If at first you don't succeed, try, try and try again. The ASUS Cube with Google TV represents the fourth generation of devices that use Google's TV to tie your online life to your television. Previous attempts, such as the $300 Logitech Revue, were overpriced, and Google TV's interface was a work in progress. However, both of those concerns have been addressed in the Cube. At $139, this device not only provides information about what's on TV, but makes it easier to find content you want, be it in the cloud or anywhere else. Still, the Cube costs $40 more than devices such as Apple TV and Roku. Has ASUS -- and Google -- finally found the right mix of features for the money?
The ASUS Cube is, well, a cube. Measuring 4.9 x 4.9 x 4.9 inches, the device is slightly larger than the Boxee Box. Unlike that set-top box, which rested on its corner, the ASUS Cube sits on one of its sides. Every side of the plastic box has diagonal stripes, which makes it look slightly more interesting than a black box.
The front of the Cube has a small chrome ASUS logo and an IR receiver, and the back has HDMI in and out ports, USB, Ethernet, IR out and power. The left side has a second USB port.
The remote control for the ASUS Cube has two personalities. One side has a power button at the top, beneath which is a large touchpad with a colored stripe at each corner (red, green, blue and yellow), four directional buttons and an OK button in the middle. The touchpad operates in two modes: It can act as a d-pad, where only the directional buttons work. But, press the cursor button on the side of the remote, and the touchpad operates as a touchpad on a laptop; a cursor appears on-screen, too.
Beneath the touchpad are four Android-ish buttons: Back, Voice, Guide and Home. Beneath those buttons are volume controls on the left and channel controls on the right. In between are six buttons: Settings, Picture-in-picture, Mute, Live TV, Info and a red Netflix button. At the bottom are media control buttons, such as play, pause, record and stop.
Flip the remote over, and you'll find a full keyboard. The rubber keys felt comfortable underneath our thumbs, but the typing action was stiff. We had to be deliberate when typing to avoid making mistakes. The keyboard is fine for entering URLs, search queries and short sentences, but you won't want to type anything longer.
On the right side of the remote are two more buttons: One to activate voice controls, and another to activate the cursor.
Built into the remote control is an accelerometer, so you can move objects on screen by tilting the remote itself. The remote was sensitive and responsive when playing "My Paper Plane 2," a rudimentary game where you fly a paper airplane through a series of obstacles. ASUS includes two AAA batteries for the remote.
The ASUS Cube is designed to go in between your cable box and TV. We took the HDMI cable from our cable box and plugged it into the HDMI in port on the Cube. We then plugged a second HDMI cable into the HDMI out port on the Cube and the other end into our TV. (Unfortunately, ASUS doesn't include any HDMI cables in the box.) We then connected the IR blaster cable to the Cube and placed the other end on our cable box. Finally, we plugged in the Cube's power.
After turning on our TV, we were presented with the ASUS Cube setup screen, which warned us that the entire process could take up to 20 minutes. We first set the Cube's interface to fill our TV's screen, then were prompted to connect the Cube to our network via Ethernet or Wi-Fi. We selected the latter, but were slightly dismayed that we couldn't access our router's 5-GHz band.
Next, we signed in to the Cube with our Google account and entered our ZIP code and cable setup (cable provider, cable box make and model). After, we were asked if we wanted to control our TV and AV receiver using the Cube remote. Selecting yes will bring you through a similar setup as the cable box.
Finally, the Cube asked what device we wanted to use to control volume. In theory, this is a great idea, but there's only one IR blaster. So, if you use your AV receiver to control volume but use the cable box to change channels, you'll be out of luck.
Like the device itself, the Cube Interface is cube-shaped. The home screen shows a cube with one edge pointing toward you. On the left is a white face with a Blue arrow pointing up for Favorites and a blue arrow at the bottom pointing down for TV and movies.
The right face is divided into six panels: All apps, Notifications, YouTube, Chrome, the Google Play Store and LiveTV.
Along the left side of the cube are 9 small icons that show different content categories: TV & Movies, Games, Social & Life, Sports, Music, News, Education, Photo and Favorites.
Flip the cube to any one of these categories, and the six panels on the right face also change to match. For example, TV & Movies has panels for Netflix, YouTube, Play Movies & TV, Vudu, Movie Player and PrimeTime. Games has panels for GameStop, Games.com, Yahoo Games, GamersBin, 1000 Web Games and GamesForum.
The Options key on the remote (three lines) lets you customize the interface, such as adding widgets to the home screen (an analog clock, a music player, the Play Store and Whiteboard are the only options), as well as shortcuts to the Google Play store.
Overall, we found the interface fairly easy to navigate. Everything was clearly labeled, and we could move back and forth through the various menu options with just a button press or two. However, we noticed a slight delay when loading the Cube interface or launching an app.
One of the best features of the Cube is PrimeTime, which shows what is on TV in an attractive, but noninvasive, manner.
Press the blue Guide button below the touchpad, and the bottom third of the screen fills with a row of thumbnails showing what else is on. The upper right-hand corner of each thumbnail has a dog-ear with an HD logo if the show is in high-def. A blue progress bar at the bottom of some thumbnails -- such as movies and sports -- lets you know at a glance how much time has passed in a given program. Simply select the show you want to watch, press the OK button on the remote, and the Cube will automatically switch to that channel.
