Nexus Player with Android TV review

Review: Nexus Player with Android TV

21 Nov 2014 | Rasmus Larsen


Google unveiled Android TV a few months ago at its yearly developer conference, and Nexus Player is the first product built on the new ambitious TV platform. Google hopes to transform the TV market into something resembling the phone market, where Android TV is a shared platform between all those manufacturers who want to participate. Android TV is based on TV apps, but will also enable TV gaming and could potentially morph into a full-fledged game console.

After Apple and Google have seen success in the mobile market they are looking to expand their eco systems into other areas. We know Google’s plans now, but have no idea what Apple’s long-term view for TV is. Despite having a few TV platforms such as webOS, Amazon’s Fire TV, and Samsung’s in-house platform to pick from already, software on TVs is still relatively new territory.

Google is one of the few that could revolutionize the TV industry, but is Android TV the future? Join us to find out in this in-depth review of Nexus Player and Android TV.

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Price and retailer:


First impressions

To start off, we probably need to go over a little history first. You might remember that Google launched "Google TV" a few years ago, but you have probably heard little about it since. It was a spectacular failure that almost forced Logitech to file for bankruptcy. More recently, Google launched Chromecast, a small and affordable TV dongle, and has seen huge success.

So why does Google need Android TV now?

Well, it has to do with the long-term strategy. Chromecast is a cheap receiver that needs a phone. It has no TV interface and it does not support real gaming. Google is clearly thinking bigger here, as Android TV is a complete TV platform that can accommodate everything from streaming services and games to home automation and more. We need full-fledged TV platforms in the future if we want to get past the current paradigm.

Google Nexus Player review


Android TV is a full platform and will be available in media streamer boxes - such as this Asus Nexus Player - game consoles and Smart TVs. So far, Sony, Sharp and Philips are confirmed as Smart TV partners and from spring 2015 all three will start implementing Android TV as the platform in their TVs.

If you have no intention of buying a new TV you can add Android TV with a box such as Nexus Player, which is a small, round black, shiny plastic puck. It largely resembles the Apple TV, except that it is a little bit larger and rounder, but you can easily hide it behind a TV.

Google Nexus Player review


The remote is simply and a far departure from the laughable remote that Google imagined with Google TV back in the days. Google has clearly found inspiration in the Apple TV remote, but unfortunately not in Apple’s choice of materials. Google’s remote is made from matte black plastic, and unfortunately it feels very light and very cheap.

However, it has one big advantage over most remotes as it is bluetooth based, meaning that you can point anywhere. Some early buyers have experienced problems where the remote disconnects from the box, but during our testing period we did not experience that even once. Also, notice the voice button at top. We will get back to it later.

There is also an app for Android smartphones and tablets that will let you control the box using voice search and also bring up a keyboard for search. Unfortunately, the keyboard does not work in every app. Unlike the Apple TV that requires every app to use its built-in keyboard, Google is not as strict. You can feel how you want about that, but in the end it takes away from the user interface on Android TV. Besides that the remote app works well, but is not yet available for iPhone/iPad.

Nexus Player also supports HDMI CEC - just like Chromecast. For example, we had Nexus Player connected to a TV on HDMI1. So while playing PS4 on HDMI2, the player would automatically switch to HDMI1 if we pushed a video from a phone to the Nexus Player.

Google Nexus Player review


On the back side we found HDMI, USB and power. There is no optical or ethernet port; two rather strange omissions. The lack of an optical output makes the Nexus Player a rather week choice for music, for example.

The Nexus Player stays very cool during use, and did not heat up even during gaming or HD streaming. It has no fan either so it stays very quiet during use.

Besides that, the Nexus Player is pretty straight forward. You cannot use it in most countries right now without using a few tricks, but in a few months’ time Google will expand availability and the app store to far more countries. If you want to use it right now, you can import it. On that matter we should note that the power supply supports 110V and 240V.

Setup

Setup is easy. You only need to go through a few steps such as WiFi setup and Google Play login. At the moment you can choose between English, German, French, and Japanese.

