Google TV promises nothing less than to meld live TV with the Web by piggybacking onto your pay-TV setup — and ever since Google first announced the service back in May, I've been dying to take it for a spin. Could the Google TV-powered Revue make my run-of-the-mill cable TV service fun again? My hopes were high Thursday as I cracked open the review kit for one of the very first Google TV devices: the Logitech Revue.
Now, before we begin, I'd like to make one thing clear: This isn't a full review. It takes days or even weeks to properly test a serious home theater gadget like this one — you have to live with it for a while to really get the hang of it.
That said, I have managed to form a few initial impressions after my 24 hours with Google TV, and I figured you'd like a taste.
Setup: Not a snap, but could be worse
Plugging the Revue ($300, available now) into your existing home-video setup takes some doing, but it's not nearly as bad as I feared (although I can't imagine it's something grandma would want to try). Basically, you take the HDMI cable running from your DVR to your TV, disconnect it from your TV's HDMI input, and plug it into the Revue; you then take a second HDMI cable (an extra cable comes bundled with the Revue), connect it to the Revue's HDMI output, and plug the other end back into your TV. After that, you plug the included IR blaster (a thin cord with a little module at the end that emits infrared commands) into the back of the Revue and string it over to your DVR, positioning the business end near your DVR's front-facing IR receiver.
Once that's done and you've got everything powered on, the Revue guides you through a 12-step setup wizard. Sounds tedious, I know, but the on-screen guide makes relatively quick work of connecting the Revue to your home Wi-Fi router, choosing your cable provider, fine-tuning your channel lineup, and taking control of your TV, DVR, and A/V receiver (if you have one).
A word of warning, though, especially for those still using analog connections for their home video setups: the Revue does NOT come with composite or component video inputs, nor will it accept RCA-style analog audio plugs. Instead, we're talking HDMI all the way, although the Revue does have an optical digital-audio output (a.k.a. Toslink) for those with older, non-HDMI-equipped receivers.
Interface: slick but quirky
One of the nicest features of the Revue — and of the Android-powered Google TV platform in general — is the Home screen, which you can call up at any time for access to your Google TV applications (like Neflix and Napster), bookmarks, and the "what's on" programming guide. Hit the "Home" key on the Revue's QWERTY remote (more on the remote in a moment), and the Home screen appears as a translucent overlay on top of whatever you're doing; if you're watching TV or a Netflix video, for example, you'll still see and hear your video in the background.
Ready to search? Hit the Search key (marked by a magnifying glass) on the Revue keypad; a Google search box will pop up at the top of the screen, where you can type a query for a TV network (like "MTV" or "ESPN"), a particular show ("Star Trek"), a movie, a Web site, or ... well, pretty much whatever you want. Results will start popping up instantly, which you can filter for TV or Web video results, or hits on IMDB. Searching is by far the easiest way to find out when "Jersey Shore" is on (and it always seems to be on, by the way), or if "Iron Man 2" is available through Amazon on Demand; I was disappointed, though, to learn that you can't find streaming Netflix videos through the Google TV search box.
So far, so good, but the Google TV interface on the Revue isn't without its quirks. For one thing, browsing the "What's On" programming guide is a serious drag; instead of a nicely formatted grid, you get an uninspiring series of folders that contain lengthy lists of shows. (Clearly, searching for programming is the way to go.) And while you generally get to use an on-screen mouse (controlled by the touchpad on the Revue remote) for menu navigation, you'll have to revert to arrow keys whenever you switch back to your DVR's native interface for, say, accessing your queue of recorded shows. (Dish subscribers can program their DVRs directly over the Google TV interface, however.)
Web browsing: Solid but slow
One of the biggest selling points of Google TV is, of course, the ability to browse the Web on your TV screen, and for the most part, it works as advertised. Every page I visited looked properly formatted, and yes — Flash videos and page elements are present and accounted for. Also, Web-based text looked razor sharp and was easy to read (not that I plan on plowing through any 30,000-word essays on my 46-inch Sony Bravia). On the other hand, I often found myself tapping my fingers while waiting for Web pages to load, particularly when Flash was involved, while scrolling was an annoyingly herky-jerky experience.
