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Editors' Note (August 1, 2011): The price of the Logitech Revue reviewed here has dropped to $99. Logitech has also indicated that a major software update built on Android 3.1 "will offer a simplified user experience and access to the Android Market" when it goes live later this summer.
When we first saw the Logitech Revue demos, we were sold on the idea of a single set-top box that could search all our content sources--online or offline--and control our home theater components. Now that we've had our hands on a unit for nearly a week, we still love the concept, and the Revue has an undeniable amount of potential, but it's hard to give it an unqualified recommendation with all of its current issues and caveats.
As of press time, major content providers such as Hulu, CBS, and ABC are all blocking Google TV devices from streaming-video content. Google TV's omnipresent search bar is an excellent way to find content across so many different online video sources, but it currently doesn't search titles available through Netflix, arguably the most important. There aren't many apps, and the existing Netflix app is about two generations behind those for competitors such as Roku and Sony's PS3. Google's vision for complete unfettered access to the Web in the living room is powerful, and Logitech's Revue impressively well-thought-out for a debut product, but ultimately the software needs more polish and more content deals to compete with increasingly mature competitors like Apple TV, Roku XDS, and even the PS3 Slim.
We hope the inevitable firmware updates will address many of these issues--Logitech is already pledging upgrades in November and December--and we anticipate revisiting this review frequently in the future. In the meantime, our initial impressions follow.
The Revue set-top box doesn't approach the impossibly small standards of the Apple TV, but it's still smaller than, say, a cable DVR or Blu-ray player. The box feels very light, weighing only 1.32 pounds, and has rounded corners with the case tapering down toward the bottom. Like many modern set-top boxes, the Logitech Revue doesn't have any buttons on the front, with only two buttons on the back for power and Bluetooth pairing.
Though the box itself is relatively slim, it does require a power brick, which is a little over half the size of a standard laptop AC adapter. Around the back are the inputs/outputs, including an HDMI output and input, two USB ports, an Ethernet jack, optical digital audio output, and a couple IR blast ports. The HDMI input is used for connecting your cable/satellite box, which the Revue can control via its built-in IR emitters. (Alas, anyone with an older, non-HD TV that lacks an HDMI input won't be able to use the Logitech Revue.) There's also built-in 802.11N Wi-Fi if you don't have Ethernet in your living room.
The box is nondescript, but the keyboard is the highlight of the package. It's thin and light, so it doesn't feel like a huge imposition in a living-room environment. Its wireless (RF-based) and runs on a pair of AA batteries. Along with the full-size keyboard, there's also a touch pad in the upper right, and below that is a directional pad with Android-based keys such as back and home, plus picture-in-picture and favorite buttons. It's annoying that by default there's no tap-to-click functionality on the keypad, although it can be enabled by a series of keystrokes. For such a basic feature, we can't imagine why it's not on by default or why it requires a series of complex key presses rather than making a change in the settings menus.
If the full-size keyboard is too big for your living-room tastes, Logitech offers two alternatives: the Mini Controller ($130, sold separately) and control via an iPhone or Android-based smartphone. We didn't have the Mini Controller on hand to test, but we're fans of the very similar Logitech diNovo Mini Keyboard. (The Revue should also work with any other PC input device that utilizes Logitech's proprietary Unifying technology.)
Though smartphone-based control is a great idea--and we've liked what we've seen during product demos--we couldn't get any Android phones to reliably connect to the Revue. (The iPhone app isn't available yet.) We're guessing the problem is related to network issues we had (more in this later), but it's worth mentioning that we had no problems in the same environment with the Apple TV and iPhone/iPad-based control and other similar products.
The setup process on the Logitech Revue is a good deal more involved than traditional streaming-video boxes. For the most part, it's unavoidable, as the Revue needs to communicate with your cable box and control other components, so it's really like setting up a streaming-video box and Harmony remote all at once. You'll need to have the model names of your TV, AV receiver, and DVR handy, as the Revue needs that info for its remote functionality.
We think the setup is straightforward enough for most users, but we did hit a couple snags, such as being told our ZIP code couldn't be found and server unavailable messages. In fact, as soon as we completed the setup, we were met with an error message that said "Process system is not responding." Those kind of hiccups give Google TV a distinctly first-gen feel.
