It took Google an entire year to deliver a major update to the first round of Google TV products, and it has not been worth the wait.
When Google announced the Honeycomb update last week, we had a twinge of optimism, based on the slick press photos and the stated mission of simplifying the user experience, which was sorely needed. But after playing with our Sony NSZ-GT1 Blu-ray player with Google TV for several hours today, our initial impressions were mostly of frustration.
New user interface and the TV & Movies app
The redesigned graphics for Google TV are an improvement and that starts with the home screen, pictured above. You get a row of icons, including Netflix, the new TV & Movies app, and the Android Market.
The slick look continues with the TV & Movies app, which is really by far the best element of the Google TV update. Google has picked up on some of the smart design elements shared by the Apple TV and Vudu, letting you browse large cover art. It also makes some effort to search for content across multiple platforms, including Amazon Instant and Netflix.
Our Amazon Instant integration woes go beyond that. Google doesn't know which videos are Amazon Prime videos, which should be free for subscribers, nor does it know which content you already own on Amazon, which should show up as free. Even the basic apps included on LG and Panasonic home theater products are much better.
Search has been improved and Netflix results are now included, but the experience is still cumbersome.
After all that, it finally launches the actual Netflix app and you have to hit play again. It ends up feeling like a lot of work after that initial "I want to watch 'Party Down'" impulse and you start to wonder why there isn't a Netflix icon right on the first search screen.
Errors, controllers, and other headaches
Then there are the error messages. The frequent, cryptic error messages. We ran into three of them within my first 4 hours of testing the new update, and that's not counting any of the times where I felt flat-out lost in the Google TV user interface.
Aside from the selection, we were surprised by how easy it was to go from browsing TV-optimized apps to browsing plain old Android apps that are optimized for a phone display. Having simply selected "Other apps" from the main Android Market interface, we were greeted by tons of apps that don't make any sense on Google TV, like a battery manager. In some cases, it was nice to have access to these phone apps--Rhapsody's app worked pretty well on the TV--but it's something that could easily cause confusion.
It's not worth getting into all the frustrations I ran into during my half day of hands-on time, but they exceed what's written here. We'll continue testing Google TV as we re-evaluate the Sony NSZ-GT1, the Sony NSX-GT1 series of LCDs, and the Logitech Revue, including its integration with more-traditional TV programming, which we didn't look at in this initial hands-on.
With all the bugs and limitations we ran into in just half a day, it's hard to imagine this update being anything other than a disappointment for Google TV early adopters. While we still think Google TV has some merit as a concept, the implementation needs a ton of work to compare with other streaming-media boxes like the Roku 2 XS, Apple TV, and PlayStation 3.