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Logitech Revue Brings Google to Your TV, but It's Complicated

Logitech Revue
Google isn't satisfied to dominate Web searches and virtually all online advertising. It's not content being the gold standard for productivity-based Web apps, a serious player in the browser field, or being the only smartphone OS maker capable of challenging Apple. No, Google's apparently been thinking too small -- or at least too small screen. But now, the Mountain View mammoth is eying our living rooms and our flatscreens with Google TV.

Google TV isn't a physical product; it's an operating system like Android. (Actually, it is Android, just bigger.) The Logitech Revue is the first of (presumably) many devices that will run the new platform -- but trying to nail down exactly what the Revue does is... complicated. To wit: it's a streaming media box that puts Netflix and YouTube on your TV, and a general-purpose Web browser, and a platform for running apps from your couch. Google TV not only attempts to resurrect the idea of putting the Internet on your television -- a notion pioneered, and ultimately abandoned, by WebTV -- but, obviously, serves as a challenge to streaming devices like Apple TV and Roku. The Revue even takes on TiVo with its integrated guide and DVR capabilities, which are currently limited to Dish customers and has no real interface. (But, like we said, it's complicated.)

Can Google TV replicate the OS success of Android? Or will it be an experiment like Wave, which failed to capture the public's attention? We spent several weeks with a Logitech Revue, streaming movies, browsing the Web and wasting serious time watching good ol' fashioned broadcast television. Read on to find out if Google has earned its place in our living room.

Hardware

Revue Hardware
The understated Revue is nothing special to look at; its small, glossy black plastic shape will blend with almost any home theater setup. Inside are basic, netbook-style components from Intel, including a ubiquitous Atom processor (which you can find in everything from the Eee PC to Samsung's NC10). Still, the box is powerful enough to handle 1080p video and surround sound, whether via HDMI or the optical audio out. (HDMI is the only video port on the Revue, so you'll need to have an HD TV to use the device.)

On the back, you'll also find ports for the included IR blaster, a small device commonly found with set-top boxes like TiVo. The blaster sends commands from the Revue to your your cable box and TV, allowing you to control your entire home theater from the Revue keyboard. The keyboard has a full-sized QWERTY layout, as well as a directional pad, a touchpad and basic media control buttons. We wouldn't want to type anything substantial with it, but it's more than adequate for banging out a quick Web search or pulling up a YouTube video. Plus, its ultra-thin design makes it easy to use while holding in one hand. If you're lugging around an Android device or iPhone, you can also download the Logitech Harmony apps and use those to control your Revue over Wi-Fi.

If you find the full-sized keyboard too cumbersome, a palm-sized remote with a QWERTY keypad is available. You can also use your Revue to make video calls if you pick up the optional HD webcam. Unfortunately, they are rather expensive, at $129.99 for the Mini Controller and $149.99 for the webcam. At least for now, the camera can only be used to place video calls with Logitech's proprietary software, which means no Skype or Google Talk.

Hardware setup is relatively straightforward. Plug your cable or satellite box into the Revue using the 'HDMI IN' slot, and then run a second HDMI cable from the 'HDMI OUT' to your TV. You also need to plug the IR blaster into one of the labeled ports, and position it to control your other devices. That being the case, you shouldn't completely hide it from sight. It worked perfectly well sitting on top of the Revue box, and inside the TV console.

Software

Google TV Search
At its heart, Google TV is just Android, blown up for your TV screen. Of course, what runs well on your smartphone doesn't always make the transition to the big screen smoothly, and it shows in this first iteration of Google TV. Unlike Roku or Apple TV, the Revue's initial software set up is somewhat daunting. Though the instructions are clearly explained, you'll still need to walk through about a dozen steps that take about 20 minutes to complete. Most frustrating was the four-step adjustment of overscan (the visible display area), something we haven't had to do since we ditched our CRT computer monitors for LCDs.

Once you finish the marathon setup, using Google TV is actually pretty intuitive and smooth. Customizable bookmarks let you easily access apps and websites, and the addition of Google's search interface to television offers huge improvements over older ways of browsing media. Tapping the search key pulls down a search overlay, while your TV continues playing in the background. As is the case with Web search, typing will reveal results from the Web, your programing guide, Web video sources and, if you have a compatible Dish Network DVR, your recorded content.

