Sony Google TV Review


1. Introduction

2010 is certainly a year where media streaming boxes really flourished. From cheap dedicated media streamers like WD TV Live Plus and Apple TV, going through (although unreleased yet  Boxee Box) and ending with more expensive (for now) Google TV boxes from Sony and Logitech (Revue) there is enough diversity to satisfy everyone. The questions are: Do they succeed in offering a truly enjoyable experience? Which one is better / simpler to use / easier to integrate in your existing Home Theater?

Google TV’s entry in the media streamers market is here and it hopes to bring more than mere streaming. Its main purpose is convergence and the ability to search / reach for your media in a unified manner, while enjoying the comfort of your own couch. Does it succeed? We’ll try to find out in Review’s Horizon ambitious take to review this complex box.

2. Sony Google TV Unpacking

Although not the first one to be announced (the honor belongs to Logitech Revue), Sony Google TV model NSZ-GT1 is the first Google TV box to actually ship. We got one as soon as they were available and we are  probably one of the first technology blogs to offer a full review based on an actual retail unit. The box includes the QWERTY remote control, the power supply (external), one HDMI cable and a double IR transmitter, one for your DVR box, one for your receiver.

3. Tech Specs

Currently available for $399, Sony Google TV NSZ-GT1 features a Blu-ray player, four USB ports capable to add local storage, 8GB storage on board, an optical digital out (SPDIF), one HDMI input and one HDMI output and wired and wireless network support as well. What sets Google TV media streamer boxes apart is the inclusion of both HDMI input and output connectors that enable Google TV boxes to connect BETWEEN your DVR or receiver and your TV. This is a critical feature and a first in industry and allows web searches and other activities without switching inputs. This way, you’ll be able to enjoy using Google TV and at the same time watching a TV show and both activities will be complementary. Google TV’s output will be overlay-ed over the TV image, or you can use picture in picture mode (PiP) to watch TV while searching the web for related (or not) terms.

3.1 Codecs

Audio / Video Codecs – BD-ROM, H.264/MPEG-4 AVC, MP3, JPEG, GIF, PNG

Surround Audio Codecs – Surround Codecs: Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby Digital, DTS, AAC

4. Details and Screenshots

4.1 Initial Set-up

Before you can use Sony Google TV, you’ll have to go through a depressingly long nine steps process that will set-up everything starting with the screen size and ending with the integration with Dish Network DVR and your Receiver. Sony Google TV comes with two IR blaster adapters, one to be used with the DVR, one with your receiver and Sony’s remote control should be able to power them, change channels, enable recording, etc. Available for Dish Network DVRs is something called “deep integration” that basically means your Google TV box will be capable to search not only on the Internet, but in your DVR as well. The search results will be integrated in a unique search result page (SERP).

The setup is fairly slow and annoying, especially the part where you need to “maximize your screen area”, basically a glorified way to set the overscan parameters. What is even worse is that, after you set up everything the way you want, the box will find a software update on the Internet, will prompt you to download and install it (and you want that, of course), after which you’ll have to perform the initial settings again since for some weird reason they are not stored.

Note: You can install Google TV stand alone, connected to your TV by itself, between DVR and TV or between receiver and TV. The last option will ensure Google TV access regardless of your current activity and device used.

4.2 Software Update

Interesting for a product bought in the first release day, a software update was already available. Hopefully that reflects Google’s commitment to regularly improve the product quality and not their willingness to ship a beta product.

4.2 Setting TV Service

Since the box can be installed between DVR / Receiver and TV, you’ll be able to select various parameters for the integration. If you are a Dish network subscriber and have a VIP 722 DVR you can take advantage of the so called “deep integration” which at this point is available only for Dish Network. I have a Sling enabled VIP 922 which is currently Dish Network’s flagship DVR and unfortunately it is not supported yet. Disappointing.

4.2 Setting Receiver

If you want to be able to turn ON/OFF the receiver or to control the volume, you can use Sony Google TV’s remote control. The control will happen via IR transmitter so be sure to position the IR emitter close to the receiver’s IR sensor.

