My family and I have been living with a Google TV for a few days now and since I first installed it, I’ve come up some clever titles for this post. They’ve ranged from snarky to just plain mean, and, well, since I can’t decide on just one, I went with the boring one above. I can’t let all these classy titles go to waste. That wouldn’t be fair, and so, here are some of the nicer ones:
- Google TV: Welcome to beta testing
- Google TV: Like Android 1.0 but on your HDTV
- Google TV: Feels so good, works so bad
- Google TV: Because Google only releases beta products
- Google TV: Twice as many cons as pros
- Google TV: Because managing unstable applications on your TV is good family fun
- Google TV: Where’s my Gmail?
Got the idea? Yeah, it’s that rough. I can’t paint you a rosy picture of this beautiful marriage of the Internet and your TV because, well, the magic simply isn’t there. Yet. But I’m here to tell you that if the next TV you buy doesn’t have Google TV – or Google TV-like features – I’ll eat my handsome, stylish hat.
Google TV, as it stands, is a product in its beta round even though it’s not labeled as such. It’s not fully-fledged nor does it work particularly well. I resent that Google saw fit to use us as their guinea pigs but, but that’s how Google rolls. Think of this as Android for your TV – version 1.0 is garbage but just wait until you see 2.2. With several major updates and lots of little tweaks, Google TV will be the best product they’ve ever made. As of right now, however, it’s a sad mixture of random functions loosely held together by a fustercluck user interface.
A Friend Of Both Cable & The Internet
Google TV sits between a set-top box and your HDTV. You connect to your set-top box via HDMI, the Revue then overlays that signal with Google TV and outputs it via HDMI. No composite/component here. This is obviously Google’s way of edging their way in with the cable mafia. You can still interact with your STB, but now, a specially-made keyboard controller or smartphone app can also interact with both the Google TV and the entire A/V setup.
It’s actually novel at first. Live TV becomes an app of sorts and you can access and manage it along with various apps like Pandora radio or Netflix. Google also worked in an alternative type of programming guide into the backend, but you’re not required to use this one over your the stock one in your cable box. Google’s version, however, is rather nice and divides up the content currently live on TV into genres — this is one of best little things about Google TV.
But a key selling point is that everything still works as if there’s no Google TV installed at all. This makes integrating it into a family atmosphere seamless. No one is required to learn a new interface, guide structure or even remote. But it’s there if they want to use the advanced functions of Google TV. To activate Google TV you can press a “search” button and begin typing. If you want to watch Boardwalk Empire you type it in, select it via Google’s own interface, and it is added to your queue. If you have a compatible set-top box, it should, in theory, begin recording your shows to your DVR.
Apps? We Don’t Need No Stinking Apps
The apps aren’t anything special. CNBC Live is more like CNBC lag. Netflix, is, well every other implementation of Netflix and the same goes for Pandora. The Gallery app only links to a Picasa accounts. NBA Gametime, one of the apps highly promoted for Google TV, isn’t dynamic so none of the info is presented in real time — there seems to be a random update that refreshes all the info every couple of minutes. It’s not exactly the best way to follow multiple NBA games at one time. Strangely, it’s missing any Google Apps such as Gmail, Reader, Maps, or anything else that would seem natural on a web-connection Google device.
The other apps – like the TNT, TBS, even Amazon Video On-Demand – aren’t really apps. These are web portals accessed though a shortcut, which basically means you’re at the mercy of the web browser — which is called Chrome, but clearly isn’t your desktop’s Chrome.
There were probably dozens upon dozens of boardroom meetings concerning how the browser would work in Google TV. Some designers probably wanted to bring the full experience, complete with visible tabs and an address bar to the platform while others likely wanted a stripped-down version. The latter camp won, and it’s a shame; I want so much more. But it seems Google steered Google TV away from being a device that brings all of the Internet to your TV towards a device that brings Internet video to your TV.
The web browser, which is named Chrome likely just for branding purposes, offers a gimped user interface and poor performance, although the slow rendering speed could be a result of underpowered hardware. Forget about the speed for a quick minute (although that’s how Chrome has sold itself for years). It’s the user experience that’s more important. Acid3 awards it a 99 out of a 100, but most of the tests reported slow results stating that while it can handle most of the web, it won’t be smooth.
Hit F11 on your keyboard. Your browser went full screen, right? Try to navigate to a different website or even to the previous page using the back button. How about accessing your favorites or switching to another tab. That’s exactly how it is on Google TV. Sure, all those actions have keyboard commands, but it’s hard to replicate the workflow and usefulness of actual in-browser buttons.
Google TV’s Chrome still has most of the functions you’d find in a desktop version, even incognito mode — but they’re frustratingly hidden behind a keyboard command. I’m not saying I want a quarter of my screen taken up by a menu bar, but there has to be a better user interface especially for managing the tabs. Right now the only way to access multiple browser windows is through the fast-switch screen accessed from hitting Ctrl + Tab that also displays all the running apps such as your home screen, live TV, and whatever else is running. Why can’t there be a physical tab bar either on the screen or on some auto-hid bar?
