Google TV: Better than Android TV... Depending on Where You Live
It's not perfect, but it's an operating system millions of consumers can live comfortably with for years
So I've already reviewed the Sony X90J, I am putting the finishing touches on the review of the absolutely amazing Sony A90J and the first TCL TVs with a new operating system - the very same these Sonys depend on - have just been released in the US and are coming to Europe. It might be a good time to offer some thoughts on said operating system, then, no? This is none other than Google TV, of course, the successor - or, in some respects, the extension - of the Android TV platform that millions of TVs have been using for the past 6 years or so. Most Sony TVs, many TCL TVs and a number of Sharp, HiSense or Philips TV models will be using Google TV going forward - let alone media players from nVidia and Xiaomi - so... what should people be expecting of it?
Let's start with what they definitely shouldn't be expecting: a totally new operating system. Consumers familiar with smartphone operating systems may think of Google TV as a new "skin" for Android TV, meaning that it's still the latter actually running in the background but with the former's new, revamped graphics interface. The core components are the same, so Android TV app compatibility is a given, Chromecast works in the same way, even hardware peripherals are working with no modifications at all. It's just that everything is presented in a more esthetically pleasing, better-structured way.
Setting up a television based on Google TV is easy if a bit time-consuming (using an Android phone during the process can help in that respect). This is also the first TV operating system that lets people set up their television as a "dumb TV", meaning that all Smart TV functions can be disabled and the device can be completely disconnected from the Internet. It's hard to imagine why most consumers would want to do that in 2021 but, evidently, enough people still want to use a TV for over-the-air programming only (or are worried about privacy perhaps...) that Google decided to offer that option.
Unfortunately, in the case of the X90J and the A90J at least, what Google and Sony also decided was to try gathering user data in many different ways, as both are asking for those on several different occasions during setup. It becomes bothersome at some point to try and navigate around all of that - and it's impossible not to impart with any user data at all - but patient consumers can limit the amount of data gathering to a considerable degree.
After setup is complete and the consumer has entered the credentials for the content services he/she uses the most - be it Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, Disney Plus, Apple TV Plus etc. - the main argument for using Google TV becomes clear: the new graphics interface is built around content, how to best collect it from various sources and present it to consumers based on their past viewing habits. The rows belonging to each content service individually are still there, just like they were on Android TV, but now Google TV also makes recommendations and offers popular content categories already filled with movies and TV shows so consumers can discover more content effortlessly.
One thing that people should be aware of regarding this new approach is that not all consumers will get the same content syndication experience from Google TV. That's because not all streaming services are available in all countries: Disney Plus and HBO Max are not available in Greece, for instance, so there were no movies or TV series from those services present. If the services supported in a given country are too few, then Google TV will do what it can with those - but the whole interface will not look as rich and well-populated as some screenshots Google released imply. In any case, for people who want the fastest possible access to the content sources they prefer, Google TV offers an "apps-only" mode that puts onscreen just the services apps themselves and no content recommendations at all. Many people might find that to their liking.
The whole content-centric approach of Google TV is modern and smart, though - especially with a lot of sources present because, in that case, recommended movies and TV series that surface based on various criteria really are some of the best picks currently available. Google TV also looks very nice on the X90J and the A90J because it is designed for 4K screens (past Android versions were HD-only). The chipset these Sony models are based on is powerful enough to manage the graphics-heavy revamped user interface, so navigation is nimble and smooth. It's also important to note that Google TV is based on Android TV 10, which is good news for owners of these TVs: chances are that these models and others like them will get system upgrades to Android TV 11 or even Android TV 12 and several years of security updates. Not bad at all for something that started out as an Android "skin", no?