Google TV had a second coming-out party at CES 2012, where a number of manufacturers introduced new features for the television-based operating system, new devices running it, and other big plans. Eric Schmidt, in a fit of what turned out to be insanity, declared shortly before CES that Google TV would be on a "majority" of new TVs by this summer.
Well, that didn't happen. But there is a wave of new Google TV devices ready to hit the market, led by the Sony NSZ-GS7 set-top box. Sony previously sold only TVs with Google TV baked in, but the $199 GS7 adds the OS to the TV you already own. (There's also the $299 NSZ-GP9, which includes a Blu-ray player as well.) It features a new, more powerful processor, and thanks to Google's frequent updates, a hugely improved operating system with more apps, more features, and a simpler interface. Do the new hardware and new software work together to create a Google TV finally worth watching? Read on.
Hardware / design
Hardware / design
Decent by itself, far better with cable
All I ask of a set-top box is that it slide easily and unnoticed into the stack of boxes and gadgets next to my TV. Sony meets that criteria with the 1.3-pound GS7, and still manages to inject at least a little bit of design flair into the device. It's a glossy, black rectangle, a little big at 8 inches wide and 1.3 inches tall, with a curved front so that there's a slight lip on the top. The top has slightly raised dots all over it, which are nice-looking, but you'll probably never see the top and almost definitely won't ever notice it.
You'll never notice it — and that's a good thing
There are no controls or buttons anywhere on the device, and all the ports are on the back — after fuming at all the devices requiring USB cables to stick out the front, I couldn't be happier. You get HDMI in and out, digital optical out (for audio), an IR blaster, ethernet, two USB, and a big two-pin power adapter. It's a solid selection of ports, letting you connect a couple of external drives or devices to the GS7, though I'd always like an RCA connection for the legacy devices I just can't get rid of. Thanks to wide file support, the GS7 is an excellent conduit for playing back content you have stored on hard drives, in addition to all the streaming capabilities.
Since everything is on the back of the GS7, the sides and bottom are used for vents. Thank goodness: the GS7 gets remarkably hot when it's in use, even with all the vents and fans working away. It's not very loud, though, and I guess that's the tradeoff — you won't hear it when you use it, but don't put the GS7 on top of anything that can melt.
First to make a decent Google TV remote wins
I get that designing and building a remote for a Google TV product must be hard. It needs to feel like a remote and be easy to use with one hand, but it also needs to have a QWERTY keyboard, a touchpad, lots of input buttons, various specific navigation keys, and oh so much more. We've seen all sorts of different solutions to this problem, from the giant keyboard and mouse for the Logitech Revue to the cramped, complicated remote that ships with Sony's Google TV-enabled televisions.
Sadly, Sony still hasn't solved the remote riddle. The GS7 comes with a clicker that does feel considerably more like a remote than the game controller-like accessory for the company's TVs. On one side of the hefty, .75-inch thick slab are the remote-like buttons: six power and input controls up top, and playback controls plus a few colored function buttons on the bottom. In between, there's a matte black, clickable trackpad below a five-way directional button and four Google TV controls. The four Google TV buttons mostly mirror the Android controls: you get Home, Menu, and Back, but Android's Search button is swapped for a picture-in-picture toggle that lets you watch live TV in a small (sadly unmovable) window while you do something else.
Where the power button might be on a cell phone (on the right edge as you hold it vertically), Sony added channel and volume controls, plus a Mute button. I love this: it means you can quickly pick up the remote to mute the TV or easily flip channels, without having to hunt for buttons at all. Touches like this do a lot to make Google TV easier to navigate, but I'd hardly say this remote passes the babysitter test — there's almost no way you could hand it to a stranger and have them figure out how to use it with no help.
On the back of the remote is a full, five-row QWERTY keyboard, with backlit rubber keys. As much as I like having a full keyboard on a remote (and as much as it's necessary on a Google TV device), this isn't a particularly good one — the keys are mushy and cramped, and so many keys have more than one symbol on them that it's often hard to find the one you're looking for. Having keyboard and trackpad on opposite sides is surely a space-saving move, but it means you'll constantly be flipping the remote over to mouse around, then turning and rotating it to type. The remote's three-axis motion sensitivity automatically disables the trackpad when you flip it to the keyboard side so that you don't accidentally move the cursor while you type, which is appreciated.
Speaking of the three-axis motion sensitivity, it sounds a lot better than it is. In theory, it gives you tilt controls for games — you could use the remote like a steering wheel in a driving game, for instance. In practice, it just doesn't work well: while playing Dot I had the same trouble leaving the left edge of the screen that Nilay did way back at CES, and even once I figured out exactly how to hold the remote (flat), it's way too finicky to be useful.
