Google TV reviewed: Did Google get ahead of itself?

Google TV has been released, but some questions may be be difficult for Google to answer.

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Google TV

Google TV has been released, but some questions may be be difficult for Google to answer.

I’ve spent several days with Google TV, the new service that, according to Google's marketing line, delivers “TV, apps, search and the web…together at last.” More precisely, I tested the new Logitech Revue, the $299 set-top box that integrates the new service with my living room TV.

The verdict? I'm deeply divided between the tech side of me that says "attaboy, Google," and the reporter who questions whether this approach is overpriced and overly complex in the age of the app. Another concern on this side is that Google TV is already in the crosshairs of most major television networks, which are blocking its access to their shows that are posted on Internet sites. Both halves of me will get an airing here.

To best understand Google TV and its issues, an understanding of its technology is essential. It does a lot and does it well. Fair warning: there’s a learning curve you simply have to go through.

Designed for HDTV sets, Google TV lets you watch your television normally (whatever "normal" is for you), then lets you pull up an extensive on-screen menu to select other services: surfing the Internet; viewing Netflix, Amazon TV, Pandora, and other apps; tapping into your home server so you can watch your personal video and pictures and listen to your own music.

The piece de resistance is the TV-refined Google search engine, which eradicates the line between what is on "TV" and what is on the "Internet."

You ask Google TV to search for a past and present TV show, movie, etc. It might direct you to a website hosting the complete episode or indicate a TV channel where the same show is scheduled for viewing. You can look for specific shows or review categories such as drama, news, sports, children’s programming, etc. If you have cable, Google TV locates shows airing today and switches your TV to that show. It tells you if a show is available on TV, the Internet, and/or a pay-for-view source, and even acts as your cable set-top-box remote control.

The Google TV remote is a full-size wireless customized keyboard with a built-in mouse and touchpad. It contains Logitech's remarkable Harmony TV universal remote technology, which lets you control home entertainment systems with a single device. Using this keyboard remote, your TV becomes a computer with some limitations. But for browsing the Internet, it works great – and that is its central focus.

Let's say you want to watch "Law and Order." Press the remote's search key (marked with a magnifying glass icon) and a search box comes up on screen. Type in "Law and Order," and you see a listing of all five of its series. Choose "Special Victims Unit" and you get a list of episode names and dates, and whether you can see it on TV, the Internet, or via a for-pay source like Amazon TV (iTunes seems to be absent). If your episode is available in all three areas, you can choose one – TV, for example – and Google TV will switch your channel to that episode. If it's on a fee-based site, Google TV will take you there. You can also choose to look at a traditional Google search engine for full “Law and Order” sites.

The video is first rate: up to 1080p image quality. TV episodes and movies look great on my 60-inch HDTV.

Here's more techie stuff, in brief. (If the tech stuff isn't you, skip ahead two paragraphs.)

The Logitech Revue packs its services into a small box roughly the size of a DVD case that attaches to your TV via an HDMI cable. With your cable service plugged into the Revue also via HDMI, the Revue remote controls your TV and Internet connection simultaneously. Revue "talks" to your broadband Internet service via an 802.11n wireless connection. Your existing remote continues to work side by side with the Revue remote. The box has 2 USB ports in the back for attaching other devices and will play major media formats, such as JPG pictures, MP-3 audio and MPEG-4 video, from a USB memory stick. A small IR blaster, also plugged into the Revue box, receives wireless signals from the remote to control the system. If you have an AV center and your TV is plugged into it, Revue can control your TV and other peripheral devices such as a DVD or Blu-ray player.

Google is built on the open-source Android platform; Android-based apps will be available sometime next year; the platform is open for development. The web browser is a Flash-enabled Google Chrome Internet browser.

(Non-techies can resume reading here.)

When you start your TV, Google TV is already on invisibly in the background. Just click on the "home" button on your remote and Google TV becomes available. You have a choice between strictly using Google TV services such as the browser, TV itself, or minimizing your TV picture into a corner of your television screen and using both.

Google TV is also available as a built-in service in a line of new Sony Bravia TV sets. Sony has developed its own Google TV controller.

For a full-fledged technology review of the Logitech Revue, I recommend this one from Tom's Hardware.

