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.
We were also disappointed to see that Google TV's Netflix interface is still the first-generation interface we saw on the original Roku Netflix Player. That means there's no search functionality and you can't see movies that aren't in your instant queue. There's really no excuse for that, with much better alternatives available on devices like the new Roku XDS, Sony PS3, Xbox 360, and Apple TV.
In addition to the apps available at launch, Google TV products will also be able to access the Android Marketplace sometime in 2011. This has the potential to add tons of innovative apps, but until then you're stuck with what Google makes available.
One of the standout features of Google TV is the built-in Chrome browser. There's support for both HTML5 and Flash 10.2, which means you're technically able to access nearly any video source you can find on the Web.
The emphasis is on "technically," though. The reality, as mentioned before, is that many content providers, including ABC, NBC, Fox, CBS, and Hulu, are currently blocking Google TV devices from streaming video from their sites. (Even the workaround hacks aren't working anymore.) The main issue is that major content providers don't mind people watching these videos for free on a computer, but don't like the idea of the same content showing up in the living room. The apparent reasons: Web advertising still doesn't pay nearly as much as traditional TV advertising, and--unlike cable and satellite companies--Web video currently doesn't offer any affiliate fees (read: revenue) for TV content providers.
Unfortunately we expect this situation to stay in flux, with hobbyists finding workarounds, content providers trying to plug the holes, and official deals between content providers and Google coming slowly. (Although we'd bet Hulu Plus will come soon.) It is worth pointing out, however, that some content providers don't seem as vigilant about their content. Comedy Central, TBS and Cartoon Network currently aren't blocking Google TV--though that could change at any moment.
Content issues aside, the experience of surfing the Web on a big screen is simultaneously frustrating and awesome. It's frustrating when the browser feels slow (which happens if Flash is used on the site), when a pop-up window fills the entire screen, or when using the clunky touch pad to move the cursor. It's awesome when Chrome intelligently maximizes videos to full screen (which happens with Amazon VOD), and that you can now access any niche video site from your home theater. For better or worse, it essentially duplicates the feeling of watching videos on a slightly underpowered laptop, except you have the benefit of the big screen.Cable/satellite box control
Cable/satellite box control is another feature that differentiates Google TV from other streaming-media boxes. The NSZ-GT1 is technically capable of sending commands to your cable/satellite box using the included IR blasters, enabling Google to search it for content just like it searches the Web.
If you have another device, Google TV's cable/satellite box integration is pretty disappointing. When you search for TV content, Google will find it, but can't set your DVR to record it. All it can do it bring up the guide, and you're forced to find and record the show on your own, as you would without a Google TV. The same thing goes for setting Season Passes. Yes, it's nice to be able to find the program quickly, but it's a huge letdown compared with what you expect Google TV to do. Google says it is working with other cable/satellite providers to provide further integration, but there are no guarantees as to when or if it will actually happen.
DLNA streaming and podcasts
While the Logitech Revue offers DLNA streaming for music, movies and photos right now, the NSZ-GT1 currently offers DLNA streaming only for JPEG photos. That's unfortunate, as even most midrange Blu-ray players offer more extensive DLNA support. There's a dedicated area for podcasts, although a couple of quick searches for popular shows like "Comedy Death-Ray Radio" and "WTF with Marc Maron" gave us the impression that there wasn't nearly the selection that's offered on iTunes. Fortunately, if you click on a podcast RSS link in Chrome, Google TV can add it to the podcast section, so you're not limited to the podcasts Google has culled.
We ran into significant network performance problems when we tested the Logitech Revue, but our experience with the Sony NSZ-GT1 was considerably better. We had no problems with Wi-Fi during setup or when streaming video from the Internet. A wired connection seemed to improve response times slightly, but it wasn't that noticeable since we had a good experience with Wi-Fi.
We also didn't run into nearly as many crashes or bugs in the software while testing the NSZ-GT1 as with the Revue. To be fair, there has been a Google TV firmware update in the time during which we've tested the two devices, which may explain the NSZ-GT1's seemingly more solid performance.
Google TV image quality
As you'd expect from an all-digital connection, image quality was excellent with the NSZ-GT1 and the signals it passes through from a cable/satellite box. As always, if the incoming signal isn't good, the NSZ-GT1 can't make it look any better, but we didn't see any evidence of the NSZ-GT1 negatively affecting incoming HDMI signals.
For video streamed over the Internet, it's highly variable, just like on your computer. Some stuff looks good, some stuff looks terrible. It's not Google TV's fault, but those thinking about "cutting the cord" and getting their "Daily Show" fix via the NSZ-GT1 should be aware that the video quality is significantly worse than cable TV. On the other hand, streaming video from more specialized sources like Amazon VOD and Netflix can look quite good, with the best of it approaching HD cablelike quality.
While we did run into some occasional Flash video bugs when we tested the Logitech Revue, we didn't see the same problems with the NSZ-GT1. Again, Google TV's recent firmware update specifically mentions fixing Flash video issues, which may explain the difference in our testing.
Built-in Blu-ray player
With the focus on Google TV, it's easy to forget that the NSZ-GT1 also includes a fully functional Blu-ray player. Although $400 is expensive for a standalone Blu-ray player, the NSZ-GT1 does offer excellent image quality and speedy load times. On the other hand, it is missing a few features available on other standalone Blu-ray players, and we ran into some stability issues.
(In the interest of brevity, we've only included an abridged summary of our typical Blu-ray player testing results. If you're interested in the full nitty-gritty Blu-ray details, check out our Blu-ray player comparison chart.)
The NSZ-GT1 includes the majority of features we expect from a Blu-ray player at this price level, but there are some surprising omissions. Most Sony Blu-ray players this year--and most players this expensive--include 3D Blu-ray support, but the NSZ-GT1 does not. The NSZ-GT1 has 8GB of onboard memory--much more than typical Blu-ray players--but it lacks analog audio and video outputs. For most people, the NSZ-GT1 will provide all the Blu-ray functionality you need, but those with older audiovisual equipment or those wanting 3D will have to look elsewhere.
Sony says the NSZ-GT1 is technically capable of being upgraded for 3D Blu-ray playback, like some of the other Sony Blu-ray players, but wouldn't elaborate on whether such an upgrade was in the works.
We had no major complaints about the NSZ-GT1's image quality. It passed all the important Blu-ray test patterns we threw at it, and actual program material looked good too. That being said, we rarely see significant differences in Blu-ray image quality, so you're not getting a "better" picture by going with the expensive Sony.
In terms of operational speed, the NSZ-GT1 was excellent, ranking in the top three players we've tested this year. Our only qualification is that a good deal of that speed comes from the NSZ-GT1's quick-start mode. Without the quick-start mode, it took the player a full minute to load "Mission: Impossible III" starting from powered off, which is over twice as long as the average player takes. As long as you're okay with the additional power that quick-start mode uses, the NSZ-GT1 is a speedy Blu-ray player.
Our major concerns about the NSZ-GT1's Blu-ray capabilities come on the stability side. During our testing period, we had to restart the player twice because it would get stuck in a state where it refused to read any discs--or even eject the disc in the player. The stability issues, combined with aforementioned Blu-ray navigation difficulties with the controller, made us think the NSZ-GT1 probably isn't the best choice for Blu-ray-heavy households.