Review: Vizio Co-Star Google TV

May 7, 2013 - Written By Randy Arrowood

Oh come on, yes you have heard of Google TV. We may be late the Vizio Co-Star review party, but over the 4 months that I’ve had this device I’ve watched it improve and become the type of Google TV box that my Logitech Revue just couldn’t grow into.

The Vizio Co-Star was the first of the second generation Google TV devices to hit the scene, and though there have been other entrants since, it remains a bestseller. Normally, we have just a few weeks with a device loaned for review, but the timing ran me up against the Vizio presentation at CES this year, and then there was the Google TV 3.0 update that came to my review device in early March, so I’ve had and used this device for a very long time.

Had this review been written sooner, I’d have different feelings about the device. Given time, I’ve experienced the effort that Vizio has put into improving the Co-Star and ironing out the issues that exist in all new products.

Overview

The Co-Star is a companion set-top-box that Google refers to as a Buddy Box. With it, you can turn any TV with an HDMI input into a smart TV, regardless of the TV’s built in capabilities. The idea is to bring together your pay or over-the-air television service with all that’s available on the Internet, and make it searchable and discoverable. It’s an ambitious goal, but even in its earliest form, Google TV was an insanely useful add-on feature in my entertainment center.

The Co-Star brings a smaller footprint, a remote that I actually have come to love and the first OEM overlay that I think is actually useful, and a vast improvement over the standard Google vision for what a UI should be like.

I use the Co-Star as the guide for my DirecTV DVR, I search my program guide, Netflix, Amazon Instant Video and HBO Go from one interface instead of four, and I find the things that I want to watch quickly and easily. In my use case, I also stream all of my online content from the Co-Star as well.

Hardware

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The Co-Star is a tiny little box, larger than a Roku or an Apple TV, but insanely small compared to previous versions of Google TV hardware. Gone is the near Blu-ray player sized Revue, and in its place is a box that has disappeared into my TV stand atop my DirecTV DVR.

Also gone is the full sized keyboard remote that the Revue was famous for, as well as the difficult to use palm sized keyboard that was added on to my Revue. In their place is a much more convenient, if oddly shaped two-sided remote that adds the QWERTY keyboard to the back side.

The remote is definitely a fatty, but with thick batteries on one end, and a keyboard on the backside, fat was the only option available to keep the keyboard flat and useable. The remote also includes three branded buttons at the top for M-Go, Amazon Instant Video and Netflix.

I am not a fan of branded buttons or remotes, but I do regularly make use of the buttons for Amazon and Netflix. M-Go just became available for use in the last several weeks and I’ve yet to use that button, or the service. We’ll talk more about that later.

All of the things that the Revue never was from a hardware standpoint: small, lightweight, quiet and easily ignorable, that’s what the Co-Star is for me. After a week, the Co-Star became as stealth in my setup as the Roku it sits next to. The real test however was my one year old daughter. She grabs for lots of things on the TV stand, including the DVR, but not the Co-Star.

Software Highlights

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Vizio Google TV Overlay

I am not a fan of OEM skins. I like the plain and simple approach that Google takes with Android, and rarely hesitate long to root my phone and restore a more simple UI than what the manufacturer of the device envisioned as useful. Not so with the Co-Star.

Pressing the home button, or in the case of the Co-Star the V button brings up the Google TV home screen. In the past, the Google TV home screen took over the entire screen space. You could still hear the audio of whatever show was playing on the TV, but all you could see was the Google TV home screen.

The Co-Star replaces that way of doing things with a small app drawer that pops out from the left side of your display, taking up only about 20% or so of my 47″ display. I still have favorite apps like the Revue offered, and the rest of my apps below them, but I’m able to have both the home screen open and the program that’s on viewable at the same time.

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Primetime

Google TV, for me, revolves around Primetime. Back in the day there was the Movies and TV app for movie and television show recommendations and discovery. That app eventually grew up to become what is today the most used feature for me. Primetime does the same stuff that Movies and TV did, but it does it all in a much more useful and friendly way.

