Content. Content. Content.
For Sony, the advent of Smart TVs has been all about the content, whether that is video, music or photo, although the emphasis is understandably on the first of those.Sony is pretty much unique, amongst the manufacturers, in having lots of its own services and content to peddle, rather than relying on the support of third parties and has never been reticent in pushing that fact. There’s nothing wrong in that, of course, and it’s not as though they are exactly short of partners in any case.Their 2014 Smart TV platform is even more focussed on content discovery, with a brand new Homepage and interface designed to make that task of discovering something to watch or listen to that bit more intuitive. There’s also a companion app for mobile devices to check out and a revamped media player to investigate. So, let’s see how Smart Sony is in 2014.
HomepageAs we’re reviewing the Smart TV platform from the basis of using it on a couple of Sony’s latest TVs (the slightly disappointing W955 and the excellent W829), it’s fitting that the first page of Sony’s new interface is dedicated to TV content. As per the efforts of LG and Samsung in 2013, Sony has integrated the programme guides of just about all the major UK TV providers in to both the TVs software and its SideView app, available on iOS and Android.
During the setup process, you will be asked to nominate your primary TV provider from choices of BT Vision, Freesat, Freeview, Sky (HD/SD), Top UP TV and Virgin as well as your region to ensure the correct local services are detailed. In the box with the W829 and W95 was also an IR blaster which you will need to plug in to the back of the TV and locate the business end somewhere near your Set Top Box to allow full control with the Sony TV remote. As we found last year, with the Korean manufacturer’s efforts, it all works quite well but some of the functions of using a PVR (Personal Video Recorder), in particular, are more easily done with the dedicated controller.
Next to the ‘Channel’ Page is one devoted to ‘Movies’ where you’ll be greeted with a selection of tiles with a variety of reasonably up-to-date films to browse through. It doesn’t take long to figure out that this is just a vehicle for Sony’s own Video Unlimited service and we find the implementation annoying. At the time of publishing, Sony was highlighting The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Captain Philips, The Counsellor and Gravity, amongst others, but the fact you’re forced to sit through a trailer before being able to rent is very off-putting.
Perhaps the homepage is too content heavy
With prices for HD and SD, for the newer titles, coming in at £4.49 and £3.49, respectively, they are no more expensive than the likes of iTunes or Sky Store but they don’t force a trailer on you. Sony should change the default behaviour so that when you click on something, it presents the immediate option of viewing the full feature. Also at the bottom of the Movies page are options for getting at Netflix and the built-in media player – more on which later.
The ‘Album’ Page, as you may have guessed, is dedicated to displaying your photographs. To get the most out of this feature, you will need to sign up for a PlayMemories account. PlayMemories is another Sony service offering free cloud storage, photo editing and sharing facilities and can even show off your 3D snaps (MPO files), should you have any. PlayMemories is actually rather nice and can be accessed from multiple platforms, including mobile, PC and PlayStation consoles.
The Music Page is a 50/50 split for content from, again, Sony’s Music Unlimited Service and Vevo, for music videos. Music Unlimited will set you back £9.99 a month for unlimited streaming and offline access but when the superb Spotify is priced the same (or lower for the non-mobile device version), it really is a hard sell, particularly when offline you’ll be limited to a pathetic 48Kbps. To give it some credit, it’s 320Kbps when you’re online but so is Spotify and it has a bigger catalogue.
Control OptionsSony has a new controller for 2014 which goes by the descriptive name Touch and Flick. It communicates with the TV wirelessly so you don’t need line of sight to the infra-red sensor, which is handy if you have a centre speaker or soundbar placed in front. Again, the primary focus of the Touch and Flick is to allow you to discover content more easily which is done by placing your finger on the Home label and then sliding upwards, you then slide your fingers horizontally to navigate around the content and then press the touchpad in the centre when you come across something you like. It works OK but is a bit inconsistent in terms of your movements being tracked, which can be frustrating.
The mobile app is really good
Where the new remote is more successful is in allowing you to navigate around the menus and apps (in particular), allowing for far speedier movement around them. There’s also NFC (Near Field Communication) built in to allow you to pair your compatible Bluetooth mobile device to facilitate screen mirroring. We had mixed success with this using a Nexus 7 and, in all honesty, if you’re after an alternative remote control you’d be better off using the mobile app…
TV SideViewNot only does SideView afford you an alternative remote controller with full button, keyboard or touch interface but it also will present you with a suped-up EPG (Electronic Programme Guide) for any of the TV platforms listed above. It will also allow you set recordings to a connected USB hard drive (Freeview and Freesat) and allow you to browse for more information on the content. You can search the corresponding EPG for future showings, look something up on Video Unlimited, see and access anything related on YouTube and even initiate a web search, check IMDb or look it up on Wikipedia. All this can be done via a very effective voice search interface too. In fact, the new and improved SideView is definitely amongst the best TV apps out there at the moment and it’s going to take some beating
Not one EPG but two!
