Google TV, Take 2: Android Apps Join the Smart TV Party

The new version of Google TV includes direct access to Android Market. A select group of 30 apps, directly optimized for Google TV, will appear in the Featured For TV section shown above. Hundreds more — Google TV-compatible, but not expressly optimized — will surface if you dig further.

Google’s smart TV software platform, Google TV, is poised for its first significant overhaul 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.

iPod: 10 Breathtaking Years of Industrial Design

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The iPod, which celebrated its 10th birthday on Sunday, may not have been the first portable music player, or even the first to play digital music files. But it’s the one that everyone remembers, and will go down in history as one of the most significant technology launches of the 21st century.

Sure, there was the Sony Walkman. It played cassette tapes, and everyone had one, but no one fondly remembers the Walkman’s industrial design. Nor was the Walkman even the first mobile music device. That distinction goes to various portable vinyl players — yes, vinyl! — that floated around during the pre-Walkman era.

The iPod, though, was the most revolutionary portable music player of all, and vividly demonstrated Apple’s authority as a consumer electronics manufacturer. When it launched, the iPod was able to benefit from the rogue music distribution of peer-to-peer file-sharing services like Napster, and that helped provide a foothold.

But the iPod’s real success enabler was iTunes, a fully curated platform with buy-in from the music industry. And then there was the device’s industrial design. The first iPod was an object of techno-lust, and the product line’s design has only become more enchanting.

Available in some two dozen iterations over the years, the iPod made music accessible to everyone. In short order, there was an option for every budget, and for every application: an iPod Classic with up to 160GB of storage (that’s 40,000 songs) for true music aficionados and DJs; smaller, sporty shuffles and nanos, perfect for exercising and extreme mobility; and eventually the iPod touch for playing games and watching videos.

It’s a breathtaking product catalog. So let’s take a look at how the iPod has evolved over the years, and where it’s headed next.

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WDTV Live Set-Top Box With Built-In Spotify

Yet another set top box, the WDTV Live distinguishes itself with Spotify integration

It’s hard to believe that you don’t already have a device in your home (or your pocket) that’s capable of connecting to Spotify, but should your kids be getting sick of you stealing their iPod Touches to stream your Dad Rock, then you might want to spring for Western Digital’s new WDTV Live Streaming player.

The tiny box comes without storage, and is meant just for streaming (hence the name). Plug it into the power and to an HDMI-ready screen and you can stream Netflix and Spotify, as well as Hulu Plus, YouTube, Blockbuster and more. It also has a couple of USB ports so you can hook up a hard drive, or pull in photos from a camera.

To use Spotify you’ll have to be a paying member. You can do all of the usual Spotify stuff: sharing tracks, making playlists, and forcing visitors to listen to the soundtrack of your youth.

The new box joins the WDTV lineup and comes in at just $100. Your kids will thank you for it.

WDTV Live product page [Western Digital via Fox]

See Also:

Where Does the iPod Go from Here?

Once upon a time, new iPods were the event for Apple. Yesterday, Apple talked iPods for all of 10 minutes. No radical new features. No surprises. If yesterday was any indication, all iPods—not just the Classic—have nearly reached the end of their innovation cycle. More »

Software Update Turns Old iPod Nano Into New iPod Nano

A free software update brings all the new features to last year’s Nano

The biggest non-upgrade announced at yesterday’s Apple event wasn’t — despite what some entitled whiners might have you believe — the iPhone 4S. No, the littlest upgrade was reserved for the littlest iPod: the iPod Nano.

Sure, the Nano got a built-in pedometer, bigger icons and a 18 different clock-face designs, but hardware-wise, it hasn’t changed. In fact, if you already have last year’s Nano, you can get all these features — free — via a software update.

Plug your Nano into iTunes and click the “Check for Update” button. Click yes to everything you’re asked, enter your password and wait. A few moments later, your tired old 2010/2011 iPod has magically transformed itself into a shiny new 2011/2012 iPod. And if you don’t like the new, bigger icon view, you can revert to the little hard-to-press old ones.

