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(Pocket-lint) - The Nexus Player is Google's set-top box. Built by Asus and announced alongside the Nexus 6 and Nexus 9, the Nexus Player brings Android Lollipop to your TV.

It acts as a bridge, giving Google an avenue to providing content for your TV and leverages a number of familiar technologies and services to do so. For those in the Google ecosystem, it seems like an easy option.

But there's no shortage to challengers in the battle for the big screen. From smart TV platforms (including native Android TV), to cable set-top boxes and other streaming boxes - including the likes of Apple TV - this is a growing market, rich with options. 

So is Nexus Player a platform worth adopting, now it's seeing wider availability outside of the US?

Design and build

The Nexus Player is often referred to as an ice hockey puck, due to its flat, rounded shape and black colour. There's little to really comment on: it's about as simple as it could be, but with a 120mm diameter and 20mm depth it's obviously larger than an actual hockey puck.

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The matte finish means it's less prone to showing gathered dust, and once hooked up to TV, you're unlikely to ever need to touch it. When setting up there's a cutaway on the rear to allow you to connect HDMI, power, and Micro-USB 2.0. There's no HDMI supplied in the box so you'll need your own cable, but that's about it.

There is a basic Bluetooth remote included in the box, allowing for navigation, returning to the home screen, and even offering a microphone for voice-based control. It's finished in the same black matte plastic that the Nexus Player, again avoiding the incessant dust of the house. It feels nice enough in the hand and is better than the credit card-style remotes that used to be the defacto for this type of set-top box.

There's no proper on/off switch however. Although the standby power consumption is negliable, there's no option to shutdown anywhere. The idea is that the player sits ready to serve you at a moment's notice.

Connection and setup

Google intends for wireless to be the order of the day, with Wi-Fi a key method for receiving content, although it's possible to use the Micro-USB to connect to Ethernet if you have the required adapter.

We found that Wi-Fi worked just fine; Nexus Player is equipped with 802.11ac MiMo Wi-Fi and setup is very much like signing into any other Android device. You connect to your wireless network, use your Google ID to sign in and it starts to sync with your account. You can only use one account, however, and there's no multiple user option - a little at odds with the latest version of Lollipop.

As this is Android based, the Nexus Player also supports peripherals that you can hook-up to Micro-USB, such as a mouse, keyboard or external storag should you need them.

Android TV

Android TV is the Nexus Player's raison d'être, that's why it exists. You get the interface that uses familiar Android iconography, only on your TV. It uses a linear card style, ranging content across the display in a multi-tiered structure.

We love the colours, they are bright and vibrant and the changing background that reflects what you're looking at is dynamic and engaging and we really like it. It's fast enough to move through the Android Lollipop interface and it's free of the sort of lag that used to plague some menu systems. In that respect, Android TV has plenty to offer, but that's not the whole story, as we'll see.

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The layout caters for recommended content at the top of the tiers, or your most recently viewed items; below are the major apps and games. Then, at the very top of the screen, is the search option - which in many cases is your best bet for navigation. 

In the lower tiers you'll find your installed apps, as well as other major Google hubs - Play Games, Play Music and the Play Store. Further down you hit the settings and anyone familiar with Android will feel right at home.

Navigation around Android TV is easy, because it's a simple layout. The recommended line means there's pretty much always something that will catch your eye, be it the movie you've just rented or something like the new Star Wars trailer.

We've come to expect good voice support from Android too - and the same is true here. Like Android Wear, we get the feeling that Google thinks that voice will be a starting point and pressing the button on the remote to then speak into the mic makes for an easy option: you don't have to shout commands across the room like you do with Xbox One.

Of course, as this is Google, it knows what you are watching elsewhere on YouTube, so it can get the content you want and feed it back to you. Confusingly, however, we found previous Play Movie rentals that had expired, and clicking on them presented a failure, as we no longer had that content available.

Smartphone control

There's also a Nexus Remote Android app, so you can control the Nexus Player using your phone. This makes perfect sense, but also feels like a missed opportunity. 

The Android app is very much a remote control only, duplicating the controls you get on the physical remote in a rather simplistic pattern. Using the touchscreen to navigate using a four-way virtual controller lacks the satisfying click you get when using a real remote and there's little that really uses the potential that or smartphone offers: it's just not a dynamic app, it's perfunctory at best.

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It aims to offer keyboard input too, although in the time using it, we've never managed to get it to work smoothly, across a number of devices. The idea is to free you from using cranky on-screen keyboards on the TV. That never really comes to pass, and in a world where apps and smartphones are at the heart of things, the weak interaction through the Nexus Remote app isn't worth its salt.

Ironically, as the Nexus Player supports Google Cast - so you can "cast" content from phone or tablet to TV - there's a much more smartphone-enhanced experience to be had, but you'd get the same thing using a Chromecast dongle.

