Android TV for Fleets

Author

Keith Szot

This post is written by Keith Szot

Interactive digital signage is becoming essential in retail environments thanks to COVID and the need for social distancing. 

Digital Signage makes it possible for companies to reduce contact between employees and customers — allowing for less exposure risk. Plus, with the right software, Android-based technologies like Android TV can streamline internal employee workflows.

However, most companies that are evaluating hardware options see the attractive price point for Android TV devices and don’t realize how many technical hurdles they’ll need to overcome. 

Esper has received many queries regarding Android TV devices as part of the mix for Android fleets. While their low price point makes them attractive, it can be tricky to find the right devices that are easy to manage in dedicated device scenarios. 

We have tested various Android TV devices, and we know how they work with Esper’s technology. In the following article, you’ll get an overview of what Android TV is, how you can use it, and the technical hurdles frequently encountered with these devices. When you’re done reading, you’ll be able to make an informed decision on the best options for you.

What is Android TV?

Android TV is a different flavor of Android than found on Android phones. It’s still Android under the hood with a customized launcher developed by Google specifically for TVs, digital media players, soundbars, and set-top boxes. 

Android TV hardware have few key benefits over its typical Android counterparts, including:

  • Much lower price-point compared to other Android-based devices for digital signage. 
  • It’s still Android, so it can run native Android apps targeted at regular devices, opening up the Android developer ecosystem for your digital signage solution . 
  • Provides required video performance and output interfaces for digital signage-based solutions. 

Generally, Android TV can be found on TVs with the OS pre-installed or on set-top boxes or sticks, such as Amazon Fire Sticks which runs Amazon’s Fire OS variant. The Android TV sticks or boxes typically connect to the TV using HDMI instead of being preinstalled on the TV.

While there may be some feature differences between the two types of Android TV devices, they are typically limited to providing different sets of available ports. Some Android boxes have several USB ports that allow them to use peripherals — giving you the ability to navigate the UI without a touchscreen. These USB ports also give you the option to connect external storage devices.

Android TV device usage focuses on entertainment — making the UI look different from Android. The Home screen, for example, does not greet you with apps and widgets. Instead, your display has ribbons that show a horizontally set of suggestions and recently viewed content from certain apps. The entire user interface is also optimized for use with remote controls, unlike the traditional Android interface. Touch screens are not supported.

There are two different flavors of Android TV devices on the market – those that are truly Android TV approved by Google, and devices that run an Android Open Source Project (AOSP) variant that is not approved by Google. 

Official Android TV devices provide Google Cast support and can be controlled via voice using Google Assistant, along with a set of entertainment apps optimized for large screen TV formats.  These devices deliver Google’s GMS suite, which also provides a set of services useful for developers. Android TV includes Google Play support, with apps that are specifically designed to work with Android TV. It also means users get access to DRM protected streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime via built-in support for Widevine and PlayReady DRM with the apps included in ROM. For certain use cases support for subscriptions and payments, live TV, and VoD are included. Google requires each model pass a set of test suites before they are approved to be shipped to market. These devices are marked with the approved Android TV brand.

AOSP-based devices do not include Google’s software bundle, thus are missing the GMS suite, Google Play support, Chromecast, Widevine and PlayReady DRM. They will not be able to supply the full Android TV experience, and may be missing support required for some key streaming services.

Typical Android TV Consumer Use Cases

  • Android TV devices are typically for entertainment, like streaming media. 
  • Some of the higher-end Android TV devices can be used for game streaming in 4k and are compatible with various Bluetooth controllers and speakers. 
  • Android TV sticks and set-top boxes are popular for their mobility since they allow users to plug them into any TV with an HDMI connection. Their portability enables the user to access internet-based content services from their TV.
  • You will rarely find it used for browsing the internet or editing videos or images. Generally, Android TV devices don’t have cameras, so it’s uncommon to use them for communication.

