19 Aug 2012

Vizio Co-Star

Back when the first Google TV launched, I bought the Logitech Revue. After playing with it for a couple of days, it was obvious that it was rubbish and unfinished. The interface was neither consistent nor friendly, and the remote! The remote was just a huge keyboard. Who wants that in their living room? Maybe in a bachelor pad :). Another no-no, the device had a continuously running fan and couldn’t go into standby mode (a restriction caused by using an early Intel Atom). Oh, and to top it off, it cost a ludicrous $300. To Logitech’s demise, everyone agreed with me, and Logitech blamed their $100 million operating loss on their Google TV! Logitech finally saw the light, and dropped the price to $99, but that didn’t change the fact that the device just wasn’t that good. So, has Google learned from their lesson?

Well, only partly. The launch price of the Vizio Co-Star is now a much more realistic $99 and the hardware has improved substantially. It now uses a low-power (fanless) dual core ARM Marvell Armada 1500 chip. The remote, while still a full remote and QWERTY keyboard is normal-ish in size, and connects over Bluetooth. This is great because it no longer requires line of sight. It also has an IR blaster so I can control my TV and receiver.

Unfortunately, the software, which runs on top of the 16 month old Android Honeycomb release, isn’t much better than before. It blows my mind that Google still hasn’t figured out how to improve the overall experience. They should have released a simple device with a simple remote along the lines of a Roku, an Apple TV, or even a Boxee Box. They should have concentrated on the basics:

Streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon etc.. good local playback A few really great apps A nice, intuitive 10′ interface Instead, they’ve released a complicated hybrid that tries to do everything, and yet isn’t really great at anything…. It’s ironic, but the only thing that’s good about Google TV is that it’s Android underneath. That means you’ll soon be able to install apps like VLC and XBMC (both available as alpha/beta quality nightlies), or Plex. [edit] I incorrectly assumed that just because you can run native code on Android with the NDK, the same would be true on a Google TV. To my disappointment, I found out that this is not the case. This ability has actually been removed! It’s a terrible, terrible mistake that will hopefully be rectified soon. Without this, there will never be native SDK apps and games. XMBC/VLC in particular

Apps like XBMC will be what makes this device worthwhile. Until then, I’ve been using Plex. I installed Plex Media Server on my Linux server, and installed the Plex Google TV app on my Co-Star. The interface is nice, but it’s a little slow and clunky. It also doesn’t have great codec support, at least not without transcoding.

Plex is definitely not without it’s problems though. Similar to Google TV, Plex suffers from being overly ambitious. I don’t want or need transcoding, and I don’t want to stream my content from outside my house. I just want to stream content from my server to my TV. That’s it! I currently have a WDTV, and it works great. It streams my media from my linux server over NFS flawlessly. I’d just like a better GUI and media scrapping à la XBMC. Here’s hoping to a a good XMBC Android port soon.

Some of these problems could be solved by Google TV rebasing on Android 4.1. It would make the platform more stable and much faster. Of course, that wouldn’t solve everything. but it would sure help. Unfortunately, Google TV still depends on Adobe Flash for some of its content playback (like Amazon VOD), and with Adobe no longer supporting Android, this leaves a problem. It would be great for everyone if Flash just died. We all know it will die eventually, but for now, it’s still used for DRM’d video.


I posted my review on Google+, and a guy who develops Google TV apps immediately jumped in to criticize it. This should go without saying, but if you’re looking for a valuable review of a Google TV, do not trust someone whose livelihood depends on making money from Google TV app development. They have a vested interest in the success of the platform. It’s like reading _any _MG Siegler Apple product review. You know the answer before even reading. I love a lot of Google products. Like most people, I started using Google search, and then GMail. From there, it was Google Calendar, and now Android. I tried blogger for a while, but migrated to WordPress. If someone makes a better product than Google, I’ll use it. For mobile phones, I believe Android is now the best, but it wasn’t always that way. I’m now on my third Android phone, I’ll be the first one to admit that Android sucked prior to Eclair. The software wasn’t that good, and the hardware it ran on sucked. But Google’s vision was clear, they heavily invested in it, and the result was the original Droid. It was the first device to match good hardware with substantially improved software (Android 2.0), and that’s the point. I criticized Android pre-2.0, and praised it post-2.0. What’s the value in saying it’s always good? We can only hope that Android’s iterative improvements come to Google TV. Hopefully their acquisition of SageTV (14 months ago) pays off. Regardless, since Android is open, apps could and likely will be Google TV’s saviour.