The main home menu looks modern and feels responsive. Press the home button at any time and the menu will overlay whatever content you're watching. That means it takes just seconds to go from watching live TV to browsing YouTube, then jumping back again.
That being said, the interface certainly leans toward the tech-savvy in its layout. Whereas the Apple TV's main menus use simple phrases like "Movies" and "TV Shows," Google TV's interface has less-straightforward phrases like "Applications," "Bookmarks," and "Spotlight." Google TV is greatly customizable and you can make the "Bookmarks" section show all your favorite content, but it's not something that tech novices can jump right into.
Along the same lines, the Google TV software has some powerful options for the tech-savvy. For example, if you're watching live TV, you can hit the picture-in-picture button to minimize the TV to a small window, while you surf the Web in Chrome in the main window--it's really slick. Android users will also feel right at home with the home, back, and menu buttons, which make it easy to jump between functions from any screen. Once you get the hang of it, Google TV and Logitech's wireless keyboard make for powerful surfing experience, but there's no denying it caters to the power user.
The Google search bar
The vast functionality (more on this later) of the Revue may seem overwhelming, but Google TV has a secret weapon to make it all seem simple: the Google search bar. Press the dedicated search button on the keyboard and the search bar pops up at the top of the screen, regardless of whether you're using the Chrome browser, streaming Netflix, or watching live TV. The idea behind Google TV's search is that it combs through streaming video, the Web, and regular TV to find the programming you're looking for. It's really the perfect solution to the problem of finding content spread out among many sources. Except when it doesn't work.
To start off, the Google search bar doesn't search Netflix, which is a significant oversight considering it's probably the most important service on the box. Excluding the Netflix omission, we also found search results to be occasionally inaccurate. When we searched for "Colbert Report" on October 26, the Google TV series results page didn't show that the October 25 episode was available, even though it was available directly from Comedy Central's site. Instead, we tried loading the next most recent episode--October 14--and Google TV loaded the October 25 show that it had said wasn't available. So then we tried the October 13 episode, and the correct episode was loaded, but we noticed Google TV's programming data was wrong. (The guest was Austan Goolsbee, not Arturo Rodriguez.) And we had similar problems with "The Daily Show." And although it said free Web streams were available for "South Park," when we clicked through we encountered a message that said it couldn't that particular episode until mid-November.
Google TV is a new service--and we wouldn't be surprised if Google fixes many of these bugs over time--but in its initial incarnation, we didn't feel like Google's search bar functionality and cross-platform TV listings delivered the experience we were expecting.
Streaming media apps
The Logitech Revue is similar to many competing products in that it has support separate applications for several streaming-media services. The initial roll-out of apps includes Netflix, Napster, Pandora, Twitter, and NBA Game Time. (Amazon VOD is also supported, but only by browsing Amazon in Chrome, which isn't quite as slick as some dedicated apps we've seen.) We're actually surprised by how few standalone apps there currently are at launch, especially when a much cheaper box like the Roku XDS has standalone apps for Amazon VOD and MLB.TV, plus tons of other niche media services.
We were also disappointed to see that Google TV's Netflix interface is still the first-gen interface we saw on the original Roku Netflix Player. That means there's no search functionality or the ability to see movies that aren't in your instant queue. There's really no excuse for that, with much better alternatives available on devices like the new Roku XDS, PS3, Xbox 360, and Apple TV.
In addition to the apps available at launch, Google TV products will also be able to access the Android Marketplace sometime in 2011. This has the potential to add tons of innovative apps to the Revue and other Google TV devices, but until then you're stuck with what Google makes available.
One of the standout features of Google TV is the built-in Chrome browser. There's support for both HTML5 and Flash 10.2, which means you're technically capable of accessing nearly any video source you can find on the Web.
The emphasis is on "technically," though. The reality, as mentioned before, is that many content providers, such as ABC, CBS, and Hulu, are currently blocking Google TV devices from streaming video from their sites. (Even the workaround hacks aren't working anymore.) The main issue is that major content providers don't mind people watching these videos for free on a computer, but don't like the idea of the same content showing up in the living room. The apparent reasons: Web advertising still doesn't pay nearly as much as traditional TV advertising, and--unlike cable and satellite companies--Web video currently doesn't offer any affiliate fees (read: revenue) for TV content providers.
