Google TV From Sony Review: Half-Baked For Australia

It’s been a huge lead time between drinks for Google TV internationally. It hit the US market almost two years ago, and now it has finally come out in Australia thanks to Sony. Despite the 21-month lead time, however, the Google TV is still a half-baked afterthought for the Australian market.

What Is It?

The Google TV from Sony is a neat-looking little set-top box that Sony is currently bundling in for people who purchase either an HX-750 or an HX-850 TV. You can’t buy it separately just yet, but it’s valued at $349.

It comes with 8GB worth of internal storage and plays most of the formats you could ask for, including .mkv, .avi, MPEG-1, MPEG-2 and MPEG-4, .flv and .mov. It’s got two USB inputs, an optical audio output, ethernet port, Wi-Fi and one HDMI input.

It’s controlled by a double-sided remote that connects via Bluetooth and features both a full, backlit QWERTY keyboard and a multi-touch trackpad. The remote can also act as a controller for your other home entertainment devices thanks to an IR blaster built into the set-top box.

The device comes with Chrome, YouTube, Google Play and the Sony Entertainment Network baked into the modified version of Android (Honeycomb) that powers it. This integration makes the device tolerable, but it’s ultimately disappointing.

What’s Good?

The Google TV from Sony is great if you have access to a central amplifier that you can run it through.

When we had this demonstrated to us, it hooked up in a way that regardless of which input you were using, the Google TV overlay would appear whenever you hit the remote, making for a truly connected internet TV experience (as wanky as it sounds).

If you were watching a Blu-ray movie via your player and you want to know who an actor was, you could press the dedicated search button on your Google TV remote and find out, without having to pause the Blu-ray, leave the channel input you’re on just to go into the Google TV’s input. It means that when you’re watching TV and you want to post something to one of your social networks about a show (#qanda on Twitter or Fango for example), you can do it again without having to pause the show or potentially miss some of it by jumping into a separate input. It’s the integration of the device into your home entertainment set-up that makes it great. Having the device hooked into one central box to then be plugged into your TV is the ideal set-up, but if you don’t have that configuration, you it misses the point of the box entirely, which we’ll get to soon.

The Google TV’s remote is a stroke of genius. On the one side, it features a bevy of input keys, as well as a large, rubberised multi-touch trackpad which supports dragging and scrolling. Flip it over and you’ll find yourself staring at a rubberised, edge-to-edge, backlit keyboard complete with dedicated search hotkeys.

The cleverest thing about the remote, besides how well it manages to fit a lot into the space it’s given without feeling cramped, is how the device will disable whichever side isn’t facing upwards. That means you won’t accidentally start pressing buttons on your remote keyboard every time you click on something. The in-built gyro can also be used for gaming, which you can do thanks to access to the Google Play store from the Google TV. Plenty nifty.

Google Play store access also means you can get access to the Movie rentals the web giant has on offer which is excellent. Having the full Chrome browser at your disposal here is also top notch.

What’s Bad?

All week we’ve been talking about the price discrimination Australians have to put up with from US companies. When it comes to the Google TV from Sony, however, we need to look at a whole new realm of discrimination when it comes to content available to Australians.

The unit I was testing was a production unit with US software built in. Still, I was promised aside from the bundled apps, everything would work fine. At home, I don’t own an amplifier, meaning that I can’t run everything through the set-top box for an integrated experience. Rather, I had to use the Google TV on a separate input whenever I wanted it.

If I was in the US, this would be fine, because I’d have access to TV and movie content from Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go as well as games from cloud gaming service OnLive. But because I’m in Australia, I miss out on all this goodness. I have to be content with media from Sony’s own network, which isn’t terrible but I’d much prefer a diverse range of content rather than media from only one marketplace.

You can go and install apps from the ABC and Quickflix from Google Play, but these aren’t front and centre out of the box.

We still have no date for when great services like Netflix will become available in Australia, meaning that the Google TV from Sony is largely useless unless you can integrate it with your other home entertainment devices via the amplifier.

Should You Buy One?

It took two years for Google TV to come to Australia. Sony partnered with Google to bring the service up to speed before it dropped it into the local market, but the combined force of two of the world’s largest companies still couldn’t bring a company like Netflix to the table.

The Google TV from Sony used as a stand-alone box then is rubbish. With barely any decent content available and the hassle of having to use it on a separate input all the time means that I can’t possibly recommend this device. For $349, you can pick up an Xbox 360 console or a Playstation 3 which handles streaming content better. Add to that the fact that Microsoft is now offering season passes for US shows Down Under and it’s a no-brainer.

But wait. Surely the device has some upside? Glad you asked. Turned out, it excels as a HTPC.

Despite the cost and the poor service offering out of the box, the Google TV from Sony does have one thing going for it, and that’s a clean, easy to use version of Android Honeycomb that can be run on a huge screen and not look rubbish.

Chrome is amazing for web browsing on your TV thanks to the great remote keyboard and mouse, and you can even set up the device to stream content wirelessly around your house with apps like Plex.

Compare the Google TV from Sony to the last device to set the HTPC market on fire — the new Mac Mini — and it’s a clear winner.

It’s a platform that’s slightly less customisable than the full operating system you get in Mac OS X Mountain Lion, but you’re paying $350 less for the Google TV than you are for the lowest spec Mac Mini.

The Google TV box gives you a huge amount of file support and it doesn’t have the added cost of bringing your own keyboard, mouse and monitor.

Should you buy it as an internet connected set-top box? No, but as a HTPC? Certainly.

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