That means you can hook it up to your cable box and TV and use it to blur the lines between internet video and media from your TV service provider. You can watch live TV, stream video from Netflix, YouTube, or Amazon, play games, surf the web, and do much more.
While the Asus CUBE is hardly the first Google TV device on the market, Asus has taken a few steps to make it stand out from the crowd. That includes a custom cube-like home screen which lets you navigate through your Google TV apps and a multi-function remote control that works as a mouse, a keyboard, a media remote, and a microphone.
Asus loaned me a CUBE with Google TV device for the purposes of this review. It’s available for purchase from Newegg for $140.
The Asus CUBE is also the first Google TV device I’ve had the chance to review. So I won’t be able to say much about how it compares with similar devices from Sony, Vizio, Netgear, Logitech, or others. But I can tell you how it stacks up against the home theater PC I’ve had hooked up to my TV for the past few years.
As the name suggests, the ASUS CUBE is a cube-shaped box. It measures 4.92″ x 4.92″ x 4.92″ and weighs a little over a pound.
You won’t find a lot of ports. There are HDMI input and outputs, a 10/100 Ethernet port, 2 USB ports, and a port for the included IR blaster, which lets you use the Google TV to change channels on your cable or satellite box if you have one (I don’t).
What you don’t get are VGA, component, or composite video ports, optical output, or a headphone or speaker port. Asus doesn’t even include an HDMI cable in the case. You’ll have to provide your own.
Asus does include a multi-function remote control, but it’s complicated enough that I’m going to address the remote in its own section.
Under the hood, the Asus CUBE is powered by a Marvell ARMADA 1500 ARMv7 processor, the same chip used by other recent Google TV boxes. It features 802.11b/g/n WiFi, so you can connect to the internet wirelessly or by running an Ethernet cable to your router.
The device runs the latest version of Google TV, which is basically Android 3.2 Honeycomb designed for your TV. Out of the box it comes preloaded with apps including Netflix, Vudu, the Chrome web browser, and Google’s Prime Time app, which lets you search for content across all available sources, including your TV provider and online video sources.
You can also connect to the Google Play Store to download additional apps, or use the web browser to access web apps for sites that don’t currently offer apps for Google TV.
While Google TV is based on Android, only apps that are optimized for TV screens and remote controls are available — many of your favorite Android apps may not be available for download. But there are a couple of apps that are only available if you have a Google TV box like the Asus CUBE, such as the Amazon Video app.
Asus also provides users with 50GB of free online storage at the company’s WebStorage service. You can use it to upload videos or other content from your PC and stream it over the internet to your Asus CUBE.
One of the most interesting features of the ASUS CUBE is its multi-function remote control. One side features media buttons and a touch surface, while the other has a QWERTY keyboard.
Below the touch area there are volume and channel buttons, a few buttons for Android/Google TV functions including Home and Back buttons, and play, pause, stop, forward and reverse buttons, among others.
There’s also a Live TV button that lets you switch to live TV if you have a cable or satellite box connected. Or you can press the dedicated Netflix button to go straight to the Netflix video app.
The touch area actually serves a few different purposes. You can press down on the arrow buttons to trigger up, down, left, or right actions or press the center “OK” button. Or you can tap a mouse cursor button on the side of the remote control to turn the whole area into a touchpad.
Once you do that, you can slide your finger over the surface of the remote to move a cursor around on your TV, which makes navigating the web browser or some other apps easier. This especially comes in handy for apps and websites that weren’t originally designed for television screens.
While the mouse function works pretty well, I’m less impressed with the arrow-button mode. Since the buttons are built into the touch area, it’s actually kind of hard to detect them with your fingers and I often ended up clicking “OK” when I meant to click the down button, for instance.
I generally prefer remotes that have nice big physical buttons that you can feel. With this remote, you might need to look down at your hands to see what you’re doing until you get used to the layout.
The remote also includes a motion sensor, which lets you play games that require motion controls.
Flip the remote over and you’ve got a QWERTY keyboard that lets you type with your thumbs. This comes in handy if you want to search for content, enter a username and password, or do some other brief typing.
But I suspect you’re not going to want to use this keyboard to type our your next novel. The keys are small, if you don’t hold the remote control at the right height or angle, your ASUS CUBE may fail to recognize your key presses, and in order to perform some functions you have to press two keys at once.
For instance, you can’t just press the Shift button followed with a letter key to enter a capital letter the way you would with a smartphone keyboard. Instead you have to press both keys at once, the way you would with a full-sized keyboard. That can be a bit of a hassle when using such tiny keys — especially since half the time I’ve needed to use the keyboard over the past week has been to enter usernames and passwords into text boxes that don’t show me the characters I just typed.
Fortunately there are other ways to enter text. You can press the microphone button on the side of the remote control to activate voice search. Then just speak into the remote control and Google’s voice recognition software will probably do a pretty good job of figuring out what you’re trying to say.
You can also plug in a mouse, keyboard (or game controller) into one of the USB ports on the Asus CUBE if you want to use a full-sized keyboard for typing.
Google also offers an official Google TV app for Android which lets you use your phone or tablet as a remote control for a Google TV device. Or you if you’d prefer, you can download an Asus-branded version called Mobile Remote.
The apps let you search, control media playback, and basically use your phone as if it were a remote control for your Google TV device, although it can sometimes take a few tries to pair your phone with your box. The controls can also be kind of confusing.
Here’s the promise of Google TV: All of your online and local media in one place and accessible on your TV. Here’s the reality: Some of your media from some of your favorite media sites with an inconsistent user interface and a bit too much lag between the time when you press a button on your remote and the moment you see something happen on the screen.
