A bold design and great software additions make the ASUS CUBE unique, but is that enough to push Google TV to mainstream living rooms?
The ASUS CUBE with Google TV is the latest premium Google TV box to come out, and it’s also one of the most anticipated. It has a unique look and design, a nifty rotating-cube user interface, and plenty of features both in the hardware and software. We’ve been waiting for it since it was first unveiled in January at CES, and now it’s here.
I’m convinced that the Google TV platform is “almost there”, and one key component to get it from a cool toy for enthusiasts to something you would find in a mainstream consumer’s living room is great hardware. The $140 price tag will help -- you can grab one from various e-tailers including Newegg -- provided the unit provides a good experience with the current Google TV software.
The ASUS CUBE is certainly unique, but is it great? Hit the break and we’ll have a look.
The unit itself is not something tiny that you can tuck away behind another component in your entertainment center or TV stand. It’s a 125mm (about 5-inches) cube, which makes it a good bit taller than any of the previous Google TV set-top boxes we’ve seen. You’ll need to find somewhere to place the CUBE in your current set-up, preferably up front where the IR sensor is unobstructed. The good news is that it does look pretty unique, and the textured piano black finish should fit in with the rest of your living room electronics.
The surface of the ASUS CUBE is pretty much unbroken solid plastic. On the front, you have the ASUS badge and the previously mentioned IR sensor, as well as a power indicator. When the unit is on it’s blue, and it’s red (and muted) when off. On the right side of the CUBE you have a recessed reset switch and a USB 2.0 port. Around back you’ll find all the connections for hook up -- HDMI in and out ports, an IR Blaster output, a CAT 5 Ethernet jack, a second USB 2.0 port and the DC power port.
Hooking the ASUS CUBE up to your existing television is pretty easy. You bring the TV signal from your cable or satellite box to the HDMI input, and run the HDMI output to your television. In my case I was also using an Oynko A/V receiver, so things were different, but just as easy -- send the HDMI output into the back of my receiver. Your configuration will depend on your other equipment, but hooking it all up will likely be simple.
Once you have it hooked up and turned on, make sure your TV is set to the right input and you’ll see the Google TV set-up routine. Here, you set the screen size so the viewing area matches the exact aspect and dimensions of your screen, set up your input and out devices, and log in to your Google account. My television, receiver, and cable box were all set up automatically after giving the correct model number to the CUBE’s set-up software routine. With it all completed, I can control the CUBE itself, my receiver volume, my TV volume, and all the channel and multimedia functions of my cable box right through the CUBE’s awesome remote. Once you have everything set up, the only time you’ll need to ever touch the cube portion of the CUBE is if you plug in an external storage device into one of the USB ports.
The remote is how you interface with everything about your ASUS CUBE, so it needs to be a good one. The one ASUS built just so happens to be a great one. It's dual sided, and comes complete with two very important features -- a set of motion control sensors and a microphone for voice input. The motion control sensors can turn the remote into a sort of a game controller. ASUS provided us with a version of My Paper Plane 2 built for use with the CUBE, and it worked well enough. It's a bit of detachment using a motion-based controller in your hands while looking at a screen across the room, but you adjust in short order. Once suitable games are built to take advantage of the function -- I'm looking at you Riptide GP -- it looks to be a pretty cool addition. The microphone works with voice search on the Google TV 3 platform, works as described most of the time, and transcribes your spoken word into a search as well as it does on your phone or tablet.
On one side you have a full qwerty keyboard. The keys are rounded chiclet style, and are easy to press when you need to press them. You won't be typing 80 words per minute on it, but you will be able to easily input text into the browser or apps. A big part of the reason why is the other keys that are also on the keyboard. You have a full one though zero row of dedicated number keys, with the symbols for things like the "@" sign where you would see them on your computer keyboard. There's also an escape key, a delete key, control and function keys for typing those special characters we talked about, a shift key and a caps lock key. Add in directional keys and Android function keys for back, menu and search, and you have a perfect way to input any sort of text anywhere you need to input it.