Specifications:
1.8GHz 4-core Intel
PowerVR G6430
1GB RAM
802.11ac 2x2 (MIMO)
8GB storage
HDMI out
2.4 & 5 GHz ac WiFi
Nexus Player has no ethernet plug, so make sure that your WiFi is up to the task. On the other hand, it includes ac WiFi; the new faster and more reliable WiFi standard. You also need an ac router to utilize this, but it is highly recommended anyways as most new devices are capable of running ac WiFi, which uses beamforming to direct signals in the direction of the active devices.

There is no HDMI cable in the box, so remember to buy one separately. After connecting it for the first time it needs to download the latest software update, but the entire setup process only takes a few minutes. Nice and painful. However, you should also know that you need a Google+ profile for many of features in Android TV.

Technically, Nexus Player supports up to 1080p HD and stereo audio. It is not clear if it will support surround sound, but we could not get it to work right now. If Google adds it with a later update it will most likely just be pass-through. The box does not support 24fps from movies either. It is not clear if it will be added with an update later, since Android should technically support it. Nexus Player can decode H.264 and also next-gen video codecs such as HEVC (H.265) that the industry is currently rolling out and Google’s own VP9 (an alternative to HEVC). This means that it is actually the first box to combine the two next-gen codecs, which is super cool!

If you are using Nexus Player outside the US right now, you need to jump through a few hoops to trick the player into believing that you are in the US. Or more specifically; you need to get access to the US Google Play store. There are guides out there (such as this one) to help you do that. We tried to use a DNS service such as Unblock-US or Unotelly, but for us it did not work. Some suggest using a VPN service, but then you will have to input the VPN information into your WiFi router as Nexus Player has no VPN settings. For us, the best thing was to follow one of the guides, such as the one we are linking to. Basically, you need to make your Google Play account a US Google Play account. After that, you can use Nexus Player without DNS tricks as it does not check your IP, but only which Google Play store you have access to.

Power consumption

Stand-by 0.8 W
In menus 1.5 W
HD streaming 2.5 W
Gaming 3 W


Nexus Player is designed as an always-on device. You are not supposed to turn it off and there is no Off button on the remote. It just goes into a stand-by mode, which also means that it is always ready for you to cast an image or video to it from your phone.

So we were naturally interested in how much power it consumes. We measured it to 0.8W, which is fine. For comparison, the latest Apple TV consumes 0.85W when streaming 1080p video and 0.7W in stand-by.

TV apps & voice search

So far, no one have cracked the secret to a great TV user interface. Samsung has tried using a concept of side-scrolling, whereas LG recently introduced cards that pop up from the bottom in its webOS TVs. Apple is using small icons on a black background, but there is still no app store on Apple TV.

Google’s approach with Android TV is rows of cover photos, and in fact it resembles Amazon’s Fire TV in many ways - only a bit more appealing to the eye. If you watched Google’s developer conference a few months ago you will notice this is the manifestation of its Material design language.

TV and box manufacturers are not allowed "skin" Android TV so what you see here is what you will see on other media boxes and Smart TVs with built-in Android TV – unless Google changes something.

Google Nexus Player review


The top row consists of recommended videos and content based on your viewing pattern. Next one is apps, next up are games, and the last row offers some setting options. Overall, it is a very graphical and pretty user interface, but at times you feel like jumping through a few too many steps. For example, it is not always obvious when to use the back button and exactly why it takes you where it does.

The button with the circle logo on the remote takes you back to the home screen, but lets any video you are watching continue in the background. We can imagine that this will be quite powerful when Android TV makes it into Smart TVs with TV channels. The Nexus Player is a pure streaming device and has no built-in tuner. The only way to watch live TV or TV channels is if your provider has an app in the Google Play Store.



81 apps in total.



Speaking of the Google Play store there is one important point to make. On an An-droid tablet or phone you can download and install any app. This is not the case on Android TV. Google has created a separate store that only offers TV-optimized Android apps, and at the moment the selection is very limited. Google opened the store to developers on November 3rd, so expect to see many more apps in the coming weeks and months.

