SUMMARY: Google is trying to change the game, or at least stake their claim as a major player, with the rollout of the first Google TV products. In typical Google fashion, there's a ton of potential in this first wave of "products" but the experience feels more like a Beta for geeks to mess around with than a product that consumers will try at a friend's house and decide to buy for themselves, too. Web surfing on TV isn't anything new, and the made-for-TV options are too few and far between to justify the 3x price premium versus competitors from Apple, Roku and others. Much, I think, will ride on the "Early 2011″ roll out of the Google TV app store; if third parties bring compelling TV-plus-interactivity options to the table, Google TV could in fact become the next big thing in home entertainment. But it ain't there yet.

Sony Google TV RemoteLast Friday I picked up Sony's Google TV/Blu-Ray player, aka the NSZ-GT1, a $400 machine that's more or less an Intel Atom-powered computer running a tweaked version of Android with a Blu-Ray optical drive and a PSP-meets-QWERTY remote control. For more on the hardware itself, check out my unboxing vid.

I set the machine up Saturday night after the Giants' playoff game, played with it some then, and came back to it again Sunday evening and just now at lunch. So consider these first hands-on impressions only.

Set up was relatively involved, as the Sony box must live in between your TV set and cable/satellite box and also be connected to the Internet. After hooking the unit up to everything via HDMI In/Out and Ethernet (the box also supports WiFi b/g/n) and affixing the included IR blaster to the right spot on my TiVo HD, I installed the included batteries in the remote and turned everything on. Initial set up of the unit included manually adjusting the UI to fit my TV's resolution, specifying what cable/sat provider I subscribe to and which channels I get, and listing the brands of my TV and home theater receiver. Then the system had to reboot itself to lock the settings in. Except it didn't lock the settings in – I had to redo the whole "How big is your screen?" process. Grr.

A few notes on what I just wrote:

  • If you don't know what HDMI and IR blasters are, setting the unit up yourself is still possible, but it will be a bit daunting. While I frankly can't think of a workaround, the notion of bleeding-edge hardware with Google's name on it relying on IR blasters is kinda funny. (For the record, they're thingies that let the Google box control your TiVo/DVR/Cable Box).
  • The fact that I had to manually set the Google box's UI to fit my TV's resolution is a joke. In practice it wasn't that big of a deal. But in concept? Absurd. The unit should auto detect, or at least switch between two very clearly marked settings: 1080p and 720p.
  • The fact that I had to manually specify what brands of TV, Audio Receiver, and cable/satellite provider I use was tedious but, like the IR blaster thing, probably unavoidable. But this hints at a deeper issue with the user experience in general and the remote specifically.

The included remote control is both a very practical piece of hardware and the kind of thing that literally makes people say, "Oh my God!" and start laughing. Sony basically produced a PSP controller with an optical thumbstick, full QWERTY board and media transport controls. On the one hand, the unit is egronomically sound, not too heavy, and pretty nice to type on. On the other hand, anyone used to a TV remote will see this thing and take off in a dead sprint towards the nearest antique shop in search of a vacuum tube black and white console.

Seriously, there's nothing "simple" or "intuitive" about picking up the Sony Google TV controller. Yes, you can get used to it. Yes, it has all of those buttons because it needs them all to do its thing. But, no, it's not a "volume up/down, channel up/down, power on/off" sort of universal user experience-maker.

Also, the remote double as a somewhat limited universal remote in addition to its Google TV/Blu-Ray player duties. This is good because it adds value to the whole proposition (a decent universal remote will run you $40+) and also can reduce the number of remotes you need to operate your "TV set." But this is bad because so far as I can tell, the remote doesn't offer all of the functionality or flexibility as a true universal remote does. And the remote itself is a tiny bit confusing; to wit, after my first two sessions with GTV I had to manually turn my TV off, but after the third one I somehow managed to power everything down using the GTV remote alone. Gotta figure out how to replicate that.

Coming in Part Two: Watching TV, Google Style