Computing

Google’s Half-Finished Attempt to Take Over the Living Room

Google’s Nexus Player should appeal to those who want smarter TVs. But it will need to do much more to be the hub of all home entertainment.

Consumers still spend a lot of their screen time in front of the TV.

Last year, Google invited itself into the living room with the Chromecast, a $35 dongle that plugs into the back of any TV with an HDMI port and lets you play online videos and other content on your television from another device.

Google’s Nexus Player
Google’s Nexus Player lets you stream videos and music to your TV from the Web, and play games, too.

Now, Google hopes to get even comfier on the couch with the Nexus Player, a $99 black disc with a Bluetooth remote control that turns any TV with an HDMI port into an Internet-connected TV that can stream movies, play music and video games, and run select Android apps.

The simple, user-friendly design of the Nexus Player’s hardware and software, along with great voice search, make it a good deal for those who don’t already have a connected TV. Assuming a larger number of apps become available in the near future, it may even eventually be worth it for people like myself who already have a connected TV but hate the interface. 

The Nexus Player software is thoughtfully laid out, dominated by a row of popular movies and TV shows along with a handful of YouTube videos it thought I would like (based on my Google account history).

In addition to the puck-like Nexus Player, the device’s box contained a power adapter and a slender, cheap-feeling, black remote control—you’ll need to use your own HDMI cord, unfortunately. The remote has a handful of buttons, including a circular five-way directional button surrounding an enter button, another button for Google’s voice search, and a button to get back to the main Nexus Player screen.  

The simplicity makes it a cinch to figure out how to choose apps, videos, and the like, and I had no problem using the remote to zip from YouTube clips to Pandora to video games.

It has a few big problems, though. It lacks volume control, so you’ll have to keep a regular TV remote nearby. And I was dismayed to realize that some things still require the tedious one-letter-at-a-time username/password process common on so many systems that don’t have a touch screen. This really slowed me down while setting up apps that require user accounts, like Netflix and Pandora.

The voice search button is the star of the remote. You can say obvious things like “Zoolander” to bring up the movie of that name, or get a little more complicated by asking for movies with a specific actor, from a certain genre, or nominated for an Oscar in, say, 2010. For the most part, voice search understood what I was saying, and it did yield some good results. It also seems to understand foreign movie titles, so long as you say them with an American accent; I figured this out while asking for “Ma Vie en Rose.”

For now voice search only seems to work for searching YouTube clips, Google Play videos and TV shows, and Google Play music, as well as for pulling in some information from the Web (saying “movie times” yields local movie times). No matter how many times I yelled “ninja cats,” I couldn’t get it to surface the video game “Ninja Hero Cats,” which I downloaded to try out with the Nexus Player.

The roster of apps and games available for download was still sparse while I tested the Nexus Player. While the device includes Google Play, it’s a super-slim version with not much content for now.

Oddly, the Nexus Player doesn’t include a game controller (you can buy a Bluetooth controller separately for $39). You can still play some games without one, however: there’s a “TV Remote Games” section in the Google Play store on the device where you can find games like “Hungry Shark Evolution” that are operated solely with the remote. For me, at least, this was not that easy—I had a hard time chomping unsuspecting humans and avoiding stinging jellyfish using only the circular multi-directional button.

Fortunately the games controller was included with my review unit, and I found it easy to use both for gaming and navigating the Nexus Player interface. Despite the dearth of apps, the Nexus Player includes the Chromecast’s essential content-streaming feature, which Google refers to as Google Cast. This means you can still access some of the content you’re missing (in my case, the HBO Go app) by “casting” it to your TV via the Nexus Player from apps that support the feature on various iOS, Android, and Windows devices.

There isn’t that much storage on the Nexus Player—just eight gigabytes, which could quickly get eaten up by movie downloads if you buy a handful of them, so it’s probably better for streaming and renting.

I rented the documentary Searching for Sugar Man from Google Play and it streamed seamlessly and looked great on my flat-screen TV. The same was true for all the other content I watched or listened to with the Nexus Player, though several times when I tried to start a video or when the system should have moved from one video to the next automatically, I’d get an error message. Since my wireless network always seemed to be working fine, the source of the problem remained a mystery.

At this point, the biggest problem with the Nexus Player is truly its limited content options. While there are a few key apps available for the Nexus Player, like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Pandora, by my count there were fewer than 80 apps and games available.

If Google wants to really dominate the living room, it will have to increase the number of apps and games, and keep working on the interface. It would also be wise to add more storage space to the puck-like device for those who want to store movies, photos, and music. Still, the low price tag makes it a good option in the meantime for those who just want to bring some smarts to their TV.

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