4.3 Setting Power Mode

At some point during setup, you’ll be prompted to choose the power mode. You can choose to turn off the box completely in which case it will need 40 seconds to completely start or to use a more power hungry mode that will ensure an instant power on mode. If you are like me, you will choose the fast way ;).

5. Web Clients

The web clients list at launch is relatively poor, however there are some popular clients available (and more than Apple TV has anyway). The launch list includes Pandora, Netflix, Blip TV, HBO GO, CNET,   Flickr and Twitter. YouTube also comes with a new “Leanback” mode specifically designed for Google TV that allows a flow of various videos to play without interruption. For example if you watch best of YouTube category, Leanback mode will play all the videos in that category without prompting you again.

5.1 Netflix

I had high hopes for a nice Netflix client capable of searching in Netflix movie database. Unfortunately, Google TV’s Netflix client is not only incapable of any search, but it looks just like Roku 1.0 interface and it is only capable of displaying your queue. It doesn’t even have categories. Embarrassing. This is where XBOX 360, Windows Media Center 7 or the upcoming Playstation 3 Netflix client are really shinning.

5.2 YouTube

YouTube client is fast, supports HD and also features a new “Leanback” mode allowing clips to play continuously whether they are in your favorites queue or a predefined category. HD playback is also supported, up to 1080p and in Leanback mode HD movies will take priority while playing in succession. The client is nice and smooth but still Chrome centric. I would like an implementation closer to the Netflix simplicity.

5.3 Pandora

Pandora radio comes with a good implementation and allows choosing from your favorite stations or create a new station on the spot. If you need to search for a song / performer, search feature is available and resembles recently launched Google instant search.

5.4 Chrome Browser

One of the Google TV main strengths is the support for Chrome right in the box. The browser is fast, supports Java and Adobe Flash 10.1 so you get to enjoy the full web experience. The rendering is fast and clear and Review Horizon  looks really good on my 60″ 1080p plasma TV :D

While HULU actually blocks Google TV’s user agent, there is a way to change that, thanks to Google’s infinite wisdom. Here are the steps to watch HULU on your new Google TV:

1. Open Chrome browser

2. Push the menu button (right D-Pad, bottom button)

3. Select “More” option from the menu

4. Click Advanced

5. Choose either Generic or custom (for the latter one you can enter any string you want to customize your user agent)

6. Enjoy HULU on your Google TV

7. There are various websites that won’t work unless you have certain user agents, so you might need to revert the changes in case you have issues. However, it is a small price to pay to have HULU available.

Update: Apparently HULU blocked this method :(. Stay tuned, will publish any other methods of watching HULU as they become available.

Update Monday, Nov 22, 2010: Bad news, Viacom started to block Google TV as well MTV, Nickelodeon, and Comedy Central shows are not available anymore. Tweaking user agent still works for Viacom but probably not for long.

5.5 Twitter Client

The Twitter client is simple but easy to use and it has as expected, integrated search. First time you will launch it it might take a while to load your tweets so it might display an error message.

5.6 UPnP / DLNA Support

Google TV supports UPnP and DLNA protocols and was able to detect my installed PS3 Media Server and PlayOn. PS3 Media server worked without issues, however, with PlayOn it seems to be a hit and miss situation – What is your experience? unfortunately the codec support is pitiful and half of my videos won’t play. The box does play MKV files but is very picky about the codec supported which is worse that for example Playstation 3. If wide audio/video codec support is important for you, you are much better using a dedicated box like WD TV Live Plus  that we recently reviewed and in my opinion is the de-facto standard in media streamer boxes. This lack of wide video codec support was a disappointment for me and unfortunately Google TV box won’t replace my good old Windows 7 Media Center PC any time soon. I am eager to test Logitech Revue that will launch next week and compare codec support between the two boxes. I hope the lack of codecs support is due to Sony’s historical unwillingness to support open formats and Logitech Revue will fare better in this category.

Update: Google TV is now officially supported by PlayOn software. More info here.

