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Sunday, July 1, 2012

Sony First to Launch Google TV Devices in Canada

Sony


Sony First to Launch Google TV Devices in CanadaOn June 25th, Sony Canada announced the first Google TV devices to be available at retail in Canada. The NSZ-GS7 Sony Internet Player with Google TV will be in stores in August, at $199.99. It's also been available for pre-order since June 27, at Sony's online store.
A second device, the NSZ-GP9 Internet Blu-ray Disc Player with Google TV, will launch "in time for the holiday season (likely October or November, according to one spokesperson), priced at $329.99. Sony reps described it as a high-end Blu-ray player, with Google TV built-in as a bonus.
"We are proud to continue our relationship with Google and be the first manufacturer in Canada to introduce a product powered by the Google TV platform," said Hideki Ito, Senior Director of Marketing, Home Network Products at Sony Canada. He added that the new products would be "expanding the reach and connectivity of the powerful Android platform," which already powers Sony's smartphones, tablet and AV products.
Canadian availability of Sony's Google TV products follows closely after their UK launch; Australia, France, Germany and other countries are soon to follow.
The Specs
Previewed at a press event held at Sony's Eaton Centre store, the initial NSZ-GS7 player looked very promising.
Physically, it's a sleek black box, with a surprisingly appealing dimple-grid finish on the top surface. It's got a full complement of ports: 3D-capable HDMI, both in and out; 100 megabit Ethernet; optical audio out; and two USB 2.0 ports. Plus built-in Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n support (albeit limited to the 2.4GHz band).
The inclusion of both in and out ports allows the output of a cable or satellite box to be fed into the Google TV device, then passed on to the TV. This has two benefits. First, the Google TV box needs no extra HDMI input on the receiver or TV. And second, the box can display broadcast content in a picture-in-picture window, on top of the Android ‘desktop.'
Internally, the NSZ-GS7 has 8GB of storage, which makes it a bit less roomy than even a low-end tablet. But all of that space will presumably be available for apps, since media would be stored externally on USB devices. The exact type of processor wasn't specified, but Sony's specs mention that it's a 1.2 GHz dual-core chip. Software is based on Android 3.2.
Media support seems comparable to what you'd find on existing players such as Western Digital's WD TV or D-Link's Boxee Box, and somewhat ahead of the more narrowly focused Apple TV.
Video formats include: Flash FLV; QuickTime MOV; Ogg Vorbis; various flavors of MPEG1, MPEG2 and MPEG4; and even power-user favorites like H.264 in an MKV container. Oddly, Sony's specs show no mention of Google's own WebM format, but we have to assume that's going to be there at some point.
Audio formats include the ubiquitous MP3 and AAC. But, alas, not the open FLAC lossless format (supported by both WD TV and Boxee). Image formats include JPG, PNG, BMP and GIF, plus a couple of Sony ‘Panorama' formats.
The Remote
Both of Sony's Google TV devices will come with a unique new remote, incorporating a laptop-style touchpad on one side, and a smartphone-style button keyboard on the other. Built-in gyro and accelerometer will sense which side is active (i.e. facing up), and disable spurious input from the other. Connection is via either IR or Bluetooth.
In demos, I found touchpad control a bit dodgy. The little arrow pointer tended to jump and make unexpected changes in direction, while the pressure-sensitive pad would occasionally register unintended ‘clicks.' However, the circumstances of the in-store setup were hardly ideal. Also, users will probably do better with two-handed operation, as opposed to my one-handed grip, with a thumb operating the touchpad.
Scrolling can also be handled by page up/down buttons on the side of the remote. And most operations can also be controlled using a set of directional arrows set above the touchpad. These would probably be the most obvious way of selecting app icons, while the touchpad would be needed mainly when occasionally browsing Web pages.
A dedicated Guide button pops up the listings from the user's cable or satellite box. Similarly, a DVR button accesses recordings that may be on that device. A PIP button displays the video window, which can be switched between two sizes, and moved to any of the four corners of the screen.
Volume control buttons can be set to control the user's AV receiver. In fact, Sony states that full ‘universal remote' capability is available, so the single remote can hopefully replace most of the user's coffee-table clutter.
The Google TV Blu-ray player will ship with a slightly enhanced remote, that includes a microphone. This will apparently enable voice searches and other voice functions similar to those we've seen on Android tablets.
Not surprisingly, given Google TV's Android foundation, users also have the option of downloading a Media Remote app. (And it's available for iOS as well.) In addition to taking over control of the Google TV box, the app allows sending of Web pages to the TV, for display in the Chrome browser.
Sony reps also point out that the included USB ports will allow users to connect their own control devices, such as a mouse or desktop keyboard.
The Software
The user interface of the Google TV looks at least as good as we've seen with previous media players (though, of course, Apple TV fans will probably disagree).
In the demos, we saw a basic desktop arrangement, with a configurable launch bar at the bottom, to hold any of the user's favourite apps. There's also a full apps list, similar to what you'd find on any Android tablet.
Apps on show included the built-in Chrome browser, as well as the usual media services such as Sony's own Video Unlimited and Audio Unlimited. The browser looks to be the full implementation you'd find on a tablet, and includes the ability to run Java and Flash. Users can zoom in and out to optimize text size. Also, Web sites will have the option of offering a view customized for TV display, just as they do now for smartphones.
The included YouTube app looked even better, with a slide-out menu that lets users follow channels and create their own subscription lists.
Many more apps will of course be available for download. When browsing the Google Play store, users will see only apps specifically flagged as Google TV compatible. Obviously, the selection was limited at launch, but the potential seems good.
A selection of simple games showed up: solitaire, sudoku and a few others. Sony also demonstrated an app that controls one of the new four-fan flying toy drones, even down to exploiting the movement-sensing ability of the Sony remote to do stunt flying.
Some apps will apparently allow PIP operation, but this will be up to the developers.
By the way, in answer to questions, Sony did not make clear how the new Google user interface would relate to its existing ‘crossbar' menu interface, developed for the PlayStation 3 and subsequently made standard across various Sony AV devices. Perhaps it will depend on which proves more popular with users...
The Verdict
One feature conspicuously not shown at the Sony event was Google TV's much-touted ability to aggregate content via a universal search capability. Users should be able to search, say, Corner Gas, and find all available viewing options, whether from cable, Internet services or stored local content.
Of course, the in-store demo systems weren't really connected for all this, and had no local storage. They came off, at minimum , as very good media players, priced to compete strongly with existing products like the Apple TV or Boxee Box. However, it does seems apparent that the additional capabilities of the Google TV platform will require stores to do some extra planning, if consumers are going to really ‘get' their full potential.
Also not clear (owing to the early departure of the Google representatives), was how updates would be handled. Will Google TV owners wait and wait on hardware vendors to provide updates, as Android tablet and smartphone owners already do? Or will Google be able to speedily push new OS features directly to the user base?
On the other hand, what was obvious from the demo was the strong desirability of a ‘universal' smart TV platform. (Sony was in fact quick to emphasize that it's two Google TV devices would work just fine with any brand of TV.) For consumers, it means a consistent user interface for accessing all their media content. As well as access to the widest possible base of apps.
Sony seems to have done a good job building this first generation of Google TV devices. Now the bigger problem will be getting the message out to consumers.

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