Unfortunately we expect this problem to stay in flux, with hobbyists finding workarounds, content providers trying to plug the holes, and official deals between content providers and Google coming slowly. (Although we'd bet Hulu Plus comes soon.) It is worth pointing out, however, that some content providers don't seem as vigilant with their content. Comedy Central and Cartoon Network currently aren't blocking Google TV--thought that could change at any moment.
Content issues aside, the experience of surfing the Web on your big screen is simultaneously frustrating and awesome. It's frustrating when the browser feels slow (which happens if Flash is used on the site) or when a pop-up window fills the entire screen. It's awesome when Chrome intelligently maximizes videos to full screen (which happens on Amazon VOD), and that you can now access any niche video site from your home theater. For better or worse, it essentially duplicates the feeling of watching videos on a slightly underpowered laptop, except you have the benefit of the big screen.
Cable/satellite box control
Cable/satellite box control is another feature that differentiates Google TV from other streaming-media boxes, like Apple TV and Roku. The Revue is technically capable of sending commands to your cable/satellite box using its built-in IR emitters, enabling Google to search it for content just like it searches the Web.
If you have another service, Google TV's cable/satellite box integration is pretty disappointing. When you search for TV content, Google will find it, but can't set your DVR to record it. All it can do it bring up the guide, and you're forced to find and record the show on your own, like you would without a Google TV. The same thing goes for setting Season Passes. Yes, it's nice to be able to find the program quickly, but it's a huge letdown from what you expect it to do. Google says it is working with other cable/satellite providers to provide further integration, but there are no guarantees as to when or if it will actually happen.
DLNA streaming, podcasts, video conferencing, and more
In addition to all the streaming content available, the Revue can also stream music, videos, and photos off a DLNA-compatible PC (or other DLNA-device) on the network. File format support is considerably better than many competitors, especially on the video side: .MKV, .FLV, .MTS, H.264, and AVI are all supported. There's also a dedicated area for podcasts, although a couple of quick searches made us feel like there wasn't nearly the selection that's offered on iTunes.
The Revue is also capable of HD video conferencing using the Logitech TV Cam ($150, sold separately). We'll update the review when we've had more extensive hands-on testing with the video-conferencing functionality.
There's no getting around it: network performance with our Logitech Revue was problematic. It may be our particular review sample is defective (Logitech is sending us a replacement unit), but we ran into lots of problems.
We started our testing with the Revue connected wirelessly, and browsing with Chrome was unacceptably slow. Though wireless connections are always subject to lots of variables, it's tough not to blame the Revue when we had a wireless laptop connected in the same room that was appropriately snappy. It's also worth pointing out that we've used tons of other wireless devices (Apple TV, Roku XDS, Blu-ray players) in the same location without issues.
When we switched over to a wired connection, performance significantly improved, but we still had problems. As mentioned before, we couldn't get an Android phone to reliably connect to the unit, even after trying several models. Also, when streaming DivX files off a laptop, we were faced with constant buffering. Yes, the laptop was connected wirelessly, but we've done similar tests without problems in that location.
Over the next few weeks we'll be testing the Revue in other testing environments, but it's hard not to be disappointed with its performance in our home theater testing facilities since we've tested so many products here without problems.
Aside from network issues, we also ran into stability problems. More than once we had messages on the screen about certain processes not responding and asking us if we wanted to force close, wait, or report. That's just not acceptable in a living-room environment.
As you'd expect from an all-digital connection, image quality was excellent with the Revue and the signals it passes through from a cable/satellite box. As always, if the incoming signal isn't good, the Revue can't make it look any better, but we didn't see any evidence of the Revue negatively affecting incoming HDMI signals. For video streamed over the Internet, it's highly variable, just like on your computer. Some stuff looks good, some stuff looks terrible. It's not Google TV's fault, but those thinking about "cutting the cord" and getting your "Daily Show" fix via the Revue should be aware that the video quality is significantly worse than cable TV. On the other hand, streaming video from more specialized sources like Amazon VOD and Netflix can look quite good, with the best of it approaching HD cablelike quality.
Additionally, we did run into an occasional bug with Flash video where diagonal pink stripes would overlay on the screen. The stripes stuck around on video even if we switched applications and could only be removed by restarting the Revue. Normally we'd let a rare error like that slide, but we saw it more than once during our testing period.