In techno-slang, the first version of Google (GOOG) TV was what's known as an "epic fail."
Consumers found the Google software, designed to bring the world of online video to the living room, utterly baffling. Poor Logitech, which made the original Google TV set-top boxes, ran screaming from the market last year, its CEO terming the launch "a mistake of implementation of a gigantic nature."
Now Google TV is back, with revamped software and hardware. I've been trying out two of the new boxes, Sony's NSZ-GS7 -- rolls trippingly off the tongue, doesn't it? -- and Vizio's Co- Star. While they're considerable improvements over the previous generation, Google TV still has a long way to go.
The devices join a crowded field that already includes the $99 Apple TV and the Roku family of players, which range from $50 to $100. Meanwhile, Microsoft (MSFT)'s Xbox and Sony's own PlayStation have morphed from game consoles into full-fledged entertainment hubs, while many TVs come with Wi-Fi and their own "smart TV" software.
The new Sony and Vizio units -- along with an announced Google TV set-top box from China's Hisense and a TV from LG (066570) with the software built in -- aim to differentiate themselves by not merely connecting your TV to the Internet, but by integrating online video content with programming from traditional sources like cable and satellite.
The theory is that it shouldn't matter to you where the content resides; one interface -- and one remote -- should be able to locate it. In practice, though, Google TV also adds an extra layer of complexity to installation and use.
In my case, for example, I messed up my first attempt to introduce the NSZ-GS7 into my home video set-up. The mistake stemmed from my efforts to connect the player to my cable-TV box, something that simpler streaming devices don't ask you to do.
At one point, I found I had to lie to the installation process, telling it I could see a certain channel on the screen when I couldn't, to get the cable programming guide configured. That's probably because I had neglected to attach an extra wire that the Sony (6758) player required. (In contrast, the Vizio setup process went more smoothly.)
While the Vizio and Sony players share the underlying Google software, there are some important differences in connectivity, features and cost between the two.
The NSZ-GS7 -- let's just call it "the Sony box" -- is a flat black rectangle, about half the size of a Blu-ray player. The back includes high-definition video input and output ports, an optical digital port for running the sound through a receiver and two USB connectors to accommodate external drives for accessing photos, music or other content.
There's also an Ethernet port for use with a wired network, though most people are likely to take advantage of the built-in Wi-Fi.
A huge weakness of previous Google TV devices was the remote control. While Apple and Roku both feature minimalist versions, the Logitech (LOGN) box came with -- no lie -- a full-size keyboard. And the remote for the Sony TV set that had the Google software built into it was its own special kind of horror.
With the new player, Sony has done a lot of streamlining: On one side of the remote is a keyboard, useful for entering Wi- Fi passwords, search terms and the like. The flip side has a limited set of buttons built around a laptop-style trackpad.
It's also smart enough to sense which side you're using and disable the other to avoid accidental clicks. Alternatively, you can also use free Sony remote apps for iPhones and Android phones.
The Sony's biggest drawback may be its price: $200, not only double the Apple (AAPL) and top-of-the line Roku devices but also twice as much as the Vizio Co-Star.
Physically, as well as in price, the $100 Co-Star more closely resembles the hockey-puck-like Apple and Roku adapters. Compared with the Sony, you can tell where corners have been cut. There's only one USB port, for instance, and no optical audio. In addition, the Vizio remote is chunkier and clunkier.
On the other hand, the Co-Star has some nice touches the Sony lacks. I appreciated the labeled, dedicated buttons on its remote that take you directly to Amazon.com's Instant Video service and Netflix. And the Vizio supports the OnLive service for playing console-quality video games without a console, negating the need for a separate adapter.
Only a geek could have loved the original Google TV. With this new generation, it has certainly become more accessible. But there remain easier and cheaper ways to watch online content on your television.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)