Intel was a surprise partner for the first generation of Google TV hardware. It was also the first time that the hardware platform for an Android device was almost utterly prescribed by Google. There’s a lot to unpack there but let’s start with the hardware itself. Let’s peek at an image we first published in 2010.

It seems easy to scoff at the Atom CE4100's CPU today, just as we’re on the cusp of seeing IPC in mobile SoCs intersect with the lowest end PC CPUs. At the time though, the delta between the fastest mobile processor and the lowest end x86 core was fairly massive. So the compute capabilities should be more than sufficient. Looking just to the right, you see that big grey box with three key components for an A/V tailored SoC. The media decoder can handle two simultaneous H.264 streams at once, and backed up by a display processor that can handle scaling, noise reduction and de-interlacing duties. Graphics are rendered by the venerable Imagination Technology’s PowerVR SGX535, seen also in the iPhone 4, plenty powerful enough for the UI and 3D gaming.

So, why the switch to ARM? If I had to guess, cost as much as anything else. The initial roll out of Google TV devices were . . . pricey. Foregoing the cost of an x86-based SoC would go some way to bring costs down to the $99 sweet spot being hit by so many other streamers. Our best guess has the CE4100 adding as much as $40+ dollars to the bill of materials, while a capable ARM SoC could cost as little $5-10.

Today’s Google TV devices use a Marvell solution, though not universally. LG opted to make their first foray into SoC design and produced what’s being called the LG L9. The specifics of the SoC will sound familiar to our readers: two Cortex-A9 cores, matched to a Mali-400 GPU. That combination provided plenty of performance for phones in the form of Samsung’s first Exynos SoC, and sounded like an excellent platform for a streaming device. So, how’d it fare?

Testing on Google TV is a tricky thing. Indeed, benchmarking any mobile OS device is a lesson in compromises, as most of the tests we use have their caveats. Some of the best are packaged for easy use on the Google Play store, and require little more than a quick download, installation and running it a few times. Others can be run through the browser, while others still require a bit more effort than all of that. On Google TV, though, there’s a different challenge. Applications in the Play Store are limited to those that are built for Google TV or that meet certain filters to ensure a good experience on the larger screen. None of our usual benchmarking apps appear through Google’s filters, and trying to sideload some was mainly an exercise in failure.

I did get the browser benchmarks to run, which should give us some idea of the JS performance.

SunSpider Javascript Benchmark 0.9.1 - Stock Browser


If you take last gen SoCs and take the power management brakes off, that’s what you end up with. The SunSpider score is somewhat disappointing, but we've come to expect the occasional score hiccup there. The L9 fares well against the Exynos 4212 it resembles (in Browsermark), but this doesn’t really give you a good idea for how the device itself performs. And it’s here that things start to tumble a bit. I couldn’t get any GPU tests to run, and if they did I’m sure that performance would be adequate, but it’s the actual UI composition that suffers tremendously here. Moving between home screens, opening the app drawer, scrolling around lists or web pages... all of these things are stuttery and glacial. There’s no denying it: Honeycomb is inside, and the console suffers for it.

Where everything feels hunky dory is in media playback. Watching streamed content, either in Flash or through the YouTube app, everything plays seamlessly and stutter free. And other content?

One of the challenges for companies in this space is user behavior. Typically when people watch television, they turn on their set, their set-top box, and then change the channel or pull up their guide to select their program. When your content comes from apps or local files, the experience is a little alien. Thanks to modern smartphone OSes we’ve become accustomed to using apps to view some content, but what about a local file? It took me some time to figure out how to even pull up a listing of local media files, let alone how they would get played back. The appropriate app for both, Media Player, doesn’t show up on the home screen by default, which goes to show the emphasis LG and Google place on that particular use case.

Our media playback test is absolutely brutal, but the LG does a decent job with it. Unlike other Google TV devices we've encountered, it seems to have no difficulties playing back MKVs of various combinations. Where it falls short is a bit of a mixed bag. There's no support for Blu-ray rips packaged as .m2ts files. There's also no support for subtitles, nor alternate audio or video streams. And oddly for a 3D display, it fails at autodetection of 3D content, both in the media player and other sources. All that said, in some of our highest bit rate files, the LG drives without a stutter. Interestingly, there are some lower bit rate files that presented some stuttering, but I suspect that had to do with some scaling difficulties.

Which brings me to the one big reason why you’ll want to playback local files on something other than the LG. Within Media Player there are just two display options: Full Screen and Original Resolution. In Full Screen the content is stretched to fit the 16:9 of the screen, and the results are as horrific as you can imagine. In Original Resolution the content is displayed untouched, so if you’re content is in 720p, or worse yet in something obscure, it will sit surrounded by a lot of black. So, if all your content is 1080p, or at least 16:9, you’ll never notice an issue; otherwise, expect some frustration.

The Panel Skinning Google TV
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  • cjb110 - Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - link

    Having recently bought Sony's standalone box, I'd agree. I think its more powerful and better than SmartTV's. But it needs more focus from Google

    Chrome is good, but its a different version than now on the tablets/phones, and missing useful things like page sync.

    And I know Google/Apple want us to live in clouds, but until they launch all their cloud products worldwide, people need I think Google should have put more effort into allowing people to access content they already have. DLNA/UPNP would have been good.

    Also their Play Store is a little to restrictive, the OS is better at handling apps built for other devices than they give it credit for, allowing apps to be installed with a warning would expand the ecosystem instantly.
  • JasonInofuentes - Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - link

    I'll agree across the board on this, though some of it isn't Google's fault. Google doesn't want to be on the hook for providing every aspect of the experience, and one piece they've always left to partners is the DLNA/UPNP component. I'm pretty sure all their devices are capable, but they leave it to the partners to provide an app to handle this content, and most do, eagerly, so that they can rebrand it and confuse the market. By calling it AllPlay or some such, they create FUD that their device will only work with similarly branded devices.

