The Google Nexus Player is a $99 box you connect to a TV to stream movies and music from the internet, play video games, and run other apps on your TV. It’s basically Google’s answer to the Apple TV, Roku, and other devices designed to make your TV “smart.”

leanback_01

It’s also the first device to ship with Google’s new Android TV software. While Google is happy to sell you a set-top-box, what the company’s really hoping is that other manufacturers will load their own Smart TV devices with Android TV much the same way they’ve loaded their phones and tablets with Android.

Android TV isn’t Google’s first play for the living room. A few years ago the company was pushing a software platform called Google TV, but it never really took off. I blame a complicated user interface, limited functionality, and underpowered hardware.

Last year Google took a less-is-more approach and launched the Chromecast. It’s a $35 device that doesn’t even really have a user interface. Instead you use your phone, tablet, or PC to discover videos, music, or other content you want to beam to your TV and the Chromecast lets you do that with the tap of a button.

nexus player and remotes

The Nexus Player and Android TV software show Google’s learned a lot about what works in the living room and what doesn’t: It’s simpler and easier to use than Google TV. But it’s also more versatile than a Chromecast.

In fact, anything you can do with a Chromecast you can also do with the Nexus Player: It includes built-in Google Cast functionality. But the device also comes with a remote control that you can use to search for content, navigate between apps, play and pause videos, and even play casual games.

There’s also an optional $40 Bluetooth gamepad that lets you do some serious gaming (if you consider Android games like Riptide GP2, Asphalt 8, or The Walking Dead to be “serious” games).

Google loaned me an Android TV box to test, and it’s speedy, easy to use, and provides a great way to stream media from YouTube, Google Play Movies, Netflix, Hulu Plus, and a few other online video sites as well as music from Pandora, Google Play, TuneIn, Songa, and other services.

The problem is that as of early November, 2014 there aren’t a lot of third-party apps for Android TV and it’s not all that easy to find the apps that are available.

Right now the Nexus Player and Android TV feel like they’re full of potential… and they could be everything you need… as long as you don’t need a web browser, file browser, XBMC, Amazon Instant Video, or any of the other apps and services that aren’t officially supported.

It is possible to sideload apps, but it’s not exactly easy and there’s no guarantee the apps you install will work.

Hardware

The Nexus Player is a small, circular device which measures about 4.7″ x 4.7″ x 0.8″ and weighs a little over 8 ounces.

nexus player hand

Under the hood it has a 1.8 GHz Intel Atom Moorefield quad-core processor with PowerVR Series 6 graphics, 1GB of RAM, and 8GB of eMMC storage. It features 802.11a/b/g/n WiFi dual-band 2×2 MIMO WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0.

If you turn over the device you’ll see a hollow section with 3 ports: a power jack, HDMI port, and a micro USB 2.0 port. There’s no Ethernet, S/PDIF, full-sized USB port, or any other input or output connectors.

ports

There’s also a button on the bottom of the device. You can press this to begin the process of pairing a Bluetooth accessory, although you can also do that from the Settings menu without tapping a button. The only feature you’ll find on the box itself is a small LED light near the front that lets you know the Nexus Player is operating.

There’s no power button: when the Nexus Player is plugged in, it’s turned on. When you don’t use the device for a while it’ll go into sleep mode and use the Daydream feature to display photos or other content. But if you want to turn the box all the way off, you’ll have to pull out the power cable.

Plenty of Chinese companies have produced TV boxes that run Android software over the past few years. Some have faster processors, more RAM or storage, and more ports than the Nexus Player. But they run a lightly modified version of the Android software Google designed for phones and tablets, not the new Android TV software.

np vs rkm

 

So while they’re more powerful, they can also be tougher to use: many of the apps you can download and install on boxes like the Probox2 EX, Tronsmart Vega S89, or Rikomagic MK902 can be tough to actually use with a remote control rather than a touchscreen.

The Nexus Player, meanwhile, is not only designed to be used with a remote: it’s designed to be used with a very simple one.

The included remote control has just a few buttons. There’s a back button, home button, and a play/pause button at the bottom. Above it there’s a direction pad which you can use to press up, down, left or right. Press the button in the center to select.

remote

Above that there’s a microphone button. Tap it from any screen to start a voice search. In select apps like Google Play Movies & TV this will let you search for content that’s available within the app itself. From other apps, or from the home screen, voice search lets you search for videos, music, or other content by name and the Nexus Player will show a list of results from multiple sources.

At the moment that largely means YouTube and Google Play Movies. In the future it’s possible that more apps might tap into Google’s voice search functionality. But right now you can’t easily search Netflix with your voice, for example.

The Nexus Player remote doesn’t support air mouse features. It doesn’t have a QWERTY keyboard. But it’s incredibly easy to use… especially compared with the remote control for last year’s Asus CUBE Google TV box which had a touchpad, a mouse cursor button, and a QWERTY keyboard, along with TV buttons, media buttons, and a dedicated Netflix button, among other things.

