When Google TV first launched a little more than a year ago, it had few hardware partners and failed to resonate with a wide consumer market. But the technology was back at the Consumer Electronics Show this year, with major tech companies promoting the software and saying its time had come.
"You've got to reorient customers to look at TVs as an actual smart device, as a device just like a tablet or a PC or a phone," said Matthew McRae, chief technology officer at Vizio, during an interview with The Times. "It takes a little bit of time, but I think that bridge has been crossed."
At CES in Las Vegas this week, Vizio was showcasing its 65-inch, 55-inch and 47-inch V.I.A. Plus HDTVs with Theater 3D; the VBR430 Blu-ray player; and the VAP430 stream player — all of which incorporate Google TV's 2.0 platform. V.I.A. stands for Vizio Internet Apps.
The V.I.A. Plus experience features an app-centric interface on every device, "making it easy for consumers to understand and navigate as they move between devices," the company said in a news release. Users can also access thousands of apps from the Android Market.
McRae said the company was encouraged by the advances in the second generation of Google TV, saying the earlier version of the software "missed on the simplicity front."
"When people sit down at a TV, it's got to be intuitive, it's got to be a few button clicks to whatever you're looking for," McRae said. "If you make it any more complex than that, they'll just give up…. So the user interface I think is actually more challenging to get right on a TV than it is on a tablet or PC."
The prospects for Google TV — which combines traditional television, the Internet, apps and search capabilities — are growing rapidly among developers, who are rolling out thousands of apps built specifically for televisions.
Vizio was especially excited to show off its new VAP430 stream player with Google TV, a media player that turns any HDTV into an enhanced V.I.A. Plus smart TV. Vizio's stream player, a small black box about the size of a wallet, features built-in HDMI ports that let users connect existing components like gaming consoles or set-top boxes for unified access to all media sources through the V.I.A. Plus touchpad remote. It also supports 3-D content and 3-D streaming.
Vizio officials said the stream player was expected to be released in the first half of the year, but declined to say how much the device would cost. Sales of stream players are poised to pass Blu-ray players in unit volume sales by 2013, Vizio said, making the devices the "perfect solution" for media multitaskers.
LG is also showing off sets with Google TV software that will launch in the U.S. in the first half of 2012 and later for the rest of the world. Among LG's Google TV offerings will be a 55-inch model, and each Google TV set from LG will include a "magic remote" with a built-in keyboard.
Google TV will run on LG's TVs alongside its Smart TV platform unveiled last year. Since last year's CES, LG said it had added more than 1,200 apps to its Smart TV offerings.
Sony too heavily hyped its Google TV products at CES and said it was expanding its line of devices that included the software.
The tech giant said it was rolling out two new set-top boxes powered by Google TV — one connected Blu-ray disc player and one Network Media Player. Enhanced features include access to the Android Market as well as a redesigned remote control for improved functionality, new linkage with the Sony Entertainment Network platform and a new mobile device interface that allows consumers to use smartphones and tablets as a content source.
"As a result more consumers will be able to enjoy multiple content sources from broadcast to streaming video and various apps through one easy-to-use seamless interface by connecting to any HDTV," Sony executive Kaz Hirai said during the company's CES news conference.
– Andrea Chang in Las Vegas
Upper photo: A Vizio HDTV shows off Google TV software, with live television and a panel of apps sharing space on the screen. Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh / Los Angeles Times
Lower photo: Vizio's VAP430 stream player with Google TV, a media player that turns any HDTV into an enhanced smart TV. Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh / Los Angeles Times
Netflix, CinemaNow and Vudu seem ubiquitous on the smart TV sets and set-top boxes on display at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, but they're not the only companies bringing films on demand to the TV, tablets and smartphones. Among the others trying to drum up business here have been two smaller, evolving competitors, Film Fresh and Bigstar, each of which brings something unique to the mix.
Film Fresh began as an outlet for downloadable international films, which it made available for sale or rental. It eventually added films for sale from selected Hollywood studios — Sony, Warner Bros. and Lionsgate — because "we learned that you can't sell the long tail without the short-tail films," said founder Rick Bolton. "You need familiar films."
