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Vizio Co-Star review: Vizio Co-Star

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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 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.)

Vizio Co-Star user interface
Google TV's Amazon Instant 'app.' Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

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.)

Vizio Co-Star user interface
All the video from the Web on your TV! Except Hulu, NBC, CBS, Fox, ABC, Comedy Central, MTV... Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

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.

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