I have long been, and still consider myself an advocate for the Apple TV. It is a terrific little box that does many things for a reasonable price. But sometimes I find myself wishing the Apple TV did things that it does not do today. Wouldn’t it be great to have access to apps or custom channels of content from the web. How about the integration of real TV programming into the same interface as the web content. Well, that is doable today. It is not a solution for everyone but it is definitely something that works well and is well thought out.
Enter the Google TV. Sony has been producing televisions with Google TV inside them for the last few years. But purchasing a new screen to get this experience is a long way to go. Sony also has a $249 Google TV add-on box complete with a Blu-ray drive available but I have a Blu-ray player. But now, Vizio has introduced the CoStar , a new Google TV add on box that competes very well with the Apple TV. In fact it is the exact same $99 price as an Apple TV but the feature set is completely different.
Most of you are aware that Android Phones are very popular in the marketplace. The phones have an application catalog comparable to that of iOS. Google TV uses the base Android operating system to start with so application developers have an easier time creating apps for the device than having to start from scratch. Apple could take a lesson from this. By having a development platform similar to phone development, Google TV has made it easy to have an application catalog for these devices. Now don’t get me wrong. Not all Android apps can run on the Google TV but there is at least a starting point to entice development that has resulted in hundreds of titles.
But let be digress and describe the unit itself. This little box is about the size of an Apple TV except it is a little taller. It has two HDMI ports on the back. One port is the input from your cable or satellite box and one is the output to your TV. This incorporation of the TV stream allows the device to control the entire experience without having to switch HDMI ports. It is all controlled with the included remote. The box also contains an Ethernet port and Wi-Fi so that it can connect to the internet for content. Also included is a fat but powerful remote with a trackpad and standard remote functions on the front and a small QWERTY keyboard on the back. The remote is Bluetooth so there are no line of sight issues with using it as there are with Apple TV. It really should have had a backlight to illuminate the keys but that is a truly minor complaint at this price.
After connecting the unit the software leads you through an extensive series of settings to dial in you cable or satellite system, control the TV itself with the Vizio remote, and get connected to the Internet. The unit then updates its software to the current release. All this prep takes about an hour. Once it is complete, you have the ability to watch TV just like you did before in addition to using the features of the box. When you press the button to go into the interface of the box, a menu slides in from the side allowing you to pick an application. Virtually all of the features of an Apple TV are included with the exception of AirPlay for putting iOS or MacOS device content on the big screen. But there is an app for that in the Google Play store. The interface also allows you to use picture in a picture where the TV content shows in a small box in the corner of the screen and the app content fills the rest of the screen. Very nice control.
The interface, by virtue of its higher functionality, is more difficult to use than that of an Apple TV so this solution may not be for everyone but it sure works nice and really adds a lot of function to your TV. Some of the applications that it ships with include a music player, Netflix, Vudu, Amazon Prime Video, and even the Chrome browser. The keyboard on the back of the remote allows easy use of the browser. Other apps such as Pandora are available on the Google lay store as free downloads.
The extendibility of this unit is what is really great. Apps can be downloaded that give web content right on the TV screen. I particularly like the included YouTube app and one from Motor Trend TV that I downloaded from the store.
Is this add-on box better than Apple TV? For people not firmly entrenched in the Apple ecosystem, I would say it is. Interestingly enough, even if you use all Apple devices, it still may be something you want to try. The ability to do so much more from the TV is really a nice feature. It is not without it’s little quirks but in general, for a $99 device, it is a good value and something I would recommend you consider for a fuller media entertainment experience that integrates TV with Web content.