updated 09:10 pm EDT, Tue October 12, 2010
Google TV offers limited app selection
Following Sony's official Internet TV introduction, Electronista had a chance to try out the Google TV devices and Sony's dedicated controller. Before handling the upcoming products, we were surprised by the short duration of Sony's unveiling. Executives ran through a quick overview followed by a simple demonstration, without delving much further into the Google TV platform.
As expected, Google focused on merging television content with the company's search utilities. Users can easily access the search field and begin typing a term, without interrupting live TV or DVR playback. We tried out a few random search terms to see how the system works. After typing in "phi," the search results already began displaying TV-focused content such as It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia schedules and sports games saved on the DVR.
Users searching for specific TV shows will be impressed by the layout, which clearly organizes upcoming shows (from cable or satellite), DVR recordings, and streaming content available from free providers or sources such as Amazon. The search results also typically provide a direct link to relevant Wikipedia pages. Google's search integration is arguably much better than any of the other set-top boxes available on the market.
Google and Sony promote the Internet experience of the platform, which is claimed to be a step above the rest. The Atom-based hardware helps power a special version of Chrome, adapted for the Android implementation. We visited a few different sites without encountering any problems loading content or lagging. The browsing experience seemed pretty close to a computer hooked up to an HDTV as an external display.
Although Sony's hardware easily handles basic browsing, the Atom processor ran into problems when attempting to stream videos from the browser. Some of the streaming content is linked directly to sites such as NBC.com, which requires users to wait for advertisements and buffer before manually clicking on the fullscreen button in the web-based player. We had to patiently wait for the player to load, as scrolling caused the UI to become extremely choppy.
Sony and Google have also marketed the Google TV platform for its app support, which we were eager to try out. We were shocked to find only a few real "apps," which were placed in the same list as core Android utilities such as Chrome and the media player. Users will be limited to Qriocity (video streaming portal), Pandora, Netflix, NBA Game Time, CNBC, Napster, Twitter and YouTube apps. At least half of those utilities are common to many other set-top boxes.
Google needed a decent range of apps to differentiate its platform from the others, but the slim offerings are a glaring drawback. The company promises to add Android Market sometime next year, but without any guarantee of a significant expansion in supported apps. It will take developer interest to achieve success, but the limited number of initial apps suggest the interest may be weaker than first thought. The situation could easily change after the devices arrive on the market, but buyers shouldn't expect hundreds of apps, or even dozens, as the first products begin shipping.
Taking advantage of Internet functionality requires an effective input device, which Sony has attempted to create. We liked the wide variety of function keys, directional pads, and the optical sensor that helps move the cursor across the screen. The Android OS was built for touch input, however, rather than a mouse cursor. Moving the mouse from one end of the interface to the other side required six to seven flicks of the thumb, although a Sony rep suggested the sensitivity can be adjusted in the settings. Although the complex controller is not very intuitive, the additional buttons and control options will likely be necessary to take advantage of advanced functions in the OS or third-party apps.
Overall, we think Sony's Internet TVs are probably on the right track. Internet functionality seems destined to intertwine with the television experience, and Google is attempting to cater to the inevitability. Some of the input methods and UI elements still seem awkward, however. We are also waiting to see if developers gain confidence in the platform. Without a wider range of apps, Google TV is not a clear winner in the set-top box market.