I spend a lot of time writing about, thinking about and staring at smart TVs—internet connected TVs that offer access to streaming or downloaded content. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show smart TVs were the hottest technology, and all the major TV makers were competing to out cool each other in their TV interfaces.
In electronics stores this year we’re seeing TVs that you can talk to, shake your hands at and point magic wands at to navigate their growing and fascinating array of apps or widgets. Speaking of those apps or widgets, sometimes they’re recognized brands (Netflix, Pandora, Facebook) that work across platforms (or multiple TVs) and sometimes they’re proprietary (such as Samsung’s Family Story app).
Is that important? That’s not a question I can answer for everyone. If you have multiple smart TVs in your house from multiple brands, it might be annoying to have to learn a different interface for each one just to watch a movie on Netflix. Then again, you’re a smart person, you can figure it out… or are you?
The subject of this review, the Nyxio VioSphere, takes a different approach. Rather than run its own proprietary system for running a limited number of apps, the VioSphere combines an HDTV with a Windows 7 computer that runs anything a computer runs.
Smart TVs for Dumb Users
Today’s smart TVs are designed to be great TVs and are optimized to provide mostly passive entertainment. They got that way because people complained that it was too difficult to hook up computers or game consoles or other internet devices to their TVs. New smart TVs are loaded with apps, but not unlimited apps. They’re the gated communities of online content. Some have slick-looking intuitive interfaces, and some look like they were designed in the era of Pong. Some have creative ways to interact with them, while others rely on standard remotes and hunt-and-peck onscreen keyboards.
But they’re all just receptacles for content. They can’t really do anything. Content comes in through wires, cable or Wi-Fi and then comes out at your face. A few systems offer some social networking interaction. But other than that, smart TVs are pretty simple minded.
And that’s not a bad thing. In fact that’s probably what most people want. Give them more channels, choices, and they’re happy. Make it easy to find, and they’re happy.
This Nyxio VioSphere is different though. Don’t confuse it with the all-in-one PCs that keep trying to find some marketshare. The VioSphere is more like a regular HDTV with a laptop slipped in the side pocket. In fact both the TV and PC have separate tuners. They only thing they share is the screen and speakers.
So is the VioSphere a smart TV or just a spacing-saving TV/PC? I’ll leave that up to the individual reader to decide.
More after the break
What’s It Like?
Living with the VioSphere took me some getting used to. At first, I wasn’t quite sure what the use model was–do you use it primarily as a TV or PC? That’s going to vary from person to person, the way it does with a traditional PC, because a PC is such a dynamic device, while a TV, well, isn’t.
With a standard smart TV the goal is to watch TV, maybe play some games. And some of that content will come through the Internet connection. With a PC the use paradigm is dependent on the user. Does the person want to shop online, oovoo chat with friends, research homework, write a bog?
The sample VioSphere I received is a 26-inch, 720p, LCD model. The company’s web site doesn’t actually list a 26-inch model, but this is one that’s easiest for the company to ship and carry. VioSphere’s are sold in sizes 32, 42, 55 and 65.
On the back it includes two HDMI inputs (but one is nearly inaccessible) , two antenna/cable inputs (one for the TV side and one for the PC) and a standard assortment of analog inputs. To operate the TV you get a typical-looking remote with a few extra buttons including a separate power button for the computer and a button that allows you to view a split screen with a TV input on one side and Windows on the other. The actual input layout may vary on the other size models.
For the computer part of the system you get Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, a built-in DVD burner drive, a wireless keyboard (with a trackball for mouse), web cam, and the screen is a touchscreen. There are three USB ports though one gets used by the adapter for the wireless keyboard, so you really only have access to two.
There are three ways to interact with the PC. The touchscreen is the feature that got the most use during my time with it. I found the remote difficult to use with the PC function (though fine for TV operation). There’s a button on the remote that when pressed, allows you to use the direction buttons to move the cursor around, but I never quite got the hang of that. The wireless keyboard works well, and it includes volume controls and quick launch buttons (email, search, home), but it’s nice to not have to use any other accessory to launch a program. With the touchscreen, you just tap to navigate. To go online, just tap the web browser icon. The only time the touchscreen falls short is when you’re far away from the screen or need to type something—such as a status update or Google search. The touchscreen is a good feature if you’re using the TV in a small office, kitchen or bedroom. For a living room, most people would probably fall back to the keyboard.
In addition to running Windows 7 and any program that works for Windows, there’s a BlueStacks program that lets you download and run applications from the Android Marketplace (Nyxio has plans to launch an all-Android TV later this year).
The DVD drive is useful for playing movies or burning anything you may have downloaded, and it works well. Just like any PC, you can run iTunes, connect your camera or printer, watch Netflix etc. Unlike a standard smart TV, you can watch Hulu without needing a Hulu Plus subscription because you’re watching from a computer.
So back to what makes this different—being a full-fledged PC, it’s not restricted simply to the gated community of content that other smart TVs can access. You can work on this TV, upload and share with this TV, monitor IP security cameras, run home control programs… The question then is, do you need to?
That’s where the user model issue comes up. I see a TV like this as working well in a place where people are active rather than passive. Maybe not a living room where the family just wants to sit down and watch a movie, but definitely in the kitchen where people want to both watch TV but maybe also search for info, check web sites, Skype with friends and do homework. Bedrooms and small offices would also be appropriate.
Nyxio Viosphere LCD TV/PC
Prices start at $1,275 for 32-inch model.
• 320 GB HDD with 2 GB RAM
• Bluetooth and WiFi (802.11n)
• Touch Screen
• Built-in DVD player/burner
• Inputs: HDMI, VGA, AV1, AV2, YpbPr1, S-Video, Audio In
• 10 MP embedded Webcam
• Built-in microphone
• 2 separate television tuners: 1 for the TV, 1 for the PC
• BlueStacks Android App Player for Windows