One of the many discussions occurring this week at Google I/O in Menlo Park, Calif. is the Android TV 13 for Google TV beta, which is giving streaming gadget developers the first look at Google's next-generation connected TV OS.
However, for Google's flagship streaming device, Chromecast with Google TV, the challenge remains just getting to version 11 of Android TV.
Debuting in October 2020, Google's HDMI dongle made waves among gadget connoisseurs, introducing a new search-and-discovery rich software overlay, Google TV, which will eventually subsume the Android TV brand entirely, as well as providing the traditionally minimalist Chromecast with basics like a remote control for the first time.
But it shipped with only 8 gigabytes of digital storage.
With many consumers regularly using 10 or more streaming apps these days, that's a constraint, 9to5 Google noted Monday. The Peacock app alone uses 530MB of storage. Streaming apps, which can start out as small file sizes of less than 100MB, can quickly bloat to exponentially greater girth with cache. And then there's OS updates and security patches. When Google issued its last Android TV 10 update in December, many users didn't have the space for the 158MB the new iteration required.
"8GB of storage was not enough for a streaming stick in 2020, and it’s even worse a couple of years later," 9to5 Google lamented. "This is restrictive enough for security updates, but it also limits how often Google can address bugs and other quirks that may arise. Worse yet, it also prevents any form of major system update -- or at least makes it much more difficult."
Writing about the Chromecast storage problem for tech blog Chrome Unboxed last summer, scribe Bobby Payne noted, "Just this weekend, my wife called me in from outside (I was hitting some golf balls) and asked why the Chromecast wouldn’t update the app she was trying to launch. It kept giving her an error, she said, and I knew before I made it to the living room exactly what I’d see. It was out of storage."
Unfortunately for streaming consumers around the world, 8GB of SSD storage (or less) is far more common than not. For instance, the TiVo Stream 4K -- another Android TV-based device that was introduced about six months before Chromecast with Google TV -- also features just 8GB of storage.
The entire lineup of Amazon Fire TV sticks, including the top-of-the-line Fire TV Stick 4K Max, have just 8GB of storage.
For its part, Roku seeks to limit the computer system requirements needed to run its OS and associated apps, a strategy designed to make Roku a more enticing software option for smart TV OEM partners. And beyond advertising the quad-core processors that go into higher end Roku hardware products like the Ultra hockey puck device, Roku typically doesn't promote its computer horsepower.
However, most Roku devices on the market have between 512MB and 2GB of "channel storage" available for apps, cache and OS updates. Sources close to Roku say that the soon-to-be released latest version of its highest end player, the Ultra, will only have 4GB of storage.
Meanwhile, most smart TVs, including the highest end Samsung models, ship with 8GB of solid-state memory and 2GB of RAM.
Smart TV streaming performance has certainly been known to lag.
For instance, Best Buy had TCL pull its Android TV 11-powered sets off shelves last year due to software issues with the TVs.
Like any computer device, you get more digital horsepower if you pay more.
The Apple TV 4K is viewed as largely priced out of reach for mass consumer adoption. But the $199 price for the top-end model, updated last year, delivers a spacious 64GB of storage, while the $179 model offers a still-very-roomy 32GB. Both models feature Apple's own powerful A12 Bionic CPU.
The top-of-the-line Android TV device, the $199 Nvidia Shield Android TV Pro 4K, features 16GB of SSD storage and 3GB of RAM. Amazon's $119 Fire TV Cube sports 16GB of storage and 2GB of RAM.
Beyond the massive challenge presented by the ongoing global chip shortages, streaming device makers also face extreme price pressure to compete on the shelves, virtual and otherwise, of Walmart, Amazon and Best Buy. At these outlets, a $199 MSRP is simply a nonstarter.
Think $30 and lower.
To get there, gadget makers have to make serious compromises. In January, for example, tech pub Protocol reported an inside scoop about Google's next Chromecast device, codenamed "Boreal," which will include support for a major Google tech priority: adoption of a new video encoding codec, AV1, that will make it easier for streaming operators like YouTube to transport dense file sizes associated with standards like 4K, HDR and 8K.
But Boreal reportedly won't support video resolutions beyond 1080p HD. Protocol didn't reveal its storage capacity, but RAM will only clock in at 2MB. These limitations are required to keep the retail price in the "$30-$40" range.
There are workarounds to the storage issue. Users can add additional gigs by plugging in SSD cards to USB ports, should their device have them.
But are the millions of recent streaming adopters, who got into the OTT habit during the pandemic via a $20 streaming stick for $299 smart TV, going to have that level of problem-solving sophistication when their device very suddenly stops working?
Moore's Law -- the long-established computer business dictate that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles every two years -- appears to be alive and well within the connected TV device industry.
And for Netflix and every other streaming company trying to quickly establish as many streaming homes around the globe as they can to keep growing, that's more bad news. ■
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Daniel Frankel is the managing editor of Next TV, an internet publishing vertical focused on the business of video streaming. A Los Angeles-based writer and editor who has covered the media and technology industries for more than two decades, Daniel has worked on staff for publications including E! Online, Electronic Media, Mediaweek, Variety, paidContent and GigaOm. You can start living a healthier life with greater wealth and prosperity by following Daniel on Twitter today!