In fact, about the only thing you don’t get from the new model is a refund of the price drop. Previously, the Nano began at $149. Now it starts at $129, or $20 less.

iPod Nano product page [Apple]

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R.I.P. Microsoft Zune: the Media Player We All Loved, but Never Used

The Zune was a really good media player that should have been a success. Except it was always late to the party. A party full of white earbud wearers who left the Zune to die alone. More »

From Apple to Vudu: 8 Netflix Alternatives Compared


The curtain hasn’t even opened on Netflix’s new DVD-by-mail spin-off company Qwikster, and many customers are already walking out.

The company recently revised its quarterly projections of net subscribers to show 1 million fewer customers than it had previously expected. Much to Netflix’s chagrin, folks are realizing that the king of mail-away media isn’t the only game in town.

We’ve taken a look at some of Netflix’s (and Qwikster’s) main competitors, and judged each service accordingly. Do the rest offer enough to stand up to the best?


Also known as Netflix: Redux. It’s the same service we know and love, only completely different. Faced with massive customer backlash in the wake of a price hike, Netflix split itself into two separate companies this week. The streaming service will retain the Netflix branding while the DVD-by-mail service will be named Qwikster. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said the split will better serve customers in the long run because each company will be able to better focus on one type of service.

Netflix pioneered the DVD-by-mail service, creating an entire industry where one did not exist previously. But after serious flux in Netflix’s new pricing system — which split the streaming and DVD mailing services into two separate plans starting at $8 a month minimum — there’s no guarantee the company’s customers will continue to stick around.

WIRED: It’s been around the longest, and is the most familiar service. Massive offering of physical mail-away media. New game rental service sounds intriguing. Streaming to all iOS devices and Android smartphones.

TIRED: Can you say price increase? We don’t like paying more money for the same service, and we’re failing to see how splitting the companies in twain is going to benefit consumers. Streaming-only service still lacks selection compared to DVD catalog.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Amazon Prime

Amazon’s elite-level service launched in 2005, offering two-day shipping on any of its products to members anywhere in the continental United States and other select countries for a reasonable $80 a year. Originally meant for those who couldn’t wait more than 48 hours for their tangible goods, Prime expanded in February to offer instant, streaming movie and TV show access to existing Prime customers at no added cost.

WIRED: Fast shipping on everything Amazon! What other movie service offers that? Lower yearly rate than Netflix and Qwikster. Works with over 300 different web-connected set-top boxes, including the ever-popular Roku.

TIRED: Smaller media selection compared to other existing services. Lacks the DVD rental option that made Netflix famous.

Rating: 6 out of 10


Redbox made it possible for legions of supermarket shoppers to pick up a movie on the cheap, without having to make multiple stops. Instead of leaving the grocery store (or 7-11, Walgreens or what have you) with only a TV dinner and a Mountain Dew in tow, Redbox’s 30,000-plus DVD-rental kiosks make sure you won’t go home alone on a Friday night again.

WIRED: Cheap, cheap, cheap. DVD rentals average two bucks a pop, with anywhere from 50 to 200 recent titles to select from in each kiosk, updated weekly. Game rentals to roll out this year.

TIRED: No streaming service? Bummer.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Samsung Vitality Brings Android, Music to Cricket

The Samsung Vitality will feature Cricket's Muve Music service. Photo courtesy of Samsung.

Listen up, music-loving tightwads: Samsung is offering the Vitality, an Android 2.3 smartphone, to budget-carrier Cricket. It features Muve Music, Cricket’s exclusive — and unlimited — music service.

Muve currently has more than 200,000 subscribers, and deals with EMI, Sony, Universal Music Group, and Warner Music, among others, so its reservoir of available music could be enticing for budget-minded music fans.

Besides all the Android-standard Google software, the phone comes with a Muve Music 4GB flash memory card. An 8GB version is also available separately.

Muve Music and Cricket run on a $65 per month wireless plan, which includes unlimited song downloads, ringtones, ringback tones, photo and video texting and data backup. The Vitality is available now for $200 with a Cricket plan.

Muve also is available on the Samsung Suede, a non-Android Cricket phone now available for $150. The model debuted the music service several months ago.

Cricket currently has 5.7 million customers in the United States.

