First Android TVs Launch. Spotify Connect And OnLive Gaming Already On Board

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It’s been a long wait, but the first TVs equipped with an Android-based smart TV system have finally arrived. They were officially unveiled at the IFA technology show in Berlin – and I was there to have a play with them. So what can you expect?

Perhaps surprisingly, the first brand to bring an Android TV to market is Philips Philips. Even more surprisingly, Philips isn’t just introducing the Android platform on one TV range; instead it’s being built into three new 4K/UHD ranges: the 7900s, the 8900s and the 9100s.

The first thing you notice as you start exploring the Android features on these TVs is how well they’ve been integrated for a debut product. Philips hasn’t previously tended to have the best-looking or most content-rich Smart TV systems, but thanks to Android its new Smart interface now looks busy and colourful.

Philips has also tended to struggle with the running speed of previous Smart platforms, but the Android platform whizzed along during our hands-on, with more or less instantaneous responses to our navigational movements and app selections. This is a testament to both the efficiency of the Android TV firmware and Philips’ use of Hex Core processing in all of its UHD Android TVs.

The Philips Android TV interface follows the design of Philips’ previous Smart TV interface.

Future Philips full HD Android TVs will likely use Quad Core instead, but this shouldn’t compromise the platform’s speed much as these TVs aren’t having to work with so many picture pixels.

Interestingly the Android features have been added to Philips existing Smart TV platform rather than replacing it, in recognition of the fact that the versions of some apps – such as Skype – developed specifically for TVs work better than the standard Android versions. Rather than have two potentially confusing separate ‘tiers’ of smart TV functionality, Philips has mixed all the smart apps together in the GUI so the end user doesn’t feel any ‘join’ between the different sources.

This brings us to one of the most important things to realise about the Android TV platform: it isn’t just a copy of the Android phone/tablet platform. If you’re hoping to gain access to the million or so apps the full Google Google Play store carries you’re in for a disappointment, as Philips estimates the number of apps its Android TV platform carries is around 200.

While this initially looks like a shocking step down in app content, it’s not entirely surprising if you think about it. After all, many apps designed for phones and tablets – mobile devices with touch-screen interfaces – just don’t work on a TV screen with a TV remote. Even though Philips has expanded its control options for its Android TVs with voice and gesture control, a QWERTY keyboard on the remote’s rear, and ‘point and click’ functionality.

Not surprisingly Philips hasn’t just got some poor work experience kid to go through the Google Play store an app at a time to see which ones work on a TV and which ones don’t. Instead the Android TV platform looks at the header information supplied with Android apps, omitting anything that offers or depend on features not compatible with TVs.

Philips has, though, checked over the apps allowed through by the automated filter, to check they definitely work. So while app numbers might not be as high as you’d hoped, at least the apps that are there should all work well.

The Android TV OnLive Gaming interface. OnLive joysticks are available as an optional extra.

There are some big hitters among the available apps too. Particularly significant are Spotify Connect and the OnLive gaming service. The former helps you easily share your music between compatible devices, and it’s the first time this app has appeared on a TV. OnLive, meanwhile, streams console-quality games live to your TV (so long as you have at least 4Mbps and ideally 8Mbps of broadband speed), with a catalogue of around 200 titles available at the time of writing.

We also got to see early versions of an Android TV system from UK outfit MyLiveGuard which provides both home security monitoring and a degree of home automation via the TV and connected devices.

Of course, since we’re talking about Android the potential for more apps to be added is enormous, as the Android development community wakes up to the possibilities the new TV avenue offers and either modifies existing apps to work with TVs or creates completely new apps.

TVs don’t generally carry much in the way of built-in memory. But Philips has equipped its Android TV models with 1.6GB of storage for downloaded apps. Thankfully you can expand this memory to 64GB by adding USB drives.

The Philips Android TVs are the first TVs to carry Spotify Connect.

While I was mostly impressed by the time I spent trying out Android TV, there are a few issues. First, the platform employed on the Philips TVs is built around the Android 4.2 system, not 4.4 KitKat or the incoming ‘L’ (working name) system – the latter of which includes a version of the Android interface specially designed for TV use. And these debut Philips TVs can’t have their Android systems upgraded.

The fact that it’s Philips that’s delivered the debut Android TVs is also problematic given that at the moment, at least, the brand doesn’t enjoy a truly global market. Its Android TVs are currently scheduled for release in just Europe and Russia.

Finally, while we understand Philips’ decision to ditch the standard Android interface in favour of its own Smart TV GUI, we suspect that Android’s own interface might ultimately handle high app numbers more efficiently.

There’s no denying, though, that as well as representing a real coup for Philips, the first Android TVs do enough at the first time of asking to confirm that Android’s crossover into the TV world is definitely worth keeping a close eye on.

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