This week Film Fresh relaunched its site, switching to a more widely compatible format (dropping DivX in favor of Windows Media) that's more acceptable to the bigger studios. The switch enables Film Fresh to make those studios' movies available for rent, not just for purchase, and it opens a pathway to more devices. It added Roku's set-top boxes this week and plans to launch on Android tablets in a few weeks, followed eventually by Apple devices. It also opened a store this week on Facebook.
The company also added a nifty mood-based recommendation engine called "Film Finder" (pictured above). The first set of suggestions comes from the company's staff of film buffs, and the rest are generated by technology from The Filter. The recommendations help users navigate the company's library of nearly 6,000 films, most of which are titles you'd never see promoted on a bus or in a theatrical trailer. "For us, the holy grail is discovery," Bolton explained, adding that Film Finder is designed to give the site a "corner video store vibe."
With CinemaNow owned by Best Buy, Blockbuster owned by DISH and Vudu owned by Wal-Mart, Film Fresh is promoting itself to device makers as the Switzerland of online film retailers. "We're the last independent film download service with independents and Hollywood content," Bolton said. Miami-based Bigstar, meanwhile, is offering unlimited movie streaming for a monthly fee of just under $5 — the Netflix model, only cheaper.
It can afford to do that, founder Xavi Dalmau said, because it works only with indie film studios and distributors that are willing to forgo guarantees and advances. Instead, the site pays its 150 content partners half the revenue it collects from subscribers. (Most of its more than 4,000 titles are included in the subscription price, but a few hundred are available only on a pay-per-view basis.)
Bigstar has only about 5,000 paying members at this point, despite having attracted 300,000 potential subscribers over its history. It's had much more success winning a place on connected TVs and set-top boxes; it is or soon will be available on TVs by Samsung, Sony, Toshiba and Vizio, Roku players, iPads and devices that run the Android operating system.
As a result, only about 10% of the site's streams are delivered to Web browsers. "Our top platform is the iPad and the iPhone," Dalmau said, adding that the segment with the fastest growing usage is connected TVs. And unlike many of its competitors, Bigstar has the rights to stream most of its movies globally.
"We felt that the independent world was a way for us to prove our model," he said. The company hopes to gradually add deals with bigger studios, but not for blockbusters. The hits don't fit into a business model built around $4.99-a-month subscriptions. Instead, Bigstar is focused on overlooked titles — for example, indie movies that make a splash at film festivals but don't go on to a wide release. That's a common fate for festival fare, most of which never makes it to the multiplex, Dalmau said.
"All along we wanted to make the platform to give it to the filmmakers to be able to show the great movies that they make, year in and year out. A curated library has always been one of our goals. We spent a lot of time figuring out what to put in and what not to."
The privately held company's not making money yet, Dalmau said, but it hasn't been trying to. Instead, it's been building its platform and acquiring content, albeit "without spending the millions and hundreds of millions of dollars" on major Hollywood fare. With a huge supply of long-tail films gathering dust in archives, along with unheralded foreign films, documentaries and shorts, "there's a lot out there that we can get our hands on that we feel people want to watch," Dalmau said.
– Jon Healey
Credit: Film Fresh
One of the more notable and surprising reveals so far at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show has been the debut of Vizio's line of laptops and all-in-one desktop PCs. Vizio declined to detail the specifications or release date of its new products, but gave us some hands-on time with the PCs.
The All-in-One, as the desktop version of Vizio's PC debut is known, comes in 27-inch and 24-inch models, both containing high-definition 1080p resolution panels. The general approach is similar to that of Apple's iMac, with nearly the entire device in one self-contained monitor/base unit. Unlike the iMac, however, which positions its processing hardware behind the screen, CPU and hardware connection ports on the All-in-One are all positioned at the base of the device, which still manages to be very thin and is connected to the monitor through an aluminum neck.
The base includes USB 3.0 connections and inputs for two HDMI cables, allowing you to connect your computer, Xbox or anything else that can output HDMI. Vizio's director of product development, Tim Almeda, said the desktops could be configured with up to quad-core processing and 1 terabyte hard drives.
But not all of the device is contained in the base. The power source and subwoofer for the PC are housed in a mash-up external unit that connects to the. This makes it not quite all-in-one, but helps provide a 2.1 stereo sound setup that Vizio says will be included with the computers. User input comes from a wireless keyboard, trackpad and TV-like remote.
