Google's taking a big leap with Google TV -- unlike its competitors, who've all focused on delivering curated video content with inexpensive streaming devices, Google's new platform brings Android, Chrome, and Flash directly to your TV in a variety of hardware configurations from Sony and Logitech. But whether you're adding Google TV to your existing rig with a Logitech Revue or starting from scratch with a Sony Internet TV, the basic experience of using each product is the same -- it's the web on your TV, in all its chaotic and beautiful glory. Is this the future of television? Can Google do what no company has ever managed to do in the past and put a little PC in your TV? Read on to find out!
The Google TV platform
Although all of the Google TV launch devices have their differences, at their core they're all running Android on an Intel CE4100 media processor, which is essentially a 1.2GHz Atom core that's been beefed up with some extra graphics hardware capable of capturing and decoding 1080p video. Google tells us the Intel chip offers the best price / performance ratio right now, but that nothing's written in stone for the future -- just like modern smartphones kicked off furious innovation in the mobile chipset market, Google expects the media-chip market to rapidly become more competitive in the future in response to connected TV devices. But for right now it's Atom, which is a big win for Intel in this space -- and in fact, Intel claims to have written half of Google TV's code.
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.
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
Although setting up each Google TV device is slightly different, the basic process is the same -- you're walked through several steps to configure the device for your TV, screen size, network, and TV source. Although it's not difficult, it's not simple -- setting up the Logitech Revue involved connecting five wires and stepping through 12-15 menus that took about 30 minutes to complete, including a delightful four-step overscan adjustment.
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.
Unless you're buying a Sony Internet TV and are content to live without a DVR, there's no actual "TV" in a Google TV device -- you'll need a separate QAM tuner, cable or satellite box to actually watch television. Google's been very careful to demo Google TV devices with Dish Network thus far (even going so far to offer reviewers a Dish installation with review units), and there's good reason for it: the Dish VIP 622, 722, and 722K DVRs will communicate with your Google TV device via the network, allowing you to search for, see, and schedule recordings directly from the GTV interface. Setup is relatively quick and easy, as long as you remember to activate your DVR for integration first via the phone or a visit to Dish's site, and once it's working the control is instant, with none of the lag associated with IR blaster control. In fact, we couldn't get the DVR UI to lag while controlling it with the Revue's keyboard no matter how fast we pushed the buttons, which is truly impressive. Unfortunately, Dish's best DVR, the VIP 922 with integrated Slingbox, isn't supported, and there's still very little interface integration -- you still have to use the Dish box's program guide, DVR interface and other controls, so you still have to deal with two UIs. Oh, and Dish charges a $4 monthly "integration fee" to make it all work. Yuck.
If you don't have Dish Network, your experience will be far less integrated -- typing "Modern Family" into the Google TV search box will bring up future program listings and web results for the show, but won't show you that you have a local recording sitting right there on your DVR. You also won't be able to schedule recordings -- selecting a future episode of a show brings up a box instructing you to... program your DVR! It's an extremely disjointed experience, to say the least. It's not all bad though: searching for programming you know is currently on (like "football") will tune your cable box using an IR blaster, and despite our very public reservations about this system, we found it generally worked without issue when set to control a TiVo HD and a Time Warner Scientific Atlanta Explorer, although we experienced some minor occasional glitches.
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
Google TV offers a wealth of interaction options, all of which serve different purposes and work in different ways. The first and most basic is the home screen's familiar two-pane grid interface, which lives as a transparent layer over whatever TV or app content you were previously watching or using. Depending on which tab you're in, you can select from bookmarks, apps, or currently-playing shows, which are organized into folders like Sport, Movies, and Comedy. The tabs can be reorganized, and this part of the interface works well in general. We rather like using folders to see what's on TV -- they serve as sort of permanent filters for content, and they're really convenient. We just wish there was a more traditional program guide -- sure, you can use your cable box's guide, but that's not optimal, and no TV platform can be complete offering standard TV listings.
The second -- and arguably most important -- way to use Google TV is the search bar, which drops down whenever you press the search key on your remote. This is the heart of the Google TV interface in a very real way -- it's how you find video content, web content, and even how you enter URLs into Chrome -- and quite frankly, we love it. There's something deeply wonderful about having a search drop down on your TV whenever you want it, and it makes even simple things like changing channels so much smoother and better that we can't believe every cable box doesn't already work this way -- you just type in CNN or MTV or NBC or whatever and you're off and running. Want to watch the Packer game but don't know if it's on CBS or Fox? Just type "Packers" and you're there. Yes, we bemoaned the lack of an integrated guide, but if you're the type who knows what you want to watch, you'll never miss it once you try search on Google TV.
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.
