By John Biggs and Matt Burns
Depending on who you ask, Google TV is either a boon to the television industry or a curse. It is, in short, the first major innovation in television since video-on-demand and no matter whose side you’re on Google TV is important? Why? First, it offers more. TV has always been a one-to-many transaction. Now it’s a many-to-many transaction. As we’ll note below, Search is the thing Google does best and Google TV is all about search. If you’re looking for a show you not only get schedule information on that show but you get a wealth of clips, images, and web pages on that show. If you’re like me and like to read the Wikipedia page on a movie as you watch it (I’m the kind of guy who reads the last page of a mystery, so sue me), you can do that seamlessly without leaving the movie experience. That’s only one of the ways this technology is useful.
But Google TV isn’t ready for the masses. Like Android’s 1.0 iterations, Google TV is about as family friendly as a cracking plant. The whole system is a skein of overlapping windows, unintuitive menus, and problematic playback features. Here are eight reasons you should buy – or at least try – Google TV and four reasons to avoid it right now.
1. Search – Google TV is all about search and it’s done right. The somewhat hidden Google TV Search polls online and broadcast source and then compiles the info in a unified chart. There’s nothing else like it. It’s so good that it exposes the superfluous nonsense that is the rest of Google TV.
It really feels like the whole system could be refocused simply around this function. Google TV already sits in between a STB and your TV. Somehow the middleman must be removed and cook Google TV into the HDTV and not the STB. This way Google TV still remains a separate entity from the TV provider and not dependent on the often piss-poor cable box to work. Those STB often live a hard life, traveling in between subscriber’s houses and are never reliable. Baking Google TV into your HDTV ensures that you, the owner, control it forever.
But even as it stands right now, acting as a mediator between two parties, it still works like a champ and could be reason enough to buy a Google TV. The only major downside is that the vast majority of the free web videos it finds will not play through Google TV. News Corp, Disney, CBS, and NBC Universal aren’t playing ball right now, so really, the only content available is from Viacom and the pay-per-view Amazon Video On-Demand. Sigh. Can’t everyone just get along?
2. The Remotes – QWERTY keyboards belong in the living room. They do. Don’t deny that at least a few times you’ve wished that you could just type on a keypad rather than typing via an on-screen keypad. Google TV is the first platform on the market — Boxee would be the second — that centers its philosophy around giving users a pleasing searching experience and a full QWERTY keyboard/keypad is the only way that’s possible.
TiVo missed an opportunity to bundle their QWERTY peanut remote with the Premiere units that claim to be serious about searching the web and broadcast TV in a Google TV-like fashion, but instead, offer the remote as an expensive add-on. The QWERTY keypad turns using the Premiere system into a joyous affair and would probably have improved some of the initial reviews if said remote was included. User experiences start with input devices, not user interfaces.
Both of the Google TV devices — the Logitech Revue and the Sony Internet TV Blu-ray Player — ship with totally different style remotes. Logitech bundled what is essentially a full keyboard with a trackpad and four-way navigational pad embedded on the side. The Sony ships with a QWERTY keypad that feels a lot like a PS3 accessory. Both work great, but the Sony feels more like a remote while the Logitech provides a better typing experience.
3. Works With Any System, Any Provider (Kind of) – Google TV sits as an overlay on top of either cable or satellite TV. The STB connects to Google TV via HDMI and then the Google TV box hooks into your TV. Setup couldn’t be easier. It just sits there, inline with everything else.
Because of this, as long as the STB and TV (or AV receiver) has an HDMI port, it will work. Doesn’t matter if the STB is a TiVo, Comcast thing, or DirecTV box. It will work. Major props to whoever came up with this design, because it’s key to Google TV’s adaption.
Introducing a radical new system on the family TV is often an hazardous affair. But have no fear, nerdy dads. The TV and cable box can still be operated with the original controller even if that means an advance system using an RF remote. The family doesn’t have to use Google TV or the QWERTY remotes at all if they don’t want.
Both remotes can also control an AV receiver along with a TV and STB, but Logitech uses the setup method and database from its line of Harmony universal remote controls, which opens up the Revue to more devices. The Sony system works with most mainstream products, but not everything like the Logitech.
4. PIP – The real value of Google TV is that it sits in-line with your set-top box and essentially takes control of things. If you have DISH box, this integration is very powerful. For example, you can view your program in a little window in the corner and look up information in the browser or search for new programs without entering the STB’s sub-par guide menu. This means you can, like me, read out whodunit before you know whodunit. You can also Tweet, check email, and generally ignore the program you’re watching. WARNING: Do not try this feature with other people in the room, especially if that other person is my wife and you’re watching Grey’s Anatomy.
