The Google TV platform
Obviously, the Android build used for Google TV isn't the same as what's used on phones -- in fact, unlike the phone version of Android, the Google TV stack is still proprietary within Google and hasn't been open-sourced yet. We're told the plan is to open-source things by summer 2011, and that Google TV will follow the same model as Android and the Google apps on phones, with some Google-specific TV apps remaining closed-source and not part of the general distribution. We'd guess Google TV Marketplace will be restricted to Google-blessed devices, but it hasn't launched yet, so we don't know for sure.
Speaking of Marketplace and the fact it hasn't launched... well, it hasn't launched. Google says it's still putting the appropriate APIs together and cleaning up the platform requirements so that app developers will have an easier time of things, but don't expect to see any apps on Google TV until early next year at the soonest. We're honestly extremely curious and excited to see what app developers can do once they can write Android apps for a reasonably quick processor and TV screen sizes, but that's all just potential right now -- at launch, Google TV devices ship with handful of bundled apps like Netflix, NBA GameTime, and (thrillingly) CNBC Real Time, but that's it. We'll revisit Google TV once there are more apps, but for now this part of the platform and the experience is a question mark.
It's more than easy to see Google TV as one large bet on Flash content delivery, at least in the short term.
And finally -- and most importantly -- there's Chrome and Flash. Google's using a new Android- and TV-specific port of its desktop browser on Google TV, and yes, friends, it runs Flash 10.1 beta. In fact, from a broad perspective it's more than easy to see Google TV as one large bet on Flash content delivery, at least in the short term -- almost everything you're navigating to in Chrome is a Flash video. For example, Google's own YouTube -- one of the first sites to provide HTML5 video playback -- loads up its Flash player on Google TV, because that's the only way Google can serve ads during the content. Seriously -- that's what Google told us. YouTube LeanBack, the TV-optimized version of YouTube, is also Flash-based, presumably for the same reason. Obviously things will change once there are apps and possibly more robust HTML5 video solutions, but right now Google TV is an extremely Flash-intensive product.
Those are all the individual pieces, but let's back up and look at the whole picture for a second: you have an Intel processor, Android -- which is Linux underneath -- and a browser with Flash that's controlled with a keyboard and mouse. Yep, Google TV is a Trojan Horse with a home theater PC inside -- and while HTPC's have generally been pretty niche, we've always sort of loved them. But we don't think Google's going for niche here -- and if Google TV is going to be a mass-market success, it has to deliver a much smoother experience than your average HTPC.
Setup and installation
What's more, there are definite omissions that make some setups much harder to pull off than others -- there's no static IP support, for example, so more advanced networking or port mapping setups might not work correctly. The Sony Internet TV is the only Google TV launch product with component inputs, so chances are you'll have to deal with HDMI, and depending on your cable provider and number of HDMI hops you might run into some HDCP issues -- we had problems setting up the Revue during our Engadget Show demo because Time Warner's cable box had an HDCP freakout and kept shutting off. Google says it knows about the problems and is working with cable providers, but it's something to be aware of. Still, most of our installations were otherwise trouble-free.
All in all, everything works reasonably well once you've got it set up, but it's not a novice-friendly procedure -- don't expect to drop this off with your parents on Christmas morning and walk away. We'd much prefer Google or one of its partners build a far more complete device with an integrated DVR -- Dish Network, we're looking at you.
Interface, search, and controls
Search is the heart of the Google TV interface, and quite frankly, we love it.
Of course, you can do far more than just change channels with search -- you can also find content across a number of sources and services. Typing into the search box brings up Google Instant-style results that include current and upcoming programs, some suggested websites, and other results, as well as options to do a regular Google web search and Google's new video-specific search. (And, obviously, whatever's on your DVR if you have Dish.) Choosing video-specific search launches Chrome and drops you into a special TV-formatted site that displays shows, episodes, and web video content that matches your search string. Depending on what you select, you'll be offered a number of options on how to view it -- Fringe, for example, can be streamed from fox.com or rented / purchased from Amazon, and Google TV gives you both options, as well as letting you know if it's currently on TV and when it's scheduled in the future. It's quite nice, even if TiVo's pulling a similar trick on the Premiere, but what sets Google TV apart is sheer speed -- search isn't instant, but it's fast, and compared to the Premiere it's an insane rocket ride.