Instead of two clicks and some scrolling to get to the recommendations app, the Guide button on the remote now brings up a new lower screen overlay that will show you movie and TV recommendations based on your preferences, your DVR playlist if you have a supported model or the guide data for your TV service. Again, Primetime doesn’t steal your entire TV screen to show you information, it only takes up the lower portion of the display.

If you’re a fan of the old Movies and TV way of doing things you have the option of turning the Primetime mini guide off and using the full app instead. You can also enter the full screen version of the app from within the mini guide interface.

OnLive

 I’m not going to get into OnLive as a company, because I just don’t know anything about them beyond the buyout that they went through earlier this year. I’m just going to get into what I know: OnLive works, and at the time of the review unit being sent to me, it was a Co-Star exclusive.

OnLive is a game streaming service that allows you to buy and play games that are hosted online and streamed to your Co-Star as you play using the custom OnLive game controller. It’s an ambitious goal, and though visually games can suffer at times, I played Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood and Revelations without much to complain about. Yeah, there are some frame rate issues here and there, and you’ll get  much higher quality graphics from a console, but OnLive works well when you consider what the service is providing.

The OnLive controller is a $49 add-on to the Co-Star, and game selection is limited at best with prices that are generally as high or higher than other options available for buying games. The OnLive app is really hideous to look at, but there are sales and bundles available all the time that offer a pretty wide range of titles. It’s worth looking into if you have a Co-Star, but research the company and its issues before you commit money to buying games from the service.

Amazon Instant Video

If you’re a Prime subscriber, you at least know of Amazon Prime Instant Video. What you might not be aware of is that before the Co-Star, Google TV devices accessed the service through the Chrome browser. The Co-Star is the only Google TV device that I’ve used with an actual app, and I really like it.

An app is better than a web page, and I never used the Revue or the 1st Sony Google TV device for Prime Video, falling back to other devices that did have an app available. I’ve used the Amazon app on the PS3, Roku 2 XD, Roku 3 and the Wii U. I much prefer Co-Star for its dedicated button on the remote, and much simpler interface compared to the other apps.

The PS3 app comes closest, but part of the allure of the Google TV is bringing all of these services together in a more useful and user friendly way. The Co-Star does that for me here.

Netflix

Like the Amazon Video app before it, the Netflix app is available as a one touch option on the Co-Star remote. The Netflix app itself is nearly identical to what’s available elsewhere. On startup you’re presented with the option to select the regular Netflix interface or the Netflix for Kids option.

Beyond that, you’ve got the fairly standard Netflix experience. Your queue and recommendations are laid out in front of you, and selecting a program or movie brings up a short description on the right hand side of the screen.

The Netflix button on the remote was the deciding factor in making the Co-Star my primary choice for streaming Netflix. I don’t have to push the activity button my Harmony remote, wait for the input to change, wake up my Roku and then hit Netflix. One button, one choice and I’m into my queue. It’s easier, it’s faster and the Netflix experience is actually better than the Roku because of the layout of the app.

M-Go

M-Go is a Vudu like movie and TV rental service that was another Co-Star exclusive Google TV app when the Co-Star launched. I can’t imagine that anyone envisioned the service being delayed for nearly a year, but it’s just become available for use in the last month and half of so.

I’m pretty well set with movie rentals from Amazon, and to a lesser extent Vudu, so I haven’t made use of the M-Go service. The selection at least appears to be good, but having never used it I can’t speak to the video quality or the experience of renting a movie through the service.

Initial problems solved

The early reviews of the Co-Star pointed out a number of issues with the hardware and software on the first units that shipped. When I received this review unit, most of the issues still existed to some degree, though it was clear that things were much improved. I want to go over these issues again, because I’ve had this device for a lot longer than we normally have review units, and I’ve seen the issues largely resolved.

Overheating and freezing units

This was a really big complaint that a lot of blog and Amazon reviewers called out, and I experienced it a few times in the first few weeks that I had the device. Now, nearly 5 months after getting the Co-Star and its three updates, the problem for me is solved.

