Last week I explained my reasons for purchasing a Google TV. I think it is a cool idea and recent cuts have moved it to a price point that I can handle. I picked it up recently and started playing with it. Here’s what I think.
Before I start, let me make the distinction between the Logitech Revue and the Google TV. The Revue is hardware. It is the box that plugs into the TV. Google TV is the software that runs on the Revue. Google TV is based on Android, and as such, is available on multiple devices from different manufacturers. Currently the Google TV software is available on the Logitech Revue, some Sony TVs, and a Sony Blu Ray player. I bought the Revue because it was the least expensive Google TV device on the market. This first section is all about the Revue hardware. The next sections get into the Google TV software.
The packaging on the Revue is nice. It isn’t Apple quality, but it isn’t drab cardboard either. The packaging is made out of thick teal card stock. It has a grippy texture similar to the packaging of other high-end electronics. Inside the box, each item is neatly layered upon the next. The keyboard is on top inside of a molded plastic tray. Underneath is the Revue itself, wrapped in protective plastic. Next to it is a small envelope containing the instructions and regulatory notices and under that is a box containing the power cord, an IR blaster, and a complementary HDMI cable (bravo!).
The hardware itself is fine, it’s a rectangle with nothing on the front except some lights and three IR blasters to send remote signals to your TV and cable box. The back contains a myriad of ports that let it connect to your TV, audio system, cable box, and network. The device is a bit larger than I expected however, being about 3x wider, 2x taller, and 1.5x deeper than my Apple TV. It’s still not as big as a cable box or a gaming console, but it’s not quite as small as it probably could be.
The Revue ships with a keyboard that is used to control the device. Its black with a white backing and looks and feels pretty cheap. Logitech took a standard sized keyboard, cut a few inches off the side, shoved a trackpad and four way controller on to it, and shrunk the keys to match. The result is a workable, but awkward keyboard. It has no backlighting (bummer), the key response is soft, and some of the keys are awkwardly short (e.g. the right shift key). It’s not fantastic, but it is better than using a remote to perform searches (ala the Apple TV). The keyboard’s saving grace is the rubber treading on the back, which keeps it nice and steady when its on a table. Oh, and it came with AA batteries pre-installed. Nice touch.
Plugging in the Revue was pretty standard – plug in the power, plug your cable box into HDMI in, plug one end the included HDMI cable into HDMI out and the other into your TV. There is no power button to press, the device just turns on and the Google TV logo appears on the TV. Then it’s time for setup.
The setup wizard starts with some general instructions about how to turn on and use the keyboard and control the device. Then it launches into TV calibration where it puts a big rectangle on the screen. It’s your job to resize the rectangle so that it takes up your entire screen – one side at a time. The process was simple enough, but I don’t understand why it’s necessary. If your TV has a 720 or 1080p connection, the device should know how many pixels to display. Oh well.
Next you select a wireless network (or ethernet if desired) and enter the password. The Google TV software found my network and connected just fine. It notified me that there was a software update and started to download it. I was not given the choice to skip it, so I waited 10 minutes while it downloaded, installed, and restarted.
Once I was back in the setup wizard it was time to tell the Google TV about my own TV and cable box. Oh god. First it wants to know the model number of my cable box. Who the hell knows the model number of their cable box? I certainly don’t. So I pull the box out of my entertainment center and look all over it until I find the model. I enter the model number, the Google TV finds my cable box in its database and lets me know that I have to perform another step to get it to function properly. But it doesn’t want to tell me how. It instead tells me to go to the Logitech website to find out. But not on the Google TV itself, even though it has a browser. I have to use my iPad to do it. Ironic.
After going to the Logitech website I find out that I have to also connect an optical audio cable (which luckily I have) between the Revue and the cable box to avoid HDCP issues. Ok fine, done. Now it’s time to enter info about my TV model. Not again. This time I use the internet to figure it out. Ugh. Once all of that is done, the Revue begins “updating my account settings”. I am finally there. I just have to wait for it to finish updating. Still updating. Still. Updating. It’s been 10 minutes. I’ll reboot. What happens when it starts up? “Updating your account settings”. Luckily this one only takes a minute and then it’s done, my Revue is setup.
It took more than the 20 minutes that Logitech told me it would, but it wasn’t that bad. Would I recommend it to mom or grandma? Hell no. They wouldn’t get past the instructions on how to turn on the keyboard.
The Google TV software is accessed by pressing either the home or search buttons on the keyboard. If you press search, a search box drops down over your live TV content and the results display below. If you hit the home button you are brought to the Google TV main menu. Everything is semi-transparent so you can still kind of watch the TV that is going on. The interface looks pretty slick with a black color scheme and a clean layout. The left side of the screen shows the main menu – Bookmarks, Applications, Spotlight, Queue, What’s on, and so on. The right side shows the content. So if you hit Bookmarks, the Bookmarks display on the right side.
You can use the trackpad or the cursor keys to control the TV, which I find very nice. When you touch the trackpad a white mouse cursor appears. The cursor is responsive and pretty easy to use. When you stop using it for a few seconds it disappears, helping you forget that you are really viewing your TV through a computer. The trackpad even supports two finger scrolling (introduced by Apple on the iBook in 2005), which is nice, because the scrollbars aren’t always visible to drag.