Many people have asked us about the player’s capabilities as a local streamer device for video files on a NAS or PC. So let us make it clear that Nexus Player has no built-in native DLNA media server app. There is no Kodi (XBMC) app either. It has Plex (the subscription Plex service), but really, Nexus Player - and Android TV - is not intended as a dedicated streamer of local media. It is first and foremost a streamer box for online services. If you want to install a media streamer app, you can - such as Plex - but this is not Google’s focus.

Right now the following apps are available:
  • Entertainment: Netflix, Hulu Plus, NBA Game Time, MLB.TV, Watch Food Network, PBS Kids Video, Bloomberg TV+, UVideos, TED TV, Crackle, Plex, Red Bull TV, HuffPost Live, DramaFever, AOL On, Dailymotion, Pluto.TV, Hystack TV News, Madefire Motion Books & Comics
  • Music: Vevo, iHeartRadio, Pandora, musiCmatch, TuneIn Radio, Songza TV, TuneIn Radio Pro
  • Games (for the TV remote): Despicable Me, Hungry Shark Evolution, Table Top Racing, Orborun, Running Shadow, Sky Force 2014, Red Bull Air Race, Pac-Man, Tap the Frog, Going Going Gone: HR Classic, Badland, Bezircle, Riptide GP2, Dragon Fly!, Red Ball 4
  • Games (for the gamepad): Leo’s Fortune, Clarc, Beach Buggy Racing, Castle of Illusion, BombSquad, Super Party Sports Football, Shadow Blade, Rabbits Big Bang, The Bridge, Radiant, Fireman, Dark Lands, Farm Invasion USA, Ninja Hero Cats, Wonder Zoo - Animal Rescue! - Save the Puppies, God of Light, T.E.C 3001, Beyond Ynth, SoulCraft 2, Meltdown, Modern Combat 4: Zero Hour, Soulcaliber, The Wolf Among Us, Asphalt 8: Airborne, The Walking Dead: Season One, The Walking Dead: Season Two, The Bard’s Tale, Double Dragon Trilogy, Radiant Defense, Wayward Souls, RPG Alphadia Genesis, Real Boxing, 1941 Frozen Front, Indy 500 Arcade, Reaper, RPG Symphony of the Origin, The King of Fighters ’98, RPG Record of Agarest War, Final Fantasy III.

    81 apps in total - 82 including the native YouTube app.

    Jumping through the menus we noticed several small bugs and issues. Nothing that really ruins the experience but enough to suggest that the Nexus Player and Android TV has shipped a little too early. Google will surely iron out most of it, but right now you will experience some random stuttering in menus. Sometimes we would click the remote but see no action the first time. Other times the interface would jump around a little because a left-aligned photo did not load initially.

    The recommendations engine often recommends YouTube videos in the top row, but when you click it you get something entirely else. Hey Google, don’t serve me a Taylor Swift music video when I click on a Grand Theft Auto 5 PS4 trailer.

    I am not sure I like Google’s YouTube recommendations very much either. For example, I am not sure why it recommends a YouTube video titled "Why do we like our own farts". Oh, well.

    Speaking of viewing patterns, if you go into the menu and find the "Ads" section you will see that Google has given your box (and you) an "Advertising ID", and that the box will build "profiles" based on your usage pattern to show you "interest-based" ads. It is possible to turn this setting off, but it is unclear to what extend you are still being monitored (Nexus Player is tied to your Google+ profile). There is a full Privacy Policy available to read in the menu, but it is long and complicated, so we will not go into depth with it here.

    Google Nexus Player review


    Besides that, the YouTube experience is pretty great. Videos start playing immediately, and you can rewind or jump forward with almost no load time. There is no indicator, but the Nexus Player could very well use VP9 - Google’s HEVC-alternative. The picture quality is surprisingly good for most videos even on a 50-inch TV, and we experienced no blockiness initially, suggesting that the box jumps to HD immediately after pressing play. If you regularly use youtube.com in a browser you know that it can often take 20-30 seconds for it to adjust to HD quality.

