How to use Google Photos as a screensaver on Android TV

Android TV does everything Chromecast can do -- except for one little but lovable feature that's oddly M.I.A. Here's how to get it back.

Google Photos Screensaver - Android TV

One of my favorite features of Google's Chromecast is the way it turns our TV into a family photo slideshow.

It sounds trivial, I know, but the fact that Chromecast integrates directly with Google Photos -- where my wife and I back up our billions of baby pictures (along with the other few photos mixed in here and there) -- means that anytime our TV is on and we aren't streaming something, we're treated to an ongoing montage of memories without any real effort on our behalf. We love it, and practically everyone who visits our house does, too. (Or they at least pretend to for our benefit, anyway. Either way, we're happy.)

When my family made the switch from Chromecast to Android TV a few weeks ago, I assumed that same feature would be available there. Why wouldn't it be, after all? Chromecast and Android TV are both Google-made streaming systems, they both have screensavers called "Backdrop," and they both have practically the same casting capabilities.

Well, it turns out I forgot one critical fact: This is Google we're talking about. And when it comes to Google, logic doesn't always apply.

I actually considered aborting our Android TV experience entirely when I dug through our new Mi Box's settings and discovered there was no option to create a custom screensaver with Google Photos. Then I thought, "Wait a minute, JR. You can figure this out. You write a column about Android stuff, for Goog's sake. Find a way."

And then I thought, "You know, it's kinda weird that you address yourself by name when you're talking in your own head. But let's save that discussion for another time, you handsome devil."

And so I started digging. And sure enough, I found a pretty simple workaround for getting Google Photos to work as the screensaver on an Android TV device. In fact, it's actually quite a bit better than the native implementation on Chromecast.

The Android TV-Google Photos screensaver solution

Ready? All you've gotta do is download an app called Photo Screensaver onto your Android TV box. (Open the Play Store app on Android TV, then search for that title and install it. The app you want is by a developer named Furnaghan.) Open that sucker up, and take a minute to poke around through the options.

The first thing you'll want to do, of course, is connect the app to your Google Photos library. You can also opt to connect it to Facebook, Flickr, and 500px in addition, if you have images in any of those places and want some extra variety. And you can specify which albums you want to be included from any of those services, in case you need to exclude certain (ahem) extra-personal photos from being featured.

The app lets you select exactly how long each image should stay on the screen as well as how different types of photos should be handled in terms of cropping or fitting to your TV's dimensions. You can also pick what sort of info is shown on the screen along with each image -- a clock, the name of any currently playing music track, and photo date or album info.

Google Photos Screensaver - Android TV (2)

There's a setting called "Smart Random" that's supposed to help "intelligently" pick what pictures are displayed, but I've found we've gotten far better variety with that feature disabled; in fact, my wife and I have both noticed that we're seeing a much more varied and diverse selection of images now than we ever did with the Chromecast, which for some reason always seemed to revisit the same relatively small pool of pictures from our collection.

Oh, and make a mental note: With this setup, you can manually skip forward or back anytime the slideshow is playing -- if you ever come across a photo you want to bypass quickly or maybe see again -- by pressing the forward or back button on your Android TV remote.

Once you have everything set to your liking, you'll want to hop over to the Display section of the main Android TV settings and look for the option labeled "Daydream" (yes, that term was used for screensavers on Android before it became the name of Google's new VR platform). Make sure Photo Screensaver is selected, and set how much time you want to go by before the screensaver kicks in.

Last but not least, prepare your virtual piggybank: By default, Photo Screensaver shows only your 50 oldest photos -- basically a trial mode so you can check the app out and see if it's right for you. If you like it, you'll have to pony up a whopping two bucks (via an in-app purchase) to lift that restriction and make it work with your entire image collection.

For us, it's been $2 well spent.

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