There was a time when the best TV buying advice you could give someone was to get a Sony. That was before it got caught out badly by the shift to flatscreen TVs. It has since been overtaken as the number one worldwide brand by Samsung.
Sony desperately needs a run of good quality TVs to restore the brand caché it's lost over the years. The top-of-the-range 55-inch 55HX853, which costs around £1,800, looks like a good contender to kick-off a Sony revival.
User interface and EPG
The set uses the same XrossMediaBar (XMB) that was found on later models in last year's range such as the. It's not as intrusive as the original XMB, as there's now a video window in the top-left corner of the display, with the menu bar shown across the bottom. The various options within the highlighted menu option are displayed on a column running down the right of the display. I think the interface is overly fussy and not as immediate as some competitors. Getting at basic settings can feel long-winded.
What I do like is the new interface for online services. This is accessed via the large SEN button on the remote and presents you with a series of tabs that are similar in look and feel to the Metro interface that Microsoft is using for Windows 8. The online services are split into apps, movies and music categories. In apps, you'll find the likes of BBC iPlayer and Netflix, while the music and video panels show the latest releases that you can buy or rent from the Sony Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited online services.
The electronic programme guide (EPG) is also pretty good. There's a thumbnail video of the currently selected programme on the top-left corner of the screen, while the EPG grid uses a traditional landscape layout. Moving around the EPG is speedy and it's easy to set up favourite channels or view a list of all upcoming movies.
Design and connections
The 55HX853's design may have its flaws, but one thing you can say about it is it's unique. It stands out from the crowd partly due to its stand. Rather than mount the TV on a pedestal, as other manufacturers do, the TV slots into a long and quite wide aluminium frame that holds the set at a backwards tilt of six degrees. The front of the TV is covered in gorilla glass and this runs all the way to the edge, which has a slick chrome trim. It looks like a giant iPad.
There's quite a thick 33mm bezel around the screen edge, which looks old fashioned next to the slimmer, frameless designs on Samsung's and LG's new TVs. The overall package, especially on this 55-inch model, is very imposing when it's sitting in an average living room. LG's designs, on the other hand, feel lighter and more airy.
Sony has eschewed fancy touchpads and motion-sensing remotes in favour of a standard zapper. The button layout is good, but the shape is overly boxy so it's not quite as comfortable to hold as it could be.
The extra girth of the panel means that Sony has been able to add full-sized Scart and component connectors, although these do point directly out of the rear of the set, which could be a problem if you're wall mounting it. The other connectors face either downwards or outwards form the side, so they won't get in the way if you decide to mount it on a wall.
The bottom panel houses two of the HDMI ports, along with the optical audio output and RF input for the aerial. There's an Ethernet port, but the TV has Wi-Fi built in so you don't have to use a wired connection. On the side panel are another two HDMI ports as well as two USB sockets and a VGA input. There's also a CAM slot for use with pay TV services such as Top Up TV.
Video file playback
Sony's TVs have always been troublesome when it comes to file playback and streaming. Unfortunately, this trend continues on the 55HX853. It supports DivX playback via USB, but although it played a standard-definition DviX 5.2 file over a network, it refused to play a 1080p DivX 5.0 file. It works with some -- but not all -- Xvid files but won't run the MKV format. This is a situation that Sony really needs to improve. The latest TVs from other brands such as Panasonic, LG and Samsung will happily to play these file formats either locally or across a network.
Like most of the other high-end TVs on the market at the moment, the 55HX853 allows you to record shows to memory keys or hard drives connected to one of its two USB ports (although they have to have a capacity of at least 32GB). However, although you can schedule recordings directly from the EPG, it's no replacement for a proper personal video recorder, as the single tuner means you can't record one show while watching another.
The range of video-on-demand services available in the SEN menu is excellent. It includes BBC iPlayer, but it's also one of the few TVs to have both Netflix and Lovefilm onboard. Alongside these you'll find a number of other services such as Demand 5, YouTube, Crackle, MUZU TV and Sky News.