Google TV has always been an ambitious idea. In its ideal form, you'd be able to access all your home theater content -- including your cable/satellite box, streaming video services and content from the Web -- in a single user interface, powered by Google search. It's a great pitch, but it tends to fall apart in the implementation: it's buggy, true DVR integration really only works for Dish Network subscribers, and it still lacks dedicated apps for services like Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant, and MLB.TV.
Sony's NSZ-GS7 ($200 list, available July 22) is the company's second Google TV box, and it's a significant improvement over the
But even with the improved controller, the NSZ-GS7 can't overcome Google TV's shortcomings. There are still too many caveats on all its premiere features to be recommendable, save for the most diehard (and patient) tinkerers. The NSZ-GS7 proves that Google TV hardware can improve, but what it really needs is a software overhaul.
Sleek, slim box
The Sony NSZ-GS7 is a slick looking piece of hardware, save for the annoying Energy Saver sticker on the far left that isn't easily removed. It's a largely glossy black box with no buttons at all, and the top is textured, giving it a nice look and feel. The ports are around back, including an HDMI input and output, two USB ports, and a single IR blaster post. There's also an Ethernet jack, plus the box features built-in Wi-Fi as well. Kudos to Sony for designing the NSZ-GS7 so it doesn't need a bulky power brick, instead requiring just a simple, slim power cable.
The NSZ-GS7 is really all about the remote. In fact, Google TV has always really been about the remote, as the software's complex approach to managing your video content requires more than just a directional pad and a couple buttons. Sony's first attempt with the NSZ-GT1 was a miss, with an truly awful touch pad and a dizzying array of buttons.
The NSZ-GS7's remote is a full redesign and it's a significant improvement over the NSZ-GS1's remote. The front is dominated by a large touch pad and it's much better than the sensor on the NSZ-GS1. Above are typical Android buttons and a directional pad, plus simple DVR-style buttons such as guide, DVR, and TV.
What's really interesting is the full keyboard on the other side. Google is all about search, and it's tough to search without a keyboard. The double-sided nature of the remote actually works pretty well (better than Boxee's implementation, actually), although it's easy to accidentally to flip the remote over so the keyboard is upside-down.
Overall, it may the simplest Google TV remote yet, but that still makes it more complicated than any other home theater remote. It's sure to overwhelm nontechies, which is more of an issue with a home theater device that everyone in the household will use.
And even for techies, the remote isn't great for just plain old TV watching. The most often-used TV-watching buttons (play, pause, volume, channel) are all given secondary status, either relegated to small buttons on the bottom or rockers on the side. Contrast that to the design of a
Google TV software
The tragic element of the NSZ-GS7 is that no matter how good the hardware is, it's still running Google TV -- which remains buggy, confusing, and not nearly as functional as it strives to be.
Google TV defenders tend to focus on its features (full Chrome on your TV!), but rarely do they mention the bugs. As a reviewer, I worry that I sometimes miss intermittent bugs, because I don't spend nearly as much time with products as actual owners. But even with limited reviewing time, I've always encountered frequent bugs with Google TV. Within the first few hours of testing the NSZ-GS7, I had the following problems:
1. The NSZ-GS7 froze up the second time I powered it on, requiring me to unplug/replug the unit to get it working again.
2. I downloaded a highly rated podcast app (BeyondPod for Honeycomb) from the Google Play store and the first time I ran it, it not only rebooted the NSZ-GS7 when I tried to search on it, but it made terrible screeching sounds through my home audio system. (Luckily I had my volume on low.) After rebooting, loading the app and trying to search again, it crashed and rebooted again, although thankfully without the screeching this time.
3. I tried to access my Google Music collection using the app, but flat-out couldn't get it to work, despite the NSZ-GS7 being signed into my Google account. It asked me to activate the device using a PC, but there's no place to "activate" a device in the Google Music settings (I got Google Music working via the Chrome browser, but it's not ideal for several reasons, including the fact that remote buttons like "pause" don't work).
And those are just the major flaws I ran into. Other frustrations include getting kicked to the Chrome browser when trying to play Amazon content, because there's no dedicated Amazon app, which is even more annoying now that there's a great app available for the PS3 and Xbox 360. (The HBO Go "app" is also just a link to the Web site.)
The TV and Movies section is a great idea for being able to browse content across different streaming services, but it still doesn't work that well. Prices for Amazon content don't reflect if you're an Amazon Prime subscriber, so you have no way of knowing if the content might be free to watch with your subscription until you click through. There's no Hulu Plus app, so it doesn't search that content either. And amazingly, Google's own movie and TV rental service (part of Google Play) doesn't appear to be supported, as only Amazon Instant appears as an option for most recent movies. That means if you purchase a movie on Google Play on your Android phone, there's not an immediately easy way to watch that same content on your Google TV device.
The built-in Chrome browser is another feature that sounds great, but there are huge caveats. The original Google TV dream of being able to watch free Hulu and TV using Chrome continues to be dead, with Hulu, ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, Comedy Central, and MTV all still blocking Google TV from streaming video on their Web sites.
Still, the full-fledged Chrome browser provided the most enjoyable experiences of using Google TV. I was able to watch full episodes of "Conan" on TeamCoco.com using the Chrome browser, which isn't possible on nearly any other mainstream device. (And yes it's sort of a hassle to navigate the Web site on your TV to watch the episodes, but hey, it's free TV.) And watching full-screen videos from Vimeo was great, although that's available on competing products like the Apple TV, Roku, and Boxee.
Google TV as a concept is surprisingly still compelling, but it's no longer ahead of its time. The Xbox 360 already has an excellent implementation of cross-platform voice search, with tons of supported apps and even the ability to access live TV with some cable providers. If Google TV wants to catch up, it's running out of time.
I went into this review thinking that the NSZ-GS7's improved controller, and perhaps some Google TV bug fixes, would soften my initial harsh opinion of Google TV's latest Honeycomb software. But the software still hasn't improved, and it's hard to recommend even to tech enthusiasts, who are likely better off rolling their own XBMC box or Media Center PC than struggling with the Google TV software.
Editors' note: This review originally, and incorrectly, stated that the NSZ-GS7 lacked built-in IR blasters. The error has since been corrected.