19th Jan 2011 | 13:12
Can Google's Internet TV service deliver the experience you demand?
Google TV: Overview
Despite asking its hardware partners not to show new Google TV devices at CES, Google has said that this is the year that Google TV will be available outside the US.
But if the first international Google TV devices are like the $300 Logitech Revue that's currently shipping in the US, will you want one when you can buy it?
The idea behind Google TV is to take the TV screen and the TV channels you already have and add the web, complete with Flash and HTML 5, web content like YouTube and a search interface that brings it all together.
What you get is an interface running on top of a derivative of Android 2.1 plus Chrome rather than the Android browser - but still with Flash 10.1 built in.
That's all running on an Intel Atom CE4150 processor with hardware accelerated video encoding and decoding (for H.264 but not for WebM) rather than the ARM processor we're used to seeing Android on. And that means that not only is the Revue's case large enough to fit in a full set of connectors – HDMI in, HDMI out, Ethernet, two USB ports, two IR blaster ports and SPDIF – it also has air vents and a fan (although you won't notice it over the sound of your TV).
Most add-on media streaming boxes that you plug into your TV, like Apple TV and Boxee systems, leave you to control your TV separately, with its original remote.
Google TV is more like Windows Media Centre (or the Windows Media Center-based set-top boxes that will be out this year), where you get one remote control for working with both TV and online content, and you can see TV shows (from a cable TV or set-top box but not broadcast channels, at least on the systems we tested) full screen or in a picture-in-picture window, via the HDMI port.
The Revue has the advantage of Logitech's Harmony remote technology; tell it the model of your TV, set-top box or AV receiver (easier said than done if you've got a flatscreen mounted on the wall) and it looks them up in its online database and lets you control them from the Revue remote.
It's limited to controlling three IR devices, but it does mean you only have one remote to find space for. But that remote is actually a full size QWERTY keyboard, which is going to put off a number of mainstream users straight away.
Google TV: Getting started
Google delivered an update to Google TV in December; when we plugged in the Revue we had to wait almost five minutes on a fast broadband connection for this to download and install before we could get to the twelve set up steps.
These aren't difficult but it does take about twenty minutes (much too long), the user experience is disappointing and not nearly friendly enough; Google TV can't autodetect screen size or resolution so you have to manually resize the image on screen.
Even if you have a network cable in, the setup asks you to choose between wired and wireless (the equivalent step with Apple TV makes it much clearer that you have a network connection but can switch to Wi-Fi if you want) and it's never encouraging when the designers have so much confidence in the intuitiveness of their interface that they play you a training video you can't skip at the end of setup.
The Keyboard Controller remote
The Revue box is a netbook inside and the Keyboard Controller reinforces that. It's remarkably light, but it's also large and computer-like. The keyboard scatters the special keys around confusingly; Home, Back and Picture in picture are with the playback controls but Search is where the Windows key would usually be and Mute and volume are over on the top left.
Despite the size of the keyboard, key buttons like Stop and Zoom are secondary function keys to leave space for Ctrl, Alt and Tab.
Things you'd expect to work – like being able to scroll through a list with the mouse pointer as well as the arrow buttons – just don't (there is a two-finger scroll gesture but it's just not that comfortable when you're holding the keyboard).
We found ourselves repeatedly switching from the arrow keys to the touchpad and back because many apps demand you use both and it's not clear which works for any given interaction until you try.
You can't tell which of the playback keys will work either; play/pause works with the podcast Queue interface and on some of the Spotlight video apps, but not in YouTube (so you have to mouse over to the on-screen pause button).
Having a keyboard at all could be seen as a failure (the Apple TV remote is at the other extreme of being almost too simple), but if you want to search or type in URLs, you're going to need one and this is certainly better than the terrible predictive text systems on Samsung connected TVs (and faster to type on than the alphabetical on screen keyboard of Apple TV).
The Sony Google TV controller groups the special buttons far more logically, but has the same problem of too many function keys, plus the QWERTY keys are much too small.
You don't have to use the Revue keyboard to control Google TV; Logitech sells a version of the DiNovo Mini Controller with Google TV buttons and functionality, or both Google and Logitech provide free Android apps to run on your phone.
The Google TV Remote app lets you search by talking to your phone, but it only works on Android 2.2; 2.1 users can get the similar Logitech Harmony app without the voice control.
