Google is leaping into the television set-top box business this holiday season with its new GoogleTV software platform.
After trying one of the first models for a few days, I’d say it isn’t yet worth the $300 to $1,400 that GoogleTV systems cost.
There are plenty of cheaper and simpler options available if you want to connect your TV to the Internet and watch Netflix and YouTube videos.
Technophiles wanting their TVs to have the power of a PC may be frustrated by the limitations of GoogleTV. It’s nowhere near as polished and flexible as the Media Center software built into most versions of Windows and it lacks the digital video recording features of Media Center.
It’s too bad because I just love the remote control on the GoogleTV system I’ve been testing, the $299 Logitech Revue.
The remote is a light but sturdy wireless keyboard with a trackpad and TV controls on the right side, where you’d find a numeric keypad on a regular keyboard. Its big buttons are easier to use than the mini-keypads used on some remotes nowadays.
It connects to a set-top box that’s about the size of a netbook computer and runs the same kind of Intel Atom processor. Set-up is pretty easy, with a step-by-step menu on the TV screen.
GoogleTV will disappoint people looking for a way to “cut the cable” or reduce the clutter of boxes connected to their TV. It’s designed to supplement, rather than replace, a cable company’s set-top box.
In a surprising departure from Google’s democratic approach to product design, GoogleTV really only works if you pay for premium cable. It also requires broadband.
If you have barebones basic cable — the kind that requires no cable box — or use free broadcast TV, you’re basically out of luck. There’s no way to connect an antenna or coaxial cable. The only way to get TV signals into the box is through an HDMI cable.
So what does GoogleTV do? It’s basically a layer of software that can be added to your TV. This layer can be used to browse the Web, display Web video content and run applications, although there are only a few available so far. It runs on the tiny Intel processors in a set-top box or built into special flat-panel TV sets.
The big feature is, of course, Google search. When a GoogleTV device is connected to a TV, you can call up a search box on the screen to look for content available on the Web and your TV. Search results are tailored, so a search for a particular actor may return links to a bunch of video snippets where the actor appears.
When I searched for “Jamie Oliver,” GoogleTV displayed links to the chef’s Web site and Web videos. But it didn’t find the collection of his shows that I’d already recorded on a TiVo connected to the GoogleTV box.
At the Food Network’s Web site, I was able to play its parsimonious selection of free video clips. But they were off center on the screen, and GoogleTV’s vertical scroll bar is so narrow — the width of a pencil on a 40-inch TV — that I had trouble moving the page to the right place.
I was able to use the browser to do work e-mail on the TV in my living room. But GoogleTV wouldn’t let me press the “close” button to exit the Web mail program, which remained open on the TV’s “desktop.”
Despite all the content protection and cable coziness, GoogleTV’s still getting the stink eye from TV networks. Most are blocking GoogleTV units from accessing their free, online video offerings, including the free TV shows and movies at Hulu.com. If you point the browser at Hulu, you get a message saying you’ll have to pay for its $10 per month premium plan, through a GoogleTV application that’s being developed.
Google says lots of applications will be available in 2011 but for now there’s a meager selection, including the standard YouTube, Netflix, Pandora and Twitter apps. There’s also an NBA application that displays scores and highlights, if you still care after the Sonics debacle.
I’ve tested all sorts of gadgets with Netflix lately and GoogleTV was the first one that failed to work out of the box. The system hung up and directed me to Netflix support, where I was advised to do a hard reboot — unplugging and restarting the GoogleTV box. It worked afterward.
Google’s being cagey about its plans to connect GoogleTV to its advertising delivery system. That may be the biggest reason to wait before investing in a GoogleTV system. If Google’s going to use the system to make money off of you, with ads, the system should be cheaper or even free.
It also needs a pop-up blocker so the browser doesn’t put this sort of thing on your TV:
The Revue media player connected to the Twonky server on my home network but not Windows Media Connect. It couldn’t play videos taken with my camera and stored on the network. The player also froze when I tried to rotate a photo stored on the network, using its rotate button: