Yahoo Widgets hands-on review

CNET reviews Yahoo Widgets, a feature newly available on HDTVs that allows access to Internet content on the TV screen.

Yahoo Widgets: a dark day for ADD sufferers or a new dawn for Internet-on-TV? Sarah Tew/CNET

Update 08-11-09: Check out our in-depth looks at the Twitter , YouTube , Yahoo Video , Yahoo Sports , USA Today Sports and games widget reviews.

The variation of Yahoo Widgets designed specifically for TVs debuted at the Consumer Electronics Show last January. Not to be confused with its PC-centric incarnation, the TV-only widget feature will be available on certain HDTVs from LG, Samsung, Sony, and Vizio shipping this year. The first widget-equipped sets to hit store shelves are members of Samsung's UNB7000 series, and this hands-on review was performed on a UN46B7000--although we expect the widget experience to be similar across brands.

What is a widget? It's basically a gateway on your TV screen to Internet-supplied content in a certain subject area. All TVs with Yahoo Widgets can connect to the Internet, and via that connection can populate the widgets with real-time information and updates. At the time of this review there are only four widgets, all of them available as soon as we turned on the TV, connected the Ethernet cable, and hit a button to activate the feature. The four, namely News, Weather, Finance, and Flickr, were all created by Yahoo.

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In the coming weeks and months, more TV widgets will become available. According to Yahoo, more than 300 publishers "are interested in developing" widgets, from individuals to large content publishers, and the company expects TV widgets from Accedo Games, Twitter, Yahoo! Video, eBay, USA Today, Yahoo! Sports, Showtime, CBS Entertainment (CNET Reviews is published by CBS Interactive, a unit of CBS), The New York Times, YouTube, CinemaNow and others. Publishers that have announced plans to develop TV Widgets include Disney/ABC, MySpace, Viacom/MTV, Netflix, Amazon, Blockbuster, Associated Press, and Joost. Yahoo estimates at least 100 widgets will be available by the end of the year, and its TV widgets website teases with some of the big names, like Netflix, whose description reads: "Browse, find and enjoy great movies with the Netflix widget--a personalized, convenient way to rent and watch movies on your TV."

We also expect advertising to appear on the system eventually, which could make the user experience less consumer-friendly. Yahoo says that "some publishers may choose to monetize their content by the end of 2009," and that the widget engine works with Web-compliant advertising system to enable Yahoo and third parties to advertise. For now, however, the widgets are blessedly ad-free.

Complex widgets take a long time to load. Sarah Tew/CNET

Bottom line: At this early stage we found a lot to like about widgets, and we suspect the real appeal will increase as more become available--especially ones that offer access to Internet video content (Hulu widget, anyone?). As a free, open platform, it has huge potential to distract you from actually watching TV, although it's competing against numerous other outlets for the same content--how many different ways do you really need to display photos on your TV, for example?

Its biggest current flaw is lack of responsiveness, which seems like an even bigger deal in the "I want it NOW!" arena of TV watching. Yahoo says it's working on updates to speed the system, but for now it takes the better part of a minute to activate, and individual widgets are more sluggish than we'd like to see. See below for details.

At this point, we find Panasonic's proprietary VieraCast service more compelling than Yahoo Widgets since VieraCast offers access to YouTube and, coming in May, a vast selection of pay-per-view content via Amazon Video On Demand. Of course, that balance could shift as each service matures. In the meantime, read on for our first impressions.

Widget basics
When you first hit the button to activate widgets a tutorial will appear, which consists of a series of chatty screens that do a good job of guiding first-time users through the system. The main interface of Yahoo Widgets appears as a dock along the bottom of the screen composed of individual elements known as "snippets." Think of each snippet as the tip of each widget iceberg--on many snippets you can toggle the information up or down, to show brief weather info in different cities, for example, without engaging the full widget itself. You can scroll horizontally through the snippets to get to the one you want, arrange the order snippets appear, and access system settings via the profile snippet.

A well-designed tutorial indoctrinates widget newbies. Sarah Tew/CNET

The concept of profiles allows personalization of the system. Widgets themselves and custom information therein can be different for each profile, so various family members, for example, can set up the widgets they like and easily sign in or out when they turn on the system, and even associate their Yahoo IDs with their profiles (to import stock ticker symbols, for example). Really paranoid members can even require a password to activate their profiles. All told, it operates much like the log-in system used by a family PC.

Selecting a snippet engages the full-fledged widget, which appears on the left side of the screen and takes up about a third of the area. You can choose to have the widget overlay the program you're watching on the TV, or shrink the program into the right two-thirds of the screen--maintaining the correct aspect ratio--and fill the remainder with the widget and a gray background. We really liked the latter display option, since it prevented the widget from obscuring the program.

