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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

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Life With Google TV: My First Day Review & Impressions

Google TV has finally arrived, not just for pre-order but as an actual device you can get in a retail store. And so I did, hitting Best Buy yesterday and walking out with a Sony Blu-ray player that is Google TV-capable. Here are my impressions, after my first day — well, first evening — with Google TV.

What Google TV Devices Are Out There?

If you’re interested in Google TV right now, or in the very near future, you have one of three options:

The Sonys can be ordered online or are being sold through Best Buy. The Logitech Revue is still only available for pre-order. At some point in the future, you should also be able to order Dish TV with a Google TV-powered DVR. But that’s not even pre-order option, right now.

In short, if you absolutely must have Google TV today, check a local Best Buy and see if there’s a Sony device in stock.

Since I already have a perfectly good TV, there was no reason for me to buy a Sony Internet TV itself. Instead, a set-top box that could work with my existing TV (coincidentally, it’s a Sony) was all I needed. My local Best Buy had about 10 of the Sony Blu-ray players in stock, so I picked one up. Had the Logitech been in stock, I’d have gone that route. I still plan to try the Logitech in the future.

Yes, it is confusing to have Sony call its Google TV device both a “Blu-ray” player and a “Sony Internet TV.” It’s not actually a TV. It is a Blu-ray player, but it’s also a Google TV device. Surely Sony could have come up with a more descriptive name.

The Setup: Hardware

In the box, you get the Blu-ray player itself — a box only slightly bigger than a typical Blu-ray machine. You get an absolutely horrid remote control that I’ll explore more further into this article. There’s a power adapter, a set of IR blasters and a short HDMI cable (about a foot long, I’d say, but I didn’t measure it).

The HDMI cable is a nice inclusion, and there’s probably no need to buy an additional one for the absurd prices Best Buy will try to push on you (seriously, do a search — you can get perfectly good HDMI cables out there for around $8). You’d only need to buy a longer cable if your TV is going to be much further than a foot away from your Sony box.

In my case, I have a Direct TV tuner/DVR. I have a long HDMI cable that runs from my Direct TV box and up to my TV. With this new Sony player, following the instructions, I unplugged the cable running from my DVR to my TV and instead inserted it into the “out” HDMI port on the Sony. Then using the new short HDMI cable I was given, I ran that from my DVR’s out port to the Sony’s in port:

Next, about the IR blasters. For those not familiar with them, they allow a television accessory to change channels on your TV or DVR as if it was using a remote control. That’s all your remote control does — blasts an IR (infrared) signal to a receiver on your TV or DVR. Effectively, this is how the Sony Blu-ray player “talks” to your other equipment (and that equipment, by the way, can’t talk back).

I’ve dealt with IR blasters in the past, and it hasn’t been pretty. I had a TiVo years ago that used IR blasters to talk to my Sky TV DVR in the UK. It was a sluggish mess. Similarly, I had a Windows Media Player computer that used one to control a Sky TV tuner. It worked, but it was also slow. So, I groaned to see these. But I set them up near my Direct TV DVR hoping they were pointed the right way (I couldn’t tell where the Direct TV’s IR receiver was).

After that, I put batteries in the remote, plugged in the power to the player and switched it on. Google TV time!

The Setup: Software

The start was promising. I’d seen the launch announcement of Google TV live at the Google I/O conference earlier this year. Now here was Google TV for real, booting up in my living room.

A menu appeared asking me to enlarge a box on the screen to match my actual screen size. Then I got another menu asking how I wanted to connect, through a wired or wireless connection. I went the wireless route. Next, I was asked if I wanted to update my software. Sure!

After about a 10 minute download, that Google TV logo came up again. And I had to do the screen size thing again. And enter my wireless details again. Hmm — annoying. The “update” seemed more like a fresh install.

No matter. Soon enough Google was asking me for my Google account, to sign in. Really? Really? OK, I suspected Google was going to demand this. After all, it does for Android phones, too. But there are four people in my household, and everyone has their own individual Google account. Which one should be associated with the TV? At the moment, I’m using mine. But I’m likely to create some generic account in the future, just for our Google TV needs.

