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Devices

Google Lacks A Strategy To Support Live Video On Android Devices

For content owners that want to get their live event-based streaming content on mobile phones and tablets, many are quickly finding out that getting it to Android devices is extremely challenging. Unlike Apple’s iOS platform, Google has yet to provide an easy way to get live video to Android devices and to date, hasn’t detailed any kind of strategy of how they plan to fix it. Many content owners I have spoken with, as well as those who help these content owners encode and distribute their video are now questioning why they should even continue to go through all the trouble of trying to support Android based devices at all.

While media companies can always build an app for their event series, most do one-off events and are faced with streaming to the mobile web and reaching their audience using browsers on Android and iOS devices. When Android phones became popular, live video was supported in the mobile browser thanks to Flash. Digital video professionals with live content to distribute were able to keep doing what they were doing on the desktop and Flash made it easier than it is now. That’s not to say that Flash was perfect as in many cases their desktop players were heavy, containing ad overlays and metadata interaction that had a major impact on the playback quality. To get better quality video playback, some people turned to RTSP delivery, which Android touted as its native live video format until Android 2.3.4 came out, when that feature no longer worked.

The most effective way to get live video to Android browsers was to make a stripped-down Flash player that didn’t demand much from the phones. Video was decoded in the software but it would drain batteries quickly. It was imperfect but it functioned well enough to play video. With the introduction of Android 3.0 it looked like HLS support was going to be built-in for all future devices, and that has held true, sort of. HLS support doesn’t match the specification, and buffering is common. Industry-leading HLS implementations like those from Cisco and Akamai will not load on Android devices, so for the most part, content owners went back to Flash. But now Flash isn’t available to new Android phones.

Right now, content owners are left in an awkward state if they want to deliver live video to Android browsers. If Flash is present, you can deliver a basic Flash video player. If it is not, you can try to deliver HLS but the HLS manifests must either be hand-coded or created using Android-specific tools. If the HLS video can play without buffering you’ll find that there is no way to specify the aspect ratio, so in portrait mode it looks broken. The aspect ratio problem seems to have been fixed in Android 4.1 but often, if you enter video playback in landscape mode and leave in portrait it will crash. You can allow the HLS video to open and play in a separate application, but you lose the ability to communicate with the page, and exiting the video dumps the user back on their home screen.

In comparison to iOS devices, content owners can still send the same live video to iOS devices that they could in 2009, and it will play smoothly with little buffering. Live video support for browser-based streaming within Android tablets and phones is a significant challenge with little help available from Google, and with Android still talking about removing H.264 video support, many content owners are wondering why they should even try to support Android any longer? What’s clear is that Google doesn’t have a strategy to fix the problem and many content owners and video ecosystem vendors are frustrated. Content owners want to get their live video on as many devices and platforms as possible and right now, getting it to Android devices is very difficult and costly. Unless Google steps in to solve the problem, don’t expect content owners to continue to try to support Android devices for live video streaming.

Content owners that want to give their feedback to Google about this, feel free to do so in the comments section below.

Note: I emailed a representative of the Android team asking if they were willing to talk about this subject but didn’t hear back. If Google would like to respond to this issue, I’ll be happy to post their response or hear any plans they may have to address the problem.

Roku vs. Apple TV: How To Chose The Right $99 Streamer

[Updated March 5 2013: The Roku 3 has been announced. See my updated post here for a comparison of the Roku 3 vs. Apple TV] or keep reading below for a comparison of the Roku 2 vs. Apple TV. And if you want a shot at winning a free Roku 3, I’m giving one away to one lucky reader of my blog. You can enter the drawing here.

