Google’s smart TV software platform, Google TV, is poised for its first significant overall since it launched in Logitech and Sony hardware a year ago. Via over-the-air updates that should begin streaming to hardware devices on October 30, Google TV users will find new TV-optimized Android Apps, an improved YouTube experience, and new features that provide easy, direct discovery of TV and movie content.
All this Googly goodness is wrapped up in a new user interface that aims to simplify a challenging information design — a design that’s left many Google TV customers with a persistent sense of yuck.
An Inauspicious Debut
When Google TV launched, it was supposed to seamlessly co-mingle “live TV” (read: broadcast, satellite and cable) with streaming video services like YouTube, Netflix, and Amazon Video On Demand. You could also use your Google TV software to search the web, and even access digital content from your home network or attached storage.
In theory: Fantastic. In practice: Difficult to use.
Whether you were running a Google TV set-top box manufactured by Logitech or Sony, or directly tapping into the Google TV software installed in various Sony TVs, you were faced with a series of menus that defied easy access and discovery of the content you actually wanted to see. And it’s also possible you bought your Google TV in the mistaken belief that it’s a “cord-cutting” platform — that it would allow you to nix your cable or satellite service, and instead watch your favorite TV shows via direct Internet streaming.
After all, the TV networks stream full TV episodes directly from their websites. So Google TV must be the perfect delivery system for that content, right?
No, not so fast. The networks summarily blocked their online content from appearing on Google TV, giving a large subset of early adopters one more reason to kvetch about a hardware purchase they wished they never made.
Well, all dreams of cord-cutting should be put to rest. As Rishi Chandra, director of product management, Google TV, told me, “There was a perception that we were a cord-cutting product, and that’s something that we didn’t do enough to dispel. Our point of view is that there’s new content coming, content that you just haven’t been able to access with your TV. Now we’re bringing that content, and adding the discovery experience on top of it.”
So, no, Google TV can’t be your all-in-one, zero-compromises, Internet-only video delivery system. But what it can do well — namely, deliver YouTube, Netflix and other web-based video to your HDTV — is about to get better. I recently traveled to Google’s headquarters for a hands-on demo of the new software, and what I saw is a substantial improvement over Google existing (however compromised) status quo.
Here are four key improvements you’ll see in the next version of Google TV. (Sony hardware devices will begin receiving over-the-air updates on Sunday, with Sony updates continuing through the middle of next week. Over-the-air updates for Logitech hardware will begin shortly thereafter.)
Improved User Interface
The first version of Google TV included a home screen that dominated your TV display whenever you summoned its presence. This original home screen, littered with gigantic thumbnails, was obtrusive by any measure.
The new home screen, however, is defined by a simple menu bar at the bottom of your display (see screenshot above). It’s clean, simple, and simply more fashion-forward than its predecessor. Likewise, the new Google TV software features a revised view of your All Apps menu. The old view listed apps in a long, single-file list arrangement. The new view (see screenshot below) mimics an Android Honeycomb tablet interface. Apps are arranged in rows of four, and the arrangement is customizable.
These may not seem like big changes — unless you’re already using Google TV, and have spent the last year coping with a cluttered, “something’s sort of ‘off’ here” U.I . From what I saw in my hands-on demo, various key interface elements have been tweaked and finessed to do away with Google TV’s previously horsey (or at least user-antagonistic) design sensibility.
TV and Movie Discovery
The original version of Google TV had all the necessary hooks into TV and movie content. It could catalog everything that was available from your cable or satellite provider, and also sort through all the content that was available from Internet-based video-on-demand sources (or at least the ones that weren’t blocking content). But actually finding the right content to watch was still quite difficult.
Sure, you could hit the search button of your Google TV remote, and key in an appropriate search term. But the results you received were anything but Googly in their depth and relevance, and weren’t aggregated across all of Google TV’s content sources.
This has been addressed in the new update. First, search results are now more comprehensive and detailed. Second, there’s a new TV & Movies app that lets you intuitively browse for high-end video content, using a full slate of filters to narrow choices pulled from cable and satellite, as well as YouTube, Netflix, Amazon, HBO GO and other premium online sources.
When you browse content in the new app, you can head straight to various thematic headings (e.g., comedy, drama, sports) to window shop for a video that suits your fancy. You can also sort by video quality, price, and according to when a video is playing (e.g., “On Now”). And these are just the low-hanging fruit of more civilized content-surfacing. Chandra says that if users opt-in, Google TV will also create browsing choices that respond to personal preferences.
And, wait, it gets more clever than that. Says Chandra: “Once you open up this canvas to other tools available on the web, we can ask, ‘What are people tweeting about right now? What are people watching right now?’ There are all these different dimensions that can help us reorganize what we’re watching.”
