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Cool as it is, Google’s Revue for TV has plenty of weak spots

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / October 28, 2010

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Google Inc. handles my Internet searches. It manages my e-mail. It’s even taking over my telephone. But I’m not putting Google in charge of my TV.

Not for $299, anyway. Cut the price, and I will think about it. But for now, the first Google TV set-top box, the Logitech Revue, delivers too little value for the money.

Which isn’t to say it’s a bad product. Indeed, Google’s long-awaited effort to meld TV and the Internet is much more potent than the new $99 Apple TV. Too bad the Revue is saddled with severe limitations.

The Revue is a sleek black box that you will hardly notice once it’s installed. But you can’t miss the remote control unit. It’s a full-size wireless keyboard that might seem out of place in a living room, although it’s light and wafer-thin, with excellent key feel, and easier to use than most remotes.

The Revue takes about a minute to hook up, using the HDMI cables that are standard on newer TV gear. Setup takes only a little longer. It connects to the Internet via Wi-Fi or a hardwired Ethernet connection, and has been preprogrammed to work with lots of common TVs, home theater audio systems, and cable boxes. I ran into a glitch with my Comcast box, causing it to sometimes display the wrong channel when I punched in a number manually. But mostly, it worked.

Besides, why type channel numbers when you can search for shows by name? Hit the dedicated search key and type, say, “Law and Order.’’ You get a rich array of results; the Wikipedia page devoted to the show, links to YouTube videos about the show, and of course a host of opportunities to watch complete episodes. Not only did it show day, time, and channel listings for reruns of the show, but it also links to Amazon.com’s video-on-demand service, where you can buy 20 years of episodes for $1.99 apiece.

Indeed, you don’t have to type at all. Owners of smartphones running Google’s Android software can get an app that turns the phone into a Google TV remote. It works very well, especially for program searches. You know how Android phones run Google searches by voice? It works here, too. Just tell the phone what show you want, and Google TV will look it up.

The Revue is designed to deliver other entertainment options via smartphone-like software apps, though for now there are only a handful. Google’s own YouTube service gets a well-designed viewer. There are also apps for the financial news channel CNBC, the National Basketball Association, and the social-networking service Twitter. You can use most apps while running live TV in a corner of the screen. So you can watch the New England Patriots play the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, while swapping Brett Favre insults on Twitter.

Cool as it is, the Revue has plenty of weak spots. Its app for viewing Netflix videos is primitive compared with the one in Apple TV, and the app for renting movies from Amazon.com doesn’t deliver high-definition video. While I like the big keyboard, it’s sometimes tough to know which buttons to push; the lack of a proper user manual doesn’t help. Sites that use Adobe Systems Inc.’s Flash video technology crawl rather than run.

There are many things Google TV ought to do, but can’t. Want to watch Internet reruns of “Desperate Housewives’’ or “CSI’’ on a big living-room TV instead of a computer monitor? Not with Google TV. Three major networks — NBC, ABC, and CBS — are afraid that Google will make more advertising money off their reruns than they will. So they have blocked Google TV users from accessing the videos on their websites. The same goes for other websites that stream reruns, like TV.com and Hulu. You can stream Fox network shows, but at $299, I would expect quite a bit more.

And wouldn’t it be nice to use Google TV’s powerful search system to program your digital video recorder? You can, but only if you subscribe to Dish Network. The system doesn’t work with DVRs from other cable or satellite providers.

Fatal weaknesses? Hardly. Google TV’s interactive features put it well in front of cheaper rivals like the Apple TV. Sooner or later, I expect Google will share ad revenue with the networks to get access to more shows. Besides, competition is bound to lower Google TV’s steep price. Already, Sony offers the technology inside a Blu-ray movie player for $399, just $100 more than Logitech’s stand-alone Google TV box.

We have seen this video before. I reckon Google TV devices will be at $200 or less in a year or so. And at that price, I might hand Google the remote after all.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.