6. Remote Control

The Sony remote keyboard resembles their PS3 controller and feels about the same in my hands. The mouse is controlled by a special optical sensor on the right and it is very sensitive but it will take a while getting used to. The direction pad is on the left, separated by the cursor control which feels a little unusual. The controller is filled with tiny buttons and I strongly recommend to read the manual first, otherwise it could be a little overwhelming. The good news is that the QWERTY keyboard certainly makes input of the username / password in various web clients or web pages much easier than a regular remote.

7. Factory Data Reset

If you’ll ever want to get rid of your Google TV box, it is important to remember to clean up your account info, especially since, this being a connected box will store pretty much every password you use around the Internet. To perform a factory data reset, navigate to Settings->About and select Factory Data Reset.

8. Hardware specs and internals

  • 1.2GHz CE4100 Intel Atom processor capable of 1080p decoding
  • 8GB of memory
  • 802.11n WiFi
  • HDMI input / output
  • optical S/PDIF
  • 4 USB ports

9. Conclusion

Sony Google TV NSZ-GT1 is a good first entry for Google in the media streamer box market, and it certainly has more features than for example Apple TV. The tight integration between your receiver / DVR and your TV is a very good idea and makes searching or browsing the Internet while watching TV an easy process. However, the basic Netflix client is really disappointing especially since it doesn’t support search and/or categories. I would also wish for a wider support for video formats and maybe integration with one or more Internet movie databases (IMDB?). However, all my complaints are about the software and I am sure Google TV platform can only improve in time. Google also announced that, early next year the boxes will support Android Marketplace applications and this is when things will get really interesting.

Update: Since we wrote this review, all the major broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC) elected to block Google TV from accessing their shows. This could create a really big perception (and content) issue for Google, especially because they also lack in the CODEC compatibility department, so you can’t really play all your home server content either. While I do expect this to change,  and the content providers will eventually embrace the digital era on your big TV, it might not change fast enough for the current generation of devices. Nowadays, one year or even less than that might make or break a product and Google better find some alternative content providers soon.
Update Monday, Nov 22, 2010: Bad news, Viacom started to block Google TV as well MTV, Nickelodeon, and Comedy Central shows are not available anymore. Tweaking user agent still works for Viacom but probably not for long.

9.1 Pros:

  • Physical integration between DVR / receiver and TV
  • Open Android platform will bring limitless possibilities as more applications will arrive
  • Chrome Browser support with adobe Flash 10.1 support
  • QWERTY keyboard makes text input easy
  • Picture in Picture mode makes it very convenient to watch TV in a corner while surfing the Internet
  • 1080p support

9.2 Cons:

  • Limited web clients supported at launch
  • Disappointing Netflix client
  • Disappointing codec support
  • Price for initial capabilities (more expensive than a PS3)
  • no HULU support yet, although Google announced there are talks to bring it to the platform. There is a trick to enable it (see chapter 5.4)
  • no support for Windows shares and folder images for movies
  • the major broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX) are currently blocking Google TV from accessing their content. If this will continue, Google TV will fail as a devices. Content is king and nobody will pay $400 for an overpriced Sony box if it doesn’t deliver the goods.

10. Gallery

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  • Kermonk

    I wish someone would get an Android program (say form getjar) and then email it to google tv and see if its possible to install it that way.

  • Don

    I have one…it doesn’t support PLAYON.TV for VIDEO … DOH! Sony says the device isn’t intended to do that…”it’s for watching TV and searching the web” I quote. I think this is going back to the store…
    The UI is kind of clunky too…

  • Stomp

    Don – you bring up a good point but then I realized I already have my xbox to serve as an extender and stream my videos from my computer to the TV. It’s all about the internet videos/web for me, and for that it should work just fine. Good luck w/ your choice.

  • Jeremy Wilson

    What good is the Chrome full web browser in Google Tv if you cant save a photo or video or anything off the web onto a usb storage device, this so important function is missing from Sony’s Google Tv and Logitech’s Revue. Google dropped the ball and the bat on this one.