All that said, this is still one of the best Google TV remotes yet — it's just still not a very good one. I much prefer the Boxee Box's remote, which does a better job of incorporating a keyboard and extra functionality into a remote that still feels like... a remote. Fortunately, there's a great iOS and Android app that connects automatically to your Google TV device (as long as they're connected to the same Wi-Fi network) and gives you much simpler and more useful controls. If you own a smartphone on either platform, downloading the app should be step one after buying the GS7.
Setting up the GS7 isn't difficult, it's just arduous. There's a handy guide that comes up when you first plug the device in that helps you get the box tuned to your TV and inputs, and it does a decent job of leading you through the various steps. The problem is, there are an insane number of steps.
First you connect to your Wi-Fi network. Then, you use the arrow keys to tell the device how big your TV is (how is this not an automatic process yet?). You can use the GS7's remote to control your TV set, but that's another step that requires knowing your TV's hexadecimal model number — I certainly didn't know it, and I bet you don't either. Then you set up your cable box, DVR, network... on and on the list goes. No single step is particularly difficult (except the ones that involve remembering your TV is the LG 42CS560), but it's a brutal half hour-long process that really needs to be simplified before any Google TV device becomes a mainstream product.
Software and performance
Under the hood, the GS7 features a new ARM-based Marvell 1500 processor, the same one inside nearly every device in the wave of Google TV products announced at CES. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi (still 2.4GHz-only) are also built in, but the the dual-core 1.2GHz SoC is the flagship improvement. It's considerably more powerful than the previous processors inside Google TV devices, and the spec bump matters — there's almost no interface lag, and everything happens a full beat faster than it used to. The blue, spinning "Loading" wheel almost never shows its face, though it's not totally gone. HTML5 apps don't run totally smoothly, and neither do Flash websites, but both are vastly improved. The Marvell chip was designed specifically for Google TV products, and it shows.
"Google TV" is really a few things. On the one hand, it's a universal search engine and navigational interface for everything you want to watch. If you have both Netflix and cable, Google TV is designed for you — it's a great way to find stuff to watch. Search for "Arrested Development," and you'll see not only where it's playing on live TV, but which episodes are available on Netflix. It's a giant improvement on most cable TV interfaces, too, and makes it much easier to figure out what you want to watch and how you can watch it. Want to watch the Yankees game? Type in "Yankees," and you'll see everywhere the team is on right now.
If you're a Dish network subscriber, the integration goes even deeper: you can include your DVR in the search, or quickly set something to be recorder. If you have another provider, you still get basic navigational features, plus the great search engine.
Whenever you press the Search button on the keyboard side of the remote and enter a query, Google TV searches first for shows and movies including your query. "House" is a fairly wide-ranging search term, but Hugh Laurie's show comes up first because odds are, that's what you're looking for on your TV. Of course, you can also search the web from the same interface, or just enter a URL — the search bar is the core of the Google TV experience. Generally, if you know what you want to watch, it's awesome. It's not great for saying "what's on that might be fun to watch?" or for channel surfing, but if you're jonesing for some Arrested Development you won't find it faster any other way.
Not knowing what you want to watch is where the TV and Movies app comes in. When you first launch the app, you're asked to rate a bunch of movies and shows — in my case, I gave between one and five stars to Titanic (four stars, solid movie), Mission: Impossible (five stars, obviously), Love, Actually (also five stars), Family Guy (three stars, not as good as it used to be), and a dozen or so more. Recommend carefully, because Google TV uses your ratings to provide an endless stream of things you might want to watch. It's essentially a TV Guide centered around content instead of channels — Peel has done something similar, as has TiVo, both to excellent effect. Pick a show or movie from the list, and you're presented with options for how to watch it that include watching it on live TV, buying or renting from Amazon Instant Video, or streaming from Netflix or HBO Go. It's a whole new paradigm for how you watch TV: not "what's on?" but "where can I watch what I want to watch?"
Unfortunately, Google's attempt to answer that second question only makes it more obvious how much Google TV is missing. Without support from Hulu or even most of the networks — none of which have apps, and nearly all of which block Google TV devices from streaming content — there are too few places for Google to search. This is a running problem for Google and plenty of other set-top box manufacturers, but it makes it hard to recommend any Google TV device over a Roku box and its many content sources, or a cheap home theater PC, which has completely unfiltered access to streaming internet content. What good is an awesome search function if it's only searching four sources?
