Sony's Google TV set-top box and remote.
Now available to everyone, Sony's Google TV puts Android in your lounge room.
After a few false starts the Android-powered Google TV is now officially in Australia. Similar to the Apple TV it's not actually a television. Nor does it contain TV tuners or an optical drive. Instead it's simply a tiny, internet-enabled set-top box which hooks up to your television via HDMI.
If you're more interested in watching video than using your television as a tablet, you'll find the Flash-enabled Chrome browser opens up a world of online video.
Initially you could only get a Google TV in Australia if you bought a new Sony Bravia television, but as of this month anyone can buy a standalone $299 Google TV from Sony. It's the slickest Android-based lounge room player I've seen yet, but I'm still not convinced that your average person wants Android in the lounge room.
The Google TV is different to most set-top boxes. Rather than taking up yet another HDMI input, the Google TV is designed to sit between your television and your other AV gear. The box has one HDMI input and one HDMI output, along with Ethernet, Wi-Fi, two USB ports and optical digital out. So you plug your Personal Video Recorder into the Google TV and then the Google TV into your television. If you wanted the Google TV to work with several devices, you could always put an HDMI switch between the Google TV and your various AV gear. The fact it only has HDMI inputs is obviously a deal-breaker if you want to use the Google TV with older televisions.
This man-in-the-middle design allows the Google TV to superimpose graphics over the video coming from your devices, as well as perform tricks such as picture-in-picture. It can't actually tell what you're watching or interact with live broadcasts, but that kind of functionality seems the long-term goal of such devices. You still control your television and PVR with their normal remote controls, while the Google TV lurks in the background waiting for you to call on it. Think of it as if you've added another set of menus to your television which you can call up or hide as you please using the Google TV remote.
That bulky remote control is one of the Google TV's key selling points, although it's a little daunting for the non-tech savvy. It's Bluetooth rather than infrared, so you don't need to worry about line of sight. The front the remote features input and navigation buttons along with a thumb-friendly trackpad. On the back you'll find a full QWERTY keyboard along with a few special function keys. On the side are volume, channel and mute buttons for basic universal remote functionality using HDMI CEC which passes commands to your television and other devices via the HDMI cable. It's a nice touch , but unfortunately not every widescreen television supports it.
The Google TV box is also equipped with an "IR blaster" which lets it control your other AV devices via infrared. There's also an IR extender cable if you need to need to position the IR blaster in a better spot to reach all your gear. This IR blaster allows the Google TV remote to act as a programmable remote control for all your AV gear, and you can configure the settings for your devices from the onscreen menu. It's a handy option but still not as fully-featured and flexible as a Logitech Harmony universal remote. A Logitech remote is also easier to use for the less-tech-savvy members of your household who want something that "just works" and don't want to fight with technology just to watch a little television at the end of the day.
One of the great things about Google TV is you can completely ignore it if you want to. Other members of the house need not even know it's there, they can simply keep using the same AV devices and the same remote controls while the Google TV lurks in the background. This is a significant WAF booster compared to many lounge room gadgets. At least in theory. In practice the Google TV can occasionally get upset, such as when it wants a software update, and take over the screen unexpectedly. You need to brief other members of the household on how to use the "TV" button on the Google TV remote to hide such menus, or else they're completely stuck (not good if you happen to be overseas for work when the Google TV has a fit, leaving your family unable to watch the PVR).
So far so good, but what does the Google TV actually let you do? Press the home button and you're presented with a row of Android icons superimposed across the bottom of the screen. These offer easy access to YouTube, the Flash-enabled Chrome browser, the Google Play app store and Sony Entertainment Unlimited content (the latter of which is already built into Sony televisions and Blu-ray players). The picture-in-picture option lets you view the video from your PVR in the corner while you're using an app.
If you're a fan of Android smartphones and tablets then the app store is likely to pique your interest, although you need to ask yourself whether you really want and need to run Android apps on your television. Personally I think such things are better suited to the smartphone and tablet in your hand, while the television sticks to the job of displaying video -- particularly if more than one person is trying to watch the television.
Of course everyone is different and apps on the television might be exactly what you're looking for. If this sounds like you, you'll find Sony's Google TV a better option than cumbersome Android-powered media players such as the Kogan Agora Internet TV Portal or the Nixeus Fusion XS Android Media Player. The remote control makes a big difference, as does the fact the Sony box runs Android 3.2 (rather than Android 2.x) and the TV-friendly Google TV interface.
I'd say the two big selling points of the Google TV are the Chrome browser and access to the Google Play app store. Access to the app store basically lets you treat your television like a big tablet and install all kinds of applications, although some work better on the big screen than others. You can bring Facebook, Twitter and email to your television along with streaming audio and video services and of course games. About now the QWERTY keyboard and trackpad really come in handy. The Chrome browser is also one of the better TV-based browsers I've seen, although that's not saying much because most are terrible. Once again, the keyboard and trackpad make it much more tolerable.
If you're more interested in watching video than using your television as a tablet, you'll find the Flash-enabled Chrome browser opens up a world of online video. Of course you'll already find Catch Up TV built into a wide range of devices, with Sony's televisions and Blu-ray players offering some of the best options. But if you're frustrated by the limitations of built-in Catch Up TV compared to what you get from a browser then this might be the solution for you. Although you should certainly weigh it up against D-Link's impressive Boxee Box which also features browser-based Catch Up TV.
Chrome on the Google TV does an excellent job with the ABC's iView and SBS's online service, although the quality of Ten and Seven's Plus7 varies. Nine has finally come to its senses and ditched Nine's Silverlight in favour of Flash, although I was met with "not available outside Australia" warnings when I tried to watch clips (even though I wasn't using a VPN to pretend I was in the US).
If you're after a media player for watching videos you've downloaded from the internet, the Boxee Box is probably the better choice or even something like the WD TV Live. You can download third-party Android network media player apps like Plex, but your mileage can vary when it comes to format compatibility and performance.
The Google TV's strength is online content, although about now you start to run into those pesky "sorry, that feature/service is not available in Australia" warnings, which might inspire you to use the Google TV with a Virtual Private Network or DNS-based geo-dodging service such as Unblock-US. At this point the Boxee Box's built-in VPN client could be the killer feature you've been looking for. The blame for this lack of content doesn't lie solely with Sony or Google, but it certainly makes the Google TV much less attractive if you're not in the US (unless you can pretend you are).
When it comes to online video, the built-in Sony movie rental service is one of the Google TV's key advantages over the Boxee Box. Of course you'll find movie rental services built into many new televisions, Blu-ray players and set-top boxes, so I wouldn't buy the Google TV just for this feature.
So what's the verdict? This is certainly the best Android-based lounge room player I've seen yet, but that's partly because the others I've tested have been so terrible. To be honest I think you'd need to be a serious Android fan to favour the Google TV, and even then only because you wanted to run apps on your television. It you're not using the apps it doesn't bring enough to the party to justify the hassle and expense. If you're only interested in online video then there are plenty of other options which are more user-friendly. Of course it's early days and Google TV is one to keep an eye on over the next few years, it's brimming with potential but right now it's a niche product that won't appeal to most people.