Android TV didn't get any stage time at Tuesday's Google I/O keynote, but anyone who wandered into the Android TV tent on the grounds of the Shoreline Amphitheater saw something equally important: The JBL Link Bar.
Like every other Android TV device, the Link Bar is not a Made by Google product (by the same token, neither are any of the Smart Displays coming later this year that visualize the Google Assistant experience). Like those smart speakers, however, this soundbar is powered by Google's smarts and savvy, and it could turn a forgotten project into a household name.
When I walked into the demo room, I already knew that JBL's Link Bar is several products wrapped up into one: a smart speaker, a soundbar, and a 4K Android TV streaming box. But as the Google rep showed me how it works, it became clear that the Link Bar wasn't just another forgettable device powered by Android TV. It's the first step in a comprehensive strategy to take on Roku, Amazon, and Apple in the living room.
It starts with the design. While it's not as striking as the space-age Creative X-Fi Sonic Carrier, or as elegant as the Sonos Playbar, the Link Bar has a clean aesthetic and a low profile that will look at home under or in front of any TV.
It's also loud. The demo unit I heard was a pre-production model that wasn't "optimized," but when cranked, it certainly filled the acoustically challenged room with sound.
Google declined to offer up any specs for the Link Bar, but we do know it will:
- Be a 2.1 system, with a subwoofer sold separately
- Have internal storage for apps and movies
- Launch with Android TV 9.0 (Android P)
- Have four HDMI inputs with CEC support
The last bit is particularly important and it's where the plan starts to come together. While most modern TVs have HDMI ports with Consumer Electronics Control, Google is using it in a unique way on Link Bar. Basically, it'll allow Google Assistant to roam across each port, so you won't need to switch to Android TV when you want to ask it to find something to watch.
With a Link Bar hooked up to your TV, Google Assistant isn't just a way to search and stream, the way Siri on Apple TV or Alexa on Fire TV. It works across all four inputs, so if you're playing a game on PlayStation you can still summon Assistant on your TV to turn off the lights or switch to Android TV to start a show. And since it's connected to a display, the Assistant UI will be overlaid on top of whatever happens to be plugged into the HDMI port, even an Apple TV or Roku streaming stick.
In simple terms: It's a smart speaker when the TV is turned off, and a smart display when you're watching it. Assistant on Link Bar isn't just about Android TV or even streaming. With a single device, Google has leapfrogged the capabilities of Roku and Amazon with an ever-present assistant that doesn't care what you're doing. It's always listening.
Your living room, powered by Google Assistant
Android TV might be trailing in the streaming-device race, but Google is no stranger to home theater. At last count, Google's low-priced Chromecast had around a 20-percent slice of the market, with Roku leading the way with around 40 percent. With some 70 million streaming devices gracing media consoles in the U.S., that's not a small number. But Google's new strategy with Assistant as the maestro could dramatically increase those numbers.
Neither Google nor JBL have divulged anything about how much Link Bar will cost, other than to say it will be "competitively priced." My guess is that the full package (with the sub) will be priced higher than the $200 Nvidia Shield, but not excessively so. That's a whole lot more than a interface-less dongle, of course, but when you consider the cost of a Google Home ($129) and Chromecast Ultra ($69) in addition to a decent soundbar, $250 or $300 suddenly doesn't seem like that much.
And the JBL Link Bar is just the start. A Google representative told me that the upcoming soundbar is the start of a whole new line of speakers and boxes that will run Android TV at varying price points. So, it's not hard to imagine a familiar range of streaming products powered by Assistant, from $50 Chromecast-style dongles to $5,000 TVs, but I don't think that's Google's strategy here. It's not about getting people to switch to Android TV, it's about turning Google Home into Google Home Theater.
While Link Bar and the products that are sure to follow will all technically be Android TV devices, make no mistake: Google Assistant is the star attraction. You can already see it on the Link Bar: Nowhere on the device will you see any mention of Android TV, but there is a multi-colored Google Assistant logo. Assistant is the selling point, Android TV is just a bonus.
It was only at the end of last year when Assistant was even supported on Android TV, and Google is already thinking beyond simple search and smart controls for Android TV. Google's vision for the living room is about making your entire home theater smart, not just one device.