Arguably, 2017 has not been a good year for Android TV due to stagnation at the hardware level. While the platform has expanded at the software level with a number of new apps arriving, a number of existing apps gaining new supports and features, and presumably an uptick in the number of Android TV users in general, it still appears to have been a flat year in terms of new hardware. Here we are taking a quick look back at some of the major events that have occurred in Android TV land during the past 12 months. This is the 2017 Android TV year in review.
No new major players or box... just updated versions.
For those who like to see new and exciting devices arrive, 2017 was a bit of a non-starter in this department. There have been some new devices arriving but these have been less exciting ones due to the new arrivals largely consisting of line updates from the likes of Sony, as well as number of STB units from carriers and providers. And while this is great for the platform as a whole (and likely an indication of where the platform is going in the long-term) it is not quite as exciting as the arrival of a brand new box. We did of course have a new NVIDIA SHIELD arrive at the start of this year and this is a great device, and one worthy of mention. So much so that even if it wasn't the only Android TV standalone box you could buy today, it would still likely be the best one to buy. But again, this is more of a product update than the entrance of a new contender. Not to mention, it is arguably a minor update in the grand scheme of things, as it boasts the same specs and features as the 2015 model, albeit in a better and smaller form factor. Resulting in the situation where current owners of the 2015 model are offered little motivation to upgrade to the new model. While this might not say much for the new model it does certainly highlight how good NVIDIA has been at supporting the 2015 model in general. As the 2015 model is only as good as the 2017 model due to NVIDIA’s noble and sustained approach to keeping the 2015 model updated. Something which is not often seen in the wider Android world, let alone the Android TV one.
One of the big talking points of 2017 has been the Android 8.0 (Oreo) update. To be fair this is the same each year, and for Android in general. Although for Android TV specifically, Oreo marks one of the biggest visual changes to the platform since its inception. Needless to say, this has become an update many would like to see made available to their devices. Which is where the issue lies, as in spite of now being publicly available, there is effectively no current device on the market running Android Oreo. This is a two-prong issue as there has been no new devices released since Oreo became available and the existing devices have yet to see any meaningful moves announced in regards to when they will be updated. Companies like NVIDIA will be committed to pushing Oreo to its devices and this should be expected to happen in the opening months of 2018. As of now, however, Oreo remains a thing of beauty to behold from afar. That is, unless you happen to own a Nexus Player. As in spite of not only being a discontinued product but also the oldest Android TV device (excluding the ADT-1), the Nexus Player is now running Android Oreo and has been for months. An aspect which further highlights some of the sustained issues plaguing the Android TV ecosystem - while it might be a step down compared to other forms of Android TV, and in nearly every respect, when it comes to running the latest version of the operating system the old adage has never been truer - it pays to be Nexus.
What’s New: Google Assistant and HDR
At the software level things could not be more contrasting. As Android TV has really come into its own during the last 12 months with a number of new features and apps becoming available that have significantly upped the quality of the experience overall. One of the most obvious of which was the introduction of Google Assistant support. While this is still a bit limited in its reach, it has started becoming available (most notably on SHIELD) and offer Android TV device owners the capability of doing more based on voice controls alone. Whether it is searching and controlling content on an Android TV device, or controlling external ‘smart’ devices in the home, Android TV has now grown in its home-connected prowess. Something which is likely to continue throughout 2018. Speaking of the SHIELD, this in particular has become more home-focused in the last 12 months due to additional supports that have been added in 2017, such as support for SmartThings. With SmartThings itself also gaining Google Assistant support this year, the SHIELD is now a highly capable smart home hub device and certainly more capable than other Android TV options.
At the app level, there has been a number of new arrivals which for some users have significantly changed the game. YouTube TV being a prime example. Although what has become far more prevalent in 2017 is the updating of apps to support the likes of HDR (another 2017 trending ‘new’ feature for Android TV) and Google Assistant. HBO GO, Plex, VUDU, to name a few examples. While these do not represent new apps in their own right, the added functionality that has come to these apps is much greater than what a typical app update might normally consist of. Further contributing to the notion that apps are starting to think more about the ‘TV experience’ than ever before. Not to mention, this is a widespread communal app update so expect more apps to announce similar supports in 2018. Other apps have gained a number of other features that further add to their TV-optimization as well this year. Plex being one such example which not only gained access to live local TV stations, but also dedicated news channels and more. Another aspect which is likely to become more prevalent in 2018 and as more consumers turn to app-based TV consumption.
