Until now, no streaming box on the market provided as many video streaming services as Sony’s SMP-N200. Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, Netflix and VUDU: all of them are there, as well as the Sony Entertainment Network. Even Cinema Now is coming to the device. It’s also the only streaming box we’ve seen that supports 3D (not that I’ve changed my mind about 3D but in case you care). Add to this the ability to stream photos, video and music from your local network or via USB and you wonder, could this be the one box to rule them all? Here’s our hands-on, in-depth look at the SMP-N200.
|Sony SMP-N200: Unboxing|
|Enough for you?|
Compared to other streaming boxes on the market, the Sony SMP-N200 is larger than the Roku and the Apple TV. The rectangular box has a single light in the center, giving it a Cylon-like look.
This box excels at connectivity. For video: HDMI, component and RCA. For audio: RCA and digital optical out. Nothing is skimped on here, and it’s nice to see Sony support legacy TVs and receivers. Sony realizes that we don’t buy new receivers that often. For the network, you can connect via ethernet or wireless (b, g or n).
|Connectivity on the SMP-N200 (click to enlarge)|
Sony has included a compact and comfortable remote with the device. However, the button layout is a little too dense and non-intuitive. Hence, it takes time to get used to. The home button is placed too close to the navigation buttons, which can cause you to be knocked out of whatever you’re watching.
Remote Control Apps
There are two free remote controls apps provided by Sony. We tested the iOS versions of the apps but Android versions are also available. The first app, “Media Remote,” simulates the remote that comes with the box. The advantage of this app is access to the on-screen keyboard. The other app is called “Audio Remote.” Similar to Airplay, it allows you to push music to the box. While you can directly connect to a DLNA server from the SMP-N200 (which also allows you to stream photos and video in addition to audio), the app on the iPad is a better experience by far. One cool feature: it displays the cover art for your music within the app. Unfortunately, the app will not let you stream your iPad’s iTunes library.
|Sony Media Remote on the iPad|
Audio and Video Quality
Sony promotes the box as being 1080P capable. The box upscales all content to 1080P and does it well. Overall, the picture quality is impressive. On the audio side, the box supports Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus and DTS.
An Alternative to Airplay
Sony has introduced its own version of Airplay called HomeShare. At this time, HomeShare only streams audio and it is built on top of DLNA. HomeShare provides a whole home audio solution. The SMP-N200 can act as a HomeShare receiver, piping your music to an attached receiver. The Audio Remote app also gives you the option to stream music directly to HomeShare-enabled speakers from Sony. Here’s more information from Sony on HomeShare.
Services and UI
It’s the one box that supports almost every major video streaming service: Netflix, VUDU, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Instant Video. The box has a number of other video apps such as YouTube, Blip.TV and Crackle, as well as a channel with Michael Jackson’s old videos. The YouTube client does not appear to have the ability to access HD streams and was a little unstable. Sony has stated to us that they plan to actively add new video content choices to the box.
The box uses Sony’s well-known XMB interface, very similar to the one from the Playstation3. I find that, while I did not like the XMB interface at first, it’s grown on me over time. To see the interface in action, we’ve done a walkthrough on YouTube.
Here’s our rundown of the major video services on the box:
Netflix: We were disappointed with the Netflix player’s user interface. It does not use screen real estate well. The cover art for each title is very small and hard to see. It’s difficult to search for titles with the remote. For audio and video quality, it only supports 720P without surround sound or caption support. Sony will not confirm when or if 1080P and surround sound will be available. It’s surprising since supporting 1080P is one of the selling points that Sony highlights. The VUDU player on the box supports 1080P and Dolby Digital Plus (and looks and feels like most other VUDU players). You can see more shots of the Netflix interface by clicking here.
