The quest to bring the full range of Internet video to your TV in a simple way continues, but it isn’t going well. The latest team to try—Google, Logitech and Sony—has made an admirably bold effort, but, like others before, it has missed the mark, at least in its first effort.
Google TV—software built into hardware made by Logitech and Sony—is very different from competing products, such as Apple TV and Roku. Unlike the others, it aims to merge Web video and regular TV in one simple interface, via one box, with one easily usable controller. Also, unlike the others, it isn’t limited to just customized channels that bring specific Web-video services to the screen. It lets you browse to almost any website with video, and play it on the TV.
But, for now, I’d relegate Google TV to the category of a geek product, not a mainstream, easy solution ready for average users. It’s too complicated, in my view, and some of its functions fall short.
You can get Google TV in three ways. One is through a small, black $300 set-top box called the Logitech Revue. The second is through a special Sony Blu-ray player that costs $400. The third is through a Sony TV with built-in Internet that starts at $600. All are much costlier than the $99 Apple TV or the $60 Roku, but they offer more of the Internet’s video and make the effort to integrate it with cable or satellite programming.
Google TV cleverly piggybacks onto your existing cable or satellite box and can control it, at least to some extent. So there is no switching of inputs or remotes required, at least theoretically, to go between Internet video and regular TV—something that has plagued competing systems. But if you try to watch an Internet version of a show from a big network site or from Hulu on your Google TV device, it’s blocked, because the studios want to channel those shows through your cable or satellite box.
I tested Google TV using the Logitech Revue product, though I also met with Sony and had a briefing on their version, which looks and works pretty much the same. Setup took 12 steps and about 40 minutes and went pretty smoothly. It might have been worse if, as Logitech warns, your cable or satellite box requires you to install special cables to allow the Revue’s controller to operate it, or if you use a separate audio system. You need an HDTV with HDMI jacks on your TV and cable or satellite box to use the Logitech Revue.
The controller on the Revue is a wireless keyboard. Yes, that’s right, a keyboard, something you might find unattractive in the living room and no better than what you might use if you just plugged a PC into the TV.
Logitech does offer an optional “mini” controller for $130, but it is essentially a tinier keyboard with minuscule buttons and track pad crammed into a smaller space. It is more complex to operate than the big keyboard and much more complicated than a typical TV remote. Sony’s box comes with a similar, complex-looking mini-controller.
The key to Google TV, however, is the software, not the hardware. There is a home screen with a list of core functions, but, Google being Google, the principle activity is meant to be search. You just start typing what you want to see and Google TV brings up a list of hits from both regular TV and the Internet.
Unfortunately, in my tests, this search-and-viewing process was frustrating. For one thing, you only get a few results, and in my experience, they usually weren’t the right ones. When I was looking for the telecast of the Mark Twain Award ceremony for Tina Fey, all Google pointed me to were short clips on YouTube. I had to do a full Web search (a standard option in the brief list Google gives you) and then navigate through a standard Google results screen, which was unreadable at 10 feet without zooming in, to find the full show on the PBS website.
When I finally got to the PBS page, we watched the show, but it was noticeably pixelated on our large TV screen, even though my Internet connection is very fast.
In another case, I wanted to see the new Beatles-themed ads from Apple, but Google’s first results didn’t include them. The closest they came was an old fictional ad on the topic produced by a fan years ago. I manually navigated to Apple’s website, where the ads were prominent, but found that Google TV doesn’t support QuickTime, Apple’s video format. (The company says it plans to do so in a future release.) I knew the ads were also on YouTube, so I went there and eventually found them, with some effort, but they stuttered on playback.
To use the Logitech Revue for Google TV, you need an HDTV with HDMI jacks on your TV and cable or satellite box.
I was similarly frustrated by finding and using regular TV shows from my cable box. Unless you have a box from Dish network, Google TV can’t search in your recorded shows, or allow you, when it finds a show coming up, to set it to record. You’ll likely switch to your regular remote to do those things, which defeats Google’s aim of integration.
Also confusing is Google TV’s home screen, which has overlapping categories. For instance, there is a Queue, for some of your favorite podcasts and sites, and a Bookmarks for others. There is an Applications menu that takes you to specially designed apps that spare you from navigating the regular Web, such as the Netflix video service or Pandora Radio. But there is also a Spotlight category that has customized, simplified websites that, to an average user, amount to the same thing. And, so far, you can only search for the names of most applications, not any content they contain.
Google plans to add the Android Market of third-party apps to Google TV. That could be good, adding more functionality. But it also risks adding more complexity, unless Google redesigns the interface.
Google TV has its strong points. The integration of Web video and regular TV, while flawed, is a smart move. There is even a picture-in-picture feature that lets you keep watching TV while, say, using Twitter or any other Web function. And the Logitech box has an optional $150 camera that allows you to make free video calls. It worked well in my one test. Logitech also allows you to control the Revue from an iPhone or Android app.
But this is a 1.0 product. For now, I’d suggest average users dying to watch Internet video on a TV, either plug in a PC or use one of the wireless systems, like Intel’s Wi-Di, that wirelessly beam video from a PC to a TV. Or, you could wait for Google TV to improve.