Talking tech since 2003

When Google announced the new Asus-made Nexus Player in October, it took a lot of us in the tech news world by surprise. We’d heard rumblings of a set-top box coming from Google that would run its new TV-optimized operating system, Android TV, but no one was paying close enough attention to really think we’d see the device announced alongside the Nexus 6 and Nexus 9. That announcement seemed to finally give Android fans the full-featured set-top box they’d been waiting for. Finally, everything Apple could do, we could do better.

Only, that’s just not the case right now. Priced at $99, just like Apple TV, the Nexus Player is in many ways Google’s direct answer to its competition’s long-lived media streamer. It offers nearly all the same apps and channels – Hulu Plus, Netflix, YouTube, and all of Google Play’s media offerings. It also bundles the functionality of a Chromecast, meaning Android device owners can stream their device’s displays and photo collections, not to mention Android media apps that have yet to make their way to the Android TV OS. Out of the box, the Nexus Player is solid.

But “solid” isn’t the same thing as “great,” and great it ain’t. There are some glaring omissions from the Nexus Player package. It’s baffling that Google would launch this product with said omissions, well, omitted, but now that the Player is out on the market and making its way to people’s living rooms, let’s dive in and separate the good from the bad – and think about the ways the Nexus Player could still improve in the coming months.

The Good

nexus-player-dimensionsFirst and foremost, the Nexus Player works. It works well, even, with a decent showing in terms of content available for consumption. If you’ve got a Netflix and Hulu Plus subscription, you’re all set – enter in your details and you can navigate menus and stream with ease. Previous to receiving my Nexus Player, I’d relied on the PlayStation 3 console (and before that, the Xbox 360) for my streaming needs. But the boot-up time of a game console is seriously annoying when all you want to do is watch a show or movie. The Nexus Player, by contrast, is pretty much always-on, ready to deliver content to you with the tap of a button. It consumes little power and starts apps up right away.

If you want to watch something from an app that hasn’t found its way onto the Android TV platform yet, you can do so without too much trouble, just as long as you’ve got an Android device (like a smartphone or tablet) lying around. Boot up HBO Go and cast your content to the Nexus Player – just like a Chromecast stick, it’ll find exactly what you want to watch and show it with no trouble. From there, you can use your device as the remote, or simply stick with the actual remote to play, pause, or track around the show you’re watching. Sadly, you can’t browse for new content with the remote, since the app doesn’t live natively on the Nexus Player.

Integration with Android devices works pretty well, too. If you download the Nexus Remote companion app, you can mimic the functions of the included remote on your smartphone. Better still, if you need to search for something but don’t feel like hunting and pecking an on-screen keyboard, you can type with your Android device instead.

On the subject of searching, the included remote also features a voice search button that works, overall, pretty well. It recognizes what you say and provides relevant search results. It’s not perfect though; once I searched for Mel Brooks movies and got what I was looking for – except, you know, movies I could watch. Instead, I had watchable content mixed with IMDB entries. Even less helpful, voice search only works on Google-hosted content, meaning that you won’t receive results from Netflix, Hulu, or anywhere that isn’t the Google Play Store. Don’t show me Young Frankenstein unless you’ll let me watch it. Still – voice search works well enough that it’s a neat feature, and it’ll take the pain out of searching for YouTube videos from your TV.

The Nexus Player also works as a burgeoning game console. You can use the included remote for some tap-based casual games, while another $40 will get you an Xbox 360-style gamepad, complete with all the buttons you’ve come to expect out of modern gamepads, a D-pad, and a couple of analog sticks for good measure. What games there are work well with either input method. I even downloaded a remade version of the original Soul Calibur, from the Dreamcast era, and had a great time reliving my college days. The gamepad feels solid, and if there’s a game on the Nexus Player you want to try, you won’t be disappointed. We’ll touch more on the gaming situation later.

The Bad

There is a real dearth of selection in the Google Play store when it comes to apps and games. If that sounds weird, it should, since it’s not like there’s a shortage of apps available for the most popular mobile operating system on the planet. Android TV is just a modified version of Android 5.0 (aka Lollipop), all apps should work with it, right?

Well, maybe – but you won’t know unless you do some serious monkeying around. Google has decided to strictly curate the selection of apps available for the Nexus Player. The result is very, very limited selection, and a very disappointing app experience.

Nowhere is this felt harder than in the games section. Rockstar has long had ports of its popular Grand Theft Auto series available for Android devices. I was all set to visit San Andreas when I got my Nexus Player and gamepad – but for whatever reason, that game is not available for the device. Sure, it’s almost certainly down to Rockstar not yet (or not ever) devoting the resources to optimizing its Android port for the Nexus Player. I can appreciate that – but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

nexus-player-remoteMoreover, there have to be tons more games that would work just fine with a gamepad – games that have been playable that way for ages via peripherals. Why didn’t Google make sure they were ready to go for the Nexus Player’s launch? What’s the point of releasing a game controller for your Android powered console without any games worth playing that aren’t the aforementioned Soul Calibur?

Meanwhile, even though Android is usually open, the Nexus Player’s flavor of Android TV is decidedly closed. While Android-powered tablets and smartphones can download apps from the web with ease, doing so with the Nexus Player is a pain in the ass. As of this writing, the only way to push non-Play Store apps onto the Nexus Player is to do so via the Android Debug Bridge. It’s doable, but it’s not easy, and I haven’t had the patience or time to try it myself.

That’s really the biggest issue with the Nexus Player. Despite being powered by Android, the favored OS of people who like to play with their tech, it’s a closed-off piece of hardware that doesn’t live up to the standards set by its cousins.

The good news is that – for the most part – these solutions can be fixed by Google on the software side of things. Maybe Android TV 5.1 will allow for easier side loading, or even provide access to some file explorer apps. The bad news, however, is that it’s not clear when, or if, Google will bother to do any of this.

Even though the main issues with the Nexus Player live in its software, the hardware has some issues, too – though they’re somewhat more minor by my estimation. The Nexus Player is armed with only 1 GB of RAM and 8 GB of internal storage – and roughly 3 GB of that storage is taken up by pre-loaded apps and the Android TV operating system, leaving about 5 gigs to allot to apps, games, and content that you decide to download. That’s not much, and – again – the locked down Android TV OS means that expanding the device’s capacity via USB drive is harder than it should be. I can manage with those dinky specs, but I won’t lie and say I didn’t wish there was more there.

Finally, the remote itself, while simple and functional, feels cheap and chintzy. I hate to make this comparison, but I can’t help it: the Apple TV remote is slick and feels high end. The Nexus Player remote, on the other hand, feels like the opposite of premium. It works just fine, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that changed sooner rather than later.

The Verdict

I really wanted to like the Nexus Player more. I do like it, and it solves some minor problems that plagued my living room. Now my girlfriend can quickly and easily access YouTube or Netflix without having to dither with the PS3 or casting via her smartphone. I can watch content much more quickly and search around by simply using my voice. There are more options for Google-powered content consumptions than there were before, and at a hundred bucks, that’s good.

But the Chromecast does all this – albeit a bit less smoothly – for a fraction of the price. If Google makes the Nexus Player less of a tech demo and more of an honest-to-goodness Android device, it’ll be worth your money and your time. For now, however, you’re better off waiting for Google to get a bit more creative.

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