Google TV has been, for quite some time now, promising to do for your TV what it's done for phones: smarts, apps, convenience, bliss. It hasn't worked — at all. Now Sony's next stab is here. Maybe next time.
When last we exchanged awkward glances with the Google TV, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt promised reality that the system would be included with "most TVs" by this summer (now), shortly after founding partner Logitech wiped its hands of the entire thing. The former sure as hell didn't come true, and the latter came as a surprise to absolutely no one. Things are bleak for Google TV, and it's not as if nobody's tried. Sony, hardened hardware king, will be one of the companies to hand down a small black box that does Google TV right, if it's ever going to be done so. If this attempt is a dud like all past attempts, there's good reason to abandon all hope and despair. The NSZ-GS7 will either be a harbinger of Google TV's second chance, or one of the final blips on its respirator.
Depending on how deep you want Google TV jacked into your TV life, setup will vary. Physically setting it up is just a matter of rejiggering all of your HDMI connections — but software setup is an uneven endeavour of its own. Trouble connecting to a wireless network, hair-pulling attempts at trying to conjure up byzantine IR codes for the remote, and futile searches for a new Pioneer receiver not in Google or Sony's database were infuriating. When the box spit back a list of obscure satellite providers I'd never heard of instead of Time Warner Cable, I had to receive help directly from a Sony engineer in Japan, who instructed me to enter a zipcode that wasn't actually my own. Don't count on that kind of treatment for yourself.
The setup, even if it weren't flawed with actual brokenness, is inherently complex just due to the number of factors. You have to potentially make several AV devices (TV, Google TV, receiver, cable box, router) simultaneously dance together if you want the system to work the way it's designed. That's no fun.
There are hints of great and friendly tech in the NSZ-GS7. Startup is near instant, and it doesn't take many taps to get to a live-updating list of TV shows to watch, free movies to stream (Netflix, and the rest of the familiar streaming cast), and listings for what's up next. You can even buy movies if there's nothing gratis up your alley. The feeling of a big graphical box telling you that Black Swan is playing right now, and how much of it is left, is a good feeling. Clicking on it and having a little box automatically reroute your TV box to the right channel, without futzing with a channel guide is a very good feeling. Your TV feels like it's working for you. Except for when it's not.
For every graceful TV channel-flicking moment, there were a dozen to the contrary: a channel that wouldn't load, a command that wasn't recognised, or an inexplicable green screen of nothing. Maybe it was my cable box, maybe it was my receiver — but that's beside the point. An evolved TV won't make you have to troubleshoot by process of elimination, it'll just be bloody marvellous. This isn't. The NSZ-GS7 makes your TV about one and a half times as useful and about ten times as complicated — a poor trade.
The box's best traits are good intentions — and everything beyond that is manifold mediocrity. Google TV in 2012 isn't even an interesting train wreck, just the aching frustration of a traffic jam. The software, based on the Honeycomb version of Android that's over a year old and designed for tablets, is buggy and unsatisfying. Apps are slow to load, the live TV guide is full of missing thumbnails, and Chrome is a joke, often defaulting to mobile versions of your favourite websites if you even care about a browser on your TV to begin with. The other apps available are a bigger joke with a worse punchline: Netflix crawls, some are just a website crammed into an "app," while most of the rest make no sense. Are you really going to download and read recipes on your TV? Of course not. Do you really want to fire up your set to read your Twitter feed on the big screen? I hope not. It's almost all superfluous, a distraction. What makes sense works poorly, and what works well shouldn't be available at all, pulling together all the worst possible parts of using Android together and putting them on the biggest screen you own.
But what of that remote? Oh, that's also bad — a big step up from the quasi-parody predecessor that looked fit to fly a Predator drone, but still bad. Putting functionality on both sides is super smart, especially given that the side facing down won't accidentally take commands, but it's still just too goddamn complicated. Sony and Google, please listen to this: there should never, ever, ever be a "Ctrl" button on a TV remote.
No. Someday, someone — probably Apple, as boring as that is to admit — will probably pull off the next great leap in television. A television that makes it as easy as possible to find and watch things, to sit and be entertained, that knows and loves both the internet and old fashioned programming. Simply, this ain't it.
Processor: Marvell Dual-Core
Internal Storage: 8 GB
Operating System: Android 3.2 Honeycomb
Connectivity: HDMI, Optical Out, USB, Wi-FI (802.11b/g/n), Bluetooth