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Editors' note: Sony has announced that Netflix streaming will be coming to the Sony Bravia Internet Video Link this fall.
The moment Sony's Bravia Internet Video Link (also known as the BIVL or DMX-NV1) was announced last year, we knew the product would face an uphill battle. What could Sony's proprietary video streamer offer that you can't already get from Apple TV, Xbox 360, Sony PS3, Vudu, or the Netflix Player from Roku? Well, Sony's main answer is free content. While most network media streamers focus on movie rentals or subscription services, the BIVL's backbone is bringing content freely available on the Web--from places such as YouTube, Blip.TV, CBS, and Sports illustrated--and putting it on your HDTV. Recently Sony announced the addition of Amazon's Video On Demand service, giving you the option of renting in addition to the free content.
That might sound good on paper, but using the device is a whole different story. First off, most of the free content is lackluster--the video quality is poor, many of the clips are short, and most of the content just isn't compelling. Secondly, finding the content is difficult as the interface is sluggish and much of the content is haphazardly categorized and out-of-date. If the BIVL still sounds enticing, you may be disappointed to find that it only works with recent Sony Bravia LCDs--you can't just add it to any old HDTV. That leaves a pretty small audience of people who would still be interested in BIVL. Granted, the addition of Amazon's Video On Demand has made the product more compelling, but with superior alternatives such as the Apple TV, Netflix player, TiVo HD, and the SlingCatcher, it's hard to recommend. If you really want to watch YouTube videos, Web video clips, and rent movies from Amazon on your new Bravia HDTV with minimal effort--and don't mind a sluggish interface--the Bravia Internet Video Link gets the job done. But regardless of whether you have a compatible Bravia, almost any of those alternatives will be a better choice.
Measuring 6.5 inches long by 1.46 inches wide and 4.13 inches high, the module is about the length and width of paperback book. It weighs less than 4 pounds and can be screwed on the back of Sony's compliant TVs with the included mounting bracket, allowing the device to be hidden behind the TV set. The BIVL can also be fitted with the included stand if you choose to vertically stand up the device beside your other AV gear. The device is outfitted with curved, slim edges on the top and bottom and coated in Sony's traditional, neutral color--dark gray. It has a subtle appearance, similar to a cable modem--a good thing if the device is sitting next your black, chunky AV receiver.
Sony includes an HDMI cable, a USB cable, AC adaptor, stand, cover, and TV mounting bracket. That's a solid accessory pack, but curiously, the company did not include an Ethernet cable, even though the BIVL requires one--there's no built-in Wi-Fi. You'll need to make two connections from the BIVL to your TV: USB and HDMI. That means the BIVL will use one of the HDMI inputs on your TV, but there's an additional HDMI input on the BIVL to replace the lost connectivity on your TV. Unfortunately for those who loathe adding more to the spaghetti of wires behind their AV system, the BIVL requires another wall outlet for its external AC adapter. This might be even more problematic for users who go the wall-mounting route.
Sony seamlessly integrates the BIVL's content into the PS3-style XMB (Xross Media Bar) interface that is already used on Sony HDTVs. Navigating to the Web video content is logical compared with other devices we used; for example, Samsung's interface divided its content between two menus (and two remote buttons) and had a noticeable amount of latency when browsing through the built-in Shockwave videos. Connecting the BIVL to your Sony HDTV adds two new features to the default interface: My Page by Yahoo and a list of channels under the Videos tab.
Browsing for videos also follows the familiar XMB layout; content is set up by channel, followed by a gridlike interface, with (but not always) categories on the left side of the screen to further distinguish videos. There is no search function, which we immediately desired after scrolling through thousands of CBS episodes. The playback interface bar for videos is also laid out logically. The up-and-down directional pad buttons zoom in and out on the picture, while right and left fast-forward and rewind the video, and holding down right enables a "super" fast-forward.
For Yahoo's My Page, the idea is that users can sync up their Yahoo account with the device, offering customized news bulletins, weather, and traffic. While the panel does look slick and is very usable, the simple fact is not everybody is going to convert to Yahoo's services if they are already well established with AOL, Google, or Microsoft. And as of now, you cannot access your Yahoo e-mail account or use other popular Yahoo services, such Messenger, Flickr, Answers, or Buzz. It's possible that these might be added in the future, but as of now the service is pretty underwhelming.
You can also add your own content via a downloadable utility from Sony's Internet-based synchronization Web site. We tried downloading the software--Sony clearly states that it's in beta form and an unofficial feature--but we were unable to get it to work with either Internet Explorer or the outdated Firefox 2 (it currently does not support Firefox 3).
As for content, Sony has assembled a list of channels that seem to mostly be targeted at the 18- to 30-year-old demographic. It's worth noting that most of the content, excluding Amazon Video On Demand, can be accessed freely on the Web, but Sony does provide the content advertisement-free, even with the full CBS episodes. Here's a brief overview of some of the channels Sony includes:
There are certainly a lot of content partners here, but without the recent addition of Amazon's streaming service, we'd almost completely write off the device. Many of these videos are either listed in the wrong category or are out of date. It takes enough patience just to browse through all of CBS's content to find a particular show (more on the sluggishness in the performance section), but it's only made worse to find it listed in the wrong category or missing altogether. In addition, no standardized resolution or aspect ratio is used for the content; some videos appear with blacks bars on all sides. Perhaps this isn't Sony's fault, but it doesn't make for a consistent user experience.
It's also important to note that, unlike the Apple TV, the BIVL isn't capable of streaming movies and music from networked PCs. That's a pretty big downside, especially since we found the content to be lackluster--you're stuck with what Sony provides.
Content aside, the BIVL was a very reliable video streamer in our experience. Sure, videos took a few seconds to buffer, but once they started playing we didn't experience any dropouts or stuttering. Of course, this all depends on your Internet connection, but it's good to know that if your connection is solid, the BIVL will serve your content glitch-free. That being said, we did have the device hang on us a couple times, which required us to unplug the unit and restart it.
While we were impressed by the buffer-free playback of the videos themselves, it was hard to look past the sluggishness of the actual menus. Compared with services such as Apple TV, Xbox Live, and PS3 store, browsing the BIVL is slow, which is only made more frustrating when there's so much mediocre content to scroll past. When you first select a channel, it's not unusual for it to take more than 10 seconds to load the initial screen of choices, and then you'll hit another delay when you want to go to the next page. It's not pleasant.
Image quality on the videos is a mixed bag, but we found ourselves disappointed more often than not. Obviously, YouTube clips blown up on a 46-inch HDTV are going to look a little rough, but we were surprised that a lot of the other Web video was of similar quality. For example, we loaded some clips from Sports Illustrated and were shocked that the quality was YouTube like, or perhaps even worse. Of course, Sony's job is just putting Web video on the big screen, but we can't imagine too many people will be happy with the experience. To be fair, some of the videos actually looked pretty good. A trailer for Hancock was sharp and relatively artifact-free and Michael Moore's Slacker Uprising (hey, it was the only free movie) via Amazon Video On Demand service was probably the best-looking video we saw, hitting at least DVD quality. But even content from CBS, such as Worst Week, was worse than standard-definition cable. If Slacker Uprising can look good, why can't the other programs?