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Nick Plante

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Google TV: A Revue Review

February 24, 2011

The mythical HTPC has long been a beloved enemy of mine. I remember building my own many years ago, with a Hauppauge TV tuner card and a smattering of miscellaneous MythTV odds and ends. It was anything but easy to use, and fell into disuse quickly. Two years ago, I bought a first generation AppleTV. This was great for streaming music to my stereo system... but required me to have iTunes open on another computer, which frankly seemed silly (particularly because I use a laptop as my primary computer). The sheer amount of vendor lock-in was another reason to frown upon that setup, and eventually I installed Boxee on it before deciding that it was too underpowered to be of much practical use.

All of my media -- a very large music collection, a smattering of TV shows worthy of repeat viewing and a few films -- sits on a NAS connected to my home network. It's an ongoing frustration that it's so difficult for me to access this content. I shouldn't have to connect my laptop to our home theatre or plug my iPod into the A/V inputs and fiddle with it merely to listen to some music, right? So it was only a matter of time until I gave it another shot.

This time around I researched a few different solutions before settling on one. I looked at Boxee (no Netflix support at the time, still a bit clunky, serious doubts about long-term viability), I looked at Roku (no support for local media streaming), I looked at Plex and XMBC (I didn't really want to buy a new Mac Mini to dedicate to it...), and I looked at GoogleTV. After far too much consideration, I settled on the latter option and picked up a Logitech Revue, the first standalone set-top to run Google TV.

After living with it a couple weeks, I can definitely say that it's far from perfect. But it *is* interesting, it *does* work, and, once the SDK makes its way into the hands of third party developers, it could be a pretty compelling platform. It might even (gasp!) reinvent television. For realsies.

So, because I'm a natural pessimist, let's first talk about what I don't like:

* Google TV, at least at this stage, isn't designed with the cord-cutter in mind. It's designed to work in tandem with your existing set top box and content provider, probably cable or satellite. Although I'd like to get rid of cable entirely, I'm happy with this compromise for now. However, watching live TV through the Revue has its quirks, the most annoying of which is that the device appears to upconvert signals from the cable box before they get to the TV. This is great for HD content, but for SD content it means that you don't usually get the picture that you want. I've also encountered some other STB/Revue interface issues that are troubling, and it's difficult to determine which party is at fault.

* The "remote control" packaged with the device is a... keyboard. Although this is useful, it's an unnecessarily complicated device for most input tasks (see the Boxee box remote for an example of how this could have been better). And my wife absolutely hates it. The situation would be much better if the device worked better with Logitech's own brand of Harmony learning remotes. We already have one of these, and Logitech does claim that they'll work together, but the support is half-baked at best. Hopefully it will get better, as this would solve the input problem.

* I probably use the device more for listening to music than I do for watching television (I'm always shocked that I'm seemingly in the minority here), and although Google TV is designed in such a way that it will play back any media, music is definitely a second class citizen. The only way I've found to play back music is to do so with Logitech's bundled Media Player app, which by their own admission, isn't great. The codec support is fairly limited at this point and simple functions like shuffle are just non-existant. A killer media player application will no doubt be part of a proper "Google TV Market" rollout whenever they get around to that, but there's little to no more information available about when that will be at this stage.

* Speaking of the market... did I mention that it doesn't exist yet? Google TV / Android could be an amazing platform for building applications that are uniquely suited to the television and home theatre experience, but until a developer SDK is available and the market opens, the device's potential is rather limited.

I've read that Google has asked set television manufacturers to delay the introductions of their Google TV-powered devices for a variety of reasons, and I'm sure they're doing some significant retooling to address the problems the platform is facing. I'm looking forward to hearing more about what that actually means. And I'm sure device manufacturers are too.

The Revue itself hasn't sold particularly well, and it's clearly not a product meant for the mass market just yet: be prepared to pay the early adopter tax. And yet, at the same time, it's actually a useful product: it lets me access the media from my NAS without complaint, it integrates nicely with Netflix, Amazon VOD, and a variety of other streaming video subscription services, and it does add some extra value on top of conventional on-screen guides in the form of search. So although I have my complaints, it does what I need better than anything else I've used in the past, and with practically no set up cost associated.

Just like Android, I think Google's television strategy could be a long-term winner. Imagine what an open platform could mean for game developers, for example. I's ultimate success or failure is clearly going to hinge not just on integration in the consumer electronics space but also on the innovation that indie developers can bring to the table once the market launches. Until developers can get their hands on that SDK, I'm going to assume that Google and Logitech are still testing the waters and have yet to get serious about the product line. But once that happens, I think we might see some truly innovative things happening in television for the first time in many, many years.

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