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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

VIZIO Co-Star with Google TV Review

When last we saw VIZIO's Google TV-powered streaming device, the Co-Star, we were touring the company's product suite at the International CES in Las Vegas.  You may recall that the little black box made quite an impression on me, and I was eager to get the unit home to spend some quality time with it. Now that I've spent some time with it, I can tell you that the news is both good and bad, though thankfully not ugly. (Did you really expect a straightforward declaration this early in the review?)

The Co-Star joins a crowded marketplace with new streaming devices appearing on what seems a monthly basis. The two most popular leaders in this space are Apple, with their Apple TV, and Roku, with their bevy of boxes led by the recently-introduced Roku 3. And like those primary competitors, VIZIO's Co-Star has its share of pros and cons. However, the one thing it has that neither Apple nor Roku can claim is Google's innovative and promising Google TV platform.

It's a Set Up!

Like the Apple TV and Roku 3, the Co-Star is a small device measuring roughly four inches square. On its tiny rear panel you'll find an ethernet port for making a hard-wire connection to your home network. For those of you without convenient access to hard wire, the Co-Star also features built-in 802.11n/g/b Wi-Fi. Also out back you'll find connections for power and USB as well an HDMI output for connection to your display. This is all pretty standard fare. Where things get interesting is the Co-Star's HDMI input.

Unlike the Apple TV, Roku 3, and just about every other non-Google TV streaming device, the Co-Star features both an HDMI input and output. This is because the Co-Star is designed to sit between your cable/satellite receiver and your display, thus acting as a pass-thru device. This configuration provides two unique benefits: first, it means you won't require an additional HDMI input on your display - a big deal if you're using a modestly-priced display with only two ports, which are probably already occupied by your cable/satellite box and a Blu-ray Disc player or game console. Secondly, the in-line location of the Co-Star allows its modest and attractive user interface to be inserted on top of the satellite/cable signal without interrupting whatever it is you're watching. Nice.

As is the case with most streaming devices, the Co-Star features a simple and intuitive wizard when you first connect it. You're asked to connect to your network, there's an opportunity to synch with your Google account, and you'll then set up your devices. I tested the Co-Star in my basement theater, so my Epson 5020UB projector was my display (review coming soon) and I also configured my Dish Hopper with Sling and my Onkyo A/V Receiver (AVR). The latter of which I configured as an "audio device," so the Volume button on the Co-Star remote could control the volume on the AVR.

Remote, Control

At first glance, the Co-Star remote looks ridiculously chunky - but more on that in a moment. In addition to direct access buttons for Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and M-GO (a promising new player in the burgeoning video streaming marketplace), you'll also find standard control buttons, an excellent directional keypad, and a small trackpad for mouse-like cursor control. Now let's get back to the chunky. The Co-Star remote is big-boned on account of the fact that you can flip it over to find a landscape-oriented, full QWERTY keyboard.

For anyone who's ever tried to configure a Netflix or Pandora account or search YouTube using just a directional keypad, the benefits of a full keyboard should be immediately obvious. The keyboard is a little awkward to use at times, but it beats the hell out of clicking up, up, right, right, right, enter, etc. Interestingly, VIZIO's slider-style Bluetooth remotes, which they seem to have stopped making in favor of these new, 2-sided models, had a superior design and felt better in the hand but one can only assume that these 2-sided remotes will have fewer mechanical issues in the long term.

One genuine remote complaint VIZIO can and should improve on: the QWERTY keyboard needs dedicated number keys; having to hold shift and then the number is a pain. Incidentally, there are dedicated number keys on the front of the remote, so I sometimes found myself flipping the remote over and using those to avoid the shift method. And in case you're curious, like I was, whether you can interact with the both sides of the remote at the same time, the answer is no.  A nifty internal gyroscope tells the remote which side is face-up and the other side is instantly disabled to prevent inadvertent clicks or taps. Cool. Pressing the prominent "V" key on the remote brings up the Co-Star's attractive and intuitive user interface.  As previously stated, one major benefit to having your cable or satellite HDMI signal flow through the Co-Star is that the Co-Star can overlay its app interface on top of whatever you're watching. This means that while you're deciding whether you want to watch something from Netflix, VUDU, M-GO, or Amazon Instant, you don't have to interrupt the basketball game until you decide.

There's an App for That... Or is there?
Looking at the remote control, you'll notice colorful, direct-access buttons for Netflix, Amazon Instant, and M-GO.  The latter is a newcomer to the streaming video market with competitive pricing on newer titles and an attractive (albeit sometimes clunky) interface. When I first started testing the Co-Star, the Amazon Instant app wasn't an app at all, but instead the Chrome web browser displaying However, after a recent software update (v4.6.0), Vizio has thankfully released a dedicated app for Amazon Instant and it's quite good.

Unfortunately, my hands-down favorite streaming app, HBO GO, as well as several others including Crackle, are relegated to the same Chrome-based website treatment. Although you can navigate to those websites manually, Google TV makes it a little easier with an icon called "Spotlight TV," which brings you to Google's Spotlight Gallery website featuring "TV optimized websites." Clicking the desired icon, (e.g. HBO GO) brings you to the website in question (e.g. where you'll then need to use the remote's trackpad to click on "Sign In" and navigate the site as a traditional computer user would.

