By Harry McCracken | Wednesday, October 27, 2010 at 8:47 am
The Intel Atom CPU inside the Revue doesn’t seem to have an excess of computing muscle. Web pages looked perfect–I browsed Facebook and read my Gmail–but they took longer to load than on a computer. Flash-based games such as Bejeweled worked, but fancy animations looked lethargic. And when I left video playing and pulled up the Google TV menus to investigate other features, the video sometimes got bogged down.
Google TV’s highest-profile problem to date is the fact that unhappy Hollywood content owners are preventing it from showing much of the current TV programming that’s available online. It was pretty much a given that Hulu would do so, but ABC, CBS, and NBC joined the crusade as well–although NBC seemed to have relented by Sunday evening at least for the shows I sampled. Fox never started blocking Google TV in the first place, and Comcast’s Xfinity TV even had Hulu shows that were unavailable through Hulu itself.
When I searched for shows, I got a message explaining that some programs are blocked and therefore not displayed in results. But Google TV didn’t hide everything it should have: When I searched for CSI, it told me I could watch it on CBS.com, even though going there produced an error message.
Even if every major network welcomed Google TV users with open arms, the platform as it stands has severe problems. Almost everywhere I went, I found features which were strangely kludgy, or which didn’t work at all. And for all the dizzying quantities amount of data on shows that Google has aggregated, the box sometimes knew less about what’s available on cable and on the Web than I did.
Take, for instance, Saturday Night Live. Its Series page doesn’t list upcoming new episodes on broadcast TV; the most recent it gets is one 2008 episode available from Amazon. (It only lists that one 2008 episode even though Amazon has the entire season.) Nor does it link to recent episodes available on the Web from both NBC.com and Xfinity TV.
Other tabs in the SNL listing–which you can only get to with the five-way control, even though other elements on the same page are accessible via touchpad–link to previous seasons, but in garbled form. (A tab marked “Season 5″ includes episodes from the fifth season, which aired in 1979 and 1980–but also part of season one.)
When I clicked Add Series to Queue to subscribe to SNL, it created a feed of Amazon for-pay episodes, including ones otherwise unmentioned in Google TV’s search results–but except for the first episode it listed, it had no data for any of them–not the guest star, not the original year of airing, not anything. I had to click through to Amazon to tell one episode from another.
I spoke to Google’s Rishi Chandra, the lead product manager for Google TV, and he told me that the weaving together of broadcast and Web TV information that Google’s doing is new and complicated, and the company acknowledges that the results are not yet perfect. He said that SNL is a particularly challenging program for a search engine to understand–unlike most shows, it doesn’t give individual episodes official titles.
In many other cases, I found that Google TV’s data is incomplete, inaccurate, and/or riddled with dupes. It knows that Amazon has Superman III and Superman Returns–indeed, for reasons that I don’t understand, it has multiple links to both of them. But it didn’t seem to know that Amazon also has Superman I, II, and IV. Speaking of the Man of Steel, one Google TV listing intermingles information about a Superman animated show and Evening Shade (yes, the Burt Reynolds sitcom) into one frankenepisode, apparently because both had an entry titled “Where There’s Smoke.”
I tried searching for MSNBC’s Countdown and got a list of upcoming broadcast times and an Add Series to Queue button which didn’t do anything when I clicked on it. It is, however, possible to add Countdown to your Google TV queue: You just have to figure out that you must search for video podcasts in a separate section of the interface. (Full episodes of the program are available as podcasts but aren’t on MSNBC’s Web site.)
I also never saw Google TV’s search feature link to movies or TV shows on Netflix Watch Instantly, even though the software includes a Netflix player. That player, too, is disappointing: With its full-blown QWERTY keyboard, the Revue should be the ideal gizmo for finding items on Netflix. But unlike the far cheaper Apple TV and Roku, the Revue’s player only lets you watch shows already in your queue, not add new ones.You can add items by switching over to Chrome and going to Netflix.com. But you can’t watch Netflix there, and you need to figure all this out on your own.
The support for Amazon Video on Demand is even odder: There’s an Amazon VOD section off the main Applications menu with a bevy of thumbnails for TV episodes and movies. But when I clicked on any of the ones for movies, I got shuttled to Amazon’s Web site, where a giant Flash module loaded and told me that Google TV doesn’t yet support HD movies–even though Amazon’s own site seems to say that it does. I needed to click again to get a standard-def version.
Why does Google TV seemingly go out of its way to showcase high-def movies it can’t play? As with many things about the software, it’s a mystery.
Some of Google TV’s quirks clearly stem from the fact that the whole concept of Googling for TV shows is new, akin to Web search engines themselves back when Google was founded in 1998. On the Web, Google is remarkably good at putting the most useful links at the top of your search results; on TV, it’s not even necessarily clear yet what people want when they search. I typed in “countdown,” looking for the MSNBC show, which I knew was on the air at that time. Google TV’s first set of results didn’t list the just-started broadcast–I had to click through to a longer list of results to see it.
That strikes me as evidence that Google TV just isn’t as smart as Google.com about figuring out what users want. (On the Web, Countdown‘s Web site is the top result for “countdown.”)
Despite everything, I still like the idea of Google TV. Both Logitech and Google told me that Google aims to improve the Google TV services continuously, and that a software update is in the works. Google also told me that Adobe is working to optimize FlashPlayer for better video performance. It’s entirely possible that every frustration I experienced with the Revue is solvable through such fixes.
In its current form, however, Google TV feels like a first rough draft or a Google Labs experiment; Google hit its holiday deadline by releasing a work in progress. That’s fine for a free Web service, but when software comes on a $300 box, it’s just not good enough.