Sony NSZ-GS7 £199
30th Aug 2012 | 11:05
Can the Sony's first Google TV box app the ante?
Overview and Features
Owners of smart TVs are used to apps like YouTube and the BBC iPlayer, and even the ability to surf the web, but Sony's refreshed attempt at Google TV seeks to streamline the whole process by combining a Chrome browser with a selection of Google Play apps - and all controlled by a double-sided trackpad remote with a keyboard on its reverse.
Can this Android-based, slim-line box that depends on Google Play for its apps seriously challenge the likes of the Apple TV, Xbox 360, YouView or smart TVs?
A quick inspection of the NSZ-GS7's apps reveals one huge oversight; there's no BBC iPlayer, though it is in the pipeline. What about catch-up apps for ITV Player, Channel 4 and Five? For a UK-centric service these apps ought to be integral, or at least idiot-proof access to them via Chrome.
The main toolbar, accessed by pressing the 'home' button on the remote, includes (from left to right), the current time, notifications and links to recent apps, a grid icon that leads to a full page of native and downloaded apps, a shortcut to show live TV if a set-top box is connected, and then dedicated shortcuts to YouTube, Google Play, the all-important Chrome, the less crucial Sony Entertainment Network (Video Unlimited, Music Unlimited, DailyMotion, GolfLink, Livestrong.com and NPR radio), a search option, and a help button.
In the apps folder we found Netflix (the much-needed result of a recent firmware update) and Twitter, though only 16 apps can be shown at one time (in A-Z fashion) while a third of the screen lies empty.
That's a real shame because most of the apps here are either repetitive from elsewhere in the GUI or of limited appeal - such as a link to the Media Player (USB stick access), Chrome, Google Play, YouTube, Search, Product Registration, Help Guide and Settings. It's a shame since scrolling down a page is a stodgy experience. Other apps of note here include Track ID (Sony's own music identifier) and Photos (encompassing photos stored on a USB stick, Flickr or on an Android phone.
Being a Google TV box, the NSZ-GS7 is at least in part subject to the quality and range of the apps it can download from Google Play.
We visited Google Play to download extra apps, but met with great disappointment; Netflix, Red Karaoke for Google, IMDb, Flixster, Evernote, Weather Channel, iStoryBook, OpenOffice Document Reader and Fox News are probably the highlights - few of them video-orientated - with myriad more apps that you really won't want to bother with. Presumably the aim is to offer every app used by Android phones on Google TV, though surely 99% of them should be providing video, movies and TV.
Sony Entertainment Network
We also worry slightly about the motley collection of apps hiding behind the Sony Entertainment Network link. It's good to see both Video and Music Unlimited services, but we're not sure why Sony has chosen to include some of the frankly uninspiring apps - such as Golflink - from its Smart TV platform. We're not sure of the point of this extra layer.
The search function is poor, capable of discovering content in its Media Player - that means a USB stick, if attached - or through a basic web search of Chrome. It doesn't, for instance, find any relevant video; a search for Top Gear merely performs a search of the web that doesn't include a link to the content on the BBC iPlayer, or BBC America episodes available to all in YouTube.
Most smart TVs, although limited in content, have better search functions than this; we'd expected more from Google on this front.
For all of Google TV's faults as a platform, Sony has done a decent enough job with the WiFi-endowed NSZ-GS7, though it does run on the ageing Android 3.2 Honeycomb OS.
Equipped with HDMI in and out for switching purposes), it's possessed of a digital optical audio output, two USB slots and a Bluetooth link for communicating with Android phones. As well as wired LAN, there's also an IR blaster cable. Much like your average smartphone, the NSZ-GS7 has about 8GB of storage on-board.
Those not able to master the frankly odd remote control, which puts a touchpad in amongst a plethora of baffling controls (though Android phone owners will be au fait with some of them) and a QWERTY keyboard on the reverse, can opt for the Sony Media Remote app available for iOS and Android.