Amazon Instant Video and Prime: On the other hand, the SMP-N200 sports one of the better Amazon user interfaces. Cover art is easier to see and utilizes the screen better. Video playback is in 720P like most Amazon steamers. Titles play in surround sound (even if the description says ‘stereo’). For some reason, the box decodes the Dolby audio track to 5.1 channel LPCM (over HDMI) and doesn’t let the receiver do the work. However, it does output Dolby Digital over the optical audio output. Regardless, it sounds great. Add in its support for legacy receivers, and it’s one of the best boxes for Amazon streaming on the market.
|Opening Amazon Instant screen on the SMP-N200|
|Browsing Amazon Prime TV Shows. Why can’t the Netflix interface look more like this?|
Hulu Plus: On most boxes, Hulu has asserted its distinctive user interface. Across each of the video streaming services, the SMP-N200 asserts a similar look and feel. The combination with Hulu doesn’t work well and it makes it challenging to find titles (as is the case with Hulu on most boxes).
|Hulu Plus: Get ready for a lot of clicks|
The box supports Pandora, Slacker and NPR among others. There does not seem to be support for Internet radio at this time.
Yes, it has also has web browser….
But don’t bother using it. I’m of the opinion that browsing regular websites just doesn’t work well on TV. With the supplied remote, entering a URL is painful (unless you use the smartphone app) as is navigating around the page. Flash is not suppored in the browser either.
The box has a ubiquitous social media function built in. Regardless of which video service you’re using, you can share the TV show or movie you’re watching with a number of pre-written messages on Facebook or Twitter (easy yet limiting). Sharing via the connected box just feels awkward, especially if you’re watching a show with someone else. If I do want to share something about my viewing habits, I would rather do it via a tablet or smart phone (aka “the second screen”).
Local and Network Streaming
The box can also stream local media via DLNA or uPNP. Unlike the Boxee, which can simply point at a file share and organize your media, the Sony streaming player needs to talk to a DLNA server, which organizes the media. To test the box as a network streamer, we used the free TVMobili DLNA server for the Mac (also available on the PC and Linux) The Sony was able to play and decode a number of video formats that we threw at it including: XVID, MP4, AVHCD and MPEG2. For audio, it handled AAC and MP3.The box can also handle Dolby and DTS surround formats. It was not able to play MKV files over the network but could handle them from an attached USB device. The only place where it had trouble was with older video files or ones shot with my Canon still camera.
For music, the box was able to stream our iTunes music via DLNA (at least songs without DRM). The TVMobili DLNA server also made our iTunes playlists available. Unfortunately, the box does not display cover art or give you a choice of visualizers. We also ran into some issues when our DLNA server attempted to transcode the music files into a format it thought the SMP-N200 would prefer. Disabling transcoding in the TVMobili server fixed this.
Performance and Power
Once the box is plugged in, it starts almost instantly. There’s almost no time spent waiting for the box to boot up. For power consumption, the box draws 11 watts, somewhat more than some of its peers, such as the Apple TV and the Roku 2. The box is relatively quiet and responsive. However, when the box encounters a file format it can’t cope with, it sometimes freezes up. Holding down the HOME button on the remote sometimes brings the box back to the main menu.
If you look at its list of features, the SMP-N200 has something for everyone. If you’re only going to buy one streaming box, the Sony has a lot going for it: choice of streaming services, ability to stream over the network or via USB, social media, 3D support and HomeShare support. Sony is covering a lot of niches here.
If you’re a heavy Netflix user, we would not recommend the box since it’s not known if it will be able to handle 1080P or surround sound. However, if you’re are a big user of Amazon Instant Video or if you like to get your digital media from lots of different services, the Sony is a good choice.
If you’re someone who needs to have the box “just work,” we wouldn’t recommend the SMP-N200 to you either. The interface may throw off some folks, and the SMP-N200 requires a little bit of technical savvy to fully utilize it. If you like plug and play, either the Roku or the Apple TV fits the bill better.
If you don’t buy into the Apple ecosystem, if you have a lot of local media and if you use a variety of streaming services, this is the box for you. If you’re someone who doesn’t keep your music, video and photos in iTunes, this box–with its DLNA integration–provides a great alternative.
If you are looking to stream locally and need a wide range of video format support, you should also look at the WD Live boxes. However, the WD does not offer the selection of streaming services the Sony has.
Thanks to Sony for lending us the Sony SMP-N200.