It runs as cool or cooler than any Roku I’ve ever owned. I can use either for streaming or other activities and hold the unit flat in my hand. It’s warm, but it’s not hot and that is a substantial improvement over the first few weeks that I spent with it.

Freeze ups only happened to me twice, and both instances occurred in the first month that i had the device. Oddly, both of the instances that caused me to have to cycle the Co-Star involved periods of no use that lasted more than just a day or two.

In the last three months I’ve experienced no instances of a frozen device.

Remote orientation and button sensitivity

This was another big complaint in the early days, and issues that I experienced to a lesser degree in my time with the device, but both have been resolved in my usage.

The sensors in the remote use the position and angle to determine whether you are trying to use the TV remote on the top side, or the QWERTY keyboard on the bottom. At first, the remote needed to be held nearly flat to use either side or it had no idea which feature you were trying to use.

There was also a huge issue with button sensitivity. There was no rhyme or reason to the amount of pressure that it took to register a keystroke on the remote, and the same or more pressure applied to the same key didn’t guarantee an accurate keystroke.

Each update improved the remote’s function to the point that it is today. When using the TV remote, I can hold it in nearly any position from pointing at the ceiling to holding it on its side. The remote knows that I’m using the TV remote. Roll the remote over, and I can hold it in front of my face, parallel to the TV screen and begin typing a search. It works perfectly every time.

Registering keystrokes is also a fixed issue for me. In the early days, keystrokes were missed, repeated or properly registered at random some times. After several updates, key presses on the remote are more accurate than my Harmony, which rarely ever has issues with missed presses.

Slow, laggy performance

The hardware in the Co-Star is not exactly powerful, but too much of the blame for the lag on Google TV devices falls on the hardware. Google has come a long way with performance of Google TV, and version 3 is the best version yet.

That said, things aren’t perfect.

I’ve experienced both slow or laggy performance, as well as a much improved experience since the update in early March. I’m one that believes that Google still has big plans for TV, and I think that we’re going to hear more about that in the big Google I/O keynote in just over a week. As good as the performance has become, I think it will only get better.

Pros

  • Very small size compared to the previous generation of devices.

  • Early issues with hardware and responsiveness solved.

  • Vizio continues to put a lot of emphasis on the Co-Star with regular updates.

  • Very usable QWERTY keyboard remote. It takes some getting used to, but I’m happy with it.

Cons

  • It’s Google TV. There is still a serious lack of apps.

  • Too many websites that offer video streaming still block Google TV.

  • Google has yet to deliver on their promise for Google TV.

  • Chrome. Not the browser so much as the fact that this isn’t your daddy’s Chrome. NDK and a right and proper version of Chrome will fix this.

Conclusion


I’ve wanted to love Google TV from the first day that I heard about it. Just as Android as a phone and tablet OS has grown and evolved from a nascent OS into the market dominating refined experience that is today, Google TV has done little of that.

Buying into Google TV is less expensive than it ever has been, but Google has done little to take this from the hobby level to a featured pillar in the overall Android ecosystem. I think that this Google I/O will begin to change all of that, and the Co-Star is where I’m putting my money in the Google TV race.

The Co-Star is a solid device, it has been improved to the point of being a solid performer, and I trust that Vizio is going to continue to improve upon the experience for Co-Star owners as they’ve done in the months that I’ve had this review unit.

For those sitting on the sideline trying to decide if Google TV is for them or not, the Co-Star is a simple device to set up, and it offers a simple, refined interface that even a novice has no issue navigating.

For those wanting to buy into the Google TV experience but unsure of which device to get, I recommend the Co-Star. Aside from what’s been mentioned, it’s a company that I trust to not pull a Logitech on their users and just walk away from their product and their users.

Disclaimers

  1. The unit used in this review was provided by Vizio.

  2. I own a LOT of Vizio products. I have numerous televisions, sound bars and Blu-ray players in my personal collection. All bought and paid for with my own money.