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A glimpse into TV technology's future: Apple vs. Google

Google TV via Logitech Revue Apple TV
What it does With the Revue, a device slightly bigger than a VCR tape (remember those?), users can turn the television into a Web browser and access various TV content displayed online. A button click can place the Web browser display alongside the TV picture or alternate it, allowing entree to TV listings, YouTube videos, Netflix streaming video, Amazon On Demand video and lots more online offerings, along with whatever can be accessed through a cable box or digital TV antenna. A lot, especially for a unit as big as an oversized hockey puck. Revamped from a bigger model, Apple TV provides access to rent movies and TV shows through the iTunes store; displays pictures, video and audio stored in your home computer's iTunes program; and pulls up Internet radio sites and video podcasts such as comic Kevin Pollak's video chat show or NPR's stripped-down live Tiny Desk Concerts.
Setup and use Only two HDMI cords are required: one leading from the cable tuner to the Revue, and one leading from the Revue to the TV (you can also use an Ethernet cord to attach your modem, though wireless access is way cooler). Using the device is a little trickier, requiring navigation of a lightweight, wireless keyboard about the size of a standard personal computer keyboard, with a touch pad and special button for moving the cursor at the right end. Programming the Revue to control the TV and cable tuner requires plugging in their model numbers, a bit of a hassle sometimes requiring a look underneath or behind many units. This also means limited functionality if either one isn't among the devices the Revue recognizes — like my new HD digital video recorder. Run one HDMI cord into the TV set and either plug the unit into a modem or connect wirelessly. Users navigate features with a wireless remote shaped like an overlarge Nano, with a menu button, play/pause button and circular wheel for moving through menus. Biggest complaint here: The small remote and wheel make it easy to hit the wrong selections, especially when you are sprawled out in full couch potato mode.
What works The Internet surfing is generally seamless, allowing you to bookmark important sites and applications. YouTube has a special, simplified search function called Lean Back developed especially for Google TV; CNBC has an interface combining stock data, access to and select videos on one page. When you can access online video, it generally works well, especially the video streaming through Netflix. There also are multiple off-the-wall video and audio resources, including Internet radio, tech-focused CNet TV and Not included with my review unit: a webcam (price: $149.99) allowing high-quality video chat on a proprietary system, Logitech Vid. The system is straightforward, with menus organized under movies, TV shows, the Internet, networked computers and settings. The video looks great — the HD movies were impressive on my new 42-inch TV screen — and the navigation through material was easy. Streaming from Netflix was equally cool, though the service's titles were surprisingly limited and new releases weren't all that new. The remote app on the iPod Touch and iPhone also controls the unit, allowing users to stream material from those devices through Apple TV using the new AirPlay wireless music streaming technology.
What doesn't work For this, um, mature user with older eyes, the text of most websites and blogs was difficult to read, even on a 42-inch HD TV set. The keyboard can be complicated to use, especially while reclining in bed or on a sofa. The number of cool applications is predictably limited; adding applications and some features is needlessly complex. Some of the coolest apps, like the online HBO Go feature, only work with select cable systems or require payment. And because all major TV networks have blocked Google TV access to their online video — including video clip warehouse — the best online video is often unavailable or difficult to access. Rented HD movies take forever to download (my selection, an animated film, took 93 minutes), and the unit can't access material from your computer if the machine is asleep. Quite inconvenient if your computer is in a different room than your Apple TV unit, as mine was. The slim, sleek remote is hard to hold onto and easier to lose, especially in a house with oversized couch cushions or overactive kids. (Am I sharing too much?) And like every Apple product, tweaking the features is difficult; how they set it up is pretty much how you have to use it.
Price $299 $99
Advantage Apple: Which is the future? Right now, the advantage goes to Apple TV, mostly for its simplicity. The Revue unit still takes too much effort for too little benefit. TV schedules and prime features should be easier to use and customize; more and better apps are required, and without the support of big TV networks, Google TV's impact will always fall below its potential. (Google TV also comes integrated into select TV models, which may help.)

But as a component of an integrated, wireless media system that includes a well-stocked iTunes library, a handy iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch and a modest home theater system, Apple TV scores with lots of features at a modest price, although with limited online access.

The biggest surprise is how a company that so adeptly organized the Internet for the world would have such a hard time doing that for a television set. Perhaps, Google, it's time for a short return to the drawing board?

When you fire up two new TV products made by the biggest names in computer technology, you don't expect a funky diversion headed quickly for the Goodwill pile. • You expect to see the future of television. • But which vision of tomorrow will survive? • Is it Google TV's plan to meld a tricked-out Web browser with your television? Or will it be Apple TV's more modest model, connecting the small screen with all the media already packed into your iTunes program and a few select online destinations? • It boils down to an issue the TV industry has fumbled with for a while: How do you best combine the active, searching spirit of Internet use with the passive, relaxing acceptance of watching TV? Where is the "killer app" uniting active and passive home entertainment? • Here are a few answers I uncovered after several weeks of trying both systems on two different types of HD TV sets. (To be honest, my first conclusion is the simplest: Sometimes, I have a very cool job.)

A glimpse into TV technology's future: Apple vs. Google 11/20/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 23, 2010 8:25am]
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