Google TV From Sony Review: Half-Baked For Australia

It's been a huge lead time between drinks for Google TV internationally. It hit the US market almost two years ago, and now it has finally come out in Australia thanks to Sony. Despite the 21-month lead time, however, the Google TV is still a half-baked afterthought for the Australian market.

What Is It?

The Google TV from Sony is a neat-looking little set-top box that Sony is currently bundling in for people who purchase either an HX-750 or an HX-850 TV. You can't buy it separately just yet, but it's valued at $349.

It comes with 8GB worth of internal storage and plays most of the formats you could ask for, including .mkv, .avi, MPEG-1, MPEG-2 and MPEG-4, .flv and .mov. It's got two USB inputs, an optical audio output, ethernet port, Wi-Fi and one HDMI input.

It's controlled by a double-sided remote that connects via Bluetooth and features both a full, backlit QWERTY keyboard and a multi-touch trackpad. The remote can also act as a controller for your other home entertainment devices thanks to an IR blaster built into the set-top box.

The device comes with Chrome, YouTube, Google Play and the Sony Entertainment Network baked into the modified version of Android (Honeycomb) that powers it. This integration makes the device tolerable, but it's ultimately disappointing.

What's Good?

The Google TV from Sony is great if you have access to a central amplifier that you can run it through.

When we had this demonstrated to us, it hooked up in a way that regardless of which input you were using, the Google TV overlay would appear whenever you hit the remote, making for a truly connected internet TV experience (as wanky as it sounds).

If you were watching a Blu-ray movie via your player and you want to know who an actor was, you could press the dedicated search button on your Google TV remote and find out, without having to pause the Blu-ray, leave the channel input you're on just to go into the Google TV's input. It means that when you're watching TV and you want to post something to one of your social networks about a show (#qanda on Twitter or Fango for example), you can do it again without having to pause the show or potentially miss some of it by jumping into a separate input. It's the integration of the device into your home entertainment set-up that makes it great. Having the device hooked into one central box to then be plugged into your TV is the ideal set-up, but if you don't have that configuration, you it misses the point of the box entirely, which we'll get to soon.

The Google TV's remote is a stroke of genius. On the one side, it features a bevy of input keys, as well as a large, rubberised multi-touch trackpad which supports dragging and scrolling. Flip it over and you'll find yourself staring at a rubberised, edge-to-edge, backlit keyboard complete with dedicated search hotkeys.

The cleverest thing about the remote, besides how well it manages to fit a lot into the space it's given without feeling cramped, is how the device will disable whichever side isn't facing upwards. That means you won't accidentally start pressing buttons on your remote keyboard every time you click on something. The in-built gyro can also be used for gaming, which you can do thanks to access to the Google Play store from the Google TV. Plenty nifty.

Google Play store access also means you can get access to the Movie rentals the web giant has on offer which is excellent. Having the full Chrome browser at your disposal here is also top notch.

What's Bad?

All week we've been talking about the price discrimination Australians have to put up with from US companies. When it comes to the Google TV from Sony, however, we need to look at a whole new realm of discrimination when it comes to content available to Australians.

The unit I was testing was a production unit with US software built in. Still, I was promised aside from the bundled apps, everything would work fine. At home, I don't own an amplifier, meaning that I can't run everything through the set-top box for an integrated experience. Rather, I had to use the Google TV on a separate input whenever I wanted it.

If I was in the US, this would be fine, because I'd have access to TV and movie content from Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go as well as games from cloud gaming service OnLive. But because I'm in Australia, I miss out on all this goodness. I have to be content with media from Sony's own network, which isn't terrible but I'd much prefer a diverse range of content rather than media from only one marketplace.

You can go and install apps from the ABC and Quickflix from Google Play, but these aren't front and centre out of the box.

We still have no date for when great services like Netflix will become available in Australia, meaning that the Google TV from Sony is largely useless unless you can integrate it with your other home entertainment devices via the amplifier.

Should You Buy One?

It took two years for Google TV to come to Australia. Sony partnered with Google to bring the service up to speed before it dropped it into the local market, but the combined force of two of the world's largest companies still couldn't bring a company like Netflix to the table.

The Google TV from Sony used as a stand-alone box then is rubbish. With barely any decent content available and the hassle of having to use it on a separate input all the time means that I can't possibly recommend this device. For $349, you can pick up an Xbox 360 console or a Playstation 3 which handles streaming content better. Add to that the fact that Microsoft is now offering season passes for US shows Down Under and it's a no-brainer.

But wait. Surely the device has some upside? Glad you asked. Turned out, it excels as a HTPC.

Despite the cost and the poor service offering out of the box, the Google TV from Sony does have one thing going for it, and that's a clean, easy to use version of Android Honeycomb that can be run on a huge screen and not look rubbish.

Chrome is amazing for web browsing on your TV thanks to the great remote keyboard and mouse, and you can even set up the device to stream content wirelessly around your house with apps like Plex.

Compare the Google TV from Sony to the last device to set the HTPC market on fire — the new Mac Mini — and it's a clear winner.

It's a platform that's slightly less customisable than the full operating system you get in Mac OS X Mountain Lion, but you're paying $350 less for the Google TV than you are for the lowest spec Mac Mini.

The Google TV box gives you a huge amount of file support and it doesn't have the added cost of bringing your own keyboard, mouse and monitor.

Should you buy it as an internet connected set-top box? No, but as a HTPC? Certainly.


Comments

    No Cinivia planned then? Or else I'll throw it at the wall and send another email to HBO to broadcast in Australia.