You can use the Nexus Player remote to navigate menus, play and pause videos, and even enter text using an on-screen keyboard. You’re not going to want to enter a lot of text, but you can use it to enter usernames and passwords… which is about all the text Google really expects you to type on an Android TV device.

np red ball

The remote can also be used to play some simple games. There’s even a section of the Google Play Store for “TV Remote Games” that you can play with just the arrow and select buttons on the remote. Games like Red Ball 4 aren’t exactly easy to play with just a few buttons. But you can play them.

Want to play some more complex games? Asus makes an optional Bluetooth gamepad for the Nexus Player which you can pick up for $40.

gamepad_02

The controller looks a lot like an Xbox-style gamepad, and features analog sticks, shoulder buttons, a D-pad, and X,Y, A, and B buttons.

There are also back and home buttons, and a power button in the center. Pressing this turns on the remote, not the Nexus Player. Unlike the standard remote control, the Gamepad turns off after it hasn’t been used for a while and you need to actively wake it up.

You can pair the Gamepad with the Nexus Player via Bluetooth either by pressing the button on the bottom of the Nexus Player or by choosing the “add accessory” option from the Settings menu.

settings

Once the Gamepad is paired with the Nexus Player you can use it for just about anything you’d use the normal remote for, except instead of hitting Select you hit the A button. One thing you can’t do with the Gamepad is search-by-voice. It doesn’t have a microphone.

But it does have all the buttons you need to play more complicated games including Modern Combat, Asphalt 8, SoulCalibur, Wind Up Knight, or Final Fantasy games.

ff_02

Finding games that you can actually play can be a bit tricky. But we’ll get into that in the next section.

I’m not a heavy gamer, so I can’t really tell you how the Gamepad compares with an Xbox or Playstation controller. But it feels comfortable, has all the buttons you could need to play games that support said buttons, and I find myself reaching for the Gamepad when I want to enter text because it seems to be a little easier to navigate the on-screen keyboard with the analog stick than with the buttons on the standard remote.

The standard remote runs on two AAA batteries, while the Gamepad takes two AA batteries.

There’s one other way to control an Android TV box. You can download a free Android TV Remote Control app for Android and turn your phone or table into a remote.

np_remote

It gives you on-screen arrow keys, a select button, home, back, and microphone/search buttons. You can also use switch to a touchpad mode and swipe the screen to navigate rather than tapping.

If you’re wondering what you can do with the Nexus Player’s microUSB port, you can use a USB cable to connect the box to your PC and use the Android SDK tools for debugging (or for pushing software to the Nexus Player… more on that below).

ports_full

Using a micro USB to full-sized USB OTG adapter, you can also connect a USB flash drive or hard drive, hook up a USB mouse or keyboard, or connect other accessories. The micro USB port works just like a full-sized USB port. It’s just smaller.

Android TV

Android TV is basically Google Android 5.0 designed for TVs instead of phones or tablets. But that doesn’t mean it’s just a smartphone operating system with a custom app launcher.

Instead, the entire operating system has been retooled so that you’ll never encounter a menu, game, or option that you can’t use with just a remote control or gamepad. This is what makes Android TV different than a normal Android device that just happens to be plugged into a TV.

It also means that there’s no web browser, no suite of Office apps, and generally no good support for apps that are designed for touchscreens or for mouse and keyboard input.

np_home

When you turn on the device, you’ll see a home screen that Google calls the Leanback Launcher (although you don’t really need to know what it’s called). There’s a search icon at the top, followed by recommended content from apps including Google Play Movies & TV, YouTube, and Hulu Plus.

Hit the down button on your remote and you’ll see a list of installed apps, plus a link to the Google Play Store where you can find more apps.

leanback games

Below the apps you’ll find games.

And in the bottom row, there’s a settings icon and a dedicated icon for your wireless network so that you can to the internet without digging through a bunch of menus.

Of course, the first time you turn on the Nexus Player, it will walk you through the process of setting up the device, connecting to the internet, and logging into your Google account. But if you need to change any of your settings, you can easily do that from the Settings menus.

settings_02

You can also disable system sounds, adjust Daydream settings (telling your system how long to way before showing photos and how much longer to wait before going to sleep), factory reset your device, change the language settings, turn on captions or other accessibility settings, or add new Bluetooth devices.

There’s also an option in the Settings menu to remove your Google account. If you do this, a new option to add an account shows up, which allows you to switch from one Google account to another… but you cannot use two accounts at once. While Android 5.0 supports multiple user accounts on phones and tablets, Android TV is tied to a single account at a time… for now. This could change in the future.

When you select an app like Google Play Movies & TV or Netflix from the home screen it will open in full-screen mode. The user interface for Google’s Android TV apps looks a lot like that for Android tablet apps… there’s usually a menu on the left and a grid of icons on the right.

np_play movies

You can scroll up and down the menu in Google Play Movies, or YouTube, for instance, to switch between My Movies, My TV Shows, New Movie Release, and other categories. Once you select a category, you can use the direction buttons to select a video, hit the select button to start playing your video, and use the play/pause button to pause or the arrow buttons to skip ahead or back.

np youtube_02

Hitting the home button will return you to the main screen, but it won’t stop the current video from playing unless you then select another app or video.

