Android TV can be an ambiguous term. If you go to eBay you can see thousands of listings for things that refer to it running Android and being a smart TV. Some listings may specifically refer to Kodi. However, none of these run Android TV even though they run Android on a TV. Google announced Android TV in 2014 at Google I/O. While it runs Android much like other boxes, Google has added additional apps and software support to produce a better leanback user experience. The two are very different and this article will be an exploration of these differences.
This article is going to use the words “Android” and “TV” a lot. To make it more clear what I’m talking about, I will try to use specific language. When I’m talking about Google’s implementation of Android for TV sets, I’ll call it “Android TV”. When I’m referring to OEMs who put stock Android in an unofficial set-top box, I’ll call it “Android box”.
Stock Android TV
If you look at any Android TV, you’ll notice a lot of similarities. The homescreen looks the same, the pre-installed apps are similar, and the entire interface was designed in a way to be easily controlled with only a DPAD. You can go left, right, up, or down to focus on a new item. Because this is on a TV ten feet away from you and not a touchscreen, it doesn’t make sense to use a touch or mouse input as a form of input.
Android TV was announced in 2014, and as such was originally based on Android Lollipop (5.0). The TV team has been keeping up with stock Android development. Android TV can also run on Android Marshmallow (6.0) and Nougat (7.0). If this set-top box is running a version lower than that, it is not Android TV.
With every Android OS update, Android TVs will also get updates. Google publishes monthly security patches to the operating system to fix potential problems.
However, Android TV is not just stock Android. It has a special interface and services that are designed specifically for a TV. Android boxes will generally come with stock Android and require extra peripherals to setup. You may need a mouse and keyboard to navigate an Android box by emulating the built-in keyboard and touch input.
Android TV has the Leanback Launcher, which is a central location for all your TV watching. At the top is a way to activate the universal search. Then there is the recommendations row, a collection of suggested content from your apps that make it easy to figure out what to watch next. Recommendations are a special type of notification, and the only notifications that appear. Android boxes may use the standard notification drawer that shows any type of notification.
The launcher also lets you access your games and apps, each in their own rows. If you want to play a game you can quickly distinguish it from your installed apps. Each game and app is displayed by a larger banner instead of an app icon and there is no text name below the banner. Items cannot be placed in folders.
Android boxes will generally come with a stock launcher that will show all the installed apps and games just like on a phone. Android boxes can also have third-party launchers installed.
One thing that Google does well is search, and that extends to Android TV as well. Users can use the universal search feature to find content from every app just with a simple voice or text query. To make voice search easy, Android TV remotes have a built-in microphone that can pick up sound when prompted. An Android box may have a remote control, but it likely will not have a microphone to do searches by voice.
Bluetooth will likely appear in all Android boxes meaning you can pair your remote or gamepad to it as well as to an Android TV. However, the remote’s microphone will not work as it requires specific software to process the speech input. Aside from that, the rest of the controls should work as expected.
Android boxes do not have this feature. While they may have the Google Search app included, it doesn’t have the additional components and UI that focus around media. It also doesn’t have the necessary integrations with media apps to find where to watch a TV show or movie. For example, when you search for “Orange is the New Black” on Android TV, you can directly start watching it in Netflix or any other installed app that may have this show.
In addition to Google putting custom services in the device, they also include pre-installed apps that are included on every Android TV. You will have the Google Play Store, which is designed for a TV and allow you to install more apps and games designed for TVs. The available software is vetted by Google to make sure it follows their quality guidelines. This is a subset of all available apps, but you’ll be guaranteed that it can work with a DPAD and not a mouse. Each app you download will have a great experience.
On an Android box, the Play Store may have to be sideloaded or it may include a different app marketplace. The apps that can be installed will likely include those that require a touchscreen to run, meaning any app you install may or may not work with your remote and instead require a mouse.
Google Play Games is also present on Android TV, an app that connects you to Google’s game services. You can see your friends and what games they’re playing or check out your currently unlocked achievements. Other Google Play apps include Play Music and Play Movies. These link your content to your TV.
Live Channels, or a similar OEM app, is another Google app that comes on Android TVs. It uses framework APIs to play TV channels. Not only does it play channels from a USB tuner or antennae, but from any app that exposes channels. It’s a modern take on cable, where different sources blend together seamlessly.
A lot of Android boxes will advertise that they run Kodi, which also runs well on Android TV, although it may require more navigation and customization than a Leanback app or Live Channels. On a more serious note, these boxes can be preloaded with numerous Kodi add-ons that allow users to access pirated movies and videos. Police in Europe have recently been cracking down on these piracy boxes with raids and arrests. It’s better to access videos legally, through apps approved by the content creators.
One special service is the Google Cast Receiver. As the same implies, it runs software similar to that of a Chromecast and allows phones to fling content to it. This app is restricted to running only a few devices, Android TVs. It will probably not work if you sideload it on other devices.
There may be similar apps in the Play Store that you can download, but the Google Cast experience is designed to work out-of-the-box and flawlessly.
Android TV runs on a handful of devices. Unlike stock Android, OEMs work closely with Google to integrate these TV apps into their devices. As TVs focus closely on the leanback experience, they may also certify with Netflix to make sure the app works. (That is, aside from the Razer Forge TV.)
Most of these companies are high profile consumer brands: Sony, Sharp, and NVIDIA. Sony embeds Android TV in the TV sets, making the setup process seamless, although users may prefer a standalone set-top box like the NVIDIA Shield, which contains a high-quality GPU for gaming.
Android boxes are made by lesser known electronics companies, many from China, where Google’s services are restricted. Xiaomi’s Mi Box exists in a similar form in China already, although running a forked version of Android instead of Android TV.
These lesser known and less popular devices can mean issues are harder to debug. Many of these companies sell their products online and provide little or no in-person tech support.
If you’re wondering what you should buy, take a look at the summary for each group.
Android TV is a platform actively supported by Google that gives all devices some of the same features: cast support, the same launcher, and universal search. With the TV Play Store, users can find apps and games that are completely optimized for a TV. Android TV can appear as a new smart TV or connect to an older one with an HDMI port.
Android boxes are an uncoordinated group of devices from a variety of manufacturers that run stock Android with perhaps some OEM modifications. They may have the Play Store by default, or you may have to sideload it. Apps and games will likely not be optimized for a TV, but assume you’re using a touchscreen. Users may need to hook up a keyboard and mouse to fully navigate the device. Android boxes are, as the name implies, all set-top boxes that you can hook into any TV.
Android TV delivers a better leanback and consistent experience in my opinion, and it’s certainly a defined platform. However, it’s name may confuse some who think instead of Android boxes. I hope this article has helped you understand the difference between the two device types and you can pass this on to anyone else who may be wondering the difference.