Media Streamer Reviews

Logitech Revue with Google TV Review

Logitech Revue

Logitech Revue with Google TV

“Logitech comes close to delivering the power of a PC in a set-top box with the Revue, but has a long way to go in making it palatable for mainstream TV fiends.”
  • 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

“Internet on your television” is probably right up there with jetpacks, flying cars and the white iPhone 4 in terms of consumer disappointment; many companies have claimed to pull it off, none have actually delivered. Logitech wants to change that with the Revue, the first set-top box powered by Google TV.

The Revue brings elements of the Web to your screen, from YouTube, Flickr and Twitter to everyday browsing, plus local music, video and photos from your home network, and even content from an attached cable box. Unless you want to cobble together a home theater PC from scratch and deal with the many issues of dragging a box meant for a desk into your living room, the Revue promises to be the next best thing – in theory, anyway. But is it easy enough for casual users to adopt? Will home theater diehards be satisfied enough to give up their omnipotent computers? Google and Logitech may have a ways to go in satisfying both ends of the consumer spectrum.

Features

The biggest feature distinguishing the Revue from the myriad of other set-top streamers out there, from Apple TV to the WD TV Live Plus HD, is its integration with your existing home theater. The Revue is not just another component, it’s one component to rule them all, controlling your television, audio-video receiver, and set-top cable box.

Type in “basketball,” see a game on ESPN, and the Revue will command your cable box to turn to it and switch your TV to the cable box input. Turn up the volume, and the Revue will crank up the knob on your receiver. When you’re done, you can power off all three from the included keyboard.

This functionality alone makes the Revue distinct from the other set-top boxes that have come before it, but it includes the more standard selection of Web content too. You’ll find Netflix, YouTube and Amazon Video on Demand, but also a full browser with Flash capability that can load – and play from – any of the sites you would typically visit on a computer, from the Onion News Network to South Park. Google TV also includes applications that can open up non-video capabilities in the box, like photo browsing on Picasa and staying updated with Twitter.

Hardware

The box for the Revue includes a black “companion box” that serve as the brains of the operation, a lap keyboard-mouse controller, and wired IR blasters (one included), which retransmit infrared signals to your A/V equipment to prevent line-of-sight issues. Logitech even includes an HDMI cable – a rare luxury among home theater accessories but a necessary one, since you’ll need both one to connect to the TV and one to connect to your cable box.

The companion box itself won’t draw much attention; it’s just a rounded blob of black plastic that you can either highlight by placing below your TV, or choose to hide entirely. Since the included keyboard controller operates by radio frequency, there’s no need for a direct line of sight between viewer and companion box.

Perhaps that’s wise, considering how many wires will run in and out of it. The back has both an HDMI input (for your cable box) and output (for your TV), a digital optical audio connector, two USB ports for accessories, an Ethernet jack, laptop-style power connector and two jacks for wiring up IR blasters.

If Logitech’s choice to include a full-size keyboard with the Revue didn’t have you skeptical enough, the quality of said keyboard will certainly raise an eyebrow. We had high expectations considering the top-notch quality of some of the Logitech’s desktop accessories, but the keyboard included with the Revue screams “accessory” — supernaturally light, cheap feeling, and easy to flex. The white base makes an odd choice for a home theater accessory, too.

Setup

While it might not look quite at home with your $3,000 leather sofa and cut-glass coffee table, you’ll be happy to have the full-sized keyboard as soon as setup gets underway. It’s nowhere near as plug-and-play as the Apple TV, but setup for such a complicated device is actually surprisingly easy thanks to a dead-simple, step-by-step walkthrough as soon as you power on the device. We never even had to glance at a paper manual.

The Revue takes you through everything from maximizing your screen area with an easy-to-use scaling wizard, to entering your TV type so it can automatically dig up the right IR codes to control it. Endless hours of tweaking and idiot-proofing show up in the tiny details here. When it prompts you for a TV model, for instance, a graphic shows where you should look on your TV to find it, and after you select a manufacturer, it displays an example model number true to the way that company formats them (ex. LC-42SB45U) to let you know what the string of numbers and letters should look like. It’s here and other text-entry scenarios like setting up Wi-Fi that make you instantly grateful for the keyboard, which cuts out the obnoxious process of choosing one letter at a time on screen with a keyboard. After no more than five minutes, pending no major snags, you’re ready to roll.

Interface

The Google TV home screen breaks down into six reasonably intuitive options: bookmarks, applications, most visited, queue, what’s on TV, and YouTube. Applications became our go-to category out of the gate, but as you visit sites and uncover more content, most visited automatically begin to fill in with useful options, similar to the “new tab” screen Chrome.


Google TV draws its lineage back to Android, and while the home screen has little in common with the mobile OS, leftovers seem to creep in all over the place. The dotted loading circle. The typefaces. The look of icons when you press ‘menu.’ While they don’t look particularly bad, these little remnants of Android seem to cheapen the interface a bit wherever they crop up, making it feel more like a modification than a fresh bit of original design. Though it’s functional, it doesn’t feel nearly as fluid and slick as Apple TV, or even the Xbox 360.

“Universal” search

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.

Content

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.

Conclusion

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.

Highs:

  • 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

Lows:

  • “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

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