What is Android TV? Google’s smart TV software fully explained

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Getting the most out of your TV these days means having a way to interact with streaming apps like Netflix, YouTube, or Amazon Prime, plus the ability to download new apps and utilities as they become available. In short, it’s all “smart TV” technology. You’re probably familiar with streaming boxes or sticks such as Apple TV, Roku, and Amazon Fire TV, or even leveraging a game console to smarten your TV. But there’s another option that has slowly been gaining support: Android TV.

Android TV is Google’s way of turning your TV into a smart, connected streaming media powerhouse. It has a lot in common with other smart TV solutions, but also boasts several features that make it stand out from the crowd. If you want to know what Android TV is, what it can do, and why it might be the right choice for your TV, you’ve come to the right place. Give us a few minutes and we promise to make you an Android TV expert!

What is Android TV?

what is android tv full explainer chromecast

Android TV — as you may have guessed from the name — is a version of Google’s Android mobile operating system that has been specially configured for TVs. That description, however, doesn’t really convey how different Android TV is from Android. Instead of being greeted by a screen full of apps or widgets like search, weather, or stocks, Android TV’s home screen puts a focus on helping you discover the content you can enjoy on your TV — whether it’s through one of your subscription services like Netflix or Google Play Music, or from your own personal media collection via media center software like Plex.

Your favorite apps are displayed as “ribbons” — a horizontally scrolling set of recommendations and recently viewed content from within a particular app.

Android TV can access the Google Play app store, where you’ll find thousands of apps that have been designed specifically for Android TV’s 10-foot experience, which means you won’t be struggling to read tiny text or trying to navigate apps that only work when you can swipe with a finger.

Embedded within every version of Android TV is the Google Assistant, which gives you voice control for your TV content, as well as all of your smart home products. Google’s Chromecast technology is also included, letting you cast videos and initiate screen sharing from compatible smartphones, browsers, and apps.

Much like the Roku OS, Amazon’s Fire TV OS, or Apple’s tvOS, Android TV supports a wide variety of TV features, like 4K UltraHD, HDR, and Dolby Atmos. Whether or not you can take advantage of these features will depend on the device that has Android TV installed. The hardware must support these features before Android TV lets you use them.

How do I get Android TV?

Nvidia Shield 16gb Android TV
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Android TV comes pre-installed as the default smart TV user experience on select TVs from Sony, Hisense, Sharp, and Philips. You can also add Android TV to any existing TV that has an HDMI port, with an Android TV set-top box from companies like Nvidia, and Xiaomi. Prices for these devices range from $60 to $200. A year later, we’re still waiting for the release of JBL’s Link Bar, a soundbar that packs both Android TV and Google Assistant into a single home theater speaker.

You may find articles from around the web that list Amazon’s Fire TV as an Android TV device, but don’t be fooled. Amazon used the open source version of the Android OS to create its Fire TV OS, but it has very little in common with Google’s Android TV. Similarly, beware of so-called Android TV boxes from brands you don’t recognize. These are often set-top streamers that use an older version of Android, and they don’t offer the most up-to-date Android TV experience. For an up-to-date list of all official Android TV devices, check out Google’s product page.

How do I set-up and use Android TV?

what is android tv full explainer setup
courtesy Nvidia.com

While it’s possible to use basic Android TV features without a Google account, if you want to download additional apps or use the Google Assistant, a Google account is required. You’ll be asked to enter your Google account when you first set up your Android TV device. If you already own another Android device like a phone or tablet, you can use it to speed up the setup process. You’ll be asked to choose a Wi-Fi network (if you don’t have an Ethernet connection), and answer a few questions about locations and preferences — some of which will vary by device type. At the end of the short process, you’ll arrive at the Android TV home screen.

Android TV devices, whether they’re TVs or external set-top boxes, come with voice-capable remote controls. Once you turn the device on and the home page displays on your screen, you can navigate the interface using the remote’s directional and enter buttons. A back button lets you return to a previous screen or menu, while the home button returns you to the home screen.

The top ribbon always shows your list of installed apps, for quick access, with a link to the Google Play Store so you can go get more apps at any time.

But to get the most out of Android TV’s features, you’ll want to summon Google Assistant. Depending on your device, you might be able to call out, “Hey Google,” but you can always use the mic button on the remote. When you do, there’s no need to preface your commands with “Hey Google,” because as soon as you press the button, it’s listening for instructions.