Shows are divided into 12 categories, which you can scroll through using a carousel on the left: Special Interest, Reality & Game Shows, Family, Music, News & Talk, Sports, Drama, Comedy, Channel Guide, DVR menu, Favorite Channels and Movies on TV.
Pressing the Menu button (three vertical lines) opens a menu with options to get more information about the selected program, rate it or remove the channel from your lists.
You can also open PrimeTime in Fullscreen mode, which fills the screen with thumbnails. Here, you can filter content by categories such as time and standard or high-def. Opening the Settings menu here lets you take a Rating Quiz (on a scale from 1 to 5 stars) that helps determine your likes and dislikes.
You can also list favorite channels, though if you have a lot of channels you like, setting this up can take some time.
If you find the Cube's keyboard tedious, you can use your voice to search for programs. Saying "ESPN" switched the TV to ESPN. Pretty cool.
The first time we searched for "Yankees," the Cube brought up a number of movies, from "Yankee Doodle Dandy" to "Pride of the Yankees," even "The New Yankee Workshop," as well as YouTube clips tagged with Yankees, but not the Yankees game itself. However, when we tried again the next day, the day's game showed up in the search results, as well as upcoming games.
Additionally, you can search for actors, apps, and, because this is a Google product, the Web.
Movies, music, and photos
In addition to content from paid and free sites, the ASUS Cube lets you view your own movies, music and photos, whether in the cloud or stored locally.
The ASUS Cube lets you watch movies using several methods. The first is through your cable provider. Then, there's the Google Play store; Amazon Instant video (although you must install the app first), which has 150,000 titles; and Netflix, which gives ASUS Cube TV customers one month of service for free.
When we plugged a USB stick into the Cube, it immediately showed the movies we had on the drive. The device was unable to play two AVI files, but an MPEG4 and an H.264 file streamed smoothly. ASUS says the Cube supports AVI, MOV, 3GPP, H.264, MKV, MOV, MPEG2, MPEG4, WMV and Xvid formats.
While we were able to connect the Cube to our local NAS drive, it took a long time for any photos to show up. We could also connect to our Google account, and it brought all of our Picasa photos up in an instant; we could then play slideshows of our photos.
The ASUS Cube runs a modified version of Android 3.2 and grants access to the Google Play store for a limited selection of apps. For example, within the Games category, there were only 143 apps listed. We found Amazon Instant video, HBO Go, Pandora, Slacker and Twitter. Facebook, ESPN, Hulu and "Angry Birds" were not available, but ASUS says that you can sideload apps.
Apps preinstalled on the ASUS Cube include ASUS WebStorage, which provides 50GB of cloud storage.
The Whiteboard app lets you create memos, add images and video, and sync notes with other devices. After you write a memo, you can share it with others via email. If you add the Whiteboard widget to your home screen, memos will appear there, too. In theory, this feature is a useful tool for sending messages to friends, but typing on the Cube remote makes it a laborious process. You can't currently use the mic in the remote to voice type.
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The ASUS Cube comes with Google Chrome, so you can browse the Web on your TV. One nice feature is that the Cube's picture-in-picture feature (which you can turn off) keeps the live TV broadcast in a box in the upper right-hand corner of the display as you're surfing the net.
In general, websites looked good on our 42-inch TV. However, when we went to Hulu.com, we were shown an ad to try Hulu Plus or subscribe, along with a notice that we wouldn't be able to view any videos on the site. Chrome supports both Flash and HTML5, so you should be able to view the majority of websites.
Mobile Remote app
If you don't feel like using the physical remote that comes with the Cube, the free Mobile Remote Android app replicates all the same functions. After installing the app on an LG Optimus G Pro, it searched for the Cube on the same network. The Cube then generated a four-digit code that we entered on the smartphone to pair the two devices.
The remote app worked well, but on a few occasions, such as when the phone went to sleep, it took a minute for the app to rediscover the Cube on our network, which was very annoying. We encountered a similar issue when we tried the Google TV app on our iPhone 4S; the app often had difficulty connecting to the Cube.
Like the physical remote, you can use the app to navigate the Cube interface, as well as launch apps and search for programs. In the middle of the remote is a circle with OK at the center. By dragging your thumb vertically or horizontally, you can move through menu items easily, but it takes a few tries to figure out how much pressure to apply. We did like the gentle haptic feedback on our Android phone.
Another neat feature of the remote is YouTube Dial, which lets you beam YouTube videos from your smartphone to the TV. Within the YouTube app on our phone, a small TV-shaped icon with an arrow appears at the top of the screen; pressing on this icon starts the YouTube app on the Cube. We selected a "Spider-Man 4" trailer and it began playing almost immediately on our TV. Better, at the bottom of the smartphone app are controls to play, pause and advance the video.
The $139 ASUS Cube with Google TV integrates services such as Google Play, Netflix and Amazon with your cable box in a smart, intuitive manner. Plus, Google's search and PrimeTime makes it easy to find shows you want to watch, and presents information in an easily digestible format.
Those looking to cut the cable cord should opt for the $99 Roku 3 (which has more content providers and apps). But consumers who want a better way to experience their cable service -- and have access to Netflix, Amazon and other online services -- will prefer the ASUS Cube. While there are a few kinks to work out (for example, the remote app could be more reliable), the ASUS Cube with Google TV is the one of the better devices we've tested that connect the Internet with your TV.