CES Hands on: Lenovo's Android-powered TV

By Pat Pilcher

Lenovo's K91 is powered by Google's Android 4.0 operating system. Photo / Supplied
Lenovo's K91 is powered by Google's Android 4.0 operating system. Photo / Supplied

One of the biggest stars of CES this year - or the biggest if you listen to the hordes of Android fanboys - was Lenovo's K91 Android TV.

More often than not, in the press rooms at the Consumer Electronics Show, there were scores of tech journos sweating bullets looking for the "next big thing." And nearly all of them were pretty wired about the Lenovo Android TV.

So what is the big deal? The K91 brings together the three key ingredients that could potentially deliver a truly workable and compelling smart TV experience -on-demand video over broadband, access to Android applications, and nice crisp high-def broadcast television.

Android on a TV?

While Lenovo mightn't be known for producing TVs - especially at this end of the world - the Chinese electronics giant has really kicked things off in a big way.

My first question was "why put Android 4.0 on a TV?" This was answered pretty quickly once I downloaded Angry Birds and started playing it. Access to Android applications is a killer feature that could dramatically extend the usefulness of the K91 where other brands have tried hard, but so far struggled. Lenovo's marketing folk also pointed out that by using Android, they were also able to bring a lot more customisation to the fore.

Under the Hood

The K91 uses a Qualcomm 8060 Snapdragon dual-core processor which explained a snappy and responsive interface. There is also a five-megapixel webcam mounted into its bezel, which could provide bullet-proof parental controls via facial recognition, and put K91 on double duty as a Skype phone.

Lenovo has integrated an app store into the K91, and while the marketing crew couldn't confirm how many apps would be available, they did say that more will be added and that it'd also play nice with the Android store. It won't be able to in its hometown though - Android Marketplace is banned in China.

Look and feel

The K91 is a nicely designed telly, finished in shiny piano black plastic with silver accents and a curvy swivel base design that should separate it from the traditional big players in the television market.

Whilst the K91 couldn't be described as being wafer thin, its thicker form factor wasn't particularly apparent from front on - although those who like to operate at the bleeding edge of technology will baulk at this, especially with televisions as thin as Samsung and LG's new OLED screens (15.3 and 7.6mm respectively) headed for market.

In Use

Driving the K91 was extremely intuitive - quite fortunate as the remote control on the CES demo unit sported keys in Mandarin. The remote also sports a built-in trackpad which feels a lot like using one on a laptop and worked flawlessly as I swiped between apps and televised content.

What really astonished me was the remote's microphone, which used voice recognition so I could for instance say "ocean" into the remote and the K91 would search the web, video on demand and free to air electronic programme guides to find anything with the word "ocean" in it.

Equally nifty was the embedded accelerometer and gyroscope in the K91's remote - allowing Nintendo-Wii like gaming. Lenovo also provided a separate Bluetooth wireless games controller for titles that required more precise control. According to Lenovo, Bluetooth-enabled phones and tablets can also be paired with the television - but shouting at the TV looks set to become the norm, even when the Bledisloe Cup isn't on. Last but by no means least, the K911's remote can be stood on its end, which makes it significantly easier to find amidst lounge room clutter.

Verdict

There is a lot to like with the K91, however there are some gotchas that'll need to be sorted before we see it in New Zealand. On-demand video may sound compelling, but getting access to it in New Zealand is at best a tricky proposition that more likely than not involve prolonged negotiations with content owners and their lawyers. The amount of content available on Xbox Live for Kiwis compared to other territories is a good indicator of just how difficult it is.

Similarly, applications tend to be available on a per-country basis and there will be a definite need for a robust selection of English language applications before the K91 gains momentum with New Zealanders. Our unique Freeview TV platform will also require that Lenovo customises the K91's receiver in order for it to able work. None of these are impossible feats though, and the K91 gives an extraordinary glimpse into the future of TV as a useable web device. Here's hoping it happens soon.


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