So it finally happened this week. The final and consumer-ready version of Android O has now arrived and with a name. Android O is now officially Android Oreo. While this is exciting for the Android world, it is probably a little less exciting for those who are part of the Android TV community. First and foremost, Android TV device makers do not seem to be that great at pushing out updates. So when a particular user of a particular device, will actually get to use Android Oreo, is anyone's guess. Although, if you do own the original Nexus Player, and in spite of this device being three years old now, you can be running Android Oreo right now. The update should roll out to all Nexus Players as an OTA in the coming days and weeks, while those who would prefer not to wait can push the update manually to their device by using this method. Those who are part of the developer preview program, should have already gotten the update.
So what’s is on offer with Oreo? To be honest, not much more than what was already known. Due to the developer previews rolling out over the last few months, the features on offer with the official version of Oreo is much the same as what was on offer when it was just Android O. Although there are some minor improvements and most notably in terms of support for the new interface.
This is the big thing with Android Oreo on Android TV. Apps are a thing of the past now and while you still might install an app, once it is installed it becomes a ‘channel.’ During the preview stage, support for Channels was pretty limited and in reality, it still is. Besides the stock Google apps (YouTube, Play Movies, Music, etc), there are very few apps that can take advantage of Channels at the moment. Although HBO GO (and NOW) does.
Interestingly, in spite of being the hero app in the Android O hero teaser images, Netflix support for Channels still seems to be largely absent. This will likely change soon enough, but right now Netflix does not support the Channels feature.
Another announced feature which has yet to materialize is any meaningful way is the video preview feature. This is where the user can highlight one of the thumbnails listed under a Channel and have the thumbnail play a preview video. In the latest version of Oreo, this is still not a usable feature. Although one nice touch is that as you pass through different thumbnails under a Channel listing, the background does change color. Not quite the same, but something.
One of the big criticisms of the new interface was that by giving users more granular access to Channels, access to apps in general was becoming less. That is, you have less apps now appearing in-view on the leanback launcher. Requiring the user to have to click through to the apps menu to see a greater number of the apps they have on their system. This is still the case, although Google has made it a little easier to access the apps quickly, and most importantly - from anywhere within the interface. Now all a user has to do is long-press the menu key on the Nexus Player and the apps page loads overlaying the main leanback launcher home screen.
This feature works anywhere on Android TV. So even if you are in an app already, long-pressing the menu key will launch the app page while the content plays in the background. Which does result in a nice and quick way to jump from one app to another. Although, the downside with this feature is that there is now no way to access the 'recents' menu. This feature seems to be completely absent from Android Oreo which is disappointing. As there is no quick way to (a) see what apps are running and (b) stop select apps from running in the background. This now has to be done via the Android TV’s settings menu, although even through the settings you cannot really see what is running in the background. It is more of a case of just force closing apps that you know to be open.
Favorites is another feature users will want to start using straight away and one which seems to be a little better tuned now. This is the app tab that appears at the top of the home screen and is the only shortcut route to your most used apps. Before, the option to add to this row was very limited forcing the user to the secondary app page to launch certain apps. That seems to be all sorted now as all apps installed on the system do seem to be showing up as compatible with the favorites tab. Which is great new for those who use apps like Sideload Launcher. As now you can set it to the homescreen and be one click closer to opening non-Android TV optimized apps.
Not all apps are working great at the moment. Something which will likely be fixed in due course. HBO GO being a good example. While this is an app that is able to make use of the Channels functionality on the home screen, it is not one which is working very well. The app launches fine but on most occasions when trying to actually play any content the app crashes and forces a restart. Only to do the same thing again. Likewise, there is a feature where you can manually add titles to the 'Watch Next' row (by long-pressing on a thumbnail) although this does not seem to be working either at the moment. The option shows up but it is grayed out for now.
So overall, while the official version is here there is not much in the way of new features to play with. As to be expected, the interface is now much more finely tuned and improved. Although, there does still seem to be some bugs and kinks that will need to be ironed out and especially when it comes to app support for Oreo. It is important to note that much of what Android Oreo is capable of is at the developer level. So while there are some features that have been announced and are not currently showing up (Picture-in-Picture, video preview thumbnails, Channel support, and so on), these do have to be included by the app developers. So once Oreo has been out for a longer period and more apps are optimized to work with Oreo, more of those headline features will start to show up more often, and become more useful. Of course none of this actually matters unless you own a Nexus Player or intend to buy a 2017/18 Android TV device which presumably will come with Oreo pre-installed. With the exception of the NVIDIA SHIELD, it seems unlikely that the rest of the current Android TV options will get Oreo anytime soon.