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When the Nexus Q came out I thought the concept was fantastic. I couldn't care less about the built-in amplifier, but the idea that there's an Android device that doesn't have an account associated with it and can be used by anything to play videos and music was revolutionary. No more clunky Bluetooth pairing, no dangling MHL cables, just tap and play. When the Chromecast came out to replace it I knew Google saw the real value in their Q experiment.

The Chromecast is perhaps the perfect streaming device for a family with multiple accounts and multiple devices. Except for pausing. When I start up a movie for my daughter and then go off to make dinner things work great, until she needs a potty break and my wife tries to pause the TV. Now she's got to unlock her phone, open up the proper app, connect to the Chromecast, and then she can finally pause. I need to do that myself sometimes if my phone drops the WiFi connection and the Chromecast link dies.

I tried to fix this by creating the Razcast, a Raspberry Pi Chromecast Remote. Now I could push a button on a fixed box and play or pause the content no matter who started it. As long as the content was Google Play or Plex, the libraries I used are app specific. So in November of 2014 I broke down and ordered a Nexus Player, one of the first Android TV devices.

Initial Setup

From a hardware perspective the only thing you're missing out of the box is an HDMI cable. I'm not complaining, the practice of including a cable with every device means that I've got a slew of cables laying around and full-sized HDMI cables of the proper length are cheap.

Initial setup wasn't as nice as the Chromecast. With the Chromecast you just plug the device in, then use the app to configure everything. With Android TV it's back to the old method of using an on-screen keyboard to slowly type in your WiFi network password. You may be able to connect a USB keyboard to it at this stage, but I didn't try.

With the Chromecast you're done. But not with Android TV. Now you need to log into an account, a big no-no if you've got multiple accounts in the household. So I logged into a dummy account I use instead.

Once that's done it will download apps it thinks you want, in my case I had Netflix installed on the device I paired with the Player so it got installed. In the settings under "About" you can change the name to something a bit more meaningful with some intelligent room-based defaults or a custom name. There are a few more settings for Daydreams than the Chromecast has, but by default it will behave just like a Chromecast when idle for extended periods.

Software

In general I don't use the Android TV software, to me it's just a big Chromecast.

When casting content and the signal times out, the TV will drop to the home screen before activating the Screensaver. This is mildly irritating since it just displays some random content on a throwaway account for me, and could get messy if you love horror movies but you've got a toddler in the house. Luckily, we don't get into that state often.

Here's the good news, the screensaver also times out (configurable) and it shuts off the HDMI port. Once in this state for 15 minutes my TV will power off automatically. Now if I pause and get distracted eventually the TV will power down - amusingly reducing my need for a remote at the same time it gives me additional remote functionality.

Chromecast Support

After rebooting the Player (and the rest of my devices after a name change) it just showed up in the list of Chromecast devices I could stream to. That's all there is to it because that's all there is to the Chromecast. And it seems to work great, just like the Chromecast.

It does seem a little more hit-and-miss as to whether it shows up in the list when casting content from certain sources compared to a real Chromecast, but I'm hoping this stabilizes with a software update. Rebooting the device works to restore it, but it may also be possible to have less intrusive workarounds. Over 48 hours I've lost it completely once, and I've had it fail to show up in the Netflix app on my PC or Android device one other time. Not awful, but not as rock-solid as the Chromecast has been.

However, it doesn't show up in the Chromecast app so some things like customizing the backdrop or checking version information needs to be done from the Android TV UI instead of from your comfortable phone.

Accessories

There is one included accessory (a remote) and a ton of things you can pair with the Player. These are what I've tried.

The Remote

The entire reason I bought the Player is for the remote. And as it turns out I'll never use it. The remote is Bluetooth and reportedly looks just like a Bluetooth keyboard, sending standard media player commands. But what's more important is that the Player has a more robust implementation of HDMI-CEC than the Chromecast. When I press play or pause on my TV remote it sends a command through the HDMI cable that the Nexus Player listens to! Now I've got one physical remote again which handles powering on/off the TV as well as controlling the volume and my streaming content. If this one feature was ported to the Chromecast I'd drop my Player in a heartbeat.

As an added bonus, the Razcast Remote works just fine with Android TV as well, at least as well as it did with the Chromecast in that Play and Plex content work but other content is no worse than it was before.

The included remote is also a poor-man's Wiimote for certain games (no accelerometer, but the D-pad is used to control direction). It's more reliable than an IR remote for these purposes since you don't need to worry about signal bounce or missing the receiver.

Software Remote

There's an Android TV Remote in the Play Store. It works, but it's not great. You first need to pair it with the Player by entering a code that is displayed on the screen. Once this is done you get a persistent item in your notification bar for easy access. The problem is the connection times out after a while and this still remains. I'd much rather the connection be permanent or have the icon change/disappear when you lose it. Reconnecting is a several second process.

