Google tried to put Android on HDTVs and home entertainment devices a few years ago with Google TV. I found the interface promising and among the most powerful ways to add online features to an HDTV, Blu-ray player, or media hub. But it suffered from a clunkiness and abundance of menu options that turned off many users.
These days, Google TV is all but forgotten, and surprisingly that signals not that Android is leaving home entertainment, but that it’s finally starting to show up. HDTV manufacturers are turning to Android for their connected HDTV interfaces. I saw four different companies at CES 2014 with their own spins on Android to power their home entertainment devices.
Newcomers to the North American HDTV market, TCL and Hisense are powering some of their connected HDTVs with Android, each company making its own shell for the operating system to produce a unique and decidedly non-Android-looking interface.
The TCL and Hisense Android HDTVs will have TCL- and Hisense-designed menu systems, but they’ll have versions of Android over the hood and support Android apps to some extent. JVC is also working on Android-powered HDTVs, using the operating system to run its 4K screens. Even streaming media service aggregator Rabbit TV is adopting Android, with a $99 Cortex A9-based media hub slated to hit shelves this spring.
Android isn’t the only operating system TCL and Hisense are exploring. The two companiesare also making Roku TVs that use Roku’s Channel Store and menu system for connected features, and JVC is shipping its non-Android-powered “connected” TVs with the Roku Stick for similar functionality. All three are looking at Android and Roku as ways to power tiered feature sets on their HDTVs without building those features from scratch. Roku TV offers a simple, comprehensive interface for online media services, and Android offers robust app support for more features.
None of them actually use Google TV, and that’s what could make Android work on HDTVs. Google TV was very powerful, but it was also the extrapolation of a mobile operating system to an HDTV, when the two need very different interfaces. Mobile devices need to put a lot of information and options on a small amount of screen real estate efficiently, and HDTVs need to put just enough information on a large amount of screen real estate elegantly.
Android, as Android, didn’t work for that. With TCL, Hisense, and JVC making their own menus to lay on top of Android and keep the actual Android-ness of the operating system buried, each company can offer its own take on how interfaces should work. I didn’t see Rabbit TV’s take on Android, so it will be interesting to see how an inexpensive, Android-powered non-Google TV media hub will work.
It’s true that the “big names” in U.S. HDTVs are still using their own interfaces built from scratch. LG, Samsung, Sony, and Panasonic are all constantly tweaking their menu systems and avoiding Android (despite a few flirtations with Google TV in the past), and that’s probably not going to change.
But the customizable nature of Android is a boon for HDTV manufacturers looking to move into the budget and midrange HDTV market as the more prominent names set their sights on big, expensive, advanced screens. As companies looking to get a foothold in the North American market explore ways to make their less expensive screens more feature-rich, we could finally see Android become a big force in home entertainment. It just won’t be Google designing or tweaking it.