If you have an Android Wear device, you also get controls from your watch.

Apps and content

Android TV, as Google's portal on your television set, is limited in some areas, especially for UK users. It's important to understand that this isn't a TV tuner, so you don't get free broadcast TV. There's also a fairly sparse offering in terms of apps actually worth having, which is the biggest weakness of the Nexus Player. 

Sitting on Android, you'd assume apps that work on Android would also work on your TV. But you'd be wrong in that assumption. So taking the basic level of UK catch-up TV services - BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, All4, Demand 5 - you'll find that none are compatible with Nexus Player at the time of writing. That's a major blow. Add that many smart TVs offer some (or all) of these services, and that places this set-top box at a disadvantage.

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Android TV is in its infancy and with Sony and Philips offering that platform through its TVs, it's likely to grow. When it does, the motivation for app developers to add compatibility is likely to grow too.

As it stands at the moment, it's weak against its rivals when it comes to TV apps. Some may argue that the Nexus family is aimed at developers and that feeling rings true: this doesn't feel like a packed consumer offering.

However, if you're more interested in Google Play content, then you're well served. If you've bought movies or TV from Google, then Nexus Player gives you access. The same applies to Google Music - both of which are rarer on set-top boxes (but, again, are available via Chromecast at a cut of the price).

Aside from the native TV interface then, there isn't a huge amount that Android TV offers that can't be accessed via another route. Apps should be the exception - being able to access all your favourite Android apps on a bigger screen - but that isn't the case either.

Gaming, without the console

The one minor exception is gaming. There's a larger selection of games available than there are other media apps and services. It makes sense for Android game developers to look to embrace the big screen, and some - like Philips for example - see gaming as a positive driver for selling TV sets in the future. 

As such, there's a dedicated gaming controller that Asus makes for the Nexus Player (sold separately, at around £50). It apes the sort of controls you find on an Xbox controller and we found it comfortable enough to use, although the screw holes on the rear of the grips might irritate during long gaming sessions. Certainly, it's taking a step towards making games designed initially for a touchscreen environment, playable in a console fashion.

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But at the same time, the idea of an Android gaming device isn't new. It's been tried before and not really taken off - think Ouya - because many of the games work better in the environment they were originally designed for. Crossy Road on the TV is a bit like Angry Birds on the Xbox: it just doesn't feel right. Fire up Asphalt 8 and it plays like a console racer, which is as good as it gets because not all games are playable - there's no support for Real Racing 3, for example.

So with gaming you're often looking at a casual experience that's slightly unnecessary when you have a wider selection of optimised games on the phone or tablet you already own, set in contrast to a gamers' experience that doesn't match the diversity or competence of a console.

Again, the hardware isn't at fault and the gaming selection could be better (and will surely get better), but we don't feel like it's a strong enough draw as it currently stands. 

Chromecast conundrum

Nexus Player naturally supports Google Cast functions, meaning you can send content from compatible apps and services on your phone for playback through your TV. If that's the appeal, then the Chromecast dongle is difficult to beat. 

The £30 dongle offers a innovative solution (and you should read our review if you're not entirely au fait with its functions) and in many cases, it's the Google Cast options of the Nexus Player that carry the appeal and give you that connected feeling through the Android ecosystem.

At the most critical level then, you could say that Nexus Player just adds slightly hollow layers onto a system that's already rather slick, and offered by an HDMI dongle that's half the price.


Nexus Player is an oddity. It's a method for adding Android TV to an existing television set, but it doesn't bring a huge amount with it for UK users. It's neither a full TV offering, nor a full set of catch-up TV services. It isn't a bristling array of fun apps and it isn't a replacement for a dedicated games machine either.

What's lacking is the killer feature, that indispensible function that's not available elsewhere. Yes, Android TV offers a great user interface and we're sure that those manufacturers like Sony and Philips who use it will have a strong offering, enhanced with their own additions - including a full array of catch-up TV apps.

But Nexus Player, in its current form, is bettered by the plucky simplicity of Google's Chromecast dongle. So if you're just looking for a way to access content from apps like BBC iPlayer, Netflix, Play Movies or YouTube on your TV, then Chromecast is the better and cheaper bet. If you're looking for lots of smart TV, then Apple TV, Now TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, or the functions of a YouView set-top box, currently outstrip what Nexus Player offers in many areas.

If you want to move that control away from your smartphone and onto a more traditional set-top box, then Nexus Player has some appeal. But the Android association isn't the silver bullet it might sound: when buying a set-top box, you need to consider what content you actually want and what you'll actually use, and Nexus Player's rivals are, for now, a far stronger bunch.

Writing by Chris Hall.