By Harry McCracken | Wednesday, October 27, 2010 at 8:47 am
Logitech’s Revue, the first standalone box to run Google TV, has gotten its share of criticism for its $299.99 price. Which is perfectly understandable–that’s three times the cost of Apple TV and five times what the cheapest Roku costs.
But when I attended Logitech’s Revue launch event earlier this month and saw everything the box could do, I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t overpriced. It’s designed to play all Web video, not just a subset; it lets you find programs on cable or satellite; it has a full built-in Web browser; it streams your own video and audio; it comes with a real keyboard. In short, it does most of the things you’d get if you connected an even pricier PC to your HDTV.
Most of the Revue’s functionality is made possible by Google TV, which melds Web-based services with Android-based software. Google’s wildly ambitious goal is to make Googling for TV as simple as Googling for Web pages. But when I tried a Revue loaned to me by Logitech, I discovered that the box’s problem is polish, not price. Google TV is profoundly rough around the edges.
How so? Well, it crashed on me. It displayed cryptic error messages. It sometimes seemed to tax the Revue’s Atom CPU to the breaking point. It lacked basic features that are available on Apple TV and Roku, and some aspects of its user interface are remarkably slapdash. Worst of all, it too frequently failed at the task it’s designed to do: make it possible to find and watch TV shows and movies without worrying about whether they’re on broadcast TV or available from an Internet source.
In short, if ever a Google product needed a “beta” label, it’s this one.
Certain things about the Revue–quite a few of them, actually,–are appealing as is. For a box that melds together broadcast television, Web services, and a variety of gadgets in your entertainment center, it’s easy to set up: I used the included HDMI cable to connect the device–which is the size of a hardcover novel–between my TiVo and my HDTV. Then I spent about fifteen minutes stepping through screens which asked me about my cable provider, my wireless network, my Google Account, and the brand of my set-top box and TV.
When I heard that the Revue used IR blasters to control other devices, I shuddered a bit. But unlike other IR blasters I’ve encountered, the Revue doesn’t require you to run cables from it to other devices: In most cases, it can talk to additional boxes without wires. And in my setup, this worked perfectly. (In a closed cabinet, you might need to run blaster cables, which are included.)
I’ve been reviewing Internet boxes for TVs for something like thirteen years, and the Revue is the first that comes with the input device I’ve wanted all along: a full-blown QWERTY wireless keyboard. It uses RF signals to talk to the Revue, so there are no line-of-sight issues, and Logitech says it can run for months on two AA cells.
The keyboard has a notebook-style touchpad that sits in the upper right-hand corner. (I found it fairly usable even though I’m a southpaw, but when I meant to press its button, I often hit the ones below that one by mistake.) It also has a five-way controller, back and home buttons, a picture-in-picture button that lets you watch live TV while using other features, and VCR-style playback buttons that work in some apps (but not when you’re watching garden-variety Web video). Thanks to the same technology used by Logitech’s Harmony universal remote controls, it also sports buttons that can control your set-top box and TV.
Revue offered some rudimentary integration with my TiVo, such as pulling up its recording function when I pressed the Record button and allowing me to navigate TiVo menus with the keyboard’s five-way controller; it offers owners of Dish Network DVRs true two-way integration, such as the ability to search for programs stored on Dish’s DVR.
Logitech is working on iPhone and Android apps for Revue, and sells a pint-sized QWERTY keyboard. They look promising, but I was perfectly happy with the full-sized, no-compromises keyboard. It’s also a much more comfortably familiar input device than the one Sony whipped up for its Google TV devices.
I also liked Logitech’s optional $149.99 TV Cam, which sits on top of your TV and lets you make video phone calls with other owners of Revues and TV Cams, as well as anyone with a computer equipped with Logitech’s free Vid software. The 720p video wasn’t nearly as crisp as the demos I’ve seen of Cisco’s 1080p Umi, but it didn’t jitter, the audio was clear, and the whole experience was a lot of fun. And the price–a total of $450 in hardware and no service fee–handily beats Cisco’s price of $599 for the box and $25 a month for service.
Logitech’s Media Player application–which lets the Revue stream content stored on your home network via the DLNA standard–is another plus. It has a better user interface than most DLNA streamers and played video from my MacBook (running Twonky) flawlessly.
Both the Vid and Media Player programs are Android apps that sit in a folder along with a few others, such as ones for listening to Napster and Pandora. Google TV will get a full-blown app-store Marketplace, too, but not until early 2011.
Ultimately, all this stuff is secondary to the Revue’s core functionality. Google TV gives you a search bar for broadcast- and Web-based TV content, a copy of Chrome, and Adobe’s FlashPlayer. That trio is supposed to let you find and watch video of all sorts, whether it lives on a free Web site, on a paid service such as Netflix Watch Instantly or Amazon Video on Demand, or on cable or satellite.
That’s where things start to get complicated.
When Google TV works well, it’s a joy. I wanted to watch what turned out to be the final game of the National League playoffs, but I had no idea what channel it was on. That didn’t matter: I just Googled for “Giants Phillies” and found the game in a flash. Way easier than using Comcast’s remote and TV grid; simpler even than TiVo.
The software also spotlights a few sites–including YouTube, Blip.tv, The New York Times, and Chow–which are available in special “leanback” versions designed to work well on a big TV screen. They dispense with traditional Web interfaces in favor of far simpler formats that let you surf around via thumbnails, and they deliver high-definition video when they can. They’re terrific.
There are, however, only a handful of these custom TV Web sites. Most of the Web video you’ll watch on Google TV is on the same Web pages you’d visit on a PC. That means that you generally have to use the keyboard’s touchpad to expand the video to full-screen mode, a slightly clunky but not intolerable situation.
Speaking of clunky, Google TV’s Android underpinnings were sometimes apparent in unfortunate ways. I encountered apps that have frozen up–see unhelpful error message at right–and one spontaneous Blue Screen of Death-like reboot. Both reminded me that the Revue is really a not-terribly-reliable personal computer that happens to run Android rather than Windows.
How’s the quality of online video? It varied wildly, depending on what I was watching. Some stuff that’s tolerable on a laptop was a blocky eyesore on my 42″ TV, and sometimes the commercials were far crisper than the shows they interrupted, or high-quality shows were interrupted by low-quality ads. Some HD content (such as Revision3’s shows) looked excellent, and streamed without hiccups over Wi-Fi, but NBC’s HD worked only in fits and starts, even over Ethernet. (NBC was a problem child in general–video took forever to load, and while standard-def video didn’t stutter, its soundtrack was sometimes out of sync.)