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.
This part of the review isn't going to be your usual chatter about high-frequency performance or soundstage depth, as that's not what the Co-Star is really about. What I want to get at is how well or not-so-well the Co-Star improves the home entertainment experience. Starting with simple broadcast viewing, you can carry it out in one of two ways. First, and arguably the fastest, is to simply hit the guide button on the remote, which brings up your service provider's guide much as you would if the Co-Star were not installed. This is fine, and it works well if you know what you're after, but it isn't really why you have a device such as the Co-Star. Hitting the large center-mounted V button on the remote is the other way of going about it. Hitting the V button will pull up a side-mounted menu filled with small, square icons. Each icon represents an app that is either pre-installed or that you have downloaded. At the top of the menu, you'll find an empty space marked "Favorites" (you can rename it if you wish). Selecting one of the apps and holding down the OK button will pull up a pop-up menu asking if you wish to add that App to your favorites, uninstall it, etc. The icon or app that looks like a multi-colored calendar is the PrimeTime Guide. This is where things get really cool.
Selecting the PrimeTime Guide will take you to a screen that quite literally breaks down your incoming broadcast signal into cover art, meaning that it identifies all the movies currently playing on every channel you receive and places them in a neat row labeled "Movies," with each being represented by the film's theatrical poster (when available). It's Kaleidescape, but for broadcast HDTV. It's brilliant. Moreover, selecting one of the posters brings up a pop-up info screen that details the plot, the actors, run time, etc. There's even a blue status bar below the poster letting you know just how far into the movie you are at present. Selecting a poster (aka movie) and hitting OK will immediately cause your DVR to select the appropriate channel and take you straight to it. The same is true for network and cable television shows, as they are broken down by genre.
Along the left hand side of the PrimeTime Guide, there are two additional icons, one a television and the other a film strip. Moving down to the television icon and pressing OK pulls up a cover flow menu not wholly unlike what I described above, only you may see shows both past and present. Let's say, for instance, The X-Files (20th Century Fox), a personal favorite, shows up under the category of Drama. Selecting The X-Files cover art pulls up a full episode list broken down by seasons, in this case, one through nine. Selecting season one (the first five were the best) pulls up an episode guide; selecting any one of the episodes causes it to play. How does it do it? Simple, GoogleTV automatically scans all your applicable streaming services - Netflix, Amazon, Vudu, etc. - and pools the results in one convenient location. It defaults to which ever service is free, i.e., doesn't charge per episode (Netflix) and then goes from there. Since The X-Files is on Netflix streaming, I can select the episodes and watch them from the GoogleTV interface as if they were being served locally, which is so cool and user-friendly that it beggars belief. Well, let's say that the show or movie isn't on Netflix, for example, the recent remake of the '80s cult classic Red Dawn (Film District).
Red Dawn isn't out on Blu-ray yet, but it, along with a handful of other titles, is available now via various streaming platforms. In the PrimeTime Guide, under the film strip icon, I see Red Dawn in my cover flow, meaning it's available to me. Selecting the art and hitting OK brings up a pop-up window informing me of all the services I currently am signed into that will play Red Dawn, as well as the price I'll have to pay to watch. Selecting the appropriate service that suits your needs will cause the film to play and your credit card to be charged, though you never leave the PrimeTime Guide. It's truly amazing, not to mention seamless in its integration and flawless in its delivery.
But wait, there's more.
Let's say you're watching a television program, for example's sake, Gold Rush (Discovery Channel). In the episode you're watching, they're talking about the various types of trommels, and you want to know more about them. Without leaving the show, you can begin to type in the word "trommel" using the Co-Star's keyboard and, over top of the image, you will begin to perform a Google search. Hitting OK will pull up an overlay showing you Google results, YouTube videos and more, all while the show is still playing in the background. Crazy. Crazier still is that, should you hit the "guide" button while also watching a show, the Co-Star will bring up a mini version of the PrimeTime Guide, broken down by all the various categories, and display that across the bottom portion of your screen, meaning you can browse other options while still watching a near-full-screen presentation of the show you're currently viewing.
And then there are all the apps available to you. For instance, my media is not shared via DLNA but rather another protocol, one that the Co-Star doesn't natively support. Jumping on the Google Play store from the Co-Star's main menu and selecting an app that does support my home network setup remedies that. It's that simple. Say you're a Plex user (a media center-type program). Well, you can turn your Co-Star into a Plex device simply by installing the appropriate Plex app from the Google Play store. And so it goes.
