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Is Android TV DOA in the UK?

Android TV interface

A lack of on-demand and catch-up TV services, plus a conspicuously empty Play Store has us worried for Android TV

It was all supposed to be so simple. When Google announced Android TV alongside Android 5.0 Lollipop at last year’s Google I/O, it looked like the company had finally cracked the big screen. A brand new interface designed specifically for remote controls, back-end code shared with Android on smartphones and tablets for easy porting of apps, and a way to play hundreds of smartphone games on your TV. It even managed to get big-name TV manufacturers Sony and Philips/TP-Vision to abandon their own Smart TV systems in favour of Android TV, based solely on the promise of a world of apps and massive developer support  – both areas the companies had struggled with in recent years. 

Unfortunately, based on what we’ve seen to date, Android TV is a half-baked system that has a long way to go until it can replace Smart TV systems as we know it.

Android TV apps list

Having spent plenty of time with Android TV during our review of the Nexus Player, it’s clear that the Play Store, supposedly Android TV’s greatest strength, is actually its biggest weakness. It is incredibly limited at launch, with virtually none of the apps we’re familiar with on our smartphones or tablets. Media streaming devices live and die on the number of services available at launch, and right now you can count the big names on one hand. Naturally Android TV has Google Play Movies and YouTube, but apart from Netflix, there’s really nothing to stand out for UK viewers. There’s no BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4OD or Demand 5. No sign of Sky Now TV, BT Sport or Virgin TV Anywhere, despite all being available on other Android devices. We weren’t surprised Amazon Prime Instant Video didn’t make an appearance, seeing as Amazon has its own competing Fire TV streaming device, but right now there’s virtually nothing to watch unless you’re a Netflix subscriber or YouTube addict.

Music streaming services are arguably less crucial when playing content on your TV, but there’s still a blatant lack of choice here as well. Apart from Google’s own Play Music app, you only get TuneIn Radio, VEVO and Musixmatch. There’s no Deezer, no Napster, and no BBC iPlayer Radio. We can’t work out why there’s no Spotify app, considering we saw it in action on a Philips Android TV earlier this month. We were hoping to be able to control our multi-room systems using the Sonos app through our TVs too, but unsurprisingly the app has yet to be updated with remote controls.

Right now, Android TV feels more like a glorified games console with a few multimedia features thrown in on top. There are significantly more games than there are apps, although the amount that play well with a remote control are outnumbered by those that are optimised for the £35 optional Nexus Player gamepad. Smartphone games work because they can be played on the move to kill time – they can’t compete with dedicated PC or console games, which you will almost certainly have underneath the same TV your Android TV device will be plugged into.

Android TV Music Apps

Initially we weren’t too concerned by the lack of apps, as we planned to side-load our favourites onto Android TV regardless. However, Google has taken steps to make this as difficult as possible. Apps won’t simply appear in the main Android TV UI, so you’re forced to install a third party launcher. With no built-in file manager, you have to add .APK files manually via FTP – a massively convoluted process. Once we got that far, it became clear that few of the side-loaded apps were going to work; Spotify opened upside down in portrait mode, BBC iPlayer refused to stream any video and other apps simply wouldn’t open at all.

There’s not even a web browser to access online content that wouldn’t normally be available through a dedicated app or service, meaning sports fans living in other countries won’t be able to use Android TV to catch up on missed games or pay-per-view content.

The frustrations don’t end there for anyone buying a 4K TV running Android. Currently Netflix 4K streams aren’t available through the Android TV app, which means both Sony and Philips TVs are likely to launch without it. Seeing as Netflix is still one of the only ways to get 4K content, this is a huge omission. There’s no indication of when this will be added to the app, or when any of our favourite on-demand apps will be arriving at all for that matter. We would have more faith if Google was being transparent about developer support for Android TV, but right now it’s anyone’s guess as to when apps like iPlayer will eventually appear.

Google TV, the company’s previous effort to crack the living room, ostensibly failed because it was too difficult to navigate and interact with an interface that was designed primarily for touchscreens, rather than to be controlled with a TV remote. It’s understandable that Google is playing it safe when it comes to apps, as a few bad apples could quickly ruin the experience for anyone picking up a Nexus Player on launch day or those that plan on buying a new TV from Sony or Philips. However, it’s simply unacceptable that so much content is missing, considering it’s not a huge task to enable Android TV support as the codebase is shared with vanilla Android.

Now that the Nexus Player is making its way out of the US and into other territories, Google doesn’t have long to get developers on board, or the public are going to feel very short-changed when they plug their media streamers in for the first time.

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