While there are currently seven different $99 streaming boxes in the market today, the two most popular and best-selling are the Roku 2 and Apple TV. I get a lot of questions from readers asking me which box I think they should buy and many always want to know how the two boxes compare. While I have done many side-by-side reviews in the past, here’s the latest comparison on how the boxes stack up, the pros and cons of each and the factors you should use to determine which $99 streamer you should buy. While Roku currently has four different models of boxes available on the market, ranging in price from $49 to $99, this post will compare the $99 Roku 2 XS to the $99 Apple TV. And if you want to win your very own Roku 2 XS or an Apple TV, I’m giving both away in two separate drawings. (Enter Apple TV drawing | Enter Roku 2 XS drawing)

Hardware

To date, Apple has sold over 6M of their $99 Apple TV devices and Roku has sold more than 3M globally. Based on available industry data, they are the number one and number two selling $99 boxes in the market today. It’s no wonder considering both boxes come loaded with features including HDMI out, 802.11n Wi-Fi, an ethernet jack and support for 5.1 surround sound and 1080p video. Both boxes are about the same in size (Roku 2: 0.9″ x 3.3″ x 3.3″ vs. Apple TV: 0.9″x 3.9″ x 3.9″) and consume very little in the way of power (Roku 2W, Apple TV 6W). Each box comes with a 90-day warranty and a simple power cord with no power brick. You can add an extra one year warranty to the Apple TV for $29 or $$15 for the Roku 2. While both are great streamers with very similar hardware, there is one big compatibility difference between the two that could determine which one you should buy.

If you plan to hook the box up to a newer TV with built-in HDMI, then both boxes are a great choice. But if you have an older TV without HDMI, the Roku is your only option. Unlike the Roku 2, the Apple TV has no support for older TVs. The Roku 2 XS supports older TVs and provides 480i video quality via composite video and has support for analog stereo via left/right/composite video RCA, thanks to a mini-jack. So if you have an older TV with no support for HDMI, The Roku 2 is the box for you. Two other hardware advantages the Roku 2 has over the Apple TV are a microSD card slot for additional game and channel storage and a USB port.

While the Apple TV has a mini micro USB port, it cannot be used to playback local content via a USB device. The port is only used by Apple for servicing the unit. Since the first generation of the Apple TV device was released (the 720p model), many have speculated that Apple would enable the mini USB port to allow users to play back local content. However nearly two years later, that has not happened. Roku’s USB port can be used to playback content from a USB hard drive or thumb drive and supports MP4 (H.264) and MKV (H.264) content only. So if you have content in these formats and want the option to playback some local content, the Roku 2 is the box to choose. The Apple TV box has an optical audio port and the Roku 2 XS doesn’t, so that might be important for those who want to use these boxes for audio content more than video.

Setup/Wi-Fi Strength

Both boxes are super easy to set up, passing my Mom test which has involved me giving her each of these boxes to set on her own. Roku’s box takes a bit longer to set up than the Apple TV as Roku requires you to go to Roku.com on a computer to enter all of your contact information and credit card details. While Roku only collects your credit card data to have it on file in case you make any content purchases via the Roku Channel Store, many have voiced their complaints that it is an unnecessary step in the setup process, especially if you have been given a Roku 2 as a gift, are giving it to a young person with no credit card or simply don’t want to have your credit card on file with Roku. Currently, there is no way to skip entering your credit card details in the setup process, so if this is a problem for you, stick with the Apple TV, which doesn’t require any credit card details during setup. (Updated: Roku now gives you the option to skip entering your credit card info in the setup process if you want.)

As long as you know your Wi-Fi password and the box is within range of your Wi-Fi signal, each box takes less than 10 minutes to set up. I have seen many in the industry debate which box has better Wi-Fi strength, but I have yet to see any testing of the two that has shown conclusive results. A lot of factors go into how well Wi-Fi works including the type of Wi-Fi router, the position of the router and the type of Wi-Fi protocol (a/b/g/n) being used. Everyone has their own unique setting within their house that determines how strong and how far their Wi-Fi signal works, so it’s very individual. That said, both boxes have what I would consider to be identical Wi-Fi strength and of all the testing and use of the boxes I have done over the years, I’ve never encountered any Wi-Fi differences between the two.

