Sony recently underwent a(nother) major restructuring, spinning its TV business off into a wholly owned subsidiary. The impact of the move, we were told in a recent meeting with Sony's reps where we got a thorough introduction to the KDL-W850B series under review here, was to allow the company to concentrate more fully on the high-end market and make primarily premium TVs.
The W850B, available in 60 and 70 inches, is the least-expensive of those 2014 premium models, and the cheapest to incorporate the company's new "iconic wedge" design. But, true to Sony's heritage and the words of its reps, this TV is still pretty expensive.
On the other hand, it delivers a darn good picture, characterized by deep black levels and great bright-room performance. Its sound, augmented by the wedge, is also good for a TV, albeit not quite as impressive as we expected. Add an array of doo-dads and sleek styling, and you have plenty of reasons to spend more for a TV like this. If you're in this price and size range to begin with, the Sony KDL-W850B is a compelling choice with few flaws.
Series information: I performed a hands-on evaluation of the 60-inch Sony KDL-60W850B, but this review also applies to the 70-inch size in the series. Both have identical specs and according to the manufacturer should provide very similar picture quality.
Sony's high-end TVs for 2014 incorporate what the company calls its "Iconic Wedge," perhaps because plain old "wedge"didn't sound classy enough -- although I'm sure a certain Red Leader would beg to differ. Seen from the front, the wedge isn't obvious, but when approaching the W850 in profile its vertical doorstop shape prevails. In addition to bottom-weighting the large panel, better to prevent tip-overs, the shape angles the screen slightly backward. I'd prefer it to be perfectly vertical, but the slight rake is barely discernible from the front and has little impact on picture quality.
More obvious from the front is are the widely-spaced legs of the stand. Like many TV makers in 2014, Sony implemented this type of stand to help improve stability -- and indeed, the W850B feels as solid as any TV on a tabletop. One downside, beyond an inability to swivel, is the requirement for a full-width piece of furniture in this configuration.
Happily, Sony also provides the option of moving the little feet closer to the center of the TV (above), to accommodate narrower tabletops or if you just prefer that look.
The remote is essentially unchanged from last year's, which is a good thing. The button arrays are colorful and clearly differentiated by shape and location, and I liked the medium size and concave face. New for 2014 is the prominent Discover key, which calls up thumbnails of TV shows and videos from YouTube, Crackle, and a few other sources. Dedicated buttons labeled "Football" and "Social View" push relatively useless Smart TV extras (see below), but I did like the "Pic Off" key to mute the picture, leaving just the audio, and of course the dedicated "Netflix" key is always welcome.
Sony also offers an optional touch-pad clicker ($49).
|Key TV features|
|Display technology||LCD||LED backlight||Edge-lit|
|Screen finish||Matte||Refresh rate(s)||120Hz|
|Cable box control||Yes||IR blaster||External|
|3D technology||Active||3D glasses included||2 pair|
|Miracast||Yes||Control via app||Yes|
|Other: Optional touch-pad remote (RMF-YD003, $49), optional subwoofer, available in black or white (SWF-BR100, $299), extra 3D glasses (TDG-BT400A, $50 list)|
Sony reserves its step-up picture-quality options, such as local dimming and 4K resolution, for more-expensive models in the lineup. The W850B's "Dynamic Edge LED" frame dimming is just another terms for global (non-local) dimming common to nearly every decent LED LCD TV. Despite the number implied by its MotionFlow 480 XR processing, this panel has a 120Hz refresh rate -- although black frame insertion and other augmentations are on board to help justify the larger number.
As a 3D TV, the 850W includes two pair of active 3D glasses. Additional pairs list $50 each for Sony's specs, but since the TV adheres to the full HD 3D standard, you can use third-party glasses like Samsung's cheap SSG-5150GBs.
Speaking of accessories, intrepid buyers can also invest in the company's new optional touch-pad clicker (RMF-YD003, $49). I tested it briefly, and it worked well, easing navigation to a certain extent, but it certainly doesn't seem worth the extra money. One exception could be if you're a heavy user of Sony's Web browser, which, like all of its kind, is inferior to what you'll find on a smartphone or tablet: sluggish, difficult to navigate, and capable of only the most basic functions. It's easier to use with the touch pad than with the standard remote, but still a pain.
