Editors' note, March 1, 2010: Updated review to correct features and overall ratings.
As the first official 2010 HDTV reviewed by CNET, and the first mainstream edge-lit LED-based LCD produced by Sony we've tested, the KDL-NX800 series arrives with plenty of anticipation. However, before you equate "LED" with "awesome picture quality," it's worth reiterating that the backlight technology comes in a bunch of varieties--and not all are created equal. The Sony NX800 performs on a par with other like-equipped LCDs that we've tested, such as the UNB7000 series from Samsung, so people seeking a premium home theater picture might be disappointed.
In other areas, the NX800 shines. Sony completely redesigned the exterior of its higher-end 2010 models in what it calls a monolithic style--and this TV would be at home near the Tycho crater or orbiting Jupiter. Sony also kept the superb selection of Internet services found on 2009 models, but adds built-in Wi-Fi to make them easier to use. All told, this svelte Sony feels more thoughtfully put-together than any TV we've tested in awhile, and it will easily find a niche in design-conscious living rooms.
We performed a hands-on evaluation of the 52-inch Sony KDL-52NX800, but this review also applies to the other sizes in the series, the 46-inch KDL-46NX800 and the 60-inch KDL-60NX800. The three sizes share identical specifications and should exhibit similar picture quality.
The ultrasleek KDL-NX800 looks like a featureless black slab when turned off, dominated by a single pane of glass that extends almost to the edge of the panel on all sides. A sliver of black metal edges the glass panel, and when seen from the side or top, the brushed black metal complements the subtle brushed silver of the low-profile stand. Behind the glass, the relatively thick border around the screen nearly matches the black of the turned-off screen, furthering the illusion that the TV is one piece. The logos and indicators are extremely subtle, at least until the word Sony lights up when the TV is turned on--the light can be turned off, furthering the display's integrated look.
Sony also paid attention to how the back and sides of the monolith appear. The TV's notched profile measures 2.5 inches deep at its thickest point on the bottom, narrowing to an inch on the thinner section toward the top. The company glossed the black backside, and hid the back-panel input connectors behind a removable plate. You can channel cables from there down into the base, along with the power cord--although space is a little tight for thick cabling. Speaking of the base of the stand, Sony finally added a swivel, something the company has never added to an LCD TV. In addition to the swivel, the TV, oddly, can be angled back slightly--in case you want to mount your NX800 on the floor, perhaps?
Sony also gave the TV's remote control a significant makeover. It's one of the best remotes we've ever used, aside from the weird duplicate power button on its backside that caused us to shut off the TV once. The company kept the excellent button arrangement from last year's remote control, preserving the logical size and placement differentiation. However, this year's keys are more flush and sleek, improving the pressing action--now they emit a satisfying low-pitched click. The remote has a concave shape along its length that seems to send the thumb to the Home key and the middle of the big cursor control naturally. Completing the package, Sony added blue backlighting as well as the cap ability to control other devices via infrared or HDMI.
We've spent a lot of virtual ink complaining about Sony's game-console-inspired XMB interface when applied to TVs, but we're starting to change our tune as more features are added to these sets, making a more sophisticated navigation system increasingly necessary. The interface does a good job of surfacing the TV's many Internet services, widgets, settings, inputs, and miscellaneous doo-dads in a logical fashion. While we'd love to see more customization and less clutter (how about the capability to "hide" unwanted interactive services or even entire verticals, such as the TV channels section, which is useless for cable box users), the interface's snappy navigation--the best we've seen on any TV and reminiscent of the PS3--makes up for a lot.
We appreciate that Sony included ways to avoid having to navigate the big XMB, from direct-access remote keys to a Favorites section that remembers oft-accessed inputs (you can also manually add items, like Netflix) to the context-sensitive Options section with quick access to scene modes, MotionFlow settings, and Netflix options.
Sony uses an edge-lit LED technology to illuminate the NX800's screen. Besides keeping the TV panel thin, another major advantage of not using CCFL backlights is LED's improved energy efficiency. However, the choice of an edge-lit scheme as opposed to true local dimming technology, as found in Sony's XBR-NX800 series, generally results in some picture quality trade-offs. See Performance for details.
