Since I cut the cable cord a while ago, I am constantly looking for solutions to improve my TV watching experience. At this point, I am using a PS3 in living room and ROKU / WD TV Live Plus boxes in every room I have TVs. Recently Sony released a new media streamer box that offers streaming functionality similar (but improved in several ways) to their flagship entertainment product – Playstation 3. The box is rather cheap at only $89 so I decided to give it a try. It got shipped fast enough and the results are described in this review.
The box includes the main media streamer box, the external power brick adapter, the remote, user manual and the good old red white yellow analog audio video cable. Why Sony did not include a HDMI cable in the year 2011 is beyond me.
Codecs, Inputs, Outputs:
Inputs and Outputs
Weights and Measurements
Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, YouTube, Pandora, Hulu Plus, Qriosity and other clients supported by Sony Bravia Internet Video.
There is not much to say in terms of design, other than it is fairly non-descriptive. Just a regular box, very similar with other media players on the market, but a bit large – size 7.38″x1.63″x7.38″ (width x height x depth), piano black front, easy to integrate somewhere in your home theater system or in your bedroom (it doesn’t have a fan, so no annoying noise)
Beside the standard HDMI connector for 2011, it is interesting to notice that Sony thought about the owners of older TV sets and included Composite Video Out, Stereo Analog Sound and Composite Video. An Optical Digital Output for older receivers is also provided and of course the mandatory Ethernet port. SMP-N100 also has integrated WiFi support by default and a front USB port provided for external storage.
Maybe the number of connectivity options offered could be the reason for the slightly larger box size compared with Roku / WD TV Live Plus boxes.
Sony really likes to standardize its equipment and SMP-N100 remote is no exception. It’s design and layout is very similar to other Sony remotes and also PS3 Bluetooth remote as well. I wished some specialized buttons like a Netflix / local content buttons but no such luck. Well, the box will get integrated with my Harmony 880 anyway, so no point in complaining too much. The remote is easy to use and this is all that matters.
I talked about Sony’s love for standardizing things in the remotes department, but Sony takes it further in the UI department unfortunately. While th XMB – XrossMediaBar works rather well for crowded menus, the SMP-N100 is a dedicated device and I would rather see a dedicated interface with beautifully designed icons and menus to take advantage of my large 60″ plasma TV. That’s not to say the interface is not functional, just that Boxee Box / Apple TV are better at it in my opinion. Heck, I even like better the WD TV Live Plus interface which is among the worst in the industry.
Also, I expected Netflix to look the same like PS3 client does in 2011 (Netflix 3.0 with caption, dolby surround and search). Instead, SMP-N100 has an old style interface a la 2005 which is clunkier to use than the new one. This design can be found in many other web clients and it is a letdown in the usability department in my opinion. Hopefully Sony intends to offer a proper support to its box and release new firmware regularly to enhance and update its box, the same Apple, Boxee Box, Roku and Western Digital. (As a side note, WD TV Live Plus just got an update bringing the PS3 style Netflix 3.0 UI – lately WD seems to release a new firmware every month). So we can only hope Sony takes its product seriously and give us much needed updates.
Note: You can search for movies in Netflix for SMP-N100, but the option is hidden. You should select Options and then additional features including search will become available.
Local Media playback
I have quite a large collection of local media files in various formats, starting from the good old DIVX to XVID, MKV, VOB, MP3, photos, music, movies including 1080p, etc. The SMP-N100 does quite a good job at playing various formats from a USB connected drive (including subtitles for MKV) up to 1080p. There is a file limit of 500 in one folder but that shouldn’t be a problem if you have a good folder structure. The only problem is that reading the entire file list via USB is atrociously slow, not sure what exactly happens here, maybe the player tries to open each file to get its metadata. For this reason, it is recommended to have at most 20-25 files per folder.
The playback was smooth even for high bit rate files but again, what puzzles me is why many formats are only available via USB? Maybe the DLNA protocol prevents them streaming other containers? Anyway, I wish Sony would have implemented the amazing support WD TV Live devices have for network shares.
I tested both WD TV Live Plus and Sony SMP-N100 and the SMP-N100 won’t be able to see multiple partitions on your USB drive while the WD unit doesn’t. Not terribly annoying, just something you should know.
Note: I tested 1080p videos through wireless and they played fine without stuttering. I still prefer wired network connections but it is good to know SMP-N100 works well even when you have to use wireless connectivity.
SMP-N100 is a very weird animal and lives somewhere in between the two worlds, the one dedicated to internet content and the one dedicated to local content…Or to put it in a different way – it has the best local files support among the boxes that support all big three streaming clients (Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon Video on Demand). Why? Because it is the only other media streamer box to stream all Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon VoD beside Roku and Roku doesn’t provide any local content support, at least not without certain hacks.
Beside the big three, SMP-N100supports Sony’s own movie streaming service – Qriocity, also YouTube, Pandora, Slacker, NPR (a big plus for me) and some smaller players that I usually only watch when I am reviewing a new box – Crackle, Blip.TV and many others.
One small annoyance – you’ll need to register from your computer if you want to use Sony / Hulu Plus / etc.
While the box officially supports DLNA, this support is only half backed. Most of the interesting video formats based on Simple MPEG (mkv, mp4, m4v, m2ts, mts) are only playable via USB. DIVX / XVID are also only available via USB only. Why this lack of support for useful codecs via DLNA? No idea, but it is certainly disappointing.
I tested the DLNA support with various DLNA servers and SMP-N100 can connect to TVersity, PS3 Media Server, PlayOn and even Window Media Player with no issues. If you want better codec support, you’ll need to use a DLNA server that can also transcode the video files, like TVersity or PS3 Media Server.
DLNA support for SMP-N100 is not only limited in terms of codec support. The album art which is part of other DLNA implementation is missing completely here and for some reason I feel compelled to repeat – limited codec support. What a heck Sony??? For the supported files, 1080p is supported and plays quite well.
As I mentioned before, SMP-N100 is a very weird animal: Offers a certain degree of local support while also implementing all three big streaming clients (Netflix, Amazon VoD and Hulu Plus). No other box does that and, at $89 at Amazon, is a very good deal.
- Excellent streaming clients support
- brand recognition
- decent codec support from USB storage
- decodes Dolby Digital / DTS natively
- Limited codec support via DLNA
- ugly interface
- older style Netflix client