Google TV has had a bad month. First, we hear that Big Browser asked its manufacturing partners to put the breaks on any Google TV products they’d planned to announce at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show. Then, we get news leaks that Logitech has ceased production of the Revue—the only Google TV set-top-box on the market. While neither Google nor Logitech will confirm these reports, they’re not deneying them either, so it looks like the platform that had hoped to make a big splash, has made a plop instead.
Before this blog starts sounding like an attack on Google, let me get this out of the way—I like Google TV. I’m a big fan of integrating more internet-based or cloud content into the living room. I like a lot of the ideas Google TV brings to the table, but as others have observed, the system seems only half-baked. In order for the platform to succeed, or even last another six months, the company needs to revisit the system’s strengths and weaknesses as well as consider who its target really is.
In the spirit of giving (and returning) I offer up my thoughts on what Google TV does right and wrong:
Since I’m feeling a little Grinchy, I’ll start with the bad first:
Menu and submenu overload. The main screen, if you can call it that, begins with a long scroll of options including Applications, Spotlight and others. Go into most of those sections and you either get another scroll of options or a grid of options. I love the fact that there’s really a load of content, but the structure makes it easy to get lost. Remember the Philips Electronics tag line: Sense and Simplicity. Give it a try.
Audio hanging. When I go to Pandora, or YouTube or any content that has sound, and then try to navigate away, I still hear that sound. I have to either pause it, or figure out a way to actually stop it (which isn’t always clear). It’s nice that I can still listen to music while browsing CNN, but when I start a CNN video, often I get to audio tracks fighting it out at the same time. My multitasking has its limits.
Changing controls. Each time I log onto an application for the first time, there’s a brief tutorial on how to use it—that means the controls work differently for each application. While it’s nice that the third-party app developers get to do their own thing, changing how the remote works on the fly is annoying.
Autostart video. On many of the video sites (YouTube, CNN, Adult Swim) the videos begin automatically playing whether you want them to or not. Yes, I know regular TV works that way—you click a channel and it starts playing. But this isn’t regular TV—it’s supposed to be smarter than that.
Wonky connections. If I don’t use Google TV for a while, it seems to want to switch from my Wi-Fi connection to Ethernet even though I’ve never connected Ethernet. This means that each time I want to use the Google TV, I need to go back to the setup menu and reconnect to my wireless network. Who has to do that with cable TV?
Random screensaver. Google TV seems to randomly put up a screensaver, without regard to when or where it makes sense. I’d like the screensaver to kick in after a few minutes while I’m listening to Pandora, and sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. In fact, I’d rather Pandora apply its own screensaver with album art, but that’s probably up to them, not Google. I bet there’s a way to configure it to kick in with my own photo albums, but I haven’t looked hard enough yet to find that.
Chrome Browsing on TV. Standard web browsing on TV just isn’t going to work. I’m just not convinced that viewing web sites on a TV is ever going to catch on with most people (I said most, so don’t all attack me at once). I know that’s important to both Google and Intel (Intel’s Atom processors run the platform), but few people want that experience when they sit down for an evening of TV. That’s what laptops and iPads are for.
Network Blocks. Google, you really need to work on this. All major broadcasters are still blocking access to their content through Google TV. How can’t a company with the long reach of Google do something about this? What would happen if Google turned it around and blocked NBC from its search engine?
Now, onto the good:
Youtube. Google TV’s YouTube interface is the best I’ve seen—better than on all the Youtube features on connected TVs or PS3. It’s simple, works well and does a pretty good job of scaling the low-res files for a big screen. I used it to show family members some videos I’d made of my kids.
Netflix fixed. Now that Google sent out an upgrade to it’s Netflix interface, it’s one of the better ones available instead of being one of the worst.
Keyboard remote. The keyboard remote is a mix of good and bad. Google TV might be intolerable without a keyboard. The one that comes with Logitech’s Revue is light, responsive and effective. I like how you can set it up to control your other devices so you’re not remote juggling. That said, it may be overreaching a bit.
Just Start Typing. I really like that the search bar automatically starts as soon as you start typing. Makes sense and works well, especially in YouTube.
Lots of Apps: Yes, Google TV has lots and lots of apps, and new ones pop up every now and then. This is the key to the system, in my opinion. The more variety, the stronger it is.
Videoconferencing: This works and is pretty cool. That also makes it a bit scary.
Is Google TV doomed as a result of some bad reviews? Will Google TV go the way of Web TV and several other internet appliances before it? No. I’m guessing that Google won’t go completely back to the drawing board—the company as well as Intel, has invested too much in this to just let it flounder and drown. But the system needs a user-interface overhaul. While there may actually be a computer behind that Google TV device, for users, it’s still a TV, and that means it has to respond like a TV with the same level of reliability, consistency and logic, which right now it doesn’t have.
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Grant Clauser has been covering home electronics for more than 10 years with editorial roles in several consumer and trade magazines. He's done ISF-level damage to hundreds of reviewed products and has had training from THX, the Home Acoustics Alliance, Control4 and Sencore. His latest book is Necessary Myths
. Follow him on Twitter @geclauser.