Sony Entertainment Network: 2012 smart TV hands-on

In 2012, Sony's smart TV platform integrates its streaming music and video services more fully while getting rid of the Bravia tag, but doesn't add any further apps.

Sony's 2012 TVs still use a modified version of the classic XMB interface to surface apps. But this year it's joined by another. Sarah Tew/CNET

From phones to cameras to TVs game consoles, if you've played with a Sony device over the past 5 years, then you'll be quite familiar with the company's Xross Media Bar (XMB), which also forms the backbone of of its 2012 TV interface. This year Sony is also pushing its Entertainment Network even harder, which for some reason meant adding a new, completely different-looking interface on top of the old one and keeping both.

Content
Sony's 2012 app selection, as seen on the HX750 series I recently tested, is basically the same as last year (Sony recently added Amazon Instant Video to its PS3 console but the service already existed on Bravia TVs). High-profile apps include Netflix, Hulu Plus, Cinema Now for video, Pandora and Slacker for audio, and Skype (optional camera/speakerphone required), Facebook and Twitter for networking. The Sony remotes also carry a dedicated Netflix button for easy access to the video service.

The only major missing video services are Vudu and MLB TV, while subscription music services are conspicuously absent, probably so they don't compete with Music Unlimited.

The big change for 2012 is a more prominent role for the Sony Entertainment Network, which rolls together the Internet video apps above with storefronts for Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited. Access to Music Unlimited requires a subscription of $3.99 for basic streaming, or $9.99 for premium access, which enables you to keep a private, cloud-based library of tracks, including your personal collection and playlists (similar to other music lockers like Amazon Cloud Player or Google Music). Subscribers can stream from the cloud to the TV, PCs, or any number of Sony devices, and offline access is provided via Android and Vita apps.

Despite the name, Video Unlimited is not a subscription-based all-you-can-eat service like Netflix. Instead it's a pay-as-you-go service that offers movies at between $3 and $4 for SD and $6 for HD. I don't see any reason to use it over something like Amazon Instant or Vudu.

Video Unlimited offers a choice of SD and HD streaming Sarah Tew/CNET

If you're a music fan, then Moshcam is one of the best apps available on any TV: full, free concerts by bands from Blondie to Gotye to Jay Reatard. It's hard to find; you need to access it via Apps > Internet Video, but the payoff is worth the digging. Sony also offers a unique Shazam-like app called Gracenote Track ID that can identify music from movies, TV shows or commercials, and a 3D Experience app with a few movie, video game and 3net and miscellaneous clips -- most of which seem to promote Sony products or properties.

Sony still offers numerous minor apps--3D Experience, Flixster, DailyMotion, Style.com, eHow, Dr. Oz, Snag Films, The Wiggles & Friends, etc--under its old Bravia Internet Video name. You can search for content across many of those minor video apps, but the search doesn't include any of the major services except YouTube.

A couple of Yahoo widgets for weather, news, and the indispensible Daily Puppy are also onboard, and you can access many, many more via Yahoo's Connected TV platform. Unlike Samsung, LG, and Panasonic, however there's no dedicated Sony "app store" that allows downloads of additional content.

Finally, Web browsing on a TV with a remote control is a terribly clunky affair, but if you really have to, then the Sony certainly lets you. Samsung's and LG's 2012 TV-based browsers are better, for what it's worth.

Interface
Last year our big hangup with Sony's smart TV implementation was its interface. Apps like Netflix and Amazon used Sony's own custom interface, complete with tiny thumbnails, instead of their superior native interfaces (Netflix in particular is so much better on a PS3 than a Sony TV). That complaint still stands this year.

The Sony Entertainment Network is only accessible via the dedicated SEN button on the remote control. Sarah Tew/CNET
The only change was to add a second smart TV home page (above) apparently designed to promote SEN content. It looks prettier than the old interface, but it's still an additional screen, with its own (long) loading time, which replicates content that can already be found on the main interface. In addition to a live TV window and a tight group of app thumbnails, dedicated sections for movies and music lead not to anything contained in movie apps like Netflix/Amazon or music apps like Pandora; instead they point to SEN content. There is a favorites section where you can add apps you like, but it's crammed all the way to one side and not visible unless you scroll over. The main XMB menu's Favorites section is easier to find and use, and has the bonus of including a history of recent apps and channels.

Yep, they kept the old interface intact, so now there are two completely different-looking ways to get to Netflix, et al, which can be pretty confusing. To navigate the old XMB-style TV menus, you leaf through different categories (Apps, Settings, or TV, for example) and then navigate up and down to select from each submenu. It's one of the simplest menu systems and in my opinion still one of the best, if not one of the fastest. It's slower to jump from one app to another than on some other TVs, for example, but it seemed peppier than the new SEN interface.

Conclusion
Sony's numerous video sources and ways to access them still seem more haphazard, with worse interfaces compared with the competition, but there's plenty of content if you can figure out where to find it.

Look out soon for more in-depth looks at other makers' smart TV suites in the near future, as well as a comparison and verdict once we've had the chance to test them all. Is it worth using smart TV services in your TV buying decision, or would you rather just get a box like the $50 Roku and be done with it? Let us know in comments.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Music Unlimited does not offer offline access.

 

Join the discussion

Conversation powered by Livefyre

Show Comments Hide Comments
Latest Galleries from CNET
30 best iPad games (pictures)
Best cameras for foodie photographers (pictures)
10 mobile gadgets gone gonzo (pictures)
Apple in 2014: iPhone 6, iCloud hack, Beats and more (pictures)
The 12 most distinctive phones of 2014 (pictures)
Best mobile games of 2014