Remote Control

When it comes to the remotes, both work very well and are very responsive. One of the things I don’t like about the Apple TV remote is that it doesn’t take standard sized batteries. It’s not a huge deal breaker, but I have a lot more triple AAA batteries lying around for the Roku remote, as opposed to the watch batteries (CR2032 or BR2032) that the Apple TV remote takes. The Roku 2 XS comes with a Bluetooth game remote with motion sensing for playing games and supports what Roku calls “instant replay”, which allows you to skip back in 10 second increments while a video is playing without having to re-buffer the stream. Apple’s remote is smaller and much thinner than Roku’s, but personally, I like how Roku’s works better than the Apple TV remote. Apple’s remote design is all about less is more, but I tend to find the few additional buttons on the Roku remote are there for a reason and are used often. All of this aside, no one is picking one box over another based solely on the remote and both remotes work very well and work from 30′ away.

In addition to the physical remotes that come with these boxes, you can download remote control apps for your iPad/iPhone that will control your Roku 2 XS or Apple TV. See this link for Roku and this link for Apple TV.

Content/User Interface

As for the content available on both devices, this is really where the Roku 2 is the box to beat. Apple TV supports content from Netflix, Hulu Plus, MLB.TV, NHL GameCenter, NBA, Flickr and YouTube as well as the ability to purchase and rent content from iTunes. It also supports some free Internet content from folks like Revision3, WSJ and others, but all of that content is lumped in under the Podcast heading in Apple TV, so most folks probably don’t see it. The Apple TV use to support $0.99 rentals from ABC, Disney, Fox, and the BBC via iTunes, but Apple has since discontinued that option and shows now have to be purchased for $2.99. For those that want XBMC support on the Apple TV, it’s possible, but only works if you are willing to jailbreak the device.

The Roku 2 has channels for Netflix, Hulu Plus, Vudu, Amazon Instant Video, HBO GO, Epix, MLB.TV, NHL GameCenter, NBA, Major League Soccer, UFC TV, CNBC, FOX News, NBC News, AOL HD, TED, Pandora, Crackle, Flickr and has support for PLEX. Roku has more than 250 public content channels listed on their website, has an open SDK and as a result, has a lot of content partners working to bring more channels to Roku devices. In addition, you can browse over 1,000 “private” channels available for the Roku and add them if you know the correct code. (see the list of private channels here) Compare that to the Apple TV which today, has no SDK and doesn’t run any apps on the box. (Updated: Roku says they have more than 600 content channels, but don’t have them all listed on their website, which is in the process of being updated.)

While Roku has support for nearly every content channel around, it does NOT have support for YouTube. For more than a year now, Roku has said they are working on an official channel, but they won’t give any estimate on when it will arrive. Some have been speculating for over 18 months now that the Apple TV will run apps in the future since internally it has 8GB of Flash storage, but none of that has yet to happen. So when deciding which box to buy, don’t listen to rumors of what the box may or may not do down the road, evaluate the boxes in the market based on what they can do today. If you want the most content choices available, the Roku 2 beats the Apple TV hands-down. But if support for YouTube is a requirement, then the Apple TV is your only choice. I should also mention that neither the Apple TV or Roku 2 XS are DLNA compliant, so is that is a requirement for you, then pick the $99 Vizio Co-Star or the $99 Western Digital WD TV Live box. Neither box has any kind of we browser built in, so you can’t browse the web with the Roku 2 or Apple TV.

The Roku user interface is not as polished as the Apple TV interface, but it’s simple, easy to navigate and you can customize the layout of the channels. The browsing experience on the Apple TV is great for picking movies and TV shows in iTunes, with large cover art, straightforward navigation and Rotten Tomatoes ratings. Both the Roku 2 XS and Apple TV have simple interfaces and while they look different, they both perform well and do exactly what they should, with dead-simple navigation. In addition to streaming content, the Roku 2 XS also allows you to play nearly 30 games, with the most popular being Angry Birds. Roku’s regular remote doubles as a gaming remote and works really well for simple gaming. And if Angry Birds is something you’re really into, Roku even has a limited edition version of the console that comes in red.

