Monday, October 18, 2010

First Impressions of the Sony Google TV

First Impressions of the Sony's Google TV

[Update: Part 2: Further Adventures in Google TV-land - Logitech Revue with Google TV and Part 3: The Return of the Sony Google TV Box are available for reading.]

I picked up a Sony Google TV (with Blu-ray) set-top box (NSZ-GT1 $399) at BestBuy the other day. I also intend to look at the Logitech Revue Google TV set-top box ($300) which is due to ship this week. (BestBuy assured me that I could return the unit within 30 days without a restocking fee.)

The Sony box is a Google TV which is basically a "lite" home-theater PC with a netbook grade CPU, and the Sony box is unique in that it also incorporates a Blu-ray player. Sony is also selling a few flat-screen LCD HDTVs with the Google TV functionality built in.

The Setup

There's almost no printed documentation. Just a quick setup guide to get the cables connected. It is very basic. The rest of the setup instruction is on-screen.

The box is small, about the size of small laptop only thicker. On the back it has HDMI in and out ports, an IR blaster cable with two IR blasters attached, an optical audio output, an Ethernet port, 3 USB ports and a small laptop style power supply. The device has Wifi for network setup as an alternative to Ethernet. The front has a power button, an LED and a slot for Blu-ray and DVD discs, an eject button and another USB port -- a nice touch.

Setup was pretty easy. I'm using it with a Samsung HDTV, a Yamaha AV receiver, and a DirecTV HD-DVR. The box just goes between the DVR and the HDTV using the HDMI cables (one is included, you reuse your existing DVR HDMI cable). I used Ethernet which was already in place. Position the IR blasters so they will reach the AV receiver and DVR. That's it for the cables.

The first step of on-screen setup was pairing the remote to the system. It guides you through some simple setup for network connectivity and screen sizing. Then it downloads an update to the system. This took about 20 minutes over my DSL connection. It reboots then you do the basic setup again.

The next step involves setting up the device to control your set-top box or DVR, your TV and your AV receiver. It's was easy to set it up to control all these devices following the on-screen instructions. (I did run into a glitch with one step where it wanted me to confirm I could control my TV by pressing the volume buttons, but the volume on my TV is disabled in my configuration.)

About that fugly remote

In spite of what you might have read on the Interwebs, the Sony Google TV remote is pretty nice. It's small and functional. It's not fugly. You might even say it's cute. On the right side is the Home, Back, Menu and Window (PIP) buttons as well as a thumb pointer thing with a center button to select. The left side is a D-pad with arrows and Enter in the center. It can be a little confusing at first understanding what button on-screen has focus between the two input methods (tip: D-pad Enter is not the same as pointer click-select).

The lower part of the remote is a mini (but complete -- incl. Tab and Esc) QWERTY keyboard, plus transport controls. One flaw is that @ should probably have a dedicated key -- it requires Shift-2. Some of the buttons are also kind of mysterious or unpredictable to a beginner like INPUT, GUIDE, TV, DVR. These are supposed to map to your DVR or AV receiver, but they change based on context. The ZOOM and SCROLL trigger buttons on the away side of the remote are a mystery too.

[Update: I've discovered how the mysterious SCROLL and ZOOM trigger buttons work. Hold one down and use the right-hand thumb-pointer (Sony calls this the Optical Finger Sensor or OFS) to scroll or zoom in Chrome (and possibly other apps). Doesn't work on the TV view. Scrolling and zooming are using software and not hardware accelerated and are kind of clumsy. Also simultaneously holding the SCROLL and ZOOM trigger buttons allows drag-and-drop and selection operations using the OFS.]

One major gripe I haven't resolved is that the "AMP" button that toggles the remote to send audio control to the AV receiver times out after few minutes and resets to mapping the volume controls to the TV. On my setup I never want to control volume with the TV.

[Update: Fn+AMP will lock the remote's audio controls to control the AV receiver. Problem solved.]

One fairly important thing Sony left out for some unknown reason is a backlight on the remote. This makes it very hard to use the remote with its 2 million tiny buttons in a dark or dimly lit room. (I've heard it's popular to watch TV in the dark.) I don't think the Logitech Revue's standard remote keyboard has a backlight either, but the Logitech's keys are much larger, and the optional Mini Controller for the Logitech does have a backlight.