    Not sure I could agree with you on using this as a HTPC. Where is the TV tuner(s), and the storage needed to record? Might be better stating that it is a great media streaming device and leave it at that, but for the price a PS3 with PlayTV can do a lot more.

    Luke - can you please add more to the review than this? Yes, we already know we can't get Netflix or Hulu, and (sorry) we don't care that you don't have an HDMI switcher. This isn't a review for my grandmother, it's for us gadget freaks.There's a dozen more important things you didn't even mention:

    * Is there any native support for Australian TV content?
    * Can you put in your postcode and bring up Australian TV listings, as with the US?
    * Can you search for a TV show, and find out when it's on?
    * Can it switch TV channels on your Foxtel or DVR or Set-top box, when you select a TV listing?
    * How well does it work streaming local media, either from USB or from a Windows share?
    * How exactly is a PS3 or Xbox better at streaming content? (Have you tried searching YouTube on those? This at least has a real keyboard!)
    * You mention ABC & Quickflix apps, but say nothing else other than grumbling about having to install them yourself. How well does iView work? Are there apps for Channel 7, 10 etc? Did you try Plex or GTV Box or Able Remote, or any other app? Impressions?

    It's important that you note that Google Play's TV content isn't available here yet (not that you did), but we already knew that. And while we're interested in your impressions, please don't forget to tell us the Australia-relevant things only a hands-on session could tell us. That's what we depend on reviews for!

      ^This.

        Great article Luke. For those who live outside US like me, you can access Netflix, Hulu and similar media stations on your Google TV by using UnoTelly or similar tools.

    It does HDMI passthrough, so you could have put it on the same TV Input as your set-top-box, PVR, playstation, bluray player OR AV Receiver/HT Amp. It only requires you to change your TV's input settings if you use your TV's internal tuner to watch free to air TV.

    Also, it is a poor HTPC. You can't attach a bluray or DVD drive (except as a completely independent HT component device using passthorugh) and it has no tuner, so you cannot setup any PVR capabilities.

    Agree though, great browser. Flash support (great for watching back episodes on TV Channel websites) and PIP to boot. Clever. Great if you have an older TV with no internet access or media playing capability.

      And much cheaper than a PS3 with Play TV... which is a poor man's PVR and a poorer man's web browser, btw.

      Browsers great? It seemed pretty average when I watched Blunty's review on it last week. Over all it seemed like an alright unit overall.

    An so-so review Luke. More detail would have been good, especially in regards to the configuration you observed, why was it the preferable way ? Yes we all remember from Google I/O that Australia gets the short end of the stick in regards to Google goodness. Why doesn't Gizmodo interview Google Australia and find out why ?

    I honestly don't see why they're releasing this TV in Australia if all the apps are not going to be available here.. My cousin in the states has a Google TV from LG and that's something I'd get even without all those apps cuz their smart TV platforms actually feels like it can replace a desktop but this one still has that TV feel to it. I don't see any big advantage of having this from a non Google TV.

    Is this with or without the update announced earlier? https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=477497358927746&set=a.250498988294252.74185.162566027087549&type=1&theater

    @Namarrgon

    To answer some of your questions (I have an Logitech Revue but the Google TV experience is the same sans sony specific apps)

    * Is there any native support for Australian TV content?
    * Can you put in your postcode and bring up Australian TV listings, as with the US?
    * Can you search for a TV show, and find out when it’s on?

    No, it's still very much US centric

    * How well does it work streaming local media, either from USB or from a Windows share?

    GoogleTV by default does not come with SMB support so it can't do Windows sharing. USB support is good

    * You mention ABC & Quickflix apps, but say nothing else other than grumbling about having to install them yourself. How well does iView work? Are there apps for Channel 7, 10 etc? Did you try Plex or GTV Box or Able Remote, or any other app? Impressions?

    At least in the Revue iView works nicely, basically you're simply browsing the site on a big monitor. No apps for 7/9 or 10. I have plex installed on mine and it works brilliantly, connecting to my central plexmediaserver.

    As to Google Play TV content, no it's not available here, however Google Play Movies is (not exactly the widest selection, but growing I believe), so the Sony option is not the only thing for getting movies. Downside is a lack of integration of Movies with the GoogleTV Play app.

    Hope that helps

      Thanks James, appreciate the response - but I have a Revue myself, and was really hoping to find out what had changed with the Sony with the official Australian release. Luke didn't say, but if the answer is "nothing at all", then I'm not going to bother upgrading. Are you certain that there's no new support for Australian listings at all?

      I use GTV Box on my Revue for SMB playback, and it works very well. The only downside is the total lack of DTS support (thanks, Logitech), and being Intel-based I can't use any of the ARM-based NDK playback apps with useful decoder libraries. I've heard the Sony units add DTS (at least the disc-based box did), but that would be nice to have confirmed for this box (and they're ARM-based too now, so NDK players are OK).

      I found Crackle has a selection of free movies, but it's a much smaller selection than the US. I don't expect that to change with the Sony, but it would be nice to at least know if the Google Play app supported Movies better now.

      However, if you have some evidence that nothing has changed for the international releases, that it's identical to the Revue - apart from being ARM-based now, and the useless Logitech apps being replaced with Sony apps - then what the heck took them so long? What has the GoogleTV team been doing these past 12 months?

    oh lord! I have this unit connected to my bravia and have started feeling so depressed cause nothing works as it should, the unit keeps on crashing and doesn't want to turn off via on/off button on remote. Mine is connected direct to tv via hdmi, cant even find justin tv on google play, so its only good for u tube and some weird tv content on the net, like very old old movies, tech clips and other things i wouldnt call movies....i am lost whats google tv for? can watch movies on a network drive (my worldbook edition)....i am so deprresed now/...

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