At the moment, the Revue's ability to interact with your current TV setup is limited. Unless you have specific Dish devices, your Revue won't interact with your existing cable or satellite box. While you can use the keyboard and other remote devices to control your cable box, it doesn't "speak" to your Revue. So, hitting the guide button or trying to schedule a recording on your DVR simply launches your regular cable box interface. To make matters worse, the deal that allows the Revue to control your Dish DVR is specific to Logitech devices. So, other Google TV products, like those from Sony, can't search your Dish DVR and can't schedule recordings in the way the Revue can; instead you'll have to use the DVR's standard interface.

In short, Google TV is loaded with tons of great ideas that just barely miss in their execution. For example, the ability to send whatever you're watching to the lower left-hand corner of the screen is great if you want to look something up quickly. But the video feed is unmovable, and sometimes blocks important UI elements (like the "send" button on the included Twitter app). Another example is the Netflix app, an essential service for any streaming media box. While Google TV is Netflix-friendly, and plays video without issue, there is simply no way to browse or search within the Netflix app. (You only have access to what's already in your Instant Queue, which is a ridiculous limitation in 2010.) If you really want a film that's not on your Instant list, you can open the Chrome browser, navigate to Netflix, add a video to your Queue, and then switch back to the Netflix app. In our opinion, that's an unacceptable replacement for native search and browse, which are offered by both the Apple and Roku platforms. While Web browsing is adequate, the dated version of Chrome packed with Google TV doesn't offer the blazing fast speeds we expect on our computers. In fact, it was often faster to walk across the apartment and sign onto Netflix than it was to open the site using Google TV.

Content

CNBC Realtime App
Netflix and Amazon On Demand are both available, offering the same deep catalog of content that is accessible to players like the Roku. You'll also find a YouTube app and a pre-populated pool of video podcasts, although there is a heavy focus on news programming. Google TV sets itself apart with its support of Flash video and the promise that other applications will eventually appear in the Google TV Marketplace.

Sadly, content providers such as NBC, ABC and Hulu are actively blocking Google TV-powered devices from playback. While there are ways around this blockade, most aren't for your average user. Hulu is actively working with Google to deliver its Hulu Plus subscription service to Google TV devices, but there is no indication that this will be happening in the immediate future. With most full-length video programming out of the picture, then, apps are left as Google TV's major selling point.

We hope the small selection of apps currently available are only scratching the surface of what this big-screen Android implementation could do. The Twitter app is serviceable, Pandora is much like the Web version and the CNBC app is neat (despite its limited appeal). Google TV's app implementation, at launch, is hardly revolutionary, but we hope that will change. With Marketplace launching sometime early next year, we'd love to see an interesting way of integrating our broadcast feeds and data delivered over the Net. We'd love to see an app that compiles programming information, and allows you to quickly look up the IMDB listings of the actors in whatever you're watching. Or, if the developers are feeling truly ambitious, Google could use its top-notch image- and voice-recognition tools to search Wikipedia for onscreen landmarks or news stories related to the topics mentioned by talking heads on MSNBC or Fox. But, for now, Google TV apps aren't offering anything your smartphone doesn't do better and faster.

Wrap up

We want to love Google TV. We really do. It's the best Web-browsing experience we've seen on a TV set (although that isn't saying much), and we're excited about the potential of applications to expand the definition of what it means to watch TV. Google offers a promising platform, but it's just not there yet. It still feels like a beta experience, and a very expensive one at that; at $299.99 for the basic box and keyboard, the Revue isn't exactly a steal. The Boxee Box matches most of the Revue's streaming capabilities for just $199.99, and the Roku provides a vastly superior Netflix experience for as little as $59.99.

Ultimately, the Logitech Revue and other Google TV products are strictly for early adopters. If you absolutely have to be the first person on your block to get a gadget, then, by all means, get the Revue. But, considering the frustrating setup, disappointing Netflix app and limitations imposed by content providers, Google TV isn't likely to wow your average consumer. While the Revue and its ilk may have the most potential for expansion, you're paying a premium for potential that hasn't yet been realized. If it follows the path of Android, Google TV's premature launch may find success in later iterations. It's no secret that Google's goal is to integrate Google TV into new TVs, and cable and satellite set-top boxes. But, frankly, that's not a current reality. Once Google gets its bearings, improves app selection and content compatibility, it could be significantly more appealing to consumers and content providers alike. Dedicated streaming devices like the Roku and the Apple TV may one day find themselves overshadowed by the monolithic, all-in-one Google box.

Tags: android, features, google, google tv, GoogleTv, hgg, home theater, HomeTheater, logitech, reviews, revue

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