No matter the potential of Google TV, until now the hardware has just been too expensive compared to other set-top boxes such as Apple TV and Roku. The new Vizio Co-Star, priced at $100, is one of the cheapest Google TV devices yet, and has the best chance of introducing people to Google’s vision for the living room.
I’ve been reviewing a loaner Co-Star from Vizio. For the money, it has more to offer than other connected TV boxes, but it also has a list of weaknesses that will turn off users who just want a simple media streamer.
As with other set-top boxes that run Google TV, the Vizio Co-Star does one thing that competing platforms can’t: It connects between your existing cable or satellite box and your TV via HDMI, so you don’t have to switch inputs or remotes to use it alongside live television. The Co-Star comes with its own universal remote, which you can program to control your cable box, TV and audio equipment. When you want to run an app, such as Netflix, you just tap a button on the remote to bring up a sidebar full of icons, similar what you’d see on a smartphone. All of this happens while your cable TV is playing in the background.
Vizio’s Co-Star tries to enhance the cable-watching experience by displaying TV listings and Internet video sources in a single, stylized view, but this doesn’t work as well as it could. In my tests, the app that handles this function, called “TV & Movies,” didn’t list the vast majority of HD content coming in over cable, limiting its usefulness. There’s also a separate universal search function, which works well for some specific queries (such as “football” or the name of a particular show) but doesn’t turn up enough results for genre-based searches. As a result, the traditional grid-based guide from your TV service provider remains the best way to browse for live programming.
Still, the allure of the Co-Star comes from its ability to give you that live TV experience while keeping Internet-based content within easy reach. Some basic apps are pre-loaded, including Netflix, Amazon video and YouTube. There’s also a version of Google’s Chrome browser, a “Spotlight” app that highlights TV-friendly video websites and a bunch of other pre-loaded software from Vizio. There’s also an OnLive app that streams high-end PC games, but you’ll need an OnLive controller or USB mouse and keyboard for many of the games. (Also, because OnLive’s games are processed on remote servers, there’s always a bit of input lag, even if you have a fast connection.)
The pre-loaded apps provide enough content on their own, but the Co-Star’s real geek appeal comes from the Google Play store, where you can find all kinds of interesting apps for the big screen. One of my favorites was Redux, a set of curated Internet videos separated into channels. I also liked Revision3, which offers a steady supply of tech-related videos, and Able Remote, an app that turns any Android phone or tablet into a touch screen remote.
However, Google Play does have some glaring holes in its selection. There are no apps for MLB.tv, NHL or the NBA, so for these services you’ll have to struggle with the clunky Web browser instead. Hulu Plus isn’t supported either, and for that you can’t even use the browser version because it’s blocked. Same goes for other sites from TV networks such as NBC, CBS and Fox.
But those weaknesses apply to all devices that run Google TV. As for the Co-Star in particular, its biggest issue is the overall sluggishness of its software. On several occasions I’d tap a button on the remote to bring up the app list, and upon getting no immediate response, would tap it again, thinking the first press hadn’t registered. Only then, the Co-Star would respond to both taps by quickly opening and closing the app tray. While searching, the interface usually takes a second to respond to each key press. Even the initial boot process for the Co-Star takes a half-minute or so, during which there’s little indication that the device is actually doing anything.
In a way, the Co-Star’s lack of fluidity reminds me of Android before version 4.0 smoothed everything over, though Vizio does tell me that it plans to make the interface smoother through software updates. We’ll see.
I also have some nitpicks with the Co-Star’s remote control. For one thing, it’s clunky, and just as cluttered with buttons as most TV remotes. But unlike other cable remotes I’ve used, the Co-Star’s controller lacks an “exit” button, so there’s no simple way to close the guide or info boxes from your TV service provider. The remote’s built-in trackpad was also unreliable when tapping to click, and could really use a dedicated click button instead.
One other thing to consider: The Co-Star doesn’t ship with any HDMI cables. You’ll need two of them to use it in tandem with your live TV service, or one if you’re a cord-cutter who just wants the standalone streaming features.
All those issues add up to an experience that isn’t for everyone, and may even frustrate the geekier users among us. The Vizio Co-Star has its share of quirks, but it offers a wealth of cool features for users who persevere. At $100, it may finally help Google TV find an audience.