You can also view a Web page and live TV simultaneously with Google TV's "picture-in-picture" feature, which I tried during Thursday night's ALCS matchup between the Giants and the Phillies. I just pressed the "picture-in-picture" key on the remote, and the game itself shrunk down into a little window in the bottom-right-hand corner of the screen, while on the main screen I put up the MLB Web site, complete with stats and a Flash-animated strike-zone graphic.
Well, great — except for the fact that my gorgeous, HD view of the game had been squished into a tiny little window, just a few inches across, and no — you can't swap one picture for the other (logical, I suppose, since, the Web page would be unreadable in the smaller picture frame).
Indeed, I found myself wondering ... why not just go back to the standard full-screen TV view, and follow the online stats on a laptop, or a tablet? Which is exactly what I ended up doing. Google TV-powered picture-in-picture may still grow on me, but it hasn't happened yet.
Of course, one of the biggest draws for Google TV is being able to watch Web-based video on your big-screen HDTV; for example, watching Flash-powered highlight reels on ESPN.com can be a full-screen experience with Google TV. But if you were thinking that a Google TV set-top box like the Revue would be your ticket to free, Web-based network TV shows, think again.
As many have reported, several of the biggest TV networks — think ABC, CBS, and NBC —have blocked Google TV users from watching their online videos; needless to say, Hulu access has been blocked as well. (Online videos at Fox.com still seem to be working, at least for now.) Reuters reports that Google is in negotiations with the networks to restore access, but my guess is that the networks will hold out for the inevitable arrival of Hulu Plus — for which you'll have to pay $10 a month (at least for now) — on Google TV.
Applications: Few and far between
Google TV promises to have tens of thousands of apps available next year, once the platform gets access to the full Android Market, and it'll be interesting to see what third-party developers cook up once Google releases a TV-specific SDK.
For now, though, only a handful of Google TV apps are available — including a photo album (which syncs up with your online Picasa collection), Netflix, Pandora, NBA Game Time, Pandora, and Twitter — and most of the apps are disappointingly basic. The bare-bones Netflix app, for example, will only let you browse the movies in your "Watch Instantly" queue — no searching or category browsing. The NBA Game Time app fares a little better, giving you a reasonably slick view of the NBA schedule and stats for previous and in-progress games, but it's nothing to write home about. Yes, the Google TV app situation will improve over time, but early adopters should keep their expectations in check.
Media sharing is a go
The Revue will tap into media-bearing PCs on your home network, provided that you've got the right network sharing settings enabled; and indeed, the Revue instantly spotted the Windows 7 laptop humming away in my office. Double-click the folders, select the video, images, or music file you'd like to play, and you're in business; be aware, however, that the Revue's sharing interface is little more than a list of folders — in other words, not too exciting. The Revue will also grab media from a thumb drive plugged into either of its rear USB ports.
The remote: Meh.
Logitech, maker of the Revue, is known for its Harmony line of universal remotes; my touchscreen Harmony One remote, for example, is one of my most treasured gadgets. Unfortunately, the lightweight QWERTY remote that comes with the Revue is surprisingly, well ... cludgy, if that's the technical term.
The full-size QWERTY keyboard is a nice touch, but I didn't care for the squishy feel of the keys, and basic TV function keys — channel up/down, volume up/down, mute, play, pause — are tucked away like function keys, making them tricky to find in the dark. Oh, and did I mention that the keys on the remote aren't backlit? Well, they aren't. Finally, the touchpad and the four-way arrow keys to the right of the QWERTY drove me nuts, given that you have to switch back and forth depending on whether you're, say, browsing the Web or navigating your DVR queue.
The good news: A Google TV remote app for Android phones has just been released, and another is on the way for iPhone and iPad users; I haven't had the chance to try the Android app yet, but from what I've seen, it could be a definite improvement.
Over and out, for now ...
If I'm sounding grumpy after my first day with Google TV, well ... yes, it's true. Then again, it takes time to wrap your head around any new platform, and I recognize that I'm particularly resistant to change where my home-theater setup is concerned. Am I disappointed that Google TV doesn't immediately feel like a home-video game changer? Yes, but perhaps it's just a matter of being patient until developers start cranking out some great Google TV apps, or while Google and the TV networks strike their online video deals. Or, it could simply be that the Web and TV — meaning the HDTV in your living room — aren't a match made in home-video heaven.
Anyway, I'll keep at it with Google TV and the Revue. Got questions? Leave 'em below, and I'll do my best to get back to you.
— Ben Patterson is a technology writer for Yahoo! News.