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What does Google TV do?

What does Google TV do?

Google TV is a platform for enhancing your experience with your HDTV. There are three key areas:

  • Enhancing your experience with your existing cable or satellite service
  • Connecting to content on the web, especially sites optimized for Google TV
  • Using applications built specifically for Google TV

Enhancing Your Existing TV

When you initially set up a Google TV, you're asked to provide your location, what cable or satellite service you have, and the make and model of your set-top box. Armed with this information, Google TV can become the home page for watching television. There's a dedicated Search key on the keyboard that pops up a search bar when pressed. When what you type isn't obviously a web site (there is no .com at the end), the first page of search results will be television-focused, showing you TV shows or movies airing on the channels you receive. You can jump directly to watching that station or set your DVR to record that show with one click. The search results will also provide you with links to where an episode of a series can be seen on the web, or purchased from Amazon Video-on-Demand (VOD).

You can also view picture-in-picture, with a TV show displayed in an overlay you can size and position while you browse the web or use other apps. Granted, this notion is probably something you've been doing for years by watching TV with a laptop on your lap so it isn't groundbreaking, but if your laptop is nowhere to be found and you just have to multitask, this will work.

Connecting to the web

Connecting to web sites is very easy: Just click the search button and type in the web address or a search term. The Chrome web browser is built in, and Flash player 10.1 is included. That's right—you or your loved ones can now play Farmville on your big screen. The version of Chrome on Google TV does the best it can to commit your entire screen to the web page you're viewing. The address bar is only visible when you press the search key, and it hides itself once you enter your search.

Multi-tab browsing is also supported, though it's a bit awkward because the tabs are never displayed. There's a dedicated app menu button, which will pull up a toolbar along the bottom, allowing you to close a tab or open a new one (including support for Incognito browsing).

Most web sites I've connected to work perfectly, but there are a few annoying cases to deal with. A Google TV device will advertise itself as such in the User Agent String that the browser sends out to web servers it connects with. Some web sites will try to prevent you from seeing their content, simply because you're using a Google TV.

One example is South Park Studios: The site displays just fine, but when you try to stream an old episode, you'll get a warning indicating that the content "isn't available for this device at this time" and that you should try using a laptop or PC. This is ridiculous, as the Google TV has more than enough capability to display their 720p Flash videos.

The solution? Go into the advanced Chrome settings and tell it to use a generic or custom user agent string—and you're in business. This will work for most sites that are trying to block Google TV for whatever reason (presumably because they've got an app under development).

One notable exception is Hulu Plus. It has a cleverer means of detecting Google TV than looking at the user agent string, and it won't budge until it has its plan together. If you're conspiring to get rid of cable and go all-Internet with your TV viewing, the lack of Hulu Plus is a deal killer.

You're probably wondering why anyone would want their Google TV to come clean about what it is with web sites given the aforementioned problems, but there is a reason: sites optimized for Google TV.

Optimized sites (which are often Flash apps) will exhibit the following:

  • No horizontal scrolling
  • Minimal-to-no vertical scrolling
  • The site can be navigated using the special keys on the Google TV remote

The track pad implementation on the Logitech Revue is very good, but it's still not very "couch friendly" (see Figure 2). So having sites implement this feature is very helpful, as is using the directional keys to navigate menus and the video playback control keys to manage the video beats pointing and clicking any day.

Figure 2 Logitech Revue remote control—navigation keys

There are a few dozen sites currently optimized for Google TV. In the news category, USA Today and The Huffington Post both offer fully featured sites that mix text, photos, and video; CNN and The New York Times offer video clip–focused offerings.

There are several sites that show complete videos: Amazon VOD lets you buy movies and shows to see on-demand, Crackle shows ad-supported movies, Blip.tv and Revision3 both show independent shows, Vevo has music videos, and HBO Go (if you're already an HBO subscriber) gives you on-demand access to any of its series.

Finally, there are sites that are video clip–focused. YouTube is of course present, with Google TV optimizations called Leanback, as is public broadcasting with PBS Kids and KQED. There are also some rather disappointing offerings by TNT, TBS, Adult Swim, and Cartoon Network—watching a clip of one of their original shows but not having the full episodes available isn't that great.

Google TV Apps

So far, there aren't many Google TV apps—they have a sign up page for developers, but no publicly available SDK documentation yet but that should change soon. In the meantime, the Google TV app lineup doesn't look substantially different from the lineup on Samsung Blu-ray players: familiar players like Netflix, Pandora, Picassa, Napster, and Twitter are all there.

There's a CNBC app that combines video feeds on the left with interactive stock pricing on the right, which might be interesting if you're a day trader. There's also an NBA app that gives a nice presentation of game schedules and scores, but you could just as easily get this information from NBA.com.

There's clearly a lot of potential on this platform, but besides Chrome, the lineup of apps doesn't yet have something you can't get in a fancy Blu-ray player.

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