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Google TV gets apps, still has issues


Google TV 2.0 is finally here, with apps from the Android market and a whole new user experience. But without agreements with content providers, it's hard to see how far it can get.

When Google TV came out, it was plagued with issues: Not only was the software hard to use and the hardware unreasonably expensive, it operated under the premise that the major network video available on the Web would work with the system. Well, soon after Google TV launched, most TV network websites, along with Hulu, shut down any connections going to the Google TV Web browser. The result? An expensive box for watching YouTube and a few other Web video sources. To quote the late Chris Farley, "La-dee-frickin'-da."

While it's great that Google TV addresses the user experience, it does little to remedy the fact that most premium Web video is still off limits.

OK, so on to the improvements, of which there are many. Google TV now searches across services, including Netflix, HBO Go and Amazon on Demand. So when you look for a show, it will tell you who has it on demand, in addition to when it's available on your cable or satellite lineup. A new app called TV and Movies gives you a comprehensive view of available programming, including suggestions. The user interface has been simplified, which is great given the fact that the 1.0 product was fairly confusing to use.

Google TV 2.0 is officially Android Honeycomb, which is to say, Android 3.2. This makes it more a clear part of the Android strategy and many compatibility issues can be understood more clearly. It will not run Ice Cream Sandwich, Android 4.0, in the near term, but the developers would like to update it to that platform soon. The decision to go with Honeycomb and not ICS was a matter of time, getting a product out soon, they said.

The biggest accomplishment for Google TV 2.0 is to have a working Android Market in place. The apps come through from the phone-based store via a filter that weeds out any The apps are filtered for their TV friendliness. That means, at launch, there are something like 1,800 apps that automatically are offered to Google TV users, and way way more to come. It also means that many available apps are not optimized for TV, and will have lower resolution than you're gonna want.

There are 40 to 50 featured apps that are in fact optimized for Google TV, from Classy Fireplace to Flixter to Discovery. There will also be free downloadable games, such as "Angry Frogs," which is increasingly a big part of the allure for Google TV.

The trouble is, the updates don't solve the core problem of a lack in content. It's highly unlikely that we'll see anything like the iPad's Comcast Xfinity app for instance, which streams your cable video through a tablet. Without launch partners outside the Google family, it's hard to understand how this will sell. I would like to see a DVR, which — by simply recording shows locally — solves many of the problems Google faces with Web video. But this was only a software announcement — no new hardware was introduced.

The update is available to current Google TV owners, and will ship in new Google TV boxes by the current hardware makers (mainly Logitech and Sony). I'm telling you now that you should hold off. There will be more hardware announcements soon, and they will likely be improvements that cost less.

My hope — though I have no data on this — is for a Google TV box that had CableCard and a hard drive, so it can at least function as a programmable, Web-accessible DVR. Google says it doesn't want to be a "cord cutter" and kill off cable, but it should least have the capability to kill off TiVo.

You can find Google TV update info here.

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