The source component of the not too distant future is not going to spin a disc, but rather stream data from either a WiFi or wired Internet connection. This is already happening. Indeed, any discussion that starts with "disc" and doesn't end with "stupid" is a discussion not worth having, in my humble opinion. At this stage in the game, worrying about another physical disc format is akin to buying a bucket after you've swum to shore following your boat sinking. It's silly. Furthermore, we're not even getting the whole story in terms of performance when it comes to discs anyway, so they're a bit of a false idol, really. Do they represent the best our current AV ecosystem has to offer? Sure, but they also peaked close to ten years ago, whereas streaming, well, it's just getting warmed up. No, the source component of the future isn't going to be a universal XYZ, it's going to look and act more like the Co-Star from Vizio. It's going to be affordable, simple and, more importantly, adaptable. I'm not saying the future is here yet, but if my time spent with the $99 Vizio Co-Star is any indication, the countdown is already well underway.
The Co-Star is Vizio's first discrete streaming player. It's not as if Vizio is new to the streaming game - it isn't - but the Co-Star is the company's first-ever device aimed solely at that market. Because the Co-Star can do nothing but stream content, either off the Net or your local network, it has no need for a disc drive and/or superfluous parts and is therefore very small. How small? The Co-Star measures a little over four inches square with a height of about an inch-and-a-half. The Co-Star weighs less than a pound, making it one of the most unassuming powerhouses I have ever seen or used. The Co-Star isn't even much to look at, clad in black and silver plastics. You'd probably have a hard time telling it apart from other hockey puck-style streaming boxes if not for the large Vizio logo silk-screened across its top. Around back, you'll find five input/output options: two HDMI ports (one in, one out), a USB input (USB 2.0), an Ethernet port and a small power receptacle.
Behind the scenes, even the Co-Star's specifications are rather modest. The Co-Star is a GoogleTV device and therefore has access to the Google Play Store and is (largely) compatible with any and all Apps found within. It's also fully Web-capable, meaning it runs a full version of Google Chrome as its browser, complete with Adobe Flash integration (take that, Apple). The Co-Star has built-in WiFi running at 802.11 n/g/b, while its Ethernet port is of the 10/100 mbps variety. The Co-Star is also Bluetooth- and DLNA-enabled, though the latter comes by way of the Co-Star's PlayPoint app. The Co-Star supports all resolutions up to 1080p or full HD, which also includes 3D - a first among its streaming peers. Video playback formats are H.264, MP4 and MKV. Supported music formats are relegated to MP3, AAC and WMA, or any variation thereof. In terms of surround sound formats, the Co-Star can pass anything up to 5.1 to the rest of your AV equipment or soundbar, but it features no internal decoding capability.
The Co-Star's remote therefore becomes a pretty big deal, as there are a) no manual controls on the Co-Star itself and b) the remote serves two functions, control and as a keyboard. The remote itself is nearly indistinguishable from my 70-inch Vizio's remote, save maybe a bit of girth and a few added buttons, chief among them a track pad located dead center. A full QWERTY keyboard is located on the remote's backside, with the remaining controls for everyday tasks located on the top. Admittedly, the buttons are somewhat small and many of them are crammed together, but you can tell Vizio put a lot of time and energy into maximizing the controls that will see regular use, as they are often larger and well-spaced. Controls for menu, channel up/down and volume up/down are among the easiest to interact with and can even be dealt with blindly after only a few moments. If you don't like the Co-Star's remote, you can always download the Android Google TV app for your smart phone or tablet. The control app allows for full control of the Co-Star via your home's wireless connection. It's the wave of the future. More and more products are offering some form of app-based WiFi control, and the Co-Star is among them.
Setting up and configuring the Co-Star is actually quite simple and rather eye-opening, in the sense that if a sub-$100 product can be this intuitive and functional, why can't some $1,000 or $10,000 products do the same? First, the Co-Star needs to be placed between your cable/satellite DVR and your display. In my case, it actually went between my Dish Network Hopper DVR and my Bowers & Wilkins Panorama 2 soundbar. The reason for this is simple - because the Co-Star has but one HDMI out, I had to route it through my soundbar and then go from my soundbar's HDMI out to my 70-inch Vizio E-Series HDTV. I understand I could have connected the Panorama 2 to my Vizio display via its optical port, and kept things a bit simpler, however, that would've negated the Panorama 2's OSD capability so I went with the setup I did. I ran the Co-Star wirelessly and wired, the latter via a powerline adapter from Netgear, and ultimately settled on sticking with the wired connection. I then plugged the Co-Star in and was done.
The Co-Star does not power up for the first time immediately. In fact, it takes about a minute for everything to boot and sync up. From there, you're asked a series of simple setup questions, such as identifying your home network and what other components are found in your system. Because the Co-Star relies on control over HDMI, setting up its universal remote functionality is a breeze, not to mention the end result being one remote, period. In order for the Co-Star to control my Dish Network DVR, I had to find it among a list of providers, select the model and then hit "OK." Presto, my Dish DVR was now under the Co-Star's command. Same thing for my Vizio HDTV and my Panorama 2. Well, almost with regards to my Panorama 2, as it wasn't yet able to be controlled via the Co-Star, though the original Panorama appears to be. Outside of that, the setup was trouble-free.
With everything working, the next step was simply signing into all my various accounts and syncing them with the Co-Star. Out of the box, the Co-Star comes pre-configured with a variety of popular apps. The most notable pre-installed apps include Amazon On Demand, M GO, OnLive, Netflix, iHeart Radio, Chrome, YouTube, Google Play, Pandora and Vudu (I think that is all of them). Of course, you can always head over to the Google Play Store and add more, but out of the box, the list is pretty comprehensive. The nice thing is that once you've entered all your passwords and synced the various services to the Co-Star, you never have to do it again, which is good and very cool for some of the Co-Star's other GoogleTV features. While many modern HDTVs now come with many of the aforementioned apps already loaded up, none are as expandable as the Co-Star, thanks to its Google Play Store integration. Also, the Co-Star is a great way to add app support to older, "dumber" HDTVs.
Read about the performance of the Vizio Co-Star media player on Page 2.