The search bar also displays some quirky UI behavior -- pressing the search key always drops it down over whatever you're doing... except when it doesn't. This leads to some wacky and intense moments of translucent interface mishmash: you can be looking at your DVR's guide, bring up the Google TV homescreen, and then drop the search bar, resulting in three layers of text from two wildly different interfaces on screen at once. That would be fine if hitting the search key always bought up the search bar, but it doesn't -- in some apps, like Twitter, it brings up a service-specific search. That makes a certain amount of sense, but we think it might be simpler -- and better -- if the search key were permanently mapped to bring up general Google TV search, since it's the most important part of the entire product.
Google TV features multiple interface paradigms that are competitive rather than complementary.
Google's mandated that all Google TV devices include a QWERTY keyboard and some form of mouse control in addition to a standard arrow key layout, and there are a variety of first- and third-party iPhone and Android apps that can control GTV devices. Here's the thing, though -- none of the input methods really have anything to do with each other, and you can't seamlessly switch from one to another without triggering some unexpected consequences. It's something we noticed right away while demoing the Sony Google TV controller, and we've had similar problems with the Revue's keyboard: you'll be mousing around with the trackpad and then hit the D-pad's select button, which doesn't double as a mouse button, but rather selects whatever you last left the D-pad selection halo around. Oops. Or vice-versa, particularly on the Sony controller. It's jarring and weird, especially since you're almost invited to use both controls at all times -- particularly on TV-optimized websites like Google's video search, which responds to the arrow keys but invites instinctive use of the mouse. We can't dive too deeply into the smartphone apps, since we've only used Logitech's Android app and Google's aren't out yet, but from what we've seen the same problems persist -- you've got multiple interface paradigms that are competitive rather than complementary. There's a simple solution -- the mouse arrow and D-pad selection just have to follow each other -- but for right now we found ourselves mostly using the D-pad and only using the mouse while browsing regular websites.
Chrome and Flash
But overall it's not quite what you'd expect. First off, it's not just a straight port of Chrome -- although it's labeled as Chrome 7, Google told us it's actually custom version based on Chrome 5, and some important features, like full HTML5 support, are unfinished. Given the rushed ship schedule for Google TV, it makes sense that certain browser features were prioritized over others, but it's definitely a little disingenuous for Google to say it's simply using "Chrome." Google did tell us it's working on a Chrome 7-based browser and it wants to add extensions support, but we weren't given a timeline for any of that.
Google TV's browser is best when you're simply navigating to a page with video content and hitting play.
Performance-wise, the browser is serviceable, although it's definitely quite laggy -- don't expect any smooth scrolling here. The browser is definitely faster and more usable on TV-optimized sites, but we expect to see significant general performance improvements as the software gets updated -- there's no reason Google can't match smartphone levels of responsiveness with the netbook-class internals of the Google TV. We'd also like to see some better zoom controls -- it's pretty hard to read most sites at the standard zoom level, but you can only step in at fixed increments and there's no horizontal scrolling. A little pinch-to-zoom would go a long way. For now, however, you're best off sticking with your laptop for any major browsing needs -- Google TV's browser is best when you're simply navigating to a page with video content and hitting play.
Performance and compatibility issues aside, having a browser on your TV is definitely a useful and interesting feature, especially coupled with the drop-down search overlay and dual view features, which enable Google TV to live "on top" of your regular TV setup and get out of the way when you're not using it. In fact, we eventually stopped thinking of Google TV as a primary interface for our TV and went back to using our TiVo in the usual way, but we still loved being able to quickly and easily jump over to web content or use search when necessary. Until there's more widespread DVR compatibility or (dare we dream) an integrated Google TV DVR, we'd definitely recommend using Google TV as a web-enabled layer over your existing TV setup, not the central control room. Used this way, it's incredibly convenient, and it shows the deep promise of the Google TV concept -- it doesn't matter if content is on the web or on TV, it's just... there. (Well, sort of. But we'll get to that.)