Google TV is a neat idea, and clearly is the complete convergence device, if not the best ever built, for bringing TV and the Internet together. It also demonstrates Google's desire to be the center of the consumer’s TV/Internet convergence: the portal through which all content searching will pass. But my difficulty is more with its concept than its execution.

To me, Google TV's most unique feature is its pragmatic search approach to locating content throughout the "mediaverse." But Google TV has taken an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach: search engine, gadget controller, center for apps, and much more. (Coming soon! A Logitech custom webcam to turn the Revue into a video conferencing center! Only $149!!)  By contrast, competitors Apple TV and Roku boxes provide streaming video apps and services, no browser, no keyboard, no learning curve, and under $100 pricing. Their minimalist approach raises the question of whether Google TV is overkill, and being marketed at an overkill price.

Might not a Google TV computer — with the refined search engine but minus the other features – have been more than sufficient and thus available at a lower price? Is there not a better solution to a remote other than a keyboard, such as voice-activated commands? Is its very completeness, its all-in-one concept, being bypassed by simple devices and simple apps offering simple solutions?  Despite its attempts to make it user-friendly, is it still too techie?

(For the record, Samsung and Vizio are also on board the app bandwagon in their new TVs and Blu-ray players.)

There's another more pressing issue for Google, and it comes just as Google TV is rolling out into the marketplace. Television networks ABC, NBC, and CBS have blocked Google TV users from directly connecting to their free shows posted on the Internet. In other words, if you want to see a past episode of CBS's "The Good Wife," you can't view it via Google TV.

But it's not blocked on your computer. Or if you have cable, and the show is available through the on-demand service, you can watch it there.

It's not only the networks who are blocking Google TV. The popular video search site is also unavailable for Google TV viewers to watch programs. Even for people who have paid a monthly $10 subscription for the Hulu Plus service, the site remains blocked. The site does indicate that negotiations are going on between Google and Hulu to resolve their differences.

If this network boycott continues, the problem could threaten the company's entire Google TV scheme.

While the networks have not commented directly, the issue at hand appears to be their ongoing concern that the changing playing field of television today may shrink their revenue: after decades of a financially rewarding symbiosis between media companies and cable/satellite companies, consumers may become independent of it. Broadcasters demand to be paid when people watch their shows. They make major money from the cable and satellite companies who pay heavy licensing fees for allowing those stations/channels to be carried on their systems. The more subscribers that slip away, or "cut the cord" to cable/satellite companies, the less revenue comes into cable/satellite companies and broadcasters alike.

According to The Wall Street Journal, some media companies are skeptical that Google can provide a business model that would compensate them for potentially cannibalizing existing broadcast businesses. The New York Post claims that Google wants to turn YouTube, which it owns, into a TV network on its own.

And don't think cable isn't fighting back hard to hang onto subscribers. Recently, for example, Comcast announced its on-line service, which essentially makes most of its basic channel programming plus your subscribed premium channels available to you, dear cable subscriber, on your computer at no additional cost.

It's an issue that includes but is not limited to viewing shows on Google TV.

Given all this controversy, Google with its huge business clout was surely aware that network television's response would be swift. The Wall Street Journal further reported that Google tried to convince major media companies last summer to optimize their websites and videos to work more seamlessly with Google TV. Some agreements were reached, but not with most of the major players. Fox reportedly is still mulling its response.

It is not unexpected that Google, Sony, and Logitech failed to go out of their way to tell potential buyers about such issues, but one would imagine that these giant companies would have solved them before the product came to market. There has been little if any public reaction from the three partnered companies.

There's another somewhat subtle issue surrounding Google TV: its impact on the "comfort food" factor of TV in the living room. Like it or not, TV is still the center of family life in many homes. The content shown on your living room TV is generally based on the consensus of everyone watching it. Do people simultaneously play with laptop computers and watch TV? Sure, but the computer is a personal experience. The living room TV is communal. Turning it into yet another computer, no matter how well intentioned, could be a bone of contention in plenty of households.

This is not an issue owned solely by Google. It's more of a general thought on the morphing of that cultural force called TV into something bigger and, some believe, more intrusive. Google TV certainly sees its role as a change agent to be a positive cultural force. Others may want to argue the point.


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