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Internet TV proves to be quite a handful

Thanksgiving gives families a chance to get together, eat, talk and then gather around the television for some quality time.

With holiday shopping deals abounding and prices of big-screen TVs continuing to drop, I wanted to find out whether it was worthwhile to get a new Internet TV for those special family moments.

Although watching Dad or Gramps struggle with the remote control is as traditional as turkey, I wanted to avoid any complicated setup.

So I tried Google TV, which allows users to surf the Internet while watching TV. You can also search for and stream online shows, movies and music. Google TV is delivered through Sony and Logitech sets and some Blu-ray players, and came pre-installed in the review product, a 40-inch Sony LCD TV that retails for $999. Sony also offers 24-, 32- and 46-inch models.

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The TV’s picture and sound quality were as expected for a Sony at this price, and the set would look good in any living room. It’s encased in sleek, glossy plastic and comes with a remote control, a blaster cable that allows users to control a DVD or cable box, and a basic stand. It has multiple HDMI and USB ports in the back but no buttons out front.

The TV connects wirelessly to a user’s home computer network and also has hardwire connectivity. Google’s Android operating system will be familiar to some smart phone users, as will its stripped-down Chrome browser, but my guess is that most users will be new to streaming the Internet through a TV. This is where simplicity counts the most.

But, like the 90-button remote control, setup was complicated and occasionally frustrating. After configuring the handset and powering up, users get a welcome display box that guides them through an additional launch process that takes more than 20 minutes. It’s finicky and newbies may feel lost if they miss a step.

Operating the remote control alone requires significant left-right brain interaction and usually both hands. It boasts a full QWERTY keyboard and dual scroll pads and is overly complex and counterintuitive in many ways. One of its few pluses is that, as a result of its bulk, it’s very difficult to lose.

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Press the remote’s space bar and a search box drops into the middle of the TV screen. Theoretically this allows users to search all media broadcast over the Internet or on cable TV. In practice it didn’t work too well, leaving me frustrated at a lack of content available online or on applications.

Google recently has seen some of its most important content partners halt access to their services. ABC, CBS and NBC and Fox have all blocked video streaming through Google TV, so no online access to Fox News videos for Dad or “Dancing With the Stars” for Mom. Hulu also has blocked its content, though Google says it’s working on a partnership to stream Hulu Plus, which comes with a $10 monthly subscription fee. Of course, users can still watch these shows through traditional TV or cable service hooked up to the Sony set.

I was a big fan of the pre-installed CNBC application, which allowed me to watch business news and keep an eye on live stock market information of my own choosing. I also liked the Pandora music app. But the depth and variety of available applications were disappointing, and some apps functioned merely as click-throughs to a Chrome browser.

Traditional difficulties in browsing the Web through the TV quickly become apparent. My dad can barely read small type in a newspaper, much less on a screen more than 5 feet away, but I liked the TV’s dual-view function, which allowed me to surf the Web while watching live TV. Unfortunately, I often found myself resorting to the laptop to browse the Web and sticking to traditional TV delivery.

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Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt recently recalled a conversation he had with a TV industry executive who said: “Do you realize you’re taking a dumb television and making it smart?”

Schmidt responded: “Yes, we’re guilty of that.”

Smart, yes. Simple, no.

I found Google TV to be complicated, even though I’m an experienced tech user. If I had given a set to my parents I’m sure I could have come back at Christmas and they still wouldn’t have figured it out. That’s a significant problem.

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I’d probably buy one, as I like the set itself and I can put up with a little bit of complexity to stream the Internet through my TV. But I’d pass on getting one for Gramps.

craig.howie@latimes.com


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