Nexus Player is Google's search-friendly answer to Apple TV

Nexus Player, the first Android TV device, began selling Monday for $99

The Apple TV gets along brilliantly with other branches of the Apple family. Music and movies from iTunes automatically load onto Apple TV, and it enables iPhones, Macs and iPads to display onto a big monitor or television.

The Nexus Player, which went on sale Monday for $99, is Google’s answer to the Apple TV. For owners of Android smartphones or tablets, the Nexus Player can become the big-screen branch of the Google Play experience.

In a weekend of testing a review unit provided by Google, the Nexus Player appeared to be an impressive first incarnation of Android TV from a company that had struggled at TV endeavors until the launch of Chromecast last year. Chromecast, a tiny $35 stick that plugs into a TV’s HDMI port, acts as conduit to the Internet but needs a connected smartphone, tablet or computer to function.

The hand-sized hockey puck called the Nexus Player can stand alone without a second device. The streaming media player, which still connects to a TV via HDMI, excels at search, recommendations and gaming.

Like Amazon’s Fire TV streaming media box, the Nexus Player comes with a remote control that can process voice searches. But Google’s powerful search engine means it can give the Nexus Player some extra features. It touts the ability to search not just for a movie (“Gravity”), but also interesting categories (“Oscar winners from 2010”).

The voice search also answered queries about scores of sports games, the weather, ages of celebrities and math functions. While the usefulness of these abilities might not be instantly obvious, it shows the wealth of functionality Google eventually could offer on the Nexus Player.

Imagine sitting down on the couch one night, telling your TV to order a pizza through the Domino’s app, asking it to launch the highest-rated new comedy movie available for streaming and requesting that the TV show an alert every time the score in the Raiders football game changes that evening.

The search function already shows show times for movies still in theaters, though there didn’t appear to be ticket-ordering functionality and the device thought it was in Mountain View, Calif., instead of Los Angeles. There won’t be a link to a trailer unless it’s on YouTube. In the same vein, search results don’t yet expand beyond the Google universe to Hulu or other apps. And surely annoying to some, Google uses IMDb rather than Rotten Tomatoes as its source for ratings.

Another odd glitch: When displaying information about actors, say Will Ferrell, the Nexus Player often suggested searching the name on Google Play Music. Clicking the link led to a blank page.

Searching by voice for the new Fox show “Gracepoint” turned out to be a chore. Google understood the request as “Grace.”

On the positive side, the user interface is dynamic. A row of helpful recommended content from a variety of apps appears at the top. Below that, there’s a row of recently used apps.

On any screen, pressing the circle button on the remote launches the home screen in semi-transparency so viewers can still see the original content playing in the background while searching for something new. It’s nice to have that background noise going to avoid a lull in the living room.

The Nexus Player comes with $20 in Google Play store credit, which could be helpful for gaming enthusiasts who want to buy the $40 optional game controller for the Nexus Player or download some paid games.

The included remote control does well for basic games, but the Nexus Player has the computing power to serve as a poor man’s Xbox, and at that level, the gaming controller is a must for the racing or action games I tried out. It’s annoying that neither control device includes volume control, but that’s about the only reason I wanted to throw them at the wall.

The supply of non-gaming apps at launch is barely two dozen, including Netflix, Hulu and Pandora. Most of what users will be pushed to watch or listen to is content from the Google Play store or YouTube.

The app supply is due to grow. In the meantime, the Nexus Player can already run hundreds of apps that are compatible with Google Chromecast.

The Nexus Player didn’t show up as a device on the Google Chromecast app on my Android smartphone, but load a Chromecast-compatible app such as WatchESPN on a tablet or smartphone (or the Chrome Internet browser) and it will be able to display on a big screen.

Consumers in the market for a new television set should hold off purchasing the Nexus Player. Several smart TVs with Android TV built in are expected to launch in the coming months.

Chat with me on Twitter @peard33

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