Google Play Music works much like Play Movies. There’s a menu on the left, and selections on the right.

google play music

You can use the arrow keys to find content, switch tracks, or change views. The Play/pause button does what you’d expect, and hitting the Home button takes you back to the main screen but keeps the music playing until you select a different option.

Play Music shows full-screen album art when you’re listening to a song, but you can bring up options to skip tracks, pause, or view your playlist just by tapping a button on your remote.

play music_04

Other music and video apps might use a different user interface, but if they’re available when you visit the Play store on an Android TV device, they should work with a remote control.

The Netflix app, for example, looks a little different from YouTube or Google Play Movies or Music: there’s no menu on the left, just a grid of videos in your saved list and a series of recommendations.

netflix

When using Netflix you can either scroll up to the top and tap the search icon to start a search, or hit the microphone button on your remote control. But there’s no voice search option. You’ll have to enter your search terms using an on-screen keyboard.

netflix search

As more developers add support for Android TV, expect to see a growing number of different ways to access content. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: there’s not exactly a universal way to find and play content on a smartphone either… but all music and video apps for touchscreen smartphones are at least designed to work on touchscreen displays. And all Android TV apps will be designed for use with a remote control.

Not sure which app you want to open, but have a vague idea of what you want to watch? That’s where the search function comes in. Just tap the microphone icon on the remote, say something like “X-Men,” and a list of matching search results will pop up.

np_search

In addition to movies and TV shows, you might find related YouTube clips, actors who have appeared in X-men films, and other information. But you’ll only get results from apps that work with Android TV’s search function. So while a search for “Avengers” brought up options to watch the movie on Google Play Movies or watch a trailer on YouTube, you’d never know that you can tream the Avengers on Netflix unless you opened the Netflix app.

np_search_03

Hopefully app developers will tap into Google’s Android TV search function to make it a truly universal search tool in the future. Right now it’s pretty cool… but pretty limited.

Out of the box, my Nexus Player demo unit had Google Play Movies, YouTube, Google Play Music, Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Songza installed.

google play

I visited the Google Play Store to find additional apps and games, and had no trouble installing Pandora, Crackle, and a few games. But the Play Store experience leaves a bit to be desired.

It’s not just that there aren’t all that many apps available yet (hopefully that’ll change soon, now that Google is allowing developers to submit Android TV apps to the Play Store). It’s that you can’t even be sure you’re finding all the apps that are available.

The Play Store is divided into Entertainment Apps, Music apps (because i guess music is work, not entertainment), TV Remote Games, Casual Gamepad games, and Action games for Gamepads. There’s also a settings menu where you can require a password before users can make purchases and enable content filtering by maturity level.

The Entertainment Apps section is a bit sparse. There’s no Amazon Instant Video, Vudu, or HBO GO app, just to name a few high-profile media apps that aren’t available.

Music apps are equally hard to come by. While there are apps for Vevo, TuneIn, Pandora, and iHeartRadio, there are no Spotify, Rhapsody, or Rdio apps.

install pandora

You probably can sideload some of these apps… but you might not want to. Android TV is based on Android, so it can run the same apps that are designed for your phone. But you might not actually be able to use them with a remote control. In most cases you’re probably better off waiting (or hoping) for the developers to add Android TV support to their apps.

If you’re feeling adventurous, we have tips for sideloading apps below. Sometimes they do work.

The Game section is a bit weirder. There are a fair number of games that you can play either with the basic remote or a GamePad. But because many game developers already support Xbox-style controllers, there are plenty of games that run on the Nexus Player whether or not they’ve officially been declared as Android TV-ready.

So if you sideload a game that works with a gamepad on your phone, tablet, or other device, it’ll probably work with the Nexus Player and its Gamepad.

Oddly there are a number of games which Google lets you install without sideloading… but they don’t show up when you’re in the Play Store on the device. You can find them instead through trial and error.

One way is to visit the Google Play Store in a web browser on another device, click the Install button for an app, and see if your Nexus Player shows up as a supported device. Usually it won’t. Sometimes it will.

play games

You can also find some extra games while using the Nexus Player itself by opening the Google Play Games app, visiting the Players section, and seeing what games your contacts have been playing recently. Some of the games will say they’re “not available for this device,” but others will have Buy or Install buttons, even if you didn’t see them while browsing the Play Store.

games unavailable

Speaking of Buy or Install buttons… another weird thing is that there’s no way to know whether an app or game in the Google Play Store is paid or free until you open the description. You can’t filter apps by price or view only free apps or games.

All told, Android TV has a simple, attractive user interface. It’s easy to use and you can be pretty sure any apps you install from the Play Store will work on the platform.

This all puts the Nexus Player miles ahead of pretty much every Chinese TV box with Android software I’ve tried over the past few years, since they tend to have powerful hardware, but an inconsistent software experience.

Unfortunately it can be tough to actually find apps that work with the Nexus player. That’s not surprising: the platform is pretty new. Hopefully it’ll take off and more developers will bring their apps to the platform. But on day one, you can probably find more audio and video apps that work with a Roku, Apple TV, or Amazon Fire TV than you can find for a Nexus Player.

On the other hand, the only TV box on that list that has the chops to compete with the Nexus Player as a gaming machine is the Fire TV.