Internet features: In 2009, Sony offered more Internet-connected services than any other TV manufacturer, once its compatible TVs were upgraded to include Netflix. However, it hasn't added any new features so far in 2010, such as the Skype service announced by Panasonic , LG and Samsung, or the "Apps" platforms touted by Samsung and Vizio. That will change in the upcoming weeks as the company launches "QRIOCITY" (pronounced "curiosity"), an online movie service.
Netflix is the main draw on the NX800; however, according to our tests, it fell significantly behind on image quality compared with what we've seen from other Netflix devices. We compared scenes from "Lost," one of the best-looking streaming titles in the Netflix library, as well as "The Muppets Take Manhattan," another HD title. With both shows, the Sony looked soft, evincing more pixilation and artifacts than the Roku player or the LG 47LH50 we compared it with. It was as if the Sony TV was streaming at a lower bit rate, although we couldn't confirm that since, unlike most Netflix devices, the Sony gives no indication of what streaming quality you can expect.
The results were similar when connected via wired and wireless on the same network; however, the LH50 doesn't have wireless, so we only tested its wired connection. We showed the issues to Sony representatives who visited our lab. If the company issues an update, we'll test it and report it here.
None of the other video services we tested, namely YouTube and Amazon Video on Demand, evinced unusual video quality issues. Minor video services abound on the NX800, including Sports Illustrated (no sports highlights--just swimsuit model clips when we checked), the minisode network, blip.tv, style.com, howcast.com, and numerous video podcasts. Aside from Amazon VOD, the image quality for other video services is generally bad, think non-HD YouTube content. This is probably because most of their content was designed for the Web. The free videos from CBS offer generally better quality, but don't expect anything close to the quality of TV.com, the network's official web portal for full TV episodes. Instead, there's a confusing hodgepodge of clips and the rare full episode. (Note: CNET Networks is a division of CBS Interactive). We appreciate that Sony added a keyword search across the various minor services, but it would be much more useful if the search encompassed all of the video services, including YouTube, Amazon, Netflix, and--while we're at it--even information from the TV Guide EPG.
Speaking of hodgepodge, Sony also throws in Yahoo Widgets for local weather, news, finance, Yahoo video, Yahoo sports, Sudoku, Quizzmaster, USA Today Sports, TV Guide, FrameChannel and the Dallas Mavericks. We haven't seen the last two on any other Yahoo Widget-equipped TV. While we didn't test the Mavericks widget (sorry Mark), our five minutes with FrameChannel revealed it as a marginally cool RSS client offering content from various outlets. It pulls photo feeds from Facebook, Picasa, and other major photo sharing sites, as well as feeds from People magazine, the New York Times, the BBC, even CNET's own Crave blog. Content can be selected on the company's Web site and cycled through the TV widget continuously or selected directly.
Otherwise, Sony didn't update Yahoo Widgets much, and it's still painfully slow to use (albeit faster than on the Samsung). We expect the sluggishness will frustrate most viewers used to relatively quick load times and menus. Sony improves the default interface significantly by incorporating the "options" menu that makes things clearer, and we liked that you can move widgets around the screen easily, although tend to obscure the screen when expanded. The selection of widgets on the Sony is somewhat limited compared with Samsung; however, it still has more than LG does. See our review of Yahoo Widgets for more information.
In terms of music, Sony lacks Pandora, which found on Vudu-app-equipped sets like the Mitsubishi LT-249 series, but has Slacker Radio as well as select content from NPR--no live radio streaming though.
The final piece of the interactive puzzle, and one we didn't test for this review, is the Sony's capability to stream photos, music, and video from networked PCs that have compatible DLNA-compliant software, such as Windows Media Player 11.
New for 2010, Sony (along with Vizio) is one of the only companies to include built-in Wi-Fi (and Ethernet) on its TVs to access all of these interactive options. In our tests, the Sony's wireless connection as well as the Ethernet connection was a breeze to setup. Most other TV makers either require a wired connection or make you buy a proprietary USB dongle--usually about $80--or set up your own wireless solution, such as a third-party Wi-Fi bridge. Since most people don't have Ethernet connections running to their TVs, having built-in Wi-Fi is great.