Sony Smart TV System 2013 Review
Sony's Smart TV System aims to entertain with One-touch
IntroductionOf all the consumer electronics manufacturers, Sony is in a unique position. They not only produce the hardware but they also create content, thanks to owning a studio and a record label. So if any manufacturer is best positioned to deliver content over a smart TV platform it has to be the Japanese entertainment giant. That might be their problem though, Sony's natural instinct is often to go it alone and the most successful platform will undoubtedly be the one that offers the greatest choice. If Sony try and push their own content too much, they might find that it suffers from not offering enough variety.
Last year's platform wisely concentrated on video-on-demand and catch-up services, which plays to Sony's strengths and recognises that those are the features in which consumers are most interested. The big problem with Sony's platform last year was that it was too fragmented but this year it appears they are taking a more centralised approach. When you add in a new remote app and a simple method of connecting to your smartphone using NFC (Near Field Communication) technology and Sony's Entertainment Network starts to look interesting. Let's find out how smart it is...
Sony Entertainment NetworkLast year we felt that Sony's Smart TV System was too fragmented, with content spread throughout the platform. There was some good stuff in there but it could be difficult to find. So we were pleased to discover that this year everything in centralised on one page which you access by pressing the SEN button on the remote. Although there is a dedicated button for accessing the SEN page on both remotes and the TV SideView app, should you wish, you can also access it via the Applications section of the Home menu page. This section also gives you direct access to the Video and Music Unlimited pages, PlayMemories and some popular apps. This Applications page is included in the new menu system, which dispenses with the dreaded Cross Media Bar (XMB) layout, in favour of something more intuitive, responsive and easier to navigate.
Whilst Sony's smart TV platform might not be as comprehensive as some of the competition, it wisely concentrates on the kind of features that people will actually use such as video-on-demand and catch-up services. It also plays to Sony's strengths as a content creator, whilst still offering services from other providers. Whilst we applaud Sony's decision to put all the apps in a single location, they may have gone too far in the other direction because there doesn't appear to be any way to group related apps together, such as all the VoD services or social networking features. When you first turn on your Sony Smart TV, you are taken through a series of steps to pair the NFC-capable second remote and setup the WiFi and any networks. It was all fairly straightforward and painless, although once the TV is setup, there is little in terms of explanation of how best to use the Smart System. Then again it is less complex when compared to some of the competition and probably doesn't need it.
Control OptionsUnlike some of the competition, Sony have yet to embrace the motion control feature that certain manufacturers feel is the future. We can't say we're sad about that as, to date, we've found this feature to be largely frustrating and time-consuming. Sony does offer a voice control, of sorts, but only via its new TV SideView remote control app. Sony also hasn't gone for the pointer style remote yet either and this is a shame because as LG's Magic Motion remote has proven, these can be revolutionary. At present Sony are including a fairly standard remote and, with some models, a second remote that includes NFC (Near Field Communication) capabilities.
The second remote is a stripped down version of the main remote that includes basic controls such as On/Off, Home, SEN, Volume, Programme, Return and Options. You can access a more complete virtual remote on-screen but frankly we found this approach frustrating and time consuming and we never used it. The real reason for this second remote is that it supports the One-touch NFC feature that allows instant wireless mirroring of your smart device. All you do is touch the NFC tag on the back of your compatible phone with the NFC tag on the back of the remote and you form an immediate connection between the phone and the TV, with the phone's display mirrored on the screen. Whilst Sony are the only manufacturer offering this feature, it is really useful and you literally couldn't make connecting your phone to your TV any easier.
Last year, Sony's remote app really impressed us, so we were excited to hear they'd given it an upgrade for 2013. The new app has been renamed TV SideView and is certainly one of the slickest and most attractive on the market. TV SideView is freely available for both iOS and Android operating systems and can be used on smartphones and tablets. There is an excellent user interface that offers a series of choices including Programme Guide, Recorded Content, Home Network, Remote, Applications and the iManual for BRAVIA. The latter is quite handy for looking up a specific feature or functions on today's increasing complex TVs without having to go into the menus of the TV itself.
It's certainly useful to be able to access all the features from your smartphone or tablet without having to interrupt what you are watching. In the Programme Guide, if you select a specific programme you’re taken to another page where you have the option to watch (if it's live), record (if you have a USB storage device connected) or Share (on Facebook and Twitter). Along similar lines you can also browse any recorded content you have or content on your home network from your mobile device and access all the apps in SEN. The TV SideView app also includes a full remote control, along with a QWERTY touch-screen keyboard and a touch pad cursor.
As we mentioned previously, the Android version of TV SideView also includes Voice Control, although it didn't appear to be an option on iOS version. To be honest we felt this feature seemed rather tacked-on and it was nowhere near as effective as the voice control offered by other manufacturers, especially Samsung and LG. However our only complaint about TV SideView is that, despite its name, it doesn't offer second screen viewing - which is where you can watch what's on the TV on your mobile device. All the other major remote apps now offer this and whilst it's hardly essential, it is nice to have. Otherwise, we were generally impressed with TV SideView and feel it is a step up from last year.
On TV, EPG & PVRSony provides an option in the Home menu called TV and from here you can access any recorded content, assuming you have connected a USB hard drive, the Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) and the TV Channel List. There is also a facility for adding to your list of favourites. In the menu system you will also find the History page, which shows you the most most recent channels and inputs that you've accessed.