The Bookmarks section of Google TV is a way to keep your most used stations, apps, and websites in an easy to find area. Bookmarks are shown in a grid, with each bookmark having a representative icon on the grid. Bookmarking a channel is odd. While you are watching TV you hit the bookmark button on the keyboard (a star near the DVR controls) and a window pops up asking you if you want to bookmark. Great. Once you say Yes it gives you a huge list and makes you choose the channel to bookmark. I don’t know why it can’t figure out the station that I am currently watching and bookmark it. When I bookmark a website in a browser on a regular computer I expect to bookmark the site I’m currently viewing, not having to choose any old site off of the internet.
The Applications section is where you can find all of the Google TV’s included applications. Apps were a big selling feature of the Google TV with the idea that you could take the same type of apps that you’d find on your smartphone and run them on your TV. You could Twitter and Facebook, check RSS feeds, watch videos, play games, plan trips, listen to music, and surf the web all while you were watching TV. Version 1.0 of Google TV ships with a small number of included apps and there is no way to find or install new ones. Google promised a market for the beginning of this year but has yet to release it or even an SDK to allow developers to create apps. At the moment you are stuck with the included apps – Chrome, Pandora, Twitter, Napster, Netflix, CNBC, and NBA Game Time but no sadly no Facebook or Google+.
I haven’t used a ton of apps because most of them don’t appeal to me (I don’t watch sports, I can watch news on the TV itself, and I don’t Twitter). I’ve played with Pandora and overall it was an OK experience. The app looks nice, sign in was easy (especially using a keyboard), and the app worked well. The problem was that when I switched back to the main menu I couldn’t figure out how to switch back to Pandora to change a song without going into the app list and opening it again. Later on I found that there is an application switcher, but it is hidden inside the tab selection screen of the Chrome browser. Seriously? How the hell is anyone going to find that? I found it on accident. Also, how does that save me time? I have to open an application and click on another screen in order to “quickly” switch to a running app. That makes no sense. [UPDATE] I found out how to access the application switcher from anywhere – hold down the home button. That still doesn’t explain why it shows up in Chrome though.
The other big app that I played with was the Chrome web browser. Chrome was actually one of the reasons that I bought the Revue. It works like any other browser – you enter a URL, it loads the page, and you go on your way. Flash is included so that you can play web videos and games (if you want). Scrolling is laggy in the browser and the best way to scroll through a web page seems to be using the page up/down buttons. While Flash support is included, its use is limited since most major networks (NBC, ABC, CBS, HBO) have blocked Google TV devices from viewing their content because Google never setup content deals with them. If you’re looking to play flash games with it you’ll be sorely disappointed. While it plays Flash video just fine, other Flash content is not so smooth and plays as if it was running on a netbook (i.e. not good).
Google TV includes a What’s On directory that will tell you what is currently on for all of the stations in your area. It is divided into categories to easily find what you need or it lets you see everything at once. Each result provides an image for the channel, a description of the program, and info about how much time is remaining. If you select a program it will tune your cable box to it automatically. This is actually one of my favorite features as it has allowed me to find programs that I didn’t even know were on. I use it all the time. The problem with it is that it only shows you what is currently on – there is no way to look into the future. It seems unfinished. I’d really love the ability to see what is on in the future and maybe even be able to schedule my TV to switch to that station to watch it. It would be great if What’s On morphed into more of a guide feature sometime in the future.
Search is the last big thing about the Google TV. A search can be initiated at any time by hitting the search key on the keyboard, regardless of whether you are in the Google TV interface or just watching normal TV. Searches find results across current listings for your cable operator, the internet, Amazon, and You Tube among others. It’s easy to select a show and either stream it from the internet or tune it on your cable box. This is a cool feature of the TV as you can just search for whatever you want and find it. You can even use it to do normal internet searches.
I agree with most of the reviews that are out there. The concept is intriguing — integrate the internet with your TV – but the execution is flawed. The UI is inconsistent and features feel incomplete. The lack of third party apps is really a bummer. I only use about three of the included apps, so I don’t get much of the benefit. The hardware is fine, but seems to struggle with performance at times, especially when surfing the internet. A software upgrade is on the horizon that will supposedly include third party apps and numerous fixes to the UI, so I’m excited for that. I don’t think that the Revue was ever worth the $300 that it originally cost. A $99 price point is a bit more accurate.
In comparison to my Apple TV, the Logitech Revue is essentially a larger box that searches and surfs the internet. The Apple TV doesn’t search or surf, but it does what it does consistently and does it well. Some of the functionality of the Revue overlaps with my Playstation 3 as well. If the Revue hadn’t dropped to $99 I’d never have purchased one. I’m still glad I did and I’m looking forward to software 2.0. I’ll continue to use it to find out what’s on TV and to check out Facebook a bit, but I wouldn’t recommend it to the average consumer. The UI just isn’t polished enough and it doesn’t do enough yet. I’d wait until Google TV 2.0 and some better priced devices come out. It sure does make on heck of a remote though.