  • Jeremy Wilson

    Also Sony has the worst remote control design on their Google TV, I tested the 40 in version today. The remote ruined the whole appeal of Google TV’s design and function.

  • Samuel

    Jeremy,

    I realize usage is different from person to person, but usually when I sit on my couch I want to consume information, not save it. It never crossed my mind that someone would want to save stuff while on the big screen and I don’t think any embedded device currently on the market allows that.

  • jeremy wilson

    Samuel

    Well to me I was hoping to be able to ditch the little laptop and enjoy the full browser in all its glory on a 40 inch huge screen. So far this is just another empty box to me. Depressing after waiting for years for this and it end up being only a half experience.

  • Neal

    I just got mine yesterday and so far I am underwhelmed. I agree with you about a lot of the cons, including the poor Netflix experience. To me, the whole point of something like this is so that you can have one place to search for content on your TV and the Web. When I searched for something I knew was on Netflix, it came back with only a result for Amazon On Demand, at a cost. This is LAME!!!

    Also, PlayOn does not work at all. I can go and look in the folders, but when I get to a folder that should have content in it (I use the WDTV Live all the time with PlayOn), it says that the folder is empty. How is this DLNA support?

    Luckily, I got my work to pay for half of it and I did not have a Blu-Ray player yet, or else I would be returning it.

    I it could get a lot better with the use of Apps and updates to the firmware. Of course, if they bring Hulu support, it is going to cost money, unlike the PlayOn solution. Also, I think it should be able to play files on your computer like the WDTV. I was able to get TVersity to work for some files, but then it stopped working and now won’t even “see” that server. Why can’t there just be a share (I guess that would need more codec support)?

    I would give it a 5/10.

  • notechzombie

    thans for the info, i think i’ll wait

  • Robert Higgins

    I’m bummed, just dropped $1000 on this google tv very disappointed. TV has limited input, no S video, no composit, no VGA, a bunch of USB connectors for what? Cant even connect a wii to it, cant change channels with remote, browser does not let you type URL you need to search through google. No documentation included. Netflix on the wii is better. Pretty poor!

  • David

    Has anyone heard that google TV will not work with Comcast in South Fla

  • http://carolmaeray.com Carol Anderheggen

    GREAT review–clear and highly detailed. Discussion also excellent. Enough said so I have decided to wait for the networks and Google to battle it out.

  • gerald

    the mouse section of my google remote freezes up on me i have to take the batteries out and put them back in for the mouse to operate and most of the time that dont work

  • Joe

    DISAPPOINTING PRODUCT AND AWFUL CUSTOMER SERVICE.

    I OWN A SONY GOGGLE TV BOX. AT FIRST IT WAS WORKING JUST FINE. BUT 3 MONTHS LATER IT JUST WOULD NOT CONNECT TO THE INTERNET USING BOTH WIRELESS AND WIRED OPTION. TO MAKE THINGS EVEN WORSE CUSTOMER SERVICE WAS A DISASTER. THEY DID NOT KNOW WHAT TO DO, THEY WERE JUST USELESS.

    SONY CUSTOMER SERVICE SAID I HAD TO PAY THE DELIVERY CHARGE FOR THE DEVICE TO BE RETURNED TO THEM SO THEY COULD FIX IT AND GIVE ME A REFURBISHED PRODUCT.

    IF I REMEBER CORRECTLY, I PAID MY HARD EARNED CASH TO PURCHASE A BRAND NEW PRODUCT AND NOW THAT THE PRODUCT IS NOT FUNCTIONAL DUE TO NO FAULT OF MINE, I HAVE TO PAY THE DELIVERY CHARGE TO GET IT FIXED.

    SHAME ON YOU!!!!

  • ef zee

    if you mean “can you set up google tv with a comcast cable box”
    it does work, i just set one up.

  • ef zee

    if you mean “can you set up google tv with a comcast cable box”
    it does work, i just set one up.

  • http://twitter.com/secrtsrvc Lou Nardone

    do you or anyone on here have images of the inside of the bluray drive itself? I took mine apart to extricate a cd and there is one part that i cant get back correctly…..