Editor’s Note: Google has ceased direct sales of its Nexus Player set-top box.
Google has been striving to be the centre of our living room entertainment for some years. There was the disastrous Google TV to the relatively successful Chromecast, which was the number one selling streaming device last year with more than 10 million units sold worldwide.
Now, the search giant is at it again with Android TV, a smart TV platform built into select televisions and stand-alone digital media players that promises a lean back experience for all your favourite entertainment apps from the Play Store. Android TV also offers personalised recommendations and voice search in addition to the Google Cast feature of the Chromecast that allow you to send video content to your television from within supported smartphone apps.
Australians looking to get Android TV will need to either fork out for a new Sony television or pick up the $129 Nexus Player – Google’s set-top box built by Asus. Unfortunately, just like Google TV before it, the Nexus Player fails to live up to expectations – at least for now.
The Nexus Player is about the same size as the Apple TV, resembling a small hockey puck with its circular design. But unlike the Apple TV or most dedicated streaming boxes, it lacks a physical ethernet port. So, unless you invest in a micro-USB to ethernet adapter, you will need to rely solely on your Wi-Fi connection for streaming video.
Also unlike the Chromecast, you don’t have the option to use the USB port on your TV to provide power to the Nexus Player – you must use the included wall wart.
If you plan on connecting the Nexus Player to an AV Receiver for multichannel surround sound, then you should be aware that the Nexus Player is a hit or miss affair thanks to a known EDID/HDMI handshake issue that Google has yet to fix.
In my case, the Nexus player would only output at 480p resolution. I tried a Yamaha and Pioneer receiver and both had the same issue. I eventually got around the problem by connecting the Nexus Player directly to the TV which resulted in 1080p output. However, playback then suffered from random audio glitches when outputting the sound to my 5.1 speaker setup. I finally gave up and used my television’s rather terrible built-in speakers.
Not that my 5.1 setup would have been put to good use anyway, thanks to the apparent lack of surround sound content. The Netflix Android TV app on the Nexus Player disappointingly plays sound in stereo only with no Dolby 5.1 in sight. Given that the Netflix app on other devices like Apple TV, Nvidia’s Android TV box – Shield, games consoles and even the built-in Netflix app on televisions all support Dolby sound, it’s a frustrating omission. Content that we pulled up from the Google Play Movies app also only supported stereo sound.
Content is what makes or breaks any dedicated media streaming device and that’s where the Nexus Player misses the mark. While you have YouTube, Google Play Movies and Netflix you won’t find any of the popular local services like Stan, Quickflix and EzyFlix. Regular catch-up services like ABC iView, SBS OnDemand, TenPlay, Plus7 and 9Jumpin are also absent.
That said, some of the aforementioned apps do support the Google Cast feature so you can use your Android or iOS smartphone to beam content to your television. However, I found that the performance wasn’t as smooth as the Chromecast and it also took longer to load content.
Thankfully, the Android TV interface itself is incredibly fast, taking next to no time to fire up apps or navigate the Play Store. PLEX, Kodi (formerly knowns as XBMC) and VLC are also available so you’re well served when it comes to playing back media files that you might have stored on an external network drive.
Voice search is also very useful and quite accurate. The included remote includes a built in mic so all you have to do is press the dedicated voice search button and say the title of the movie or TV show you want to watch and it will pull the content from Google Play Movies, YouTube and even PLEX. Disappointingly, it doesn’t yet search through Netflix content though we expect this to be rectified in a future software update. It’s worth noting that we did find the voice search to be a bit buggy. Pressing the voice search button would at times cause the UI to freeze for 5-10 seconds. The time it took for the Player to translate voice commands onscreen were also usually accompanied by noticeable delays.
It’s hard to recommend the $129 Nexus Player over something like the $99 Apple TV or the significantly cheaper Chromecast. If Google can secure some local content partners, address the lack of surround sound support and work out the kinks with voice search, then the Nexus Player could very well become a great media streaming option. But until such time, we would recommend steering well clear.