Hands-on with Sony’s Google TV/Blu-ray combo deck

Last week, I got the chance to spend some quality time with the stand-alone Logitech Revue, one of the first Google TV-enabled devices, and now I've got Sony's Google TV-ready Blu-ray player whirring away in my living room.

So, how does the Sony combo deck compare with Logitech's stand-alone box?

In addition to its new Google TV-friendly Blu-ray player ($399, available now), Sony also has a quartet of HDTVs with Google TV on tap, ranging in screen size from 24 inches ($599) to 46 inches ($1,399)—not a bad option for those who happen to be shopping for a new TV, but not so feasible for anyone who already has a perfectly good HDTV. Since I'm in the latter category, I opted for the Blu-ray deck (a loaner from Sony's PR department, by the way).

The set-up process for the Sony player (a.k.a. the NSZ-GT1, for those of you keeping track) was pretty much the same as it was for the Logitech Revue. You plug your DVR's HDMI-out cable into the Sony (which lack component and composite video inputs, same as the Revue), attach a second HDMI cable (included in the box) to the Sony's HDMI output, and then connect the other end to one of your HDTV's video inputs. Also in the box: an IR blaster for controlling your DVR and an optional A/V receiver.

As with the Revue, the Google TV software walks you through a relatively brief and surprisingly painless setup wizard, including determining your pay TV carrier and channel lineup, signing in to your Google account, and setting up the remote codes for your DVR and other devices.

Once you're all set, you'll arrive at the standard Google TV home screen, which looks virtually identical to the one on the Logitech Revue. A few key differences include a quick link to the Google TV-optimized Sony Style website, where you can shop for more Sony-built gadgets, as well as access to Qriocity, Sony's just-launched, on-demand movie rental service. There's also a "Sony Recommends" quick link with customized channels that duplicate many of the apps (from the likes of Slacker, NPR, Flixter, Wired and eHow) available through Sony's Bravia Internet service.

Again, you can search TV programming, online videos or the Web at large by pressing the magnifying-glass button on the Sony remote (about which I have plenty to say, so hang on). You can also stream movies and TV shows via a bare-bones Netflix app (an exact duplicate of the one on the Revue), rent videos on Amazon on Demand (ditto), stream media from local, DLNA-compliant PCs on your home network, and so on. (For more observations on the Google TV platform in general, check out my hands-on of the Revue from last week.)

As a Blu-ray deck, the Sony box worked about as well as any Blu-ray player I've tried. I popped in the newly pressed Blu-ray of "Apocalypse Now" and the main menu loaded up in a few seconds, while the fireballs and helicopters in the famous opening sequence looked about as sharp as you could expect from a film shot in the late '70s. Yes, support for lossless audio formats such as DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby Digital TrueHD is present and accounted for.

That pretty much leaves us with the Sony's remote, a little module that feels more like a gaming controller than a TV remote, complete with itty-bitty QWERTY keys and a cramped layout of playback controls, especially compared with the far bigger Logitech remote and its full QWERTY keyboard.

I picked up the Sony remote fully prepared to hate it. But to my great surprise, I liked it—or at least, I liked it more than I liked the Revue's larger, disappointly squishy remote.

For starters, the compact size of the Sony remote felt a lot more appropriate for keying in quick searches from the sofa. I held it much like you'd hold a game controller, using my thumbs to type. With the larger Revue keyboard, I had to either balance it in my lap or set it down on the coffee table—not a monumental hassle, but kind of a pain.

Of course, tapping the tiny keys on the smaller Sony remote is slower than touch-typing on the Revue's full-size keypad. But in my (admittedly brief) time with Google TV, I've had little desire to type out long messages or e-mails; I'm usually just tapping in short search strings—and for that, the Sony's compact, easy-to-grip keypad serves nicely.

I also liked the twin navigational pads that flank the upper panel of the remote, just next to your thumbs—on the left a typical four-way clicker, on the right an optical thumbpad for using the on-screen mouse. The Revue, on the other hand, has a laptop-style trackpad that sits just above its own four-way clicker, which you have to use when you're accessing your standard DVR menus, and I often found myself getting confused when I had to switch back and forth. On the Sony remote, however, having the four-way clicker and the optical mouse on opposite ends made more sense to my TV-addled brain; rarely did I mind (or even notice) when it was time to switch from one pad to the other.

I also liked how four of the most important keys—"home," "back," "menu" and "picture-in-picture"—surround the optical thumbpad, making it easy to tap them without looking. On the Revue's remote, three of the keys are near the four-way clicker, but the "menu" key is off on its own, near the space bar. Also nice: Two triggers on the remote let you scroll or zoom when surfing on the Google Chrome Web browser.

But both the Revue remote and the Sony controller lack a crucial feature: backlighting for the keys. In a darkened living room, you'll need a flashlight to key in search strings. Unbelievable—and practically unforgivable, especially for remotes with this many keys. At least Android (and soon iPhone and iPad) users can take advantage of a Google TV remote app.

The other main difference between Sony's Google TV Blu-ray player and the Logitech Revue is price: $399 for the Sony, $299 for the Revue. That's a lot of dough to spend on an unproved home video platform, although you could always argue that for $399, the Sony deck gives you Blu-ray playback in addition to Google TV for just $100 more than the Logitech box.

All in all, I'm still feeling pretty ambivalent about Google TV. I'm warming up to searching—for example, it's far more convenient to type in "AMC" than to remember the channel number, especially given how often pay-TV companies juggle their channel lineups. And easy access to full-screen Web videos, like those on the New York Times home page, is always nice.

But the few existing Google TV apps still feel rough (the Google TV Netflix app, for example, can't hold a candle to the revamped versions on the PS3 and Xbox 360), and surfing on the TV screen remains a herky-jerky experience.

Meanwhile, most of the big TV networks are continuing to block their free, Web-based episodes from Google TV, although there are a few exceptions (like Fox, SyFy, and Bravo).

I'm sure Google TV will improve over time (especially once third-party developers start cranking out more apps), but for now, I'd rather watch and surf on the sofa with a tablet or laptop.

Anyway, that's just my take. What about you? Anyone have hands-on impressions you'd like to share? Have a question? Fire away below.

— Ben Patterson is a technology writer for Yahoo! News.

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