JBL Link Bar Hands-on: The Ultimate Android TV Soundbar

MOUNTAIN VIEW — The JBL Link Bar wasn't unveiled at Google I/O — JBL and Google actually announced the Android TV-equipped soundbar the day before the developer conference. But this gathering of Android developers did give the two companies a chance to showcase the Link Bar in demos to I/O attendees.

The initial verdict? It's a pretty impressive way to get the Android TV platform onto your TV set, while making the Google Assistant part of your home entertainment setup.

JBL Link Bar is a 100-watt soundbar that's compatible with any TV set. It supports Bluetooth connectivity for connecting to devices like your smartphone, and it will come with its own IR remote, too. A price hasn't been set for the Link Bar, though a rep at I/O told us it will be priced competitively to other midrange soundbars when it arrives this fall. A 200-watt subwoofer will be available as an option.

Hook your TV up to the JBL Link Bar, and you'll be able to run Android TV on your set. But the real star of the show is Google Assistant compatibility. Thanks to a pair of far-field microphones on the Link Bar, you can use your voice to control Android TV. That allows you to do everything from searching for shows to asking Google Assistant to provide more information about your viewing options.

But the Assistant can perform another neat trick, thanks to the three HDMI ports on the Link Bar. You can use those ports to hook up other devices — your gaming console, say, or the set-top box from your cable provider. (You could even plug in an Apple TV, a rep told us.) And once those devices are hooked up to the Link Bar, you can tell Google Assistant to switch over to them.

In our demo, Matt Crowley, an Android TV product manager, switched from the Android TV interface to a PlayStation 4 with a simple "Hey Google" command. While playing a racing game, he was also able to ask the assistant to call up his upcoming schedule. Put another way: you can still interact with Google Assistant through the Link Bar, even if you're not in the Android TV interface.

That also means you can use the JBL Link Bar as a smart speaker, even when the TV is turned off. In Crowley's demo, he turned on Pandora through the soundbar using Google Assistant.

Because the JBL Link Bar ships this fall, it will debut with Android P installed. That's good news for users, as the Android TV features slated for Android P include streamlined setup for Android TV devices — Google executives estimate you'll be able to set up devices in a third of the time they currently take. It will also be easier to install Android TV apps in Android P, and you'll be able to tap into autofill to supply credentials to newly downloaded apps.

Image Credits: Tom's Guide

Philip Michaels

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.