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Home UI comparison: Google TV vs Apple TV vs Fire TV

The new Google TV: Detailed Review

Deep dive into the new device, keeping the Google TV vs. Apple TV vs. Fire TV discussion in mind.

The new Chromecast with (the new) Google TV was announced at the Google event on September 30. And for me it was the most exciting product announcement from that day (not the Pixel 5 or the new speaker).

I watch a lot of TV(/Movies/Music) and I did miss having a good streaming device from Google. The Android TV that existed was not a great experience and wasn’t very smart. So I was pretty excited when the Google TV was revealed. I’ve been using the new Google TV for a little over 3 weeks now, and in this article, I provide my review.

In the Box

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In the box, we find the device itself along with a remote of matching color (and matching color batteries!). And we have a power brick along with a USB A to C power cable. The device has no ports other than the USB-C input. However, there do exist dongles that can support an Ethernet connection, if needed.

The Remote

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Google TV (and the remote) comes in multiple colors — unlike the competition

The remote is one of the best built remotes I’ve held, if not the best. It’s very nicely thought out, intuitive to use and feels great in the hand. But this honor is only given to the remote itself, the actual integration with the platform is discussed in the next paragraph. On the top, the Bluetooth remote has a 4 button control wheel and that follows buttons for Back, Assistant, Home, Mute, YouTube, Netflix, Power, and Input Switch. And the volume buttons are on the right side. The remote is powered by 2 AAA batteries (provided in the box). The remote works well with my TV (LG OLED) for TV controls (power, input, volume) and you can configure between IR or HDMI-CEC for each of the controls. The Input Switch is a nice addition as that’s often the only use people have for the actual TV remote, I wish Apple TV or Fire TV included a button for this too.

There are a few ways in which using a remote can be the least boring. Apple TV still does the best job among the competition when it comes to the actual effort it takes in navigating with the remote. Despite the fact that Apple TV remotes are known to be laggy or buggy at times, the platform itself has a much deeper integration for video playback and keyboard typing. So you can use the touch remote for a very accurate and satisfying scroll when fast forwarding a video in any app, or use Siri to “skip 2 minutes” or to “go back 2 minutes”. And all apps have to use the Apple TV keyboard interface (I think it must be enforced by the Apple dev rules), so you can use voice typing or type on your iPhone/iPad everywhere. That being said, Google TV has tried to do a good job here as well. The remote scroll often works smoothly in many apps (even though there’s no satisfying touch swipe as in the Apple TV). And you can use the voice assistant to skip or go back in some apps like Netflix, but not in Prime Video for instance. I don’t believe there’s any universal keyboard interface implemented with Google TV that apps can use for a unifying experience. Many of the apps come from Android TV, so backward compatibility can be a reason. Voice typing is supported in some apps, like Disney+. The Fire TV remote has a similar feature set, with voice navigation supported in some apps like Netflix.

The new Google TV (and the matching remotes) comes in 3 colors (White, Pink, Blue), so it can be pretty useful having different colors for different devices in a home.

Technical Specs

Google doesn’t officially reveal the specs for the new Chromecast, but after doing some research you can find it has a 2 GB RAM and ~4GB storage. 802.11ac WiFi and Bluetooth 4.1.

Setting the specs aside, the hardware powers the software pretty smoothly. I haven’t found it hanging or lagging at all for streaming purposes. That’s unlike the similarly priced MI Box 4k I owned before for Android TV. Having said that, the (almost 4x more expensive) Apple TV 4k could definitely be trusted as having more juice, if at all you’d like to use your streaming box for something more demanding like playing games or for higher storage.

Video

The new Chromecast supports video playback up to 4K HDR at 60 FPS. It also additionally supports HDR standards like Dolby Vision, HDR10 and HDR10+, so it ticks all boxes. It’s worth noting that Chromecast Ultra did not support Dolby Vision. Both Apple TV 4k and Fire TV 4k stick also support these formats. Apple TV lacks HDR10+ but there’s not a lot of HDR10+ content around that I know of, and I don’t know if it’s going to be popular in future.

There is one slightly annoying issue, however. In the default setting, Dolby Vision is enabled for all video playback (even the SDR videos). This can be slightly annoying for some because Dolby Vision tends to add a warmer tint for SDR content. This can be configured in Settings, thankfully, to “Match content dynamic range” but then you lose Dolby Vision in the menu navigation, which looks worse. Apple TV doesn’t have this limitation, and I hope Google will add the same support, so we can have a Dolby Vision menu navigation but also keep the original dynamic range for video content.

An additional feature that Apple TV offers, is something called “Reduce White Point”, it can essentially reduce the brightness especially if you have an OLED panel. That can be pretty useful, especially at night when you want to keep the lights low.

Audio

The new Chromecast also supports Dolby Atmos (lossy using DD+), and so do the Apple TV 4k and Fire TV 4k stick. I got it working with Netflix and Amazon Prime content. Other than that, the features are pretty standard.

Apple TV adds a few extra features that I miss when using Google TV. For one, with Apple TV you can route the audio globally using AirPlay, regardless of what app you are in. And that means I can group my Sonos speakers (which support AirPlay) and listen to the news across rooms. Apple recently introduced spatial audio in headphones which could also be supported in an Apple TV in future, and that’d be pretty cool. Another feature that Apple TV offers, is called “Reduce Loud Sounds” which can be of great use in some scenarios, like if you watch TV at night living in an apartment complex :) Again, I hope Google implements something similar in future.

Finally, the Google TV does support background music playback (like Apple TV). So you can leave the Spotify app and keep the music playing while you try to find something good to watch in your favorite apps. But if we’re talking about music, let’s not forget that Apple Music on Apple TV is probably the most pleasing music player interface to use on a TV (have you seen those beautiful lyrics? enough said)

Content

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Let’s talk about the thing that’s at the center of everything.