One of the W850B's claims to fame is its sound. Sony touts the ducts wending their way through the TVs base, along with stealthy speakers along the bottom. If that's not enough, the company also markets an optional subwoofer (SWF-BR100, $299), that connects wirelessly to the TV and adds some extra oomph. We didn't test it for this review, and it's worth noting that full sound bar systems, for example Sony's own excellent HT-CT260, can be had for a similar price.
Smart TV: Sony has redesigned its interface so it's less-cluttered at times and definitely sleeker than before, but response times still seemed somewhat sluggish. The main aim of the layout seems to be placing the company's own services front and center.
Hitting the Home button brings up the Movies tab by default, where movie thumbnails from -- you guessed it -- Sony Video Unlimited take up the entire middle of the screen. Much more popular services like Amazon Instant, Netflix, and Hulu Plus are relegated to small icons along the bottom (for some reason Amazon isn't available yet; Sony couldn't provide me an ETA by press time). Sony-owned Crackle gets a prominent spot, too. Other tabs from the Home menu, with the exception of Channel (which leads to "TV selections," described below) also point toward Sony services, namely Album goes to the Play Memories photo service, and Music to the Music Unlimited and Vevo services.
Finding apps Sony decided not to surface can be tedious. The main "Apps" screen has a few "featured" apps, but beyond that you'll have to dive into "All apps," a firehose of what I counted as 279 separate icons (give or take), from "Vimeo" to "Internet Browser," to "EarthCamTV," to "Captain Philips." They're arranged in three rows that just scroll endlessly, with no categories, alphabetization, search, or apparent logic to organize them. On the plus side, no major video apps go missing (aside from HBO Go), and you can customize the My Apps screens with your actual (i.e. non-Sony) favorites, once you manage to find them.
A few extras of questionable usefulness include a Football button that's sure to confuse red-blooded Americans, since it calls up videos and Sony's dedicated Web site...for soccer. You can also enable a picture mode said to optimize for football and soccer. Much cooler is the Social View function that allows you to watch tweets stream by along the bottom of the screen, keyed to trending topics or a custom search. Unfortunately, despite the ability to link Social View to your Twitter account, there's no way to view your own feed.
Sony also offers a second screen app called TV Side View with remote control and a program guide. You can mirror a phone or tablet on the big screen via Miracast, or use a new Photo Share function to show photos from such a device on the Sony. The TV can also pair with compatible devices via NFC.
Cable and satellite box control: Samsung and LG's TVs have had the ability to control cable and satellite boxes using infrared blasters for a couple of years, but this is the first time Sony has implemented the scheme via its own included blaster (above). The idea is to replace your box's interface and remote control with one built into the TV. As with those others, the Sony doesn't do as good a job as simply using your box's interface -- preferably with a good universal remote.
One problem is that frequent DVR users are left in the cold. There's no dedicated "DVR" button on the remote, so to access recorded programs you have to -- you guessed it -- call up a "virtual remote." (There's a "DVR" option under the Home > TV screen, but it didn't work when I tried it.) Sony's version, found under the "Key Pad," is worse than those of its rivals, with an endless horizontal scroll to find the "button" you need. The physical remote's navigation (menu control) and transport (play, fast-forward, and so forth) controls worked, but only with an annoying half-second delay as the TV passed the commands along to the box. And for some reason, hitting forward and reverse skip (available on my Fios DVR and very frequently used) only caused a "feature not available" message.
For live programming, you get a grid-style guide that, again, was inferior to the one on my cable box, with inadequate navigation, pokey load times, and the annoying tendency to start at channel 001 (standard-def!) rather than the current or last-tuned channel. Beyond the guide, there's a "TV selections" menu -- essentially a bunch of thumbnails from what appear to be randomly selected channels -- and the Discover tab, said to learn your preferences and suggest shows to watch.