When the Asus CUBE works, it works very well. Videos play smoothly, the Prime Time app does make finding videos across Google Play, Amazon, Netflix, and other services quite simple. And the ability to search for content by talking to your remote control is really quite cool.
But the Google TV user interface can be a bit confusing, and the Asus CUBE launcher doesn’t make things any simpler.
Press the home button on the remote control, and a “cube” pops up on your screen, letting you see a few apps each from categories including favorites, TV & Movies, Games, Social, Sports, Music, and News. But you can only see a few apps in each category from this menu, and if the app you want isn’t listed, you’ll need to either go to the All apps menu to bring it up.
You can also use the voice search function to launch apps — but you’ll need to make sure you say the name correction. Hit the microphone button and say “Amazon,” and a web browser window will open up to the Amazon homepage. Say “Amazon Video,” and the Amazon Video app will launch.
Once you’re in an app, the controls can be a little inconsistent. Not only do Amazon, Netflix, YouTube, and Google Play Movies all have different ways of arranging videos, but some apps support the stop button on the remote, while others only work with the pause button.
Pressing stop in some apps will pause a video, while pressing stop in others will exit the video and return you to the previous screen.
Things get weirder when you try to navigate the Play Store to download new apps.
Google TV is based on Android, and in no place is that more clear than in the Play Store… which looks almost exactly like the Play Store for phones and tablets.
So you end up navigating through menus that were designed for touchscreens using a remote control. You can use the arrow buttons or the touchpad to navigate — and if you use the arrow buttons, you’re in for a lot of clicking, since you’ll have to move the highlighted portion around a number of times before you agree to download an app.
This can be especially tedious because sometimes it takes a moment for taps to register… so you might end up tapping two or three times, thinking your first tap didn’t go through. That means that you’ve probably shot past the icon you were actually trying to press, and now you’ll have to hit more buttons to go back up.
The lag doesn’t just show up in the Play Store. While most of the video apps I’ve used do a pretty good job of pausing and playing video almost instantly when I press a button, it can take a long time to actually launch an app.
And while using some apps, like the Media Manager, it can take a long time simply to move from one screen to another (in this case to open folders or subfolders while looking for your music, movies, or photos).
In short, watching videos on the Asus CUBE is a pleasant experience. Everything you have to do to get to the video in the first place can be a bit of a chore.
There’s one major exception. While I’m not exactly in love with the official Android apps that work as remote controls for the Asus CUBE and other Google TV devices, the official YouTube app for Android works quite nicely with Google TV.
If you pair your phone or tablet with you Google TV, all you have to do is pull up a video on your phone, tap a button, and it will start playing on your TV screen. You can then pause, reverse, or move forward in the video using your mobile device as a remote.
That feature works exactly as you’d want it to.
Why I’m not ready to give up my Home Theater PC yet
For much of the past decade, I’ve had a Windows PC plugged into my television. This home theater PC works as a digital video recorder by capturing live HDTV broadcasts from a rooftop antenna, streaming internet video from sites including Netflix and Hulu, playing music, and much more.
With a wireless remote control and media software including Windows Media Center and XBMC, I can use this PC much the way you’d use any home theater device. With a wireless touchpad and keyboard, I can also use it to surf the web and run other apps.
The Asus CUBE and other devices designed to turn a TV into a smart TV are trying to solve a problem I don’t really have. I wouldn’t mind switching to one anyway… because my PC uses more power than the Asus CUBE, which runs at around 10 watts. But right now there’s just too much that devices like the Asus CUBE can’t do, or can only do poorly.
For instance there’s no Hulu app available for Google Play. I don’t just mean there’ s no free Hulu app. If you pay $7.99 per month for a Hulu Plus subscription you can stream TV shows and movies from Hulu to your phone, tablet, or some other set-top-boxes. But Hulu Plus doesn’t work with the Google TV platform.
There are also no official apps for some of my other favorite services, such as TuneIn Radio. There is a TuneIn web app, and a shortcut to that does come preloaded on the Asus CUBE. But sometimes web apps take longer to launch, and sometimes they don’t launch at all. Several times I got a server error when trying to bring up TuneIn Radio.
Google TV has a lot of promise, but it does some of the things my home theater PC does, but not al of them. I wish more companies would launch polished apps designed for HTPCs. I’d love an official Amazon Video app for Windows, Mac, or Linux that works like the Google TV one. It would be great either as a standalone app or as a plugin for a media center application like XBMC.
But even with a relatively low-power AMD Athlon II P340 processor, my media center PC is faster and far more capable than the Asus CUBE.
It also cost several hundred dollars more, costs more to run, and takes a bit more know-how to set up. That’s probably why HTPCs are currently the domain of enthusiasts/hobbyists.
But at this point it’s hard to see Google TV as a device that’s ready for prime time, thanks to an inconsistent and complicated user interface and occasionally sluggish controls.
If you’re looking for a device that just lets you stream internet video to your TV, you could probably save some money by picking up a Roku for as little as $50. It also happens to support Hulu Plus.
And if you don’t mind a user interface that’s not designed for TVs, you might be better of with an Android TV stick which would basically let you run any Android app you like on your TV.
It’s possible that future software updates could make the Asus Cube more responsive, add support for Hulu and other apps, and offer a more consistent user experience. But it’s been nearly three years since Google fist introduced Google TV to the world. While it’s undergone a few major changes since then, it still feels a lot like a work in progress.