That’s Not a Remote; That’s a Speak ‘n Spell!

Sony’s (s sne) Google TV remote is a good example of the challenge facing Google (s goog) as well as any manufacturer looking to integrate Google’s TV platform with their devices. The remote sports 90 buttons in all, almost 50 percent more than my Time Warner Cable (s twc) remote. The Sony remote does have a full QWERTY keyboard, which is important for text input, but the effect of all those buttons is overwhelming.

It shows that it’s not easy trying to marry the lean-back experience of TV watching with the more interactive engagement of web surfing. An interactive TV with full web access like Google TV requires more input methods, which is fine if that’s all you doing. But jumping back and forth between more passive TV watching and more involved web searches and reading requires the remote to be both sophisticated and simple.

Mobile remote apps will help solve this problem through good software, but it still requires apps to work to handle TV controls, text entry and navigation. The Sony Android remote app won’t appear till later this fall. So for now, we’re stuck with this remote.

The issues start at the top with what appear like two directional pads at the head of the compact remote which vaguely feels inspired by a PlayStation 3 controller. The left pad offers up, down, left and right with a select button in the middle. But the right pad features home, back, option and picture-in-picture buttons, all surrounding an optical mouse.

You can select something with either center button, but you have to remember to use the directional keys on the left or the optical mouse on the right to navigate. There are also zoom and scroll bumper buttons that work with the mouse for navigating pages. It gets easier over time, but I still caught myself inadvertently touching the wrong buttons. Sony reps said you can work one-handed with your left hand, but my right thumb was often drawn to that mouse button.

The top part of the remote houses many familiar functions like volume and channel up and down buttons. There are TV and DVR buttons to jump straight to them. There’s also a guide button that lets you access your cable or satellite company’s electronic programming guide.

But that’s not what Google or Sony wants you to do. Instead, they want you to channel most of your actions though a search button all the way at the bottom of the keyboard. You can push that at any time and start typing. It’ll pull up channels, TV shows, web search results, DVR content or Google video content.

It takes a while to incorporate that into your work flow. The search button works as advertised but when you’re calling up all manner of information, it takes a second to filter through the results. When I type “ESPN” (s dis) to get to the sports channel, I have to remember not to choose, the website.

Texas Instruments Speak 'n Spell
Texas Instruments' Speak 'n Spell toy

Google TV thankfully has a bookmarks page which should act like your de facto favorite channel program guide. But depending on where you are in the remote menu, you have to press home then select bookmarks to call up your favorites, then select your go-to channel. It’s just not as effortless as what many people do which is just tap out some memorized channel numbers with minimal glancing.

You can do that on the Sony TV remote, but the numbers are placed in a line at the top of the QWERTY keyboard, so it’s not conducive to one-hand typing. That’s the thing with the remote, it often requires two hands for things that many people are used to doing one-handed. Logitech’s (s logi) Revue keyboards are slight improvements because they don’t pack so many buttons into so small a space, but they too seem a little complicated for simple TV surfing.

The one time it all works together is when you take the show or video you’re watching and place it in a small picture-in-picture box in the corner. Then you can call up a browser or an app like Twitter and get things done online. I still prefer doing this on my laptop on my couch but for certain things, like watching web video, viewing pictures or quick scans for information, it’s nice to be able to use the TV.

The feeling I get walking away from the Sony TV with Google TV is that it’s going to take a while to get used to using it as both a TV and a portal to the Internet. Sony could have made it easier with a better remote, but instead, it built a gadget that will make the habit change even more of a challenge.

Image: Original photo © Bill Bertram 2006, via Wikipedia, CC-BY-2.5 — Attribution

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