Unfortunately, Flash video playback is the only optimized part of Flash, as far as we can tell -- other Flash content, like ads and games, ran incredibly slowly, and bogged down the browser in turn. Just watch this video of Canabalt, a Flash game that runs acceptably on average netbooks:
There's a ton of promise for Flash gaming on Google TV, but Adobe and Google desperately need to finish optimizing the rest of Flash to make it happen -- performance like this just won't cut it.
Oh, and just as a note: Flash is the only plugin that's currently supported. There's no Silverlight or QuickTime, obviously, and we doubt Microsoft or Apple will port those over anytime soon. It's not necessarily a killer problem, since Flash is so dominant, but it bears mentioning -- NBC streamed the Olympics using Silverlight, for example. There's also no support for things like NFL.com's HD video plugin, which makes watching those videos on a TV a pretty low-quality affair. We're hoping that'll change if and when Google provides extension support to Chrome on the TV, but that could be a long ways off.
Networks, Netflix, and other apps
Google also tells us it's working with Hulu on bringing Hulu Plus to Google TV as an app, but that's another $10 a month on top of the cable or satellite subscription you need to get the most of out Google TV. Obviously Google TV isn't the only product with these problems -- Boxee has infamously run afoul of the networks in the past -- but Google TV devices aren't cheap, and if all you really want is to stream shows off of ABC.com or whatever, you might be far better off with a low-end Windows nettop, which won't ever be blocked. (And yes, we've changed the browser's user-agent string with varying and inconsistent success, but Google can't expect its casual users to mess around with that.)
It's hard to imagine why you'd want to use a pokey TV app when faster smartphone and laptop apps are sitting within arm's reach.
You get several other apps in the standard Google TV installation: CNBC Real-Time plays CNBC content alongside a stock ticker, Gallery shows pictures from your Picasa account, Napster, Pandora, and Twitter offer decent if somewhat basic access to their respective services, and NBA Game Time shows off a list of upcoming games, scores, as well as being able to tune you into games and play (heavily compressed) video highlights. While all of the apps are well-done and functional, none of them are particularly illustrative of the platform's promise -- and to be honest, all of them have pretty slow UIs. Again, it's early, but it's hard to imagine why you'd want to use a pokey TV app when you likely have much faster smartphone and laptop apps sitting within arm's reach.
One thing we're particularly curious about is how deeply future Google TV apps will be able to use the TV feed -- between our HDCP issues and the network content blocks, we can't say we're optimistic that future apps will be able to access TV content directly. What do we mean? Well, we'd love to see a Slingbox app that streams shows to your phone, but that would involve buffering, transcoding, and retransmitting television content from an HDMI input, and that feels like a no-no -- hardware Slingboxes certainly can't do that. We'd also love to see an app that detects commercials and pops up Twitter or Facebook during those times, but we've got a feeling broadcasters might not be too into that. Google told us they wanted to give devs as much access as possible, but they were mindful of HDCP and copyright issues, so we'll see what the final Google TV SDK looks like. Like we said, it's never just that simple when the networks are involved.
The problem, of course, is that it's really execution that counts, and little else. By that much more exacting standard, Google TV feels like an incomplete jumble of good ideas only half-realized, an unoptimized box of possibility that suffers under the weight of its own ambition and seemingly rushed holiday deadline. Had Google simply focused on a few key features -- lightning-fast browsing and perfect search results, for example -- we'd have readily excused the missing pieces with the assumption that they'd soon arrive in an equally polished way. Indeed, the most disappointing thing about Google TV is the immediate realization that it could be so much more if only Google given itself some more time. An integrated DVR, a real program guide, a movable PIP window that opens quickly -- all these things must happen for Google TV to be successful. We're already hearing reports that Google's in talks with cable operators to build integrated Google TV set-top boxes, so perhaps the most difficult hurdle will soon be passed, but until Google TV's sluggish performance and general lack of polish are addressed, it will remain just as niche as the HTPCs from which it sprang.
Ben Drawbaugh and Tim Stevens contributed to this review.