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Sony Notebook Screen Provides 3-D Without Glasses

The Sony VGP-FL3D15A will provide glasses-free 3-D images by measuring the viewer's distance from the screen by webcam. Image courtesy of TechOn!

Sony’s just come out with a thin panel that lays over the screen of Vaio laptops to produce 3-D images without glasses. The software uses a built-in webcam to judge your distance from the screen and optimize the graphics.

It’s nothing new, but still pretty cool. Toshiba debuted similar technology with the Qosmio F755 3-D notebook last month. Sony and Toshiba use similar facial depth technology, where two images are projected simultaneously, one for each eye.

Sony unveiled the 3mm panel, the VGP-FL3D15A, at the Internationale Funkausstellung (IFA) trade show in Berlin. The panel arrives on the heels of an announcement that Sony, Panasonic and Samsung will unite behind standardized 3-D glasses.

Sony’s IFA spread was all about 3-D. The company also announced a touch-screen PC with 3-D screen, a 3-D capable media player and a 3-D projector.

The sheet will be available next month in Europe for $183. The Vaio S series laptops will retail for around $1,000.

Report: The Kindle Tablet Exists, And It’s a Big Deal

Amazon’s third generation Kindle will reportedly be joined by a new 7-inch tablet later this fall.

That rumored Amazon tablet we’ve been hearing about for months and months? It’s real, and at least one non-Amazon employee has gotten a firsthand look at it.

“Not only have I heard about the device,” TechCrunch’s MG Siegler says. “I’ve seen it and used it. And I’m happy to report that it’s going to be a big deal. Huge, potentially.”

The tablet Siegler saw has a 7-inch full-color back-lit LCD touchscreen. From the outside, it looks a bit PlayBook-like: black, no buttons and a rubberized back.

According to Siegler’s source, Amazon will sell it at $250 (the same price point as the Nook Color) beginning in mid-to-late November; if the smaller tablet does well, the company may release a 10-inch version next year.

The operating system is based on Android, as was previously surmised. But Amazon has completely overhauled and customized the interface.

The custom build “looks nothing like the Android you’re used to seeing,” Siegler says. The color scheme is decidedly Amazon, with theme colors of black, dark blue and orange. The OS supports gestures, but appears to use two-finger multi-touch, as opposed to the iPad’s 10-finger multi-touch. Without a physical home button, you access a navigation menu to return to the home screen by tapping the lower left-hand corner of the display.

Finally, Amazon’s services, from Kindle, Instant Video and Cloud Player to its Android Appstore, are completely integrated and immediately accessible within the OS. It has a Kindle-skinned, tabbed web browser with Google set as the default search engine, but otherwise there’s no Google branding anywhere, which is highly unusual for a device said to be running Android.

Amazon has long been pegged as the most credible threat to Apple’s position at the top of the tablet market. Amazon makes the hugely successful Kindle e-reader, but for the past year or so, rumors have repeatedly sprung up that the company would be branching out into the growing tablet space, whether with Android or some other OS.

After the introduction of its Appstore, it was clear that Amazon wasn’t afraid to embrace Android. An anonymous source tipped off the world that Amazon was prepping both dual and quad-core tablets, and additional reports pegged their official release for this fall.

The version Siegler got to check out was a Design Verification Testing (DVT) unit that’s begun to float around Amazon headquarters for final testing. He believes it’s a single-core device, with just 6 GB of internal storage. (The assumption is that it doesn’t need tons of on-board storage; that’s what Amazon’s Cloud services are for.) The ten-inch version, if released, will have a dual-core processor. There’s no camera built-in to the tablet. It’ll start out as a Wi-Fi only device, but Amazon is working with carriers on developing a 3G model.

What about the current E Ink Kindle? Aren’t tablets and e-readers mortal enemies? Recent studies say absolutely not; many customers own both. Amazon’s plan, according to Siegler’s source, is to continue to make and sell E Ink Kindles as an inexpensive reading device, with no current plans for adding a touchscreen. The new Kindle tablet or tablets will be the premium, touch-driven, multimedia versions.

Oh, and another bonus: An Amazon Prime subscription, normally $79 annually, will reportedly be bundled in with the purchase price. Drool.

Finally, a new tablet I can’t wait to get my hands on.