Google’s New Nexus Player Talks A Big Game But Isn’t A Winner Yet

I love media streamers. I’ve tried ’em all, from Boxee to Apple TV to the Fire TV to my current set-top box of choice, the Roku. Now I can add one more to that mix, the new Nexus Player from Google. So how does this latest addition to the set top box world match up against the competition?

Not so well.

The Nexus Player has a few really good things going for it. One is the interface, which is quick and beautiful and relatively simple, though some of that is due to the fact that there is simply less content on the Nexus Player than other set-top boxes. Most notably HBO Go and Amazon Instant are missing from the apps list, as is Showtime.

However, you start with a clean home screen that, not surprisingly, features some fun YouTube content, followed by suggested stuff from Hulu and other content partners. Underneath, you have a list of apps, and then a list of games. It’s straightforward, and transitions from one app to another are reminiscent of Android KitKat, with bubbles opening and closing apps. And when it comes to simply watching content on Hulu or Netflix, which arguably is the dominant use case for most people who will buy this, the Nexus Player can get the job done. As it should.

Browsing content is quick, and loading up something to watch is also relatively quick compared to Roku or the Apple TV, though doesn’t beat the Fire TV’s Instant Play content.

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The Nexus Player also comes with a semi-useful voice search that works really well. I was only misunderstood once since I started using the Nexus Player last week, and it can handle more complex searches like “Movies with Anne Hathaway” or “shows that won an Emmy in 2010.” Unfortunately, like the Fire TV, the Nexus Player only gives back Google Play as a watch option for a search, even if that content is available on Hulu or Netflix. Search results also include cast info, what other “people also searched for” and YouTube videos that relate to your search.

Soon enough, apps will be able to use Google’s Open API to be included in search results, as well as build in functionality to allow in-app search of that particular content library. A couple apps, including DailyMotion and DramaFever, are already hooked into the system, but there is no current timeline on the big players like Netflix and Hulu.

I’m also a fan of the Bluetooth Smart remote. It’s not particularly heavy and doesn’t use premium materials in any way, and it even felt a little chintzy when I was putting in the batteries. However, it works without IR, which is more than I can say for the quickly-falling-behind Apple TV. The voice search is great and the remote makes sense in terms of design.

Other than that, I can’t say the Nexus Player experience was all that great.

After a quick and painless startup process, the player froze two or three times while trying to load the Netflix app before finally working. It has since frozen a few different times, while casting from another device, switching from one app to another, and while clicking around inside voice search results.

Casting, which lets you send content from select apps on your smartphone or computer to the TV, doesn’t make up for a lack of content partners in the way that it should. Without any HBO baked into the player, reliable casting is crucial for true Game of Thrones fans. Casting worked off and on from a computer, but I had quite a bit of trouble using my iOS devices to cast to the Player, both from Netflix and HBO Go.

To be fair, the experience is a bit better from an Android smartphone than an iOS device, but that’s not a great excuse for the difficult experience I’ve had so far.

It also doesn’t have a dedicated audio output for folks with a more complicated home theater system.

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Like the Fire TV, the Nexus Player comes with the ability to play games from the Google Play store using the remote, or using a $39 game controller that is sold separately and also built by Asus. Like the remote, it feels slightly cheap and poorly built, but does a fine job for the experience that Nexus Player gaming provides.

The Nexus Player comes pre-loaded with Badlands, and you can, of course, buy loads of different games from the Google Play Store, which can be addictive with both the game controller or the remote.

Still, I’m not entirely convinced that this is the best use of $100 if you’re looking for a set-top box. I’d say you should invest your money in a Roku player, which has every app you could want on it, though doesn’t have the same gaming offerings as the Nexus Player or Fire TV. More apps, like HBO, Showtime or Amazon, would make a big difference and open up so many options for consumers at that price point.

The Nexus Player is available for pre-order now.