Getting down to business with Google TV is mostly a matter of typing in what you want. While you can browse ‘til hearts content, one click on the search button lets you enter what you’re looking for. Searching for “ESPN,” for instance, will show upcoming games in addition to ESPN.com. Searching “South Park” will show both links to SouthParkStudios.com and the option to buy episodes from Amazon Video on Demand. It even shows up in a well-organized chart that breaks the show down by season with different icons to denote different availability.
Unfortunately, the search feature isn’t all-encompassing. The same search that turns up Web and cable content ignores files on networked computers, and Netflix. Searching for “King of the Hill” prompts us to buy it at Amazon, but doesn’t provide any clue that we already have several seasons available on a home media server already, or that Netflix will stream the entire series. Without integrating these potentially massive — and unwieldy — pools of content, you’re always left wondering if the show you’re looking for is hiding out in some dark nook of the player that you need to dig around in manually.
The meat and potatoes of the Revue come from four sources: the Internet, networked computers and NAS drives, any additional USB storage you want to tie in, and your cable box.
Many popular online video destinations, like Netflix and YouTube come with their own built-in, app-style interfaces. But that’s old news for set-top boxes, and the rigid format rarely allows you to access every bit of Web video you want to see. The real beauty of the Revue is its ability to both surf the Web and play content from it. South Park didn’t come with a menu entry, for instance, but we were able to visit southparkstudios.com and play the same full-length, HD episodes we would get on a computer, on the Revue. This is the kind of functionality other set-top boxes just don’t offer yet.
Google TV also offers a “spotlight” of websites that have been optimized for it, like Blip.tv CNN, and Crackle. These aren’t apps, they’re just sites built to look at home on the Revue interface.
But don’t get too excited. Google TV’s built-in Chrome browser has more rough edges than a tuna can opened with a hacksaw. Pages load surprisingly slow, and despite a relatively quick Atom processor doing the grunt work inside, the Revue can’t even keep up with brisk scrolling. Pressing the down button on the controller moves the screen down in stutter steps, and graphics are prone to lagging a half second behind the rest of the page. Chrome asks to install extensions that it can’t install. This is not, we’re afraid, “the Internet on your television” done properly.
Many of the built-in video sources leave plenty to be desired, too. The Netflix app is one of the most rudimentary we’ve seen: A list of your instant queue with no option to browse, see recommended titles or search. Amazon Video on Demand crops up all over the Revue but its merely a link to the same website you would see on a laptop — no custom interface. CNN’s “spotlight” site doesn’t even allow you to go full screen with video.
The best built-in interface belongs to YouTube, which has been tailored with a suitably named “LeanBack” experience. Besides looking far better than the site on TV, it’s easier to navigate with the keyboard and even defaults to HD playback when it can — making premium content look great. Even here, though, Google advertisements slap you out of the entertainment experience, forcing you to mouse over them to close them.
Mouse be gone
This need for the mouse at odd times turns out to be one of the biggest recurring problems across the Revue. As anyone who has ever hooked up a PC to a TV can attest, the most aggravating aspect of dealing with Windows from the couch is using a cursor for just about everything. Google TV transitions about 80 percent of use to the keyboard, but lazily falls back on the mouse (or touchpad, as the case may be), for just about everything drawn from the Web — even sites with custom interfaces just for Google TV. For instance, after opening up Sony’s Crackle player optimized for Google TV, you can’t make the inset video player full screen without mousing over the video and clicking “full screen,” as it if were on a website.
When you’ve used the keyboard for everything else, this feels downright laborious, like going for a 10-mile bike ride where you need to stop and walk down a flight of stairs every mile. The interruption gets to you more than the difficulty. The same quirk appears in CNBC’s app, and over and over again in the system for other functions. Some players don’t even respond to the pause button built into the keyboard. When you go back to the menu, some videos pause, some don’t. The end result is an incohesive, fragmented feeling that makes Google TV more akin to a dressed-up Web browser than a unified television experience.
“TV on your TV!”
The appeal of accessing your cable box through yet another box might be lost on some folks, but the prospect of picture-in-picture while Web browsing and searching TV listings with a real keyboard sold us on the concept. Sadly, like every other aspect of the Revue, there are some major limitations and issues to be sorted out. For one, unless you have Dish Network, you can’t actually set anything to record from the Revue, which nixes our fairytale image of effortlessly sifting through weeks of TV content and grabbing it all with a few button presses. We also ran into a crowbar to the knee, courtesy of copy protection, on Verzion FioS: All the Motorola boxes used for the service allow only two downstream HDMI devices, so we weren’t able to tie in our AV receiver. Logitech does address the problem in a support article, but the workaround is just using an digital optical audio cable until Verizon releases a patch.
Considering how many people go with set-top boxes to eliminate cable bills entirely, we were also shocked to find no support for a television’s built-in over-the-air tuner. Sure, you need a separate input to pull off the same picture-in-picture trickery it does with cable, but since it already has full IR control of your television, it could easily display a full TV guide of what’s currently on and switch to the relevant input and channel for you. No dice, though.
Home theater buffs, keep those home theater PCs buzzing. While the Logitech Revue comes closer than any previous set-top box to taking over all the functions of a dedicated PC, sloppy execution prevents the Revue from truly fulfilling the same role. The browsing experience is choppy, content feels fragmented and too difficult to casually access, and in some cases, things just don’t work. If you’re prepared to tolerate mousing over pop-up ads to kill them, video playback errors and a never-ending search for the magic way to make a video full screen, go for it – the Revue really does offer features no other set-top box does right now. But it’s not the relaxed, kicked-back-on-the-recliner experience we’re left still hoping for. A number of upgrades to the Google TV could make it that with time, but at the moment, only patient early adopters need apply.
- Full Flash-enabled Web browser on the TV
- Ties together cable, Web, network content
- QWERTY keyboard with built-in touchpad
- Acts as universal remote for TV, cable box, AVR
- “Universal” search leaves out major sources of content
- Content fragmented across many dissimilar channels
- Heavy reliance on touchpad interface
- Spotty integration with different cable and satellite services
- Steep price tag
- No support for a TV’s built-in OTA tuner