It's more sensitive than the 'proper' remote and does make operating both the browser and the YouTube app easier.
Digital media support
It's possible to play video, music and photos from a docked USB stick. In our test we managed to get AVI, AVC HD, MKV, MOV, MPEG, WMV and WMV HD video files to play while music (MP3, AAC, FLAC & WAV) and photo (JPEG, BMP, GIF & PNG) compatibility also impressed. The thumbnail representation of video content is excellent.
ESFile Explorer File Manager, a free app from Google Play, can delve into cloud storage servers from the likes of Dropbox, Google Drive and SkyDrive as well as NAS drives and your phone or PC. aVia Media Player does a similar job for free, too, though it didn't work with our Mac running TwonkyMedia UPnP. There's also a tempting Plex for Google TV app, which costs 62p.
It's a neat intro to a new way of thinking; Sony builds the basic hardware, and app developers offers extra features and functionality. Sounds messy … and potentially confusing for many.
The ability of the NSZ-GS7 to indulge in some basic HDMI switching is a killer feature, instantly bringing an existing set-top box - in our case a Virgin Media TiVo PVR - into the experience. It proved relatively easy to set-up; attach any set-top to the NSZ-GS7 via an HDMI cable, then go through a set-up wizard to determine manufacturer and model number of both the set-top box and the TV you're using.
The end result is that the NSZ-GS7's remote control can operate most functions of both third party products, including changing the volume and channel, although we did detect a slight lip-sync issue from time to time.
It's possible to put a picture-in-picture thumbnail of live TV in the corner of the screen while you surf the web on the NSZ-GS7, which is a seriously joined-up feature we like.
It's also worth noting that set-up, in which we encountered no hold-ups or problems locating IR codes (potentially devastating if the database doesn't include your products), took over 30 minutes and involved a couple of re-boots.
Although the choice of apps on Google Play is - for now - limited, there's a mixed performance, too. We fired-up Flixster and watched a few movie trailers, which loaded quickly and played stably. Not so the hot-off-the-press Netflix, which continually crashed. We never did get it to work.
Should this really be called Sony YouTube TV? Its dedicated YouTube app impresses, with a fresh new interface - compared to the video website's appearance on smart TVs - that includes thumbnail links to trending, recently featured and most popular videos along with a fluid search function that's held up only by the remote.
However, the best aspect of YouTube - and perhaps of this product - is the YouTube app's channels section. Upfront are links to the various BBC channels (we found links to just-broadcast material like Citizen Kahn, Reading & Leeds Festival, Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure and Waterloo Road as well classic BBC series like Coogan's Run and the Wonders of The Solar System on the BBC, BBC America, BBC Worldwide and BBC Earth channels), though that's largely down to the wonders of the alphabet.
It proved difficult to find any of the other YouTube-hosted channels, such as footage from ITV Player or Channel Four. We know they're on there, but the list of channels is so long and the remote is frustratingly poor at scrolling down pages.
To do so it's necessary to swipe downwards only on the right-hand side of the trackpad, but it's not sensitive enough. However, choose a series and the app immediately plays the first episode, and as well as scanning controls also displays a Google+ button in case you feel the need to share.
YouTube is a potentially great app - though video quality is invariably poor, and it's let down by the remote. It's also already on most smart TVs.
The best bit about Google TV is indeed the Chrome browser. Apps are often nothing more than shortcut web links, of course, so we tried logging-on to the BBC iPlayer site directly through the Chrome browser, and … bingo. It's arguably more intuitive to use the main BBC iPlayer website than it is the made-for-smart-TVs app version, and though it's possible to save bookmarks, we do wish there was a way of bookmarking sites to the main toolbar.
As well as managing to watch full-screen content direct from the BBC iPlayer website, it performed a similar trick from Vimeo (we watched Earth: As Seen from the ISS) and iConcerts. It's not possible to stream from Lovefilm's website - Chrome doesn't support Microsoft Silverlight (we did download it, but to no avail) - and nor could we watch movies on Netflix (it defaulted to the perennially frozen/crashed Netflix app).
