Google TV can best be described as one of the best innovations that no one really asked for, or quite knows what to do with. In an age of iDevices, consumers are used to intuitive, simple interfaces, and devices whose purpose is pretty clear from the get-go. But when you first power up a Google TV box, you can’t help but wonder just what you’re supposed to do with it. Dig a little deeper and you find that, yes, it is an awfully powerful system that just hasn’t matured yet. That, combined with some seriously iffy hardware support, hasn’t done much to keep the Google TV ecosystem relevant, but Vizio is one of the manufacturers hoping to keep the dream alive with its Vizio Co-Star.
The Co-Star has been on the market for a while, but it’s worth a look a little later into its life cycle mostly because of its updated Google TV architecture. Early Co-Star reviews are littered with issues that were promised to be addressed in “future updates.” Well, those updates have arrived, and the new Google TV 3 update is on the horizon — in fact, Vizio pushed the GTV 3 update to my review unit early and I was able to get a look at some additional and some new functionality — but is it too little, too late? And is it possible to give the Co-Star a fair shake in and of itself, without sifting through the baggage carried along by Google TV’s rough history thus far?
At the very least, that’s what I’m trying to do here: judge the box on its own merits. And in that regard, my review got off to a very positive start. Out of the box, the Co-Star couldn’t be more simple to set up. There is a decal covering the I/O ports that tells you exactly what to do: plug the HDMI cable from your TV provider’s set top box into one port, and plug the HDMI cable headed to your receiver or TV into the other. Give it power and hardwired Ethernet (if you have it close — the unit does have Wi-Fi built-in) and you’re pretty much ready to go. A start up guide gets your Co-Star configured and you’re on your way to enjoying all that Google TV has to offer.
Except, one has to ask: what does Google TV offer? That was the issue I ran into pretty quickly. The issue is more with the platform itself than the hardware I had on hand. Hitting the big Vizio “V” button in the center of the remote brings up a very slick app drawer, all without taking you away from live TV, but what lies within can be a little confusing. I know that Google TV, and the Vizio Co-Star specifically, is supposed to change my TV viewing habits, but there is really no road map or intuitive way for it to do that. After some poking around and figuring out which app did what, I was able to see some of the benefits of the Google TV platform. I can’t say that it has truly changed my viewing habits, as I was already intimately familiar with my channel guide and my preferred channels, but if you’re the type of TV watcher who is constantly surfing, this may just be your cup of tea.
That, of course, isn’t the Vizio Co-Star’s fault. It’s just par for the course with Google TV. And it must be said that the Co-Star makes navigating the ecosystem much easier. Everything you need is on the brick of a remote that ships with the Co-Star. I don’t use “brick” as a pejorative, by the way. The remote has a QWERTY keyboard on one side and the usual TV controls along with a trackpad on the other. It’s comfortable to hold, isn’t too heavy, and has plenty of buttons to take care of all your surfing and media-access needs. The remote itself communicates to the Co-Star via Bluetooth, and can talk to your other devices via IR. You can program your other devices into the remote via an on-screen guide, so it’s really quite easy (and essential) to get your codes punched in. The remote also has a gyro sensor that disables the side of the remote facing down, so you won’t have problems with hitting buttons on the reverse side. The buttons themselves aren’t stellar, and take some getting used to, though. Even after a few weeks of use, I still have a few issues with getting text typed in, but they are far fewer since getting a little more used to the remote. Also, the remote isn’t backlit, so nighttime viewing will either require a good memory, or a flashlight.
As stated earlier, the Vizio “V” button brings up your app drawer. Said drawer slides in from the left, and takes up a little more than a quarter — but less than a third — of the screen. You can scroll with the arrow keys or use the trackpad and mouse your way to your app of choice. Amazon Instant and Netflix come baked in, and have their own dedicated buttons on the remote as well. Since Google TV is Android-based, the Google Play Store is also available, but as is usually my luck, Hulu Plus is not available for the Co-Star. However, you can find a number of other apps to download. With the latest update, the M-GO streaming service is finally available, so that’s nice. It’s still not Hulu Plus, though.
Using the Vizio Co-Star for TV viewing does take a little getting used to, and not merely because of the aforementioned remote buttons. I found myself primarily using the “TV” and “Prime Time” apps. TV simply plays through whatever is on your set top box. In this case, I usually tossed aside the Co-Star’s remote and used my Harmony remote. The included remote works fine, but I know the Harmony better and have an RF system with it, so it’s a little easier to use. You can tie the Co-Star into your remote of choice, but you certainly lose a bit of the ease of use the Co-Star’s remote provides. The Prime Time app, though, brings the Google TV architecture more to the forefront of your viewing experience, and with that, the Co-Star remote becomes a little more indefensible When you have your cable or satellite provider’s info punched in, along with your ZIP, it gives you listings by category of what is currently on TV, what channel it’s on, and how much time is left in the program. You can click into each program and get additional description info. This is how every program guide should work — or at least have an option to work this way.
It’s really cool to think, “I’m in the mood for a movie; I wonder what movies are playing?” and be able to scroll and see each available movie, complete with poster art. Very slick. You can select what you want to watch in the primetime broadcast hours, and it will change to the appropriate channel on your set top box (via IR). In the latest version of the Google TV software, you can use the guide button to forgo your provider’s guide and use Prime Time’s instead, with it presented in a beautiful overlay of live video. I think this is truly the killer app of the platform, as it does have a chance of changing your viewing habits. It’s a little slower than I’d like, but if you really hate your cable provider, or just enjoy nice looking interfaces, you’ll love this feature. You can also rate programs and add favorite channels, all in an effort to further personalize your experience.
Picture-in-picture is also available, which allows you to bounce around apps to your heart’s content without missing a frame of Downton Abbey. It’s not a perfect implementation, but it works, and it’s better than nothing.
Google’s Chrome browser is also included, and anytime you start typing on the QWERTY keyboard, a search bar automatically pops up. It’s a well integrated feature, but I don’t understand the whole desire to have a browser on your TV. Web browsing is a second screen function, and those second screen devices do it better. However, there is a nice app pre-installed called Spotlight that lists a variety of websites that are optimized for TV, including HBO GO and Crackle. All of these run inside Chrome, although some are heads and shoulders above the others in terms of implementation and usefulness.
Streaming video is also available, and it’s about what you expect from a box of this caliber. It’s smooth, looks good, and is basically dependent on the quality of your connection. The Vizio Co-Star had no issue with the variety of content I viewed, including Netflix and HBO GO. The HDMI pass-through of my set top box was also great, although it did add a little delay in getting my receiver to lock audio. It was brief, but if I wasn’t quick enough on the DVR controls, I’d often miss a word or two of dialogue before the audio stream locked. Other than that, there’s no additional lip sync delay or picture degradation to speak of.
For the cost of the Co-Star ($99.99 at Amazon), entering the Google TV ecosystem is as cheap as it’s been, but the product doesn’t suffer too much as a result of its budget price. The build quality is good, it works well out of the box, and the custom Vizio interface is superior to the vanilla Google TV experience — something that can’t always be said. The (only) other Google TV box out there, the Sony NSZ-GS7, costs at least $50 more, but offers some great add-on features, including an IR blaster out and digital audio out (the Co-Star is dependent on HDMI for audio). Even without these features, the Vizio is a good buy if you’re looking to join the Google TV party. However, if you’re just looking for a streaming box and don’t care about integrating your cable or satellite provider, you’re probably better off looking towards a Roku or Apple TV box, as they have a lot more content available.