Playing Videos From Local Computer

If you’re into Apple devices and already have an iPad, iPhone or Mac, then it makes a lot of sense to pick the Apple TV over the Roku due to how all the devices work together in Apple’s ecosystem. You’ll have less content choices than the Roku 2 XS, but all the devices talk to one another and sharing content amongst all the devices is very easy. Any movies or TV shows that you purchase in iTunes via the Apple TV are stored in the cloud and will be available for download to an iPad or iPhone. Enabling your Apple TV to see your local computer allows you to stream just about any media you have on your computer that is running iTunes including your music collection, any video that iTunes can play and your photo collection.

And with Apple’s Airplay technology, you can start watching a video on an iPhone, iPod or iPad and then move that content over to the Apple TV in realtime, for content rented or purchased via iTunes. Airplay also supports the streaming of video from third-party apps on the iPad and iPhone to your TV set with Apple TV in the middle, but only if the app developer enables Airplay functionality. For instance, Airplay works with TNT’s iPhone app, but is disabled in TNT’s iPad app. Also, Airplay does not allow you to play back any DVD images from your computer.

While most people aren’t aware of it, the Roku 2 XS can be used to playback content from your local computer, but it is not as easy or seamless as Apple’s solution to use and it is not built-in to the Roku. Installing a third-party channel on the Roku, like Roksbox, or using PlayOn or PLEX will turn your computer into a media server that can stream movies, pictures, and music from you computer, wirelessly to your Roku device. That said, the Roku 2 XS will NOT play back iTunes content that has been protected via Apple’s DRM. Even with PLEX, the Roku 2 XS can’t playback Apple’s copy protected content. So while you can play back content that is in your iTunes library, it just can’t be content you purchased from iTunes that is protected via Digital Rights Management (DRM). I’ve also experienced cases where the Roku will play back some music tracks but not others depending on how it was encoded. Content purchased via the Roku 2 XS through Amazon Instant Video can be downloaded to an iPad via the new Amazon Instant iPad app.

Replacing Your Cable TV (cord-cutting)

Despite all the hype about cord-cutting, the Apple TV and Roku 2 XS will NOT allow the average person to drop their cable TV package. Neither box has an internal hard drive for storage, has no DVR functionality and has no support for picking up live TV stations via an over-the-air antenna. In addition, many of the content services available for the devices don’t won’t have every piece of content you want, at the quality you want and in the business model (rent/purchase/subscription) that you want. Even a great subscription service like MLB.TV has local blackout restrictions, so these $99 streamers are not a replacement for cable TV for 99% of consumers.

Conclusions

While many people are always willing to give their two cents on which device you should buy, everyone has different tastes when it comes to the type of content they want to watch, how they watch it and whether they rent it, buy it, or play it back from a local computer. Do your research and figure out what YOU want the box to do as opposed to what others are using it for. Picking the best box is pretty easy if you can answer the following questions:

  • Does the TV you plan to hook it up to have support for HDMI?
  • What specific content do you want to watch?
  • How do you want to get your content? Via subscription, purchase or both?
  • Do you want the ability to play back content (MP4, MKV) via a USB drive?
  • Do you want to use the streaming box for casual gaming?
  • Do you already own other Apple devices and want to use Apple’s ecosystem?
  • Do you plan to play back a lot of content via iTunes?

