Last fall, Google announced the first commercially available Android TV device in the form of the Asus Nexus Player. This was Google’s third attempt to invade the living room and I wondered if they would learn from the failures and successes of their first two attempts. Staying true to themselves, Google released a half-baked beta product that we all wished they wouldn’t.
Google has a habit of releasing new products that are not quite ready for primetime, loaded with potential but lacking polish. They do it so often, convincing me, that it is their business strategy and not a character flaw. As a tech enthusiast, I appreciate this approach to gadget development, with progress being a joint venture between Google, consumers and developers. But I cannot say the average mass consumer that Google is trying to reach is so forgiving. It is a risky strategy that is quite brilliant when it works, but brand damaging when it doesn’t. Google TV would be an example of the latter. The first Google TV box launched at $300. It was exciting and full of potential, yet buggy and barren. To oversimplify things, the high price kept the sales down which kept the developers away. Eventually, apps and bug fixes began to appear and the prices of different Google TV boxes started to drop. However, the damage was already done. Google TV was dead. Towards the end of that life cycle, Google announced the Chromecast. This was an interesting device. At launch, it was full of potential and yet buggy and barren. The difference was that this device was $35. It sold like hotcakes right away. People bought it on a whim without even knowing its full capability. The strong sales pushed more developers to take notice and build the ecosystem. Google supported the Chromecast and updated frequently. Eventually, it became the de facto device to pair with every TV in your house and it was compatible with almost everything.
The big difference between the winners and losers of Google has a lot to do with price/value. When people bought a $300 Google TV device, they expected a polished and mature platform, instead they got to be Google’s living room beta testers. It is a shame because this misstep ultimately destroyed the brand and the potential of Google TV. Customers were disappointed. When the Chromecast came out, it was so cheap that consumers did not care that it had limited functionality and was not polished. For the price, they readily accepted their position as Google’s beta testers. Customers were more forgiving which gave Chromecast the time and resources necessary to grow and to become a huge hit.
So, what about the Nexus Player and Android TV? It was a Frankenstein of their spectacular failure, Google TV, and their surprise success, Chromecast. Just like before, Nexus Player was released brimming with potential and seemingly unfinished. How did Google’s strategy play out after a year?
Being that this review is a year late, I am not going to go over the typical features of an initial review–i.e. any unboxings or glamour shots etc. These are already found in countless reviews and would be redundant at this point. The purpose of this review is to look at how the Nexus Player has matured over a year, and to find out if it is still worth buying.
Obviously none of the hardware is going to change over a year but how has it aged? The processor was never the fastest on the block and the 1gb of RAM was an immediate concern, but the player is still rather smooth in day-to-day operations, especially after being updated consistently over its life. It’s not as strong at gaming as its counterparts, missing a few frames here and there, but it is adequate for the casual gamer. Serious gamers are probably looking at the Nvidia Shield TV by now anyways.
Early reviewers found the lack of storage disappointing, discussing the rapid rate at which larger apps and games could exhaust the Player’s storage. In addition, the lack of ethernet port was annoying to say the least. Again, neither of these issues have been resolved, however the micro usb port has proven to be a bit of a savior. Using an OTG usb cable and hub, you can easily add ethernet capabilities and storage. The latest Marshmallow update allows drives to be mounted and viewed as system storage, meaning that you can now have all the apps you want.
Despite never having premium build quality, the unit seems to have stood the test of time. The remote is as good as it’s always been which is not necessarily a great thing. Personally, I have had connection difficulties requiring a re-pair. The select button has double pressed, or just not pressed at all. The microphone has randomly refused to work. All of these experiences happen far less than the remote working as it should, but they happen enough to make things frustrating. One of the most powerful features on the Nexus Player is the voice search/navigation. Yet, I use it less than I would like to because it has burned me one too many times. I believe all of these issues stem from Bluetooth connectivity, and I wish Google would have opted for a Wifi-Direct remote.
I was always envious of the Roku remote’s capability to output sound through connected headphones for quiet viewing. Obviously, the Nexus Player remote didn’t sprout a headphone jack, but the Marshmallow update did enable Bluetooth headphone connections, giving you a similar experience.