As part of the setup, Google also asks if you want to send usage stats back to the Googleplex:

Hmm — you want to track my TV viewing? I don’t know about that. But the “Explain Step” button says it’s all aggregate data used really for detecting bugs, similar to many product requests I’ve seen from other software products. I did some digging, and Google says it doesn’t collect any viewing history, as part of its Google TV privacy policy. And that’s even if you DO agree to send anonymous usage data. You don’t have to send anything — and kudos that by default, this is opt-in, not opt-out.

A big question in my mind was how well this Sony Google TV box was going to work with my existing Direct TV DVR. I started getting reassured right away when during the setup, I could see that Google TV already knew about Direct TV:

This is the screen that came up after I entered my ZIP code, and it also correctly recognized our local cable provider Time Warner (which is so awesome, not, that it drove me to Direct TV) along with AT&T U-verse — also available in my area – as well as broadcast TV and Dish.

With that done, supposedly Google TV now knows what’s playing on my DVR, so that I can search for live programs as well as programs across the web. More on that in a bit. But next, back to those IR blasters. The Sony brought up a screen to let me test if I could change channels using the supplied remote control. The remote talks to the Sony box, which in turn blasts out any commands needed to the DVR. The test screen shows what’s live on your TV. If the blasters are working right, you’ll see the picture change:

I had no luck. Eventually, I realized this is because my Direct TV box and remote talk using RF (radio frequency) transmission, not IR signals. That’s an option that Direct TV allows — and which Google TV isn’t aware of. I changed the Direct TV box to use IR and tried again. Still no luck. So I moved the blasters around from sitting at the bottom of my DVR box to overhanging it from the top. That got things going.

Also, for all my worries that the IR blasters would make things sluggish, they didn’t. Changing channels through the Sony remote seemed just as fast as if I was using my regular Direct TV remove.

Next, I got a screen asking me if I had premium channels like HBO. When I said yes, I got another screen with a long list of all the premium channels that Direct TV carries — and options to uncheck ones that I might not get. The purpose is to ensure that Google TV doesn’t try to suggest watching a channel you don’t get. But with probably over 100 channels listed, I can’t remember off the top of my head what I get or don’t. Heck, it’s bad enough dealing with that right within Direct TV itself. So I said yes to everything, and we’ll see what happens.

Eventually — getting past Sony wanting me to register with them, too — I was done and at the welcome screen:

Sorry that’s such a small picture, but I shot about a billion photos using my Droid 2 phone, which then for reasons I still don’t understand, decided to eat most of them when I plugged into my computer in order to download them. I still have smaller thumbnails of the lost ones.

The welcome screen offered a short tour: that the Google TV home page can be customized, a suggestion that I think about searching for programs to get to things faster, how the remote could be used to directly control my TV and DVR as well as the Sony box, a “Dual View” option to “watch TV and go on the web at the same time,” and how the menu button can be used to control more settings within various apps.

Dual View: More Like Thumbnail View

I immediately loved the idea of Dual View. Last year when the Orange County [Los Angeles] Angels [Of Anaheim] were in the baseball playoffs, I was glued to the set as well as my phone, where in accordance of my 2 Laws Of Sporting Events & Twitter, I was tweeting away and watching what others were saying. During many other live events, I’ve wanted to watch tweets right alongside the television picture. At last! And what timing, as the Giants-Phillies was underway. How about putting the game up with a Twitter feed next to it?

Sure. After I eventually found the game (more on this below), I had that running, then used the “Dual View” key to put them side-by-side. Here’s the key on the remote, from an image taken from Sony’s web site:

If it seems odd that I highlight this key, I’m doing it because after I pushed it, I felt something must be wrong. So wrong, in fact, that I went onto the Sony web site and started searching to make sure I was pressing the right key. That’s because what I got felt more like picture-in-picture than dual view — and with the emphasis on the wrong picture:

As you can see, about 3/4 of the TV is taken up by Twitter, tweets I’d searched for that matched “giants.” The baseball game itself — the most important thing, is shoved down into the lower right-hand corner.

