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Android TV hands-on: Google makes a new play for the living room

Google hasn't exactly been successful at taking over the living room — Chromecast aside, its previous efforts have failed to capture much consumer interest. However, during the I/O 2014 keynote today, the company showed that it is ready to start fresh with Android TV. It's a new platform that combines live TV via your cable box or even an over-the-air antenna along with Android apps and services like Google Play to offer up a more simplified way to get content to your TV than the older Google TV model.

As shown on stage, Android TV is a much-simplified approach that focuses on having quick access to content you'll want to watch. The main area of the screen highlights suggested shows from Google Play and other apps you have installed. Scrolling down, you'll find every app you've added from the Google Play Store to your TV, and there's also a separate area for games. Those games can be controlled either with your Android phone or with a Xbox-style controller.

To get developers building for Android TV, the company is offering up reference hardware that it built itself: an Apple TV-style set-top box and game controller. In our brief experience trying it, we found the interface to be fast and fluid — jumping in and out of games and apps worked without a hitch, and being able to hit the Android home button at any time to get back to the main screen definitely made navigating easier.

The controller was surprisingly solid as well for developer-only reference hardware. The buttons were firm and clicky, the joysticks had appropriate resistance, and nothing about the experience felt cheap in any way. Of course, we only used it for a few minutes, so we'll have to see how it can stand up to more strenuous gaming sessions.

Naturally, search is a big part of Android TV, with the software pulling in information about TV shows, movies, and the people acting in them from its knowledge graph. As the company showed off on stage, it can handle complex queries like "show me all Oscar-nominated movies from 2002," with a grid of results you can scroll through and select. Unfortunately, Google wasn't letting us test its search features just yet, a piece of the puzzle that will be critical to Android TV competing with the likes of Amazon's Fire TV.

Android TV rumors picked up steam earlier this year when we received documents revealing a simplified interface that provided easier access to TV, movies, games, and apps. And just last night, The Wall Street Journal revealed that Google was planning to show off a new Android-based set-top box in addition to the software interface — a device said to focus heavily on gaming.

All in all, Android TV appears to be Google's best bet so far for fixing the mistakes it made with Google TV. It's a more powerful platform than the simple but successful Chromecast, and appears poised to go head to head with Apple TV, Roku, and the rest — assuming it can pull together hardware that consumers want to buy. But Android TV's placement on a wide variety of TV sets from companies like Sony and Sharp should help it gain an audience when it launches this fall.


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