Review: Google TV Take Two

Timely, isn’t it, to post this review hot on the heels of Logitech’s CEO calling his company’s foray into Google TV “a mistake of implementation of a gigantic nature”? As Adriana reported, company chief Guerrino De Luca said the GTV-powered Revue set-top box cost his business, “well over $100M in operating profits,” and that he currently has no plans for any follow-up products. Ouch.

So that leaves Sony as the sole company actively selling Google TV products in the US right now. While the company hasn’t put out any new GTV hardware since last year, they’re still actively involved with the platform – enough to have sent me a 46″ Sony Internet TV (Model NSX-46T1) on which to check out the recently revamped Google TV platform. The set arrived a few weeks ago, giving me just enough time to re-acquaint myself with GTV’s first iteration before the Honeycomb-based update rolled out.

Hardware Background

 

Google TV has fallen from grace, if it ever had any, since its much-hyped launch a year ago. Logitech’s Revue settop box debuted at $299 and has since been slashed to $99 and is now, as mentioned above, officially marked End of Life. Sony last year launched a line of HDTVs with Google’s software baked into them as well as a settop box with an integrated Blu-Ray player. The entire lineup is still available, though its prices have also been cut; the 46″ set I’ve been using originally now officially sells for $999, down from its $1,399 debut price. As of my writing this, I’ve actually seen the set for as little as $899 online.

While this isn’t a hardware review, I’d be remiss not to mention at least a few bullet points about the TV itself: The design is nice and clean, and while the QWERTY remote is kind of overgrown and crazy, it’s much better than the similarly-conceived monster that comes with Samsung’s Smart TVs. Watching HD content on the 46T1 is quite nice, if not spectacular. Sporting full 1080p resolution, this Sony is ready for all the cable/sat, streaming media, and Blu-Ray content you can throw at it. But with a relatively low refresh rate of 60HZ, somewhat uneven edge LED backlighting, and decent but not great built-in speakers. I’m definitely enjoying watching everything from 720p sports broadcasts to Netflix-streamed episodes of Weeds on the set, but the picture quality isn’t quite as stunning as the latest 46″ 1080p panels with their advanced lighting systems and bumped up refresh rates.

Now About that Update

The Honeycomb update for Google TV breaks down to two main components: UI/UX changes and the Android Market. The former makes the whole system easier to use. The latter aims to make the whole system more valuable.

I like the user experience changes brought on by the Honeycomb update. While I may have gone overboard in the past referring to version one of GTV as a “confusing mess,” it really was neither intuitive nor attractive. The new version is easier to use and much easier on the eyes. Following Honeycomb’s design language was a good start – Google TV 2.0’s user experience is much streamlined, and Android phone/tablet users will feel right at home with the icon and dialogue box driven experience, even if a few things are in slightly different places. I still maintain that Android in all its forms relies too much on engineers and not enough on engineers collaborating with interface designers, but I’m sure there are plenty of Google Fans out there disagreeing with me. No matter; user interface-wise, the new Google TV is a big step forward from the old Google TV.

Underneath the lovely interface changes, however, more remains the same than not. Google TV is still, in this incarnation, more of a glorified Netflix and YouTube box than an Internet TV Revolution of any sort. Google TV offers a powerful video search engine and the semi-openness of an App Store framework, but when it comes to actually watching high quality video, unless you’re a Netflix subscriber and/or willing to pay for Amazon video, Google TV doesn’t offer all that much – or, not all that much that wouldn’t be better done on a proper computer.

The new TV & Movies app is lovely, as is the video search functionality. After I’d logged into my Netflix account, Google TV made it really easy for me to type in a title or keyword phrase and find free (or paid, if you’re not a cheapskate) video to consume. Hitting the search button on the remote and typing in a title, actor’s name, or keyword more often than not resulted in something – something of decent quality – for me to watch. The problem for Google and Sony is that most everything beyond the paid subscriber walls of Netflix (and Amazon and certain YouTube offerings) is ultra hit-or-miss, quality-wise. Image quality, I mean, saying nothing about the quality of the actual content. The quality of content on YouTube, let alone the Web at large … well, let’s just say Your Mileage May Vary, but if you aren’t willing to pay for Amazon or Netflix you’re quite likely to wind up watching less than optimized video.

One of Google TV’s new hallmark features is the Android Marketplace. Long-term, this is great, as Android developers with a bent towards video have a new place to hawk their wares. More than one pundit has recently suggested that “apps are the new channels;” if this notion bears out Google TV is well situated, what with its early adopter status and all. But as it is now there’s not a whole lot in the App world to make Google TV a better buy than Apple TV or Roku; Clicker is pretty much GTV’s best app as of my writing this, and it’s not much more than a slightly better rendition of the aforementioned Movies & TV app.

YouTube integration is excellent, which means your user experience will vary depending on your content interests and video quality expectations. And like I said, the overall video search capabilities are great provided that you’re into paying Amazon and Netflix. Otherwise, for now the selection of custom content apps is meager, and mediocre at that. Motor Trend’s app was frustrating to use and served up low quality, pixelated video at that – and theirs was my favorite. And too many “video” links wound up rendering Web pages that required my mousing over a “Play” button on a partial-page Web embed. Maybe it’s just me, but that’s not what I want from my TV set. Give me an Amazon/Netflix/YouTube box, but don’t make me play mouseover on a 46″ screen – that’s just mean.

GTV’s other apps, like games, are basically irrelevant; if you’re willing to spend even $99 on Google TV as a gaming platform you should instead be saving up for a real console. And while Chrome on a TV set is a novelty, that novelty wears off quickly – y0u’re better off browsing the Web on a phone or tablet while half paying attention to the tube than trying to do both via Google TV. The browser works well enough except where it counts. Too many Web videos render poorly or not at all for the browser to be an integral part of a Web video experience. Having the browser on board is, at this point, a last resort but not much more than that.

Conclusion

Google TV is better than it used to be, and its search functionality has led my Netflix-addicted self to a few old TV episodes I wouldn’t otherwise have known existed. But it’s no revolution, nor is it objectively better than any other Internet TV settop box on the market. It’s merely different.

One day apps for Google TV might really take flight. And one day every big TV studio and their moms might make all of their content available for GTV users. On that day Google TV will totally rule. Given Google’s wherewithal in the modern world, it’s not so stupid to bet on Google one day ruling TV. And if you also happen to subscribe to Netflix already, buying a GTV-enabled device is a relatively low-risk bet; in the case of the Sony HDTV I have, you get a pretty good 46″ set with all sorts of WiFi-enabled goodies (including GTV) for not much more than the cost of any other reputable 46″ flat panel.

As it is now, though, Google TV in any incarnation is just another player in the very nascent world of settop Internet TV boxes. I like Sony’s remote control and I appreciate the work that went into making GTV Version 2.0 far more user-friendly than Version 1.0. However, I’d likely recommend Apple or Roku’s settop boxes as less fussy ways to bring the emerging world of Net video to your big screen. Google TV is full of potential, as it was a year ago. Unlike a year ago, Google TV’s user experience is a pleasant thing. But just like a year ago GTV is more about its potential than about its now. If you’re looking for a solid Amazon/Netflix/YouTube box with a QWERTY remote, any available GTV device is a good choice. But if you’re looking for the future of television, well, hang on a little longer; we’re not quite there yet.

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Noah Kravitz

Noah Kravitz mourned the day that Star Castle was replaced in the pizza parlour he frequented as a kid. The sadness ended when he saw an older kid...Noah Kravitz mourned the day that Star Castle was replaced in the pizza parlour he frequented as a kid. The sadness ended when he saw an older kid...