I’ve spent the past few hours playing with a Sony Google TV box (the standalone Blu-ray box, not the integrated TV).
To cut right to it, my first impressions are pretty favorable but with some big caveats.
I chose the Sony box over the Logitech because with two young kids in the house, the idea of a full and dainty looking keyboard as the remote just struck me as a bad idea. I really could care less about the Blu-Ray player part (sorry Sony) but I’m not in the market for a new TV.
So let’s begin at the beginning…
Setup was easy. The hardest part was navigating the insane cablenest that lives behind my TV, but other than that it was straightforward. One of the things I really like about Google TV is that it is designed to complement the cable box you already have, not replace it. This is a critical differentiator between Google TV and Apple TV in my opinion, and it allows some interesting functionality. More on that in a moment.
Connect the HDMI out from your cable box to the input on the Sony box. Connect the HDMI out from the Sony box to your TV. Plug in the IR blaster (so the Google TV box can control the cable box) and connect the power. Then you’re off and away. I went through the usual collection of steps to get things set up — optimize the display size, set up the wi-fi connection etc. Then the box told me there was a software update and began automatically downloading it. Several minutes and a reboot later, I was back at the setup screen.
Unfortunately, the update wiped everything I had set up so far, so I had to repeat all the steps I’d already completed. Doh.
There were a few more steps, such as adding my zip code and cable provider, at which point Google TV downloaded the list of available channels automatically.
And then it was batteries in the remote and up, up and away.
When I first saw the remote for the Sony, like many other folks I thought it was nutty. It looked cumbersome, clunky and poorly conceived. In reality, it’s really not bad. The device is the same width as a playstation controller, so it fits in the hand quite well. The left hand side has an up/down/left/right/select control that works well for navigating menus etc. The top right has a touchpad kind of thing surrounded by some control keys (activate the Google TV box, picture in picture, menu and go back). Below all that is a qwerty keyboard that’s not at all bad to type with. Overall it’s pretty solid and I think it will survive some toddler chewing, dropping and general abuse. Given it’s relatively small size, it is much better suited to my living room than a full keyboard like the one that comes with the Logitech Revue.
Using The Box
Getting in to using the box itself, it’s quite interesting. The magic of the passthrough HDMI becomes obvious pretty quickly. When you’re exploring menus etc, you can still see the live TV feed in the background (the menus are transparent). When you’re in an application like Twitter or the browser, it’s full screen by default. I have an HDTV, but it’s a few years old and nothing special. However, Text/graphics rendering is good and very readable on every web site/app I’ve tried.
There’s also a picture-in-picture mode, so you can see live TV in a small window while you’re browsing the web etc.
The search is nifty too. Any time you search for something, the box automatically searches the live TV guide and the internet for matching items. Very slick. So for example, searching for “House” brings up a cable show called “House Training” that airs on Saturday, “House” the TV series and “Full House” the tv series, as well as a “search the web” option that would broaden the search. So yes, it really is integrated and it searches the channel guide for your collection of cable channels, as well as everywhere else.
Choosing “House” the series takes you to Hulu-like screen where you can see episodes that are downloadable, purchasable or upcoming on regular TV. Picking the TV option pops up a dialog box to set a DVR recording or switch immediately to the right channel.
It’s hard to convey how well done this is. It is very, very smooth. With some caveats (see below).
Design-wise, I’m ambivalent about the Sony box. It’s like a clunky game console with odd aesthetics, neither one thing (cool and small like Apple TV) or another (odd but interesting like the Boxee box). It’s not a standard form factor and it’s shiny white, so it sticks out like an oddly sized sore thumb. I’m sure part of the form factor is due to the blu-ray drive, but as I said at the beginning, that wasn’t something I was looking for.
The box comes with some default apps, but frankly they are a mixed bag. I’m holding my criticisms until the end, but some of the apps are dogs. Yes, I’m looking at you, Netflix. The box comes with a Netflix app, but you can only watch items you’ve already added to your “Watch Instantly” queue. Thanks to the built in Chrome browser, I can do that from the TV too, but it’s a lame workaround for a crummy app. I’m a big fan of Netflix, but they blew it with this one.
The CNBC Real-time app is a great indicator of where this is headed. You get a very nice live video feed with additional data and the ability to play archived clips all within a single app. It looks polished and actually seems useful.