LeEco: We hardly knew you
In last year’s look back we said goodbye to the Google Nexus Player. This year we have effectively said goodbye to an Android TV manufacturer - at least in the US. As LeEco seems to have entered our lives only just long enough to say hello before disappearing again into the night. It was only October of 2016 when LeEco held a grandiose event to announce its arrival in the US, bringing with it the promise of all of these new TV sets powered by Android TV. While those products did come to market in the form of the Super4 X43, 55 and 65, as well as the uMax85, almost immediately after the event (Nov. 2016) the first cracks in the company’s overreaching plans started to emerge. This was followed by multiple reports coming through during the first half of 2017 on how LeEco is downsizing, and slowly but surely, exiting the market in a meaningful capacity. So while it is still unclear just what is happening with LeEco in the US and how the future will pan out for the company, it does seem as though its Android TV ambitions have likely come to an abrupt end. The already released products are still available to buy (and can often be picked up at a good price now due to the ongoing issues), but the writing seems on the wall for future LeEco Android TV devices and therefore not much of substance should be expected from the company in 2018. This also goes for current LeEco Android TV device owners who will already likely be able to attest to the lack of regular updates to their devices - something which further adds to the suggestion that Android TV as a platform has somewhat dropped off LeEco's radar.
Xiaomi Mi Box: The Nougat dodger
Speaking of regular updates, here's to you Xiaomi Mi Box - the 2017 king of (lack of) updating. What is there left to be said that has yet to be said? This is a box onto its own and one which has become somewhat infamous now due to its renegade approach to updates. The Mi Box was a big deal when it was first announced as it was effectively Xiaomi's first proper product available in regions like the US. Not forgetting, it seemed to have some sort of endorsement from Google, and was priced low enough to make the platform accessible to just about everyone. At launch for example, it was not that much more expensive than the latest Chromecast. However, like LeEco, the Mi Box has failed to impress during 2017 and has since largely exited stage right. For the later part of its retail existence the Mi Box could only be found at Walmart stores (and sometimes as cheap as $25) although even Walmart seems to have now given up on selling it. There are however, quite a few of these little boxes out there in the wild and this is where the Mi Box has gained its notoriety. As in spite of Xiaomi seemingly still of the mindset that Android 7.0 (Nougat) is on its way, it probably isn't. Even if it does arrive now, hardly anyone will actually care anymore. The update which hit the likes of the SHIELD back in March of this year has been ‘in beta’ for the best part of a year now. And with everyone else moving on to Oreo, the Mi Box Nougat update looks DOA. So maybe it will come in 2018, maybe it won’t, but it really doesn't matter anymore... well, except for those Mi Box owners who have been very patiently waiting.
So yes, it has been an interesting year for Android TV users although not always for the right reasons. Overall, the platform seems to be continuing to rise and get better, however, it has faced its difficulties. Bringing new devices that are both useful and affordable has proven to be a big issue in 2017, while updates continue to be an issue for the platform. As it stands right now, there is probably more Android TV devices running Android 6.0 (Marshmallow) than there is running Android 7.0 (Nougat), let alone Android 8.0 (Oreo). So getting updates out more frequently, to more devices, is going to be something the platform as a whole will need to improve on going forward. Whether any in-roads on this happen in 2018 is anybody’s guess although it seems unlikely. Not to mention if no further new standalone and affordable devices come through in 2018 then the platform will likely continue to be fragmented at the OS level. As it seems increasingly evident that a number of the current Android TV devices are not going to make it up to Oreo. Which is where Google could come in, as the company has heavily invested in its Pixel line over the last two years and it would be good to see Google show a similar level of commitment to Android TV with the release of a market-leading flagship 'Pixel Player' Android TV device. This is however, still only a pipe dream at the moment. With 2018 unlikely to see another SHIELD come through, a sequel to the Mi Box, or any further contributions from LeEco, if there is no Pixel Player then it is difficult to see what 2018 will offer Android TV consumers at the moment.