Part One of this review looked at the hardware and setup process of Sony's NSZ-GT1 Google TV/Blu-ray Player. This second and final part shares some thoughts on a weekend-plus using the box to "Watch TV," as it were.
SUMMARY: Don't buy a Google TV box just yet unless being an early adopter means a lot to you or you absolutely have to have a Web browser on your TV set. There's a lot of potential in Google's new platform for furthering its World Domination, but there are a lot of roadblocks currently standing between GTV's promise and a future reality where "TV" and "Internet" are merged into an uber-experience of content and interactivity.
NOTE: My Sony Google TV box is connected via Ethernet to a home network router, which is then connected to the world via Comcast cable modem. My download speeds won't win any contest vs FiOS, but I'm generally happy with them and so far as I can tell, they haven't negatively affected my GTV experience in any way.
The basic concept of using Google TV as it exists now is that the platform sits between your TV signal (cable/satellite box) and your television. Google's system adds a layer – literally and figuratively – on top of your regular TV experience, and also offers Web-based content in the forms of Apps, a Chrome Browser, and TV/video-centric search. To boil it down further, here are the four major use cases as I see 'em:
– Watch TV as you normally do, but with Google's Search adding a layer of data and navigation. Want to watch "30 Rock?" You can do it the way you used to, via your DVR and/or on screen programming guide, or you can call up GTV's search box and type in "30 Rock." Google will give you back a list of viewing options, including upcoming episodes to be watched/recorded and previously aired episodes available On Demand either for free or pay and, when available, YouTube clips. In the case of 30 Rock, as with programs from studios like ABC, CBS, NBC and the Website Hulu, links are not provided to free streaming episodes available on the broadcasters' own sites. I was offered the option to purchase episodes of 30 Rock from Amazon's On Demand service. I declined.
– Watch On Demand content via one of the pre-loaded apps. Currently the Apps catalog is fairly small, and the UIs across the various apps lack any sort of consistency. CNET's app is simple but designed to use GTV's hardware/software for navigation and in-video options. The effect is a simple app that's pretty well done. VEVO's app, on the other hand, is a pretty barebones list of choices that relies on Web Browser-style navigation tools. Not so impressive. Video quality ranged from app to app and clip to clip, but was generally somewhere between acceptable and very good. Nothing that I saw blew me away, quality-wise, but it was all at least decent by Web standards.
By TV viewing standards? Well, that's a different story. When I switched out of "Web TV" mode to watch HD content coming from my cable operator, the quality was noticeably better. Bear in mind that cable operators tend to compress their content as compared to over the air HD broadcasts; Google's current Web video experience is a few notches below what you'll get with an old fashioned antenna, quality-wise.
– Watch Web Video by manually navigating the GTV box's Chrome Browser. This is where we really see behind the curtain and realize that in its current incarnation, Google TV is mainly a Web browser for your TV set, which is nothing new. The newness is that it supports Flash video playback and holds the promise of that App Store, which is set to officially launch and ramp up early next year.
Earlier in the week I called up GTV's search box and manually entered the URL "nbc.com/parenthood." This took me to the broadcaster's official website for said show, and I was able to use the Sony remote to mouse-click the episode I wanted to watch, choose my poison (one long pre-roll ad or several shorter mid-roll ads), and change the viewing mode to Fullscreen. The process and experience was exactly like navigating the site on a regular old computer. I was then able to watch the selected episode, but it turns out that was only because of a glitch in NBC's system to block "free" episodes from streaming to GTV boxes (more on that here). The viewing experience was passable but not really very good; quality was well below that of the HD broadcast I usually get from NBC, and while the video stream didn't stutter, it did suffer from semi-regular pixelation and motion blur. This on a dramedy; I'd imagine the experience would be much worse during a fast motion program like an action movie or live sporting event.
I also used the browser to watch a bunch of YouTube content. Again, the experience was basically the same as navigating YouTube on a computer (though YouTube's "Leanback" experience is available via the Google TV YouTube app). Video quality varied depending on the source clip, but 720p HD clips played in Fullscreen mode looked and sounded quite good. For me, personally, this is proving to be the most appealing use case: Watching YouTube clips on the big screen (and listening on the good speakers) while navigating via a wireless, handheld optical mouse/QWERTY board remote. I'm a sucker for live music videos, so I was happy to spend a big chunk of time trolling around YT for that one live version of [insert classic rawk anthem] I hadn't yet seen.
– Streaming content from another computer via the built-in Media Player or watching a Blu-ray or DVD disc. I haven't tried either of these features out yet.
And then, of course, you can watch TV the way you normally do. But I swear the first time I fired up a "regular" cable broadcast with the GTV box installed, the quality was worse than usual. This was last Saturday, and I was tuned to HBOHD. And the quality wasn't so good. Since then? Everything seems fine. So we'll chalk it up as an anomoly.
Oh yeah, there's a Twitter app pre-installed, too. It's pretty good, like a stripped down version of the official Twitter for iPad app. Sorta.
Wow, this got long. Looks like we'll need a Part 2.5 to wrap things up.