November 1, 2010 | by Andrew Kameka
Apps are what make smartphones smarter. While the devices we purchase are still desirable as they ship, the appeal of expanding their feature set with apps drives smartphone adoption. Google TV is poised to do the same for home entertainment.
Yes, the same platform that powers your phones and tablets has invaded your massive 50 inch screen with Google TV. Both the Logitech Revue set-top box and the Sony line of Google TV products have debuted to juice-up the television experience. While we won’t get any Android Market apps until early 2011, let’s look at what’s available now.
My surround system is non-existent, but I still like to occasionally play music in my living room. That’s why I’m pleased to see that Pandora has an app. The presentation and design are all slick and reliable as this is basically a larger version of the Android app seen on phones. Pandora supports multitasking, so other apps can be used without stopping playback, but you can stop playback when exiting the app if you so desire. But, if you don’t want to use Chrome and listen to some songs, you’re given the option to stop music when exiting the app.
I’ve heard people complain about sound quality on the Pandora Android app but I’ve always rated it as “good enough” for the free account. Audiophiles will not get the high-fidelity playback they crave, but they will get respectable sound quality worth blaring through your home entertainment system.
Netflix support is Google’s greatest accomplishment in Google TV. It’s one of the most important services to have for any entertainment device, especially one centered on television and apps. Sadly, it’s also one of GTV’s greatest failures because it is so incomplete.
Netflix gives users access to their instant streaming queue, which has picture quality as strong as one would expect with a quality web connection. Movies are listed with ratings, a synopsis, and important details, as well as giving users the ability to remove items or leave comments. Sadly, it doesn’t give much control for accessing new content. Only titles already in the Netflix queue are shown, so there’s no way to watch more Kevin James films after you’ve laughed yourself stupid while watching Paul Blart, Mall Cop. This app is Paul Blart: it has little to offer other than the most basic necessities.
The standard Twitter for Android app has a design that feels light and airy. I actually would have preferred that design be expanded for the big screen, but Twitter has opted to create an app that was more in line with the Google TV design. The inverted sense of design puts white text over dark blues, but still supports the standard replies, mentions, favorites, retweets, and trending topics. Thanks to picture-in-picture mode, you can see something funny or interesting on television and tweet about it without losing the live TV feed. Twitter addicts may still find it easier to use their phone or laptop for this type of activity, but people who like to simulcast tweets during sporting events or award shows may enjoy the integrated approach.
CNBC Real Time
Now this really shows off Android’s potential. CNBC is a strong source for news on stocks and business, but the Real Time app gives users more control over that news. The left side of the app shows video clips from CNBC that talk about what affects the market. The right are right side shows My Stocks, which has your bookmarked portfolio; Hot Stocks, both rising and falling; and a list of select clips worth watching.
The app can be great for daily checks of what’s good, but there’s one problem: this isn’t live video. While the stocks on the right are live, the numbers in the on-demand video are obviously not. It can sometimes be confusing or self-defeating since the information is no longer relevant. CNBC stocks may be “Real time,” but its videos definitely are not, so this won’t replace your trip to the network any time soon.
This one is self-explanatory since it’s the same app you’ve seen on stock Android devices for some time now. The lack of on-device storage means that only photos from Picasa are displayed, so start uploading if you plan on sharing vacation or wedding photos on your television.
NBA Game Time
Game Time provides live scores, schedules, standings, and stats from around the NBA. I’ve been a fan of the phone app, and the GTV version will get equal mileage for basketball fans. Users have access to stats and score lines, and captivating game recaps from NBA.com streamed in HD. If you’re watching the game and watch to check on box info for fantasy purposes or general curiosity, Game Time could save you a trip to the computer or phone. At worst, the app can help track the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers begin their collision course to the NBA Finals.
I know; I too was surprised to discover it’s still around. Napster morphed into a paid subscription streaming service for music fans, and it’s now broadcasting music on-demand in Google TV. Napster is beautifully designed, using large tabs to access stored playlists, albums, history, and recommended songs. Users can browse their bookmarked collections or explore Napster’s library of over 10 million songs.
Napster takes advantage of the format and executes it to near perfection. But it suffers periodic fails that prevent playback and require users to reset their Revue or wait 10-20 minutes before streams return. That can be a non-starter for service since Napster requires a $10 monthly subscription; a 14-day trial offer comes pre-loaded.
Logitech Media Player (Logitech Revue only)
Those home movies, vacation trip photos, and music files stored on your computer are also available on the TV. Sort of. Revue includes media streaming, provided that your computer is enabled and supported. This is still in beta and not all files are supported. In fact, most video does not play and some formats deliver a picture with no audio. We can only hope things will improve through a future system update.
Google has a small number of apps, but it has the Spotlight section that shines a light on some websites optimized to work on the platform. Each offers something valuable and unique, so here’s a brief explanation a few.
VEVO – MTV doesn’t play videos anymore, so somebody has to show them, right? VEVO shows music videos, concerts, and special series for artists in several genres in 380-720p depending on what formats are available. This is the place to be if you love music.
Blip.tv – Blip is a service that houses many online series for Comedies, Documentaries, Drama, Music, and Tech shows. An optimized version makes it possible to browse original series created specifically for the web, but the app could use some navigation tweaks to better browse channels.
CNET – Rejoice tech junkies; CNET has arrived to bring the same videos you watch on the web to the big screen. Of course, you may still opt to view this on the smaller screen.
Clicker – GTV tells you what’s on now, but Clicker tells you what’s on the web and where to get it. Use this app to browse online video content crawled from the web, but remember that some sites are blocking Google TV.
Crackle – Powered by Sony Pictures, Crackle shows movies, documentaries, television shows, and web originals. A subscription is required to see full-length content.
Other great sites include:
- Cartoon Network for cartoons (duh!)
- CNN for select news videos
- Flixster for movie tracking
- HBO Go for watching shows and movies
- NY Times for videos from the Times
- Tune In Radio to listen to sports/talk/music radio or podcasts.