You may be surprised to find that Google TV is still kicking around. That's understandable, given poor reviews, sluggish sales, and last year's problems with Logitech, one of its original hardware partners. Google itself is even starting to pretend Google TV doesn't exist, launching other living-room initiatives like Google Fiber and the Nexus Q without even mentioning the long-struggling platform.
Vizio's Co-Star is one of only a handful of products on the market still trying to prove Google TV has a place in your living room. And it has a few distinctive features that make it stand out from other boxes: a $100 list price, a custom Google TV skin, and a small footprint. It's also the first Google TV device to support OnLive cloud gaming out of the box, although that's less of a marquee feature given OnLive's recent troubles. But none of this can overcome the heart of the Co-Star's failings, which is the underwhelming Google TV software. While it may seem like it can "do a lot" for a $100 device, so much of its functionality is hamstrung by restrictions and the overall bugginess of the software. The Vizio Co-Star is cheap way to check out Google TV, but it's still not worth the price until the software improves.
The Co-Star is the smallest Google TV box yet, looking more like an overstuffed Roku box than the more cable-box-like Logitech Revue or Sony NSZ-GS7. It lacks the crisp, refined look of the Apple TV and the glossy black finish with silver highlights makes it look a little generic.
Around back are the Co-Star's only ports: an HDMI input, HDMI output, USB port, and Ethernet jack. It's about as simple as a Google TV box can be and it's nice that Vizio was able to fit it all into a small package. Note that there's no IR blaster port, nor is there a built-in IR blaster in the Co-Star box; all external devices are controlled by IR commands from the remote.
Remote: Brick-sized and QWERTY-fied
The challenge for any Google TV device is getting the remote right. So far, manufacturers have tried everything from a full-fledged keyboard to a game-controller-style remote, but even the best attempt yet (the Sony NSZ-GS7's) is only good, rather than great.
Vizio's remote is similar to the NSZ-GS7's, with standard remote and touch pad on one side, and a full QWERTY keyboard on the other. One big difference is the inclusion of a big "V" button in the middle, which brings up Vizio's custom Google TV sidebar. It's not a bad layout by Google TV standards, but it's still subpar for a lot of activities. Frequently used buttons like Play and Pause are small and inconveniently located at the top of the remote. Well-designed remotes, like TiVo's and Harmony's, put those buttons right under your thumb. So while this does a decent job of cramming a lot of functionality into one clicker, button layout isn't that great for the functions you use the most.
Flip the Co-Star's remote around and there's a full QWERTY keyboard on the back, necessary for Google's browser-intensive approach to streaming video. The double-sided design is very reminiscent of the Boxee Box's remote, except Vizio's remote is a lot bigger. That extra size actually hurts its ergonomics quite a bit; my average-size hands had to stretch to reach the G and H keys in the center of remote. It's also surprising that there's no dedicated search button on the QWERTY side, so you have to flip the remote over to activate the search bar. On the plus side, the clicker communicates with the Co-Star using Bluetooth, so you don't need to worry about pointing the remote at the box.
All Google TV products to date are essentially identical other than hardware, but Vizio is the first company to "skin" Google TV, rather than using the default interface.
It's not a bad idea, since there's plenty of room for improvement to the default Google TV interface, but I don't think Vizio's is any better. Instead of the standard overlay of icons along the bottom, Vizio has its own sidebar that pops out from the left when you hit the V button. The top of the menu presents you with major services like Amazon Instant and Netflix, followed by a long list of apps and other settings. The sidebar may be designed small to avoid blocking too much of the content it's overlaying, but it ends up feeling cramped and a poor use of screen space.
That cramped feeling makes the Co-Star harder to use than it should be. The worst offender may be the icon that reads "Google P...", which stands for Google Play Store, which is Google's app store. That's common knowledge for geeks and Android fans, but it's a far cry from the dead-simple "Channel Store" on a Roku box.
