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Google TV review: Only half baked

While the idea behind Google TV holds great promise, the first products to come from that vision are too impotent and hard to use. The search giant, flush from back-to-back revolutions in the Internet and mobile spaces, decided to aim a missile of change at the very broken television experience. It's noble, but it could well be just another Google idea doomed to fizzle.

After testing both the $300 Logitech Revue and the $400 Sony Internet TV Blu-ray player — which are about 90 percent identical Google TV systems — I can tell you that the platform is nowhere near ready for your viewing enjoyment.

As you can probably guess from Google's interest in the subject, Google TV is about apps and search. The Logitech and Sony devices — set-top boxes which you connect to the Internet and to your cable or satellite box — are supposed to be partly a "relax, we got it covered" manager of content, and a "hey, check this out" guide to discovering more. They run Android and will get a version of the Android Market, with apps made especially for Google TV, sometime early next year. Currently, though, the included apps are fixed and limited: Netflix, Picasa, Pandora ... and not a whole lot else. Most other "apps" are just links to websites, such as Amazon Video on Demand. You click an "app" and instead, the browser launches. At that point, you are required to do what you'd do if you were on a computer: Log in, browse your options via touchpad, select and play.

If the website is compatible, that is. Google is currently promoting, on the "Spotlight" page, the HBO Go service. However, Comcast subscribers are blocked from the Go service, because Comcast serves up HBO content on its own online VOD service, Fancast. But when you go to Fancast, you're told that the site is not compatible with Google TV, because it only works on computers running Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Apple's Safari. So here I am, a paying HBO subscriber, teased into thinking I can see HBO on this box, then let down by technological shortcomings and Hollywood licensing roadblocks. That right there is a common theme with Google TV.

(You might recall that CBS, ABC and NBC recently blocked Google TV's browser from accessing their programming; is also blocked. Google says that it is working with Hulu on an app — like the ones currently available for iPad, iPhone, Samsung Blu-ray players and Sony's PlayStation 3, and soon on the Xbox 360, TiVo Premiere and Roku's competing set-top box — but there's no promise of a specific arrival date.) 

The promise of search is that it will unify the increasing sources of video. You type in a search for, say, Clint Eastwood, and you get a vast menu of clips and text to choose from, including — one imagines — any TV and movies associated with said Hollywood legend. Only you don't get that, not now. When I search for Clint Eastwood, I see a screen that includes the following:

• A notice of when his film "A Perfect World" will be playing, but since it's going to happen in the future, I am told I will have to record it manually via my DVR (with no help from Google TV).

• A link to Google TV's listing for "Rawhide," but since there are no episodes listed, it's a dead end.

• A link to Wikipedia's Clint Eastwood entry — but, strangely, not IMDB's.

There is also an option to do a more thorough Web search.

Even though there are apps for Netflix and Amazon Video on Demand pre-installed on every Google TV, the search doesn't have the power to peek into their catalogs, or even the shows I've personally queued up in the services. From what I have gathered from Google, going forward, it's not clear that the search will be compatible with any apps, even though that's where 99 percent of the good content will come from — not just Netflix but Sony's Qriocity already found on Sony's GTV box; Hulu Plus, which is due sometime in the near future; and any number of other potential app builders with quality video-on-demand services.

The clincher is this: I can have the same movie queued on Netflix, recorded on my TiVo and stored on my home network server, and none of the three will appear in a search, even though I can use Google TV to navigate to them and play them on my TV.

The insult on top of the functional injury for Google TV is the interface. The keyboard should have tipped me off that this wasn't some relaxing couch experience, but actual work, required of me. During set up, you type a lot, but when you are just leaning back and relaxing, you still have these honking big remotes. Sony's is compact enough, but it's still larger than a game controller, and like a game controller, it sometimes requires your right hand and left hand to control separate parts of the interface. The Logitech remote is a lot more straightforward, but takes up four times the space on the coffee table.

There's a lot of confusion in the interface: There are apps, Web links and the system software — by both Google and the hardware makers Logitech and Sony — all responding to the same set of buttons and clicks. It's easy to be one place and then click a back button, suddenly finding yourself on a screen you'd left an hour before. Meanwhile, everything is layered on top of your normal set-top box experience, in my case a TiVo HD. Because much of the interface appears in layers, there are moments where you see very conflicting things at the same time — at one point I had search results on top, with a screen asking me to pair my device with my Android phone underneath. It was startling, but showed that there's nobody conducting traffic here. Not at this point.

Speaking of phone pairing, the Logitech Revue has a free Harmony app for controlling everything via your phone, and Sony's Internet TV controller for Android will appear soon. But that's part of the problem: If Google TV is this one thing, why does every device get its own Android app? I have to say, I like having hardware options: Logitech's solo set-top box with video-conferencing capability, Sony's Blu-ray player and full-fledged connected TV. It's nice to have a choice. But Google has enough problems as it is creating a platform that makes any kind of sense — allowing Logitech and Sony (and whoever else jumps on board) to go their own routes towards customization will only screw things up. Google let partners in before the fundamental operating system was locked down, and the result is confusion.

To say Google TV is the opposite of Apple TV is maybe putting it too simply, especially since both are busy trying to expand their content offerings to partners. Still, the former is an anything-for-anybody set-up which ends up spread way too thin, while the latter is, at the moment, a too-tightly-controlled experience. But if Apple TV gets apps, or even just builds on its current partnerships with Netflix and Flickr by adding Hulu Plus and Pandora, not to mention Facebook and Twitter, it will be a solid platform that supports other solid platforms. Google TV may quickly get more partners, but unless they fix the overall experience, those partners ultimately will feel cheated.

I recognize that I haven't said many (or any) nice things about Google TV. Both the Logitech Revue and Sony GTV Blu-ray player are very nice pieces of hardware, highly responsive and capable of very impressive feats. But nothing they do is unique at this point, and they're therefore not worth considering. Roku and Apple have far cheaper, smaller and simpler devices that manage much of the same tasks without interface headaches, and a new product, D-Link's Boxee box, is on the way with more potential (albeit unproven). Blu-ray players by Samsung, LG, Panasonic and, yes, Sony, offer far better values as well, if you want to include a disc player.

The only reason I don't just write-off Google's own admission that this is a work in progress is Android. More specifically, the somewhat problematic launch of the buggy and aesthetically questionable Android 1.0, on the underpowered and underwhelming T-Mobile G1. "Wait and see" was a common trope among reviewers and technorati, and when we did wait, what we saw was a powerhouse platform. That's partly because Apple essentially cleared the way for Android's success, at least in the U.S., by not spreading over to Verizon sooner. But it's also because Android matured into a manageable operating system with a pleasant interface and useful third-party options.

So, will the ugly duckling that is Google TV mature into a graceful swan? Or will it have to be put down when Google realizes its wings won't flap? That remains to be seen. But for now, it's not for you. Let's all just wait and see.

Catch up with Wilson on Twitter at @wjrothman. Who else do you know who'd care to hear your opinions on today's set-top boxes?

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