[Update: The Logitech Mini Controller will work with any Google TV including the Sonys. For that matter I've read any standard HID keyboard or mouse will work with Google TV. I plugged in a Microsoft Wireless Mobile Mouse, and it worked perfectly.]

It's Android underneath

Google TV runs on the Android OS. Apparently it's based on Android 2.1, but that's not particularly relevant because it's not an Android phone and it doesn't have the standard Android apps. The Android OS is most apparent in the user interaction model based around the four core Android buttons: Home, Back, Menu and Search. Just like an Android phone press and hold Home gives you a list of currently running or recent apps. Back will always take you out of wherever you've just gone. As with an Android smartphone you must embrace the power of the Back button. There currently seem to be no Widgets or Notifications in this Google TV version of Android.

Control Apps

Sony, Logitech and Google are promising smartphone apps to function as remote controls for their Google TV devices. These would obviously work fine in the dark. None are available yet. Sony is promising an Android app, Logitech is promising an iPhone and Android app and Google will be publishing both an iPhone and Android app. I would expect the Sony and Logitech apps to only control their respective devices. It's not clear if any of the iPhone apps will be universal apps and give equal support to the iPad or if they will only run in the iPad's iPhone emulation x2 mode. (The iPad seems like a more natural fit for home theater control due to it's larger battery, longer default sleep delay times, and that it's more likely sitting on the coffee table than in your pocket.)

Set-top Box Integration

The Sony Google TV can control many satellite and cable set-top boxes and DVRs. Dish Network has a special arrangement with the Sony and Logitech boxes where for $4/month you can get deeper integration with Google TV than "generic" DVRs. With this additional integration you can schedule shows to record and search recorded content on your DVR. This only works with some Dish DVR models. (Dish is also offering the Logitech Revue to their subscribers for $179 which goes to cover the monthly fee and then some.)

Other DVRs are handled generically although reasonably well. A customized directory listing of shows is integrated into Google TV search results and Home Screen functions like "What's On". And when you pick a TV listing item from the list it will switch to the channel.

Control of the DirecTV DVR can sometimes be a little confusing. DVR control is part of the TV app, but what you see on screen are your same old DVR control menus. In some respects the app acts like a universal remote control for your DVR. And there's not always a one-to-one mapping of controls on the Google TV remote to the buttons in the DirecTV's native menus. As an example the on screen prompt says "Press Exit" but you must press Esc on the Sony remote.

Local Media Integration

The Media Player app doesn't see my DLNA/UPnP server (a Netgear ReadyNAS), but I don't know why. The specs for the Sony Google TV say it's supposed to be able access photos, video and music from DLNA and UPnP servers, but it might be a problem with my DLNA server setup. Further investigation is required.

The "Dual View" picture-in-picture function doesn't work on top of some of the apps, and you get an awkward dialog informing you of this. Also the Dual View tends to block things as it's always in the lower right quadrant of the screen. It would be nice to be able to relocate the window. (I had a Sony TV 15 years ago that could do that.) In these respects Dual View seems like a bit of an afterthought.

I haven't tried the Blu-ray features of the Sony box yet. There is an app labeled Disc Player which I assume allows Blu-rays and DVDs to function much like the TV app.

[Update: When playing a DVD disc with the Disc Player app the GT1 becomes exclusively a DVD/Blu-ray player and you can't access other Google TV functions. If you press the Home or Search button it puts up a dialog saying that it will have to stop the Disc Player app. I haven't yet tried any Blu-rays, but it probably behaves similarly.]

I also have not tried plugging in a local hard drive or thumb drive into the USB ports.

[Update: I tried accessing a local USB hard drive with some media files, but the drive was partitioned with multiple FAT32 partitions, and Google TV could only see the first partition. Unfortunately the media files were on the second partition.]

The Google TV Apps

The line between apps and web apps is not always obvious. And many apps blend into websites and back to apps seamlessly.

The browser is Chrome and not the lightweight Android browser. It seems to work like Chrome on the desktop. It has full Flash 10.1 integration. My current browser torture test is Google Docs and Microsoft Office Live web apps. (Not that anyone would want to edit documents on their TV.) Neither site works with full functionality on the magical iPad. I was able to open and edit documents in Google Docs, but I was unsuccessful with Microsoft's Office Live web apps.