    And you're definitely right, the Play Store does have a lot more potential and loosening a few of the filters could go a long way. But then again, look at how many apps these days rely on portrait mode. Or have a very touch centric UI (I'm thinking particularly of touch and drag gestures). It could get really messy. Instead, simply green flagging apps could work, but then you need testers.

    Thanks for the comments.
  • GotThumbs - Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - link

    Even Though this is a break from the norm, it is based on current and upcoming technology. Down the road, I see the TV as the main interface for accessing phone, web, and home digital content. Every house will have its own server and devices will link to it for content or management. Items such as coffee makers will be wireless and link to your server for software updates as well as programming.

    I have an LG 5700 Smart TV. Even Though it does not use the same Google TV skin, I've found it very easy to watch the movies stored on my server. While the web browsing is sluggish and limited, I think this is a good start and look forward to the next generations of smart TV's that will be more powerful. Adding a touch screen capability for smaller tv's in kitchens would be cool as well.

    Overall, I think the concept is good and now it's just a matter of getting up to speed for those of us who will put the technology to use sooner than the general public.
  • prophet001 - Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - link

    I know next to nothing about color spaces or monitor calibration.

    However, based on your definition of color gamut shouldn't the screen perform better? It looks to me like barely half of the color space is reproduced by this television.

    How is that a "good" color gamut?
  • cheinonen - Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - link

    On the CIELUV chart that Jason uses (which is more accurate than the more common CIE xy chart), the goal isn't to cover the entire gamut, but to correctly align the color points of the TV with the points on the inner triangle (the black lines with + symbols on the points that you can see in the chart).

    While the TV might have a larger native color gamut than the HDTV/sRGB target, HDTV content doesn't support that larger gamut, so if it were to use it, you would actually be seeing colors that are incorrect and distorted from the intended targets. This is what you can actually see with some OLED screens on phones, as they produce a much larger gamut than the sRGB standard, but don't have the capability to correctly map sRGB content to their correct locations.

    So in an ideal world, we would cover the entire NTSC gamut (which is what the full CIELUV color area represents), but we don't have content that can use that, or display technology that can display all of it, so we use a subset of it. The important thing is to map to that subset correctly, as otherwise colors appear distorted and unnaturally bright and vivid.
  • JasonInofuentes - Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - link

    +1 to Chris, our resident displays expert. Thanks.
  • prophet001 - Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - link

    Great explanation. Thank you very much :)
  • org - Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - link

    I have despaired of getting a capable, polished local media/streaming box that I just have to plug. I have now an HTPC but it is not satisfactory for all the things I want.
    I preordered the OUYA, that should get close to want I want once I install XBMC on it.A controller will probably not be as good as a good remote control, but it will be definitely better than a bad one. And as an extra, I can play games on it. Not that into Android games, but a SNES emulator would be awesome. I can even play PC games with a desktop streaming solution like Splashtop. Maybe install a tv tuner on my file server and use Plex Server + XBMC...
    I'm actually pretty excited!
  • JasonInofuentes - Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - link

    This, though, is why things like Google TV are such risky ventures. They need to make it truly plug and play so that it gets wide acceptance. But if it requires lots of tweaks on the user's part then it'll never spread. Plex and XBMC and even Windows Media Center are all great products, that require quite a bit from their users to work perfectly. It's the list of necessary user behaviors that has to be pared down for success. Good luck with the OUYA, though; let us know how it works out.

  • cjs150 - Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - link

    The end result should be a system (whether standalone or as part of a TV I do not care) which plays everything whether stored on a NAS, streamed from the internet, DVD/Blu-ray or just ordinary TV - ideally you would throw cable into this as well but I have given up on cable companies ever seeing any sense.

    My perfect end result connects through high end AV equipment to deliver 5:1 surround sound and has one remote control for all.

    Google TV is a long, long way from that but I have to accept that what I, as a geek, am willing to accept and what the average person wants are likely to be different. I can put up with separate boxes, funny file naming conventions etc. The average person wants something that just works - if it looks pretty as well that is a bonus.

    Apart from any optical drive, it is already relatively easy to build a system that is completely silent, capable of ripping all CD/DVD and Blu-ray on to storage, will transmit 1 or 2 HD streams that are very nearly identical to watching directly from a Blu-ray player. Sound quality is good, TV capture (apart from cable) has been pretty good for years.

    The problems with such a system are (a) software and (b) remote control.

    The software issue revolve around lack of compatability with file formats, the ability to play blu-rays, file naming conventions to name just the big areas. I like both XBMC and WMC, both have strengths and weaknesses but neither are ideal because neither really take into account how we will consume media in the future. Simple example, I want to watch a movie: it might be on a blu ray disc, it might be stored locally on a hard drive or on NAS or I might stream from Netflix, Amazon or one of several other providers or I might simply want to browse the web. I should be able to effortless move through the various options. Currently that is not easy unless you want to spent some time setting up the system and coding.

    Remote controls are interesting. Both Sony and now LG have come up with something that has a lot of potential to act both as a traditional RC as well as a keyboard for web browsing etc. To really become very useful they need to look at the Logitech Harmony range of RC with the "Activities" where one button starts a macro to do a whole series of things - but improve on the Logitech software so that there is real intelligence (i.e. remember that the TV is on so do not try and switch it on when moving from one activity to another). Ultimately (and this is already in development but still very early days) we need to move to using an Ipad or Android tablet as a remote where lots more information can be presented.

    Long winded post I know. I like what Google and LG are trying to do, but this is barely even a beta product and far too immature to adopt now

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