    While watching YouTube videos you can press down to see related videos. You can see your subscriptions, your own channel or browse through categories such as Music, Sports, Gaming and "Popular on YouTube". When we first powered up YouTube we saw ads before every video, but now they are all gone. No idea why.

    Definitely one of the best YouTube experience on a TV right now.

    As you would expect from the world’s largest video streaming service there is also a Netflix app on Nexus Player. It is the same user interface that you find on new Smart TVs and PlayStation 4. In fact, when you think about it looks a lot like Android TV itself with horizontal rows of content in different categories.

    Too many bugs, Google!


    The Netflix app supports HD, but no 4K from Netflix right now as the Nexus Player has no 4K support. Netflix has not started using HEVC decoding for HD content yet so everything is delivered in H.264, but it looks as good as Netflix’s HD on Smart TVs, PlayStation 4 or Xbox One. It supports profiles and all of Netflix’s latest features, including Post-play. A very nice Netflix experience over-all, except for the subtitles that look ridiculously big and use some weird too-tall, too-bold font.

    Google Nexus Player review


    After closing the app the first time it would not load again before restarting the box. So besides the good Netflix user experience there are definitely still bugs in there.

    The Hulu Plus app looks familiar if you are used to using it on a modern Smart TV or another TV platform. The Red Bull app has a lot of great extreme sports content if you are into that. Some of it is pretty wild. The TED app offers access to the amazing library of TED Talks. Right there on your TV. Unfortunately, none of the TED Talks would play on our TV unless we found them in the recommendations row.

    Too many bugs, Google!

    Nexus Player also offers several music apps. The Pandora app is okay, but not amazing, but you have all your playlists in there, and you can create new playlists directly from the app. TuneIn Radio has almost every radio station you are looking for out there, and you can sort by several different categories.

    The Vevo app serves up music videos of all kinds, and is basically pure MTV nostalgia. However, we experienced a fair amount of buffering, and compared to the same Vevo videos on the YouTube channel (in the YouTube app) demonstrated that the YouTube app offers significantly better picture quality on Nexus Player.

    Google Nexus Player review


    There is also a Google Music app that offers access to all the music you also have on your Android devices and it automatically loads up album art based on the artist. It is a nice-looking app, but also a bit inconsistent. Sometimes it would play a song just by pressing the song name, other times you would have to press play afterwards. All these small inconsistencies are widespread through-out the Android TV interface. It definitely needs polish.

    All music apps on Nexus Player allow you to play music in the background, but besides that it is a bit unclear how multi-tasking works. For example, after leaving Netflix to play a song, the Netflix app would have to do at least some powering up again the second time, but not a full cold-start. At the moment it is not possible to jump seamlessly between every app. Hopefully that will be possible later.

    We are aware that some reviewers are complaining about frame dropping during playback, but we had no such issues. The stream would on rare occasions stop to buffer or drop to a lower streaming quality (much more often than our Apple TV connected to the same WiFi), but we did not experience dropped frames. YouTube, for example, ran buttery smooth, and Netflix was mostly smooth sailing (except for a few drops in quality).



    So far, so good, but we have actually not talked about one of the greatest features of the Nexus Player yet. We praised Amazon Fire TV’s voice search, but Google actually offers something similar. Google is undeniably the master at search and you can use voice search not only for specific movie titles, but also to look up movies with a specific director or actor (or two actors in the same movie) or "Oscar nominated movies from 2010".

    Search also brings up upcoming movies if there is a trailer available. Unfortunately, we experienced more than once that it gave us an error when trying to watch the trailer. Voice search also failed a few times, not because of my accent, but it forgot to listen and afterwards froze for 1 second. Add that to the list of bugs.

    At times, the search box would bring up wrong results and it did not always recognize names or foreign movie titles (but it recognized more than Fire TV). It needs to work every time if Google wants people to use it as the primary method for searching for movies. However, Google it is getting closer to that target and I actually used it more than I assumed I would. The voice search feature can be quite powerful, but needs the last ten percent.

