Companies have been trying to figure out how to bring the web to your TV for over a decade, but most efforts have fallen flat. Now that online video is mainstream, and more and more people are using their laptops while they channel surf, Logitech and Google think they may have the answer. The Logitech Revue ($299) is the first device available to run Google TV, a platform powered by Android that's designed to complement but not replace your current cable or satellite TV setup. You can search for programs to watch, get the full web on your TV (including YouTube), and access a small but growing number of apps, including Netflix, Pandora, and Twitter. You can even watch TV in one window while surfing the web in the other. And, if you're a DISH subscriber, you can easily search for DVR recordings.
Yet with even all of these perks, the Revue has a fair number of drawbacks. Given that simpler set-top boxes such as the Apple TV ($99) and Roku XDS ($99) cost considerably less, is this Google TV box worth the splurge?
Setup and Design
Connecting and setting up the Logitech Revue with our home entertainment system was simple enough. In the box users will find the keyboard controller, Revue box, and three cords: HDMI, AC adapter, and an IR Blaster. Measuring just 9.7 x 6.7 x 1.4 inches, the Revue isn't nearly as small as the Apple TV or Roku XDS, but its light weight (1.3 pounds) means you can easily move the box.
On the back there are several ports, but only one connection input: HDMI. Yes, users without an HDTV will have to skip the Revue, as both of the outputs (HDMI, SPDIF) are digital.
Though the Revue can control several devices, it's meant to be the last link in the daisy chain of A/V inputs going to your television. Since it has no internal TV tuner, users with basic cable won't be able to pass their coaxial through the Revue before connecting to their TV. It will work with digital broadcast A/V receivers with HDMI out. However, the audience for this product is mostly made up of people with a cable or satellite receiver box, which then connects to the Revue, then the TV.
Once we hooked the Revue up and turned it on, Google TV guided us through setting up the box, the Internet connection (Wi-Fi or wired), and programming the keyboard controller to work as a remote for our television, cable box, and DVR. Compared to the Apple TV, whose controller is very small and limited, entering passwords and navigating menus on Google TV was much less time-consuming and tedious.
The included IR blaster helps in controlling multiple devices, though it's not needed for simple setups. At each step Logitech provides a Help video to walk users through any part of the process they find confusing. Though useful, these videos didn't always get to the point quickly. When that was done, we input our Google account information and went right to the Home menu. Total setup took less than an hour, which while a bit long was fairly straightforward.
The Logitech Harmony keyboard controller is far lighter than it looks, but it's pretty large. Although many consumers are accustomed to sitting on the couch with a notebook in their lap, not everyone wants to have something this size while watching TV. The good news is that the controllers is big enough to accommodate a full QWERTY layout, plus a navigation area on the right side that includes a touchpad. We found that navigating the Google TV user interface with the controller was both easy and fairly intuitive (especially if you're at all familiar with Android). Logitech did a good job synchronizing all of the functionality needed for this setup--several remote controls plus web-ready keys--into one easy-to-understand layout.
Though it's simple enough to navigate using the arrow keys plus the Home and Back buttons, we also appreciate the included touchpad on the upper right of the controller. We found it responsive with no friction to impede us. However, there is no tap to click functionality; instead, you have to use the single mouse button underneath the pad or the separate left-mouse button in the upper left hand corner of the controller. Because we spend so much time using notebook touchpads, we often forgot and tapped the pad, expecting a result.
Once we'd programmed our remotes to work with the keyboard controller, we noticed no lag or incorrectly interpreted signals. The accessory worked just as well a few feet away or across the room. And it was able to control basic functions on our TV and cable boxes. Users can also control the Revue with Logitech Harmony apps for Android and iPhone, which were easy to connect to our setup and matched the controls on the keyboard.
Google TV Interface
Though it has Android as its base, the Google TV interface is definitely designed for television use. The Home menu text on the left is large and simplified, and the menus underneath use large, rectangular icons, so even if you're using the Revue with a less than giant HDTV, you can still sit across the room and see clearly. Most of the time you'll be using the arrow keys and the OK, Back and Home buttons. For the uninitiated, a short video tutorial plays at the beginning of the setup process and again when it's complete.
By default, Google TV takes you to the Applications menu first, and this is where most users will spend the bulk of their time. Currently there are only a few; Google offers two stock apps--Gallery and the Chrome Browser--Logitech includes a Help Assistant, Media Player, and Vid HD for making video calls with the optional webcam. There are also media apps (we'll get to those shortly), a Twitter app, and direct access to live TV. Though there are only a few media apps, users also have access to other sources of video content.
One of the main draws of a Google TV device is, of course, watching multimedia content from the web on your TV. There are dozens of ways to accomplish this without a special set top box, but the GTV interface is much easier to negotiate than Windows or Mac OS X, especially from across the room. With this in mind, the Revue offers several content options both via Apps and under the Spotlight menu.
The multimedia apps on hand range from streaming music--Napster and Pandora--to streaming video--CNBC Real-Time, NBA Game Time, and Netflix. Under Spotlight, users can find suggestions for web content, including Crackle, HBO Go, the Onion News Network, and YouTube. Some of these require an existing subscription (Netflix and HBO Go being the most prominent), but at least these are services with large audiences. However, there are some prominent absences here: Hulu Plus is the biggest hole.
