Want a Google TV? Build it with a Chromebook!

Google TV

I have been an owner of Cr-48 Chromebook for months.  Sometimes I would ask myself, apart from serving as a computer, what else could this Chromebook do?  Given its fast booting, it is actually a very convenient electrical appliance (like your TV and radio).

In this article, I’ll share my experience of converting my Cr-48 Chromebook into a DIY Google TV, by tweaking the Chrome OS and selecting suitable webapps.  There won’t be any hardware changes so don’t expect to disassembly your Chromebook.  It’s easy and yet the end product works pretty good.

Ready?  Let’s start.

Step 1: Get a Start Page

The default home page of Chrome is not bad, but it’s not good enough for use on TV.  The texts and icons are too small and the user experience is “too computer-like”.  I want a start page that can show me to all the online services in a user-friendly way.  (You may refer to the 10-foot user interface entry in Wikipedia to know more about this TV-friendly menu concept.)

I can definitely craft a custom start page by building a HTML5 file.  But it takes time to code and prepare all the graphics.  I therefore turn to a convenient online service, Myfav.es.

Myfav.es - cloudhighclub Start Page

Myfav.es is an intuitive start page for displaying your favourite webapps and bookmarks in a neat, tidy and pretty manner.  It does not require registration but to get the most of it I recommend getting an account.

Then, select the shortcuts to webapps that you want by clicking “Add Sites”.  There are a lot of default webapps to choose from, including Google Apps, multimedia content providers, productivity tools, sports channels, social networks and the like.  If you cannot find the one you want, you can create a custom shortcut.  There are a lot of icons and colours to choose from.  All URLs are already provided so you don’t have to type the addresses one by one unless you want to create a shortcut that is not in the list of default webapps.

Myfav.es - Start Page Layout Options

Next, we select the wallpaper and layout.  You can choose single row or grid display of icons, the number of rows and icons in each row is customizable.  Wallpapers are pretty simple ones such as white, black, wood and metallic.  In “Preferences” I chose to include a search bar, which takes me to most popular search engines right in the start page.  Make sure you checked “Sortable icons on homepage” so that you can re-arrange the icons right without going into the settings page again.

Now, your start page is almost done.  Since by default Chrome shows the new tab page as the start page, even if you have set your custom start page as “Home” it would not appear when you start a tab or window.  It’s time to call for help from Chrome Web Store.  Simply install the extension “Myfav.es New Tab Page“, then your Myfav.es start page will replace the new tab page.

Warning: once you enabled Myfav.es New Tab Page, you cannot visit the original new tab page.  Your apps, recently closed tabs and most visited sites are not viewable in Myfav.es start page.  Since my aim is to built a DIY Google TV but not a computer, I only need to access a handful number of webapps, so I don’t care about it.  But if you can’t live without your full line-up of webapps or you always want to remind yourself what tabs you have recently closed, you can use other start page replacements.  There are a few choices out there, such as:

Step 2: Stuff Contents In

As I said, the purpose of this experiment is to built a TV-friendly set top box a.k.a. Google TV.  I have no intention to put photo editing or project management webapps in it.  Therefore I selected the following webapps that are suitable for enjoying in the living room.

  • My own web site (of course!)
  • Personal information management: Google Calendar, Google Reader, Springpad
  • Social network: Facebook and Twitter
  • Multimedia content: YouTube, Hulu, TED, Picasa, Grooveshark, Pandora Radio
  • Current news: CNN, NY Times
  • Blogs: Engadget, Lifehacker

You can certainly choose your favourites to according your own needs.  Please note that due to unavailability of plug-ins, some webapps cannot be ran on Chrome OS.  A prominent example is Netflix (although a Netflix plug-in may be released soon).  Besides, all Java apps are also unsupported.

Step 3: Tweak for TV

Let’s test run our DIY Google TV.  Everything looks great, but… they look pretty small.  Well, Chrome’s default settings are for computer’s display, not TV.  We need to modify some settings.

Chrome OS - Web content styling

Click on the wrench, choose “Settings” and find “Under the Hood” on the left.  You can determine the font size and page zoom percentage.  Since every TV has different screen size and resolution, you probably need to try different combinations to find an optimized setting.  For my 32″ LCD TV with 1920 x 1080 resolution, I set the font size to “Large” and page zoom to “120%”.

Not only browser settings, selection of webapps is crucial as well.  Try not to load the regular version of web sites if they have a webapp version good for TV.

YouTube Leanback

For example, you should go to YouTube Leanback instead of the regular YouTube.  Leanback is particularly designed for viewing on TV.  There you can directly key-in search terms to locate videos, or press the arrow keys to navigate to your subscribed channels.  The icons and texts are big enough for showing on TV.

The New York Times Skimmer Version

To read NY Times, please load the skimmer version.  Unlike usual web sites, it’s a reading pane good for viewing on TV (turning pages by arrow keys, font size selection, articles re-arranged in arrays).

There are a lot other webapps that are good for displaying on the TV screen you can try.  Check out the Chrome Web Store to find out more.

Step 4: Connect

Don’t forget to connect your Chromebook to the TV before switching them on.  For Cr-48, you need to locate the VGA port and audio out port on two sides of the machine.  According to Samsung’s official page, these seems to be the only video and audio ports on Samsung’s Chromebook.  Acer’s case is uncertain at the moment.

Step 5: Enjoy

Now you have your DIY Google TV built.  With it you can easily surf your favourite web, watch videos and listen to music and radio.  I have prepared a short video to show you how it works:

Advanced Mod

The above experiment was completed purely “softwarewise”, no hardware was changed or added.  I like it because it’s easy and didn’t cost a penny.  If you are willing to invest time and money, here are some steps you can take to make your DIY Goole TV more like the real thing.

ProMini Keyboard with Trackpad

(Image via Amazon)

Firstly, unless you feel comfortable with controlling with the Chromebook’s keyboard, you may want to have a remote control like the one for Google TV.  You can try those bluetooth wireless keyboard + mouse/trackpad that are available in Amazon like this and this.

Alternatively, if Google could release apps on Android and iOS, why not we use our smartphone to control the DIY Google TV?  To do this, you may try BlueputDroid which turns your Android phone into a bluetooth keyboard.  The author claims that it’s been tested to work on PS3 and Ubuntu 10.10.

I haven’t tested the bluetooth keyboard option nor the Android option since my Cr-48 does not officially support bluetooth input device.  If you do not use bluetooth, I think the next best thing would be USB keyboard and mouse.

When you use Google TV, you can “fling” content form your Android phone to the TV.  For example, you can send the funny video you are watching on your Android phone to the TV.

There is no direct way to stream multimedia content form phone to Chrome OS.  There is, however, an indirect way to send the web site you are reading in your Android phone to your Chrome browser and read it on the computer immediately, by using Phone 2 Chrome.  It uses Dropbox as a medium to store data, so access to your dropbox is required.

Summary

Chromebook is definitely not Google TV, but with the efforts we made a (kind of) Google TV was born.

I won’t say it’s as good as a real Google TV (after all they are different) but it’s not bad at all as a household entertainment device.  And you got some extra functions that Google TV doesn’t have out-of-the-box, like video conferencing via HTML5-based instant messenger such as imo.im.  You paid one price to get a Chromebook plus a set top box, not bad right?

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(This is my guest post originally appears on Chrome OS Site)


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