Evolving from Android TV, the new platform supports most services/apps you’d be interested in. The exception, of course, being the Apple TV app (which is surprisingly available on some other devices like Fire TV).

Google tries to keep the navigation and exploration interesting, and integrates well with most (if not all) of the streaming services. As of writing, the following streaming services are integrated: Netflix, Prime Video, Hulu, YouTube TV, Disney+, HBO Max, Showtime, Starz, Sling TV, Viki, CBS and Epix. This allows Google to play content directly from the respective apps, and by doing so it creates a unified viewing experience for the user. This is not a new concept and is being done by most streaming devices, like Apple TV or Fire TV. However, there’s still a lot that can be done better and Google acts in a few ways.

At the home screen, there are six sections: For You, Live, Movies, Shows, Apps, Library. Most of these sections are designed and implemented pretty well. There are no annoying aspects like too much sponsorship (shoutout to Fire TV ;). The UI is intuitive to use and I must say Google has borrowed many design and feature ideas from the competition. The rounded card layout itself appears to be heavily inspired by Apple TV, and it even adds some animation over the cards (colors and some movement). Just like the Apple TV app, Google TV also has rows of cards for different sections. And as implemented by the Fire TV, Google adds a Live channel guide as well. Apple TV additionally provides the option of syncing your home screen across all Apple TV devices, that’s something useful to have.

There’s also an accompanying Google TV app available on Android that replaces the Google Play Movies app. You see a familiar interface there for exploring what to watch. Additionally you can also purchase shows, browse your library or manage your watchlist. For watching something, you can either choose to open the content in Google TV device or in the respective apps on your mobile device. It’s similar to the TV app offered for Apple TV.

Let’s talk a bit more on content exploration (a.k.a what to watch). I think Google manages to do better than the competition with content exploration. Let’s focus on two major aspects: Availability and Personalization. Most apps are available and well integrated. I must give a huge shoutout to YouTube TV, it’s so well integrated in the new Google TV that it’s one of my top reasons for using the platform. Live TV with YouTube TV is integrated pretty nicely across the platform, including recommendations. Having live programs in the same place as everything else makes it all much easier. And besides the live stuff, YouTube TV offers a lot more content on-demand. The on-demand movies/shows are made available by all the different channels and on top of that, you have unlimited DVR so you can add anything that’s on air. Google TV does a great job of integrating all of that. And when it comes to personalization and recommendation, Google TV doesn’t disappoint. In fact, this could be where Google can really shine eventually, as this is powered by all the user data. In my use, I could see sections like “Movies about World War II” or “Movies about technology” which I am assuming is based on my interests. As I use this platform more, I’d be watching out for more interesting changes around this. Before I forget, Google TV does support multiple user profiles. The watchlist and likes are powered by a central system that Google introduced a while back. This is the same watchlist / thumbs icons you’d find when you search for a movie on Google. While this is a good thing in some ways, I use IMDb for all of my ratings and watchlists. So it’d been nice if Google provided some tool/API to import the existing ratings. When talking about the competition, Apple TV was really leading the race before. But Apple is known to be partial with third-party services, and plays favorites. So this means that the Apple TV app will feature content from HBO, Disney+, Hulu but not from Netflix. There are a few things, however, that Google TV doesn’t do as well as the Apple TV. There’s not a good equivalent in Google TV for “Up Next”, so if a new episode is available for a show I am watching, it doesn’t show up. And I don’t think there is a recently watched list either.

Moving on to the side features. The Google Assistant works well on the Google TV, as one could expect. You can use it to control what’s playing on TV, or the usual assistant stuff like smart home control, or to show the camera feed, or to get an informational page about Rabindranath Tagore. Many of these features are also available in the competition with the respective counterparts. Siri or Alexa act well on Apple TV or Fire TV. Apple TV recently added a nice UI for camera feeds. However, I still prefer the Google Assistant among all the assistants: even if I fake my accent enough for Siri to understand that I am asking for info on Rabindranath Tagore, it won’t give me an answer :)

If you use VPN, you will find it easy with Google TV to download VPN apps — something that’s not available on Apple TV.

When using the new Chromecast as a Chromecast, you gain the power to use the remote for reverse/forward/pause/play/volume. You also gain the power to control whatever is playing on the Chromecast with Google TV with your other Assistant devices.

Finally, let’s talk about the screensaver. Apple TV shows these amazingly beautiful 4k videos and I think nothing can top that easily. But still, the Google Photos frames that Google TV can provide aren’t that boring and I often found myself reminiscing to some memories while looking at the TV. For that you can select albums, recent highlights or select people that you want to look at.

Concluding Notes

Google TV is a very welcome entry in the streaming device market and gets a lot of things right. At 50 USD, it’s priced fairly and can be favored over the more expensive Apple TV in terms of price. There are a lot of compelling reasons to honor this as the top streaming device in market for the average consumer. The hardware and software is designed well. The platform supports most major streaming services and does a good job at unifying them together, and at providing good recommendations. Like Apple TV and Fire TV, the new Chromecast with Google TV also supports the higher quality video and audio playback standards. For a premium price, Apple TV 4k does include some features that could be useful to some users. With the competition being tough, however, many features are common among the devices and things can boil down to a personal preference for a specific ecosystem. Features like assistant & smart home, casting tech, watchlists, video & music library, streaming services, photos and more are part of the ecosystems (Google, Apple or Amazon) and that, in many cases, should be the deciding factor.

Written by

Software Engineer, Computer Scientist, Music, Technology

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