Searching is great, except when you're not searching everywhere
Android phone apps don't work as well as Chrome apps would
Google has updated and refined the Google TV interface over the last year or so, and it's a much better system than the one we saw on the Logitech Revue or on Sony's Google TV-powered televisions. It's been updated to Google TV 2.0 (built on Android 3.1), which is considerably more reliable and stable than past versions — there's no more odd windowing, no more confusion about what you're trying to do, and everything is faster and smoother. The new grid-based interface is much easier to navigate, and I love the customizable bottom bar that pops up when you press the Home button, offering one-click access to your most commonly used apps.
There are many more apps available thanks to the opening of the Play Store to the platform, but you're still only getting a tiny segment of the Android app market. I installed Slacker Radio and Pandora pretty easily — the former is just a blown-up version of the Android phone app and looks terrible, but it does work. Spotify's not available, though; neither is Rdio, or Angry Birds, or any of a number of apps I'd expect to find in the Play Store. Google appears to have cherry-picked a few dozen apps that make sense for Google TV, which would be fine — if it hadn't skipped too many good ones.
Of all the apps available, Plex is the one that makes the GS7 (and any other Google TV device) most useful. Plex is an excellent app for streaming local content, providing a DLNA-style service far better than most DLNA devices. The 99-cent app comes bundled with the GS7, and I highly recommend installing the app on your phone, tablet, and computer as well; it does an excellent job of making all your content universally available. The app looks good and works smoothly, though — and this is a running theme for Google TV — it's still better on a computer.
One other app that should be noted is Are You Watching This?!. In addition to having the worst name ever, Are You Watching This?! is a really clever idea — it provides sports scores and news, all the while giving you one-click access to the game you're reading about. Just saw that the Reds game is headed to extra innings? Boom — you're watching the game. It's one of the few apps that crystallizes what could be awesome about Google TV, if only more developers would pay attention.
Canabalt is one of the best games available, though the implementation is a bit lackluster. Sure, you can run and jump through its shaky world (which is near seizure-inducing on a large screen), but the GS7's response time is just slow enough that you need to press the Space bar to jump a full beat before you actually want your reckless runner to jump. The game looks good blown up on the big screen, and works well enough — except when it doesn't. Every time I played, at some point the game would try to layer more buildings over the bottom of the screen, a bug that makes it impossible to see your runner and thus makes the game impossible to play.
Fortunately, a lot of what's missing can be accessed through the Chrome browser. Rdio's website works well, and Chrome apps from the New York Times and many others are solid — though text-heavy pages are a little hard to read on the larger screen. (Still no Angry Birds, though.) Even Flash-based pages are usable now, surely thanks to the new processor. For all the talk of new apps designed for Google TV, I'd wager you'll still spend most of your time in the Google TV browser.
Hell, even some Google TV "apps" are just websites optimized for the TV, and some aren't even very optimized — Amazon Instant Video just takes you to the regular Amazon website. That's not a bad thing — the browser is stable and fast, and with multi-window and bookmark support can almost replace the rest of Google TV's functionality itself. All of which leads me to wonder why Google TV even needs to be an entirely separate, unique OS.
Why not embrace the web, and simply add the excellent Chrome OS browser to your current TV offerings? No new interface, no "apps" other than the glorified Chrome OS bookmarks; just your cable-provided TV, and all the Chrome OS goodies on top. Integration with Google Drive could let you stream or download your own content in addition to what you get from external drives and the web, too. This is all a pipe dream, and isn't really a knock on Google TV — it's just odd that Google has so many services, all doing effectively the same thing.
The Sony NSZ-GS7 is almost certainly the best Google TV product on the market right now — but that's a minor distinction. Previous devices were underpowered and the software needed a lot of improvement, and the work done by Google, Sony, and Marvell really shows with the latest version. The basic paradigm hasn't changed, but the concept becomes more and more compelling as it matures.
That's the problem, though: Google TV still feels like a concept. I love being able to search for whatever I want to watch — but I hate how often I finish a search, and then switch to another input to check if what I want to watch is on Hulu. Having a browser built in is great — but too many streaming sites are blocked, and the browser itself doesn't look very good on the big screen. There are more apps, sure, but there aren't enough of the ones users are clamoring for; Buddy TV and Classy Fireplace don't cut it. With more content, more complete search, and access to more apps that work well on a TV, Google TV could power a killer set-top box. But for now, it's mostly just a slightly better way to figure out if the game's on NBC or Fox — and that's not worth $199.
Google's clearly committed to the platform, though, and every rumor we hear perks up our ears a little more. OnLive support, making Google TV a real gaming platform. Smartphone integration, so you can use your phone to stream content or navigate the device. An app store full of TV-optimized apps. Hulu Plus, even. These remain promises until we see them on a device, but the future could be very bright for Google TV. Until then, though, it doesn't really matter how good the hardware is — the software's not ready.