Back to the shop with the Sony Google TV box
On Saturday I decided to go out and but the snappily named Sony NSZ-GS7 Internet Player with Google TV, but on Sunday, with great disappointment I took it back. I have been following the Google TV story for some time and was looking forward to it coming to the UK. The price tag of £199 for the box seemed a bit hefty, especially when compared to games consoles but that can sometimes be the price of being an early adopter. I have an Android phone and an Android tablet so a Google TV box would mean that the biggest screen in my house - the TV could be integrated into the Android eco-system. The box would also integrate with my satellite box to some extent, hopefully bringing Internet and broadcast TV closer together. Most of all it is a consumer device so I was hoping that this sort of box would have the potential to change the TV experience for many people. However when I got the box home the disappointment began.
Hardware wise the NSZ-GS7 is a surprisingly small set top box. It comes with an interesting remote control that features a touchpad and a few buttons on the front and a keyboard on the back. On the sides are some buttons to change channel and volume. The box is designed to integrate with you TV and audio set up, so on the back is an HDMI loopthrough when you can plug in your external satellite or cable box (if you have one) and the unit will overlay the Google TV interface on top of the output of your tuner box. You also get an IR Blaster which is a device that allows the box to control your tuner, television and some audio equipment by sending it remote control signals. The solution is clever, but the device is on the end of a large bit of wire and it should have line of sight to anything you want to control. It is very difficult to set this up neatly!
The box connects to you home network either through a wired network connection or Wifi. Also around the back is an optical audio out and two USB sockets for memory sticks. Surprisingly there is no SD card slot which seemed a strange omission to me as I would imaging a simple use case for a device like this would be for people to show pictures from digital cameras on their TV? Now for a confession, I quite liked the remote in a way, it is unusual but seems to work quite well. It enables you to operate a mouse cursor on screen without the need to look easily enough and felt that it was quite good quality. The IR Blaster solution also worked to some extent, but I found that it seemed quite slow and getting the satellite box to change channels. Another strange omission was the lack of an included HDMI cable, especially as it has a loop-through feature. As this is the only video output the box would be useless without one, so if people picked up the box and got it home they could find themselves disappointed unless they remembered to buy a cable too.
The set up process for the box is fairly painful to be honest. I can imagine how it could put a lot of people off, after all it nearly put me off. The startup wizard tells you that set up will take twenty minutes and details lots of steps to be completed. Some of these are maybe unavoidable given the nature of the product, but if you put that up against the experience of a Freeview or Freesat box you can see how it might disappoint. One of the steps was to "maximise the screen area" which looked like it was trying to deal with overscan issues. This involved manually pressing the cursor keys to decide the size of the screen. Quite why they couldn't get this information from the HDMI cable and/or an online database (you have to put in the make and model of your TV anyway) I don't know.
The box seems to suffer from a lack of attention to detail too in some places. For example during the set up you can tell it about your external satellite box and a bit like a universal remote control it will propose some codes for the IR blaster to control it. For mine it found four possible codes, which is fine, but when the first one did not work and I pressed "try again" I had to enter the manufacturer and model again before getting the codes back, making the process of setting up the box slower than I had just been returned to the list I had just seen. Another example of a platform level lack of attention to detail was later on when using the YouTube app. I found I had to go through several menus before I got to a video produced by a user I had subscribed too. Shouldn't this be quicker? Fixing little things like this adds a lot to the delight of using a product like this and gives a good impression.
Much of the pain in the set up process is to do with getting the overlay with the external tuner working, but after all of this the results were disappointing. Despite the external tuner (in my case a Freesat box) being controlled by the Sony box and displayed through it not much integration takes place. The opportunity to provide TV related services has been missed, the search box for instance did not find things on the Freesat schedule, in fact it just seemed to take me to the normal Google web search. Again narrowing the gap between online and broadcast TV is an opportunity to delight the user that the box sadly missed.
On the plus side the box was completely silent and the Android interface adapted for TVs seemed mostly smooth to use. There were some good features, the YouTube app automatically adjusted itself for my slow broadband connection. I had a quick look at some of the third party TV optimised apps and they seemed quite promising. Apps will be important for a platform like this because it is Android and there will inevitably be comparisons with the mobile world. Apps also can create "buzz" around a product. I think now though that HTML5 is the future for TV apps so it was good to see how well TV optimised apps work in Chrome, the built in browser (I also noticed that it is possible to change the user agent string in Chrome, which could be a handy feature!).
The biggest disappointment? Amazingly the lack of a media player app. Astonishing in a product like this. Instead the media player icon just has "coming soon" above it. This is really bad, I know that I can easily get one from the Google Play Store, but that is not the point. This is meant to be a consumer grade device, it should provide this sort of functionality out of the box on day one. It would have been nice to have a TV optimised music player. There was a photo viewer though so at least you could use it to see the contents of a USB stick.
I really don't like to be negative in blog posts but this product was a real disappointment. It just seems a bit unloved and unfinished and I think that for a consumer product, especially one trying to open up a new market this is not really good enough. The Samsung Galaxy S3 is a great example of a product where care has been taken to polish the user experience and include features that delight the user. The NSZ-GS7 needs to take a leaf out of its book. In the market space it is in it is competing with games consoles which often have Internet TV capability and products like the Roku player which can be only a quarter of the price of this unit. This isn't even the first iteration of Google TV as a product, the first attempt largely failed so there was an extra incentive this time to be out to impress. Many of these problems are fixable in software so let's hope that happens soon and maybe then Google TV could start to deliver on its potential as a platform.