Why Do Companies Want Android TV for Fleets?

Customers care about Android TV for single-purpose device solutions for several reasons, including:

  • An Android TV solution is beneficial because it allows deployments to take advantage of commodity TVs or computer monitors. 
  • TVs tend to be less expensive on a per-square-inch basis by screen size. So, a large TV display is more cost-effective than a comparable monitor.
  • Set-top boxes or stick devices allow for flexible and easily deployable devices that can be tucked away behind a display and moved as needed.
  • They’re an excellent solution for a kiosk mode app with shallow interaction — such as expected airport departure/arrival screens or rollercoaster waiting times.
  • You can attach a mouse and keyboard to make them easier to navigate for service scenarios or development.
  • Android TV devices are generally cheaper than tablets or phones, since the OS has lower hardware requirements and they ship in consumer volumes.

Potential Technical Hurdles

Hurdle #1: Device Provisioning

The first hurdle when it comes to Android TV is the prevention of provisioning the device. For Esper to take control and manage a device, we have to be able to become the “Device Owner” — which does work on most Android devices. 

However, many Android TV devices have provisioning blocked by the OEM. So, unfortunately, we are unable to manage those devices without help from the device maker. Amazon Fire Sticks are a well-known example.

Hurdle #2: Controller-Friendly UI

The controller-friendly UI design is the second hurdle. Android TV often doesn’t support touch screen interaction and uses a controller to navigate the user interface. This approach to UI design is different from typical Android applications. To build an app that will be used on Android TV, you’ll need to keep this in mind while designing your application’s user interface.

Hurdle #3: Not Designed for Commercial Use

Android TVs are not built for commercial use cases. Because of this, they don’t include many of the features you’d expect to find in commercial digital interfaces — such as the ability to lock down the machine or display. The enclosures aren’t designed with commercial mounting applications in mind, so you may need to adapt the equipment to fit your setup. Thermal design is based on consumer use cases, putting these devices in enclosures may push them to exceed their acceptable thermal range.

Hurdle #4: Google Mobile Services (GMS)?

One key differentiator between certified Android TV devices versus those that are straight AOSP are all the GMS apps, services, and libraries for Android TV. These AOSP devices typically are not connected to Google Mobile Service (GMS), so the Play Services SDK and other Google services (like Google Play) that you can use on GMS are not legally available on them. The best way to figure this out is to actually have these devices with the specific Android firmware images on them in hand to test and evaluate, noting only Google certified devices are allowed to carry the Android TV logo.

From a developer standpoint if any part of your solution relies on GMS, it will not work on an AOSP non-certified Android TV device. It may be also missing support for a streaming service you need to be part of your offering.

Interesting Use Cases

Some interesting use cases for Android TV include: 

  • Quick, low-cost digital signage solutions for businesses
  • Simple kitchen display systems for restaurants
  • Controlled media devices for hospitality companies

If your solution relies on streaming services, you need to ensure that any AOSP devices you evaluate provides the required DRM support. If it is Android TV certified, you should be covered there.

However if your solution is scoped, such as a digital signage application, an AOSP-based device may be sufficient and oftentimes can be enrolled into Esper. Furthermore if you have a compelling business opportunity, it is possible to commission changes to the image enabling you to dial in the firmware to your particular use case. Esper works with AOSP all the time, and we even have our own version of Android available for smartphone and tablet use cases.

This just scratches the surface, it is really up to you and your use cases to evaluate using Android TV devices as part of your fleet. At Esper, we’d love to hear from you about how you’d like to use Android TV for your business and Android fleet.

Get Help Adding Android TV to Your Fleet

If you are looking to add Android TV devices to your fleet or are interested in exploring different Android TV opportunities to improve your product reach, please contact us.

We’ve run various Android TV devices through our device lab for Esper qualification, and we are familiar with the ones that work — and the ones that don’t. We can help you find the right devices and help you get started with your specific application faster.

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