On the flip side, you have your standard remote functions. In addition to normal things you'll find on a remote, like volume and channel rockers and multimedia keys (including a record button that works with your DVR), you have some specialized keys for things a Google TV box needs. The upper third of the remote is a dedicated directional pad that also doubles as a trackpad. Click up, down, left or right to move your selection box, then press the center to enter your choice. Or tap the cursor key on the right of the remote and use the surface as a trackpad. Both methods work well enough, but the directional pad combined with the user interface is a really nice way to navigate through the system. You'll also find a dedicated Netflix key, the obligatory Android function key of Home and back, a voice search key, and an info button that works with your cable or satellite box.
The remote takes a little while to get used to, but the layout is well planned and in just a few days you'll be able to expertly use it in a dark room while your favorite show or movie is playing.
The big thing here is the way ASUS has customized the Google TV interface. Your home screen has three dimensional cube in the center, taking about a third of the total viewing space. The cube itself is an overlay, so you can bring it up while on your home screen or during a movie or other full-screen activity. Because it doesn't take over the entire frame, you have room for widgets on your home screen, or more importantly, to see the content that's playing while navigating through the interface. Move up and down through the cube to pull up different pages, like a "Home" category with access to all your apps and some quick shortcuts to often used tools and apps, or Sports where you can store things like sports score apps and bookmarks to things like MLB.com, or even a favorites panel that you can fill with apps and shortcuts you use most often. When you're on the page you want to be on, a quick jump to the right via the directional pad on the remote allows you to navigate through the individual entries. Once you memorize how you have things laid out, jumping between them is lightning fast compared to the more traditional menu set up you find on the stock Google TV interface. This is one of those times that a manufacturer has made the standard Google interface better -- by a good margin.
The ASUS CUBE runs version 3 of the Google TV platform, which equates to Android 3.2 in terms we're more familiar with. The platform update brought stability improvements and bug fixes, but the two big user facing features were voice search and input, and Primetime. Voice search is much as it in on our phones and tablets, and works about as well. It's very handy to have, and something you won't want to give up once you're used to having it. Grab your remote and search for anything you want to look for on the web, as well as searching for content to watch. You can do this by name, but also by genre, or actor, or even subject. A search for Android Central will guide you here, and a search for "movies with Ving Rhames" will give you a list of choices from Lilo and Stitch to Dawn of the Dead, from all the sources you have set up on your ASUS CUBE -- like the Internet, content streamed from your cable or satellite box, or online services like Netflix, Amazon, or Google Play. From there it's a click to start watching.
In addition to the standard fare, ASUS has bundled in a few of their own applications. You have a front end to ASUS WebStorage, with 50GB of free space for signing up via the ASUS CUBE. This is a service like Dropbox where you can store files for safekeeping and accessing anywhere you have a browser, and it syncs across multiple devices. You'll also find a nice Whiteboard app for note taking designed with the Google TV interface in mind. You can attach media to create rich notes, and color code them for easy sorting. The Easy Multimedia services will automatically find and connect to streaming servers on your home network. Playback is smooth, and the application is easy to navigate and use. Of course, they have also thrown a task manager into the mix, which could be handy if an app gets hung. Knock on wood we haven't had to use that just yet.
Of course, other Google TV specific features like YouTube Dial where you can send YouTube videos between Android devices and Google TV are on board, as are all the standard Google services built for the platform.
The ASUS CUBE is easily the best Google TV box we've seen yet. ASUS has made changes that enhance the system rather than detract from it, and everything is bundled up into a unique and interesting package that you wont want to hide away in the back of your TV stand. They've done an excellent job of building the software, and the system is the most stable and well-working that I've seen from any Google TV manufacturer. When you consider that it retails for just $139.99 it's a pretty compelling choice.
Another thing to consider, if you're an Android fan, is the way ASUS has traditionally stayed on top of updates. We assume Google still has big things in store for Google TV, and as they roll out the changes you're going to want them on your device quickly. ASUS has shined in that department, and their community outreach and support makes me think they will continue.
If you ever wanted a Google TV box, the ASUS CUBE is the one to buy.