Google's having a pretty big week thanks to Google I/O, but this didn't slow the search giant down when it came to Google TV. Earlier this week, the company announced the launch of a brand new Google TV internet set-top box developed in collaboration with Sony. We got a chance to go hands on with the NSZ-GS7 earlier on today thanks to Sony Canada.
The unit itself is fairly light and boasts a glossy black finish (yes, it does attract fingerprints), and runs on a Marvell dual-core processor, 8 GB of internal storage for apps and the like, Android 3.2 Honeycomb, and support for HDMI, Optical Out, USB, Wi-FI (802.11b/g/n), and Bluetooth. With this kind of box, your options for consuming media grow beyond cable, bringing in options from the web, such as YouTube, as well as third-party applications such as Netflix. These are all fully searchable, so searching for 'Downton Abbey' will bring you results from your TV guide, as well as additional video sources.
We found browsing the web pretty comfortable, if a little slow (Sony blamed the web connection for this, so we'll have to wait and see on that one), and the sites optimized for Google TV were particularly impressive (such as CNN). Sony also showed off the picture-in-picture mode that allows you to continue watching TV in a little box in the corner while browsing the web. The example Sony gave for uses of this include checking out an actor on IMDB while you're watching a movie.
The system itself seemed to be a little bit glitchy, freezing up a couple of times and crashing when we tried to load apps via the Google Play Store, and visiting Google Maps via the regular maps.google.com URL didn't really pan out. The system recognized our pinch-to-zoom but failed to render the map in its entirety. Then again, this could be down to the internet, which was quite slow in the Sony store.
When it comes to applications, things are looking a little bit scarce for now. If you find yourself browsing the Play Store, you'll only be presented with the applications that have been optimized for Google TV. This includes some quality apps from the likes of IMDB, and some fluff that you likely won't look at. Our favorite (though admittedly not very useful) was the AR.Drone application that allows you to control the AR.Drone with the remote's gyroscope and accelerometer, with a live video feed of what the AR.Drone is seeing appearing on the TV.
Interestingly, we saw an Angry Birds guide, but when we asked if Angry Birds was available, we were told it wasn't. Another rep told us that there was a demo but that the full version wasn't optimized for Google TV just yet. Gmail also isn't there yet as a standalone app, yet. You can, of course, check your mail via the full-fledged version of Chrome, but there's no dedicated app and there won't be at launch. There was a Google I/O application for livestreams and event news, though, and we have to say we loved the idea watching it on the bigger screen as opposed to our PC.
The most interesting part of this set up is the remote, as far as we're concerned. Featuring a full QWERTY keyboard on one side, the other side of the device packs in a trackpad as well as a more traditional TV remote layout. On the side you've got volume and channel rockers. Sony's put buttons in almost every available space and duplicated functions in some areas. For example, you can use the trackpad to scroll up and down (either on the right edge or two-finger scroll), but you can also use the directional arrow keys on the other side of the remote. You can click with the trackpad, or you can scroll over to the icon you want to click and hit the select key. Those volume and channel change keys on the sides are also present in the more traditional remote layout.
The Sony rep we spoke to said they tried to make sure users are as comfortable as possible by providing multiple options for controlling the system. Some people might love using the trackpad, while others will hate it and just want something like all other other remotes they've used. The accelerometer inside the remote will be able to determine with side you're using and will disable the underside so you don't accidentally click the wrong keys underneath.
Overall, the NSZ-GS7 seems to be an improvement over early Google TV solutions but it isn't without its problems, either. (The majority of these could likely be fixed with software update, so fingers crossed.) Ultimately, we'd need to play with it for longer before drawing any final conclusions about the device itself. However, the concept of a Google TV set-top box still carries a lot of weight with us as an excellent way to put your dumb TV on par with the smart TVs that are hitting the market today. Sony's got an additional device due out this fall, which packs a Bluray player into the equation, so we'll have to see how that pans out.
The NSZ-GS7 is out next month in the U.S. and UK, and will launch in Canada in August. It's priced at $199.