Monday, October 25, 2010

Google TV - First Impressions of a Revolution in Federated Media [VIDEO]

I was very interested to see what Google TV would be like, so I signed up for a pre-order of the Logitech Revue, It shipped right on time and arrived on my doorstep a day later. I made a video of the unboxing, basic setup and features, which you can enjoy below. My first impressions and analysis follow the video - the camera work is not brilliant, but it has good resolution overall..

The Revue unit is larger than an Apple TV unit, but still quite compact - no larger than a typical book. The keyboard/controller that comes with the unit is slightly smaller than a typical PC keyboard, much larger than your typical wand-like television controller. There is an optional mini-controller available as an accessory, but for free you can download a Logitech Harmony Remote app for your Google Android or Apple iPhone, which replicates all the functionality of the controller.

The unit also comes with one HDMI cord, a power cord and one "IR blaster" - a device that makes it easier to get the infra-red signal the Revue uses to control your television, set-top box and other attached equipment around the shelves that may be housing your equipment. I attached an IR blaster initially to ensure good operation, but by poking out the front edge of the Revue from its shelf just a little it IR blaster proved to be unnecessary.

Attaching cables was simple enough and lead to a fairly simple setup procedure. I punched in the model names for my television and cable box, which I could enter directly or select via a search (this is Google, after all). Network configuration for wireless connectivity to the Internet was simpler than for a Wii, without a hitch.  The only tech problem on setup was with the downloaded Harmony Remote app, which couldn't pair up at first with the Revue. It turned out to be an issue with how my Android phone was announcing itself to my wireless controller, but was easily corrected using the guides in the Revue setup. Adjust the Revue for your screen size, log in to your Google Account and you're all ready to start the Google TV experience.

Google TV brings together the worlds of Web and commercial TV services via its search capabilities and its Android operating system, which runs the Revue unit. Google TV search is not quite like a typical Web search, though - it is a federated search tool, meaning that for many of Google TV's functions you get results available from the Web, cable and satellite, your DVR, attached digital home libraries and other separate sources aggregated in one search result, with different ways to access them. Search for "The Simpsons," for example, and you can get a listing of the TV series for premium subscription, content on Wikipedia via a Chrome browser, clips on YouTube and so on. So all of a sudden a simple request can give you not just a TV show but all sort of additional content on the topic. Google TV does a good job of making the simple part of this very simple, giving you options along the way to help you zero in interesting content culled from a much larger domain.

If you're not using the top-level search function, you can use the main menu to look at bookmarked content sources, including a "live TV" view of your cable or satellite sources, YouTube Leanback, premium moves from Netflix and Amazon and others that you can add from Google TV sources. Apps include a Google Chrome Web browser, the Gallery photo app from Android phones that displays photos from your Picasa online photo gallery, Pandora streaming music, a settings app and a handful of others so far - more to come, no doubt.

The Queue menu selection is like a feed aggregator, listing folders of subscriptions to available video and audio podcasts as well as single items added for your playback via the controller. Queue also provides an index of pre-selected video and audio podcasts to get you going . Most of them are pretty interesting, but you will find plenty more available via YouTube and other sources. Queue is handy, but ironically you can't play multiple segments back-to-back, so it's of limited "kick back and relax" use. Think of it more as your channel guide for personally selected content streams and features.

There is a "What's On" channel guide for your cable or satellite sources, which has both full listings and category listings. You can tune in these selections or queue them for recording on your DVR. It's a nice alternative to the usually slow and balky listings on the typical settop boxes. The gem in the rough, though, is YouTube Leanback. Click on the Leanback bookmark and you can watch high-definition YouTube videos back-to-back without interruption. Leanback lets you run through the most popular YouTube videos as well as videos in specific categories, you own feed of YouTube videos or searches of videos.

Leanback searches are especially handy, since you can zone in on highly personalized interests. I am a big fan of Earth-Touch HD nature videos, which can be served up continuously using the search "Earth-Touch HD". That "HD" turned out to be important to filter out things like music videos that included the two other words. Unfortunately, you can't bookmark searches on Leanback, nor can you have it play anything other than the most popular videos by default. I like dancing cats and remixes well enough, but please, let this feature be a Pandora for video that gets me to my favorite content more quickly.

Bookmarking is one of the weakest features in general so far on Google TV. You can't bookmark Queue subscriptions or searches other than Google Web search pages, and bookmarked videos from YouTube show the Web page by default rather than shifting directly into full-screen video playback. Once you have bookmarked an item, it gets popped to the top of the bookmarks listing. If you want to rearrange the list, you can only move an item to the top of the list. So any new bookmarks pop everything else out of order. Hopefully more options are added for this soon. Similar "fit and finish" issues are things like the inability to delete single items added to Queue, and some inconsistency in mouse control in some Web pages in the otherwise flawless Chrome browser. In most instances clicking the "OK" button on the controller acts as a mouse click, but sometimes you have to use the separate button labeled with a mouse to get the proper effect.

The biggest problem with Google TV, though, has less to do with Google than it does with the immediate state of video. Google is assembling content via this federated service from virtually any and every source available today, which tends to show off just how disjointed the industry is today. Google TV's top-level searching helps people overcome many of these limitations by bringing together as much of this content together in the same spot. But services like Pandora, Netflix, Hulu and other key premium content sources are not yet included in that search, so it does not eliminate all of the redundancy that it could. However, this is likely to change as Google TV gets broader use - especially thanks to YouTube and Android apps. As people discover more high-quality long format content in YouTube, both free and premium-priced, and more Android-based games are developed that take advantage of big-screen viewing, Google TV's ability to become the "go-to" guide to the best and most immersive content for the lean-back crowd will become more apparent.

Google's strong position may become even more apparent when Google's upcoming Android 3.0 tablet appliances come out. While it's known that this release will be the first tablet-friendly version of Android, it's a good guess that there will be a good amount of interactivity with Google TV via these appliances. Watch a video on your tablet or mobile phone and then "throw" it on to your big screen for sharing with the family, for example, or take your programming from the big screen and pull it down to your tablet when other people want to take over the big screen. These things and more are highly likely.

Whatever the future brings, Google TV is an impressive first step towards integrating video and other multimedia from all networks into one consumption platform. It does a fine job in showing off existing premium content sources, some with nicely integrated search capabilities. But its most prominent strength is to demonstrate conclusively that the open Web can be a great place to find great content that's well-suited for "leanback" viewing on high-definition televisions, content that can hold its own with mainstream programming sources.

The federated search tools on Google TV enable this content to be found on an equal footing with content from cable and satellite providers. Yes, that's right - with or without their cooperation, traditional video content aggregators have been Googled. Yet another part of the content industry must now adopt more aggressively to a Web-enabled world and look beyond their walled gardens of video and gaming delights.
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