Keep in mind that these boxes are cheap at only $99 and getting them via Amazon means you can take advantage of their great return policy. If you pick one up and it doesn’t work the way you had hoped, return it and try a different one. At $99 each, with free shipping from Amazon, and an easy return process, you really can’t go wrong by trying them out. That said, the Roku 2 XS and Apple TV are only two of the SEVEN streaming boxes currently priced at under $100. (If you are looking for a box that streams Netflix and other subscription services and also has the Google TV platform built-in, then check out my review of Vizio’s recently released $99 Co-Star box.)

When it comes to deciding which $99 streaming box to get, there are a lot of choices in the market. I’ve created a chart that shows the hardware specs of each device and also lists which content choices are available on them. You can check out the chart and compare a total of 13 different boxes by visiting www.StreamingMediaDevices.com

If you still don’t know which box to get or have additional questions, put them in the comments section or drop me an email and I’ll be glad to help you try to pick the right one, based on your needs. And if you want to try and win your very own Roku 2 XS, Apple TV or Vizio Co-Star, I’m giving all three of them away in separate drawings. You must enter each drawing separately.

Free Giveaway: Win A New Roku 2 XS

Earlier today I reviewed the Apple TV player in a head-to-head comparison with the Roku 2 XS in an article entitled “Roku 2 vs. Apple TV: How To Chose The Right $99 Streamer“. To go with the review, I am giving away one Roku XS device to a lucky reader of my blog. To enter the drawing, all you have to do is leave one comment on this post and make sure you submit the comment with a valid email address. The drawing is open to anyone with a mailing address in the U.S. and the winner will be selected at random later this month. The drawing is now over. Congrats to Larry S. who won the item.

I’m also giving away an Apple TV unit and a Vizio Co-Star unit. You must enter each drawing separately. Good luck!

Free Giveaway: Win A New Apple TV

Earlier today I reviewed the Apple TV player in a head-to-head comparison with the Roku 2 XS in an article entitled “Roku 2 vs. Apple TV: How To Chose The Right $99 Streamer. To go with the review, I am giving away one Apple TV to a lucky reader of my blog. To enter the drawing, all you have to do is leave one comment on this post and make sure you submit the comment with a valid email address. The drawing is open to anyone with a mailing address in the U.S. and the winner will be selected at random later this month. The drawing is now over. Congrats to Addison L. who won the item.

I’m also giving away a Roku 2 XS unit and a Vizio Co-Star unit. You must enter each drawing separately. Good luck!

Vizio’s Co-Star Streaming Box Will Be Back Up For Order Sept. 9th

If you were interested in buying Vizio’s new $99 Co-Star streaming media box and missed out on the pre-order, the good news is you don’t have to wait much longer for them to be back in stock. While the Vizio.com website currently says ‘Temporarily sold out”, Vizio let me know that they will open their website back up for orders on September 9th. And if that batch gets sold out, the company will have more in stock, available for ordering on September 18th. So check out my hands-on review of the device, put the date on your calendar and get ready to place your order for this nice little box. And if you want to try and win one for free, you can entering my drawing, where I am giving one away.

New $99 Google TV Box Announced: Called The Hisense Pulse, Ships In November

Earlier today, a new $99 Google TV box was announced by Hisense, a company that sells flat screen TVs for cheap, mostly in stores like Walmart and Costco. Named the Hisense Pulse with Google TV, the company says the box will ship in November and will have support for 1080p, built-in WiFi, HDMI in and out, ethernet and a double sided remote control featuring a built-in touchpad and dedicated Netflix button on one side and a QWERTY keyboard on the other. The company says the box is small, with the dimensions being 4.5″ x 1.4″ in size.

If you ask me, this sounds like the exact same box that Vizio just released, the Co-Star, which I just reviewed. To date, it’s the only box in the market with HDMI pass-through and allows the overlay of live TV, but it sounds as if they won’t be the only device with this feature much longer, once the Hisense Pulse comes out. The question I have though is what the build quality will be like with the Hisense Pulse. Some people may compare Vizio to Hisnese and say they both make cheap TVs, but that’s not accurate.

