Google TV review, part 2: connecting to cable
The first half of my Google TV review, posted on Friday, covered the easy parts of Google's software package: its ability to display Internet content. Testing the not-so-easy parts -- how it connects to TV-tuning hardware such as cable boxes to replace their interfaces -- ate up most of a beautiful Sunday afternoon and more of Monday than I'd expected.
After all that, I have to wonder if Google realized how much trouble it was getting into when it launched this project. Google TV (tested, in this case, on a loaned Logitech Revue box), has a difficult job to do and does it poorly.
I tested the Revue against four configurations in four residences: a Verizon Fios-issued Motorola high-definition digital video recorder, a TiVo HD and a Cisco high-def DVR hooked up to separate Comcast subscriptions, and a Toshiba DVD recorder connected to an over-the-air antenna.
Every time, the $299.99 Revue's Google TV software took more work to set up than advertised. It didn't detect any of these devices automatically, instead requiring a slower manual-setup routine (in some cases, prolonged by a failure to see a wireless network that I could only fix with a reboot). It didn't list the right TV providers (memo to Google: Cox and RCN don't offer service in Arlington). Once I'd picked the right service at each location, its list of channels often failed to match what was available there; it provided no way to filter out such irrelevant offerings as standard-definition versions of HD channels on Comcast or the Baltimore area stations listed on the Toshiba.
(1:05 p.m. Logitech's tech-support site has a short list of cable and satellite tuners and receivers that it's tested with the Revue. The models I tried don't appear among the 36 on that list; does yours? As for the providers listed, Google says that data comes from aggregators such as Tribune Media Services, which in turn get their data from cable and satellite operators.)
The only pleasant surprise: Although Logitech bundles an "IR blaster" cable that you can park in front of a cable box or DVR to send commands to its remote-control sensors, in most cases its built-in IR transmitter handled the job.
Post-setup, Google TV lived up to its advance billing only when I was content to watch live TV. You can browse through what's on, either channel by channel or through categories ("Sports," "Food and leisure," "Reality and game shows" and so on), but the whole point of Google TV is to search first. That's where its simple onscreen interface, combined with the Revue's keyboard-equipped remote, succeed brilliantly. Even with an overstuffed 200- or 300-channel package.
Better yet, a Google TV search brings up both TV and Web video -- showing, for example, that you can watch "Bend It Like Beckham" Thursday on IFC or in a few seconds through Amazon's video-on-demand service (although the latter rents only standard-definition fare on Google TV for now).
But Google TV's searches did not list content available on Verizon and Comcast's own video-on-demand services or recordings saved on each DVR. To use them--and many other pay-TV features--required switching back to the same standard-issue DVR interface you'd presumably buy Google TV to escape.
Just selecting "Info" from Google TV's onscreen menu brought up Verizon and Comcast's uglier, standard interface instead of the clean presentation of program data provided on Google TV's home and search screens.
In the Fios test, I could pause a program or start recording it without leaving the Google TV interface. Connected to the TiVo, the Revue needed an extra tap of the remote to start a recording. With the Comcast DVR, I had to pick up the Comcast remote to record anything.
Channel changes on the Fios box and the TiVo took about seven seconds, as if I were waiting for somebody to walk up to the set and click through an old-fashioned TV dial.
Worse yet, Google TV couldn't schedule a future recording on any of these systems. Each time, it offered the same lame suggestion: Press the Guide button to switch to your DVR's interface, then find the program you want.
In a word: fail.
Dish Network's extra support for Google TV allows users of Google's system to schedule recordings (and search through on-demand offerings and the contents of their Dish DVRs), but other buyers can only hope a future software upgrade adds that essential feature. Then Google can turn its attention to such oversights as the software's apparent inability to present YouTube consistently in Google's new, simplified LeanBack interface or the bizarre lack of a search function (of all the things for Google to forget!) in Google TV's online help.
This isn't all Google's fault--the lack of consistent, supported standards across the cable and satellite-TV industries has defeated many lesser products--but it is Google's problem. Don't make it yours, too.
(Have you tried Google TV on another cable or satellite system? Please post your own review in the comments--or point me to a helpful writeup elsewhere.)
| October 26, 2010; 10:41 AM ET
Categories: Gadgets, TV, Video
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