It’s crazy. There seems no reason why these couldn’t have been more side-by-side. Or the picture made larger, with a column of tweets running along the right-hand side of the screen. Also somewhat annoying was that the tweets didn’t refresh. If I wanted to see new ones, I had to use the remote to click on the little refresh icon. That should just automatically happen.

Postscript: Google now allows the Dual View window to be moved.

Twitter & Applications

Twitter is just one of several app you can run on Google TV. I’ve tweeted from my Xbox before. Now I can add tweeting from Google TV to the list:

What other apps are there? Things like Napster, Netflix and Pandora (I said to my 11 year old son, who I turned into a beta tester against his will, “Should we try Pandora & TV in Dual View?” His response: “Listen to music and watch TV at the same time? That’s crazy.” So much for multitasking kids).

There are a few others, including some NBA app that I have no interest in. But the real value to running apps isn’t likely to be fully known until next year, when Android apps that are out there now will be made available to run on Google TV.

One downside. Launch an app, and it keeps running. I think I’m still signed into Twitter at this moment — and every so often, I’d be clicking around pushing the back button or something and end up back in it. This seems very much like Android itself, where when you run an app, it just stays active until you actively close it. I’m one of those people who find this really annoying. When I’m done with an app, I want it to close and exit — just like when I’m done with a book, I want to close it and put it back on the bookshelf.

Browser Beats Me Senseless

One of the apps is also Google Chrome, which was kind of maddening. Sometimes I found myself in Chrome as part of watching TV on the web. Sometimes I found myself there through a search. Sometimes I found myself in it for no particular reason at all. And when I was there, often I had no address bar, so that I could navigate to something else, if I wanted. Other times, I could figure out no way to go back.

This is a good time for me to stress that I plan to live with Google TV and understand it better. But for my first evening with it, I didn’t try to read any instructions (not that there were much of any in the box) but rather just see how intuitive it felt was out of the box. With the browser, I found it pretty annoying.

OMG — That Remote!

More annoying is the remote that Sony supplies. Time for a closer look at that:

Notice that there’s no particular grouping that really leap out at you. All the little keys below are pretty much the same size. The larger keys above have nothing distinctive about them. I kept constantly having to look at the remote to figure out what I wanted to press.

The round button at the top is a touchpad that works surprisingly well. But I still have never quite figured out when to push in the middle of it to select something as opposed to the round select key on the left. On the touchpad, the arrow turning back on itself is the back button. But this wouldn’t take me back when I was using the browser. It would kick me back to the main Google TV menu. Or do other things, unpredictable things, which drove me a little crazy.

Having the numbers be along one line, rather than in a more typical compact arrangement was also unintuitive. The color keys, which work to help control things like a DVR, aren’t really grouped well either. The delete key? See it way over there on the right? Yeah, why’s that not bigger?

Perhaps the worst thing is that the keypad isn’t backlit. I watch TV in a darkened room, mostly. I have a backlit Direct TV remote that makes life for dark-dwellers like me easier (one of the best $25 I ever spent). But on the odd occasions that I can’t find it, and have to use the non-backlit remote, it’s easy enough to remember by touch which keys I want.

There’s none of that, with this Sony remote. And heaven help someone who wants to type but likes watching TV in the dark. You’ll either have to flip a light on or carry a flashlight with you.

Of course, eventually Android phones are supposed to be able to control Google TVs, which may help those who watch in the dark, like me. But those aren’t out yet.

By the way, the Logitech Revue comes with a full-sized keyboard that seems even less attractive to me. What I really want is a controller that has all the important controls on the front and which flips open to a keyboard for when I need that. And I could have sworn this is what was used during the demo of Google TV at Google I/O earlier this year. Perhaps that’s the Dish TV controller.

Still, the Logitech Revue also sells a $130 mini-controller as an accessory — and it’s backlit:

Buy that controller, and you’ve spend $30 more than you will for the Sony unit — and you won’t get a Blu-ray player, either. But from a usability standpoint, it might be worth it.