Vizio's upcoming laptop line includes two Thin + Light computers, basically in the ultrabook genre, which come in at 14 inches and 15.6 inches, and one more robust 15.6-inch notebook. The full notebook is a little thicker and heavier, but boasts a dedicated graphics card and a hard drive and SSD options. The "Thin + Light" models carry an SSD, and are geared to compete against computers such as Apple's MacBook Air and similar recently released ultrabooks. None of the computers carry an optical drive, but an external CD/DVD drive is available (Vizio wouldn't specify whether an external drive would be available on the larger laptop by default or at an extra cost).
Overall, sleekness and simplicity embody the design of both sets of computers — clean lines, an aversion to design flairs that don't serve any useful function, a brushed metal exterior and a very integrated look between the series. Industrial chic, if you will.
This is apparent even in the font used on the keyboards, which almost looks as if it were built for speed and my colleague Nathan Olivarez-Giles compared to the lettering used by Porsche Design. One can't ignore the design cues taken from Apple in both sets of computers, but if Vizio is successful in creating a stylish, sleek and lower-cost alternative to the iMac, MacBook Pro and MacBook Air, it could be a challenge for the computing giant.
– Armand Emamdjomeh in Las Vegas
Photo: From back to front, Vizio's new 14 inch and 15.6-inch Thin + Light and 15.6-inch notebook computers, and separate optical drive. Credit: Armand Emamdjomeh / Los Angeles Times
As always, the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas has been filled with new TVs and home entertainment product announcements.
In fact, there have been so many announcements that it might be tough to keep up with them all if you're actually looking to CES to help you decide what your next TV set will be.
No worry, we're here to help sift through the noise. We'll have more on TVs and Google TV products coming, but here are some of the highlights from LG, Vizio and Sony thus far.
As we reported ahead of CES, LG had big-screen plans for this year's Vegas show with a new 55-inch OLED TV that is just 4 millimeters thick and an 84-inch LED-backlit LCD TV with 4K-display resolution.
For those who don't know, 4K resolution is what many in the TV industry believe will be the next bump up in high-definition standards for TVs and Web video. Current top-of-the-line HD TV sets available to consumers now are either 1080p or 720p — each number indicating the number of vertical pixel lines of resolution the HD sets can handle. The term 4K resolution identifies displays with about 4,000 horizontal lines of resolution. There isn't a ton of 4K video content out yet (most HD TV channels are 720p), but many filmmakers are moving toward shooting in 4K with newer digital cameras.
As promised, LG unveiled both the 55-inch and 84-inch sets at CES this year, each set falling into what LG is calling its Cinema 3D series of TVs, which will range in size between 55 and 84 inches and feature a super-thin bezel when they hit the market later this year. I saw both sets in person here at CES and they looked big, bright and clear.
Of course, how a TV looks on the showroom floor and how it looks in the living room can vary. But LG, as well as many other TV makers, seems to be producing thinner and lighter TVs with increasingly more detailed and accurate pictures displayed on screen.
Another announcement from LG this year was wider implementation of its Magic Remote, which was shown off at CES in 2011 too. As my colleague David Sarno noted in his reporting on CES, the Magic Remote acts much like the Wii remote used by Nintendo's Wii video game console.
With the motion-sensing Magic Remote in hand, a user can navigate on-screen TV menus, settings and even channel changes with a combination of gestures and button presses.
LG is also showing off Google TV sets that will launch in the U.S. in the first half of 2012 and later for the rest of the world. Among LG's Google TV offerings will be a 55-inch model, and each Google TV set from LG will come with a Magic Remote with a built-in keyboard.
Google TV will run on LG's TVs alongside its Smart TV platform unveiled last year. Since 2011's CES, LG said it has added more than 1,200 apps to its Smart TV offerings.
Just as it was last year, 3-D is a major theme at CES this year, and LG also said that about 50% of its 2012 TV line would be made up of 3-D TVs. But like Vizio, and unlike many other TV rivals, LG's 3-D TVs won't use active-shutter 3-D glasses. Instead, LG's and Vizio's 3-D TVs will work with passive 3-D glasses that are more like the glasses often found in movie theaters.
Irvine-based Vizio also showed off a newer, wider vision for home TVs. Dubbed Cinema Wide, Vizio is releasing a line of new TVs with a 21:9 aspect ratio. Nearly all TVs currently being sold have a 16:9 aspect ratio.
