Both Sony and Logitech released their first Google TV devices in October, giving the world a first look at Google’s attempt to conquer the living room.
I’ve been using the Logitech Revue Google TV set-top box for over a week now, and I found a lot to like, as well as a couple of really intriguing features that hint at great possibilities. However, ultimately, I wouldn’t go out and buy this product — and I have a feeling many consumers might feel the same way. (By the way, if you want to learn more about Google TV, make sure to check out our NewTeeVee Live conference, coming up Nov. 10 and featuring Google TV Product Lead Rishi Chandra.)
The hardware. The Logitech Revue retails for a steep price of $300. For that, you get a nondescript set-top box that’s really just a nice shell for netbook-like hardware, featuring a 1.2 GHz Atom CPU, 1 GB of RAM and a total of 5 GB of flash memory. The Revue connects to your TV through an HDMI output, and it also offers an HDMI input to loop in TV signals coming from your cable or satellite TV box to combine the Revue’s web experience with live TV programming.
The box also makes use of Logitech’s Harmony technology, meaning that it can be used to control other parts of your living room setup, like your TV, your cable box or your receiver, just as a Harmony universal remote would. I didn’t have that much to control (more on that later), but functions like turning my TV on and off with the keyboard worked just fine. The box itself also worked as advertised, but I noticed some audible fan noises at times. Not PC-tower loud, but definitely notable.
The final piece in the puzzle is a full-size wireless keyboard complete with touchpad and a number of remote-control specific keys. Some folks have questioned whether having a keyboard like this makes sense in the living room. Being a geek at heart, I really didn’t have any problems with it. In fact, I found the full keyboard useful for search, and I really liked the touch pad. The keyboard also has a nice feel to it, being lightweight without feeling too cheap, and I quickly came up with my own method of thumb-typing while holding onto it with the rest of my hand when moving about the living room.
The first impression. Google TV is based on Google’s Android operating system, and this heritage shines through quite a bit. The good news is that Android phone users will feel familiar right away with the system, quickly discovering basic functionality like task switching works just like on Android mobile devices. The bad news is that these features may not be quite as familiar for people who don’t know their way around Froyo & Co., and I can see that Google TV could be kind of overwhelming to those users.
Part of that has to do with the fact that Google TV offers so many layers of stuff that it’s at times a bit of a challenge to find the way to what you’re looking for. The system offers apps (Netflix, Pandora, NBA Game Time, Napster and Twitter), a spotlight gallery of Google TV-optimized web sites (Amazon VOD, HBO GO, VEVO, YouTube Leanback, PBS Kids and more), Bookmarks and a list of your most visited sites, as well as search and a Google Chrome browser app to go directly to the website of your choice.
Chrome opens with a simple Google search page, but Google TV’s universal search offers several additional layers of content discovery. It can search your personalized TV listings, provided you’ve hooked up your Revue to a cable or satellite set-top box, offer relevant video search results from around the web and search results from a special Google directory of TV shows. Users can always opt to expand their search to Amazon VOD, content from some of their other installed apps or even the entire web. Oh, and then there’s the podcast directory, plus the personal queue to manage all your subscriptions and web video finds. All these options by themselves are actually very useful, but sometimes you don’t know where to start.
The web experience Some two dozen video and news sites have optimized their experience for Google TV, and it definitely makes sense that they did. Take YouTube Leanback for example: Previous iterations of YouTube on connected devices simply offered access to some catalog shortcuts, but Leanback actually presents playlists based on your personal viewing history as well any optional search terms in a way that’s optimized for the big screen. Others, like Adult Swim, have simply adopted this model, but YouTube seems to do it best.
That being said, the number of optimized sites is still pretty small, and you’re inevitably thrown back to the plain old web every so often when you hunt for content on Google TV, which can, at times, be pretty painful. Flash-heavy sites especially can overwhelm the Revue hardware. Imagine scrolling a very CPU-intensive website on an old notebook, and you get the picture. Even dealing with desktop-optimized Flash video players can be painful on the TV screen. I found myself getting up from the couch more than once to walk up close to the TV and find that tiny button needed to switch to full screen.
