Beyond the very cheapest models, most televisions on the shelves today are smart models, with built-in apps to receive content broadcast via the internet instead of over the air. But only now is a consistent standard for those apps beginning to emerge.
Google’s Android system – the one that powers most of the world’s phones and an increasing number of car stereos – is becoming the system of choice for several TV manufacturers, too. It’s easy to see why: it’s more convenient for them to buy in pre-configured software than to develop their own from scratch. But there are advantages for the rest of us, too.
The principal benefit of a generic system is that Android apps are being constantly developed and added to. That’s not necessarily the case with those developed inside a proprietary system accessible only by the company that created it. Smaller manufacturers especially have little incentive to continue work on apps they have already released, and the result has often been that they have stopped working when the BBC or Channel 4 have changed something at their end.
Another drawback with apps supplied by TV makers to their own specification is that you’re often stuck with the ones that were installed when you bought the set. If you have access to an app store at all, it’s unlikely to contain anything that will significantly enhance its functionality.
Android TV changes that. There are scores of apps for consuming video, pictures and music, and for viewing social media and playing games. And, of course, every streaming service – whether free or premium – is covered. You also get the functionality of a Chromecast stick, which lets you send content from your phone to your TV.
The market for sets with built-in Android apps is still emerging, but models can be had for as little as £200. However, that sort of money will buy only a no-name model produced to a price, with nothing like the picture processing capability of a Sony or a Samsung.
Not all Sony’s models have Android, though. The cheapest on the high street is currently a 43” model at around £450, while Philips has a range of around 30 sets, starting at £600. Samsung hasn’t embraced Android at all, preferring a “smart hub” system of its own. This is actually very good, although services like Amazon Video and NowTV are dependent upon those providers keeping their own apps up to date.
You don’t need to buy a new set to take advantage of Android TV; the system is also accessible through many set-top boxes. This is equally functional but less convenient, with an extra set of cables around the back and another zapper to juggle, unless you have a universal remote.
The price and processing power of Android TV boxes varies enormously, but £60 is about the cheapest worth considering. Be very wary at that price, though, of a box that claims to support ultra-high definition, also known as UHD or 4K. Many of these are notorious for stuttering as the bandwidth increases – and irrespective of your add-on hardware, you can only watch UHD if your TV itself supports it. The same goes for the new High Dynamic Range (HDR) standard.
Android falls into the nice-to-have category. It’s not an essential, and your choice of set should be governed by the quality of its display, not the provenance of its software. But if you do have it, you can be reasonably confident that your apps will work long enough to finish watching that box set you’ve been putting off.