Jun, 25 2012

With phones and tablets all but conquered, TV is the next big challenge for Android’s aspirations. Google TV has now been available for two years, partnering with Logitech for the failed Revue and with Sony on an array of devices including GTV Blu-Ray players and a line of fully integrated televisions. While Logitech unforgivingly dropped out of the GTV race, Sony is pushing forward, determined to provide the platform’s first true success story.

Sony’s newest attempt is the NSZ-GS7 Sony Internet TV with Google TV (now available for pre-order). It’s a stand alone set-top box, allowing consumers to add GTV to their current media setup affordably (unlike those which come bundled with a Blu-Ray Player or TV set). But is it the success Sony and Google have been seeking?

The Conclusion

Normal reviews don’t start with a conclusion, but this isn’t a normal review. Much like Google TV, it’s a bit backwards.

Sony is helping to pioneer Google TV: they’ve got the most Google TV products and the best Google TV products. Their standalone Google TVs released two years ago were exceptional pieces of hardware and their Google TV Blu-Ray player was equally enjoyable (I bought and own both). The Sony Internet TV Set Top box (NSZ-GS7), which is the subject of this review, goes on sale for $199 on July 22nd and is on par with these prior Sony GTV products. So it’s amazing, right?

Unfortunately, the NSZ-GS7 is handcuffed to an operating system with unlimited potential but sloppy implementation and invisible polish. Google has focused on Android phones and Android tablets, leaving the Android-based Google TVs to wander aimlessly in tech land. Thankfully Sony remains committed to the platform, and I believe their persistence will pay off when Google finally addresses the gaping whole in their Google TV strategy. And when that happens, which could be as soon as Google IO this week, Sony’s products will likely receive OTA firmware/software updates that help them unlock the potential of what could be Android’s next big frontier: next generation television.

Sony Internet TV is great when boiled down to its basics: a television that lets you seamlessly enjoy TV and the internet simultaneously in a new and fun way. A handful of great apps, such as Netflix and Thuuz Sports, illustrate what Google TV can become. But until Google offers more focus and App/Game Developers produce quality offerings, Google TV will largely be reserved for early adopters.

If you like having the latest tech, I’d definitely suggest buying the NSZ-GS7 Sony Internet TV Player… it’s certainly fun. Just don’t walk in with amazingly high expectations, and understand that you’re relying on Sony to come through in the clutch when Android updates for Google TV finally become available.

The Hardware

The NSZ-GS7 runs on a 1.2 GHz dual-core Marvell processor which is plenty powerful for its purpose. Your television signal passes through the Google TV box and into your TV, leaving the hardware to process simpler tasks such as the core UI, dynamic search functionality, and the various apps and games on the box itself. With 8 GB of internal memory, you’ve got plenty of space for basic downloads, and 2 Full USB ports ensures you won’t run out: you can easily connect external hard drives to store all the apps, games, and media your little heart desires.

The NSZ-GS7 has an HDMI-in and HDMI-out which most people will use for connectivity, but also includes a digital optical out port. If you’ve got a 3D enabled television you’re in luck as this device does offer 3D support. It’s got a LAN port for directly wiring your Internet connection, but works perfectly well over Wi-Fi assuming you’ve got a good connection. Bluetooth is how the the remote and GTV communicate, but using Bluetooth could prove much more beneficial down the line. When and if Google starts enabling 3rd parties to make hardware accessories for Google TV, you can imagine this Sony Internet TV might be compatible with other controllers, gaming handhelds and steering wheels amongst other things. Use your imagination!

The last two ports on the rear are the IR blaster which is used to communicate with your other peripheral equipment and AC connection which is of course for power.

The Controller

What a difference! Sony’s first generation of Google TV products featured a controller that looked and felt much like a gaming remote control in the ilk of a PS3 or XBOX remote. This version opts to go the more traditional route, with a rectangular form factor that is unmistakably TV-remotish. The enlarged trackpad is the biggest improvement, allowing much greater control of on-screen selections in addition to being clickable and offering both pinch-to-zoom and drag-and-drop functionality. By the way, the GTV and Remote connect via Bluetooth.

The right side of the remote has the most used/basic buttons: channel up/down, volume up/down, and mute. The front includes your traditional TV-ish options such as powering on/off, switching between inputs, directional pad, trackpad, play/pause/fast-forward/rewind, picture-in-picture, and the familiar Android-centric home/back/menu buttons. Flip over the remote and you’ve got the full QWERTY keypad.

The buttons on this keyboard are remarkably squishy, in sharp contrast to the tough plasticky buttons in the previous version. The selection of material allows Sony to offer another nice upgrade: backlighting. Press the function and search keys simultaneously and you’ve got yourself glowing red keys for use in the dark. Both buttons are situated in the lower left of the keyboard, making it easy to toggle the backlighting on and off when it’s pitch black in the middle of a movie. Another enjoyable addition to the keyboard includes a dedicated “star” button that allows favoriting of stations and programs (find that in the upper right of the keyboard). Overall the QWERTY keyboard works pretty well. The buttons are decently sized, have good feedback, and are generally responsive.

Even with the upgrades, there is a single reason I prefer Sony’s former remote: workflow. The new design gives the illusion that it boasts one-handed operation, switching to 2 hands when you want more fine-tuned control with the QWERTY side showing. This will obviously vary depending on how each individual uses their TV, but I found myself fumbling between the three faces of the remote rather often.