Google TV: Interface
The Google TV interface is designed to be fairly easy to navigate without resorting to the mouse; there are eight categories down the side with thumbnail icons in each:
Bookmarks (which can be apps or web pages you've marked with the star button on the keyboard), Applications and Spotlight (the apps section has local apps like the Gallery and Logitech Media Player plus a selection of the options in Spotlight, like CNBC, Napster and the custom interface to Amazon's video-on-demand service).
Joining them is Most visited pages (which includes individual pages inside apps – which at this stage are only custom websites rather than actual Android or Flash apps), Queue (a nice interface for exploring and subscribing to podcasts, as well as videos you've marked to watch later), the What's On TV guide for your set-top box TV (if it's one of the selected services Google TV supports), plus direct links to Netflix and the Amazon video on demand service.
You can edit the category menu to add or remove apps; confusingly the Add menu lets you add items that are already on the menu instead of greying them out until you've removed them as well as some specific apps like YouTube and Twitter.
We like that you can remove any of the built-in categories if you don't use them, because there are only ten slots on the menu. Any of the menu items can be what Google TV calls a custom 'shelf'; a folder you can put more items into if you want to organise things.
Although almost everything in Google TV is actually a web page in varying levels of disguise, the Chrome browser isn't one of the top-level menu entries unless you put it there yourself; it's on the list in Applications.
That's because Google expects you to search for web and TV content (and pressing the Search button is also the fastest way to type in a URL; something that makes more sense if you're already an Android user). How well this works depends both on what you're looking for and what you've got connected.
With selected set-top boxes you can find future programs (as well as what's playing now, what you've got recorded and what's online) and set the DVR for them; that's a great experience that's far easier than navigating through an EPG, even if you're getting a list of which episodes you can pay for or watch free online and it's where the Google expertise really shines. You can even type in a channel name instead of remembering the number for it.
But with any other TV service you still get current and future TV shows along with the other results, if you ask Google TV to record something it changes the channel then and there – and tells you to use your own DVR to do it.
Switching between TV and online content is fairly seamless, but navigating between different areas of online content gets confusing.
All of the content apps we opened seemed to open in the same Chrome tab, so we couldn't easily have the Twitter app and a YouTube video ready to switch between – choosing Back or Home and picking another app opened it in the same tab and in some cases the video we'd abandoned started playing again before the new app loaded.
Opening a new tab from the menu button gave us a Google home page – but closed the original tab with the previous app in. Occasionally we'd jump back to a different app rather than the Home screen and it all felt rather unpredictable.
Another interface issue is the picture in picture command; calling it DualView is a bit of a misnomer because it's a much smaller thumbnail (and while you can now move it if it's obscuring something vital in the main screen and resize it, it's not immediately obvious how to do either).
Plus DualView only works with TV; you can't have an Amazon video in the thumbnail while you check Twitter – or indeed Twitter in the thumbnail while you watch a match.
Google TV: Online content
The major disappointment with Google TV in the US is that all the major networks – and Hulu – have blocked Google TV from playing their online episodes.
What you can see are YouTube and similar sites like Vimeo or specialist video sites for food, fashion, music and technology, older films from ad-supported sites like Crackle that don't play in HD, film trailers from Flixster, content from channels that have done deals with Google like Cartoon Network and Adult Swim, pay-for content from Amazon and the Mspot movie rental service, and streaming content from Netflix and HBO GO (both of which have excellent interface but need a subscription).
The content in Spotlight is a bit of a lucky dip. The Twitter application only fits four tweets on your TV screen (but they're legible, unlike the text and controls on some uncustomised websites from ten feet away).
You can load Facebook in the browser but there's an app that puts the Party Central Facebook game in its own interface. The Huffington Post NewsGlide interface is good for seeing top stories while USA Today formats stories to look more like the printed version; reading them on screen by paging through with the arrow keys feels a bit old fashioned, but some older test viewers mentioned that it was nice not to have to get their reading glasses out.
There are also some services for children with basic read-along books and some remarkably low-quality games to play with the arrow keys on the keyboard, plus catalogues like Clicker and Sidereel that help you find TV, films and music available online (but many of those sites are blocked when you visit them).
The custom web interfaces take a variety of approaches; some start playing a video immediately and make you browse to pick what you want, others present you with a catalogue to browse.
Some have a DVR-like interface, others look like web pages. Mostly the interfaces are primitive; choose the stocks you want to see in the CNBC app and whatever video you've chosen to watch stops playing – and when you save your stock picks the first video in the list starts again from the beginning.
