The best way to describe Google TV is to first describe how you would go about watching television now, and then compare that experience with how you would watch with Google TV.
Say your friend Geoff tells you about this amazing show called Top Gear. Before Google TV, you could check the show out in several ways. Turning to your TV, you could do a search on your cable/satellite box and either make a note of when it was on, or set your DVR to record it.
Not satisfied with having to wait, and knowing what a fantastic judge of television this Geoff character is, you head to your computer. Here you could go to the Top Gear Website or YouTube and check out clips. You could then log into iTunes or Amazon to buy an episode, and watch it on your computer. Lastly, you could log into Netflix and add some seasons to your queue (or watch them if they're available for streaming).
This changes a bit with Google TV. After pressing the search button on the remote, you type "Top Gear" into the search bar and you get several results. The first result is to further search TV and Web videos. Doing this gives you a list of times Top Gear is airing on your cable/satellite provider (in my case, AT&T U-verse). And below are Web videos that match the criteria of Top Gear. (This latter is sort of like a direct search in YouTube.)
If you don't find what you're looking for here, you can go back out to the main search window and select the next result down: a direct link to your local listings for Top Gear. In my case, BBC America was running a Top Gear marathon while I was writing this review, so by pressing this link I was directed to an episode.
The next result down on the main search page is a link to the topgear.com Website. Google TV uses a modified Chrome web browser, and as such it works exactly like a normal Web browser. (No modified version of the web here like what Blackberry does on many of its phones. This is the Internet, for better or worse.) Moving further down the main search page brings you to a window where you can purchase episodes of Top Gear direct from Amazon on Demand. The last result is a Google web search for the term "Top Gear." And if you type in an actress or actor's name instead, shows with that actor and the Wikipedia entry show up in this mix.
Amazed yet? Yeah, me either. Noticeably missing is a search of Netflix, which I had previously enabled as an app. Google TV was supposed to be this unifying interface, but you have to go to the Netflix app separately to see what's there. Worse, it's the old school Netflix streaming interface, so you can't even add things to your queue from the Netflix app. You have to actually navigate to the Netflix Website (thankfully possible with the built-in browser) to add shows to your queue. This seems a little backwards, if not slightly archaic.
To be fair, actual Web-surfing with Google TV is excellent. It was far easier on the eyes than searching Wikipedia on my Blackberry, like I usually do when watching TV. "Dual View" lets you continue watching TV in a small PIP window while you surf the Web on the rest of the screen. To me, this is probably the best part of Google TV. Text looks sharp and clear in the widescreen layout, and it's large enough to read from a normal viewing distance.
One big issue — though this certainly isn't Sony or Google's fault — is that, like any third-party interface, there is only one-way communication with your DVR, so shows you've recorded don't show up in the search interface. That is, unless you have Dish Network, in which case they do. (Most Dish DVRs fully integrate with Google TV, but so far it's the only service to offer the feature.)
The same problem arises if you try to program a recording for a show that airs in the future. Sure, the Google TV search will tell you when and on what channel to find a show you're looking for, but it can't tell your DVR to record it. A warning pops up instructing you to search for the program on your cable box after you've already found it in the Google TV interface. Not exactly a seamless process.
These two issues need not be permanent. I can access what's on my U-verse DVR via an iPhone/touch app. AT&T creepily knows what's recorded on it, and allows me to delete and search recorded content from my touch. Will AT&T (and others) allow Google to access this information, like Dish Network does, so our DVRs are Google TV-searchable? Who knows? But it's entirely possible from a technology standpoint. Will Google judge me like AT&T likely does for the hours upon hours of ST:TNG found on my DVR? Only time will tell.
A quirk with my AT&T box that is more of an immediate concern is if I leave it on the DVR menu (like after watching any pre-recorded show), Google TV isn't able to change channels if I search for something and select live TV. The only workaround I found was to manually switch over.
Before you get too excited about going to Hulu.com and watching shows for free on your Web-enabled Google TV, I've got some bad news. If you navigate to Hulu you get this warning: "Hello! We notice you are trying to access Hulu from your Google TV. It's not available. Blah blah blah… We're working hard to bring Hulu Plus to Google TV!"
Extraneous exclamation point usage and Geoff-inserted blah blahs aside, this is pretty disappointing, if not unsurprising. Want to put cable and satellite out of business? Offer Hulu for free on a TV. Guess we're not there yet.
On the other hand, you can go to NBC and Fox directly to watch what episodes they have available there for free in marginally decent-looking HD. Shows on ABC.com and CBS.com are not accessible.
One area where Google TV will almost certainly show fantastic growth is in the app department. The operating system is open-source and based on Android, so I wouldn't be surprised to see many clever TV apps available when the Android Market goes live in early 2011.
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