Sony's SMP-N100 streaming video box isn't the easiest to use, but it offers an unparalleled feature set at its price.
The end of 2010 has seen an explosion of interest in streaming-media boxes, with major product launches and updates coming from Apple TV, Google TV, Roku, and Boxee.
Sony's SMP-N100 hasn't garnered nearly the press of its rivals, which isn't fair because it's one of the most fully featured streamers we've seen. Its selection of online streaming services includes Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon VOD, Pandora, and Slacker, effectively matching the key content channels found on the excellent Roku XDS. And the SMP-N100 outdoes the Roku by also offering playback of your own digital media collection, either via its USB port or DLNA streaming.
What the SMP-N100 lacks is finesse, with its utilitarian external design and less-than-polished user interface. The subpar user interface holds it back from being a standout streamer, but it's a good choice for those who are considering Roku's line of streaming-media boxes but want to add personal media streaming for just a little more.
Like Roku's line of streaming-video boxes, the exterior of the SMP-N100 is little more than a black box. It's on the large side, coming in at 7.38 inches wide, 1.63 inches high, and 7.38 inches deep. Its somewhat bulky size is easier to swallow since it's easy to stack it on or underneath other home video boxes, unlike the Boxee Box. The top has a matte black finish, while the front and sides have a glossy black look. There's virtually nothing on the front panel, save for the power button and a USB port. The SMP-N100 doesn't stand out in the looks department, but a box that blends in may be just what some people are looking for.
Around back you'd find the SMP-N100's healthy selection of ports. There's an HDMI output, as expected, but also component and composite video outputs. That's a step up over competitors like the Boxee Box, Apple TV, and Logitech Revue, which don't have any analog video connectivity and can't be used with older TVs. The SMP-N100 includes an Ethernet port, but it also has built-in Wi-Fi, so you don't need Ethernet cabling in your living room.
The user interface is a stripped-down version of the XMB (XrossMediaBar) interface found on the PS3. There are separate icons for each media type, including photo, music, and video. The extra icons on the far right (network and Qriocity) seem superfluous since they could easily be included under settings and video, respectively. The SMP-N100's interface will feel familiar to PS3 users, but its icon-based navigation isn't nearly as easy to use as the Apple TV's interface.
Once you select a streaming-video service, you'll notice that Sony uses its own user interface for streaming-media services instead of the more common interfaces found on other devices. The upside is that there's a common look and feel no matter which service you're using. The downside is that this look is mediocre and missing some of the interface enhancements available on other devices. For example, the Netflix interface shows your instant queue as a set of tiles, running three high and six wide. While it's nice that we can see so many titles at once, the actual cover art is rather small--even on a 50-inch plasma--and for some titles we had to hover the cursor over the image to tell what movie it was. We'd also point out that the SMP-N100 is missing many of the advanced Netflix features that are now available on the Roku XDS, PS3, Xbox 360, and Apple TV, including search.
Streaming music is also served up by two major services: Pandora and Slacker. There are also a handful of more niche music options, including National Public Radio, Berliner Philharmoniker, and Lollapalooza Radio.
The included remote is virtually identical to the one included with other Sony home video products. There's a centrally located directional pad with playback control beneath it. Toward the top are less useful buttons, including a full number pad. We found it easy enough to use, but a streaming-specific remote with fewer buttons cluttering up the design would be even better.