One thing I did like about the Sony remote was how the Guide button took me immediately to my regular DVR guide — and the DVR button took me directly to my DVR. Once in that mode, I could switch over to using my beloved DVR remote. Typing was also pretty easy, and the remove is very lightweight.

Finding — And Not Finding — TV Shows

The main point to Google TV is that it’s supposed to make it easier to find what you want to watch wherever that might be — on your regular TV or via the internet. That’s something I’m going to be testing much, much more. But for now, from my quick first impressions last night, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

Remember I said I wanted to see tweets about the Giants-Phillies game while the game was on? That was the first thing I searched for on Google TV. And searched for. And searched for. I tried things like “giants” and “mlb” and “baseball” and “playoffs” but simply could not find it. Instead, I’d get results like this, with three or four incorrect items listed and then an option to search the web:

At first, I thought maybe — despite this being a major playoff game — it wasn’t airing in Los Angeles. But a few people tweeted back that it should be on. So how did I ultimately find it? I tuned into Fox directly.

Now maybe Direct TV was also at fault. I had also gone to my DVR’s own listings, right to Fox where it was supposed to be airing, but the game wasn’t listed. But when I actually tuned in to the station, then I got it. And in contrast to my experience, Richard Lawler tweeted to me:

I used my Google TV to find the Giants game. It found it. Switched channels. Bam! A triumph! My DVR is impossible to search.

The Hulu Roadblock

How about another challenge? While I was messing around with Google TV, my wife was catching up on the latest with Jennifer Grey and Dancing With The Stars, watching the most recent episode on Hulu.

I missed whenever it became official that Hulu was going to block Google TV, but I was aware that there was supposedly blocking going on now. Still, could Google TV get me to this TV content in some other way?

I tried a search and just got offered some YouTube clips, which I decided against. I figured they probably weren’t legal or were of poor quality. Instead, I fired up Chrome in Google TV and went to Hulu directly — where I was politely told to shove off:

If you can’t read the message, it says:

We notice that you are trying to access Hulu from your Google TV. It’s not available, but we are working hard to bring our Hulu Plus subscription service to Google TV! Stay tuned for updates.

Hey Hulu — you kind of suck. I’m not trying to access you from Google TV. I’m trying to access you using a web browser, which just happens to run through Google TV. Explain to me again why if I hook my computer up to my TV, and navigate to Hulu to watch the shows you offer for free, that’s OK. But if I use my Google TV computer, that same free content is verboten — and the only way for me to get to it is if in the future, you decide to make the free content available through your not-so-free $10 per month Hulu Plus service that’s not even available beyond special invites on your own site.

Here’s a thought. Enough of blocking Google TV and apparently other services like Boxee. Either block EVERYONE on the web or block no one, because in the end, you turn people who love you when they reach you on their computers (like me) into people who hate you when they’re blocked in other places (like me). And yeah, I’ll pay you the $10 if it makes my TV viewing of missed shows easier. You just promise to turn off the commercials, OK? And maybe cut some deals with Direct TV or cable providers where if we have subscriptions with them, we pay less? Because we’re already paying for many of “your” shows through them.

Oh, that workaround you may have heard about, to trick Hulu into doing the right thing? Yeah, it no longer works.

Getting Me Some 30 Rock: I Want To Go To There

My last test was seeing how well Google TV could deal with a common problem I have, catching up on a TV series that’s already started. I missed the first four episodes of 30 Rock this season. I’d wanted to catch up on them.

One of the best ways I’ve found to do this in the past is through Netflix. My Samsung Blu-ray player allows me to access Netflix, download episodes of some TV shows (and certain movies) on demand, and then stream them right to my TV. It works really well, amazingly so (and I believe the Netflix app within Google TV will do the same thing, but I haven’t yet tested this).

But Netflix has only some things. Meanwhile, there’s often the content you want spread in places across the web, free from TV network sites or pay-per-view from places like Amazon or iTunes. Clicker is a great, free service that does an amazing job of tracking it all down, such as the case for 30 Rock:

Using Clicker, I can easily discover episodes that are available by season and where they are online. Above, the first episode of 30 Rock from the current season is offered by NBC, Hulu and Amazon.

