Bravia Internet TV in a box: hands-on with Sony's SMP-N100 'Netbox'
During yesterday's live forum session with Sony's Eric Kingdon, one question cropped up a few times: 'can my Sony TV/Blu-ray player/home cinema system bought a year or two back be upgraded to receive the Bravia Internet TV service standard in new models?'
The answer, unfortunately, is no – there's a bit more to it than just a simple software or firmware upgrade – but there is an answer, and it also makes the Bravia Internet TV services, as well as streaming of content on a home network, available to owners of other brands of TV.
The SMP-N100 'Netbox', just announced by Sony Europe following its US unveiling a month or so back, is expected to sell for around £100 or so when it hits the shops next month, and can bring all the current Sony Bravia internet functionality into the home without the need to change TV or buy a new Blu-ray player.
It has Wi-Fi and Ethernet built-in, and can output via HDMI, component and composite video, and stereo analogue and optical digital audio. There's a front-panel USB socket to which memory devices can be attached for playback, and the little unit – it's just 18.5cm wide and 4cm deep – supports full 1080p resolution as well as a range of music and video file formats.
I've been playing with an evaluation unit for a few weeks now, and while the formal review will have to await the arrival of a full production device, I thought it might be worth giving a few first impressions.
And the first is that the unit's size means it will fit in almost anywhere: I found it slotted in between the stand and the screen of my TV, leaving just a clean gloss-finished – sorry, Sony, 'monolithic design' – rectangle on show.
Wi-Fi sensitivity seems very good indeed, and having tried the unit around the house on various TVs, and in locations where other streaming devices have struggled, I found no problems either accessing content on the network or getting internet material. And all this despite having an internal antenna - no little rubber finger sticking up here to spoil the lines.
What's more, it's easy to use: with the home network 'dialled in', the little box fired up at once with a range of content options including Demand Five, YouTube, dedicated channels for the likes of FIFA and the Berlin Philiharmonic – the latter offering subscription access to the whole of its current concert season – and the promise of LoveFilm movie rentals.
There's a Sony Entertainment channel, too, streaming music videos, movie trailers and even episodes of TV shows made by the company: this Sony offering is due to expand into a full-blown service called Qriocity – yes, I know… –, offering music, TV and movie streaming.
However, when I first used the box, there was no sign of the BBC iPlayer, one of the more attractive aspects of the unit, at least for me. I quite liked the idea of being able to pull up TV shows for viewing on the big screen without computer faffage, and in the past couple of weeks an automatic network update has given me just that, the iPlayer taking its place on the internet pull-down menu. So when the Sony hits the shops very soon, it'll have iPlayer out of the box.
And I have to say content looks pretty good, even demanding stuff such as the recent BBC HD transmission taking viewers behind the scenes at the Vatican. Plenty of opulence and detail on show there, and it all looks and sounds very impressive via the Sony, connected using HDMI into my Onkyo AV receiver and then on to my elderly but still excellent 50in Fujitsu plasma.
What's not so good? Well, the Sony box won't stream lossless audio formats from my network music store, but sounds good with MP3 and the like, and I'm not entirely sold on the free iPhone/iPod app, able to 'drive' the box over the home network.
The app seems tailored more toward use with Blu-ray players – the clue may be in the 'BD remote for iPhone' name! – and offers little beyond basic up/down/left/right functionality with the SMP-N100. The standard remote handset, while it won't win any beauty contests, is much more comprehensive, and can also control Sony TVs .
But beyond that, the Sony box has obvious appeal: yes, you could get much the same in a Blu-ray player for not much more money, but then you may already have a decent player, or you may want the additional content in another room, where the small dimensions of the SMP-N100 will certainly appeal.
Sony reckons it may sell quite a few of these to existing Bravia Internet TV users, wanting the services not only on their main-room TV, but also in the bedroom, kitchen or wherever. I can see that: if and when I get round to buying one of these boxes, I'll probably buy a couple, just to have iPlayer on our kitchen TV, too.
In fact, I've already suggested to a friend who's a keen on-computer iPlayer user that the Sony box will be just the thing to free her viewing and listening from the PC upstairs in the study, and bring it down to her Kuro TV and surround system in the main living-room. Her initial reaction? 'That sounds like it's going to be expensive…'