However, if you're watching TV on a Cinema Wide set, you're almost guaranteed to see black bars running to the left and right of the screen, since most TV shows and sporting events nowadays are broadcast in a 16:9 aspect ratio.
Vizio says it will release its Cinema Wide sets (which will also be 3-D TVs) in both 50-inch and 58-inch sizes in the first six months of the year, with a 71-inch size to follow later.
The bargain-priced TV maker is also releasing a lineup of Google TV products including TVs running the Google TV software, Google TV Blu-Ray player and a set-top box called the Stream Player that will enable Google TV to run on any HD TV.
In 2012, Sony's Bravia line of TVs will be divided into three series — BX for entry-level models, EX at the mid range and HX at the top.
The high-end HX line will be made up of LED-backlit LCDs with 3-D and built-in Wi-Fi for Skype and Sony apps. The even higher-end HX850 series will also feature screens made of Coring's Gorilla Glass, which is easy to clean and scratch resistant, as well as thin and light. The HX series will be available in 46-inch and 55-inch sizes, each with a 1080p resolution.
The EX line won't have Gorilla Glass or 3-D, but these TVs will have built-in Wi-Fi and Sony apps and will be available in 40-inch, 46-inch and 55-inch sizes, each with a 1080p resolution.
The entry-level BX line from Sony will be made up of some pretty basic TVs. The BX450 series,will offer 1080p resolution in 46-inch and 40-inch sizes while the BX330 series will consist of one 31.5-inch set with a resolution of 720p, the lowest resolution that can still be classified as high definition.
Top photo: LG's press conference at CES 2012 in Las Vegas on Jan. 9. Credit: LG
Second image from top: LG's Google TV Smart TV set. Credit: LG
Third image from top: Vizio's Cinema Wide TV. Credit: Vizio
Bottom image: Sony's HX850 TV at an angle. Credit: Sony
Vizio is hoping to find the same success it’s had in the TV business in the competitive market of personal computing.
At the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, Vizio is showing off its lineup of PCs, which consists of two all-in-one desktops and three laptop computers all running Microsoft’s Windows 7 operating system.
The Irvine company is planning on taking the same retail approach with its PCs that it used with its TV and home-theater products, selling its devices at lower prices than most rivals, said Jim Noyd, a Vizio spokesman.
On the laptop side of Vizio’s offerings will be a 15.6-inch-screen laptop and two thin and light laptops in both a 15.6-inch screen size and a 14-inch size. The thin and light laptops will be lower-cost alternatives to Apple’s MacBook Air and Ultrabook laptops from the likes of Dell, Lenovo and HP.
Desktop-wise, Vizio is planning on releasing two all-in-one models to challenge the likes of Apple’s iMac. The desktops will be built in both 24- and 27-inch screen sizes.
So far, Vizio isn’t offering any details on the specs of its PCs or its processor partners, though the company says it is set to release its PCs sometime this spring.
We’ll go hands-on with Vizio’s PC lineup later at CES, but for now check out the media photos Vizio sent to the Technology blog to see some detailed shots of how these new Windows machines will look.
– Nathan Olivarez-Giles in Las Vegas
Photos: Vizio’s laptop (top) and desktop (bottom) PCs. Credit: Vizio
The lineup is mostly familiar, with LG, Samsung, Sony and Vizio producing Google TV products. Sony has released Google TV television sets and set-top boxes, and Samsung and Vizio both showed off prototype Google TV products at CES last year that never made it to market.
Absent from the Google TV hardware lineup this year is Logitech, which gave up on the Internet-connected TV software after its Google TV products failed to catch on with consumers, resulting in more returns than sales in the second quarter of 2011.
LG "will showcase a new line of TVs powered by Google TV running on their own L9 chipset at CES," Google said, also noting that Samsung and Sony will have new Google TV devices on the market this year. LG said in its own statement that some of its Google TV sets will be 3-D.
Vizio will hold "private demos at CES showcasing their new line of Google TV-powered products," Google said.
The Technology blog will be at CES next week looking at Google TV products and other new gadgets, games and technologies, so stay tuned.
– Nathan Olivarez-Giles
Photo: Sony's first-generation Internet-connected LCD television powered by Google's Android-based Google TV platform. Credit: Kiyoshi Ota / Bloomberg