The future of Android TV is less hardware, more YouTube TV

Google Assistant on Android TV
Google Assistant on Android TV (Image credit: Android Central)

We're rapidly approaching that time of year where we hear more about what Google wants the next stage of its platforms to look and feel like. While all eyes are focused on the next flavor of Android on phones and tablets (and maybe even Chromebooks) you can bet Google is going to continue its efforts in the living room. While Google's Chromecast platform continues to be explosively popular, Android TV has yet to find the same groove.

If Google is going to grow the living room experience into something more than just a phone-controlled platform, I think a combined hardware and software refresh is in order.

A box you hide behind the television

Chromecasts are responsible for a lot of industry firsts, but the one big "feature" you see everywhere now is to dangle a dongle off the HDMI port behind your television so no one can see the wires. The ability to connect a USB cable to a port on your television so it could power the original Chromecast wasn't recommended, but it was effective as a "set and forget" device. Fast-forward to today, and HDMI dongles from Roku and Amazon are aggressively pushed as alternatives to the ridiculously popular Chromecast family of products.

Just be a really good streaming box I never have to look at or think about, but know it's there when I need it.

If this works with a Chromecast, why not Android TV? We recently saw news of such a dongle passing through the FCC with a giant G across the body, and I think that's the right way to go with this platform. For those Android TV users who don't need 1TB of local storage attached for media or games, a 4K dongle with access to all of the Android TV apps is all you really need. Just be a really good streaming box I never have to look at or think about, but know it's there when I need it.

I'm one of those people who is perfectly happy to use my phone to control my Chromecast at all times, but I know plenty of people who want a good ol' fashioned remote control to navigate all of these experiences. Fortunately, the Android TV "lean back" UI is already really good at this. Set up this now-invisible Android TV box so HDMI controls flip to that input when I press a button on the remote, and maybe a separate toggle to flip back to the previous input when I'm done, and I can see a lot of people being very happy with this experience.

But really, what a new Android TV device needs more than anything else is a compelling price tag. For what I use Android TV for, most of these boxes are too expensive. I think the NVidia Shield Android TV player is great for what you get, but I don't need another game console. With the 4K Chromecast Ultra priced at $70, I think Google could make some real headway with an Android TV box priced at around $80-$90. With Apple's TV box ringing in at $150 and Amazon's Fire TV available for $70, Google could own this middle ground with a few extra compelling features. It would also be cool to see Google take a page from Amazon's playbook and offer a bundle with an HD antenna included for cord cutters, but keeping it all under $100 is the key I think.

Blow me away with software

Google's "lean back" UI does a great job offering big buttons with easy-to-read text and some great auto-play capabilities, but it's time for Android TV to become a whole lot smarter than it is right now. If Android TV is going to be seen as a step above the Chromecast, it needs to feel like a unified experience and actually deliver on some of the promises we've heard from all of the connected box companies over the years.

I want a single UI for all of the shows I watch across all of these services, something Google gets closer than most to pulling off when set up correctly. Give me the list of shows I am watching, and pull the latest episode from whichever app has it. I don't need to be taken to the Hulu app to choose from a list of options. I want to turn on my TV, see the next episode of The Flash is ready to watch, and immediately start watching it as soon as I hit play. The "lean back" UI from Google gets close to this already, I'd like to see it get a little smarter to keep the momentum going.

Google has a unique opportunity here to make YouTube TV do some things it can't do elsewhere.

Any mention of a new Android TV is going to include Google Assistant, and I'm very excited by this. Google's current efforts to control a Chromecast through Google Home is admirable, but not quite as functional as it could be. Basic things like movies I have rented in Google Play are frequently difficult for Assistant to find, and I want the next wave of Android TV to fix this. With deeper access to the titles and shows I say are important to me, I'd like Assistant to not only be better able to recognize shows when I ask for them but also be able to tell me when I'm not at home and ask what new shows are available.

Finally, I think Google has a unique opportunity here to make YouTube TV do some things it can't do elsewhere. It would be cool to see YouTube TV interact with an HD Antenna through YouTube TV, and treat this secondary input the same as streaming video from the paid service. If I have access to channels through my HD Antenna that I can't get on YouTube TV, I would like to be able to watch those channels from everywhere and maybe even have access to Cloud DVR for those channels. It also wouldn't suck to be able to flag certain Cloud DVR recordings for different family members, maybe with notes attached so when my spouse sits down to watch something there's a little pop-up from me saying something positive about that episode.

Eager to see more at Google I/O

If the FCC teaser we got last week wasn't enough to assure we're going to see something Android TV related at Google I/O, the "What's new with Android TV" session on the first day of the conference seals the deal. As for when we will see these new things out in the real world, who knows! Google may take to the stage and say a new Android TV box is at your local Best Buy right now, like they have done in the past. On the other hand, it could be these new gadgets and the accompanying OS updates are going to be made available alongside the next major Pixel release.

What do you want to see in Android TV? Share you thoughts in the comments!

Russell Holly

Russell is a Contributing Editor at Android Central. He's a former server admin who has been using Android since the HTC G1, and quite literally wrote the book on Android tablets. You can usually find him chasing the next tech trend, much to the pain of his wallet. Find him on Facebook and Twitter