It's been around for a while, but in 2018 Android TV is becoming a much bigger deal.
The number of people using the TV platform has doubled in the last year, and Google expects it to double again in 2018. Android TV is different to Apple TV in that it's built into both TVs and the boxes/sticks you can plug into them. You might already have one in your home and either not realise, or at least not be using it to its full potential – Sony Bravia, Philips OLED and Sharp Aquos sets running the platform have been on sale for years.
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So what's the point, what can it do and is Android TV worth it when other streaming sticks are so cheap?
What is Android TV?
We said Android TV is a big deal, but that doesn't mean it has suddenly shot up to the top of the must-have lists. If you're looking for a 4K smart TV, for instance, you might consider benefits like built-in Google Cast – but you might also just want to know what streaming services it works with.
In many ways, Android TV is similar to what manufacturers are doing themselves with TV UIs – Samsung's Tizen, LG's WebOS or Roku TV. The Home button on your remote takes you to an easy-to-navigate screen of app icons with shortcut tiles which send you straight to videos or shows that Google thinks you'll like. This is hit and miss and seems to simply browse the most recent additions to streaming services.
One big feature that we just mentioned is built-in Google Cast, so you can also cast video and audio from Cast-enabled apps like YouTube, Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Spotify or Google Play Movies from your phone or tablet (Android, iOS) and from Chrome on your laptop (Mac, Windows, Chromebook). You can also control the TV from Android TV for both iPhones and Android phones, which includes use of the mic.
The other big difference is voice search from Google Assistant, which arrived on Android TV last fall. You can either navigate to the mic symbol at the top of the Home screen or press the dedicated mic button on the Android TV remote to speak.
The search works across Google's own apps and can be really useful – for example if you search for Moana, it will show you how much it costs to rent the movie from Google Play and also relevant clips from YouTube. You can also use Assistant for controls such as "play the next episode" and "rewind ten minutes".
And Assistant in Android TVs can also work like a Google Home. If you've added home gadgets to the Home app, you can use voice commands like "turn the living room lights on" via the remote or your smartphone. The smart home hub aspect isn't prominent at all on Android TV but we'd expect that to change, especially as Google has its incoming Smart Displays that have Assistant built in.
Android TV: Apps
Movies and music
The Android TV app selection is pretty comprehensive. First up, you have the obvious Google entities like YouTube, Google Play Movies & TV and Google Play Music which work best with things like Google Assistant voice controls.
Then you have the big movie and TV streaming services, most of which require monthly subscription fees: Netflix, Amazon Prime Video (notably not on Chromecast), BBC iPlayer as well as HBO Go, Hulu and Showtime in the US. Rounding out the package are Mubi, Vimeo and Dailymotion.
When it comes to music streaming services (which again will require a subscription) you've got Spotify, Pandora, TuneIn Radio & Radio Pro and Vevo.
Apps like Plex, Kodi and VLC for Android let you play your own media and depending what you're into, there's also ESPN, CBS Sports, NFL Mobile and Twitch for gamers.
Games and apps
Google is now pushing Android TV gaming features like split screen, using phones alongside controllers and mostly mobile-style games including Asphalt 8: Airborne; Hungry Shark Evolution, NBA Jam, Final Fantasy and Grand Theft Auto.
Getting away from TV and gaming, more traditional 'apps' like AccuWeather, Kitchen Stories (for recipes), Hopwatch for Reddit and Ultimate Guitar Tabs and Chords also make an appearance. This category isn't the biggest but with more voice integration, it could grow and grow.
If you're feeling tech-y, you can also sideload full blown apps like Google Chrome and Google Drive onto your Android TV – just download something like the Sideload Launcher app.
Android TV: The tech
You can get Android TV built into Sony Bravia, Sharp Aquos and Philips OLED TVs as well as boxes including the Nvidia Shield, the Mi Box and the Razer Forge.
As we said, when it comes to TVs, you'll make the decision based on brand, picture quality, price, screen size and design. But the other options have more to differentiate them. Both the Nvidia Shield and Razer Forge are aimed at gamers, coming with dedicated controllers, whereas the Mi Box – now in 4 and 4c iterations – is an affordable 4K, HDR streaming box for China.
In terms of what's coming from Google itself, the company has partnered with JBL on an Android TV-running soundbar called Link Bar which doubles as an Assistant smart speaker, so you'll be able to bark commands to control the TV when it arrives in the fall.
At Google I/O, the company also announced a new Android TV dongle called the ADT-2 for developers to test their apps on - but you won't be able to buy one. The dongle supports 4K streaming, packs in 8GB of memory and comes with a remote with Assistant voice controls. Android TV is lacking a first-party offering from Google, and a lot of us hoped that this dongle (which appeared at the FCC before I/O) was going to be it. It does however raise hopes that we'll see more Android TV products at its hardware event in October.
Android TV: What else is coming?
So that's what to expect in terms of new TV sets and boxes – but Google has some changes to Android TV planned for 2018.
The Oreo update, which started rolling out to some boxes in May, is bringing some tweaks such as a new design with a row for each 'channel' (app) and suggestions for movies/shows/videos to watch from said app e.g. Netflix. The icons will feature video previews (clips, trailers, live TV etc) rather than stills and there will still be a favourite apps menu bar at the top plus voice search.
Another new feature lets you easily bulk install a bunch of recommended apps including apps you've used on mobile. Google's data show that Android TV users have 15 apps on average per device – our guess is that it would like to see that rise.