Although this web browser approach is certainly better than nothing, it doesn't compare to the dedicated HBO GO and Crackle apps on Roku's devices. Unfortunately, getting those websites to remember my login credentials, despite clicking "Remember Me," was a frustrating exercise in futility the few times I tried it. That said, when I asked VIZIO about the issue, here's what they had to say: "HBO GO and other services should be initial sign-in only. In fact, the latest PrimeTime app even has an HBO GO subscription flag so the system knows if the Co-Star user is a subscriber." So it may just be a setting or checkbox that I missed somewhere.

On the plus side, VUDU does get its own dedicated app, so fans of Walmart's popular streaming service will be plenty happy with the Co-star. Incidentally, if you haven't yet discovered this, VUDU is an excellent vehicle for redeeming and accessing those Ultraviolet digital copies we're always mentioning in our Blu-ray Disc reviews.

On a final app note, it's worth noting that one of the main selling points of the Co-Star is its ability to run thousands of apps from the Play Store, Google's less-regulated equivalent of Apple's App Store for Android. Although those apps won't be easy to use on the Co-Star as they are on your Android smartphone or tablet, having the trackpad on the Co-Star remote does come in handy here.

At the heart of the revamped Google TV platform is Google's "PrimeTime" app, which is both an entertainment browser and real-time channel guide all in one. And for the most part, it's awesome. The best thing about Prime Time is how it displays movies and TV series using poster-style icons complete with a progress bar under each to indicate how far along the film or episode is in its run time. Clicking the menu/options button allows you to give that title a star rating or add it to your "queue," among other things.

The PrimeTime Guide has two modes: full screen and the "Quick Guide," which superimposes a half-sized version of it on top of whatever you're watching. Once you get it working properly, life is good, but getting the "Guide" button on the remote to function consistently and as desired is not immediately evident and took a few rounds of "Options" configuration - at least with my unit.

The cool thing about PrimeTime is that it's bringing together content from multiple sources, not just your cable or satellite guide. Drilling down into a particular title lets you browse your viewing/renting/buying options for that particular title. For example, clicking on Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive might show me that I could watch the film tonight on Cinemax at 10pm, but if I don't want to wait that long, I can stream it immediately via Netflix. Clicking the latter option launches the Netflix app and brings me right to that title's page, ready to stream. Very cool.

In my testing, selecting live DISH content from the Prime Time guide is where the remote control's Bluetooth/infrared (IR) dual nature became evident - and more than a little complicated. Launching and navigating the PrimeTime app is direct communication between the remote and the Co-Star and as such, this is handled 100% by Bluetooth.  Point the remote at the sofa cushion and it'll still work fine. However, when I decided to watch "Game of Thrones" on HBO, that means tuning the Dish Hopper to channel 300. And in my testing, that appears to be possibe only via IR, which means the Co-Star remote needs to be pointed at the Hopper to work. The net effect is that although you can browse the Prime Time guide with the remote pointed anywhere, clicking the "enter" button to select something from live TV should only be done with the remote pointed at your cable/satellite box. This is definitely an issue if you don't have a line of sight to your gear, but if you do, it's just a quirk you'l have to learn to live with.

In addition to browsing the PrimeTime on-screen guide, searching for content is easy thanks to Google TV's integrated Search tool, which can be quickly accessed using a dedicated hard button on the remote control. However, if you want to get more advanced, download the Google TV Remote app to your Android smartphone or tablet. I tested this using my Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0, and while the app is largely redundant given the Co-Star remote's capabilities, one thing the mobile control app does bring to the table is Voice Search. After all, why type "Casino Royale" when you can simply say it? Although using your phone or tablet to channel surf is not always practical, Voice Search is fun to play with and works surprisingly well.

HDMI pass-thru provides for overlaid user interfacePrimeTime combines content from multiple sourcesFull QWERTY keyboard (though button keys would be nice)

Bluetooth and IR division of labor must be remembered for proper functionLack of dedicated apps for HBO GO, Crackle, othersWith great power comes great responsibility (not for Grandma and Grandpa)

Final Thoughts
In the end, the $99 question is this: is the Co-Star ready for a starring role? Or is it - and the Google TV platform - still an understudy in the shadow of Apple TV and the Roku 3?  Frustratingly, the answer is: it depends. If you're looking for a purely "internet streaming device," to be used as a separate and isolated experience from regular TV viewing, the Roku 3 is the clear favorite. The Roku is  faster, easier to use, and the app selection (which includes HBO GO) can't be beat.

That said, the Co-Star can do several things the Roku (and Apple TV) cannot. Having your cable/satellite signal flow through the Co-Star is supremely handy at times and the Prime Time guide can be downright awesome. However, the Co-Star's ability to co-mingle content from multiple sources and the need to remember when Bluetooth as opposed to IR is going to be used makes the Co-Star a sometimes-confusing device best geared for advanced users.
Now that I've spent a good deal of time with the Co-Star and I have a handle on its quirks and idiosyncrasies, I like it quite a bit - but I'd never give one to my parents. Google TV definitely has the potential to become a star, but for the time being, the Co-Star seems an aptly-named device.

Manufacturer's Specifications:

Manufacturer's Contact Information:

39 Tesla
Irvine, CA 92618

Phone: 949-428-2525
Toll Free: 888 VIZIO CE (888.849.4623)

On the web:

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