Google TV could end that, and the Sony NSZ-GT1 is the first Blu-ray player with Google's new software platform built in. Not only does Google TV create a cross-manufacturer platform for streaming media apps, it also adds cable/satellite box control, a built-in Chrome browser, and Google's powerful search bar. Google TV's potential is huge, but right now the experience is lacking, with all major TV networks blocking access to streaming video content, not to mention an antiquated Netflix App and sometimes inaccurate TV listings. Even if you're willing to put up with the quirks of Google TV, we weren't sold on the Sony NSZ-GT1, with its frustrating controller, high price, and large size making it a runner-up to Logitech's initial Google TV offering.
If you're an early adopter who needs to get Google TV right now, the Logitech Revue would be our pick. But for mainstream buyers, we'd pass on both the Revue and the NSZ-GT1 until Google TV irons out its issues.
While the Logitech Revue's size makes it feel like a minor addition to your home theater, the NSZ-GT1 is imposing. It comes in at a whopping 13 inches wide, 2.3 inches high, and 9.8 inches deep, which is large even by Blu-ray player standards. The front and sides of the NSZ-GT1 feature a white finish, while the top is glossy black. It's not our favorite color scheme, since white tends to stand out in a home theater rather than blend in (see: the original Nintendo Wii and Apple TV).
If we were mildly unenthused by the design of the main box, we were much more frustrated by the design of the controller. It makes a decent first impression when you pick it up, feeling a bit like a PS3 controller with a keypad added. But while Sony's PS3 controller is finely tuned to zip around the game console, the NSZ-GT1 tries to pack so many controls into its gamepadlike design that it doesn't really control anything well.
There are two thumbpads that flank the far right and left of the controller. The right pad also includes a touch-sensitive surface (Sony calls it the optical finger sensor, or OFS), so you can control a cursor onscreen (like a mouse), which is needed for Google TV's browser-centric design. It's a decent idea, except the cursor control is imprecise, which gets really tiresome when you're trying to click on, say, a specific link on a Web page. We opted to use the left pad for navigating through menus whenever we could, but we still got stuck using the touch-sensitive pad more than we'd like.
The other problem is the controller doesn't work very well as a Blu-ray player remote. Even simple buttons like play and pause are relatively tiny, and Blu-ray-centric buttons like Disc Menu and Eject require you to hold down the function key simultaneously. It's definitely not the kind of remote you can hand to anyone and expect that person to easily navigate a movie. There's also no backlighting, which means it's very tough to use in a dark home theater.
If you're looking to be a Google TV early adopter, the included wireless keyboard with the Logitech Revue is clearly the superior option. We appreciate Sony's attempt to keep the controller small, but ultimately it made the NSZ-GT1 feel clunky to use.
The setup process for the Sony NSZ-GT1 is a good deal more involved than for traditional streaming-video boxes. For the most part, it's unavoidable, as the NSZ-GT1 needs to communicate with your cable box and control other components, so it's really like setting up a streaming-video box and universal remote all at once.
Unfortunately, the universal remote setup portion is more like setting up a cheapie remote you'd get at a drug store than the more advanced setups we've become accustomed to on Harmony remotes. That means the NSZ-GT1 will try a certain IR command and ask you if it changed the volume on the TV, and will repeatedly go through that until you find the right code. Tedious, but easy enough, although make sure you have your IR blasters connected and positioned correctly. We had to run through the setup a few times because the setup didn't tell us to install the blasters and then we didn't have them positioned 100 percent correctly. The built-in IR emitters on the Logitech Revue leave less cable clutter and require less setup.
Google claims the setup process itself takes about 15 minutes, but be ready to tack on an extra 10 to 15 minutes for the NSZ-GT1 to do a firmware update right off the bat. Of course, you'll only need to do the setup once, but it's a relatively long wait between pulling the NSZ-GT1 out of the box and first surfing Google TV.
The main home menu looks modern and feels responsive. Press the home button at any time and the menu will overlay whatever content you're watching. That means it takes just seconds to go from watching live TV to browsing YouTube, to jumping back again.
That being said, the interface certainly seems to be geared toward the tech-savvy in its layout. Whereas Apple TV's main menus use simple phrases like "Movies" and "TV Shows," Google TV's interface has less straightforward phrases like "Applications," "Bookmarks," and "Spotlight." Google TV is greatly customizable and you can make the "Bookmarks" section show all your favorite content, but it's not something that tech novices can jump right into.
Along the same lines, the Google TV software has some powerful options for the tech-savvy. For example, if you're watching live TV, you can hit the picture-in-picture button to minimize the TV to a small window, while you surf the Web in Chrome in the main window--it's really slick. Android users will also feel right at home with the home, back, and menu buttons, which make it easy to jump between functions from any screen. Some of the multitasking joy of Google TV is hampered by Sony's frustrating remote, but it's still a powerful experience compared with other streaming video boxes.
The Google search bar
The vast functionality (more on this later) of Google TV may seem overwhelming, but Google has a secret weapon to make it all seem simple: the Google search bar. Press the dedicated search button on the controller and the search bar pops up at the top of the screen, regardless of whether you're using the Chrome browser, streaming Netflix, or watching live TV. The idea behind Google TV's search is that it combs streaming video, the Web, and regular TV to find the programming you're looking for. It's really the perfect solution to the problem of finding content spread out among many sources. Except when it doesn't work.
To start off, the Google search bar doesn't search Netflix, which is a significant oversight considering it's probably the most important service on the box. Excluding the Netflix omission, we also found search results to be occasionally inaccurate. When we searched for "Colbert Report" on October 26, the Google TV series results page didn't show that the October 25 episode was available, even though it was available directly from Comedy Central's site. When we tried loading the next most recent episode--October 14--Google TV loaded the October 25 show that it had said wasn't available. We then tried the October 13 episode, and the correct episode was loaded, but we noticed Google TV's programming data was wrong. (The guest was Austan Goolsbee, not Arturo Rodriguez.) And we had similar problems with "The Daily Show." And although it said free Web streams were available for "South Park," when we clicked through we encountered a message that said it couldn't supply that particular episode until mid-November.
Google TV is a new service--and we wouldn't be surprised if Google were to fix many of these bugs over time--but in its initial incarnation, we didn't find that Google's search bar functionality and cross-platform TV listings delivered the experience we were expecting.
Streaming media apps
The Sony NSZ-GT1 is similar to many competing Blu-ray players in that it has separate applications for several streaming-media services. The initial lineup of apps includes Netflix, Napster, Pandora, Twitter, and NBA Game Time. (Amazon VOD is also supported, but only by browsing Amazon in Chrome, which isn't quite as slick as some dedicated apps we've seen.) We're actually surprised by how few standalone apps there currently are at launch, especially when a much cheaper box like the Roku XDS has standalone apps for Amazon VOD and MLB.TV, plus tons of other niche media services.