Performance

When I tested the Asus CUBE with Google TV last year, I complained that it had a complicated and inconsistent user interface and sluggish controls. By comparison, the Nexus Player is simple to use and quite zippy.

It takes a minute or two for the system to start up when you first plug it in, but once it’s up and running it takes virtually no time at all to switch between apps, locate content, or start playing a song or video.

np_play movies_02

Video playback is smooth, and I’ve had no problems with my WiFi connection, even though my router is on the first floor of the house while my office is up on the third floor.

3D games like Riptide GP2 which I downloaded from the Play Store also load quickly and play smoothly.

np game

Other games I’ve installed and played (for at least a little bit) include Wind Up Knight 1 and 2, Final Fantasy IV, and Red Ball 4.

At no point while I was using the Nexus Player did it get particularly warm, and there’s no fan in the case so it never got noisy either.

Looking for some hard numbers? I ran the Antutu benchmark app and found that the Nexus Player scores lower than the Nexus 9 tablet, but much better than last year’s 2nd-generation Nexus 7.

np bench

In a slightly more apples-to-apples comparison, the Nexus Player with its Intel Atom Moorefield processor performed almost exactly as well as the Probox2 EX TV box with Google Android software. That’s a box with AMlogic’s AM802-H quad-core processor.

You may be worried that it ships with 1GB of RAM at a time when many Android smartphones have 2GB or more. As far as I can tell, 1GB is more than enough to handle most demanding tasks including 3D gaming or HD video playback. What you don’t get is a lot of support for multitasking.

The only apps that crashed on me were 3rd-party apps that I sideloaded including the 3DMark benchmark utility and the SPMC media center app.

While you can navigate to the home screen while a video or song continues to play in the background, it looks like every time you hit the home button to exit a game, that game will close entirely rather than pause. Next time you go to open that game (even if it’s just a few seconds later), you’ll see the entire start sequence before you can pick up where you left off (assuming you’re playing a game that saves your place).

A few of the games I’ve tested aren’t explicitly designed for Android TV. While I downloaded Wind Up Knight 2 by following a link from a contact in Google Play Games, I had to sideload the original Wind Up Knight. Likewise, I sideloaded Final Fantasy IV, even though Final Fantasy III is available for download.

ff_01

In both cases, the sideloaded games worked perfectly.

On the other hand, I also sideloaded World of Goo and while I can open the app, I can’t get past the start screen. I also sideloaded Angry Birds Rio and found that I couldn’t play it at all using the Gamepad or standard remote. But when I plugged in an external keyboard I was able to use it to play.

So how did I load those apps that aren’t available through the Play Store?

Living outside the walled garden

The Nexus Player might not have many ports, but one that it does have is a microUSB port. You can run a microUSB cable between the TV box and a PC and use the Android SDK (or just the adb utility) to transfer files to the Nexus Player.

You’ll need to do a few things first though:

  • Enable developer mode by navigating to the About menu in the Settings, scrolling down to Build, and tapping the select button repeatedly until a message tells you that you’re now a developer.
  • Next, you’ll have to reboot your device by unplugging the power cable and then reconnecting it.
  • When the system boots up again, there should be a new “Developer options” section in the Preference area of the Settings menu.
  • From Developer options, scroll down to Debugging and turn on the option for USB debugging.
  • Go back to the main Settings area and scroll down to Security & Restrictions.
  • Turn on the option for “Unkown sources” so that you can install apps from locations other than the Play Store.

That’s pretty much it. Now if you have the latest Android SDK installed on your computer you should be able to connect your Nexus Player to a PC, open a command prompt or terminal window, and type “adb devices” (without the quotes) to see if your Nexus Player is detected.

debugging

Setting up the Android SDK can be a bit tricky sometimes and walking you through it is beyond the scope of this review, but you can visit the Android Developers page to get started.

Once your device is connected, you can install just about any Android APK file by typing (without quotes) “adb install package-name.apk” to send the app to your Nexus Player. The first time you do this you may see a prompt on your Nexus Player screen asking if you want to verify apps, so it’s a good idea to make sure your TV is on and your Android TV remote is handy while you’re doing this.

adb install

Incidentally, once you’ve installed a file browser app such as ES File Explorer, you may be able to use it to install Android apps without a USB cable.

Just find an APK file, download it to local storage or put it on a flash drive that you can plug into the micro USB port, and use ES File Explorer to find and open install the APK.

antutu installer

I tried loading a handful of Android apps which I’d backed up from my Nexus 5 smartphone and Nexus 7 tablet using Titanium Backup, including some of the games mentioned above, as well as other apps including Amazon MP3, Amazon Instant Video (and Amazon shopping), and a few others.

Most apps you sideload this way won’t add themselves to the Leanback launcher. So if you want to see these apps, you’ll need something like Chainfire’s Sideload Launcher. Just visit the Google Play Store in a web browser and choose to install this app to the Nexus Player. It’ll add an icon to your Apps section which you can tap to open a simple launcher that shows all third-party apps loaded on your Android TV box.

sideload launcher_03

Note that not only is there no guarantee that sideloaded apps will work as promised… they’re no guarantee they’ll work at all.