OK, I’m not sure I want my friends — let alone the great unwashed Internet masses — nudging me toward the last 15 minutes of Bridalplasty. But I’m still heartened to learn that Google thinks a content-surfacing tool for Bridalplasty is an interesting thing to build.
Vastly Improved YouTube
In the grand scheme of all the hardware you may ever connect to your TV, Google TV has always delivered an excellent YouTube experience. Its YouTube functionality is better than what you’ll get from so-called “home theater PCs,” Blu-ray players equipped with YouTube apps, and YouTube apps built directly into the “connected TV” services of the latest HDTVs.
In fact, for its YouTube and Netflix features alone, I think Google TV — even the first version of the platform — is a smart purchase for anyone who can’t already get these content streams from existing living room hardware. After all, Logitech’s Google TV set-top box, the Revue, costs only $99.
And now a much-improved YouTube app makes Google TV even better. That’s good news for YouTube junkies, and there must be a few out there as Google says YouTube boasts 800 million monthly viewers.
Google TV’s new YouTube app is, at its heart, a TV-optimized Android app that’s been fine-tuned for speedy video delivery and a 10-foot user interface. During my demo, I was astounded by how quickly videos loaded. Load times were so quick, in fact, I asked Chandra if popular videos were sitting in ultra-speedy cache on Google servers.
No, Chandra said. The fast load times were solely the result of software optimizations. Google focused on improving how quickly the YouTube app pings its servers, leveraging all the software optimization tricks that Google deployed for YouTube in mobile devices. (Indeed, YouTube on phones and tablets must already copy with low-bandwidth, high-latency connections, so optimization has always been key to an Android YouTube strategy).
When all was said and done, Chandra said, Google wanted Google TV to flip between videos as fast a satellite box flips between channels. We’ll see how this plays out during hands-on testing, but the load times we saw at Google HQ impressed us, to be sure.
Also impressive: Viewing full-screen, professionally produced, HD video on the YouTube app. I was wowed by the clarity and definition of HD content, and for the first time, I really wanted to find more YouTube video to check out.
Well, the new app makes this easier thanks to a channel-building feature that creates custom videos playlists on the fly. Just enter a term into the YouTube app’s search field, and it will spit out a thematic selection of videos that you can peruse at top speed, “pivoting,” as Google likes to describe it, from one video to the next. The screenshot above illustrates a search for “Katy Perry.”
Bottom line: If you’ve ever used YouTube’s “Lean Back” mode on your computer desktop, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what YouTube now brings to Google TV.
Except the Google TV delivery seems faster.
A New Home For Android Apps
In the most significant Google TV update of all, Android Apps now have a home on your big-screen TV.
Obviously, not all the apps in Android Market would even work for TV-screen deployment. For example, those that reply on touch gestures or GPS just wouldn’t make sense for Google TV (at least not as the platform is currently deployed). But Chandra estimates some 1,500 existing apps are already Google TV-compatible, and these will appear in the “filtered” version of Android Market that appears in the new software interface.
The real app gems, however, will be found in Google TV’s “Featured For TV” section. These apps — 30 should be available at launch — have been expressly developed for big-screen deployment, and Google TV’s unique talents.
Sure, one app I saw demoed is nothing more than a wrapper for an HD yule-log video (see Classy Fireplace in the screenshot above). But others are game apps (yes, Google TV is now a tenable platform for casual games), and the best apps will likely be the ones that deliver premium video content.
It’s quite ingenious: Google TV’s new Android initiative allows video-savvy media companies to do an end-run around licensing and distribution deals with the cable and satellite networks. Whether your media company is an indie upstart or a blue-chip heavyweight, this holds promise.
Take, for example, the Wall Street Journal. “They’re a premium brand,” says Chandra, “and they have great content, but they don’t want to build a 24-7 news cycle. They don’t want to negotiate deals to get content on the air, and they don’t want to pay to get access to users. So what do they do? They build an app.”
The possibilities: Dizzying. The proof: It remains in the pudding.
But as Mario Queiroz, Google’s vice president of product management, told me, Google considers Google TV to be a marathon project, not a sprint.
“We ask, ‘How can we make the product better?’ instead of belaboring what’s being said,” Queiroz said. “We’ve tried to take what we could use constructively, and build a better product with version 2. As a Google mantra, we always launch early and iterate.”
And iterate they will. Google will soon announce new chipset partners for brand new Google TV hardware in 2012 (Samsung and Vizio are already on board). So, no, the story of Google TV does not begin and end with a single software version, or just a small collection of set-top boxes and TVs from Sony and Logitech.
Google TV is real and its ambition levels remain high. Stay tuned for hands-on reviews of the new version software and upcoming Google TV hardware.