    Voice search pulls information on actors and movies from IMDB and shows a button below telling you that the movie is available from Google Play Movies, suggesting that other movie stores could be included in the future, too. However, right now no other movie services are included, so even if a movie or TV series is available from Netflix - and you have a Netflix subscription - a voice search will not reveal as much. This is simply one major hurdle that Google - and others - need to address. Google is offering the tools for app developers to integrate their apps.

    Google Nexus Player review


    Moving on, another great feature is Chromecast - or Google Cast - which is integrated directly into Android TV and the Nexus Player. If you already own a Chromecast you know what to expect. From your phone, tablet or web browser you can "cast" content onto the screen from supported apps such as Netflix or YouTube.

    Some users prefer to use YouTube on the phone with a keyboard and then cast onto the big screen. Later updates to Chromecast have also added screen mirroring with some high-end An-droid devices, and this is also supported by Nexus Player. Integrated Chromecast is easily one of the most useful features of Nexus Player as the Chromecast eco systems is expanding rapidly.

    However, while Chromecast will work with for example Netflix or YouTube, we noticed some hiccups. For example, you can cast Netflix from your Android phone or iPhone, but before you see the video on the TV screen you will have to select the user profile. The Nexus Player should just respect which profile was used in the Netflix phone app that you are casting from. A weird, but annoying little bug. The app also needs to do a cold-start if it was not active on-screen. It is not instant as on the Chromecast device.

    Google Nexus Player review


    We also noticed another thing. While for example HBO Go worked via casting even though there is no actual app on the Nexus Player, some other apps, mostly local non-US apps, did not. The Nexus Player is recognized in the phone app and it appears that you can cast to it, but nothing shows up. So, keep your Chromecast connected. Not everything works as it does on Chromecast yet.

    In the past, we have considered Airplay one of the killer-features of Apple TV, and it is this system that Google is trying to replicate with Chromecast, only a few years later. Unfortunately it is just not on par yet with Airplay yet, and there is a lot of work ahead of Google. Airplay works in every app on iOS and also lets you stream music or movie sound from Apple TV to Airplay speakers. This is not yet possible with Chromecast and the system is not even integrated into audio systems and speakers yet. A side note; Google seemed to experiment with Miracast in Android for a little while. They seem to have been abandoned it again for Android TV.

    Another note for advanced users: If you want to do more with the Nexus Player we should probably add that you can side-load apps by hooking up a PC to the USB port. This gives you the option to install APKs and it works pretty well with for example games or XBMC (Kodi), but this is probably a subject for another time. We just wanted to include a quick note and say that you can in fact side-load apps. And even though the apps will not show up on your home screen, you can always find them in the deeper menus. Generally, if you go into the deeper on Nexus player you can do more, such as seeing all apps that are running in the background, set parental controls, and so on. Strangely there are no options to control video output and playback.

    Google Nexus Player review


    Gaming & the game controller

    Android TV is not only a platform for apps, but also a platform for games. The Nexus Player is not nearly powerful enough to give you console-like graphics, but if development of mobile technology continues at this pace Android TV boxes could look very interesting in a few years.

    To give some perspective, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 have around 200-250 gflops of GPU pro-cessing power. The latest Android tablet hardware (for example the Nvidia Shield) and iPad Air 2 are on-par or slightly faster, which is why we are starting to see some of the games from the last console generation appear on tablets and phones at the moment. Nexus Player is not as powerful as this - probably closer to 100-150 gflops - but theoretically it could be even faster today. For comparison, PS4 and Xbox One are closer to 1500-2000 gflops.

    Another thing to consider is that an Android tablet has a battery, which limits the power, but a TV box has no such limitations. As long as it stays fairly cool it can pack more processing power. We are still years away from the reality; "The new GTA6 - released on PS4, Xbox One and Android TV", but the scenario is starting to look more plausible.

    So let us instead talk about what you are getting.

