November 1, 2010 | by Andrew Kameka
It’s impossible to review the Logitech Revue without also reviewing Google TV, so this review is as much about the new software as it is the device.
The idea of bringing the Internet to a television isn’t new. In fact, it’s an idea older than many people old enough to navigate the Internet. But despite what skeptics, bloggers, and pundits tell you, Google TV is not a rehashed version of WebTV. After all, today’s Internet is drastically more advanced than the one that failed to make WebTV a mass market success. Doesn’t that mean the Android-based Google TV should prosper where previous Internet-meets-television initiatives have failed? Read ahead to find out.
The Logitech Revue set-top box is among the first products to deliver Google TV. The Revue is about the size of a thick hardcover book, and a bit lighter, so it’s likely to mesh with your current home entertainment system. The set-top box connects to your television or cable box via HDMI, and also has ports for USB, Ethernet, and IR Blasters. Inside the box is a 1.2 GHz Atom CPU that’s not head-turning, but you’ll find that they get the job done with spiffy video.
Logitech also includes a keyboard for text-entry and navigation. While lighter than the average keyboard, it still feels somewhat unnatural to sit on a couch with a keyboard on your lap rather than a smaller remote. The Logitech Harmony app or the $129 mini-controller may be more your speed if that’s the case. Pressing a few buttons on the keyboard should suffice to discover your video, but controlling that video can sometimes be a pain. The gesture pad is not as smooth as using a mouse and you cannot tap on it to click on links, so navigating websites and video player controls can require some effort. The learning curve is smooth enough to not reach levels of frustration, but it will take a few days to shake the “bad” habits ingrained in your memory.
SOFTWARE: USER INTERFACE
Aesthetics were not a strongpoint when Android debuted, but people continued to embrace the operating system because of the power and potential of its software. Android was a rookie chasing vets before it eventually solidified its position as a premiere player; Google TV is on track to mirror that path.
Google has designed GTV to focus on the basics. There’s a customizable left panel that shows bookmarks, apps, and guides for what’s on, and then there right side of the screen acts as the submenu for selecting media to play. The dark background with a radial gradient peeking out is just what people need, and users can even customize what shortcuts appear on the navigation pane.
Speaking of navigation, GTV feels a bit more consistent than Android. The few apps currently available tend to follow a similar UI guideline that feels sensible and reliable. No matter where the user is, pressing the Home button will make it possible to jump to another source of video or the web, and pressing the search button finds content within that particular app, the web, or GTV sources. Google was wise to keep these features standard and simple as possible because television is often a device for escape. The whole premise of GTV is that you don’t have to work to find something to watch, so avoiding complication is vital to the feasibility of Google TV.
A few readers have asked if Google TV can replace cable. No, it cannot, and Google doesn’t intend for it to do anything of the sort. Google TV is designed to be a companion for watching television, making it easier to find certain programs and add more home entertainment options. It’s a powerful solution, but far from being powerful enough to rid customers of their cable or satellite provider.
Google TV hunts for video options regardless of where they reside – online or on your cable programming. The search button crawls the web for video, standard Google search, or the programming guide of live television. Users can then decide what to watch or extend the search for more options. In the event that you just want to see what’s broadcasting, the “What’s On” button comes to the rescue. What’s On groups programming according to category, so you can search through sports or comedy, similar to browsing done with a cable guide. Whether this solution proves to be better than your TV guide is up for debate, but it’s likely a more elegant guide.
The biggest reason Google TV and Logitech Revue are not a reincarnation of what we’ve seen in the past is that it has apps and websites better capable of delivering captivating experiences. Aside from leveraging the power of Flash video, the Revue ships with important entertainment services like NBA Game Time, Netflix, Pandora, Twitter, and Logitech Media Player. Game Time and Twitter can enhance the television viewing experience by tapping into popular web and news channels, and Netflix and Pandora are among a handful of options for watching movies or listening to music. We have done a mini-review of each GTV app, so read that previous article for more details on what to expect.
Google has promised to open up GTV products to the Android Market in 2011, so the current list is small. We’ve seen apps grow from about 40 in 2008 to 100,000 in 2010, so it will be interesting to see how much better GTV products become once developers have more time to build apps designed specifically for the living room.
The Best App of All: Google Chrome
The web itself is an app on Google TV, at least when it comes to video consumption. I would not recommend the Revue as a primary web browser because text often is too small, scrolling can sometimes be abysmal, and websites load much faster on a computer. Google Chrome and Flash are great to have on the big screen, but the Internet simply was not designed for screens this big. Stick to your regular computer when you actually want to do anything other than watch videos.
GTV will not replace your desktop experience in all instances; however, when given the option between watching football games on a 17-inch computer monitor or the 42-inch-or more behemoth in your living room, there’s absolutely no comparison. I was disappointed to learn that a recent Nebraska vs. Oklahoma State football game was not broadcast in my area because of regional coverage, but I watched the game in excellent quality thanks to ESPN3.com. It was so good that I’ll probably be back every Saturday for the rest of the season.
Quality was HD-level amazing during the game, and the same could be said for YouTube videos. I’m a big fan of rap battles, and watching these NSFW verbal jousts in HD was a pleasurable change of pace from viewing on my laptop. This represents the potential draw of Google TV: yes, you could get the same video on a computer, but display capabilities greatly increase with Google TV. As long as the media sites you frequent don’t require Silverlight or QuickTime, this has the potential to be far more entertaining. (Read our hands-on review of YouTube Leanback)
Compatibility issues also pop-up because many websites – including the most important one, Hulu – actively block Google TV from accessing videos. Hulu Plus may arrive as an app to provide television streaming for a fee, but the web’s premiere content is currently locked away until Google reaches agreements with networks. To make matters worse, some websites that are open to GTV freeze when attempting to load pre-emptive advertisements. This happened now and then on a few non-YouTube sites, so I’ve yet to pinpoint a precise cause.
The number one question that people ask about the Revue – other than “Does Hulu work?” – centers on whether or not it’s worth spending $300 on something that could be replicated with a spare PC, some cables, and a lazy Sunday. After using the Revue for a week, it’s hard to say yes. Putting aside the natural comparisons to Apple TV, Boxee Box, and Roku, Google TV just doesn’t feel like a finished product. One could easily make an argument that the Revue is better than all of those items, but is it that much better to warrant spending an extra $200?
Google TV, in tragically-Google fashion, is a beta product through and through. There are signs of brilliance that will truly excite consumers, but there are also small annoyances that could easily snowball into deal-breakers. When Logitech improves media streaming, popular media destinations optimize their websites for Google TV, and Google lets loose the power of its developer company, Google TV will be the premiere set-top box option on the market. That may not be enough to warrant a purchase when you can get some media services in your HDTV or through Xbox 360 or PS3.
If you have $300 to burn and are so enthralled by this concept, take a chance. But if you can stomach waiting a few months until the industry has more time to flesh out these products, I’d advise it. Google TV is a product that will someday be amazing. Someday just isn’t today.