Sony provides an attractive and well designed EPG that is well laid out, easy to use and includes both picture-in-picture and audio. The EPG isn't quite as sophisticated as some of the competition and whilst there isn't quite as comprehensive a search and recommendation feature, there is Fast Zapping. This is a system that allows you to quickly check other content lists whilst still watching TV. All you need to do is press up or down on the Programme select button and a simple vertical text list on the right of the screen pops up alongside a reduced version of the TV picture. The first list is the current TV programmes and if you go right you'll find a list of radio channels, followed by a list of recommended titles from Video Unlimited. You can then quickly navigate through the listings on the right hand side until you find something interesting.
In the TV section of the Home menu you can access any content that you've recorded, although as mentioned, you can also access this via the new TV SideView remote app. To utilise the recording feature you will need to add a USB hard drive but since Sony's current TVs only offer single tuners, it doesn't fully replace a twin tuner PVR. If you access the Recordings section you can access the stored content by Title List and Timer LIst. There is also a Recording Error List, a Manual Timer Recording feature and access to the EPG.
Networking and Media PlaybackIn the Home menu system there is an option called History, which is a handy feature. It allows you to access a list of the most recent inputs or channels that you've used or watched. There is also a Connected Devices section that shows you all the inputs in use and allows you to choose between HDMI inputs, USB inputs and any other legacy inputs.
Sony's TVs offer you the choice of being connected to your network by either Ethernet or built-in WiFi and provide media streaming capabilities with DLNA compliance. 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.
Applications - SoftwareAs we mentioned earlier, Sony has tried to simplify its platform this year compared to the more fragmented approach in previous years. Whilst we appreciate this approach, it does seem as though they have gone too far in the other direction. There are now no groupings or filters for similar apps and as a result you are just confronted with six pages of apps, making them tricky to find. As a result you are forced to scroll down through the apps until you find the one for which you are looking. There is the option to choose your favourite or most frequently used apps, which then appear on a list you can access via the Home menu. This is actually quite sensible because we're willing to bet you only use a few apps on a regular basis - VoD and catch-up and maybe Facebook or Skype.
We should probably be thankful that Sony don't include the thousands of apps you can find on systems like the one offered by Samsung because it would take years to find anything. As it is Sony's list of apps is considerably smaller but frankly more focused and they put the most popular ones at the top of the SEN list. Understandably, Sony concentrate on video-on-demand (VoD) and catch-up services and these occupy the majority of the first 12 apps on the list. It would have been nice to be able to customise the layout of the SEN page, especially as it currently has the Sony Video Unlimited, Sony Music Unlimited and Sony PlayMemories services as the first three items on the SEN page.
The Sony Video Unlimited, Music Unlimited and PlayMemories services can be accessed via the SEN menu or the Applications section of the Home menu and are subscription based, giving you access to a multitude of Sony Entertainment created content. In addition to Sony’s Video Unlimited service, you can access numerous video-on-demand services pre-loaded from just about every major provider - Netflix, LOVEFiLM, BBC iPlayer, YouTube and Demand 5. For some strange reason despite being available on the PS3, the 4OD and ITV Player catch-up services are still missing from Sony's TV line-up.
There's a multitude of other apps available including Sony’s streaming 3D Experience service which has a decent variety of sports, video games and nature clips. In the Home menu there is an option called Featured, which lists recommended films, TV shows, music and apps which you might want to take a look at.
Social Networking and Web BrowsingUnlike much of the competition, Sony don't appear to place as much emphasis on either social networking or web browsing. In part, the lack of importance placed on Skype for example, might be a product of the fact that Sony's TVs don't come with built-in cameras yet. However the reality is that with so many other methods available for social networking and web browsing, is anyone really using their TV?
Sony are probably right to place less emphasis on these features but for those that are interested, Facebook and Skype are available, although in the case of the latter you will need to buy the add-on camera. The web browser also works but unlike some of the competition, it isn't as fast and as effective as using a tablet or other device, which is frankly easier.
- Plenty of VoD services
- High quality streaming abilities
- Good central hub
- Well designed EPG
- One-touch works well
- Remote app is impressive
- Some nice 3D content
- Excellent connectivity
- Effective search feature
- No ability to group similar apps
- No second screen on remote app
- Integrated cameras would be useful
Sony Smart TV System 2013 Review
Sony's Entertainment Network for 2013 is a definite improvement on last year, offering all the available features in a single location. Our only complaint would be that all the apps are in one long list, with no filter or groups for related apps and no ability to customise the page. You can also access the SEN page and the Video and Music Unlimited pages from the Home menu page. Whilst Sony's smart TV platform might not be as comprehensive as some of the competition, it wisely concentrates on the kind of features that people will actually use such as video-on-demand and catch-up services.
As part of this smart TV platform, Sony include their Video Unlimited and Music Unlimited subscription on-demand services. These services give you access to a multitude of Sony Entertainment created content. In addition to Sony’s Video Unlimited service you also have access to numerous video-on-demand services pre-loaded from just about every major provider but for some strange reason, despite being available on the PS3, the 4OD and ITV Player catch-up services are still missing. There's a multitude of other apps available including Sony’s streaming 3D Experience service which has a decent variety of sports, video games and nature clips.
Sony TVs can be connected to your network by either Ethernet or built-in WiFi and then can provide media streaming capabilities with DLNA compliance and excellent file support. Sony's remote app has had an upgrade and is this year is called TV SideView but remains one of the best on the market. TV SideView is freely available for both iOS and Android operating systems and can be used on smartphones and tablets. You can access the EPG, any recorded content, your apps and your home network via the app. The Android version also offers a limited voice control feature. There is an attractive user interface that includes a remote control with either a simplified or full interface. Overall Sony's Smart TV System is very good and whilst it might not be as comprehensive as some others, it does what it needs to do and does it well.
Ease of Use9
Media Playback Quality9
Applications - Software9
Applications - Hardware9
Our Review Ethos
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