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Nexus Player reviewAndroid TV arrives with an impressive but imperfect first effort

by Phil Nickinson

Nov. 5, 2014

The living room has been a tough nut to crack — for any company, not just Google. Cable companies generally don't want outsiders playing in their sandbox. That and the underpowered and seemingly unfocused endeavor that was the first Google TV generation doomed the likes of the Logitech Revue and relegated what was left of Google TV to glorified embedded status. The aborted Nexus Q gave way to the excellent, affordable Chromecast streaming stick.

And now we have Android TV. And the first member of this new family, the Nexus Player.

Like the Chromecast before it, the Nexus Player is a simple device. A flat, black puck, HDMI into a TV or receiver, wireless connectivity. And that's it.

Or, rather, it's just the beginning of this story, and one that's very much a part of the Android 5.0 Lollipop world.

And here, now, is our Nexus Player review.

About this review

We've been using the Nexus Player, as supplied by Google, for a week now. The bulk of our use was on Android 5.0 Lollipop Build LRX21K, but we later got an 11.4MB update to Build LRX21M. We've had it connected to a 32-inch VIZIO TV at 1080p, and a 51-inch LG TV at 720p. We've used it with the included remote control, as well as with the optional ASUS gaming controller, and at times with the Android TV remote app on a Nexus 6 and Samsung Galaxy Note 4.

The Nexus Player is Wifi-only — no ethernet here unless you use USB ethernet — and to that end we've used it without issue with an ASUS RT-AC66U router, as well as an Apple AirPort Time Capsule. Those are both 802.11ac routers.

This review was updated on Nov. 7, 2014 to include new information on using the Nexus Player with USB storage and USB ethernet.

Nexus Player video walkthrough

Nexus Player hardware

It's round

Controlling the Nexus Player

We've got options

As far as actually using the Nexus Player goes, you've got three options for finding your way around.

The first and most simple is the included remote control. (You'll find AAA batteries for it in the box.) It's a simple Bluetooth Smart remote, meaning that line of sight doesn't really matter and you can tuck the Nexus Player out of the way without worry. And it's a simple remote (and nearly a dead ringer for what Amazon's using with the Fire TV), with just a circular D-pad with selection button in the middle, back, play/pause and home. And note that the Home button sports a circle in the Android 5.0 fashion, and not a house.

There's also a search button above the D pad. To search, you just tap that button, wait for the on-screen prompt — it's fast — and then speak. There's a mic in the remote that'll pick up your voice. (Unlike the Amazon Fire TV, you don't have to hold down the search button while you're speaking. Just press it once and you're done.

The one thing I want from the remote that's not there is volume support. You're going to be ingesting a lot of media on the Nexus Player. But you're also going to have to scramble for your usual remote when things get too loud.

Nexus Player gaming controller

For another $39.99 you can pic up an ASUS gaming controller — and if you're going to do any gaming on the Nexus Player, we suggest you get one if you don't have another Bluetooth gaming pad laying around. There's nothing inherently special with this controller — if you've ever used one in the past 10 or 15 years or so, you know what you're getting here. D-pad, two analog sticks, ABXY buttons, triggers and shoulder buttons. There's no haptic feedback or anything here, just a simple, standard gaming controller. We've had no issues with connectivity or latency. There are a couple AA batteries included in the box to get you going; this controller is not rechargeable.

Nexus Player remote app

And then there's the Android TV remote app. This is probably my least favorite of the three options, but it's nice to have in a pinch, and you're going to want to download it anyway for the few times you need to input text on the Nexus Player (passwords in particular).

You can switch between trackpad and D-pad, but you have the same problem you always have with these on-screen remotes — you just can't use them by feel. We'd expect the app to get a bit of a refresh sometime soon, if for no other reason than it's got the pre-Android 5.0 home button and not the new circle. (And it really was meant for use so far with the Android TV developer console, anyway.) There's also an Android Wear component, which didn't seem to work as yet.

Nexus Player software and user interface

A beautiful, Android 5.0 "leanback" experience

"Leanback" isn't a new term. YouTube has been using it for some time now, referring to taking what started as a web product — with you a foot or two or three away from a computer monitor — and translating it into an experience that works 10 or 15 feet away from a television screen, as you "lean back" on the couch. And of course traditional game consoles have had these sorts of UIs for years, and we get a taste of it when using a Chromecast. But the Nexus Player brings a fully baked "leanback" UI to Android 5.0.

And it's very nicely done.

Google did well to not overload things here. The main screen shows what you're currently watching or listening to, plus recommendations. Flip though these and you'll see them teased in the background. It's subtle, but still striking.

Drop down a line and you've got installed apps. Google Play Movies & TV, YouTube, Google Play Store, Google Play Music, Netflix, Google Play Games and Songza are pre-installed.

The next line down shows your installed apps — the excellent Badland comes preloaded here.

And at the bottom is how you get to the system settings — you'll recognize everything in there if you've used Android, but, again, they've been very nicely designed for the TV experience. And you'll also find the shortcut for network settings. (This includes mention of ethernet, but, again, there's no ethernet on the Nexus Player.)

The app experience has mostly been excellent. Google's apps are all very nicely designed. They're not all color and flat like the MaterialYOLO crowd will demand, and that's OK — a literal translation of Material Design to a large-screen environment just would't work. And Google's excellent new animations are present and prove yet again that the little things can make a big difference.

There is a decent selection of apps at launch — around 75 or so, currently curated by Google. Developers are now free to update their apps for Android TV and submit them to Google Play, and it'll be interesting to see how the quality of apps stands up over time. (There's a whole mess of technical and design requirements for that.)

