Review: Sony’s New GoogleTV Device (Snappily Called the NSZ-GS7)
We recently got a new addition to the lab: Sony’s new Internet Player with Google TV (NSZ-GS7). The NSZ-G27 joins the ranks of two 1st-generation Sony Google TV devices in the lab — a Blu-ray player and an integrated Smart TV. (Sony is rumored to be making a 2nd-generation Google TV Blu-ray player as well, but we haven’t seen release dates yet.)
Our experience with Google TV devices up to this point leaves plenty of room for improvement, so eager is an understatement when it came to seeing firsthand what Sony’s new device brings to the table.
Because when something is half-baked, usually it just needs a little more time in the oven.
And so we held out hope that the second generation of Sony Google TV devices would fix some of the things that drove us crazy in the first — namely, a lack of streaming content, coupled with a hefty beast of a remote control. Think 82 (eighty-two) buttons, yet confounding in terms of basic navigation.
Alas, Sony’s had Google TV in the oven since 2010 and it’s still not done.
Speaking of ovens: The new Google device holds the (dubious) honor of putting out more heat than any other streaming player we’ve tested in the lab, even when idle. This was brought to my attention by Raya the cat, who grew quite fond of the thing during the time I tested it at home. To each her own, I guess:
Raya loves her some hot GoogleTV.
Sadly, although the new device could double as a space heater, content and apps on the Google TV are right about where they were when we got the Honeycomb update last fall. The “Featured for TV” apps are pretty much unchanged, and “Aol HD” is still in the top 10.
Clearly, the content issue can’t be fixed with new hardware alone. But I was hopeful about the user experience when, at CES, I got a peek at Sony’s new remote control. The demonstrator was holding it with ONE HAND!
But although the more traditional shape gives the impression of one-handed operation, it didn’t work so well for me in practice. Which is probably why the Sony booth guy at CES demonstrated the remote control for me, instead of handing it over.
Sony has again managed to create a totally inconsistent and overly complicated remote control experience, with 89 (eighty nine!) buttons. There are three methods of navigation (a touchpad, a D-pad, and arrow keys on the reverse side), but not all of the input methods work for all apps.
For example, both Netflix and Crackle use tile-based interfaces, but Netflix requires that you browse using the D-pad, while Crackle only works with the mouse cursor. Also unclear: Within the Netflix app you can see and move the mouse cursor using the touchpad, but you can’t select anything.
This is probably not entirely Sony’s fault. Application developers don’t always use the same APIs, the same way. But still.
Chances are, most users are going to find one method of navigation more natural than the others. It’s frustrating to the point of non-use to be required to remember what works where. We should be able to pick the control that’s easiest to use, and then use it for every app. Right?
The buttons for pause, fast-forward, etc. are located below the touchpad, so I had to perform some thumb acrobatics in order to use the controls one-handed. The rewind/fast-forward buttons are also tricky – they’re integrated into the bottom corners of the touchpad, and they behave differently depending on the app. Example: When fast-forwarding video in Amazon you have to hold the button down, but if you do that in Netflix you’ll skip to the end almost immediately.
Like the previous remote control, this one also sports a full QWERTY keyboard. But instead of putting all the buttons on a single plane, this time they’ve moved the QWERTY keyboard around to the reverse side (a la Boxee.)
I do like that Sony uses the motion sensor to shut off the touchpad and buttons on one side, when the remote is flipped over to the other side, so that you don’t accidentally move the cursor while typing – this is a feature I’d really like to see Boxee add.
Sony’s keyboard is also backlit, which wasn’t as useful as I’d hoped. The backlight is orange, and the keys are so crowded that it’s hard to find the character you need in a bright room, let alone a dim one. The rubber keys on the QWERTY keyboard also feel a little mushy. I had a much easier time entering text with the plastic keys on the last remote.
As for the 3-axis motion sensitivity, it’s pretty well hidden on the Sony device right now. It’s not used for web browsing, or general navigation, or for 99% of of the apps I tried.
(NOTE: the LG device I tested at CES used motion-control input for general navigation, web browsing, etc. so the motion control aspect does appear to differ between manufacturers. But we haven’t yet tested an LG Google TV in the lab, and so can’t speak for any changes since CES.)
Finally, after hours of searching, I found a game called “Dot” that uses the 3-axis motion controls, albeit not very well (hat tip to theVerge.com)
Even once I figured out that I had to hold the controller perfectly level, I still found it twitchy and hard to use – my cursor kept getting stuck at the edge of the screen. The Verge actually mentions the same issue in their CES report, chalking it up to “early prototype issues” back then.
And that, essentially, is the problem – Sony’s device still feels like an early prototype, both in terms of hardware and content.
While searching the Google Play store for any apps that might use motion control, I noticed that there are quite a few games available on the Google TV that should use this input – that is, the developer specifies in the app description that the game uses the tilt sensor of a mobile phone to control gameplay, and Google found the app fit to include on Google TV. But to my surprise, most of these apps don’t take any input from the remote control at all – not the motion sensor, the D-pad or the touchpad. You can install them on the Google TV, but after that, they just don’t work.
If you’re familiar with the concept of Android Fragmentation, then you know this is bad news. See, normally the Google Play Store filters the selection of apps that are visible to you depending on the capabilities of the device you’re using. The idea is to ensure that any app you install will work on your particular device. This is deemed necessary because of the millions of devices, all running different versions of Android (this is where the fragmentation part comes in.)
So if you’re using a modern Android smartphone, you’ll see apps that use touchscreen input (“Fruit Ninja,” for example,) but you won’t see those same apps if you access the Play Store from a device that doesn’t have a touchscreen.
Unfortunately, this plan seems to be backfiring in that we’re now seeing a situation where apps that don’t really work on Google TV are available for download. Simultaneously, we don’t have access to the apps that would probably be useful even if they’re not optimized for TV (Spotify comes to mind.)
It’s the worst of both worlds, really.
There may be hope for more motion-control apps on this device, though, because Sony recently acquired the gaming service Gaikai (meanwhile, the LG devices and Vizio CoStar will support OnLive, a competitor to Gaikai.) So in the future, perhaps we’ll see some applications that make good use of this functionality. Which brings us back to the bit about this feeling like an early prototype.
Bottom line: Though we came into it with high hopes, the Sony NSZ-GS7 GoogleTV just isn’t ready for primetime. (Or even daytime.) And as with the last device, it’s a two-part problem: a little bit Sony, and a little bit Google TV.
We can still hope that the LG and Vizio hardware for GoogleTV won’t have the same issues as Sony’s, it seems unlikely that any of these devices can live up to their full potential until Google fixes the fragmentation issues, rights issues, and gets some more TV app developers on board.
Judging by the “progress” during the past 9 months, it’s probably going to be a long wait.