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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  • JasonInofuentes - Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - link

    Great points, though I take issue with the tablet-as-remote concept. That's a lot of baggage and the technology exists to make a smart remote that is aware of device states. If all your components (source, display, receiver) are connected via HDMI 1.4 and use CEC for command and status, and Bluetooth is used as the protocol for communicating with the remote, then you could have a Logitech-like remote with macros that can modify the macro on the fly to reflect current states. Trouble is, not everyone implements CEC.
    I entirely agree that the ideal would be for a single interface to be able to query the full range of possible content options, and I think Google has a great first step towards that. Though it's a clunky affair, their access to EPG's and ability to adjust cable set-top boxes through IR blasters (and someday, hopefully, CEC) means that from their search you can do this with cable content along side streaming video options. That local storage component is still missing, and though it's a big one for those of us that have terabytes of storage devoted to movies, we are the most minor of minorities. The vast television audience mostly watches . . . television. So, for Google to put up the effort to implement a protocol for indexing and searching your media server (and to do so in a the many countless ways that your server may be configured) is not really worth it. Sad, though.

  • will2 - Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - link

    The last 2 posts cover what I would like to see in an intelligent Multimedia/computer system, but with 1 major difference: Instead of assuming every home wants a TV with integrated tuner - a fine concept before it was seen screens could be used for other things - but which necessarily dedicates, if not limits, part of the box to a narrow form of media consumption, I would prefer the display to be just a Monitor with just numerous HDMI, USB, & Wireless connections, where the consumer is free to buy either a USB tuner with BT4 Remote for traditional 1 room viewing (cost little different from tradional TV), or next up, a small 'pendroid+WiFi' or HTPC/XBMC where, if the user wants to view TV or compute, from different parts of the home, where only additional Monitrs need be purchased (a great saving over buying a standalone TV for multiple rooms). That way, the owner is not tied to any mode of consumption, (can buy TV Tuner, or Internet feed, or Cable) and where makers can focus developments on providing a UI that allows integration of all of these flexible configurations in an easy to use mannner. A BT4 remote, that improves on the model of the Boxee Box mini-double-sided keyboard, so all you need in the room you are working in is a Wireless Display and the smart keyboard remote. If integration is done right, this should work for non-technical consumers also - so big market potential. Any problems with this idea ?
  • Sureshot324 - Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - link

    I have a similar remote for my HTPC (Wiimote style with a thumb keyboard) and IMO it's the best system for controlling a PC/media center from the couch. I use keyboard shortcuts for a lot of things like play/pause.
  • zeiker - Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - link

    On my wishlist is a device (right now it's an HTPC /HTLT with video playback software) with 5.1 digital sound output, HDMI 1080p output and capabilities to stream internet content as well as BluRay, DVDs and - .iso files of DVDs and BRDs. Trying NAS devices, streaming routers, DLNA devices, it just isn't happening with what I see available.

    Therefore my current optimum solution (for all things video) is a discrete BRD player and HTLT and pull the net content from the laptop and mpgs and .iso files from a NAS through the laptop to the TV via Cyberlink playback software.

    Anyone know of a better implementation out there?
  • JasonInofuentes - Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - link

    I'm actually pretty solidly against consolidation of functions in lots of cases. The best disc player, are just disc players. The best streamers, are mainly just streamers. I think we'd all love to have something that played all of those, and any other content you wanted, and did so well; but I don't see it happening, just as I don't really see it happening without compromises in the tablet space. Want a reader? An e-ink device is your best bet. Want a gaming device? Pretty solid on some SoC's, but with a dedicated handheld you know the games will work, and how well they'll work. Want a productivity device? Tablet's might be good for that, but how much more convenient for writing is a tablet than, say, a MacBook Air?

    Point is, maybe you're living in a good place if you have a good streamer, and a good BR player.
  • smartthanyou - Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - link

    A few quibbles...

    HD did not require a federal program for the digital tuner box. The box was for the switch to digital signals and to free up the analog spectrum. HD was part of what was being broadcast digitally, but the main reason was to free up the spectrum so the Feds could auction it off. And the program was BS to begin with. Just a waist of money, people should have been forced to buy their own box if they needed it.

    The AppleTV was always meant as device for people buying into the iTunes/Apple universe. It was never meant as the next big thing.

    Finally, it will never matter what hardware and software comes out, the only way we are every going to get a fundamental change in our television viewing is if there is massive change of heart with the content producers. In other words, it won't happen anytime soon.

    With corporate consolidation, the companies involved just want to protect/grow profits. They don't want massive change, just massive piles of cash.

    As consumers, we could force change by simply walking away from their products, but we refuse to do that. We complain, gripe and bitch about the evil media producers and corporations while we hand over our money.
  • JasonInofuentes - Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - link

    The HD switch did require federal programs to coordinate, and the tuner box was part of it, and a response to the actually flagging rate at which consumers were upgrading equipment. That issue was somewhat isolated to more rural areas that were underserved by big cable, but the tuner program was a part of it. One reason why the tuner program ended being such a flop, though, was that TV companies saw that demand had become rabid for their products and rapidly lowered prices to compete. And that's how we ended up with so much attention being devoted to 3D and now Smart TV's. Set manufacturer's need to be able to raise their margins to be profitable. Adding $50 in compute components to make your TV "smart" and providing some tag along services is cheap, and allows you to add a lot more than $50 to your price tag.
  • Kracer - Thursday, October 4, 2012 - link

    It seems that every technology space is crappy until Apple comes and does what us geeks want in a closed ecosystem so that everyone likes it.
    It happened with PCs, MP3s, Smartphones and tablets.

    And after Apple comes along and moves things to where they should be we have to wait again for a proper open eco-system learns from Apple.
    It happened with PCs, Smartphones and Android tablets just need the apps.

    So until Apple comes along and gives everyone a kick up the back-side, we are stuck with customizing XBMC to kingdom come.
  • JasonInofuentes - Friday, October 5, 2012 - link

    I think Apple has a certain undue influence, or perhaps 'undue' is to strong a word there. But there I think PC's should be left out of your list. The greatest innovations were in the openness of the Apple ecosystem and the ability for developers to extend the functionality of the OS through add-ons like Growl. It's only recently that Apple has opted to close their desktop ecosystem, and I think it's to the detriment of developers, even if it is to the benefit of Apple's pocketbooks.

    And note, Apple has thrown in with the Apple TV with just the structure you're talking about. And that has largely been a draw. It sells well, but it isn't a revenue driver. Nor is it, I suspect, a big iTunes revenue driver.
  • Kracer - Saturday, October 6, 2012 - link

    On the Apple TV;I was thinking about the all so rumoured iTV or Apple television or whatever.

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