The 'leanback' YouTube experience isn't even the default; you have to choose it and even then videos don't start full screen or in HD – you have to use the mouse to click the buttons for that on every video.)
The same was true for most of the video sites. Amazon's US-only video-on-demand site does start videos full screen, but even on a fast broadband connection they don't start in HD; the image visibly jumps once it's tested the connection and switches to HD and even then much of the video has the artificial clarity and layered effect of upscaled video and we could see artefacts (especially around title text). You also have to navigate through the Amazon website to get to videos.
The quality issues make watching longer online content frustrating and while The Onion is fun, we're not sure how many short online food or fashion videos you're going to want to watch in a row. This kind of content 'snacking' works very well for cartoons though and you do have the whole of YouTube to choose from.
You can watch your own content, from PCs and network hard drives that support DLNA, using the Logitech Media Player; this works well, but the complexity of authorising the player to connect to your PCs is another step in making this a device for enthusiasts rather than mainstream users.
The Gallery application prompted us for details of our Picasa account but we didn't immediately see how to add another account like Flickr and images from Picasa didn't fit the screen well.
Music quality from Pandora was much better than from the Tunein Internet radio app; Tunein took our prize for the least consistent interface because although the stop button worked (which it didn't in most video services) the play and pause buttons seemed to restart tracks from the beginning and the back button took you out of the app entirely rather than back to a previous station.
The hardware pause button didn't work to pause YouTube videos either, and very few sites supported the fast forward and rewind buttons.
Most of the online content on our test system didn't respond to the mute button either, but this may have been a set up issue we haven't been able to iron out.
The inconsistency of when the playback controls work with online content is frustrating and even when you can pause something Google TV doesn't manage the pause stack at all well.
You can't pause content that's already playing in the background if you've gone to look at something else like Twitter without switching back to it; and when we paused a podcast, opened the Pandora app to play some music and paused that, pausing Pandora started the podcast playing again as well.
The podcast carried on playing in the background when we switched to other apps without pausing it and carried on playing even when we started a YouTube video; but when we hit the Home button while watching an Amazon video-on-demand show it stopped playing when we started another app.
Despite the simplicity of getting at online content on your TV in the first place, these kind of rough edges are out of place in a device with this kind of price tag.
Google TV: Verdict
The Logitech Revue does many things well, although most of those are features that are already Logitech strengths – like the universal remote control, the very usable (and surprisingly light) keyboard and the DLNA media streaming.
Google TV does several things well: putting the full-featured Chrome browser onto a TV screen, integrating a mix of online and TV information for a search that certainly approaches its universal claim, giving you YouTube video full screen with only a modicum of fiddling each time.
But what it mostly does is hint at a future where your entertainment really will be integrated and seamless but also open and powerful.
The problem is that many of the roadblocks to reaching this nirvana are more about business models than about technology (although there are some technology issues to solve as well) and there's no guarantee that Google will be able to solve all of them.
It's the web, on TV; you're watching YouTube videos and Adult Swim Cartoons and video podcasts and your online photos or listening to Pandora and Napster and podcasts on the screen you bought for watching and listening on.
You can search and get results from the web and your TV provider. You can have the news playing in a small window while you check out what your friends are saying on Twitter. It's not seamless and it's not always intuitive, but it beats hauling out a laptop to look at next to your TV.
The setup and the simple fact of having a keyboard for a remote control are going to put off people who would otherwise be the target market for a system that makes it easy to get the web on TV.
The interface is both simplistic and confusing. The pause problem is frankly infuriating. There are too many places where you're asking why a feature like picture in picture only works for TV channels, not online videos and the fact that we were agreeably surprised when the search button searched inside the Twitter app says something about the level of expectations we came to have of the user interface.
The app market isn't here so everything that passes for apps today is a website – which is both an advantage and disadvantage; some work with the arrow keys, some need the mouse, but even on the best sites the web seams show eventually.
Google TV is very promising; taking online video to the sofa, along with your photos and music and favourite websites is a great idea and an open selection of apps will be a welcome change from the walled garden app offerings of current connected TVs.
But the current version of Google TV doesn't deliver on that promise, with an overcomplicated interface, TV integration that only offers DVR functions with select set-top boxes and services, and no apps that aren't just websites.
Compared to the limited functionality but blissfully simple setup of the latest Apple TV, Google TV still feels like you need to be a geek to use it.
If the UK devices don't have significant improvements and the Android Marketplace, we say wait for another version or two. At this point, it's too much Google and not enough TV.