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Google TV isn't ready for prime time

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, October 31, 2010; 1:04 AM

Google designed its Google TV software to bring the diversity of Web video to your TV without the complexity of the personal computer.

But so far, as tested on Logitech's $299.99 Revue, it inflicts too much of the latter while, through no fault of Google's, falling short on the former.

The Revue and other devices running Google's software (four Sony HDTVs and one Sony Blu-ray player ) stand apart from such cheaper, simpler Web-media receivers as the Apple TV and Roku box es recently reviewed here. Instead of only providing access to selected video sites through a collection of applications, the Revue includes a standard Web browser that should handle any site. And instead of ignoring your current cable or satellite-TV service, Google TV tries to provide a front end for that, too.

In short, Google TV has a difficult job to do. And it does it poorly.

I tested the Revue against four configurations in four homes: 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.

The Revue didn't detect any of those devices automatically, instead requiring a slower manual configuration (in some cases, prolonged by a failure to see a wireless network that I could fix only with a reboot). Then it didn't list the right TV providers in each Zip code (memo to whoever provided Google's database: Cox and RCN don't offer service in Arlington). Then its list of channels often failed to match those available on each set, after which it offered no way to filter out such irrelevancies as standard-definition versions of HD channels on Comcast or the Baltimore-area stations listed on the Toshiba.

The only pleasant surprise: Although Logitech bundles an "IR blaster" cable to place in front of a tuner or DVR to send commands to its remote-control sensor, in most cases its built-in IR transmitter handled the job.

Post-setup, Google TV's clean onscreen home page owed nothing to the cluttered interface of the average cable or satellite service. 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 interface, combined with the Revue's keyboard-equipped remote, succeed brilliantly.

A Google TV search brings up both TV and Web video, showing, for example, that you can watch a movie on a premium channel Thursday 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 too many TV tasks required switching back to the old and busted DVR interface you'd presumably buy Google TV to escape.

For example, while I could pause or record live TV in the Fios and TiVo tests without leaving Google TV's environment, I had to pick up the Comcast DVR's remote to record anything on that setup.

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. Nor could it even schedule a future recording on any of these systems, instead lamely suggesting that I press the remote's Guide button to switch to the DVR's interface and find the program there.

The only way to get those essential features is to subscribe to Dish Network, thanks to the satellite service's extra support for Google TV on some DVR models.

A different sort of disappointment awaits when you turn to Web content. The Revue's browser is based on Google's Chrome and includes Adobe's Flash player, but the Revue's processor can't keep up with some sites. At Major League Baseball's mlb.com site, the Gameday animation visibly lagged behind.

Some video sites outright block Google TV. Hulu shuts it out, saying in a message that it plans to bring its $9.99/month Hulu Plus service to Google TV's Chrome-based browser, never mind that Hulu is free in Chrome itself.

ABC and CBS blocked Google TV as well, even when I only tried to watchpromotional clips at their sites; NBC denied the Revue at times aswell. Other network sites passed on this self-defeating game. Foxdid not reject Google TV, nor did the sites of CW, PBS and ComedyCentral. Even ESPN's ESPN3.com worked.

The networks are playing a dangerous game here. If it's rightly regarded as idiotic and unfair to block people from watching programs because they own the "wrong" make of TV, why should software be any different?

The Revue's own software selection featured only a thin lineup of apps: CNBC, the NBA, Pandora, Napster, a Google podcast collector and a painfully basic media-playback tool from Logitech that can show content from a USB flash drive plugged into the Revue or a computer that supports "DLNA" sharing.

Future software updates - for example, the promised addition of access to Google's Android market - will hopefully add to that toolkit and remedy other oversights, such as Google TV's 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.

These issues aren't all Google's fault. The lack of consistent, supported standards across the cable and satellite-TV industries has defeated many lesser products. But they are Google's problem. Don't make it yours, too.

robp@washpost.com

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