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You Have to Give Google TV Credit-It Isn't a Quitter

You have to give Google TV credit—it isn't a quitter. Despite the lackluster reception of the first Google TV–powered products back in 2010, the company has refused to throw in the towel. Instead it has regularly revamped its software to address some glaring issues, such as its initial inability to access Google's own Android marketplace (since rechristened Google Play).

But it's still not clear whether even the latest improvements—which include being able to perform searches using voice prompts—will be enough for the platform to gain traction against a growing list competitors, including Apple TV, Boxee TV Live, and Roku.

What makes Google TV different from most of the other set-top boxes is that Google TV devices are meant to be placed between your cable or satellite box and your TV, so that whatever is playing on live TV shows up as an option when you search for movies or TV shows. It also means you no longer have to toggle between inputs as you do with most other boxes, which are connected to a secondary HDMI input. When you're not using Google TV, the box shuts off, so TV signals go directly to your TV.

Among the latest Google TV products are standalone streaming media players from early supporter Sony (the NSZ-GS7) and Vizio (the Co-Star). We tested them in our labs, but recently found out that Google was updating its software. In addition, Vizio also revised its software for improved HDMI stability and better Netflix performance, so the boxes were retested.

Like most of the streaming set-top boxes we've tested, both the Sony and Vizio players can output 1080p video, though the quality of the video you'll get really depends on the speed of your broadband. Both players support a number of different video formats, including Flash and HTML 5, and can pass 3D signals from a cable or satellite box through to your TV. Both boxes also have built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth as well as IR blasters to control other gear. (The Sony comes with an outboard IR blaster that plugs into the player, while the Co-Star's IR blaster is built into the remote.)

Given their common lineage, it's no surprise that the boxes have similar features, but there are a few differences. One difference is appearance: The squarish Co-Star is more akin to the hockey-puck-sized streaming players we've seen from Apple and Roku, whereas the Sony is longer and flatter, more like the now-discontinued Logitech Revue. The other key difference is price. At $100, the Co-Star is considerably cheaper than the Sony, despite its recent price cut from $200 to $170.

Here's what we found in our testing:

Vizio Co-Star. Though the Co-Star is smaller than the Sony—it's roughly 4 inches by 4 inches and just over an inch and a half tall—it feels heftier than similar players we've tested, so it's less prone to sliding around the surface of a tabletop or media console. All the Co-Star's connections (an HDMI input and HDMI output, a USB port, an Ethernet jack for wired connection to a home network, and a receptacle for the power cord) are on the rear panel of the player. Since the Co-Star lacks any digital audio outputs, your receiver or TV has to have an HDMI input. The box itself has no buttons, so you need the remote for all operations.

If you're used to the tiny remote controls that come with many of the other media players, then both the Sony and Vizio remotes will feel huge, but especially the Co-Star's, which is longer and chunkier than the Sony's. Despite its bulk, the Vizio remote still fits comfortably in the hand.

Like the Sony, the Co-Star comes with a dual-sided remote that has a touchpad on one side and a full QWERTY keyboard on the other. The touchpad is slightly smaller than the one on the Sony remote, and you tap the screen to make selections. There are buttons for PIP, Search, Live TV, and Guide near the trackpad; Input and Power buttons, plus larger dedicated buttons for launching Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, and M-Go, are located at the top of the remote. Just below those are DVR controls, plus List and Info buttons that bring up stored programs and additional program information.

You can access the home page via a large "V" button in the center of the remote. Back and Menu buttons are situated above rocker-style buttons for volume and channel. The lower part of the remote contains color-coded shortcut buttons for cable or satellite receivers, plus a series of number buttons. The opposite side of the remote contains a full QWERTY keyboard, plus a directional pad and ABXY game buttons.

We found the remote fairly easy to use, though the smallish buttons did require a firm push for them to register. Compared to the Sony, the Co-Star had fewer buttons, giving it a less cluttered feel, though you did have to use the smallish function key to type numbers and symbols. And because the remote isn't backlit, it was more difficult to use in low-light room situations such as when watching a movie.

Given the greater complexity of the system, it's not surprising that setting up a Google TV system is a bit more time-consuming than with other boxes. Setup for both players required several steps, though on-screen directions made the process fairly easy. With the Vizio Co-Star, you use the on-screen prompts to manually pair the Bluetooth remote to the player. You then have to set the display size to match your TV's screen size, create a Google account if you don't have one, and then select your TV service provider and set up the remote to control your other gear (such as a cable/satellite box, a TV, and a receiver). When I first tested the Co-Star, after rebooting I was prompted to perform an update, which enabled the box to output multi-channel audio.

Sony NSZ-GS7. At about 8 inches wide, the NSZ-GS7 is a larger-sized media player, though its 1.3-inch height helps give it a sleek appearance. Like the Co-Star, it lacks console buttons so you need the remote control. Unlike the Vizio, the Sony has an On indicator light to tell you when the player is active. Similarly, all connections—an HDMI input and output, two USB slots, an Ethernet jack, an IR blaster mini-jack, and the power cord receptacle—are on the back panel. The Sony also has an optical digital audio output for sending audio to older gear.