Google TV's integrated search is very cool. Just hit the Search button at any time, and it brings up a beautiful overlay over whatever app you are in including the live TV app. Dual View should have that level of slickness.

I don't have a Netflix account so I didn't try that. Pandora was very easy to use. There's a Napster app, CNBC Real-Time (with CNBC streaming and stock tickers), Gallery for photos (it currently only supports Picassa), NBA Game Time, and Twitter.

Sony has a video rental site called Qriocity (can I use that in Scrabble?). It has many recent and some classic video releases. Iron Man 2 costs $5.99 to rent in HD, $3.99 to rent in SD (the latter is the same price as Amazon).

There's no specific app for Amazon Video on Demand, but I noticed there's Amazon VOD software listed as installed on the system. I don't know why. I logged into my Amazon account using the browser and was easily able to browse and buy or rent movies and TV shows there and watch shows that I've previously bought. You can only stream video. You can't download shows to a local harddrive with your Google TV from Amazon VOD, but you can purchase movies and TV shows and they are permanently available for streaming. Amazon offers TV shows in SD and HD resolutions. The current Mad Men costs $2.99 to own in HD and $1.99 in SD. Some shows on Fox, ABC and BBC only cost $0.99 in SD or HD to purchase (apparently to compete with AppleTV). Amazon's VOD movies are currently only available in SD to Google TV and typically cost $3.99 to rent for 48 hours. (Amazon indicates HD movies will be available to Google TV soon.)

The YouTube site gives you the option to automatically default to their "Leanback" interface -- an interface optimized for TV viewing.

One last thing...

I discovered you can force the device to reboot by pressing Ctrl-Alt-Delete!

Obviously there's a lot of functionality to the Google TV. And this device and OS release is quite literally just the beginning. I'll try to gather my thoughts on how well it succeeds and post those as well as any other things I learn. One big test will be whether other members of the family can work this device. I'm uncertain if it will pass that test.

Sony's online help site with lots of nitty-gritty details:


Alden said...

Excellent overview! You're one of the first thats really posted some helpful information on how this machine works. I'm currently thinking of buying this. I'm ready to go to best buy right now but really wanted to read more reviews. I'm torn between this and the logitech device with no bluray. Please post some more if you figure out the DLNA issue and if you plug a usb device into the ports. Thanks for the great info. said...

I've discovered how the mysterious SCROLL and ZOOM trigger buttons work. Hold one down and use the right-hand thumb-pointer (Sony called this the Optical Finger Sensor or OFS) to scroll or zoom in Chrome (and possibly other apps). Doesn't work on the TV view. Scrolling and zooming are using software and not hardware accelerated and are kind of clumsy. said...

Update: Fn+AMP will lock the audio controls to control the AV receiver. Problem solved.

Joe Luna said...

Please let us know when you plug local usb hard drive. I'd like to know what type of files it can manage, ie. divx, avi, mkv, mp4 etc... said...

Well my first attempt at using an external drive failed. I tried to use a portable USB drive which is divided into four smaller FAT32 partitions. The Sony was only able to see the first partition which was unfortunately not where the media files were.


Jon Wright said...

Sadly have to wait a little longer to try this in the UK. Sounds like a good set up. Apple, are you listening?

Chief Cranky said...

This is definitely a 1.0 product.
- No DTS or Dolby Digital passthrough.
- Can't read NTFS volumes.
- Hulu is currently unavailable.
- YouTube LeanBack is cool, but why does YouTube the site come up as it does in a browser? The dedicated YouTube player on Android phones is *much* better.
- XVid support is claimed but it won't play 95% of my files.
- TVersity compatibility is wanting - sometimes it sees the server, sometimes it doesn't.
- Can't enunumerate music files shared through Windows7/WMP11.

And that's just after two hours of use. I am hopeful that Google will continue to update as frequently as they do with their other products but based on one day's use I can't recommend it yet.

Skipper said...

I cannot determine just HOW to get live TV to display in fullscreen mode. My TV signal appears letterboxed, as well as having "letterboxes" on the left/right sides of the picture. Any ideas?