April 17, 2011

Apple TV, Google TV, TiVo: Crowded Theater, All Good


There is no one perfect home entertainment gadget. No single gadget manages to record all your favorite shows on demand, has access to the deepest online library for new and older titles, syncs perfectly with services like Netflix and finds all the Web's video at once. Devices ranging from set top boxes like Apple TV, TiVo, Google TV, Roku, and Boxxee, and game centers including the Nintendo Wii, XBox 360 and Sony Playstation, and single-purpose devices like the Slingbox have been working hard to make our entertainment consumption world ideal, but each has its strengths and holes. In our home, we've tried to fill all the holes, and this requires multiple devices, each one finding a perfect niche that can't be replaced by an alternative.

We moved beyond the traditional VCR/DVD world in 2003 with the arrival of our first TiVo DVR -a series one. Since then, we added two newer boxes, the TiVo HD device and the TiVo XL, the bigger brother of the HD, with a terabyte of storage. While the Premiere line of TiVos emerged last year, it wasn't compelling enough an upgrade to make the move, but we're very happy with the pair we have.

In 2007, with Apple's release of the first generation Apple TV, we snapped up a 40 gigabyte model, which is in use today. Last year, I also picked up the newest model Apple TV, which is stream centric. Meanwhile, last month, after some delay, I added Google TV to the mix with a Logitech Revue. Having seen it panned by much of the tech press, and the multiple demos I'd received falling short, it took some hands-on testing at a local Best Buy to push me to bring it home.

So with all these boxes and companion remotes, how do I choose what to use? Like I mentioned last May with mobile phones, you have to look to the core of each device to find their specialty.

Each Product Has Its Own Core Focus

For the Apple TV, the product's strength is its tie to the iTunes store, specifically, the vast video library which contains more new releases for rent or purchase than alternatives. Google and TiVo have close links to the Amazon video store, but the experience has never matched that of iTunes. When we want to rent a movie for an evening, or purchase a video for my kids to watch (like Toy Story or Cars), it's on the Apple TV.

For TiVo, the product's strength has always been around its ability to time shift videos and record my favorites. A companion benefit is its show guide and search, to find future shows and set them to record. The TiVos upstairs and downstairs run our scheduled programming, and having tried crappy DVRs from Comcast, Dish and others, there's simply no parallel to what TiVo offers.

For Google TV, the device is Web centric, much like Android, of course, and most things Google touches. There's something fun about browsing the Twitter app on the full screen, browsing Web sites, and enjoying YouTube on a screen much larger than a laptop. Tired of my kids running into videos on YouTube with the iPad that weren't exactly my favorite, browsing YouTube myself with them in the room puts me back in control and reduces their digital ADD.

Another much-overlooked feature of Google TV is the ability to browse what's on, automatically sorted by genre. Like most of you with kids, being stuck with baskets of laundry is made much easier when watching something entertaining. Yesterday, owning this task, I checked what movies were on, found Knocked Up just started and amused myself through three baskets of whites and colored laundry. It's similarly very good for finding out what sports are playing anywhere on the TV dial.

Is Google TV Any Good? I Say Absolutely.

As the Google TV is the newest gadget for us, and I've covered Apple TV and TiVo many times before, it's worth saying how good the experience has been. Reading scads of reviews that slammed its utility, or the keyboard remote, I was very surprised how easy it was to setup and how immediate its benefits were. I was most concerned that putting the Logitech box between the TiVo and TV would somehow impact the TiVo's ability to schedule recordings. This turned out not to be a problem at all. The keyboard remote was as simple as any other laptop keyboard, and the Home key always puts me to home base, the center of applications, what's on TV, and is the conduit to browsing the Web.

Even more futuristic is the ability to use any Android device as the remote control with the Google TV app. There's some fun to using the Galaxy Tab as the remote control, with part of the app's screen space devoted to playing the role of trackpad. If you haven't done it, surfing the Web from the tablet to the big screen is pretty cool.

Obviously, each experience could improve some. The Apple TV doesn't know anything about live TV and doesn't have Safari running on it like Chrome does for Google. Google TV makes no attempt to record shows, even though it knows they're on. Meanwhile, the TiVo doesn't really know the real Web exists, despite tie-ins on Premiere with Web widgets and third parties like Netflix, Amazon and Blockbuster. But in our home, if we have an entertainment need to fill, we have a box to do the job.

PR around the Google TV has been pretty light since its initial launch, and one could guess that maybe we'll hear more about the product at Google I/O in May, the one year anniversary of its introduction. Maybe new hardware and TVs will be announced, or new content partnerships, after months of hearing that sites (like Hulu) want to keep Google out of their kitchen. TiVo is due for a big upgrade that maybe makes me update the older boxes. And Apple TV only really gets talked about when you hear rumors that Apple could go the true television route and release an HDTV line. They've certainly got the relationships with suppliers, and the best UI team on the planet. But if you know what you want out of TV, Google TV, Apple TV and TiVo all have a fit and each one brings value. So don't get caught up the tech news grumpiness you find elsewhere. Considering how inexpensive each device is, you just might get all three.