Vizio is known for making good quality gear, affordable. Hisense is knowing for making ok quality TVs, cheap. Most have probably never heard of Hisense before and while their TVs are in some cases $100-$400 cheaper than a Vizio or Samsung, the picture quality is not as good as the major brands. When their 40″ 1080p LCD TV is selling for $299 at big box retailers, you know they had to skimp in the quality somewhere. Hisense’s TVs do get good reviews online, but most of the positive remarks are the price, with many saying things like, “not as good as my Samsung“, and “it is not the best out there in terms of picture quality.”

I’ve seen many Hisense’s TVs at the store before, but have never tested one at home, in my lab, so I’ll have to get one and see how it performs against my Vizio, LG, Sony, Samsung and Panasonic models. All this aside, the biggest hurdle Hisense will have with their $99 Google TV box is that most have never heard of the company, so they are going to have to spend a lot of money to market the device. But it does look like more Google TV boxes on the cheap are going to be coming to the market, which is great for consumers.

Part Two Of My Vizio Co-Star Review: Your Questions Answered

Last week, after I posted my review of Vizio’s new $99 Co-Star streaming box, I got a lot of questions from readers wanting me to comment on certain features of the box. So I’ve made a list of the questions, done some additional testing and have provided answers to them below. I’m also giving one of these boxes away, so go here to enter the drawing.

[In addition to these questions, I also got a few others that I sent to Vizio asking for more details. I’ll update this post as soon as they respond.]

Do you know when the next wave of Co-Star’s will be released?
Vizio’s Co-Star device started to be delivered last week, to those who pre-ordered from Vizio.com. Vizio said they sold out of the original run of boxes made just for the pre-order, but said the box will soon be up for general availability. From what I have heard, it sounds like the Co-Star will be generally available in September.

What kind of chip is in the box and what processing power does it have?
iFixit took the box apart and says it is using a Marvell Armada 1500 1.2 GHz Dual-Core Processor, with just 4GB of flash memory to store everything for the OS and Google TV platform. Vizio says their box is so robust that the processor can also support the playback of 3D content, although I haven’t tested that yet.

How does it handle local content playback? Is it better than the Boxee Box?
The Co-Star has excellent video format and codec support, more than the Boxee Box and has pros/cons over Western Digital’s WD TV Live. If you want to playback lots of formats from a local USB drive, the Co-Star device will handle just about all of them. (It does not support ISO or xVID)

What additional content services are coming to the box? Will it have Vudu and Blockbuster On Demand in the future?
Vizio told me that more content services will be added to the box before the end of the year, but aren’t hinting at what those services will be. I really can’t speculate, but I doubt it would be Blockbuster On Demand. I’m also hearing that more content services will soon be coming to the Google TV platform, so it may be that more content for the box comes from Google rather than Vizio.

Did you test the streaming services via WiFi or ethernet? How well did WiFi work?
All of my testing was done via WiFi. The WiFi signal and reception was excellent, even when I moved the box to a TV located on the opposite side of my house from where my router was. I’ve had some reception problems with the WiFi on Roku’s in the past, and the Co-Star seems to have stronger WiFi reception than the Roku. BUT, many factors go into how well WiFi works on any device, including the unique setup in your home. So what worked best for me is not guaranteed to work best for you.

How well does the chrome browser handle flash content?
Using the Chrome browser via the Google TV platform, worked very well. I didn’t have any trouble playing Flash content and it didn’t stutter or have any hiccups.

I’m curious how the Vizio Co-Star stacks up to the Sony Blu-ray Google TV player?
The Google TV platform is the same on both boxes, but Vizio has re-skinned the Google TV platform for their box, making it easier to overlay live TV. But it is really hard to compare the two boxes as the Sony model is a Blu-ray player firs and the Vizio Co-Star isn’t. The Sony Blu-ray player is also 2x as expensive as the Co-Star.

