Earlier this week, during Internet Week in New York, we reported on LG's new Google TVs, which will be available this month. I also had a chance to try the TVs briefly, to see how well they performed and what the Google TV platform added to LG's already robust Smart TV Internet service.
My interest was especially piqued given the dismal reception received by the first generation of Google TV products, which included a few LCD TVs and a Blu-ray player from Sony and the Logitech Revue standalone set-top box.
As far as I can tell, there are no new Google TVs in Sony's 2012 TV lineup, though the company did announce a Google TV-powered set-top box (the NSZ-GS7 Network Media Player) and a Blu-ray player ( NSZ-GP9) at CES. Both are slated to arrive this summer. Logitech pulled the plug on the Revue box and hasn't announced a successor. But the platform could get a boost later this year if other manufacturers—such as, reportedly, Samsung and Vizio—debut Google TV-powered devices, including TVs, Bu-ray players, and set-top boxes. Last fall, Google addressed some of the shortcomings of the Google TV platforms via an updated that streamlined the interface, improved search (via an app called TV & Movies), and perhaps most important, added access to the Android market, now called Google Play.
LG's first Google TVs. LG is the first company to bring second-generation Google TV products to market. Although price-wise, the new G2-series LCD TVs sit in the middle of LG's 2102 TV lineup, they're fairly full-featured models that include the company's passive Cinema 3D technology, edge LED backlights, LG's TruMotion 120Hz anti-blur technology, built-in Wi-Fi, and of course, access to online content. The idea is that Google TVs will appeal to a younger, tech-savvy audience, so they can't be priced as top-of-the-line models. Still, at $1,700 for a 47-inch set and $2,300 for a 55-inch model, the TVs aren't inexpensive.
The G2-series sets are thin, stylish models that sit atop an elegant "ribbon" stand. They come with six sets of polarized 3D glasses, and like many 3D TVs, they have a 2D-to-3D conversion feature that can create 3D effects from regular 2D programming. The sets also have a 3D depth control that can be used to adjust the level of the 3D effect with converted content.
Based on this demo, the LG sets are the best implementation of Google TV I've seen to date. The TV's response was quicker than I remembered, most likely due to the use of a dual-core processor—it's the first Google TV device to include one—that helps load Web pages faster. It also enables multi-tasking, so I was able to continue watching live TV in a window while selecting apps from the main screen.
Two standout features. The two features of the set that really impressed me were its comprehensive search capabilities and the new Magic Motion remote control, which allows the TV to be controlled using Wii-like gestures and voice commands. Unlike LG's other gesture-based remotes, this one has a full QWERTY keyboard on the flip side, which was useful when I used the Chrome browser for Internet searches. The remote also includes an integrated microphone for voice control. It responded well to gestures, and the voice commands worked even in the noisy environment of the Internet Week demo space.
In the G2 sets, Google TV is more or less integrated within LG's own Smart TV online service. During the demo, I was impressed by Google TV's ability to comprehensively search multiple avenues of content, including streaming apps such as Netflix, Internet sites such as YouTube, and even live TV shows. (The TV was connected to a Time Warner Cable box). I was told that the TV can even search through DVR content if Google has worked with the TV service provider, as it apparently has with Dish Networks.
Unlike the earlier version of Google TV, the updated platform now allows access to the full Android market in Google Play, with the exception of those apps that require a touch screen, GPS, or telephony. Though these apps will work with Google TV, you'll get a much better experience with those apps—currently about 150—that have been optimized for Google TV and larger screens. For example, the videos I saw using the Google TV-optimized version of YouTube looked far superior to those called up simply by accessing the site via the browser on my TV at home.
During the demo, I got a glimpse of another benefit of the Google TV platform—a third-party Android app called Airtight, which makes the G2-series TVs Airplay-compatible so you can stream photos and videos stored on your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch to the TV, provided it's connected to the same network.
Some trade-offs. One I noticed was that the G2 sets had access to fewer streaming-movie and -TV services. While LG's other models with its Smart TV platform have access to CinemaNow and Vudu, they were absent on the Google TV models.
Given my limited time with these sets, it's too early to decide whether Google TV is a worthwhile addition to the growing number of Internet platforms now available on more and more TVs. Certainly the improvements made last fall make it a more attractive option than we saw with first-generation products, and the addition of other manufacturers may give the platform a boost later this year.
We're looking forward to giving LG's G2-series models a full, comprehensive evaluation in our TV test labs, so check back with our blog—and our TV Ratings—for the results.
—James K. Willcox