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Google TV Delights Nerds, Baffles Normal Folk: Rich Jaroslovsky

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Nov. 27 (Bloomberg) -- I can imagine myself using the Logitech Revue, the new Google TV box. I just have a hard time imagining you using it.

No disrespect intended. It’s just that the Revue and the Google Inc. software it runs don’t seem designed for normal human beings. They are too techie, aimed at people who don’t mind stumbling over an occasional “page not found” message on their big-screen televisions or changing channels with a keyboard rather than a remote control.

Yes, you heard right. The $299 Revue comes with a full-sized alphanumeric keyboard, complete with trackpad and mouse buttons. You have to pay $129 extra if you want a smaller remote. (Which, by the way, has a keyboard too.)

A brief primer is in order. Google TV isn’t a device. It’s software designed to provide a single interface to the universe of video for your TV, whether it originates with your cable or satellite provider, paid online sources like Amazon.com Inc.’s video-on-demand or Netflix Inc.’s streaming services, or free sites like Google’s YouTube. It’s a much more ambitious approach than, say, the $99 Apple TV, which focuses on a limited set of content emphasizing Apple’s own iTunes Store.

So far, there are only three ways to run Google TV: on a line of Sony Corp. televisions (ranging in cost from $599 to $1,399) and a Sony Blu-ray player ($399), both of which have the software built in, and via the Revue from Logitech. Each of them requires access to an Internet connection, either Ethernet or Wi-Fi.

Lying to Google

Setting up the Revue was a pain. The physical part was easy; I connected the included HDMI cable to the TV, and plugged my cable box into it. But configuring the software required 12 steps and consumed the better part of an hour. I only got it to work by lying to it about which network appears on which channel on my cable system.

The idea behind Google TV is a good one. You shouldn’t have to care whether that episode of “Entourage” comes from the cable company, your digital video recorder, the Web or Netflix. You just want to watch it. The problem is that the world of video is a wild and wooly place, and Google TV falls short of being able to tame it.

One example: Google TV helped me locate a 2005 episode of “South Park” on Netflix, but when I tried to play it, I received an error message telling me it was incompatible with my system.

Perfect Sense

I had to call Logitech’s customer service to figure out that Google’s software had pointed me to the Netflix website, when what I really needed to do was run Google TV’s Netflix app. Ah, of course! It makes perfect sense to take me straight to a video I can’t watch.

Google TV lacks access to some obvious troves of online content, notably the Hulu Plus service. Google says it’s in talks to bring Hulu Plus -- which includes programs from Walt Disney Co.’s ABC, News Corp.’s Fox and General Electric Co.’s NBC networks -- to Google TV users. And the software suffers from a clumsy interface: Good luck figuring out the distinctions between “Spotlight,” “Bookmarks” and “Queue,” for instance.

Along about now, most average consumers might give up and reach for the good old one-hand remote. And that’s too bad, because those undaunted by all the geekiness can actually have some fun with the Google TV box. I was able to watch scads of interesting content on the big screen that I otherwise would have had to watch on a computer, if I could find it at all.

A Colbert Report

A search for humorist Stephen Colbert, for instance, yielded not just recent episodes of “The Colbert Report” but also a 2006 profile of him from “60 Minutes.” Look for Hugh Laurie and you’ll find innumerable listings for episodes of “House,” as well as a link to his “Jeeves and Wooster” series on Amazon and YouTube clips of his turn as the dim-witted Prince Regent on the old “Blackadder” Britcom.

Add to that the ability to surf the Web with the built-in Chrome browser while your TV continues to play in a picture-in-picture window, and you’ll be in TV-Web nerd heaven. That is, as long as you’re a TV-Web nerd.

(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Rich Jaroslovsky in San Francisco at rjaroslovsky@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net.

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