Sony's SMP-N200 has all the trappings of a killer streaming-media box. The spec sheet is filled with excellent services, especially on the video side, including Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu Plus, and Vudu. Unlike the Roku 2 XS, it's also DLNA-compatible and does a decent job handling your local digital media files, including MKV and Xvid. Most importantly, it packs all that functionality into a box that costs $100.
All of that's true, but the SMP-N200 gets a lot of the small things wrong. The user interface is poorly designed for a streaming-media box, wasting precious screen real estate and often forcing you to browse smallish cover art that's impossible to read from the couch. There's a search function, but it doesn't search any of the video services you care about. For music on your home network, cover art isn't supported at all, even if you've dutifully organized and downloaded it yourself. All these missteps end up making the SMP-N200 less fun to use than the Roku 2 XS or Apple TV, even if it technically offers more functionality. Don't get us wrong, the Sony SMP-N200 is a competent streamer with a lot of raw functionality, but it's not the first streaming box we'd recommend.
Sony has slimmed down the design compared with last year's SMP-N100, but it's much larger than the competing Roku 2 XS and Apple TV. The more important upgrade is in the styling. The SMP-N100 looked aggressively utilitarian, but with the SMP-N200 there's been some effort to make it look nice, with attractive curved plastic on the sides and a faux-brushed-metal top. The smaller competitors are definitely more stylish, but the SMP-N200's larger footprint does allow it to include more ports on the back.
Sony has also done a great job of overhauling the remote's design, ditching the cluttered, generic remote look for a simple design that makes a lot more sense for use with a streaming-media box. Nearly all the buttons make sense and are well-positioned, with a few tactile nubs here and there to help you navigate by feel. The sole confusing button is "SEN," which brings you straight to Sony Entertainment Network services (Video Unlimited and Music Unlimited, formerly known as Qriocity). It's a classic Sony mistake of pushing its own inferior services, when a dedicated Netflix button would be much more useful.
Our biggest hope for the SMP-N200 was a redesigned user interface, but it's largely unchanged from last year's model. While most companies use a standard interface for services like Netflix and Amazon Instant, Sony adapts these services into its own menu design. In the abstract, a common look and feel between services may seem like a smart strategy, but it ends up doing more harm than good.
The Netflix interface is a good example of the SMP-N200's interface issues. The standard Netflix interface has relatively large cover art and lots of menu options, but the Sony has smaller cover art and few menu options visible. The problem is even more striking with Amazon Instant. It's legitimately impossible to figure out many of the titles in the photo below.
For navigating between all the services, Sony uses a version of its XMB interface. While we like the XMB design on the PS3, it doesn't work as well on a dedicated streaming-video box.
If you're navigating the video section, you can see only five total services at once. Compare that with the excellent layout of LG's Smart TV interface, where you can see upward of 10 services at a time and the icons are larger. Sony's interface just doesn't do a good job of maximizing the available screen real estate.
Sony also lists tons of niche video services that aren't that useful to most people. It wouldn't be so bad if those services were merely dumped at the bottom of the list, but quality services like Vudu and CinemaNow are interspersed. On the upside, the navigating the Sony SMP-N200 feels fast, so that makes it a little less painful to scroll past a bunch of services to find Vudu.
There's also a video search feature, although it's basically useless. It doesn't search Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant, Vudu, or CinemaNow. It doesn't even search Sony's own streaming-video service, Sony Unlimited. Instead it only searches a few of the niche video services you probably aren't interested in. If you're going to include a feature called video search, it really should search for videos you want.