I would also like to make note that software updates added some additional codec support, and a restart option so that you no longer need to unplug and replug your Nexus Player when things go awry.
The Android TV interface has gone largely unchanged since its launch. This is a okay because it is one thing that most initial reviewers agreed they liked about the Nexus Player. It is visually stunning, clean, intuitive, and snappy–just like day one. Although there are many things I would like to change about it (a story for another article), I will say that it still does the job. Also voice search is still KILLER.
The main interface has also become friendlier to non-Google content. Obviously at launch, when you voice searched for actors or movies, the card always gave you the option to watch the trailer on Youtube or buy on Google Play Movies. While this makes sense that only Google’s apps would support this feature on launch, reviewers worried that this would stay a closed garden. I can happily report that when I search for a specific movie, it will give me the option to buy/watch from Google Movies, Sling TV, Hulu, or even my own Plex library. Very Cool.
The Play Store launched with just 23 apps and 50 games. Understandably, this was one of the biggest issues for early reviewers. Android TV had some of the big names at launch but it was also missing many more. The Play Store itself was rather locked down , withholding even those apps that were able to be downloaded to your Android TV from web-based Play Store. Now there are well over 600 apps in the Android TV Play Store and recently got big name support from Showtime, HBO, UFC, WWE, Disney, and more so the platform is still maturing. The Play Store itself looks much more appealing and added the ability to auto-update apps. There are still some notable omissions, but at this point they are the minority and mostly not Google’s fault (I’m looking at you Amazon and Spotify).
Where the apps have fallen short, the second killer feature has (almost) always filled the gaps. Google developed Android TV to also be a Chromecast in disguise with its built in “Google Cast” functionality. This was a brilliant move to piggyback off the success of the Chromecast. After ironing out some early kinks that prevented some apps to cast properly to Android TV, All Chromecast compatible apps are still functional on the Nexus Player even if the developer hasn’t decided to support Android TV yet. This functionality really saved the Nexus Player from early irrelevance while it was building up its app library. Also the Nexus loaded videos faster than my Chromecast and supported 5ghz wireless. It is also still a great function to have in social sharing settings. I have always considered the Nexus Player as a Chromecast Plus with a remote.
Launching at $99, the Nexus Player was just inside a sweet spot for tech lovers. Not quite an impulse buy like the Chromecast, but also not a serious purchase like the $300 Logitech Revue Google TV. It was in the same price range as its competitors, Roku 3, Amazon Fire TV, and Apple TV. This made its price neither a pro nor a con. I wish Google would have subsidized the cost here and undercut the competition a little to spark a dev scene, though I now see that it was a tough situation. If they went too low on the price, they would eat into the space dominated by their winning Chromecast. They would also hinder the appeal of future Android TV set top boxes like the Nvidia Shield TV.
Now the Nexus Player can be had for somewhere around $50. Some places do still have it listed for $99 but I would not advise you to pay the list price. Target has even had it for $25! It is clearly on its way out and will be found in clearance sections in the near future. At this price point, things get interesting. This is the price point towards which customers are very forgiving.
If Google TV was a strikeout and Chromecast was a homerun, the Nexus Player was a solid foul tip. That analogy may make it sound like a dud but, in baseball, foul tips are very important. Sure, it counts as a strike, but it also keeps you alive. You live to see another pitch and that is really what the Nexus Player has done. It wasn’t the resounding success that I wanted it to be, but it laid out some very important groundwork that needed to be done. It also wasn’t bad enough or so expensive that it tarnished the whole Android TV name (see: Google TV). Android TV has lived to see another pitch and guess what! Nvidia Shield TV was launched and is recognized as the best set top box on the market. Android TV is also coming preinstalled on 5 brands of Smart TVs this year, including all of Sony’s lineup. This will keep Android TV’s momentum going and will continue to reward the Nexus Player that got it all started.
Bottom line: If you can grab one of these at a deeply discounted price (<$50), it is a tremendous value. It can always be relegated to a bedroom or guestroom where it will serve you well.