The downside is that Clicker won’t play this episode on my TV screen, not unless I’ve hooked my computer up to my TV. That’s the promise of Google TV. To give you Clicker-like comprehensiveness of what’s on the web but seamlessly play it on your television.

The reality? At first, I thought Google TV was missing things. After I did a search, I got this:

I completely overlooked the “Series” section at the top and focused on the “Episodes” section below. Seeing only six episodes listed make me think Google TV wasn’t doing a very good job.

Once I drilled into the series listing, I was much happier. Notice that I’m shown for the fifth episode an icon in the TV field, telling me it’s available on regular TV. Meanwhile, icons for the older episodes tell me if they’re on the web for free or through paid options.

I was able to easily find the first episode of the current season and locate my viewing options for that episode:

I selected NBC, and then the seamless experience started showing a few seams. First, the Google TV browser kicked in:

That’s how it looked — notice how there’s no address bar, as I mentioned above. Nor are there any browser forward or backward controls. That’ll be important, in a moment. And the browser isn’t centered so that the video window fills the TV screen. Instead, I had to scroll up.

Once things were set, there was the inevitable ad. Well heck, I’m getting the show on demand for free. Watching a single one-minute ad to see the episode without interruption is a fair deal:

And soon the episode itself was playing:

Down at the bottom of the viewing window (sorry the image is small — the Droid ate my originals of some pics, remember!), I had options to expand the image to fullscreen. I did this, and it was awesome. There it was! Content from the internet flowing onto my TV, without some laptop being awkwardly hooked up somewhere.

And then it started going wrong. My wireless network wasn’t pumping out enough bandwidth for me to watch this in HD quality, causing a lot of buffering and a little “hey, maybe you should turn HD off” message to appear:

Clicking on that button seemed to do nothing. It just wouldn’t toggle. Meanwhile, I also got a new ad showing up in the lower right corner:

Seeing the little “Close Ad” box, I clicked on that to get rid of it. Instead, I was taken over to the Lowe’s site. Sigh. And once there, the back button on my remote didn’t take me back to NBC. Instead, I went back to the Google TV menu. Where I had to search for 30 Rock, pick my episode, watch the ad again, make things go fullscreen, then the ad appeared again, which I very carefully tried to turn off by clicking on the Close Ad button — which took me to Lowe’s once again. And for fun, that happened a third time.

In the end, I finally managed to get HD toggled to off. I let the ad disappear on its own. I got to watch the entire episode. But that led to another annoyance. I absolutely, positively, could not pause the show.

I’d click and click on the pause button in the player window, but it would do nothing. And the remote pause isn’t connected to what’s in your browser window. In contrast, when watching something from Netflix, the native pause button on my Blu-ray player’s remote works perfectly — as do rewind and fast-forward.

In the end, my son made a comment that summed up the experience better than I ever could:

Can we watch something now on regular TV? In HD? Without all the buffering?

Of course, the low quality we ended up watching was down to my wireless. I’ll try a wired connection in the future, to see if it improves things. And I’m sure the experience will get better, plus I still have much more exploring to do.

Subscribing & Recording

At some point in my searching for 30 Rock, I was also given the option to “subscribe” to the series as part of my “Google Queue.” I wondered if this would magically talk to my DVR and start some recording.

Nope. Instead, it caused some type of connection to start with Google Reader, of all things, but which ultimately kept giving me a fail message.

Perhaps Google TV may have a way to talk with my Direct TV box using the IR blasters to subscribe to a series, and I’ll be checking on this more in the future. But I’m kind of doubtful. In particular, that’s because at the Google TV site, it only talks about recording like this for the forthcoming Dish TV box:

Google TV also has no on-board storage for holding video, to my knowledge. You can’t save internet video there, much less pictures or music. It all has to be streaming media.

Postscript: See Programming Your DVR Made Easy: Google TV, Dish & The Logitech Revue

YouTube & YouTube Leanback

Last week, I played with YouTube Leanback — a system designed to couple YouTube content within Google TV and make it easy to channel surf content. I played again with it yesterday in my own living room, and it was still impressive. I’ll likely revisit this in the future, but for now, see my previous article: Playing With YouTube Leanback On Google TV: Nice!