Unfortunately, speed doesn't matter if you can't find what you want, and Google TV's search results definitely leave something to be desired. Google says it's still refining video search, and it shows: a search for "X-Men" brought up the original series, Evolution, and just three movie results: X-Men 3, X-Men The Last Stand, and a 1985 German film called "Men" in which Munich advertising executive Heiner Lauterbach secretly rooms with his wife's Ulrike Kreiner's bohemian lover Uwe Ochsenknecht, and hilarity presumably ensues. Unfortunately, two of those movies are actually the same, and while we haven't actually seen "Men," we're going to assume Heiner, Ulrike, and Uwe don't have adamantium skeletons or the ability to control the weather. Given the vast potential of search in this application, we're willing to give Google some time to work out the kinks and get it right, but at this very moment things are pretty hit or miss.
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.
The third major Google TV interface is Chrome itself, which offers tabbed browsing that spans the system -- holding down the home button brings up the tab panel and shows you every open app window, including the home screen and TV. It's more like webOS cards than standard Chrome tabs, actually. (We're also definitely amused that "new Incognito tab" is a first-level menu option in Chrome -- wonder what that's for!) We'll get to Chrome in-depth in a moment, but we wanted to mention the browser here because it nicely showcases the various methods of actually interacting with these three interfaces: the arrow keys, the keyboard and mouse, as well as the various smartphone apps.
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.
Lastly, one of Google's TV's most-promoted features is DualView, which is a new riff on old-school picture-in-picture. Hitting the DualView button while watching TV shrinks the TV image down and overlays it over the bottom right of the interface, so you can keep up with TV while browsing the web or using app. Hitting the button again closes the window, and mousing back over it displays a close box and a maximize button that expands the TV window back to full screen. It's a useful and necessary feature, but extremely slow to invoke, and it's also missing a key feature: you can't move the window. That means you're out of luck if the box is obscuring the content or controls you want to see -- anyone who watched The Engadget Show saw us struggle to hit the Twitter app's Send button while it was hidden behind DualView during our demo. What's more, you can't just dismiss DualView to hit controls and then bring it back, since it can only be invoked while watching TV. We'd also like to be able to run Flash video in a DualView frame while browsing other tabs, but it's not currently possible.
Chrome and Flash
Until Marketplace launches, what you're fundamentally buying with a Google TV device is the ability to run Chrome and Flash on your TV. What's more, a surprising number of Google TV features actually happen in Chrome, which serves as almost the default way to expose functionality: there's no Amazon Video On Demand app, for example -- hitting the button on the home screen just loads Amazon.com. Same with YouTube -- you just load the main page in Chrome. That's a lot of responsibility for a browser, and when it works well, it works really well -- we'd say it's the best browsing experience we've ever had on a TV.
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.
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.)
Of course, almost none of this web video would play without a robust Flash implementation, and that's one place where Google TV shines. We're happy to say we had zero problems playing 1080p Flash video on a variety of sites, and we found the controls to be responsive and the quality to be eminently watchable. Flash video playback is arguably the most polished aspect of Google TV -- our only complaint is that tiny player controls tend to get lost and hard to hit with the mouse on larger TV screens, a problem that can be solved by mapping the keyboard play / pause buttons to control video playback.
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 TV certainly has the features and tools to blur the line between TV and web content, but unfortunately anything that involves the networks just isn't that simple. At the time of writing, ABC, CBS, NBC, and Hulu have all blocked Google TV from accessing their shows on the web, with Fox reportedly considering a block as well. For better or worse, the first thing people think of when they see a browser on TV is streaming shows from Hulu and the networks for free, and having them blocked turns the entire value proposition of Google TV upside down. We've been told negotiations with the networks to remedy the situation are underway, but we don't know when they might bear results.
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.)
Of course, you couldn't have a connected TV product without including Netflix, and Google TV is no exception -- Netflix is one of the few apps currently available, and it's bundled on all the devices. It certainly works, and HD content looks fine, but the app itself uses what you might call the first-generation Netflix interface -- it only shows what's in your instant queue, with no search or discovery features. In fact, it's the exact same interface Roku rolled out in 2008 -- and almost every other Netflix experience on the market has far surpassed it. Yes, you can just switch to Chrome and go update your Instant Queue that way, but it's a poor substitute for a competitive Netflix experience.
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.
It's always hard to review version 1.0 of a platform -- it's tempting to give concept and potential nearly as much weight as execution. And we'll make no bones about it: viewed in that light, Google TV is a success. Features like the search bar and integrated browser are so fundamentally good on a conceptual level that they seem destined to forever change our perception of TV user experience, regardless of how well Google TV itself fares in the market, and that's no small accomplishment. Other features, like apps and smartphone control, seem equally ambitious and worthy of praise because of promise alone.
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.