, which stopped receiving support back in early 2018. We’ve been waiting ever since for a new Google-branded Android TV device (and one that’s not a developer device). Thankfully, it appears that time may finally be coming, as can be seen in the renders we exclusively obtained of Google’s upcoming Android TV dongle.
To talk about Google’s approach to media hardware, we have to go all the way back to Google TV, the precursor to Android TV. Content providers like NBC, ABC, CBS, and Hulu never embraced Google TV, limiting the content that was available. Users found the Google TV experience to be quite clunky as many devices came with a large controller that included many buttons and even a QWERTY keyboard for navigation. What did Google think people would use a keyboard for? Browsing the Internet on Google Chrome and watching web video content with Adobe Flash. Clearly, that isn’t how people are actually watching content on their TVs these days.
Google TV was on the market for 4 years from 2010 until 2014, but Google never made its own device using the platform. In hindsight, that was a smart decision. Instead, Google pursued its phone-based, remote-less media streaming platform: Google Cast. In 2013, Google released the first Chromecast, kicking off a series of media streamers that have been perceived to be quite successful. After all, they’re cheap, very abundant, and are supported by a wide range of services thanks to Android integration through Google Play Services. They’re essentially plug-and-play media streamers that can turn a “dumb” TV into a “smart” TV, and app-based controls are fairly well understood by most smartphone users.
Unfortunately, the Chromecast is a victim of its own simplicity. The fact that you don’t need a physical remote to navigate a UI can be very convenient, but there are times when it feels limiting. If a group of people is trying to decide what to watch, then have fun huddling around a tiny smartphone trying to pick content that you’ll all enjoy. Have a friend or babysitter over? Have fun getting them onto your network and maybe installing an app or two just so they can watch something on your TV. And then there are all the times when the Chromecast controls just disappear because your phone killed the controlling app’s notification in the background.
For some people, a Chromecast can never be a replacement for a full-blown OS like Android TV. I guess that’s why Amazon Fire TV and Roku have seen such great adoption at the expense of the Chromecast.
That brings us to now, nearly 6 years after the Nexus Player. It finally looks like Google is ready to launch another Android TV device and give the platform more attention. I’ve been an Android TV user since nearly the beginning and my trusty NVIDIA SHIELD TV has been arguably the best Android device I’ve owned. But it’s sad for the scene that NVIDIA’s 2015 SHIELD TV is still a top contender nearly 5 years later, which is why I feel that Google’s return to Android TV hardware is long overdue and I couldn’t be more excited about it.
I’ve been using the NVIDIA SHIELD TV for a long time and it’s truly a wonderful product. The most recent refresh of the series is great, too. The thing is that I’m not a gamer and many of the features that NVIDIA boasts about are wasted on me. Do they interfere with my experience? No, but I look at it the same way I think about Samsung phones: I don’t want a bunch of extra features I’ll never use. That’s why I like Pixel phones and it’s why I’m interested in Google’s Android TV dongle.
Google’s “less is more” design philosophy doesn’t speak to everyone, but it’s something I really appreciate. The sharp, angular design of many TV boxes don’t fit into my life as well as a Google Nest speaker with rounded edges and fabric. Hardware design is important, but a TV dongle is barely ever going to be seen. The design of the remote, on the other hand, matters quite a bit.
NVIDIA thankfully updated the design of the SHIELD TV remote this year. The older remote is nearly impossible to keep out from couch cushion crevices. We don’t exactly what Google’s remote will look like, but the leaked design so far seems promising. We can expect a smooth, matte finish and well-thought-out button placement. Physical volume buttons are also a nice touch (which is something the old SHIELD remote lacked).
I guess all of this is to say I’m excited to see Google’s vision for Android TV hardware and software working together. Google has made a ton of strides in hardware production since the Nexus Player was released.”Made by Google” has pumped out some excellent devices from smartphones to smart speakers to smart displays. These are products that fit seamlessly into my daily life. Compared to the early days of Android TV, Google is not so afraid to take the lead in how hardware should look. And Android TV itself has matured significantly over the years, with most major content providers offering support for it, many TV makers integrating it into their televisions, and many operators distributing white label set-top boxes to customers.
It’s been a long time since Google made an Android TV device, but it’s better late than never.
Note: The featured image is a mockup of what I think Google’s Android TV may look like based on the leaked renders we published.