Using the Nexus Player

There's a little bit of learning to be done, but it's worth it

For the most part, using the Nexus Player is pretty intuitive and self-explanatory. Pick what you want to watch, listen to or play, and watch, listen to or play it. Want something new? Download it from Google Play. (The installation process is as easy as it is on a phone or tablet, but it's a little surprising that none of the listings thus far lets you watch a video trailer — it's screenshots only for now.)

Google's apps mostly have a fresh look and feel to them. Google Play Music, however, is lacking the Songza recommendation integration we recently got on mobile devices.

The Nexus Player is pretty intuitive and self-explanatory. Pick what you want to watch, listen to or play, and watch, listen to or play it.

You can treat the Nexus Player like you would a Chromecast — that is, use your phone or tablet or web browser to "Cast" music or video content onto a TV through the Nexus Player. When you do that, though, you lose out on what little multitasking the Nexus Player currently has. Use the native Music app, for instance, and you'll be able to stream music in the background while you're playing a game. (Pro tip: Aphex Twin + Badlands = a good time.) Another difference here, though: When you're using the native music app, the screen falls back to the "Daydream" feature, in this case the photos you're used to seeing as the Chromecast backdrop. If you're 'Casting music over, though, you'll get the music screen saver background. (That seems backwards, I suppose.)

Controlling the Nexus Player with the included remote — and, again, there's absolutely nothing special about this little guy — is easy enough. I prefer it over using the remote application on a phone or tablet. But I'd also recommend having a Bluetooth gaming controller on hand, whether it's the official ASUS controller, or otherwise. Gaming is much better with it.

And gameplay has been fun so far. It's mostly on par with what I remember experiencing with Amazon's Fire TV, though I haven't played the same apps because I'm really not about to pay for them twice. Asphalt 8 runs on the Intel hardware without issue, as does Badlands and Pac Man and Bomb Squad and Leo's Fortune and whatever else I've thrown at it. Presumably we'll run out of storage space before running out of processing power. You still get the sense you're playing Android games and not full-on console titles, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's just different. More casual.

That said, there have been hiccups. Or maybe just a bit of a learning curve, both of my part as well as for developers. (Though I'd argue that the latter should have been taken of before launch.) A couple of examples:

Sky Force 2014 has been one of my favorite games the past few months. I've spent way too many hours playing it. But as great as it is to see on a large screen, the gameplay just isn't the same. It's one of those games that doesn't quite translate as well from finger control to a gaming controller. I don't have as much accuracy, and I can't control my plane as fast. I'm getting better at it, but it's just not the same.

It's also worth pointing out that this is an entirely new build of Sky Force 2014, so your cloud saves won't apply here. You're starting from scratch. That's not true for every game in the current catalog, though.

Asphalt Racing on the Nexus Player

Then there's Asphalt 8. I've long come to terms with the fact that this is a great racing game buried in heavy-handed in-app purchases. The gameplay, however, is great, and even better on a TV with a gaming controller. But who in their right mind thought having an "X to close" box is OK to have on this sort of platform? Again, if you're using your finger, you can get away with it. But not with a controller. That's the sort of little thing that should have been sorted out, particularly for an app curated by Google for launch.

You might find some little annoyances here and there as Android and Android TV bleed into one another.

Leo's Fortune is another great title I've enjoyed this year, and it's easy and fun to play on Android TV. But seeing a "Download using cellular data" option in the settings seems to be a little silly. It's the same app as what you'll be playing on a phone or tablet, though, so at least the overlap makes sense in that respect.

Those are just a few examples. And they're not major headaches or anything. But the point is that you might well find some little annoyances here and there as one platform bleeds into another. And, again, it's going to be interesting to see how quality control shakes out as more developers start updating apps. Will there be some sort of check in place against poorly coded apps appearing in Google Play for Android TV? Or are we on our own?

Other odds and ends

A few other random thoughts as we close this one out ...

  • No browser on Android TV, yet. I haven't decided if that's a bad thing.
  • Again, people are going to be plugging all sorts of things into the microUSB port. This should be fun.
  • I sort of want Google Hangouts and a webcam hooked up to this thing.
  • It's been a little tough to tell what's slow UI, and what's connection issues, which happen this time of year as Google is changing all the things. Not a huge deal, just sometimes noticeable.
  • You'll apparently need to check back with the Google Play app for app updates. So far there's no sign of auto-updating. (That's good for reviewers, bad for normal users.)


Nexus Player: The Bottom Line

I've been enjoying the Nexus Player thus far. It's a fun, Googly experience. That is to say it's definitely a good device for Google content. Movies and TV and music and games and the like. And it's a good device for Netflix and Hulu and Pandora and the like. For a first-generation, $99 device, you're going to get some use out of it.

Nexus Player is not an Xbox One or PS4. That's obvious, but it bears repeating. These are not console-quality graphics. And if you need Amazon content, you're out of luck. (That might be another argument for a built-in browser, actually.)

But if you've been using a $35 Chromecast but have been wanting something more, Google's got a good little product on its hands here.

And it will get better. Apps will be added and improved. Google will continue to iterate. We usually don't recommend buying a product for what it might become. But Google ships and then iterates. So we'll continue to see Android TV grow, no doubt.

For now? Set your exceptions appropriately. We're not running Destiny or Crysis here or anything. But we're also getting way more than what Chromecast gave us. And for the price, the Nexus Player isn't a bad little buy.

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