I am a cable and satellite cord-cutter. All the content I view on televisions comes from free over-the-air broadcast stations or the Internet. Getting Internet video sources to play conveniently on televisions takes a little digging, but it’s well worth the effort. I find now that watching television, when I do, is more of an active experience than a passive one and it takes up a considerably less quantity of time.
For scheduling and recording over-the-air broadcast television I use MythTV. In fact, if you’re interested in using it for yourself, I have a little guide for building it from source code. Most Linux distributions come with it pre-packaged, though, and you’re probably better off with that.
For watching videos and television shows from the Internet I use the Boxee Box and have given my 80-year old father a Roku device, which he loves and has no problem operating. The Boxee Box is far more feature-full than the Roku, and I greatly prefer it. You can even link in your Twitter and Facebook feeds, and watch videos people post, which are all nicely organized for you. Also, you can subscribe to many television shows that are also made available for streaming on the Internet, and their app selection is huge and varied. The Roku is great for simplicity. The only downside of the Boxee Box is that it doesn’t support Amazon Video. You can even send your Boxee Box videos you see while browsing on your desktop or laptop computers.
I am, however, a big Google Android user and love the interoperability between their software services and just about any device you have. So I’ve been curious about Google TV. I haven’t heard the best reviews about it, so I didn’t want to spend a lot of money. A little while ago I ran across a device called the Vizio Co-Star which was incredibly inexpensive for a network-attached HD video box, rivaling the Roku in price and exceeding its hardware features. So I bought it, to give it a try.
The first thing the Vizio Co-Star did was connect to my Google account, which makes sense, since it’s an Android device, or rather Google TV device. Actually, I’m not sure why you’d want to call it a Google TV – it’s very much like any other Android device, except you navigate through organized menus instead of clicking big screens of icons. It even gives you access to the Google Play store, though with far fewer apps.
After I signed in, the Co-Star found an update, downloaded it, and installed. Navigating the menus and selecting things was slower than the Boxee Box, and even slower than the Roku. Since that time, the Co-Star has updated again, and now the navigation is even faster than the Roku.
It has Netflix, and it works wonderfully. It also has several other video sources, including Amazon. The big remote control (which has a great little keyboard on the back of it) has big shortcut buttons for Netflix and Amazon, too. Irritatingly, the Amazon application is really just a bookmark to the Amazon Video website. It works great, but I don’t like navigating a web page to watch a video. The Netflix app is great, though. Thankfully, the remote control has a trackpad that lets you move the mouse cursor around on the screen, and even scroll pages by moving up and down on the right-side of the pad, just like most laptops. The scrolling is a little wild, though – overly sensitive. I sure hope they come out with a proper Amazon Video app soon.
Of course, you get all your Google Play stuff – all your music that you’ve bought from Google Music or have synced to Google from other sources, is all available in your normal, and well-done Android music app. The same with videos and even your pictures. It’s very nice how integrated it is. I particularly love how they’ve integrated your YouTube account. You can literally just set it running on your subscriptions, and it will play them all on your TV one after the other, the newest additions in all your subscriptions, to the oldest. And it’s very easy to skip forward and back, too.
And in that same light, I love how you can be watching a YouTube video on your phone or tablet, and just shoot it off to your Google TV (Vizio Co-Star in this case). It’s a one key press operation, and you can pause or skip, all on your phone or tablet after that, like it’s a remote control.
Also, if you install an app called Able Remote, you can send any video at all, or even web pages to your Vizio Co-Star (Google TV). It’s a great little app that acts as a remote and a means to send stuff to the TV that goes beyond just YouTube.
Video and audio playback is great on the Co-Star. HD video is perfectly smooth, and it’s sharp and vibrant. It has wireless capability, but I plug it in – stuff always seems to work more reliably when it’s hard-wired. The Roku we have here doesn’t have an ethernet jack, though, and even though this Roku is 1080p capable, it doesn’t look as nice as the Vizo Co-Star, at least to my eyes.
Another nice thing about the Vizio Co-Star is that you can watch regular TV without having to change the TV input or AV equipment input. Google TV in the Co-Star will overlay right on top of your TV, cable or satellite picture, when you want it. This is accomplished by having both a HDMI input and HDMI output connector on back. Plug your normal TV, satellite or cable box into the Co-Star, and then plug your Co-Star into your television set, and you no longer have to change inputs. It even gives you PiP capability (Picture in Picture), so that you can watch your tv/cable/satellite show up in a corner of the Google TV screen while you’re using another Andoid app on the larger bit of the screen. Personally, I don’t use this feature much, but I imagine some people really might.
It’s not all love and glory, though. I’ve had the HDMI pass-through stop working a couple times. Just a couple times. It just won’t show video from the tv/satellite/cable source. Power cycling fixes this, though. Seriously, just a couple times out of a lot of use. Also, the app selection available to you in the Google Play store isn’t that great. There are a good number, but not a ton like I would love. There is so much potential in these devices. Popular ones like Twit.tv and Revision 3 are there, and Pandora. And they work beautifully. CNBC is great. Wall Street Journal. Lots of things, but not like the main Android app store. One of my favorites is a police/emergency scanner that lets you listen to local emergency channels. It’s kinda freaky. There was a guy they found passed out in a ditch near my house. I would have never known!
Anyway, I just wanted to get this little description and opinion piece written and posted. Because when I was searching for a Google TV device, and found the Co-Star, there were no reviews that addressed just the common concerns an Android and Google ecosystem user might have. The Co-Star is a great, great piece of hardware, and wonderfully implemented in software. And for the price, it’s a no-brainer. I love it. I use it every day. My Boxee is sitting unplugged and unused. I may plug it in again, though, because it was much better at finding free TV show sources on the Internet.
I hope this helps someone, and let me know if you have any questions at all, and I’ll try to answer them. I’ve probably left out a lot. Here’s a picture of the remote and my dirty box. The Vizio logo really is a bit sinister-looking – every time I boot the thing I’m reminded of Cylons.