Android TV is as refreshing as it is aging. On one hand you have a very good big-screen experience that takes the power of what's become the world's leading mobile operating system and scaled it up to living-room size. But on the other hand you have a platform that still seems like it's a bit of an afterthought for Google — especially when it comes to putting it on compelling hardware.
But that doesn't mean it's not an important option in the land of streaming video. And, in fact, Android TV is so much more than that.
Let's break it down.
What is Android TV?
Android TV is a full-blown build of the Android operating system — with some extras baked in for use on a big screen instead of a phone.
It's really that simple. Developers don't necessarily have to have a separate Android TV app or anything (though many still do), and you don't need a separate login. You'll use the same Google account you already have, and have access to the Google Play Store just the same.
And that means you've got access to pretty much every major streaming service — as well as native access to Google Play Movies and TV, as well as Google Play Music.
Plus you have access to Google Assistant, including voice support. And if the app is updated for it, you might even see notifications on your TV screen. (For better or worse.)
Wait — is this Chromecast?
Android TV is different than Chromecast. It's full Android. You'll be running apps on it. Chromecast, by comparison, uses your phone to initiate content on the big screen. You still control things on your phone, but the Chromecast — connected to the TV via HDMI — does the heavy lifting of playback.
But ... Android TV also has Chromecast built in. So anything you can do with a Chromecast you also can do through Android TV.
Which Android TV should you get?
Here's where things get a little interesting. It's entirely possible that you have Android TV baked into your display. Sony Bravia TVs, for example, use Android TV as their operating system. Sharp AQUOS displays do, too.
If you have a TV that runs Android TV, great! You're pretty much set.
For everyone else, there's also a smattering of set-top boxes that run Android TV. But as of the spring of 2018, the only one we recommend is the $179 NVIDIA Shield TV. It's the only one that's been consistently updated over time (yes, that's also a thing with Android TV, unfortunately, just as it is with phones). And while it's definitely an aging product, it still very much holds its own both as a streaming video platform, as well as a gaming rig. It's that powerful. Plus, you can plug in an external hard drive and have a ridiculous amount of local storage.
Repeat: Don't buy a cheap Android TV box unless we recommend it. And right now we don't recommend it. NVIDIA Shield TV is the only external box.
What's good about Android TV?
With the lone exception of Apple content, you pretty much can get everything on Android TV. That includes things like Plex and Kodi for media service use, all the major streaming services, and OTA support as well.
And Android TV has this cool "Live TV" app that attempts to tie together anything that provides live video. For instance: If you have an OTA antenna plugged into a TV running Android TV, you'll find those channels there. And you'll also find live channels from Pluto TV in that same app. (Same goes if your antenna is plugged into an HDHomerun box.) It's just a matter of the app developer supporting it.
Plus there's the Chromecast thing, great YouTube integration, Google Assistant, and a whole bunch of apps.
What's not so good about Android TV?
This is still Android we're talking about, and so it's still kind of the Wild West out there. There are a lot of boxes claiming to be Android TV, even if they're just Android in a box. There's a difference, and it's a big difference.
We can't stress this enough: The only Android TV box we can recommend is NVIDIA Shield TV. The inexpensive Mi Box — which is the only other one Google has ever promoted — was pretty much abandoned from the start. And the Nexus Player is just too old to consider.
Other annoyances: Chromecast connections can occasionally be a little flaky.
Who is Android TV for?
If you're an Android user, it's a great addition to your home, and a great streaming experience.
If you live in a mixed household, with Android and iOS users, you should still consider Android TV given than so many apps on the iPhone and iPad also support Chromecast.
If you buy all your stuff through Google Play, it's a no-brainer.
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