Each widget delivers customizable content. By default, the widgets are confined to their box on the left side of the screen, but in some cases, such as to show a photo slideshow on Flickr, they can expand to fill the screen. Each widget has its own settings--cities for the weather widget, individual stocks for the finance widget, log-n and "friends" info for Flickr, and so on--and we appreciate the capability to change display options, delete widgets, or even exit the system entirely from within each widget.

Finally, there's the widget gallery where you can add new widgets to the dock as they appear. On the Samsung TV we use for this review, widgets were categorized by "Latest widgets," "Yahoo! widgets," "Samsung widgets," "Photos and video," and "All." Currently there's no notification system on the TV itself to tell users that new widgets are available, but Yahoo says its working on one. In the meantime, you can sign up for email notification of new widgets. We also liked the fact that updates to existing widgets can be automatically applied via the widget dock.

Using widgets
In general, we found the widget experience a satisfying distraction during commercials and a potentially convenient source of useful information, although sluggishness was a major issue.

The complex finance widget loads slowly, but provides a wealth of information. Sarah Tew/CNET

In the plus column, the content was arranged intuitively with an obvious nod toward couch-potato mode. At no time did we feel like we were using a computer or browsing the normal Internet. Instead, using widgets felt like a cross between navigating menus on a TV and applications on an iPhone.

Within the widget we liked the clear forward and back, nesting, and table-of-contents logic. The use of virtual, onscreen keyboards was mostly restricted to sign-in and password entry. Design overall was neat and attractive, with good use of color and big-enough type, although we can imagine the text might become much less legible at screen sizes less than the 46 inches we tested. Naturally we appreciated the capability to use the standard TV remote control for everything.

The biggest minus from our perspective was responsiveness. When we engaged widgets for the first time after powering up the TV, it takes about 25 seconds to load the dock and 45 total seconds for all of the snippets to update. Widgets themselves take an acceptable three to five seconds to load, with the exception of the complex finance widget, which took at least 20 seconds, presumably to update the stock information. We did appreciate that these initial load times shortened significantly if we exited the system or the widget and then re-entered, as long we didn't power down the TV.

Movement with each widget isn't as responsive as we'd like. We found we had to scroll down a list of stock tickers, for example, by waiting a half-second after each button-press, because pressing the up or down key repeatedly in rapid succession proved too fast for the system to handle. Entering passwords and log-in information was as tedious as you'd expect, a situation exacerbated by the system's slower response time. Anybody used to the responsiveness of the PlayStation 3, Apple TV, or even a good digital cable box will be disappointed.

Full-screen, high-resolution photos from the excellent Flickr widget look great on an HDTV. CNET/Sarah Tew

Widget minireviews

  • Yahoo weather: This widget displays a five-day forecast and current conditions for various customizable cities around the world. It's very well detailed and includes esoteric items like moon phase and wind chill, with information provided by weather.com. Response time slows when moving between current and five-day forecasts, or returning to the main list of cities pages, but it's not a huge deal.
  • Yahoo finance: Yahoo's full-featured stock ticker, business news center and portfolio tracker is the most complex widget available so far. You can enter custom tickers or automatically import information from your online Yahoo finance account. If you track a lot of stocks, we recommend getting the online service just to import the information, if nothing else, rather than entering your portfolio manually. There's a wealth of information, but slow response times make it even more tedious to load information than usual. Then again, it's faster than getting up to turn on the computer.
  • Yahoo news: In this overly-basic widget, headlines are categorized into Business, Entertainment, Politics, Sports, Top Stories, and so on. There's a cheesy newspaper graphic at top that cycles through five top headlines with images, and individual stories contain thumbnail-size images too. The main problem is that it's light on content; stories are often just one or two sentences, and we'd have liked the capability to click through to read more. There's also minimal customization options, although on the plus side this widget loads quickly.
  • Flickr by Yahoo: The best widget so far overall, this one enables full onscreen access to the photo upload site. You to browse your own photos uploaded to Flickr, check out your friends' or groups' images, and explore other people's photos by category. Photos can occupy the whole screen and look very good in general if high-enough resolution. Support for videos is not included, but most other aspects of the actual Flickr site (aside from uploading) are replicated nicely. The easy access to community photos and groups is what makes this widget better than the Picasa access provided by VieraCast ; what makes it worse are long load times. If you have the patience, however, chances are good that whatever you find here is much more interesting than what's actually on TV itself.

Yahoo widget-equipped HDTVs:

We'll update this review as more widgets and widget-equipped HDTVs become available. In the meantime, if you're a current or potential widget-user, feel free to post a comment below and let us know what you think.
 

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