Google TV has been all over the news recently, because of recent press events by Logitech and Sony, with the search engine giant making its big play for the living room space. Even with all the hubbub, Google's new home entertainment platform can be tough to understand, so we've rounded up some of the basic questions you might have about Google TV.
What is Google TV?
The basic pitch for Google TV is the capability to search all of your TV content through a search bar similar to Google.com's, which displays on your TV. The search bar overlays whatever screen you're on and combs through online video sources as well as live TV from your cable/satellite box to find content. (Currently, Google TV searches only DVR programs for Dish DVRs, although we've been told that support for other DVRs will roll out over time.) The idea is that you don't need to know whether the video originates from Netflix, your cable box, YouTube, or a random Web site--Google just finds it.
That's the main gist of what Google TV does, but what makes it hard to understand is that a Google TV-equipped device needs to do a lot to make that functionality seamless. It has standalone apps like Netflix and Pandora; a built-in Chrome browser capable of displaying (almost) any video you can watch on the Internet; the ability to control other devices like a Harmony universal remote; and support for the Android Marketplace coming in 2011. There's just a lot going on in any Google TV product.
Why do I want Google TV?
If you find yourself watching content across several different platforms (Netflix, Amazon VOD, regular cable, ComedyCentral.com, etc.), Google TV should take away a lot of the hassle over finding exactly what you want to watch. If you want to watch a recent episode of "30 Rock," you can just search for "30 Rock" and Google TV will show you results in all the available services. Google TV leans strongly toward a "search" model of TV watching, rather than "browse." If you generally browse a program guide or flip channels looking for a show, however, you might not get as much use out of it. Similarly, if everything you want to watch is already available via your cable subscription, you probably won't benefit much from a Google TV product.
Can I watch Hulu on my HDTV?
No. Though Google TV's hardware and software is fully capable of displaying Hulu's streaming-video content, Hulu is currently blocking Google TV devices. (Hulu has done the same thing to similar set-top boxes, like Boxee.) Google and Hulu are apparently in talks regarding the situation, but it's unclear whether that would mean paid-for Hulu Plus access (at $9.95 per month) or full free access to the Hulu content available on a standard browser. We're guessing Google TV will get Hulu Plus once the dust settles, but there's no telling for now.
How do I control Google TV?
One of the toughest sells about Google TV is that it generally requires quite a bit of text input to really work. Many existing streaming-video boxes require you to input text using an onscreen keyboard, which can be tedious.
The Google TV products announced so far have a couple of solutions to the problem. Logitech's Revue offers a wireless keyboard, complete with a touch pad for moving a mouse cursor, and standard home theater controls like play, pause, and volume controls. Logitech also offers a mini-controller similar to the Logitech DiNovo. Sony's included controller is similar to the DiNovo's design, trying to shrink a full keyboard into a chassis that's similar to a video game controller. The Logitech Revue and Sony Google TV products will also be controllable via an iPhone or Android smartphone using an app. So far, we've been most impressed with Logitech's wireless keyboard, but that doesn't mean much until we do full hands-on reviews.
How does Google TV control my cable or satellite box?
Your cable/satellite box will be connected to your Google TV device via HDMI, but your Google TV device still needs to send remote commands using infrared (IR) commands, the same as your remote control. Logitech's Revue is able to do this using front-facing IR emitters built into the unit, whereas Sony's products require physical IR blasters--little wired emitters you place near the IR receptors of your cable/satellite box. Using IR commands, Google TV can change channels, schedule DVR recordings--anything you can do with your existing remote control.
The initial release of products also offer additional functionality with Dish Network's DVRs. Google TV products will be able to search live TV listings with any cable/satellite box, but they will only be able to search programs recorded on a DVR with compatible Dish Network DVRs. Dish Network DVRs will also be able to receive remote commands over your home network, which results in less lag than IR. Google says these features will roll out to other DVRs, but there's no specific timeline. Given the differences between different cable operators software and hardware, we could see full compatibility taking a while.
If I get Google TV, can I cancel my cable/satellite subscription?
Maybe, but probably not. Though it's true that Google TV offers up the most comprehensive collection of online streaming-video content we've seen so far, there's still a lot of cable/satellite exclusive content that most people can't live without. Live sports, award shows, reality TV, HBO--there's just not enough online services to cover most people's regular TV-watching habits. Current Google TV products are also designed to complement an existing cable/satellite subscription, rather than replace it; that's why they feature an HDMI input to connect your existing cable/satellite box.
You can get lots of live network TV content using an over-the-air ATSC tuner, but DVR options for over-the-air antennas are underwhelming (Dish Network DTV Pal) or complicated/expensive (MythTV, Windows Media Center). We'd love to see a company come out with a Google TV box with an over-the-air tuner and DVR functionality, which would make it much easier to completely "cut the cord," without making too many sacrifices.
Can't I already do this with a notebook and an HDMI cable?
For the most part, yes, but the reason people are excited about Google TV is that it offers nearly all of the functionality of having a real computer connected to your TV, with a user interface that makes sense when you're sitting on the couch. Anyone who's ever knelt in front of an entertainment center looking at a notebook knows that it's far from the relaxing user experience that most people want when they watch TV.
How is this different than existing products like Apple TV and Roku?
The Apple TV has a much narrower purpose than Google TV. The Apple TV streams TV shows and movies from the iTunes Store, Netflix, and your own content from a connected PC running iTunes--and that's about it. When Apple introduces AirPlay functionality in November, there will be more functionality available by streaming content from iOS-compatible devices (iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad), but it's still yet to be seen exactly how it will work. On the other hand, the Apple TV is only $99--Logitech's Revue costs $300--which is an attractive price point for people just wanting to add basic streaming-media capabilities to their TV. Roku's network streamers offer more streaming services, but don't have access to the full Web, nor do they interface with a cable box and your other home theater gear.
What products feature Google TV?
So far there have been six Google TV products announced: four Sony LCDs, the Sony NSZ-GT1 Blu-ray player, and the Logitech Revue. We're not aware of any other Google TV products coming in 2010, but we expect tons of Google TV-equipped products in 2011. If you're not in a rush, you're likely to see quite a few Google TV products announced at CES 2011.
When can I get it?
Sony's LCDs and Blu-ray player will start shipping October 16. Logitech's Revue is currently available for preorder and should ship by the end of October.
Is it safe to be a Google TV early adopter?
The product demos we've seen so far have been very impressive, but until we get our hands on the product, there's no telling how it will hold up in real-world conditions. If you have any qualms, it's at least worth waiting until we review a few of the products, which should be before the end of the month. Also, as we said before, second-generation Google TV products will likely be announced in just a few months at CES 2011, so it may be worth waiting to see what's in store.
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