5. The 10-foot Interface – Google TV? Har de har! More like WebTV circa 1995! Ha! Didn’t Microsoft already fail at that?
They absolutely did. Why? Because back when WebTV was around, everything about it sucked. The Web was slow and useless, folks couldn’t figure out what computers were for let alone what computers on your TV were for. But Google has done something great. The mixed the standard 10-foot interface – basically the interface you can use on your couch – with the Internet. The Chrome browser is excellent in that its readable from afar and the pointer on the screen is big and bold and appears even when you’re watching TV. It’s not a computer experience but its not a TiVO experience either.
6. Google Is Trying – At least Google is trying. If the broadcasters had their way, we’d still be on CRT TVs with the channel knobs locked to one station, North Korean-style. Google TV is actually suffering at the hands of frightened content providers who are finally understanding that when the Internet is available on your TV America’s Next Fattest Talent Haver will be seen as the garbage it truly is. Google TV creates a constellation of content around everything and this content will only become richer over time.
I think the biggest deal here is that Google TV plays well with set-top-boxes. Instead of supplanting the broadcast TV experience entirely, it sits in line to it, ensuring that folks will still watch at least some commercials. TV networks should be thanking Google for that little point.
7. Everything In One Place – Like many boxes before it, Google TV allows you access to Netflix, Amazon, and even allows you to play your own “content” from your own “sources” (wink wink). Finally I can integrate all of those sources with live TV.
8. It Can Only Get Better – For all the problems we have with Google TV, it can only get better. Google knows how to release product – they dump out a beta with a partner, the partner rides Google’s good will for a little while, and then Google reaps the benefits of a big install base, all the while claiming not to be in the space. Is Google TV the best it can be? Absolutely not. Will it be better? Absolutely.
1. The Stripped Down Browser – Google TV could be so much more. A modified version of Chrome is used on the system and it feels like a lot is left out. The capabilities are fine, it’s just the UI that’s lacking. It’s full screen, with no dedicated URL bar or tabs even though both can be accessed through keyboard commands. Bookmarks are back on the main menu of Google TV, but worst of all, it’s so damn slow.
Google TV’s Chrome renders pages so slowly, it feels like the days of 56k Internet. It’s especially bad on graphic- and Flash-heavy sites like NBC.com where the browser often crashes. Forget about using Hulu even if the content wasn’t blocked, it’s a painful experience navigating around when it takes minutes to render pages.
Google TV could be a proper HDTV web browsing device, but the poor performing browser kills the experience. Want to use Facebook from your couch? Buy a netbook, not Google TV.
2. No Google Apps – Come on, Google. Throw us a bone. Give us a little native email or Google Voice access. Logitech offers its Vid HD feature but I’ve yet to get it to work on the TV so maybe a few video chats via Google are in order? I’m sure this will change as Apps appear for the platform, but hurry up!
3. DLNA Instead Of Direct Network Browsing – One of the key features of Google TV is that the Google TV Search also looks at local network sources for content. Say you search for Batman. It will display results from any configured DLNA server with the other results as well. It could be a great feature if it wasn’t dependent on DLNA servers.
Configuring DLNA server is for the dogs. They rarely work as well as advertised and often fail because of silly things like installed codecs, remote transcoding, supported file types, the server’s processing power, and so much more. Then when they work, good luck trying to change the displayed file structure on the client.
Instead, Google TV should have a bit of local storage and the ability to browse the local network as a computer rather than a media streamer. Installation would then be a non-issue. Plug it in and the Google TV would have access to the shared content rather than relying on haphazard DLNA servers.
Perhaps if either of the launch Google TV devices shipped with a DLNA server, it wouldn’t be as big of a deal. Instead, owners are forced to bring their own to the party, which requires a bunch of trial and error installing and Google’n until one that works is found. It’s a mess.
4. It’s Half-Baked – I like to live on the edge. I sometimes undercook the ready-made cookies we buy from Costco so they’re just a little soft and soggy. I also like my meat rare, even when it means I’ll get massive gastrointestinal pain once a year. But Google TV is so half-baked it’s sliding down the pan and into a puddle on the floor. It feels like a weekend project, something someone put together during his “me time” at Google HQ, packaged up, and sent to the higher ups who said “Hey, let’s run with this.”
As Nicholas pointed out, Google TV actually less usable than something like Plex or XBMC. Heck, it’s even less usable than any other set-top media player I’ve tried including WDTV. If I were not a charitable man, I’d say its garbage.
But there is a glimmer of hope at the end of the suck rainbow. Google TV can only get better and, knowing Google, it will get better quickly and drastically. By this time next year, expect most TVs to have GTV built-in.