Here are some of the apps I loaded, and a brief summary of the results:

  • Amazon MP3 – This works perfectly… with a keyboard. You can’t navigate it using the Android TV remote or Gamepad, but if you use a keyboard and mouse it’s easy to access your music library and stream tunes over the internet.
  • Amazon Instant Video/Amazon Shopping – You can access your video library (again it’s easiest with a keyboard and mouse), but every time I tried to play a video I got an error message.
  • Amazon Appstore (or Amazon Shopping) – It’s easiest to navigate with a keyboard and mouse, but you can use these app stores to find and install many third-party apps which the Nexus Player won’t grab from the Google Play Store. Just don’t expect them all to work.
  • Dolphin and Firefox web browsers – I installed them. I opened them. I couldn’t get a single web page to load.
  • ES File Explorer – This might be the first (alphabetically) app on this list that works exactly the way you’d want. Not only can you browse the local files stored on your device, but you can tap-and-hold the select button to bring up copy, cut, paste, and other options so you can move files between folders or even copy files to an external USB flash drive. ES File Explorer also includes its own media player, so you can play supported audio or video files just by tapping on them. This is handy, because Android TV doesn’t seem to have its own built-in video player.
  • Final Fantasy IV – As mentioned above, this game seems to work perfectly with the Gamepad. I only played through the introduction, but arrow keys and buttons all work as you’d expect… which makes sense since this game was originally designed for game consoles before it was ported to Android and iOS.
  • MX Player – This video player installed just fine. But it won’t open. I get an error message saying “unsupported android version” when I try to run the app.
  • SPMC – This fork of XBMC/Kodi media center is available from the Amazon Appstore and I used the Amazon app to install it. SPMC launches quickly, but that’s about all I can say for it at this point. I tried installing a few plugins and the only one that worked was the NPR player which I used to stream some public radio programming. I was unable to get any online video plugins to work. I also couldn’t get SPMC to connect to a shared network drive. When I try playing the same local videos that worked with ES File Explorer, SPMC crashes and the app closes.
  • Wind Up Knight – As I mentioned above, this game works perfectly, even though its description says it’s incompatible.
  • World of Goo – This game opens and then I get stuck at the start screen unless I plug in a mouse.

Update: SPMC does play videos… it just takes a little work to configure that app before it’ll work.

spmc accAs Mastermind278 points out in the comments below, you need to open the Settings, go to the Video area, enable Expert mode, open Acceleration, and uncheck the box next to MediaCodec.

spmc boon

Once you’ve done that, you should be able to play local video from internal storage, or stream online video. I’ve successfully managed to play H.264 files, but not MKV videos.

Here are some photos of other apps I’ve sideloaded. Click any picture to see a larger version.

So yes… you can install third-party apps even if they’re not available from the Play Store. But if you want a smooth and pleasant experience, you’re probably better off sticking with the walled garden and only installing apps that are confirmed to work with Android TV.

It’d be nice if it was easier to search for those apps though.

What’s that? Sideloading apps isn’t good enough for you? You want to know if you can unlock the bootloader, root the device, or make other system-level changes? Well, maybe you can, but in the brief time I’ve had with the Nexus Player I haven’t been able to.

You can use the “adb reboot bootloader” or “adb reboot fast” commands to get to the bootloader. But once you’re there, the usual “fastboot oem unlock” command that typically unlocks the bootloader on Nexus devices does nothing.

fastboot

You can also use “adb reboot recovery” to get to the recovery screen. But there’s not much you can do from there at the moment.

In addition to everything mentioned above you can use the Nexus Player like a Google Chromecast. Open Netflix, YouTube, or another compatible app on your phone or tablet, tap the Cast button, and you can send video to the Nexus Player without touching the remote control.

cast

You can also use the Cast Screen option on your Android device to mirror your phone or tablet’s display to your Nexus Player. This lets you stream videos from Amazon or other sites that aren’t normally supported… but since the video streams from the internet to your phone then over your home network to your Nexus Player don’t expect stellar video quality or reliable performance.

screen mirror_02

Verdict

Google’s latest play for the living room is the company’s best yet… until you consider the Nexus Player’s $99 price tag.

That makes it about 3 times as expensive as a Google Chromecast, although it can certainly do a lot more than a Chromecast.

Just like the Chromecast, the Nexus Player’s strength is its simplicity: it takes seconds to set up an Android TV box and while there are a limited number of apps available for the platform at this point, they all work beautifully.

When the Chromecast launched, it was a nifty device that didn’t do all that much, since it only supported a few online media services. In the months that followed, that number doubled again and again and now there are hundreds of Chromecast-compatible apps. If history repeats itself we could see hundreds or even thousands of Android TV apps in the next year or two. The platform feels full of potential, especially since it’s relatively simple for developers of Android phone and tablet apps to add TV functionality without starting over from scratch.

netflix_02

But Android TV and the Nexus Player are more than just potential. You can use them today and get a lot out of them. Once upon a time, $99 wouldn’t have been too much to pay for a box that only streamed video from Netflix, YouTube, and maybe another service or two.