If, during a search on Chrome you find a video from YouTube, the NSZ-GS7 gives you a choice between watching via the browser or through the YouTube app. The latter is probably advisable, though we found it easier to browse for films through Chrome. Watching movies via YouTube on a TV is excellent - we found Mr Nice and Red for 99p each - though it would be good to see a few more movie streaming apps available.
Incidentally, actually performing a search in Chrome is a cinch; start typing using the backside remote, and suggestions instantly appear. To actually select one of those suggestions it's worth noting that it's easier to use the tiny arrows and 'enter' button on that diminutive QWERTY keyboard rather than turning over the whole thing and negotiating the trackpad to select and double-tap.
Although we feel slightly shortchanged in terms of the choice of apps on Google Play, the presence of such a functional browser does negate that to some extent. We just wish we could save shortcuts to websites somewhere easily accessible in the core GUI.
As pleasant as using Chrome is - relatively speaking - it doesn't feel anywhere near as personal as it could do. Once you've signed-in Gmail can be checked instantly through the browser, as can documents stored in Google Drive and Google Calendar, though most households will find the need to use one Google Account problematic.
Will Sony make a dedicated Google TV on the back of this box's success, or will Apple's much-discussed app-laden iTV ultimately consign the whole idea to history?
The swelling of Goolge TV-centric apps in Google Play could be the platform's saviour, but there's a DIY aspect to this set-top box that won't have wide appeal beyond the tech-savvy.
Meanwhile, Sony has promised a NSZ-GS7 3D Blu-ray Player with Google TV for autumn, which might reduce the 'who needs another box?' cries.
Quick to start-up, the NSZ-GS7 offers useful HDMI switching that results in a live TV thumbnail while browsing on Chrome. That browser is highly functional and reasonably pleasant to use, but not as important as it might seem because Google is continuing to fit-up YouTube as an arbiter of video on the internet.
YouTube is presented in its most functional app yet, fetching on-demand content in such a way that it almost deserves to be the whole point of this product. Despite Google TV offering a potentially compelling alternative to necessarily fiddly and restrictive apps, it is good to see the appearance of a Netflix app, though it crashed during our test.
While finding disparate sources of video either via the Chrome browser or YouTube is a lot of fun at first, not being able to save shortcuts, bookmarks that are hard to access and a general a lack of customization makes it all a bit too long-winded.
Add a pretty terrible trackpad remote that makes scrolling down a simple web page a pain, and the whole experience lacks usability - and hamstrings the YouTube app. We're surprised there's no voice control or search, with no mic in the remote, though it's the no-show of UK-centric catch-up TV apps, as well as missing services like Lovefilm, that make Google TV look like a rather fiddly platform that lacks an overriding reason for being.
Google TV potentially compelling, but even in the world of regular firmware updates and new apps, is that enough? It's should fetch video from disparate websites and present it in a source-neutral way. Chrome doesn't do that, and nor does a motley collection of mostly smartphone-centric Google Play apps help in that mission.
The real arbiter of content on this Google TV box is an excellent YouTube app that is by far the best place to head to for sheer breadth of content. It's far from perfect - and nor is Sony's trackpad remote - but 'ultimate YouTube access' might be a more fitting sell for this box. Trouble is, YouTube already features on most smart TV platforms.
So is Google TV better than the cheaper options, Apple TV or an Xbox 360? Hardware-wise, absolutely not - and the software is not as impressive, either - though with a friendlier, far more streamlined remote and a growing list of apps on Google Play there could be a future. A great browser it might have, but even a clever Chrome can't locate enough compelling answers to the key question about Google TV; what's it for?
Those after a purely UK-centric catch-up TV experience should head immediately to the pricer, at £299, first YouView set-top box from Humax, while those after YouTube, voice control and streaming movies will have a better experience on a £160 Xbox 360 games console.
A slicker interface, meanwhile, is available via Apple TV, which costs only £99.