There’s no shortage of competition in the marketplace today for the coveted space in the living room: below your TV. Apple, Microsoft, Western Digital, Roku, Sony and Netgear all have products today all vying to be your media streamer of choice. Vizio threw their hat into ring this week, releasing their $99 Co-Star GoogleTV device that was announced at Google I/O. Similar offerings from Logitech and Sony have been met with mediocre fanfare, with Logitech bowing out of the Google TV space and selling the Revue at fire sale prices. So how the Co-Star stack up against other streamers on the market, and is it worth your hard earned Benjamin? Read on to find out.
In the box you’ll find the Co-Star, a power adapter, the remote, and 2 AA batteries, so stock up on HDMI cables (may I suggestion Monoprice.com). For $99, the Vizio Co-Star the build quality feels very solid. For comparison purposes, the Co-Star is slightly larger and three times the weight of the Roku 2 XS, the former coming in at 4.2” x 4.2” at 10 ounces, and the later at 3.3” x 3.3” at 3 ounces. On the back of the Co-Star you’ll find two HDMI Ports, one for input from a cable or satellite box, and one for output to your TV/Receiver, a 10/100mbps Ethernet port, a USB port and power. There’s also WiFi and Bluetooth built into the Co-Star, so no need for any adapters here. I’ve read some other reports that the Co-Star suffers from weak WiFi reception, and while I did notice that the Co-Star was picking up a slightly lower signal than other components, it did not impact streaming. I also noticed the Co-Star does get hot to the touch when in use, something to keep in mind if sticking in an enclosed cabinet. The lack of any sort of status light, while annoying at times since the Co-Star must be on to watch TV, and fanless operation means the Co-Star will be an non-intrusive addition to your home theater setup.
The Co-Star remote is a dual sided universal remote with Bluetooth and IR/IR Blaster technology built in. The front side includes the normal array of buttons you would expect from a media remote, joined with a trackpad for on-screen cursor control. The back side features a full QWERTY keyboard with a directional pad and dedicated gaming buttons (A,B,X,Y). Programming the remote is done during the setup of the Co-Star by searching for manufacturer names and model numbers. The process was very smooth, and although it did not have my 2011 Onkyo Receiver native in it’s database, it offered to try an array of 39 different codes until one worked. Luckily it was code number 3. At the end of setup, the remote was able to control my Vizio TV, DirecTV HR-34 DVR, and my Onkyo TX-NR701 receiver. The Co-Star remote had all of the DirecTV native buttons, including the Red, Green, Orange, Blue option buttons, and could replace the DirecTV remote entirely. The backside keyboard was very responsive, and the keys are spaced apart just enough where I haven’t noticed a lot of mistypings.
I did find a few annoyances with the remote. First off, all of the functionality it offers comes at a trade-off of size, the remote is 6.7” x 2.3 “ and just over 1” thick, so if you’re used to the curves or thinness of a Harmony remote, you’ll be a little disappointed here. You can substitute a universal remote to control the Co-Star, but you’ll give up the Touchpad and full keyboard, which is useful when browsing the web. The remote also has dedicated buttons for Amazon, NetFlix, and a service called M-Go, which when you launch the app informs you to sign up for a future beta at their web site. It would have been nice to make these buttons programmable, especially since one is for a non-existent service at this point. The number buttons on the front of the remote are also quite small, requiring you to look at the remote to change channels. You also have to push down quite hard for the buttons on the remote to register the selection. Also, while the Co-Star remote can be programmed to control your TV, cable or satellite box and receiver, it only has power buttons for the TV and Co-Star itself. Meaning, I still find myself reaching for my Harmony remote to turn all my components on, then switching to the Co-Star remote to watch TV. Not an elegant setup, and my wife’s eyes rolled more than once when I explained this to her. (The volume buttons on the Co-Star remote are programmed to your TV or receiver depending on what you select in setup).
The Co-Star comes loaded with Google TV 3.2, with some Vizio specific enhancements like remote control setup and configuration and overscan compensation. A dedicated Vizio button on the remote slides the App Tray into view from the left, which takes up about 1/4 of the screen, and overlays any video content currently displayed. The top of the App Tray lists out your favorite apps (based upon what you specifically select, not how often you use) There are a number of apps installed by default, which are:
- Amazon Instant Video
- Google Chrome
- Google Play Store
- TV & Movies – makes suggestions for programming based upon your interests
- User Management
I think it’s important to note that the Amazon Instant Video app is more of a bookmark to the Amazon web site. You browse the full web site to find a video to stream or rent, and then it plays on the Co-Star. I blame this more on the lack of an official Amazon app for Android than on Vizio, and their work around is better than no Amazon functionality at all. Much like a carrier branded Android phone, when I tried to delete the built in apps, specifically OnLive, I was greeted with a message informing me I cannot delete that. An option to at least hide unused apps would be nice to clean up the App Tray, deleting them would be even better. You’ll find excellent codec support out of the box, Vizio says the Co-Star supports h.264, MP4 and MKV on the video side, and MP3, AAC and WMA on the audio side.
When the Co-Star arrived at my house, there were some gaping functionality holes in the software. Out of the box after initial setup, the interface was had very noticeable lag, and any selection in the software was met with a “Please Wait” banner. Dolby Digital was also not supported out of the box, which was a show stopper for me, and I actually disconnected the Co-Star from my satellite receiver because of this. Vizio has since released two firmware updates, and software wise it’s an entirely different Co-Star. The first firmware dated August 10 seems to have corrected the interface lag issues, although I still see the occasional “Please Wait” banner, especially when I try out Picture in Picture. The second update, dated August 23rd has enabled Dolby Digital output, I’ve tested both live TV and videos through Plex and Netflix and am happy to report that Dolby Digital is now working properly. The Google TV apps in the Play Store are a little sparse at this point, but some big names like IMDB, ES File Explorer, The Weather Channel and Accuweather and Evernote are already present. One glaring omission so far is Hulu Plus, but supposedly that’s in the works. I did however, find a battery management app in the Play Store, which I’m sure will be really useful here.
My opinion of the Vizio Co-Star changed dramatically from the day I received it to the second firmware update. The lag in the interface and lack of Dolby Digital had me packing up the device for a return. Vizio promised quick fixes, and they delivered. The Co-Star offers great codec support, access to the Google Play Store, and integrates almost seamlessly into your existing television flow. The remote leaves a lot to be desired, but if you can deal with those annoyances or use a universal remote a majority of the time, the Co-Star is well worth the $99 price tag.