I also didn’t really feel the urge to do many things on the web other than watch video, so I didn’t really browse around very much. Still, having a browser that can play video from any site (well, most of them anyway) is definitely a bonus, if only for the fact that you can easily access tons of live streams, no mater where they’re shown. I don’t have Comedy Central, but I watched Jon Stewart’s recent D.C. rally on Comedycentral.com in HD without a single glitch.
The TV integration. This is the part where I can start bickering. I’m a cord cutter, so I don’t have any cable box to plug into the Revue, and there’s no way to access over the air programming with this box, even though I can get some 50 channels with a rabbit-ear antenna, many of which come in full HD. Nevermind, this box wasn’t made for people like me, but for people who actually stick with cable, or Dish for that matter.
I did schlep the entire set-up to my neighbor, who has AT&T U-Verse, and I must admit that the integration of TV and web content is actually really well done. Google TV has access to a Google directory of TV content that lists current and previous seasons of most popular shows, complete with air date. It’s a little bit like Clicker, except Google TV also offers the ability to tune into live broadcasts, or even schedule DVR recordings, if you have the device connected to your Dish service.
Previous episodes are available online in many cases, and going from searching for The Office to watching a classic episode of your choice for free on TBS.com really just takes a few seconds. Often, it even offers multiple choices per episode, so you can decide yourself if you want to rent a show ad-free on Amazon or watch it ad-supported online.
There was some redundancy, as you can navigate both your TV provider’s programming guide as well as a Google TV guide, which means you have yet another layer to deal with. However, what I found most irritating was that some of the more advanced TV integration functionality is only available for live TV, but not for any of the web content. Take picture-in-picture viewing for example; Revue owners can browse a web site while they continue to watch their TV feed in the lower right corner of the screen, but it’s impossible to do anything like that while you’re watching Netflix, or any other web video for that matter. Sure, you can always switch between different apps and Chrome windows, but with more and more live content moving to the web, it only makes sense to offer live video feeds and things like Twitter on the same screen, at the same time.
The good stuff. Google TV offers a number of very powerful features that could be very compelling in the future, but not all of them are very well executed. Take the Google TV Queue for example. Queue is essentially an RSS reader for video content that makes it possible to subscribe to both podcasts as well as TV shows hosted on the web. Users can also bookmark any video they stumble upon to watch it later. The best thing: Queue integrates with your Google Reader, so you can easily edit your subscriptions online. Android users will again find this very familiar, as it’s essentially the same setup used for the Google Listen podcast client. However, the user experience could be better. It’s unclear, for example, why Google TV’s podcast directory resides within my queue, whereas its TV show directory doesn’t.
Logitech also tried very hard to have Revue tap into local content. The box comes with a Logitech-exclusive media player app pre-installed that can be used to play content from attached USB drives as well as sources shared via the local network. Only, the thing really didn’t work for me. It didn’t recognize a hard drive and a Flash drive, and ran into issues when playing content from another drive. It did locate my NAS, but couldn’t access any files on it — and those were all drives that I have successfully used with other networked media players before.
Finally, Google TV’s Universal Search is really powerful, as it allows users to fine-tune which sources to include. Some of the possible sources currently include local media, tweets and Amazon VOD results, but one could imagine that application programmers will eventually come up with a whole bunch of interesting possibilities for this.
The final verdict. I must say I was pleasantly surprised by my experience with the Logitech Revue. There is somewhat of a steep learning curve for a lot of its features, but if you give it a couple of days, you’ll really start to get the hang of it. There’s also a bunch of stuff that could get really exciting in the future, and I’m looking forward to seeing apps come to the Google TV platform in early 2011.
That being said, I’m not going to add the Logitech Revue to my living room setup. The missing support for over-the-air HD TV is a major deal breaker for me, and I suspect that I’m not the only one. Numbers from vendors like Roku and PlayOn seem to suggest that people look to devices like this one to ditch cable, not to make it more appealing, but cord cutters simply don’t seem to be the target audience for the Logitech Revue.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that we won’t see some OTA-optimized Google TV devices in the future. A Sezmi-like box based on Google TV, anyone? Having seen what Google TV can do, I’m really looking forward to the next generation of devices for this platform. This generation, on the other hand, doesn’t do the trick for me just yet.
Check out our Google TV first impressions video below:
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