Tech Talk: Out of the box

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IT was last summer that the chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt, flew into Britain and told us our viewing habits were about to change forever.

The launch of Google TV would, he said, reinvent everything. Nearly a year later, we’re still wondering where it is, and more particularly, what it is.

In the last few months, the hardware maker Logitech has developed a Google TV set-top box and then abandoned it, raising doubts that the project would ever fly.

But you can get Google TV – or something like it – right now, if you know where to look. A slew of cheaply-made Chinese set-top boxes is available online, minus Google’s branding but capable of doing most of what Google TV was supposed to do – namely searching for any kind of video content and beaming it to your telly. The boxes are powered by the same (Google-developed) Android operating system used by your mobile phone or tablet, and run the same apps. These can access the BBC iPlayer, for instance, plus YouTube, Netflix and the rest of the internet. They can also play video, photos and music stored on any computer in your house.

These cheap boxes differ from Google’s own (and from Apple’s set-top boxes) because they lack the easy-to-use software on which Google TV is setting out its stall. On the other hand, they don’t restrict your access to anything, nor tie you in to any pay-per-view services. With these, the world wide web is your oyster. More access does mean more configuration – so don’t expect these devices to work the way you want straight away. Having said that, if you can find your way around an Android phone, you’ll have no trouble with these.

A website called futeko.com, which sounds Japanese but actually hails from Manchester, imports Android boxes from the Far East at prices currently starting from £58. An upgrade to a box with a built-in hard drive is £100 upwards. A standard remote control is thrown in, but you may find some apps respond only to a wireless mouse, which is fiddly. The official Google TV boxes, when they arrive, and those from the similar, BBC-backed YouView service, will be more expensive but are likely to come with custom remotes.

If the whole idea of watching the internet on your TV makes you weep for the days of the test card and the potter’s wheel, these boxes aren’t for you – but for those of us who couldn’t wait to get at the old set with a screwdriver, one of these £58 models is a good punt.