But these days the Nexus Player faces some serious competition. The Roku 3, Amazon Fire TV, and Apple TV are all also priced at $99.

Roku offers a much wider selection of content at this point, Amazon has a head start attracting app and game developers, and Apple has a lock on iPhone and heavy iTunes users.

Still, Android TV is everything Google TV was not. It’s simple, fast, and potentially versatile. Folks who already have an Android phone or tablet also get access to bonus features including screen mirroring and a remote control app, which could make Android TV a good platform for die-hard Android fans.

google cast

And if the $99 price tag seems a bit high, it’s worth noting that if you order a Nexus Player by the holidays, Google will throw in a $20 credit for the Play Store which you can use to buy or rent movies or purchase music or games. That kind of brings the price down to $79 for the next few months (assuming you were planning to spend money on content).

There are still some unanswered questions about the Android TV platform: will anyone other than Google release a box running this software? Will the company license Android TV to the Chinese OEMs who have been cranking out Android box after Android box for the past few years? But the most important question about Android TV is: now that Google has built it, will the developers come? Because right now it’s a powerful platform that only does a few things… although it does them pretty well.

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28 replies on “Google Nexus Player Android TV box review”

  1. This is quite an extraordinarily detailed review! You mentioned that you can connect a USB Thumb drive over OTG, have you actually attempted it? I tried to add some emulators but the drive wasn’t mounted. Do you know how to access the files without having to root the Nexus Player? What type of flash drive did you use? The Nexus Gampad is pretty well built and I would recommend it, even to people who have a Shield or just a phone or tablet even. Here is a bit more detail on the controller if anyone wants. https://www.gratuitoustech.com/2015/01/gamepad-for-nexus-player-or-any-android.html

  2. Brad,
    I found you can plug in a Xbox 360 controller to the nexus player and it will work just as well as the wireless one with controller games

  3. As everyone else has said: nice review, @bradlinder:disqus . You’ve even managed to outshine the esteemed @ronamadeo:disqus of Android Police and Ars Technica fame! I have a few questions, though:

    1. Is it possible to install the Android 5.0 Lollipop Google Play Store tablet APK (taken from the Nexus 9) using either the ADB or file explorer method, and does it co-exist properly alongside Android TV’s native Google Play Store when using Chainfire’s Sideload Launcher?

    2. Please could you see if any of the Android apps that act as an AirPlay sink – such as ‘AirReceiver’: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.softmedia.receiver – work with an iPhone and iPad. It would be nice if you could test with iOS streaming apps that stream at a higher bitrate on the latter than the former, and see whether this is maintained – EyeOnDemand’s reviews usually explain which ones operate in this manner. Hopefully AirReceiver and its ilk will be updated to work with Android TV officially.

    “SPMC – This fork of XBMC/Kodi media center is available from the Amazon Appstore and I used the Amazon app to install it. SPMC launches quickly, but that’s about all I can say for it at this point. I tried installing a few plugins and the only one that worked was the NPR player which I used to stream some public radio programming.”

    3. Please could you try ‘VidOn XBMC’:

    https://www.vidon.me/vidon_xbmc.htm
    https://www.vidon.me/download/VidOn_XBMC-v1102.apk
    https://www.vidon.me/what_is_new.htm

    “VidOn XBMC
    VidOn XBMC features Blu-ray menu navigation, high-quality audio output, hardware decoding and other unique functions besides managing all your multimedia resources like what native XBMC does.


    Note:
    1. Some of the advanced features need hardware support. They are Blu-ray Menu Navigation, 3D Playback, and DTS-HD/TrueHD HDMI passthrough.
    2. VidOn XBMC will soon support Fire TV and Android TV

    Download APK
    Version:1.1.0.2

    What’s new

    VidOn XBMC 1.1.0.2
    AV100-AV200
    Improved: Menu mode playback;
    Improved: Fast forwarding and fast rewinding functions; image display speed after dragging the seek bar;
    Improved: Audio volume control during playback synchronizes with the system audio volume;
    Fixed: Playback is not smooth for certain video sources when switching subtitles;
    Fixed: Location of subtitles cannot be adjusted for certain movies.”

    Still, they will soon be updating it with native Android TV support:

    https://www.vidon.me/vidon_xbmc_on_firetv_androidtv.htm

    “VidOn XBMC on Android TV and Fire TVBase on XBMC 12 (will upgrade to XBMC 13 soon), VidOn XBMC is a special sub-branch of XBMC. It supports hardware acceleration, Blu-ray navigation menu, AC3/DTS 5.1 SPDIF passthrough and DTS-HD/TrueHD HDMI passthrough. It also plays back 3D Blu-rays. And we are working hard to make VidOn XBMC run perfectly on Android TV and Fire TV.”