One side of the Sony remote has a large rectangular touchpad; you make selections by pressing an integrated clicker. There's also a five-way directional pad with an Enter/Select button in the center, plus four Google TV controls: PIP, Home, Menu, and Back/Return. Also integrated are a player Power button, On/Off buttons for other gear, and an input selector and Guide, DVR, and TV buttons. At the bottom of the remote are DVR Play and Pause controls, an Info button, and four-color-coded ABCD buttons. Unlike the Vizio, the Sony remote has no dedicated buttons for apps such as Netflix.

The flip side of the remote is pretty much dominated by the five-row full QWERTY keyboard, useful for Web searches, entering passwords, and typing in longer Wi-Fi keys. We found the densely packed, cramped keyboard a bit tough to use, especially since many of the keys serve dual functions. We also found it difficult to complete an operation using only one side of the remote. (A sensor detects the remote's orientation and shuts down the downward-facing side.) But we did like the cell phone–like Volume and Channel Control rocker buttons located on the upper right side of the remote, where a Mute button is also located.

Not surprisingly, setting up the Sony was very similar to the Vizio player, though when you first turn on the Sony you can choose a quick-start mode that lets the player start up faster each time you use it, or an energy-saving mode that takes longer to power on. You then have to set the display size to match your TV, sign on to Google, choose your TV service provider, and set up the remote to control your other gear. After rebooting, you can opt in to get personalized recommendations.

Comparing the two. Once you get the two systems running, you'll see that each box integrates Google TV differently within its own interface. Sony's home page uses an icon-based toolbar overlay across the bottom of the screen; Vizio displays the Google TV apps as an overlay on the left-hand side of the screen. There are icons for the various areas of Google TV, plus a link to all the apps, Live TV, Netflix and YouTube shortcuts, Google Play, the Chrome browser, and Search.

One thing that changed with the recent Google TV update is that the area for finding and selecting TV shows and movies, which was formerly called TV & Movies, has been renamed PrimeTime. It makes finding content a bit easier thanks to a new quick guide that you can access without having to leave a TV program or app.

In addition to PrimeTime, other key areas of the Google TV platform include Live TV, Search, Chrome, YouTube, and Google Play. The YouTube app has also been updated: Google TV now pairs automatically with your Android devices, letting you play YouTube videos from your phone or tablet on the TV with the press of a button.

Both boxes support Amazon Instant Video, HBO Go, Netflix, and YouTube, plus Pandora and Slacker Internet radio, as well as IHeartRadio. The Co-Star has some proprietary content, including M-Go, an entertainment app that wasn't active when I tried it, and the OnLive streaming game service. The Sony box has Sony Entertainment, which includes the company's Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited streaming services, as well as some niche content. (It can also access OnLive, but the app isn't preloaded.) Neither supports Vudu, my personal favorite video streaming service.

Note that a few of the so-called "apps"—including Amazon and HBO—really aren't apps; they simply redirect the Chrome browser to the companies' websites. At times, Chrome searches pulled up the mobile versions of websites.

We noticed very little difference in video performance between the two players; both were capable of very good picture quality, though a notch below what we get from Blu-ray. As we mentioned, the quality you will get will largely depend on the speed of your broadband connection. We also had no clear preference about the interfaces, though it took a bit longer to find some content, such as HBO GO, on the Vizio. Our feeling is that after a period of time you become used to each company's menu systems, so it becomes less of an issue.

Google it or not? There's certainly more competition in the streaming media-player market since Google debuted back in 2010. So is it worth giving Google TV a whirl? Clearly, the updated Google TV platform is markedly better than the earlier version we tested, which had a largely unfinished feel and a dearth of content. Last year's update, which provide access to Google Play, was a positive step forward. And Google TV's unified, comprehensive search capability, which can find TV shows and movies whether they're on live TV, a streaming video service such as Netflix, or the Internet, differentiates these players from their competitors.

And thanks to the most recent Google TV upgrade, voice-search capability is now part of the platform, so you can search for TV shows and movies as well as other content and apps by using voice commands. (You can also change channels simply by naming the network or station.) While neither the Sony or Vizio players or their remotes have an embedded microphone, which is required for this feature to work, voice search will work if you use an Android phone or tablet—loaded with a new voice-enabled app—as the player's remote control.

But despite these improvements, getting a Google TV streaming player isn't a no-brainer. For one thing, several competitors, including Roku, offer significantly more content, and often at a lower cost. Others have unique features—Boxee TV Live, for example, which boasts free live TV and a cloud-based DVR service. And the number of apps that are optimized for Google TV (for display on bigger screens) is still only a fraction of the entire Android library.

Also, not everyone is going to love the somewhat complicated remote controls that come with these players. And since Google TV's initial launch, many more options have appeared, including TVs, Blu-ray players, and video-game systems with their own Internet platforms that offer full Web browsers, direct access to many of the same streaming movie and TV services, as well as apps markets.

Still, you should consider both the Sony NSX-GS7 and the Vizio Co-Star if you're in the market for a standalone streaming media player. They generally work well, offer the most important streaming services, and integrate with and control the other gear in your system in a way that's unique among set-top boxes. If comprehensive search capability is high on your wish list, then either of these players is worth a look.

Related: Set-top boxes that make you the program director (our tests of seven Internet-connected set-top boxes)

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