It also doesn't have a lock screen widget, something that should hopefully be added in a near term release.

On the plus side it gives any device the same controls (including Voice input) as the physical remote does as well as enabling keyboard input. But on the down side it's no better than the current Chromecast controls. You're also stuck with a phone layout, so it looks odd on a tablet.

Bluetooth Audio

Despite Bluetooth 4.1 support, it seems like audio devices aren't detected when doing a scan for devices. This is too bad, if I could connect a Bluetooth headset (or even two) to the Player and reroute the audio I'd buy a second Player for the bedroom just for that feature.

USB Ethernet

The Chromecast works very well over WiFi and the Player didn't seem to have any issues either, much better than I had anticipated. But WiFi networks, especially in WiFi-heavy locations like NYC, get crowded and unreliable when you've got a lot of devices. Since I've got Ethernet at my TV anyway, I'd rather go hardwired.

Using this adapter with a USB OTG adapter works great. As soon as I plugged it in the WiFi network disconnected and things just worked. However, I did initially have buffering issues (12 hours after I added the cable) that a reboot of the Player fixed. Whether this was related is unknown, but ever since it's worked beautifully.

Two notes:

  1. Check the reviews of the adapter to see if there are any Android compatibility issues, my first attempt involved a device that didn't need an OTG adapter but had no Android drivers.
  2. You don't want an OTG adapter with a right or left angle, make sure it's straight.

Apps

I don't tend to use apps. Play content streams just fine from my account despite the Nexus Player being logged in under a different account. Plex doesn't need an app to stream. Maybe I'll try a bit later, but so far there's only one that I need to use.

Netflix

Netflix and I have a love/hate relationship. They exist everywhere (especially now that their war on Linux is over and I can stream to my desktops again), but they tend to have these awful, proprietary apps that only mostly work with current standards. Android TV is no different. With a Chromecast there is no logging in, things just work. With Android TV, I need the Netflix app installed. And then I need to log in. And then I need to select which user I want to be. This last part seems to be optional when I'm casting, but the selection still pops up. Mildly annoying that it needs to cast to the app but at least it works. And the TV remote's play/pause also work. As expected, the Razcast remote doesn't work on Netflix.

Plex

Connecting the Plex for Plexpass app is fairly easy. I have a complex Plex password (I use a complex password for everything), but it will allow you to log into http://plex.tv/pin on a computer and enter a short code to activate the app. I haven't noticed any difference in casting when the app is installed vs. when it isn't, but the On Deck videos do appear in the Player's "On Deck" equivalent. Overall decent integration, but for me mostly useless given I cast everything.

Multiple Accounts

Another issue, I don't think the Nexus Player supports multiple accounts. This means that if my wife and I both wanted to play games we already own on our individual accounts we'd need two Nexus Players. Luckily, I doubt I'd ever use this so I can just factory reset and log in my wife's account - but now her account information is on a shared TV device. Have I mentioned recently how much I love the Chromecast model?

Mounting

The Player is much larger than the Chromecast, but still small enough I can use some Velcro to attach it to the back of the TV (I applied this to the top of the device for easier access to the ports). It's still invisible, but I do need to run a power cable to it. I'm also hoping that I can get a USB Ethernet adapter to work with it, but so far I have no luck with the one I had laying around.

Summary

After just playing around a little bit, the Android TV seems like a great choice for people who want to spend a little more on a Chromecast with HDMI-CEC support. But $65 for a pause button is a little steep if that's all you'll use it for. I figure I still owe Google for refunding my $300 for the Q and then making the replacement $35.

If you want to use the remote to browse content, do voice searches, or play games on your TV you'll probably want to find another source of information. These things don't really interest me so I can't judge whether this or some other device is better for your needs.

Next-Gen Chromecast Feature Requests

I'm not seeing anything in the Player that couldn't be easily ported to the Chromecast.

  • Enhanced HDMI-CEC Support The current Nexus Player HDMI-CEC functionality would be perfect on the Chromecast. This alone would mean that the Player for me is unnecessary and would be better suited to someone who actually wants an Android-based game system. I'm hoping this is firmware in the Chromecast.
  • Bluetooth Audio Ideally enabling two channels of Bluetooth audio out on both the Player and Chromecast would allow my wife and me to watch TV together at night without disturbing my daughter next door. This is probably hardware in the Chromecast but firmware (at least for one audio channel out) for the Player.
  • Wired Ethernet Flavor Perhaps with a PoE adapter, many of us have hardwired our TVs and WiFi is always going to be inferior in performance and reliability. Even if we have to choose an RJ45 vs. WiFi as two separate SKUs I'd be happy with that.

Really those three features are it. The Chromecast doesn't need to be shipped with a remote, just rely on the assumption that most TVs today support HDMI-CEC.