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Hands-on: JBL Link Bar is cool, but its killer feature is Google’s stronger influence [Gallery]

Google and JBL announced a new hybrid Android TV device yesterday, and we got a chance to check it out in person today at Google I/O. It’s an interesting new take on what a smart TV experience means, but really, the biggest benefits come from how strongly Google is influencing it.

The most obvious thing to note about the Link Bar is its physical appearance. It looks a lot like, as is to be expected, other JBL Link products. It has a matte black overall look with a mesh material that wraps around the front and edges, and it would probably fit well in most modern living rooms. Be sure to check out the gallery below for a closer look.

And if you’ve been following along, you already know that the concept of this new category of devices is just cool. It’s more than a set-top box, and it’s not quite a full-fledged television with Android TV built-in. But it’s also more than a standard Android TV, because it has some features you might be familiar with from Assistant devices, like always-listening Assistant and far-field microphones.

One compelling feature that the JBL Link Bar brings is its ability to manage all your different HDMI inputs. It has 3 HDMI inputs on the back, and you can switch between them with your voice.

On the top of the device, there are four buttons and a switch. You can manually toggle between the different HDMI inputs, there’s a multi-function Bluetooth button (you can use it to play music from your phone or pair the remote), and there are obviously a pair of volume up and volume down buttons. The switch, like a Google Home, is a hard toggle for the far-field microphones.

But while the product is definitely going to be a hit for a certain subset of customers, I think the coolest aspect is that Google is much more hands-on with this device than other Android TVs. Google is entirely in charge of software updates, and they’re working directly with JBL to make sure the product has a decent life — Google is promising three years of updates here.

This is a particular soft spot for me with my LeEco Android TV that is pretty much unsupported at this point and has a ton of software bloat that slows things down and gets in the way. That won’t be a problem at all with this JBL Bar. That alone makes this more compelling for me than most of the bloat-filled built-in Android TV experiences you might get stuck with. Give me a dumb TV instead.

Another benefit of Google’s influence is that the software experience is probably the best we’ve seen on an Android TV device so far. The device is running clean, stock Android P. Google told us that this device will be one of the first to launch with Android P out of the box, and that update has few big focuses: improved performance, a better set-up process, Play auto-installs, and more.

And then there’s Assistant, which Google is putting in the forefront more than ever. Similar to the Android TV overlay that appears on standard Android TVs with the operating system built-in (but not on set-top boxes), you can now pop up an Assistant interface on top of any of your HDMI inputs on the JBL Link Bar. As mentioned, this lets you control inputs with your voice and keep the visual Assistant accessible no matter which device you have selected as your input.

Overall, this just feels like a polished, innovative, seamless product that could almost be Google hardware. It ties together the best of Assistant speakers and Android TVs, and it introduces a new category that Google says we’ll see expanded with other devices built with similar hand-in-hand cooperation on Google’s part. We’re excited to test these out as the launch this year and next.

JBL Link Bar is set to hit shelves sometime later this fall, as was previously announced, but Google and JBL haven’t given any hint at a price point yet. I’d guess somewhere in the $300+ range, but that’s totally a shot in the dark. The price range for these bars seem to vary widely.

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Avatar for Stephen Hall Stephen Hall

Stephen is Growth Director at 9to5. If you want to get in touch, follow me on Twitter. Or, email at stephen (at) 9to5mac (dot) com, or an encrypted email at hallstephenj (at) protonmail (dot) com.