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Google's TV Previewed at IFA, Suddenly Not the Smartest Kid on the Block

Google TV

Google looked to have stolen a march on the smart Net-connected TV market when it revealed its integrated Google TV a few months back. Now we're seeing prototypes at the IFA electronics show ... and suddenly Google's offering is looking lost among the competition.

Sony's Google TV device is the one that's garnered the most press attention, and it's a great example that we can almost use to preview how Google TV will look and feel to most consumers. The TV unit itself is nothing particularly remarkable in a crowded market that's evolved so quickly its left Joe Public's head spinning: It's a full-HD (1,920 by 1,080 pixels) display, 40-inches on the diagonal, and with a pretty neutrally-designed slim black plastic chassis. But this TV isn't all about the TV itself—it's about how it works. Inside is the necessary processor, memory, and connectivity hardware to drive Google's Android-powered TV service. Also included is Chrome for browsing the Web, niceties like Google Maps, and it's even Flash compatible, in a nose-thumbing exercise aimed at Apple. The UI has been polished to make it compatible with normal TV-viewing options, so you can make a browser window transparent to let a TV show shine through your Web searches, and there's a "Quick Search Box" system which integrates searches on the Web and among your TV resources.

Sony was reportedly reluctant to let people see the units in full-on Googling action, instead demoing features like Picasa photo integration and services like YouTube.

But Google's competitor LG, which is promising a news conference tomorrow—September 4th—to announce its own Google TV efforts, also demonstrated its own rival system at IFA: Netcast. The firm has been demonstrating TVs carrying the system, which has had a serious overhaul and now rests on four design watchwords: "easy," "fun," "more," "better." As well as similar Net-connected benefits to Google's system, it comes with a smart remote control that works a little like a Wiimote, and provides a more "natural" way to interact with the TV along with added extras like a coloring book for kids. LG's TV can even stream content from the unit to other gadgets.

And since Google's TV hit the headlines, Apple's arrived on the scene, as rumored, with its own new set-top box. Though it's services are in many ways simpler than the sophisticated things offered by Google TV or NetCast, concentrating on core streaming TV and movie content and a few extra frills, the hardware is cheap, comes with that fabulous Apple cachet, and is simple enough to appeal to Grandmas everywhere. It's also running on an Apple A4-powered board, which makes us ponder if its simple UI isn't actually built on a modified iOS operating system (found inside the iPhone and iPad). And this makes us wonder if Apple won't be bringing a full-on App Store experience to the Apple TV at some point—bouncing Google TVs and LG's efforts right to the bottom of the market. The same thinking has even resulted in some industry analysts suggesting Apple's TV box is a primer technology, so Apple can test the market before building its very own hardware-integrated TV units in the coming year or two.

And now there's even news that Yahoo's partnered with a Turkish firm Vestel to bring Yahoo Connected TV to 40 more countries from early 2011. So while TVs at IFA may seem to be all about Google's technology, in the coming months it looks like Google will have to significantly up its game to stay relevant in a wholly new market for the company.

To keep up with this news, follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.