For example, the Netflix interface shows your instant queue as a set of tiles, running three high and six wide. Though 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. (The Amazon VOD interface has similar issues.) 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.
Our final user interface gripe is about streaming your personal media off a DLNA server. While competitors like the Apple TV do an excellent job of making music playback a rich media experience, the SMP-N100 doesn't show any album art for your music tracks, even if you've diligently managed your digital cover art. It also felt like a less cohesive user experience than the Apple TV, as music playback doesn't stops as soon as you navigate away from the main screen, rather than letting you browse the menu and playing in the background.
The SMP-N100 has a ton of streaming functionality (which we're about to get to) and we were disappointed that its user interface doesn't serve it quite as well as it could.
Streaming-media services: Netflix, Amazon, Hulu Plus, and more
In terms of important mainstream offerings, the SMP-N100 is on par with the Roku XDS, offering the most extensive set of streaming-media services we've seen on a streaming-video box. For video, it includes the trio of Netflix, Amazon VOD, and Hulu Plus, which is probably the best combination of sources for those looking to cut their cable costs and go with streaming-only content. Sony also offers its own streaming-movie service, Qriocity. YouTube is another streaming-video option, although we rarely find its content as satisfying in a living-room environment.
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.
As mentioned before, the SMP-N100 also offers access to tons of niche video content, like Blip.tv, Crackle, Dr. Oz, and Fearnet. We didn't find any of this content compelling, but there may a channel or two that you end up using.
Streaming media from your computer or USB
The SMP-N100 matches the Roku XDS in terms of streaming-media services, and it does it one better with streaming content off a PC. Roku's box currently doesn't (officially) support streaming your own content off a PC or off a connected USB drive, and SMP-N100 does both.
In fact, we were surprised how many different file types the Sony did support. It handled the standard formats like JPEG, MP3 and DivX, but it even handled some ripped DVDs we had and some (but not all) MKV files we threw at it.
The Sony SMP-N100 may not satisfy digital media hounds that need absolutely every codec that's out there--the Boxee Box is a better choice for that--but for moderate users, it handles a surprising amount of content. As mentioned before, we wish the user interface was better (especially for music), but it's tough to beat at this price.
Go Blu-ray instead?
Even though the SMP-N100 costs only slightly more than competitors like the Roku and Apple TV, it's enough to push it closer to the pricing of midrange Blu-ray players with similar feature sets. In fact, with steep holiday discounts we've, seen fully featured Blu-ray players like the LG BD570 going for as little $120. If you care about disc playback at all, we'd check out our list of best Blu-ray players before going with any streaming-video box.