    Google Nexus Player review


    The game controller for Nexus Player is sold separately for $39 and it looks at lot like the Xbox controller. The quality and feel is not on par, but it is actually surprisingly good. The Y and B buttons are a bit too close to the edge for my taste, but besides that the controller is highly functional. It is based on bluetooth, which means that you can also use it for other tasks, too, and you can also connect other bluetooth controllers to Nexus Player.

    We experienced no noticeable lag when using the game controller, and in many ways it felt really natural to play games on the Nexus Player. In some games - such as Badland - you can even use the standard remote because you only need one button.

    Google Nexus Player review


    For now, the game catalogue is very limited, but we found some gems in there, such as the afore-mentioned Badland, The Wolf Among Us, The Walking Dead, and Leo’s Fortune. Again, these are not console-quality games, but if you have not played them you should give them a go. Great games.

    However, Android TV still lacks some killer-games, and we would love to see for example GTA or other genres on the big TV. Most of the available games ran fine on Nexus Player, but some frame drops occur, but nothing dramatic.

    Keep your Xbox or PlayStation
    After installing a few games you will quickly hit the storage wall. The Nexus Player has a modest 8GB capacity inside, which is simply not even close to being enough for Android TV. Frankly, we cannot imagine why Asus has demonstrated so poor judgment.

    Google Nexus Player review


    8GB - even less as the Android TV system takes up space - is stupid on a phone and even dumber on a TV box that requires larger and more graphic textures, and a high-resolution user interface. We can only urge Google to put a minimum requirement on storage capacity for future devices.

    We do not want to dive too deep into the GPU (a PowerVR Series6) and hardware of Nexus Player as this is really just a show-off product for Android TV, but in the future we will probably start doing some benchmarks to compare the Android TV products. For now, we should just add that it lags somewhat behind the latest high-end Android and iOS products. For a product that has no battery life to put into the equation one could arguably ask for more, but then again; it is only $99.

    Google Nexus Player review


    We experienced no crashes in games, and it is very clear that many of these games are basically optimized version of the Android tablet version, with remapped controls for a game controller. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but in the future we hope that Android developers will start developing games specifically for the big screen.

    The conclusion on the gaming aspect of Android TV is pretty clear. Android TV might become a powerful TV gaming platform with lots of cool games in the future, but it is not there yet. Right now, gaming is just an added benefit.

    Keep your Xbox or PlayStation.

    Conclusion

    TV platforms are still a relatively new thing. Even though TV manufacturers have been at it for years, none of them have really put their heart and soul into it. It has mostly just been another "check" on the specifications sheet. Google, Apple, Microsoft and possibly Amazon could change that, and Android TV is Google’s plan to do so. It is not just better than the old Google TV, it is dramatically better. There is a lot to like about Android TV.

    Android TV is the most promising TV platform right now
    Android TV offers video streaming apps, music apps, and even some games. Right now, the Nexus Player is not nearly powerful enough to replace your dedicated game console, but we see potential in a few years’ time, even if the PC, PS4 and Xbox One will remain much more powerful. The selection of apps on Android TV is still very limited, and it is important to underline that only apps specifically developed for Android TV can be used.

    You do not have access to the full Google Play store as you would on a phone or tablet. Netflix, Hulu Plus and YouTube are there, but other essential apps such as HBO Go and Amazon Instant are missing. Voice search is quite good and potentially powerful, but it needs to search inside apps such as Netflix, too.

    Unfortunately, Android TV is - at least right now - full of bugs. Not just a few, but a lot. There are no deep, critical bugs and Google will surely fix it, but we cannot recommend buying the Nexus Player at the moment. Android TV has obvious potential, but it needs a bit more time in the oven. Android TV is the most promising TV platform right now, and we expect Google to open the floodgates next year when Sony, Sharp and Philips start integrating Android TV into TVs, and more manufacturers release Android TV boxes.

    Compare prices for Nexus Player on Pricerunner



    Price and retailer:



    Promising app platform
    User friendly
    Also game console
    Voice search
    Chromecast built-in
    Good price


    Lots of bugs
    Only 8GB
    No powerful enough for high-end games
    No deep search yet
    No optical or ethernet







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