You may be surprised to find that Google TV is still kicking around. That's understandable, given poor reviews, sluggish sales, and last year's problems with Logitech, one of its original hardware partners. Google itself is even starting to pretend Google TV doesn't exist, launching other living-room initiatives like Google Fiber and the Nexus Q without even mentioning the long-struggling platform.
Vizio's Co-Star is one of only a handful of products on the market still trying to prove Google TV has a place in your living room. And it has a few distinctive features that make it stand out from other boxes: a $100 list price, a custom Google TV skin, and a small footprint. It's also the first Google TV device to support OnLive cloud gaming out of the box, although that's less of a marquee feature given OnLive's recent troubles. But none of this can overcome the heart of the Co-Star's failings, which is the underwhelming Google TV software. While it may seem like it can "do a lot" for a $100 device, so much of its functionality is hamstrung by restrictions and the overall bugginess of the software. The Vizio Co-Star is cheap way to check out Google TV, but it's still not worth the price until the software improves.
The Co-Star is the smallest Google TV box yet, looking more like an overstuffed Roku box than the more cable-box-like Logitech Revue or Sony NSZ-GS7. It lacks the crisp, refined look of the Apple TV and the glossy black finish with silver highlights makes it look a little generic.
Around back are the Co-Star's only ports: an HDMI input, HDMI output, USB port, and Ethernet jack. It's about as simple as a Google TV box can be and it's nice that Vizio was able to fit it all into a small package. Note that there's no IR blaster port, nor is there a built-in IR blaster in the Co-Star box; all external devices are controlled by IR commands from the remote.
Remote: Brick-sized and QWERTY-fied
The challenge for any Google TV device is getting the remote right. So far, manufacturers have tried everything from a full-fledged keyboard to a game-controller-style remote, but even the best attempt yet (the Sony NSZ-GS7's) is only good, rather than great.
Vizio's remote is similar to the NSZ-GS7's, with standard remote and touch pad on one side, and a full QWERTY keyboard on the other. One big difference is the inclusion of a big "V" button in the middle, which brings up Vizio's custom Google TV sidebar. It's not a bad layout by Google TV standards, but it's still subpar for a lot of activities. Frequently used buttons like Play and Pause are small and inconveniently located at the top of the remote. Well-designed remotes, like TiVo's and Harmony's, put those buttons right under your thumb. So while this does a decent job of cramming a lot of functionality into one clicker, button layout isn't that great for the functions you use the most.
Flip the Co-Star's remote around and there's a full QWERTY keyboard on the back, necessary for Google's browser-intensive approach to streaming video. The double-sided design is very reminiscent of the Boxee Box's remote, except Vizio's remote is a lot bigger. That extra size actually hurts its ergonomics quite a bit; my average-size hands had to stretch to reach the G and H keys in the center of remote. It's also surprising that there's no dedicated search button on the QWERTY side, so you have to flip the remote over to activate the search bar. On the plus side, the clicker communicates with the Co-Star using Bluetooth, so you don't need to worry about pointing the remote at the box.
All Google TV products to date are essentially identical other than hardware, but Vizio is the first company to "skin" Google TV, rather than using the default interface.
It's not a bad idea, since there's plenty of room for improvement to the default Google TV interface, but I don't think Vizio's is any better. Instead of the standard overlay of icons along the bottom, Vizio has its own sidebar that pops out from the left when you hit the V button. The top of the menu presents you with major services like Amazon Instant and Netflix, followed by a long list of apps and other settings. The sidebar may be designed small to avoid blocking too much of the content it's overlaying, but it ends up feeling cramped and a poor use of screen space.