For now, several sites have blocked Google TV and the Chrome browser associated with it. ABC, CBS, and NBC join Hulu in keeping easy web video access via television from users. This could always change in the future, perhaps via apps such as those for ABC and Hulu on the iPad, or a special GTV-enabled page with specific ads or restrictions. But, currently, Google TV doesn't offer much in the way of free web entertainment.
Of course, with Amazon Video On Demand also available via the Home menu, users can build up their library of content here and access their already purchased media. We were able to both buy and rent Amazon VOD content right from the Revue, then watch it from the comfort of the couch. However, this option didn't feel like an app like what you'd find on the Roku box. It was just a web page where you could download content. Not exactly TV-friendly.
We were also able to watch DRM-free movies and TV shows from a portable drive plugged into one of the Revue's two USB ports. And we streamed music, video, and pictures from our PC directly to the device. However, this requires Windows Media Player 11 (on Windows 7 or Vista only, no XP support) or third-party software for Macs.
It's easy and fairly seamless to switch between watching web video and live television. We were able to change channels and surf the program guide right from the keyboard controller. We appreciated the Picture-in-Picture feature that allows users to place the live television picture in a box at the corner while they surf the web. However, you can't do the reverse, nor minimize web video while surfing.
Browsing and Search
Thanks to the keyboard controller, the experience of surfing the web with the Chrome browser is familiar and easy. However, this version of the Chrome broswer acts more like a mobile browser in some cases than a desktop one. To start, there are a limited number of options and settings under the Menu key. And, for some reason, no one thought to include a refresh button on the keyboard or on screen. This became a problem when we attempted to watch web video on sites not found in the Spotlight area, such as Fox.com and TNT.tv.
Though Flash is supported, Chrome did not always play well with site coding. While watching an episode of House, the video didn't always stay in full screen mode when the commercials played, and even then the elements on the page overlapped, leaving a mess. This doesn't happen in the full version of Chrome.
Still, when not watching video, web browsing was much the same as we're accustomed to. The magnifying keys on the controller made it easy to blow up images and text for easy across-the-room viewing.
As GTV is a Google product, it's no surprise that it has a robust search component. Again, just as with Android, the search key on the controller activates this feature in any window or app. As you type, Search returns results from the web (with an emphasis on web video and entertainment), from your local program guide, from any drives connected to the Revue, and from the programs recorded on your DVR (only if it's a compatible Dish Network model, of which there are currently very few).
The search results page looks nice and has the appearance of being well-organized. But it's not immediately apparent which of the boxes or listings users should click first or which will offer the best results depending on what they're looking for.
The search engine helpfully filters out sites that block Google TV, so at least you won't spend time clicking only to discover a video won't play. However, for most current and popular shows, that leaves slim pickings. Even though Netflix plays well with Google TV, results from this service don't show up. And even when we did manage to find episodes that were available for free on sites that worked (such as House on Fox.com), the most recent episode available online did not show up in a web search. We only knew it existed because we went to the website ourselves.
Amazon VOD content is very prominent in the listings, though none of this is free. We hope that other content providers create partnerships with Google soon, as there are some holes in what Amazon offers.
The search results for TV listings are useful for people looking to see what's on right now. But only those with compatible DVRs will be able to act on information about shows that will air in the future via the Revue. Otherwise, users will have to then switch to their DVR remote to again find the program item and set recording options. This isn't a huge drawback, but products like the Revue will be much more desirable once there are more devices with which they can integrate.
The 1.2-GHz Intel Atom CE4100 processor inside the Revue is certainly powerful enough to handle the relatively simple tasks Google TV demands of it. And the PowerVR SGX535 graphics core makes for smooth video watching, whether streaming from the web or from a local source. The system proved responsive during testing, and we noted only a slight lag between button pushes and the execution of commands.
Flash-based streaming video played smoothly when the Revue sat just a few feet from our router, but didn't do as well 20 feet away with several thick walls between the two devices. Given that most web video do not stream in HD, some artifacts and pixilation is inevitable. Content in HD didn't look perfect, either. But the Revue does well with what's available. Video played via apps exhibited some of the same issues.
Accessories and Other Controllers
In addition to the keyboard controller that comes with the Revue, there is another handheld controller that has all of the same features--control keys, full keyboard, touchpad--but in a smaller package. We suspect the $129 Mini Controller will be much easier to deal with in households where people aren't just sitting on the couch and watching the screen. As mentioned above, Revue owners can also control box with apps for Android and iPhone.
Users will also be able to use the Revue to chat via webcam with friends and family. Logitech's $149 TV Cam connects directly to the Revue and, via the Vid HD app, allows for calls between other users with Logitech webcams and the Vid HD software (available for Mac and PC). The 720p video feed looked great, and even sitting across the room the mic was able to pick up our voice, though we had to raise it a little to be heard clearly.
The simple truth is that Google TV isn't for users who want to cut the cable cord; it's for those who want to enhance their current TV experience. The Logitech Revue does that, but it needs to go further. Judging by hardware alone, the Revue is impressive for its speed, search capabilities, and neat picture-in-picture feature for multitaskers. This box is definitely worth a look for those who want all the multimedia benefits they can cram into a TV without having to deal with a desktop OS. However, there's still a long way to go in term of content selection and adding additional apps. Right now $299 is a lot to pay for potential.