    Here are threads on one of the hardware versions, the ‘VidOn Box’:

    https://forum.kodi.tv/showthread.php?tid=207004
    https://forum.vidon.me/index.php?/forum/42-vidon-box/
    https://www.avsforum.com/forum/39-networking-media-servers-content-streaming/1732650-vidon-box-49-android-xbmc-box-w-hd-audio-maybe-3d.html

    4. Is it possible to change the DNS settings on the Nexus Player itself, in order to use a service such as Overplay SmartDNS? On the Chromecast it wasn’t possible, so had to be done at the router level: https://www.eyeondemand.com/2014/04/01/how-to-chromecast-via-smart-dns/

    5. Please could you try the Swiss version of ‘Zattoo Live TV – Sports, News’ ( https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.zattoo.player – I think the latest version is 1.7.3) if you can enable a Switzerland VPN and then access the aforementioned Google Play Store tablet version then you should be able to access it without manually sourcing the APK. It would be great if you could test the ‘Zattoo Premium’ HiQ tier with the ‘Recall’ scrollback EPG for catch-up for Swiss users. I’d also be interested to see performance against the Swiss Zattoo HiQ on the latest update for the Xbox One which integrates OneGuide support (not yet tested in Jo Chambers’s EyeOnDemand review), and against the German Zattoo HiQ on the Amazon Fire TV (which lacks Recall but keeps the 4Mbps 720p bitrate): https://www.eyeondemand.com/2013/03/08/zattoo-review-for-live-uk-television/

    6. Please also keep an eye out for when SiliconDust update their ‘HomerunInput’ plugin ( https://www.silicondust.com/about/news/ ) for use with Android 5.0 Lollipop in conjunction with their HDHomeRun network tuners. Apparently the current beta APK is broken. Hopefully by then the forthcoming HDTC-2EU with twin DVB-T2 tuners will have been released (but unfortunately not yet a model with DVB-S2 tuners: https://www.slideshare.net/bhendo99/silicondust-powerpoint-2014 ) to complement their existing ATSC models such as the HDHR3-CC for encrypted CableCard. I’d be interested to see performance against the new dual DVB-T2 Digital TV Tuner for the Xbox One.

    Cheers!

  4. This was, by far, the best review of the Nexus Player I’ve read. Far more detail than any other review and covered topics other completely left out. Excellent job. I’d love to see an update around storing games/apps on USB storage devices… with 8gb internally, that’d be the most important feature to many. Thanks!

    1. Edit: I’d also love to see an update concerning what codecs/containers the
      device natively supports, including weather it’ll passthrough AC3/DTS. You
      stated that MKV’s were not supported in MX player… I wonder why. Did you try Plex with network DLNA or UPnP content? Thanks again.

  5. Brad,
    I saw that you had SPMC installed. Did you actually stream anything from 1Channel or anything like that? Just curious. Thanks.

    1. As mentioned in the updated, once you disable MediaCodec you can use SPMC to play videos. That includes local videos and internet videos… but only a few of the online video add-ons I’ve tried worked. I did test video playback with the PBS add-on, and that worked perfectly.

  6. I don’t play video games at all, though I have always been intrigued by demos of Wii Sports (like Wii Tennis). However, not intrigued enough to buy a game box just for that. On the other hand I could justify the Nexus Player on other grounds if it also had the ‘Sports’ functionality.

    Is there any chance of doing this with the Nexus Player presumably with some accessory?

  7. Hi,
    Maybe i am a little to late on commenting. I watched your review on youtube (before finding ur link to this website) like 20 times. I must say: The best review on youtube and more in detail on the site.

    But what i would like to ask:
    1. Can u move the mouse pointer in sideloaded apps with the Remote Control App ?
    So u can use the Remote Control App instead of plugging a mouse in the otg usb port?
    (I only saw u could move troug the UI, without the mouse pointer showing up).
    –I have an Android Box and thats how i’m controling the mouse with an app called RK Remote Control,
    for Rokchip devices.–

    2. I saw in a youtube video that the LED light on the Remote was blinking (like all the time)
    while the nexs player was still Off (not plugged in).
    When and why is the Remote blinking?

    3. Could it be that ‘some’ sideloaded apps are not working becouse they are not updated (yet) to run on
    Android 5. Yesterday i read somwhere: “HBO GO was updated to run on Android 5 Lollipop”

    P.S
    Please find a browser that maybe works on the N Player.
    (I might buy one, and sell my android box, if would also support a web browser)
    🙂

    1. 1. Nope.
      2. It does that when it’s in Bluetooth pairing mode. It probably did that because it lost its connection with the Nexus Player.
      3. Yep.
      PS: I tried 3 different browsers and none worked. I might try a few more, but there are only so many hours in the day. 🙂

      1. WoW, Thanks fore Replying.
        1. That’s sad to hear. I was counting on using the Remote App for navigating trough (maybe) sideloaded apps (and browser). Like on my current android box.
        Wonder why the Remote App has also a touchpad then (without mouse control).
        But maybe droidmote would work sometime. On fire TV i read ‘somewhere’ it works.

        2. Ok then. I dont like have flashing LED’s just becouse they can. 🙂
        P.S.
        Do u or somebody know’s, when is the Nexus Player shipping for preorders?
        I trough it was Nov.3 (like yesterday).

  8. Brad, if you still have the Gamepad, would you mind testing it on your other Android STBs?

    I was thinking of buying one to use with my Minix Neo X8 because apparently the BT stack in 4.4 was changed and so some apps like the Wii Controller app (use a Wiimote with your Android) don’t work in 4.4 currently.

