What good is your Android TV for, if you can’t control it properly? It is, after all, a Smart TV on steroids, and that calls for a superior controller. Android supports plenty of input devices to choose from, but in my opinion, there isn’t one that fulfills all the possible use cases.
At this stage, voice recognition is so good that You might watch Youtube all day without feeling the need for a keyboard connected to the TV. When you try to enter a website address or a password though, a remote with a d-pad and a microphone button will simply not be enough. Here are my top picks for a good controller in each scenario. Cables in the living room are a no-go for me, so I’m only taking into account wireless devices. Here we go.
Day to day media consumption
This means Youtube, Netflix and the like.
Android TV works well using just the basic buttons: d-pad, select, back, home, and of course the mic button activating the remote’s built in microphone. If an app is well designed for TV, then this basic functionality is enough. Right now there are only a handful of apps designed specifically for Android TV in mind, and there are millions of apps ready to be installed on devices with touch support. Fortunately, many of these apps can be controlled with a mouse. Arguably, a mouse isn’t the perfect solution for the living room. It needs a flat space to work, has no mic for voice input, and in most cases, too few buttons. At this point, the best solution for this use case seems to be an air mouse. This little device can have it all: a microphone, d-pad, plenty of buttons and even a keyboard on the back.
My top pick at the moment is the Rii i25. It has all the functionality I would expect from an air mouse, voice input works well, and the keyboard is very comfortable to use. As most of smart TV’s nowadays come with an air mouse, I really don’t understand why Shield TV’s standard remote doesn’t include this functionality. Even without a keyboard on its back, it would be much more useful.
There are some native Android titles that support gamepads, and you can also play streamed games. Obviously, you need a gamepad for those. There are plenty to choose from. When choosing a gamepad, I always go the tried and true route – get one sold with the best selling consoles. Dualshock 4 works great on Nvidia Shield TV in wireless mode. One of the recent Nvidia updates finally resolved the Bluetooth lag bug that was present in Android for a long time now and prevents it from being used wirelessly on many Android devices. I would love it if they also added touchpad support. If you need a gamepad and a keyboard, there is also a pretty neat accessory for Dualshock.
Pointer based games
Most of Android games don’t support gamepads, but some are playable with a mouse. If a mouse is suboptimal in the living room, what to choose? Air mouse works quite well here but it lacks the speed and precision of a mouse. For this use case, I choose a handheld trackball.
If you are not familiar with trackballs, it works by moving the ball at the top with your thumb, and the ball moves the cursor. At first, it takes some time getting used to, but after a while, it becomes second nature, just like with the mouse, but without so much strain on your wrists. It doesn’t need a surface to roll on, so it is perfect for the living room. There aren’t many handheld trackballs on the market, and most are produced with presentations in mind. The one I have looks pretty cheap and feels pretty cheap, but works reasonably well. It’s my go-to choice when playing Hearthstone on TV (check this article on how to install it on Android TV). I’m still hoping for a remote and a trackball mix that is also ergonomic, but that might be asking too much.
Current state of controllers for Android TV
With so many controllers on the market, just choose one that is appropriate for you, and problem solved, right?
With all these input devices, despite newer and newer Android versions being released, there is one prevalent problem. Most of these devices are only partially supported by Android. They do work, but their functionality is limited by their misconfiguration by the system. On my Shield TV, Rii i25 airmouse has some of the front face buttons misassigned. Dualshock 4 is now mostly supported when used wireless, but connect it via cable and the buttons switch places. Most of the buttons on the handheld trackball are not assigned to any vital functions.
What solutions do we have? At the moment, pretty much none. There is one option of manually editing device configuration files, but that requires rooting the device, which is not an option for most users. This for me is a major design flaw in Android system. Being one text file away from fully functioning input device is just ridiculous. We must find a way to overcome this problem if we want Android TV platform to provide full Smart TV experience for everyone.
What are your thoughts on this? Do you agree with my choices or do you have better ones? What solution do you propose for the lacking support for controllers? Please leave a comment.
PS: I don’t know about you guys, but I would love to see this design as the next official NVIDIA Shield TV remote (it could even feature a snap-on-the-ball thumb joystick cap!)