Can’t I get android apps of Hulu Plus and MLB.TV via the Google Play store?
No. Hulu and MLB, along with others, are blocking access to their website if you’re using the Google TV setup. There are no apps in the Google Play store for MLB.TV, Hulu Plus and others for the Google TV platform.

As for Hulu Plus and the other apps, couldn’t you use something like PlayOn as a substitute and still pull them in?
I haven’t tested it, but you should be able to. PlayOn works on the Google TV platform by entering g.playon.tv into the search bar, which will bring you to the page that discovers your PlayOn PC. While you need a keyboard to control Google TV, Vizio’s Co-Star remote should be fine for this purpose since it has the trackpad and keyboard.

I’m wondering if this is an open API leaving the door open for a third-party app to use my iPhone or tablet as a replacement remote?
Vizio hasn’t given me a clear answer on what their API and SDK plans are for the Co-Star, so I don’t know what their long-term strategy is for this.

Since this has the Google TV platform on it, can you hook up a webcam and do video chat like you could with the Logitech box?
Presently there are not any apps available for Co-Star that support video chat, but as those become available webcams could be supported.

Vizio Co-Star Review: Hands-On With Vizio’s New $99 Streaming Box

The market for streaming boxes just got a little more crowded with the release of Vizio’s new $99 streaming media device, named the Co-Star. Joining the ranks of Roku, Apple, Western Digital, Sony and Netgear who already have $99 boxes in the market, Vizio’s Co-Star device is being delivered this week, to those who pre-ordered from Vizio.com. I’ve been testing the box for the past two days, and overall, the box performs pretty well. [Updated: See part two of my Vizio Co-Star review, where I answered some of your questions.]

Vizio said they sold out of the original run of boxes made just for the pre-order, but won’t say what quantity that was. The box will soon be up for general availability, but in the mean time, I’m giving one away for free. (See the link at the bottom of this post to enter.)

Starting off with the basics, the Co-Star has built-in ethernet, WiFi, two HDMI ports (in and out), DLNA support, one IR port and has USB to support the playback of local content. The Co-Star supports 1080p streaming and is about the size of two Apple TV units stacked on top of one another. The box supports content offerings from Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Instant Video, HBO GO, Wall Street Journal, Pandora, iHeartRadio and Slacker Radio. M-GO video-on-demand is advertised as being available, but hasn’t yet launched. While Vizio originally said the box would support Hulu Plus when they announced the Co-Star, the box does not currently have Hulu Plus support. Vizio says more content services will be added to the box before the end of the year, but aren’t hinting at what those services will be.

While this would be just another $99 box on the market if the specs stopped there, unique to the Co-Star is that it comes bundled with the Google TV platform, which Vizio has completely re-skinned for their device. In addition, no other $99 box on the market has HDMI pass through, thereby allowing you to overlay the Google TV platform and apps on top of live TV, thanks to the Co-Star’s HDMI in port. This is one of the nicest features of the device, as the user experience switching between live TV, Google TV and apps is seamless, but is still hampered by the fact that the Google TV platform still feels like a beta product.

Included with the box is a bluetooth touchpad universal remote with QWERTY keyboard. For comparison purposes, I included a photo of the remote next to a Blackberry and the Apple TV remote. The keyboard works quite well and the touchpad is easy to navigate, but the downside of all this functionality is that the remote is big, heavy and really thick. The buttons are very small, especially the numbers and all buttons require a hard press. There is no chance of you using the remote in low-light conditions since the remote is not backlit, so it really requires you to have to look at it each time you want to use it, especially if you want to change channels via the numeric keypad. While Vizio intends for users to adopt their remote for controlling their Co-Star, DVR, TV and sound system, any real power user isn’t going to use their remote for all their devices. Unlike many streaming media boxes, the Co-Star remote does have a power button to turn the device on/off, but has no LED light in the front of the box indicating on/off status. Clearly you know will know when it is off since it does pass through of your cable signal, but if it has on/off capabilities, I’d personally still like to see some indicator of this on the front of the unit.