  9. The biggest question that needs answering with the Nexus Player is, Can you add External storage to save and run Android TV apps and games off?. Until this is answered , I’m holding out

    If not, this is just another movie streamer. 8GB (minus space for the OS etc) is not going to hold much

  10. Thank you for the excellent review.
    Can you tell us if the Nexus Player allows adjusting for overscan on the TV like the old Google TV boxes? My TV always crops a large part of the visible portion of any HDMI input otherwise.

    1. I don’t see any display settings at all. I haven’t had any fit-to-screen issues with the TV I’m using (a 24 inch Haier 1080p TV that I keep in my office for testing purposes), but I can’t promise that the Nexus Player will work perfectly out of the box with all TVs.

  11. Google has announced as I recall, plans to let search, and so voice search, work deeply with apps. So I’m pretty astounded that this launched without the search working in at least Netflix and Hulu.
    Beyond that with Android having such huge market share and Google having made it so easy to make apps work on Android TV as well as regular Android I’d be shocked if the library didn’t build quickly.
    Once again though Google seems lacking in final launch execution. Just not smooth. Partnerships and features not more in place, etc… We shouldn’t be waiting for Netflix search and voice search inclusion. It should be present now at launch.
    I kind of think Android TV is just Andriod 5 with a different launcher and filtered app list. I actually don’t think it will be long before you see any Android 5 device with hdmi (or other) screen output able to switch to the leanback launcher and so express the Android TV UI.
    We’ll see what happens when Shield tablet launches. That’s the first place I expect to see exactly that. A choice between mirroring or Android TV essentially.

  12. Hi Brad, no bluetooth audio support, right? My favorite part of using a tablet is switching between speakers and bluetooth headset. It looks like the hardware should be able to support a bluetooth headset (that would separate it from the dongle-level players, and the amazon fire tv). Not even Xbox one and PS4 support bluetooth headsets.

  13. I know you mentioned SPMC crashing, if you change the settings on Settings, Video, change it to expert on the bottom, then go to acceleration and uncheck MediaCodec, leaving libstagefreight enabled, it should work, as that’s the change needed on the ADT-1.

    1. You’re right!

      Some add-ons still fail, but this allows the Nexus Player to handle local video and online video from PBS (the one plugin I’ve got working so far).

  14. Brad the Chrome beta app can be downloaded directly on the Android TV developer box (the ADT-1) – and then it will work with a mouse (or keyboard with trackpad). Can you try the Chrome beta app on the Nexus Player? It’s not optimized for TV so there might be some scaling issues – but I’m told by others it “works” on the ADT-1. (It won’t work without a mouse). Thanks for the detailed review!

    1. It crashes as soon as I try to load it.

      The ADT-1 may run a similar operating system, but it has different hardware. I don’t know if that explains why some things that work on the ADT-1 work on the Nexus Player and others don’t, or if it has something to do with the ADT-1 being a developer device.

  15. If you install the Leanback Launcher on a standard Android 5 device, you can use Tv apps “without menu” as you say in your review. The beauty of a full version of Android with a generic Tv Box is that you can use also the Google Home Launcher and all other millions of apps in the standard Google Play.
    I prefer a mouse and a full version of Android, is fast, easy and instant without losing the beauty of Android. This does not mean that I can not use the apps with an interface made ​​for TV.

  16. Brad you mentioned that the Nexus Player CAN do everything that a Chromecast does – but I’m wondering if it actually does? For instance currently there are “issues” with casting on the ADT-1 (Android TV developer box). Only a few of the dedicated Chromecast apps actually cast on the ADT-1 box. Important Chromecast apps like HBO GO currently don’t cast on the ADT-1. Also on the ADT-1 the screen mirroring only works with certain devices. Brad have you tried casting HBO GO with the Nexus Player? Also I was told that screen mirroring is still in beta so the video quality is not always very good. Does screen mirroring work good for you?

    1. Want to send me your HBO GO password so I can test it? (I’m kidding!)

      I only tested a few Chromecast apps, but didn’t have problems. Ron at Ars Technica ran into more trouble than I did though. I spent a lot of time testing the Nexus Player over the weekend, but I’ve only had it for a few days. I’ll run some more tests and update the review if I have other problems.

      Generally the thesis of this review though is that the Nexus Player has decent hardware, a strong user interface… and a lack of apps. Hopefully firmware updates will address any remaining bugs in the UI and stock apps. But the big question is whether third-party developers will bring their own apps, because sideloading apps is possible… but not something most users are going to do.

  17. Great review! I haven’t been to this site before, but this reviewed offered lot more information than what I normally see and pretty much answered all my questions. This helped me decided against the Nexus Player for now…maybe until the app selection makes use of its potential. Also, a small spelling mistake “I’ve testes”…

    1. Thanks! That pretty much sums up what I try to do here… write in-depth content with answers to questions you might not find elsewhere… and make as many typos as possible.

      Wait no… I don’t *try* to do that second part. 🙂

  18. Have you tried sideloading the Google TV Amazon Instant Video app, instead of the recently-released app for phones? I’d expect that to have a better chance of working (and a more TV-appropriate interface if it does).

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