EPGFor 2014, Sony provides two Programme Guides to choose from. The ‘standard’ EPG taken from the broadcast signals is pretty much the same as we’ve seen from Sony these last few years and provides a default 8 channel/2 hour layout in shades of grey but there’s no video window, although audio does carry on. It’s well presented and slick to navigate through and allows for some customisation plus a genre based search. All in all, we have no complaints.
The alternative EPG is web based and far more colourful and provides much more information on programming, including Cast & Crew details, Related Programmes & Videos (Channel 5’s Hotel Inspector brought up an edition of Fawlty Towers) and further Series of the highlighted programme. The ‘Guide and Search’ is powered by Gracenote and is an impressive bit of work but we’re not keen on the layout, with programming for a particular channel running vertically down the screen with no way of customising it, but that’s a matter of personal taste rather than a criticism.
Networking and Media PlaybackIt is something of a nuisance that the Media Player is only accessible from the Homepage, whether that be the USB or DLNA network version. Sony used to make it available from the input selection menu, which certainly made things more straightforward. In terms of file support the coverage is excellent and includes MPEG, MPEG2PS, MPEG2TS, AVCHD, MP4Part10, MP4Part2, AVI(XVID), AVI(Motion JPEG), MOV, WMV, MKV, WEBM, 3GPP, MP3, WMA, LPCM, JPEG and MPO and our various test files confirm that Sony is good to their word. However, there were some marked differences in terms of how well the W955 and W829 handled streaming HD files, with the W95 clearly possessed of superior processing grunt and able to handle video without stuttering or lock-ups so Sony has some work to do with the 829 to bring it up to scratch.
The roster of apps is almost endless
AppsYou certainly couldn’t accuse the 2014 line-up of Sony Smart TVs of lacking in the app department – there are oodles of them. In fact, there are so many that scrolling across to view them all soon becomes tiresome and Sony really should have thought about at least categorising them to make finding ones of interest easier. As it stands, the organisation is vaguely alphabetical but at least they have provided the option to create a favourite list of apps on the opening page, so once you have trawled through the roster, it will be easy enough to get at them in the future. We’d definitely advise using either TV SideView or the Touch and Flick to carry out this task.
Once again, the apps are video on demand/catch-up service heavy, which is what we like to see. There are a selection of pre-loaded apps on the left hand side of the screen including Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Amazon Prime Instant Video, Demand 5 and MUBI which gives an indication of just how video-heavy the apps pages are. The Netflix app features the lovely new User Experience with profile support but Amazon Prime subscribers will need to hang fire because the service is actually listed as ‘Coming Soon’ when you click on the tile. We’re assured by Sony that it will support HD streaming when it does arrive. Despite being available on the PS3, the 4OD and ITV Player catch-up services are still missing from Sony's TV line-up.
Social Networking and Web BrowsingWe’ll keep the matter of the web browser to a minimum, and it’s probably indicative of Sony’s lack of interest in providing something useful that they’ve hidden the app almost at the furthest extremity of the app page. You definitely wouldn’t want to use it with the standard remote and even when enhanced by the app or ‘touch and flick’, the experience is painfully slow to use with some webpages taking up to a minute to load. You have better devices for web browsing, rest assured.
We’re not that big on the idea of social media through the TV screen but those that are (is anyone?) are catered for with the Social View feature. We particularly don’t like this one, however.
It works by displaying Twitter content related to the programming you’re currently viewing with scrolling tweets across the bottom of the screen. You can elect to have them overlaid or beneath the picture, which is incorrectly termed ‘side by side’, but whichever you choose, they are equally as irritating and we’d suggest sticking with the second screen experience using your phone or tablet. Alternatively, you could just sit down and give full concentration to what you’re watching. Controversial, we know!
- Oodles of video on demand services
- Tons of apps
- Excellent mobile app
- Navigation can be laborious
- Enforced trailers for Video Unlimited
Sony Smart TV Platform 2014 ReviewSony’s 2014 Smart TV platform is heavily focussed on content discovery. There are dedicated pages for TV, photos, music and movies as well as the numerous apps. Sony is clearly trying to leverage its position as a content provider with easy access to their Music and Video Unlimited services but the fact that they will make you sit through an entire movie trailer before getting to watch the full feature is off-putting for the latter.
Whilst Sony clearly has given quite a lot of thought on how best to present all this content, the interface sometimes feels incoherent and laborious to navigate around. Scrolling through all the apps, for instance, takes quite some time but at least Sony allows you to nominate a number of favourites that appear on the front page. Even using the scroll-pad equipped ‘Touch and Flick’ or TV SideView mobile app doesn’t ease the pain that much.
That said, the SideView app, available on iOS and Android, is excellent and provides an enhanced programme guide which has access to further and related content from the likes of YouTube, iMDB or even the WWW. The app also helps with navigating more speedily through the interface but even it can’t save the woeful web browser.
Sony has provided a Smart TV platform rich in content, particularly when it comes to video streaming services as well as the idea of making all the content easier to find. Sometimes the content discovery heavy interface works and at other times it feels laboured but overall its certainly worthy of a recommendation.
Ease of Use7
Media Playback Quality8
Applications - Software8
Applications - Hardware8
Voice and Motion Controls7
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