If you're a gamer and have a broadband connection, the Co-Star can serve as your PS3, XBox or Wii via its support of OnLive. OnLive is an online gaming resource whereby you stream today's popular games. Purchasing a separate OnLive gaming controller (sold separately), which is similar to that of the controllers found on many of today's popular consoles, makes the Co-Star's transition from streaming box to gaming console even easier. I'm not much of a gamer, though I did recognize several of the titles available due to their immense popularity and visibility at my local stores, such as Assassin's Creed (Ubisoft) and the like. Prices for games on the OnLive service range from free on up, as well as including monthly subscription plans. I must admit, it's pretty cool, and I'm not even a gamer, though I did take part in a few free plays here and there.
In truth, I could spend the next two weeks straight detailing all the various ins and outs of the Co-Star thanks largely to its ability to be customized via the Google Play store. Suffice to say, this review, while hopefully detailed, is ultimately but a general overview aimed at presenting you with the broad strokes. For more on the Co-Star, you can go to the Vizio website, but it will actually tell you less than what I have above. No, to learn more about the Co-Star, you have to buy one. It's like The Matrix: you can't be told what it is, you simply must experience it for yourself. And at $99 retail, what do you have to lose?
The Co-Star is a pretty phenomenal product, but there are a few items that I don't particularly care for. First, I believe it needs one more HDMI input in addition to the lone one it currently has. One more HDMI input would mean you could add and control, say, a Blu-ray player via the Co-Star, making it a true centerpiece to any modern home theater or home entertainment setup. A third HDMI input would be but icing on the cake.
The GoogleTV Remote app is garbage. This isn't the Co-Star's fault, but nevertheless, the GoogleTV Remote app sucks. There are other control apps that I believe are compatible, but I didn't have the time to test each and every one. Suffice to say, there is always another way to skin the proverbial cat when it comes to both the Co-Star and GoogleTV.
98 percent of the time, the Co-Star's remote communicates flawlessly with either the Co-Star itself or your ancillary equipment. The remaining two percent of the time, it simply doesn't. It's not the end of the world, you merely have to hit the button again, but it can be a little confusing, if not mildly frustrating. Also, the remote is rather directional for my tastes.
There is currently no Hulu support via the Co-Star, which isn't its fault, but rather the result of an issue between Google and Hulu. Even so, there's no Hulu for you.
Lastly, to enjoy some of the best the Co-Star has to offer, you're going to need to bring a broadband connection to the party. While you can stream SD video via WiFi, if you plan on enjoying HD streaming and/or games on the OnLive platform, a wired connection is the best way to get the job done, which for some may be impossible. Also, despite supporting file formats such as MKV, the Co-Star doesn't appear to have the internal memory or buffers to play back full HD content (think 20-plus mbps Blu-ray) off a home network server or NAS box.
Competition and Comparison
Obviously, the Co-Star's competition is the various streaming devices currently available today, boxes such as Apple's AppleTV and Roku. Neither of these two options are GoogleTV-enabled, meaning they don't do any of the cool tricks described above. Sure, they may give you access to services such as Netflix, Vudu, Hulu, etc., but they don't interface with your broadcast service nor put all those above-mentioned services in one sexy container known as the PrimeTime Guide. Moreover, neither the AppleTV nor the Roku have an Internet browser, support 3D, allow for multi-tasking or allow for the sheer level of customization the Co-Star provides via the Google Play store. They all cost about the same, but if I'm being honest, neither can carry water to the fires the Co-Star starts. I wouldn't even consider the AppleTV or Roku competition, though I know they are in the minds of consumers and/or the marketplace. For more on these devices and others like them, please check out Home Theater Review's Media Server page.
A few years ago, when the concept of GoogleTV was first unleashed upon the press and thus the populace, I, along with many of my colleagues, made it a point to unjustly attack it. While it wasn't as good then as it is now, we were shortsighted and, rather than grant it its due incubation time the way we did with Blu-ray, we wished it a swift death. We even made it the butt of jokes. We were wrong. In truth, whether you like Google or even the idea of convergence on the whole, the Co-Star and other similarly-equipped GoogleTV devices are the future. Thankfully, our - my - shortsightedness did not derail the progress of GoogleTV and, as a result, I've had the opportunity to see its power firsthand via the new Vizio Co-Star.
The Vizio Co-Star, for lack of a better description, is brilliant through and through. What it accomplishes for less than $100 is staggering, not to mention how seamless it a) integrates into your existing system while b) single-handedly transforming how you watch and enjoy television and movies. Moreover, my wife adores it, which is always a good thing. It's not wholly perfect. I feel the remote can improve, as can the device itself, mainly though the addition of more HDMI inputs. However, as an opening salvo from a company best known until now for its HDTVs, the Vizio Co-Star is nothing short of a revelation. Just buy it and see for yourself - you won't be disappointed.