Google TV Gets Some Much-Needed Improvements, Still Needs More

Slowly but surely, Google TV is starting to look like a legitimate connected TV platform. Still, some gaps remain.

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Slowly but surely, Google TV is starting to look like a legitimate connected TV platform.

On Wednesday, Google announced a couple of improvements for its TV and set-top box software, including voice search and a better way to browse for movies and TV shows. The update is rolling out this week to LG’s Google TV hardware, such as the 47G2 television, and will come to other second-generation hardware such as Vizio’s Co-Star in the coming months.

Voice search allows users to change channels by saying which channel they want to watch, or to find all available episodes of a TV show by speaking its name. For more general search terms, voice search brings up a results page that includes both cable and Internet content. (LG’s televisions include a remote with a microphone. It’s not clear how other devices will access voice search, though the Google TV Android app may do the trick.)

The other big change is Primetime, which replaces the existing TV & Movies app in Google TV. The previous app was supposed to be a universal TV guide for cable shows and Internet video, but it felt too much like a separate app that pulled you away from what you were already watching.

Primetime appears as an overlay at the bottom of the screen, so you can browse for shows while continuing to watch the current channel. The guide splits up content by genre, and also lists favorites, recently-watched shows and suggested content. (It’s unclear whether my biggest gripe with the old TV & Movies app, that it couldn’t reliably list the HD versions of cable shows, is fixed in Primetime.)

Google has also added a way to send YouTube videos from an Android phone or tablet to Google TV. Mobile devices pair automatically with the television, and a small TV icon appears in the YouTube app that sends videos to the big screen.

All of these changes help flesh out the original vision for Google TV, which was to have a single interface that combines traditional cable and satellite television with Internet sources such as YouTube and Netflix. Google TV’s main advantage over competing devices, such as Roku and Apple TV, is that it can pull in listings from your television provider, so you move between Internet videos, cable shows and other apps without ever changing inputs.

The problem is that Google TV had a lot missing pieces, and it’s taken a long time to fill them in. Search used to be sluggish, and the old TV & Movies app wasn’t a suitable replacement for your cable company’s existing channel guide. It took a year for Google TV to get its own app store, and until very recently, you couldn’t even purchase movies and TV shows directly from Google’s own digital storefront. It’s taken a couple years, but Google is finally starting to fill in the blanks.

Still, some gaps remain. The current Android smartphone app that lets you control Google TV devices is no better in practice than the cluttered physical remote controls you get from your cable company. There are rumors of a better tablet app with a visual guide to movies and shows, but it hasn’t materialized yet.

Also, Google TV still doesn’t have a similar service to Apple’s AirPlay, which lets users stream music or video from their phones or tablets to the big screen. The aforementioned YouTube sharing only scratches the surface. It’s possible that a new wireless standard, called Miracast, will enable phone-to-TV streaming in more apps, but not for a while yet. Miracast support only came to Android two weeks ago with Android 4.2, and no existing Google TV devices support it. It’ll take a new generation of hardware–on both the mobile and TV sides–to make AirPlay-like streaming a reality.

To put all this another way, Google TV is another vintage Google product, stewing in beta for years as it gradually shapes up. Had Google actually attached a “beta” tag to its television platform, the time to peel it away might have been right about now.