Google already has its Trojan Horse in my living room, the $35 Chromecast that I bought on an Amazon whim and now use every day for streaming HBO, Netflix, and whatever dumb YouTube video my girlfriend needs to see. (Today: this one.) Now it’s trying to open up the gates.
Like virtually every other set-top box, it’s designed to be used and not seen, and it’s basically successful. It’s not nearly as unobtrusive as the Chromecast, which plugs directly into an HDMI port and is completely hidden, but it’s not nearly as obvious as my Kinect or even the thin layer of dust that covers my whole TV stand.
IT'S MADE TO BE USED AND NOT SEEN
Ultimately, that remote is a far more important piece of the set-top box equation than the box itself. So it’s a shame that the Nexus Player’s is a cheap, plastic toy of a clicker. There’s a five-way directional pad, a back button, a play / pause button, and a circle that I can’t imagine most people will ever figure out means "go home." All the buttons are plasticky and harsh, forever feeling as if they might crack on the next press. Even the textured remote itself feels cheap. Google basically made an uglier version of Apple’s ultra-simple remote, and a cheaper and less useful version of Amazon’s. And it takes AAA batteries. I hate using companion remote apps on my phone, but I’ll use Android TV’s a lot.
- "Nightcrawler" returned a Google Play link for Thor: The Dark World before it showed me the Nightcrawler trailer.
- "1999 Best Picture Nominees" found American Beauty, The Cider House Rules, andThe Green Mile, but also two nominees from the year before, and 40 or so other movies — from The Matrix to Up — that make no sense.
- "Movies with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks" showed Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. Nailed it.
- "Something funny" brought back a bunch of YouTube videos, including this one
- "Comedy" showed a row of stand-up comedians, then movies from Her to Neighbors to Sex Tape to How To Train Your Dragon 2.
The app and games lists on your homescreen are fairly straightforward, and neither is likely to ever get very cluttered. That’s because other than Google’s own apps (Play and YouTube) there are fewer than two dozen apps you can download onto the Nexus Player. Netflix and Hulu and Crackle are here, as is Pandora and iHeartRadio, but there’s also one for Dramafever and HaystackTV and HGTV. There’s no Amazon, no HBO Go, no Spotify, no WatchESPN. Many of those will surely come to Android TV — they’re all available on Android, and the whole point of Android TV is to make it trivially easy for developers to support every screen size including this one — but they’re not here yet. After about an hour, you get the sense that you’ve done everything there is to do on the Nexus Player.
The same goes for games, which Google clearly deems important to Android TV. It even sells a full gamepad controller, for $39.99, that lets you play much more complicated games than the up-left-down-down-click kinds of motions you can do on the remote itself. Even complicated and intensive games work well on the Nexus Player, and I quite like the controller, but there simply aren’t many to play.
Not that there’s much room anyway. There’s only 8GB of internal storage in the Asus-made box, which doesn’t matter much for watching movies since you’ll almost certainly be streaming rather than downloading, but it feels paltry when there are already a few games in the store over 1GB. There’s a USB port on the back, but it’s just USB 2.0, and connecting a hard drive to the Nexus Player hardly seems ideal anyway.
That, actually, is the story of the Nexus Player. It’s a glimpse at a different, more palatable future than Google TV ever offered. It may maybe even the actual future — Sony and Sharp are already signed on to make Android TV their smart TV platform — but it’s not a terribly compelling purchase right now. Google’s plan is to marry the power and flexibility of Chromecast with the communal, lean-back experience of flipping through Netflix genres on your TV. The bones of that are here. Now Google needs more: more content, more games, more apps, more everything. The Roku 3’s content selection simply embarrasses the Nexus Player (it even has Google Play now), Amazon’s voice search is superior and its interface is much faster, and the Chromecast offers virtually all of this functionality for a third of the price.
IT'S HARD FOR A SET-TOP BOX TO STAND OUT, AND THE PLAYER DOESN'T
That’s hard. It’s proven all but impossible in the living room. But the good news for Google is that it made software like that already. It’s called Android, and it dominates the smartphone industry all over the world. All Google has to do now is think a little bigger.