When someone asks, "What does Google TV do?" the answer is never easy. It's kind of like a Roku box, and it's kind of like a DVR, and it's kind of like Web TV, yet it always feels less than the sum of its parts.
While Google TV has some elements of a streaming-media box, it's limited compared with the $50 Roku LT. Streaming-media app support includes a few major services, including Netflix, Rhapsody, Pandora, Google Music, but the omissions are more notable. There are no dedicated apps for Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant, HBO, MLB.TV, Spotify -- not even Google's own TV and Movies rental service! And while the Co-Star appears to have a dedicated app for Amazon Instant -- there's even a direct-access button on the remote -- it merely brings you to Amazon.com in the Chrome browser. The lack of app support is almost completely inexplicable when the same services are supported on nearly every other connected device. (And while the Co-Star's OnLive support is an interesting idea, it's much less attractive now that the future of the company is uncertain.)
Similarly, Google TV has some elements of a DVR, but it's not really a DVR. The Co-Star can be used in conjunction with a cable/satellite box, allowing you to search through TV listings through the Google search bar. It's an intriguing concept -- being able to search standard TV content and streaming content through a single interface -- but again the implementation just isn't there yet. Google TV can find content, but once you actually want to set up to a recording, you're forced to leave the Google TV interface and set up a recording with your DVR's standard interface. The juggling between Google TV's overlay and your cable/satellite box's overlay is another layer of complexity that makes the device harder to use than it should be. (Dish subscribers do get DVR integration, making a Google TV device more appealing for them.)
Finally, Google TV probably comes the closest to bringing the Web to your TV of any product we've seen (short of using an actual PC), including a full-fledged Chrome browser capable of playing Flash video. Navigating the Web from the couch isn't that appealing to me (AirPlay mirroring in Mountain Lion is a much better experience), although I can understand the appeal for those with more patience. Even so, no Google TV review is complete without pointing out that a lot of the content sources you'd like to watch, such as Hulu and content from major TV networks like NBC, Fox, CBS, ABC, and Comedy Central, currently block Google TV devices from streaming video from their sites. Cord-cutters expecting to get all the video that's available on the Web on their TVs are likely to be disappointed.
So while Google TV fans are quick to point out how much it can do, the reality is it's less than a jack of all trades. It does many things and none of them particularly well.
Image quality and stability
There aren't any major issues with the Co-Star's image quality, but as with any device, it's subject to "garbage in, garbage out." It may not seem fair to knock the Co-Star for the fact that a lot of Web video is of poor quality, but it's relevant since so much of the Google TV experience revolves around Web content. Even streams from the Web sites of major providers like AMC don't look as good as living-room-optimized services like Netflix and Amazon Instant. And beyond the subpar video quality, you often have to put up with onscreen status bars, "comment" links, and so on, even on sites that Google highlights as being "TV-friendly," like Adult Swim.
Google TV also continues to have a problem with stability, although the Co-Star seemed slightly more stable than other Google TV devices I've tested. Still, I experienced a few bugs during the testing period, including individual apps freezing and more system-level crashes ("Notifications have crashed.") It's frustrating, especially on a product you're relying on to control all of your TV watching.
What are the alternatives?
The best thing the Co-Star has going for it is that it's currently one of the better Google TV options available. The Logitech Revue, with its full-size keyboard and flexible hardware, may seem like the better value at $100, but it's not likely to get many more updates. The Sony NSZ-GS7's hardware is better and it runs the stock Google TV software, but it's twice as expensive. If you're going to go with a Google TV box, the Co-Star may be the best bet right now.
Like every Google TV product I've tested, the Vizio Co-Star isn't recommendable. That's more on Google than Vizio, as the Google TV platform just isn't compelling. But if you're itching to give Google's living-room software a try, the Co-Star is cheap, small, and at least a current product that might get software updates. Still, for almost everyone, I'd say let others beta test Google's half-baked software and spend your $100 on a better home theater device.