Picture-in-picture mode is finally coming to Google TV, but there’s a catch

TL; Dr

  • Google TV is finally adding support for picture-in-picture mode, which places app content in a small window covering the screen, in Android 14 for TV.
  • Picture-in-picture mode has been supported by phones since Android 8.0 was released almost seven years ago.
  • However, picture-in-picture on Google TV will not be enabled for media content.

Most smartphone screens aren’t large enough to comfortably display two full apps side-by-side at the same time, which can be a problem when you’re trying to get some work done while watching an educational video or live stream. This is where picture-in-picture (PiP) mode comes in. PiP was introduced in Android 8.0 and allows you to watch video in a small window overlaid on top of other apps. Although PiP has been part of the Android platform for almost seven years now, it is not supported by some varieties of Android, especially Google TV. However, this will change with the upcoming Android 14 update for TVs.

Google TV, if you don’t know, is based on Android TV OS, a version of AOSP designed for TVs. Since Android TV OS is based on AOSP, it has many of the same features. However, some basic Android features have been removed from Android TV, or rather, are not required to be turned on. Picture-in-picture is one example of an Android feature that does not necessarily need to be enabled on Android TV OS devices. Although a few Android TV devices, such as the 2019 NVIDIA Shield TV Pro and the 2020 Sony X900H, support PiP, many of the best Android TV boxes do not.

Android TV devices tend to have a small amount of RAM, which is a problem for multitasking features like PiP. As a result, Android TV manufacturers usually just disable PiP in their software builds because it might not work well. While the decision to enable PiP on Android TV OS devices is left up to the OEMs, they don’t even have the option to enable it on Google TV devices. That’s because, according to Google, PiP support “wasn’t supported at all on Google TV before Android 13.” With the upcoming update to Android 14 for TV, however, Google TV devices will finally support picture-in-picture mode, although there are a few caveats.

The first caveat is that PiP mode may not be available on every Google TV device running Android 14 for TV. The reason for this is the same reason the feature isn’t widely available on Android TV devices: memory. Google says PiP is enabled “on select devices that respond [their] hardware compatibility criteria’, although they didn’t elaborate on what those criteria were. Android TV app developers will need to query a package manager flag to see if PiP support is enabled on a particular device.

The second caveat is that Google won’t allow media content to be displayed in a picture-in-picture window, which is a big departure from how the feature is used on mobile devices. This means you won’t be able to, say, keep a YouTube video open while you search for another video to play. So what will you be able to do with PiP on Google TV? Here are the four categories of content that Google will approve for TV picture-in-picture mode:

  1. Communications use cases, such as video or voice calls.
  2. Smart home integrations, such as connected doorbells or baby monitors.
  3. Health use cases, such as fitness tracking or health monitoring.
  4. Use cases for tickers such as live sports scores or news and stock tickers.

Android TV apps must explicitly declare the categories that match their intended use of PiP mode. This declaration should be added to applications’ manifest files, giving Google an easy way to audit them.

While it’s a little annoying that Google is limiting what apps can use PiP on Android TV, it makes some sense. Google wants PiP activities to enhance or complement the experience of another full-screen activity. Apps that want to support PiP mode on Android TV must adhere to some basic TV app quality guidelines, many of which make sense. The guidelines include restrictions on apps not being allowed to display promotional materials or ads using PiP windows, not being allowed to use excessive resources or take audio focus when in PiP mode, and not being able to automatically log into PiP mode without explicit user action, among other things.

Due to the inconsistent availability of PiP on Android TV so far, many apps built for the platform don’t even bother to support the mode. Hopefully, with the introduction of PiP as an officially supported feature on the Android TV platform, more apps will add support for it. If Google hadn’t decided to skip Android 13 for TV last year, we could have had this feature a whole year earlier, but better late than never. Developers interested in adding PiP support to their Android TV apps should take a look at Google’s documentation, as there are several features related to PiP (such as supporting clear APIs and the ability to set title and subtitles) that are specific to TVs.

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