Familiarity is an issue, so take my criticism with a grain of salt while providing one small example. The large Guide and D-Pad is on the front, channel changing is on the side, and inputting specific channel numbers requires the QWERTY keypad on the back. If you interchange between those three functions frequently (which I do), it can be irritating. Sure, you could use the QWERTY as your go-to input, but I found that pressing “Enter” to access the channel guide on the rear only brings up a small version of the Guide, and I prefer viewing the larger layout.

It’s a tradeoff. The trackpad is definitely an upgrade and the remote itself has some very nice features and functionality. Not to mention, the Google Play Store has a bunch of remote control apps for both your phone and tablet that can easily operate your Google TV. You’ll definitely want to check them out. Try the one from Google and also “Able Remote” by Entertailion which comes highly recommended.

I also want to point out that the NSZ-GS7 has a 3-axis motion sensor. That means once game developers finally get on board and are pumping out quality titles, you’ll be able to use your remote to do things in much more interesting ways: think basic versions of the Wii or Kinect.

On occasion I did experience some remote control “issues” with the product. This may be the first remote with which I had to do a “battery pull” (once or twice) and a couple times, even with the green light blinking on the remote, my TV didn’t recognize any input (queue up video of me mashing all the buttons).

The Software

As you probably know, Google TV is built with Android, and the NSZ-GS7 comes with Android 3.2 out of the box. This is the same version of Android that is already powering the existing GTVs on the market, so if you’re looking for a complete software review you can find previously published Google TV reviews. But let me save you some time: the base functionality of Google TV is good but anything beyond the simplest features can be terribly buggy and confusing.

The best part of the NSZ-GS7’s software is that it’s updatable. Once Google gets around to giving GTV the love it deserves – and I hope that’ll be sooner rather than later – they’ll (fingers crossed) push out a software update that you’ll be able to download on existing GTV devices. Your Sony Internet TV will enjoy those updates and hopefully take your product to the next level. Until then, smile through the side of your mouth knowing you’re helping support a company in the early stages of changing television and think about what you’ll tell your grandkids when you reminisce about using one of the first ever Google TVs.

The Apps

I don’t say this lightly: there is a severe lack of quality apps and games for Google TV. In fact, there’s a severe lack of apps and games in general, but only a select few are worth using regularly. Here are a handful that are definitely worth your consideration:

  • Netflix. I use this almost daily. It’s simple, functions wonderfully, is easy to use, loads quickly, and is an amazing value. If you’re a Netflix user you would probably love Google TV for the Netflix experience alone.
  • Thuuz. Set your favorite sports and favorite teams, and Thuuz will let you know via an onscreen notification whenever there’s an exciting game worth watching. They rate games on a 1 to 100 scale of excitement with the rating changing depending on the score and other elements. Set a notification threshold so they don’t come too often. Also great for just seeing what games are on and tuning to them.
  • Redux: really enjoyable for the YouTube and Break type viewer who just wants to see random crazy and cool videos organized by genre.
  • Wall Street Journal: a really nice layout for organizing video content in categories with more than enough stuff to watch.
  • Classy Fireplace and Aquarium let you use your TV as scenery.
  • AllRecipes: find recipes and learn how to make them! Really nice layout and experience.

Unlike the Play Store for phones and tablets, you’ll struggle to find new things to try for Google TV. When you do try new apps and games, you’ll find they’re mostly poorly designed and the controls are extremely buggy, often freezing your system or having unintended consequences. Different apps/games also use the controls and navigation differently, resulting in a lot of accidental exits or misdirection.

This is to be expected: if Google can’t get their own software working smoothly, what would motivate developers to spend time and money creating products for an unproven platform? The difference here, of course, is that GTV is built on Android which IS a proven platform. Once Google gets things right on their end, developers will start having a field day with Google TV apps and games, and your Sony Internet TV will suddenly sky rocket in personal entertainment value.

We’ve heard it before: developers, developers, developers. Apps, apps, apps. Once Google gets their software right and developers get their apps and games polished, Google TV (and inherently the NSZ-GS7) is going to be beast.

The Future

Google IO 2012, the company’s largest event of the year, begins on Wednesday. This is where they typically make huge announcements regarding new devices, platforms, new products/initiatives, and new versions and features of existing operating systems. We’re expecting to see a ton of Android and that could include some great Google TV news. Stay tuned for live coverage – we’ll be at the event in San Francisco – and we’ll keep you informed on all the latest GTV happenings.

The Conclusion

We started with the conclusion, but we feel the redundant need to be redundant and reinforce our summary.

Google TV is an amazing concept. Sony’s Internet TV products including the NSZ-GS7 are the best Google TV products available on the market. The product is most definitely innovative and fun to use. Unfortunately Google hasn’t done enough to polish the GTV experience or promote the development and integration of GTV apps. Once Google gets on the ball, the NSZ-GS7 will be waiting there patiently for all to enjoy. For Android/Tech enthusiasts like myself… the newest GTV is something I’ve got to have. At $199 and hopefully with updates coming soon, it’s well worth the money for early adopters. For the typical consumer, take a pass until the GTV platform improves as a whole.

Which category do you fit in? That’s for you to decide.

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