The gallery app is identical to the Android gallery since Android 2.1. Not a surprise since that’s what the Google TV box is running. It works and works well.
Pandora also works well as far as I can see — it was easy to set up and just does its thing.
The other app I’ve played with extensively is the Chrome browser. Again, it’s well done, seems stable and just plain works. It also supports Flash out of the box, so you really can browse the web without any big holes in the experience. HD YouTube clips look great — I can finally watch Annoying Orange on the big screen. All of the sites I’ve visited so far have looked good. There are a couple of minor caveats, but see below for the details there.
There’s also a Twitter client. It’s nothing special, but it works just fine.
And Now For The Bad Stuff
You quickly find some missing pieces and rough edges, but most of them will be easy fixes that I expect to see roll out quickly.
Here are some of the biggies…
The price. This is an expensive box and the current selection of apps don’t justify the price. Obviously I’m paying an early-adopter premium, but the price needs to be well under $200 for this to make sense for most people. The price and the functionality will doubtless change quickly.
Some of the shinier features that were part of the hype are still missing. You can’t install apps, there’s no marketplace access (coming in 2011) and the connectivity to Android phones isn’t available yet. This should all be resolved soon, but I’m ready now!
The setup had a few bumps — it was pretty annoying to have gone so far through setup only to have to repeat everything from scratch after the update. I understand why, but it was a poor start.
The whole keypad/remote is a near miss. They’ve obviously worked hard to combine elements of a desktop keyboard with a typical Android phone virtual keyboard, but there are some real holes.
For example, there’s no kind of predictive text if you’re typing and that gets very old very quickly. Not sure why this was omitted when it’s part of Android and would really help.
Selecting text is messy. You can’t really do it with the mouse/touchpad control as there’s no way to select and drag (you are either selecting or dragging and can’t do both). You can hold down the shift key and use the left hand control to select text, and Ctrl-C will copy whatever is highlighted. However, this would all be much easier with a trackball similar to the one seen on the Nexus One and the select/copy/paste mechanism that is already part of Android. Again, this seems like an obvious omission that would help smooth the experience if it had been left in.
My other keypad gripe is that the Shift key doesn’t latch. What I mean by that is that you have to hold the shift key while you press the letter you want capitalized. This is the norm for a desktop/laptop, but on almost any mobile device ever, you press shift, let go, and the shift key will stay selected until you press the letter you want. It really would be far easier if they’d gone down this path. As it is, holding shift and pressing a key just reminds you how small the keyboard is, and it feels fiddly.
My last complaints in this area are more of a text entry issue than a keypad issue. When you enter a password on most Android devices (and others too), you see the character you typed for a second before it becomes an asterisk. That is _really_ helpful in making sure you typed in the right password. And finally, the software does not automatically capitalize the first character you type, which is also an unnecessary pain.
There are also some inconsistencies and shortcomings in the UI and its functionality. For example, if you happen to use a DISH networks DVR, you can integrate everything right down to the Google TV box knowing what shows you have recorded and including them when you search. It sounds slick. But if you have a DVR that’s not a DISH device, you get nothing. The picture in picture button is also funky. Seems you can only go from live TV to picture in picture — if you are in a Google TV app the button does nothing. I would really like to be browsing the web and then pull up live TV in a window, but right now you can’t do that. You have to switch to live TV, select picture in picture, then fire up the browser. It’s just clunky and rather ruins an otherwise brilliant feature.
As I mentioned, the apps are a very mixed bag. Netflix is by far the worst and I hope they fix it soon. One of the bright spots is the Chrome browser, but there’s no menu bar. This gives the impression that there’s no way to actually type in a URL — you are stuck with searching and clicking the results. After more fiddling around, it turned out that pressing the search button on the remote brings up the URL box, so you can actually just type in any address you choose. However, it’s pretty hidden.
I think Google TV compares well with other set top box offerings, especially for a v1.0 product. You can clearly see the potential in the direction they are taking and I buy that it is the way of the future. There are some annoying rough edges, but all in all it is quite smooth and parts of it are simply remarkable.
However, Google TV cannot reach its full potential until they let the developers do their thing. This box needs apps, experimentation and an army of people with crazy ideas messing around with it. The sooner Google makes that possible, the better their chances of success will be.