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With Android TV, Google Turns Its Eyes to Larger Screens (Again!)

Rob Pegoraro
Tech Columnist
June 25, 2014

SAN FRANCISCO — Four years after its first venture into Web-connected TV ran aground, Google is making another run at the biggest screen in your home. Its new Android TV platform aims to make “smart” TVs as capable and current as smartphones and tablets.

Unlike the Google TV system that the company debuted in a technologically snakebit demo at the 2010 I/O conference, Android TV doesn’t try to replace your cable or satellite box and its button-infested remote. Instead, it’s all about streamlining your access to Web entertainment and games. 

(Cable and satellite operators will be able to build Android TV into their own boxes, but their history makes me doubt they’ll take Google up on that invitation.)

The Android TV interface looks like the tablet version of Google’s Play Movies & TV app, and is simple enough for an Android Wear watch to suffice as a remote control. Apps visible in the demo included that Google video source as well as Netflix, Plex (an app that streams your own media files to the TV), iHeartRadio, and even the food-delivery app Eat24.

You can search by voice with queries like “Oscar nominated movies from 2002.” (Unsaid: You’d have to search that far back to work around Hollywood’s habit of limiting the online availability of recent releases.) The system then lets you get lost in search results — for instance, looking for TV shows, movies, and interviews an actress has appeared in.

You’ll also be able to play games from the Play store, with your results linked to the same leaderboards you’d see in your phone or tablet’s versions of them.

Google touted support from component manufacturers across the industry but had fewer TV vendors to name: among U.S.-market big-name brands, only 2015 models from Sharp and Philips, with Sony apparently reserving Android TV support for its ultra-high-definition 4K sets. (Given that video format’s massive consumer-relevance problems, that seems like a bad idea.)

As for Chromecast, that popular Web-video-viewing pod is getting a couple of new features of its own. A visitor can “cast” videos or photos from her phone to your Chromecast without getting on your home WiFi. But the Chromecast will continue to need its own WiFi in that scenario — meaning you still won’t be able to use one over most hotel WiFi.

And if the absence of a screensaver on your TV has been bothering you, you’ll also be able to send a stream of background photos to a Chromecast from an Android or iOS device — a demo from an iPhone 5 marked the one major appearance of Apple devices in this keynote — or a variety of automatically curated Web feeds.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.