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Vizio Co-Star hands-on: take a chance on Google TV at $99?

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We take a look at the Co-Star, Vizio's $99 set top box.

Gallery Photo: Vizio Co-Star at Google I/O 2012
Gallery Photo: Vizio Co-Star at Google I/O 2012

We showed you Vizio's tiny $99 Google TV and feature-heavy remote control back at CES, but it wasn't quite ready for primetime: here, at Google I/O in San Francisco, we sat down with Vizio CTO Matt McRae to discuss the impending July launch, and got our first real look at the Vizio Co-Star's UI.

In case you're not familiar, the Co-Star (formerly known as the VAP430) is an exceptionally small Google TV set top box about the size and shape of a large steamed meat bun, but far more sleek. It has just two HDMI ports, an ethernet jack, a USB socket, and a power plug to its name.

Like other Google TV set tops, it sits between your television and cable box so that it can pass your video content along while adding an overlay on top, and like other Google TVs it comes with a heck of a controller. There are dedicated Netflix, Amazon VOD and M-Go buttons and a multi-touch trackpad on top of your typical TV controls, and a full QWERTY keyboard and game controls on the bottom of the remote. Only the controls that are face up are active, thanks to an orientation sensor inside.

One thing that's missing from the Co-Star since CES: a jack for an IR blaster to control your other components. That's because Vizio moved the IR blasters to the remote control, too. Because the Co-Star and remote send RF commands both ways, you don't need them in the set-top-box itself. Instead, the Co-Star tells the remote when it needs to flash infrared commands, and two large arrays of infrared LEDs on the front and side of the remote do that job as required. Optimally, the Co-Star will control your cable box directly via HDMI using IP commands, but McRae told us only Dish will allow IP control right now.

Anyhow, once you press the big V button in the center of the remote, that's when the magic begins: a large pane of Google TV apps appears on the left-side of the screen, where it only partially obscures your content. McRae told us the Vizio box uses Marvell's latest dual-core Armada 1500 processor, and was particularly proud of the per-pixel alpha blending technique the silicon enables: the menu not only blocks only a portion of video playing on the screen, but it's also partially transparent so you can see some of your content through it. As you'd expect from a television, the UI isn't very complex, pretty much just a place for your apps to go, but we got a quick video of the interface in action, as well as OnLive streaming games to the Google TV, immediately below.

CTO Matt McRae was also particularly bullish on the OnLive integration, which brings the streaming game service to its first Google TV device, and claims that the company "spent months and months and months fine-tuning the code to get it to the point where OnLive was proud" of the response time. Unfortunately, in the crowded wireless environment of Google I/O, at least, it was laggy to the point it wasn't really playable. Hopefully that changes in the comfort of one's home, because Google TV is pretty light on games of any sort right now.

For that matter, content providers haven't been kind to the platform, too. When we asked McRae about the divide between the TV services available in a typical computer web browser and those on Google TV, he admitted that the networks still have a stranglehold on TV shows — no 18 month prediction this time — but said that the movie ecosystem has changed. "Give us a few months: you're going to see one or two more services [on Google TV] this summer, with all the movies you'd ever want to watch."

Considering the state of Google TV, we asked McRae if even a $99 box was worth the investment right now. "Nobody's going to launch the future of TV on their first try, including us," he said, bidding us think of Android's launch. "[Google] may not succeed on their first release of anything, but they iterate well," he told us. It's a bit of a chicken and egg scenario, though, as real development for Google TV won't commence unless Google TV sells, and McRae hopes the $99 Co-Star creates a low enough barrier to entry for the idea to catch on.

Co-Star pre-orders will begin as early as Monday morning, and McRae says the first devices should ship three to four weeks after that. We're looking forward to bringing you a full review sometime before then.