Consumer Electronics & Appliance News, Reviews & Information.

Oct 10

Google TV and the Logitech Revue

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The word of the day seems to be Google TV. Of course, when Google does anything, it creates waves, but in this case it seems to be a little bigger than normal. It’s not totally unexpected; this particular service has had quite a bit of buzz around it since it was first announced. Anything that has to do with integrating Internet and television is big news. Now that we have some details, both on Google TV and on the first device to have the service, the Revue box from Logitech, reactions around the web have been basically positive towards the new service/device/thing, but as with anything new, there are a few downsides.

First of all, the basics: this is a brand new service, similar to the Internet suites you find on current generation HDTVs, but with the goal of integrating with your DVR as well, both to make saved programming more searchable, and to give you the ability to browse online while still watching television. The Revue from Logitech is currently the only device that has Google TV integrated into it, so it gives the most clues as to how the service works, so much of this post is going to treat them as one thing (according to Google, Sony televisions will eventually have it, but there are no models available yet). There’s more to it (read on), but that should give you a basic grasp of what we’re dealing with.

Let’s start with the positive. Google TV is really cool, even if it’s just the potential available. We’ve got a lot of the usual suspects when it comes to integration: apps from companies like Netflix, Twitter, Pandora, Amazon and so on are one of the staples of nearly any television/internet integration. For network integration, you’ve got wireless capability, as well as the ability to use an ethernet cable. Where Google TV starts to change (at least a little), is that they’ve also got a full browser (based on Chrome, Google’s browser) built into the service, so you’re able to actually search the entire web, rather than having to rely on specific content apps. This opens up quite a few possibilities, and since it’s running on a platform similar to Google’s Android technology, you’ve also got the option of flash content available. Google is also working with quite a few websites (mostly video content providers right now) to create Google TV specific pages, similar to how you find mobile browser specific web pages.

The integration with your television is also a huge plus. Basically, it uses a picture-in-picture style window to allow you to browse apps/web while still watching television. It’s done in a surprisingly simple way when dealing with the Revue box: you connect your DVR (or cable/satellite box, or whatever else you happen to use) into an HDMI input, and then connect the box from its HDMI output to the television. Similar picture-in-picture functionality exists on many integrated products (choose your brand style, you’ll be able to find a different name for the suite from every manufacturer), but for TV viewing, the Internet apps have to be built into the television. This is also a bit of a departure from other set top internet boxes, which you would treat as an entirely different source – many televisions still allow picture-in -picture, but as a feature it’s basically extinct (and be honest, how often did you actually use picture-in-picture).

Integration into your DVR is another big feature for the Google TV service. It allows you to search through your programming and find shows/movies/etc., and then start them playing through the interface. Currently, this service is only fully integrated with Dish Network DVRs, but most of the reps for the products are going out of their way to assure that a more widespread integration is in the works.

The Revue with Google TV also allows for video calling (the camera for this feature is sold separately), which is always a fun feature to see available. Being able to integrate this with any television is also a big plus. That the video is in HD can be positive, depending on who’s calling; there are some people I really don’t want to see in HD.

Control is a bit of a mixed bag. The basic control system for the service seems to be pretty solid, with a full-sized QWERTY keyboard and a few extras like a track pad and some basic remote functions available for it. While this may seem a little large for a remote, once you factor in that you’re dealing with is essentially a computer, it starts to make a little bit more sense. The alternative would be a clunky hunt and peck keyboard on the screen, which, even with an autofill option, is only appealing to perhaps the most masochistic user. There is a smaller version of the keyboard-remote available, but it’s about the size of a smart phone, with a very similarly sized keyboard, and is a separate purchase. For those with iPhones, iPod touches, or Android phones, there’s also an app that allows you to control the system using your device. As far as control integration goes (does it play well with other devices) Logitech has included quite a bit of the tech that goes into their Harmony remotes, and the Revue box has IR blasters on the side to accommodate controlling other devices, but lacks any sort of multi-device macro control. Because of the way the interface on the Revue works, even if you already have a Harmony remote, you’ll still probably need to have the keyboard remote to get the most out of your system (but, since it comes with the box anyway, this is more of a space issue).

The last thing that’s a huge positive from a content perspective on the Logitech Revue, and surprised me that it’s not talked about more heavily, is that the Revue is DLNA compatible. You can use this to stream content from a DLNA media server located on your home network, and the number of file types it’s compatible with is surprisingly high. The only major ones missing are protected AAC files (from iTunes, which is no surprise since you can’t really play those on anything but an Apple product), and DivX movie files – this is one of the more disappointing formats to not see available, as many movie files tend to be stored in this format. Otherwise, you can use it for music, photos, and (again, most) movies without any real problems.

The downsides of the service, at least to a certain extent, are a little more nitpicky, and are largely related to what it can’t do, rather than any hardware issues (a few have already been mentioned: integration with a DVR; lack of DivX support) This is encouraging, however, because if it’s a firmware issue, it can be fixed without having to wait for the next generation of hardware to be released.

From a service perspective, there’s a noticeable lack of Hulu support currently, and from early information, Hulu has actually blocked the device from accessing its content. Google has said they are in talks with the service to be able to provide access, however it will more than likely be in the form of the premium Hulu Plus service.

While the video calling feature available on the Revue is very cool, there is one downside to it: it’s a separate service from other calling software. While the application can be downloaded free for any PC or Mac computer, the idea of having to use yet another calling software is somewhat unappealing. While this is a bigger issue of there currently being way too many video calling pieces of software out there without much integration, it would have been nicer to see some Skype integration with this feature.

Perhaps the mostly hotly discussed downside is the price. With most set top boxes with Internet integration retailing between $100 and $200, the Revue is debuting at $300. While this may keep quite a few people from rushing out to pick it up right away, a good way to keep perspective on this is that you’re essentially getting a computer for your television, except that its one that has a simple interface and much more smooth integration with your existing TV service (especially if they can keep their promise on more widespread DVR support). So while the price tag may seem a little high, it’s still easy to justify it, even when comparing it to similar devices.

Much of the functionality can also be achieved by connecting a computer (such as a netbook, or even a full sized desktop) to your television, however without many of the apps, and because most computers won’t integrate at all with your regular TV viewing without a few specialized programs and a lot of know-how, this downside is really only for the most techy among television/home theatre enthusiasts.

The bottom line (or the tl;dr version) of all this is that Google TV looks to be a great service, and the Revue box from Logitech has some really smart features for integrating it into your home theatre system. While there are a few problems with the total service package (lack of Hulu, lack of widespread DVR support, DivX not supported), most of these problems have already been pegged by Logitech and Google, and are reportedly being worked on. The system is easy to use, looks to be relatively intuitive, and includes a lot of features not available from other similar services (at least, not without combining several of them). Overall, this is the type of system that has enough tech to be interesting, but is still user friendly enough that almost anyone can use it.

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