What are some Android TV voice commands?

To a certain extent, what you can ask Android TV to do via Google Assistant will depend on which streaming services you have access to. For instance, “Play Stranger Things on Netflix,” will only work if you have a Netflix subscription; however, plenty of commands are universal, such as:

  • “Play some jazz music”
  • “Play,” “pause,” “stop,” and “resume” while watching any video
  • “Louder,” and “softer” for volume control
  • “Open [app name]” to open any installed app
  • “Show me the cast of Friends
  • “Tell me about Game of Thrones

In addition, you can use any of Google Assistant’s smart home commands, which vary based on which smart home devices you have on your home network.

What are some popular Android TV apps?

what is android tv full explainer apps

Needless to say, Netflix is just about the most popular app on every streaming media platform, but there are plenty of other lesser known apps worth installing.

Kodi

Kodi is a powerful media center app that can find and organize all of your personal media into an easy-to-navigate interface, with support for just about every media file type you can think of. Highly customizable, Kodi has a reputation as an app that will let you stream Hollywood movies for free, but be warned: This kind of activity on Kodi is not officially supported and is a legal gray area, to say the least. We recommend checking out our full Kodi explainer before you find yourself on the receiving end of a cease-and-desist order.

Plex

Similar to Kodi, Plex uses a client/server arrangement to let you view and play your personal media files and much more. It’s a far more powerful and enjoyable way of experiencing your movies, music, and photos than simply sticking a USB drive in the back of your set-top box or TV. We’ve got a full guide to using Plex that will help you get the most out of it, whether you use it on Android TV or the dozens of other devices it supports.

Amazon Prime Video

Technically, Amazon Prime Video is not yet available for Android TV, but it’s coming soon thanks to a recent agreement between Google and Amazon. When it does, it will be a hugely popular add-on for those who are Prime members.

AirScreen

Android TV already supports screen mirroring from Android devices via Chromecast, but iOS users need a solution too. That’s where AirScreen comes in. Fire it up and your Android TV will show up as a selectable AirPlay device in the iOS Control Center. That’s all there is to it.

Puffin TV Browser

Surprisingly, given that Google is the driving force behind Chrome, one of the most popular web browsers on the planet, Android TV does not come with a built-in browser of any kind. Puffin TV is one of many apps on the Google Play Store that seek to address this obvious omission, and it does so with an interface that is ideal for TV. Stripped of all but the essential functions, it’s a good way to quickly jump on the web for the occasional task that Google Assistant just can’t handle.

Games

There are tons of games for Android TV — too many to list here. Big titles like Asphalt 8: Airborne, Zen Pinball, Crossy Road, Grand Theft Auto, Final Fantasy, and many more are available through the Google Play Store.

Is Android TV the same on every device or TV?

what is android tv full explainer geforce now shield hub
courtesy Nvidia.com

Just like no two computers running Windows are exactly alike, there are some differences from one Android TV to another. On a Sony TV, for instance, you’ll find picture calibration settings like Sony’s proprietary Reality Creation image processing. You’ll also see the option for watching live, over-the-air HD TV channels, which the TV’s built-in tuner enables.

On the Nvidia Shield TV, you’ll have access to Nvidia’s own GeForce Now gaming store, because that particular Android TV device is intended to double as a powerful gaming platform.

You may also find that due to differences in processing power, not every Android TV device will be equally responsive. Early Sony TVs with Android TV felt somewhat sluggish as their underpowered chips struggled to render the interface and respond to menu choices. New Sony TVs are much improved, and the Nvidia Shield TV remains the gold standard for speedy Android TV performance.

This difference in processing power is unlikely to impact the device’s ability to stream content from a service like Netflix, but it will definitely have an impact on an app like Kodi, as it needs the device’s processor to render different media files. Games might also be affected.

Is Android TV right for me?

Good question, and as usual, the answer is: It depends. The easiest way to know if it’s right for you is to consider the alternatives, specifically Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, and gaming consoles like the PS4, and Xbox One S/X. These platforms all have benefits, but none have Android TV’s combination of Google Assistant and Chromecast — a potentially killer combo for those who are already heavily invested in the Google ecosystem.

If you’re thinking of buying a new Sony TV, we’d say do so in confidence — Android TV may not be as polished or as simple as Roku or Apple TV, but it’s getting better all the time.

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