Some standard desktop browser functions are missing, though. The search bar that also doubles as the URL bar doesn’t remember frequently-searched terms or sites. Google TV simply doesn’t offer a pleasing Internet browsing experience although I quickly found that I really enjoy writing on the Google TV. In fact, I wrote 90% of this review reclined in my Lazy-Boy on my 47-inch LCD 12 feet away. The Logitech wireless keyboard that comes with the Revue isn’t great, but it’s nearly full size and fits nicely in my lap.
You might be saying, “Who cares, I can do that right now with my HTPC.” which I will promptly agree with, but then indicated that one shining part of Google TV’s Chrome is that it optimizes the text for the screen. I’ve never seen text this crisp and clear on any HTPC. But an HTPC with the right mouse and keyboard combo still provides a better overall web browsing experience.
Surprise, surprise. It’s all about the search.
Clearly Google wanted to make Google TV not about the entire Internet, but about web video. It offers the best experience possible in this regard thanks primarily to the slightly hidden search function. There’s really nothing like it anywhere else. The robust search polls both broadcast TV and streaming sources for a particular show and presents the results in an easy to use grid layout.
Say you search for CSI. First a general selection screen will present different series and clips pertaining to the searched term. In this case, CSI: Miami, CSI: NY, and the original CSI are all options. Once the appropriate show is selected, the next screen is a large chart formatted just for Google TV of each season with episodes listed beneath the correct season. To the right of each episode are three columns relating to live TV, free web video, and pay-per-view content from Amazon Video On-Demand. Select a given episode and up pops a menu asking you to select where you want to watch the content. If it’s live TV, it will tell you when it’s showing and then dump you in your cable box’s guide. The web video will launch the URL of the video’s location, while the pay-per-view option takes you to Amazon’s page. It’s easy, but there’s a problem. Hardly any shows are available for free streaming right now.
Google got a bit of bad press shortly after its launch when the major networks banned Google TV not from their sites entirely, just the streaming content. Sure, it’s pissing match between industries, but it sort of kills the usefulness of Google TV. The whole philosophy behind Google TV was to supplement subscription-based TV with content from the Internet. It’s a sad story without web content from News Corp, CBS, Disney-ABC Group, and a limited selection from NBC Universal. Only Viacom (Comedy Central, Nick, TBS) is playing nicely right now.
Still, since the search drops users of at the URL of the video, and not on a specially-formatted screen, Chrome’s sorry performance often kills the experience. Some videos take a good three to four minutes to start playing and Flash-heavy sites like NBC.com often crash the browser entirely.
The experience is far from refined. However, the search function alone is powerful enough to justify Google TV’s entire existence as long as the networks play ball, and hopefully, with enough time (and money) they will.
There’s a good chance that I would feel slightly different about Google TV if it was running on more powerful hardware. It feels like the hardware is holding the system back. But there lies a big problem in that the $300 price tag is already higher than most other similar options and more powerful hardware would no doubt drive it up even higher. I’m not sure what sort of hardware improvements are necessary, but a bit more RAM seems in order.
The keyboard works as expected and the slim form factor helps it to feel less like a piece of office equipment. It’s still larger than a traditional remote, but Google TV’s claim is to bring the Internet onto your TV and I can’t imagine browsing and searching without a full QWERTY keyboard.
The Android app feels like it’s in beta right now. It’s almost useless. It doesn’t know the state of the system so if the app is launched while Google TV is running, it thinks the system is off. Clicking the Google TV button in turn powers down the unit. It can control all of the equipment within the range of the Google TV IR blaster, but the app is more of a novelty right now. It doesn’t offer any additional functionality over the standard remote. In fact, it’s a bit more unwieldy thanks to a poor UI if anything.
Logitech also offers a $150 webcam for the Revue and while the picture quality seemed nice when I was setting it up, I never could manage to get the thing to work. The equipment wasn’t to blame. The Logitech Vid software — no Skype here — constantly crashed and a few times a power cycle didn’t resolve the issue, forcing me to go into the Running Services menu deep in the Settings to kill the task or a rather large error message would inform me every five minutes that the program was dying. That’s when I came up with a few of those headlines above.
It’s crazy just how perfect the correlation between Google TV and Android 1.0 happens to be. It’s slow, buggy, but shows so much promise. Google TV can be awesome. It can change the way consumers interact with their TV. It can bring the power of Google search into your cable box. But not yet.
In short, Google TV is still in beta. It’s not even like Gmail’s “beta” period. This thing is straight up rough. Currently the device has only a few very basic features that have been available in systems like XBMC and Plex for years. For example, you cannot connect to drive shares on your network except through UPnP which often causes poor video quality and format compatibility troubles. Many of the cool things you’d love to be able to do with this device are potentially available – VNC desktop connectivity, Skype, and even illustrated e-book reading for kids – are glaringly missing. Android Market is set to come in 2011, so perhaps the landscape will quickly evolve.
First, Google needs to iron out the whole system and work with hardware companies to optimize the system for low-cost hardware. The platform needs to open up and allow 3rd party apps designed just for the Google TV — the crapfest that is the Google Marketplace will not help the cause alone. The browser must grow up and gain at least some functionality traditionally found on desktop version.
There isn’t one of the aforementioned tasks that’s more important than another. All of them must be tackled immediately. Google TV isn’t ready for public consumption yet. But one day it will be and that’s when you should buy it. Not now. Unless you enjoy the pains of beta testing.