Still Playing, But Seems More For Early Adopters

I need to spend much, much more time with Google TV to really understand the value it offers — or where it may be failing to live up to its promises. And I’ll be doing that over the coming weeks. As I said, I also hope to try the Logitech Revue and eventually the Dish TV setup, where I suspect Google TV will really shine. But right now, Google TV seems a pricey toy.

If you don’t watch that much internet content, hooking up your existing laptop to your TV and firing up Clicker to locate shows would seem to do much of what Google TV offers — and probably for the price of $20 in cables and adapters to tap into your set’s HDMI connection. It won’t be as slick as Google TV aims to be, but it might do the job.

Heck, this gets me wanting to explore some of the other internet-to-TV options out there, such as Boxee and Roku (From Apple To Google TV: A Quick Overview Of Six “Connected TV” Offerings is our short rundown from last week). It even makes me want to start playing again with Windows Media Center, the original “smart TV” program I first used years ago. It’s free, part of many Windows 7 installations already (in a quick look today, though, it was woefully behind Clicker and Google TV in finding 30 Rock episodes on the web).

I find it mind-boggling that for only $200 more than Sony’s Blu-ray player option, I could get an entire 24″ TV. OK, that TV won’t have a Blu-ray player in it, but still, it makes me feel the Blu-ray box is overpriced. Good Blu-ray players can be had for $100 to $200 out there. Is the Google TV part really worth $200 on it own?

If you needed a new TV anyway, then getting one of the actual Sony Internet TVs with Google TV seems a no brainer. If you don’t have a Blu-ray player, have been thinking about getting one and like the idea of trying a new way to get internet content to your television, then the Blu-ray option makes sense.

Otherwise, I suspect the curious are better off waiting for the less expensive Logitech Revue to come out — though as I said, to get what’s likely the better compact, backlit controller, you’re going to pay more than for the Sony Blu-ray.

If you’re a Dish subscriber, there’s no way I’d get one of the Logitech or Sony devices. Wait to see what Dish offers.

Wait in general probably makes the most sense for many people. There are going to be more devices coming, and they’ll likely get better (and less expensive) over time. Also keep in mind that Google stresses how Google TV products will upgrade themselves automatically. So if you dive in early, it’s not like having to junk that Betamax or laser disc player to keep up.

That’s my first day. More to come, as life with Google TV continues.

Postscript – See related coverage now at Techmeme and Mediagazer. Also be sure to see Rich DeMuro’s review, where unlike my experience, he found the search functionality to work very well. Richard Lawler has a nice review, too. Who knew that you could control-alt-delete to restart the box? And at TechCrunch, a review of the Logitech Revue.

Postscript 2 – Less than 24 hours after I successfully watched NBC’s 30 Rock on Google TV, NBC — along with CBS and ABC — are apparently now blocking Google TV. I’ll be exploring this more. The Wall Street Journal has an article about this, and there’s related coverage on Techmeme. I remain confused why content the networks merrily allow access to for anyone using a computer suddenly becomes verboten if I use a computer from Google or others that’s designed to output to my TV screen, rather than my laptop screen. Well, I’m not that confused — it’s all about what deals can be cut. But the basic logic makes no sense. Will we enjoy future blocking of Internet Explorer until Microsoft cuts a deal; Safari until Apple does one? Will only Macs be allowed to access content — if Apple were to cut a deal — in a world where a platform-specific licensing approach is taken? That’s effectively what’s happening with Google TV and some other streaming video devices.

Postscript 3 – For more about the blocking, see our two follow-up stories:

Also, for a content owner/SEO perspective on Google TV, see our feature story, Optimizing For Google TV

Postscript 4: Explorations of Google TV continue. See Life With Google TV: Watching, But Not Finding, Free Caprica Episodes On The Web. Also see our Life With Google TV page for further stories that will come.

Postscript 5 – For reviews of related devices and how they measure up against Google TV, please see the articles below. The first also is another look at Google TV and its DISH integration:

    Also see our Internet-To-TV page for further stories that will come.

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