Setting up the Co-Star is pretty easy, but it’s no Roku. That said, it’s a bit unfair to compare the two as the Roku has no HDMI in and doesn’t overlay live TV. So naturally, setup with any device that has more functionality, like the Co-Star, is going to take more time. The initial setup isn’t difficult, but will take 15-20 minutes to pair the bluetooth remote, connect the box to the Internet, enter your Google account info, select your TV model, select your DVR or STB model, select your cable provider and do a software update. I’ve already been pushed one software update and Vizio says another one is coming out this week. For anyone like me who got one of the first boxes during pre-order, your setup will be a bit more complex, as there were some issues that the update fixed. But any boxes going forward will have the latest software and will be easier to set up. While I did have some issues during setup, I chalk that up to getting one of the first boxes made and Vizio already knew about the problems and released the software patch. The patch coming out later this week will fix the problems with the 5.1 surround sound, so it’s great to see how responsive Vizio is being to fixing software issues.

I tested the Co-Star hooked up to a TiVo Series 3 unit with cable cards as well as a regular set-top-box from Verizon and saw quite a difference in performance between the two. The Co-Star had some major issues with the TiVo as many of the TiVo commands aren’t on the Co-Star remote and changing channels really lagged. If you have a TiVo, the Co-Star is probably not the box for you. On a regular set-top-box, the Co-Star performed much faster, didn’t have the lag and was pretty responsive, outside of the Netflix app. Most apps on the Co-Star load within a few seconds, but Netflix takes nearly 20 seconds to load.

I didn’t test playback of local content via a USB drive, but Vizio says the box supports H.264 (MP4, MKV, MOV, AVCHD, 3GP, TS), MPEG-4 part 2 (MP4, DIVX, AVI, 3GP, TS), WMV9 (ASF, AVI), MPEG-2 (MPG, TS), H.263 (MP4, 3GP, FLV). I’ll have to put USB playback to the test when I have time, but based purely on format/codec support, this box gives the Western Digital WD TV Live box some competition, for those users who have a local library of digital content they want to play through the device.

While the Co-Star has a lot of features, it’s really hard to call it the box to beat, or declare any box the winner, as consumers have different needs. The Co-Star won’t work with any TV that doesn’t have HDMI, so it won’t be a fit for everyone. No other $99 box has Google TV built-in though, so the Co-Star wins in that category, as well as the HDMI pass through. There really isn’t much to complain about on the hardware front with the Co-Star, but it still lacks support for Hulu Plus, EPIX, Vudu, MLB.TV, NHL and NBA. So Vizio still has some work to do to catch up to the content choices available on the Roku.

Overall, Vizio’s Co-Star device will please most consumers and Vizio’s made a really nice device, considering this is their first entry into the $99 streaming box market. If they can add content services from Hulu and MLB in particular, along with a few others, then this box will have more functionality than a Roku, at the same price.

Updated: I did not have the time to test the OnLive gaming service on the box, so I don’t know how well that performs.

I have two Vizio Co-Star boxes, so I’m giving one away on my blog. Click here to enter the drawing.

Free Giveaway: Win One Of Two Google Nexus 7 Tablets

Right now, in the $200 price range, Google’s Nexus 7 tablet is the one to beat. I’ve got dozens of tablets I use for testing and between the Kindle Fire, Nook Tablet, Samsung Galaxy 2 and Blackberry Playbook, the Nexus 7 tablet outshines them all. This is your chance to get hands-on with the Nexus 7 as I have two 8GB units to give away to some lucky readers of my blog.

To enter the drawing, all you have to do is leave one comment on this post and make sure you submit the comment with a valid email. The drawing is open to anyone with a mailing address in the U.S. and I will select the first winner at random next month. Good luck! The drawing is now over. Congrats to Kristie D. who won the item.