Weekend tech scan: Google TV's flagship system may be dead, but it's still a great deal

Google finally gets its Google TV software right - making the prematurely terminated Logitech Revue one of technology's liveliest corpses.

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The Logitech Revue (atop the TV set) in action. Get 'em while you can.

Google finally gets its Google TV software right - making the prematurely terminated Logitech Revue one of technology's liveliest corpses.

The Logitech Revue is dead. Long live the Google TV-powered Logitech Revue.

It’s sad to see that Google got its Google TV software right in the end after Logitech, one of two major manufacturers selling Google TV-based systems (Sony's the other) stopped making it in a well-publicized blowout. But Revue systems are still available for $99, down from the original $299. If you have an HDTV set, or want to get a gift for someone, buy one now. Even discontinued, it’s worth the investment.

The Logitech story is well known: how the company saw Google TV as the next great thing, all but put its future on the line to support it, and then lost $100 million and its CEO when the product failed. (Here’s my more detailed review

Google TV itself also ran into a buzz saw and never recovered. When it was released over a year ago, it promised to bring TV and the Internet together, giving consumers the chance to search out a show on Google TV, then go directly to the TV channel or website to view the episode or film of their choice. But virtually every network or channel immediately barred Google TV users from accessing that content because they feared Google’s business practices. The embargo continues to this day.

A few days ago, the Google TV software finally arrived as a download for the Revue, more than a month after Sony devices had already received it. Surprisingly, it’s a most welcome upgrade from Google's original. Too bad Google didn’t start with this version; it might well have wound up dominating the market for TV set-top boxes.

The basic Revue system is designed for HDTV sets with high-definition multimedia interface connectors. It gives you 5 services in 1: you can use it to control most of your TV's functions; view apps such as Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and HBO Go; use a refined version of the Google search engine to find TV shows and movies; view your movies or hear music stored on your computer; and use it as a full-fledged Internet browser.

Google’s Android operating system is similar to Android phone and tablet software. If you know Android, understanding Google TV will be a snap. Even for non-Android fans it’s fairly intuitive. You will only have access to apps tailored for Google TV, not the full 300,000 apps in the Android library.

Google TV users control their systems via an augmented full-size wireless computer keyboard with a built-in mousepad. The keyboard’s size and complexity have been major bones of contention since the system’s release; several apps, including Google TV and Logitech Harmony-branded apps in both the iTunes and Android marketplaces, provide the same functionality as the keyboard but in a smaller, more convenient package.

The Revue links into your system between your cable box and your television, and lets you shift seamlessly between TV set and Google TV services. You'll see no sign of Google TV while you’re watching until you press the “home” button on the Revue controller. Then, on the bottom of your screen, you'll see a series of apps that let you access various services: “All Apps” gives you access to the apps in the system, including the Android Market, Netflix, YouTube, and a Google TV search app. There’s also a button for a Chrome browser that gives you full Internet access. It’s not full-featured: There are no tabs and you can’t run extensions. But for most browsing it’s more than adequate.

I found the TV/movie search app to be a good system addition. You can scan either “live TV” or “TV shows and movies” categories to see what shows are on, and it will identify the broadcast or cable channel on which a show appears. In searching live TV shows, scan bars under each show tell you how much time remains for each program.

The search concept is extremely flexible. If you search for a movie or TV show, it tells you whether you can see it on live TV or rent/buy it on Amazon Instant Video. Search also lets you see where there are any references to the show, and will lead you to YouTube if you want to see a trailer or celebrity interview.

Google TV features both a “spotlight” feature for many apps, such as HBO Go or the New York Times video reports, and the Android Market. Here’s a partial list of what’s available in both areas.

While the overall system approach is quite good, a number of kerfuffles remain for Google to fix. For example, the Android Market, specially curated for Google TV, offers items for sale or download that Google TV doesn’t support. A slick aquarium wallpaper that should show up on the system’s home page doesn’t.

In the Google TV Spotlight, which features apps recommended by Google, a website called Sidereel.com promises live links to leading TV shows. It's essentially a way to work around the ongoing network/channel ban against Google TV.

On a computer, Sidereel lists various hot shows, with links to the Hulu streaming service and Apple iTunes store—neither of which is a partner in Google TV. Sidereel doesn’t even work on Google TV.

I found something really strange in the Android Market: an app called Online TV that offers a number of shows and episodes on various websites, including FX and PBS, that you can access in full. I searched the Internet for an Online TV website or review and finally found this link; other than an explanation of how it works, however, I could find no information as to who's behind it or how it’s able to circumvent the network ban on Google TV.

Either that’s a soft opening for Google TV owners to watch full episodes, or someone somewhere goofed. However it happened, it’s restored Google TV's original intent — if only for a moment.

When Google released its Honeycomb version, Logitech software engineers worked for over a month to make sure it would work well with their system. Will they support further upgrades? I asked a Logitech tech support agent, who said they probably will pass along other incremental updates and possibly any major updates. But without Logitech engineers modifying or customizing those updates. It’s all on Google’s back now.

Sony is Google TV's other active supporter as of this writing. With its Google-powered Bravia TVs and Blu-ray players still on the market, it seems likely to support Google TV as it changes and grows. Otherwise, the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas should give a forecast of Google TV's future.

No one, not even the tech support team at Logitech, knows how long the company will continue to support the Revue. Right now you can buy a system and feel confident you’ll be able to receive all current updates, but I could find no one who could guarantee what support Logitech will offer if Google comes out with a new and improved software package that radically changes the unit. After all, it is a discontinued project.

A safer longer-term bet might be to buy a Google TV-powered Sony Blu-ray player (Model NSZ-GT1). It retails for $199, and the Sony outlet store at Tulalip has it for $149. But considering the speed of change in consumer electronics, it probably doesn’t matter which unit you buy. So what the hell. Get a $99 Logitech Revue. The price is right. And it is a fun addition to your home entertainment.


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