One of our favourite features of Sony's TVs and Blu-ray players is their network playback capability. They're also equipped with Sony's Bravia Internet Video service, which allows you to catch up with TV shows, download movies and use the company's Qriocity music-streaming service.
But not everyone has a Sony TV or Blu-ray player. It's a good job, then, that Sony's released the SMP-N100, a networked media streamer that provides access to the company's media-playback and online services, as well as a host of other features. It'll set you back around £120.
The SMP-N100 is pretty petite. It's basically a square, with little on the front besides a USB socket and a few status lights. On the back, there's an HDMI socket, proprietary power connector and Ethernet jack. There are also composite, component and optical digital audio outputs.
Putting a USB socket on the front of the machine was, in some ways, a great idea. It means you can plug in a USB memory stick and start playing video instantly. It other ways, the port's position isn't so great. The problem is that it's not as neat if you want to leave a hard drive plugged in over the long term for easy access to your video library. It's hardly a massive problem, but couldn't Sony have plonked another USB port on the back?
There's also no built-in hard drive, which puts this device at a slight disadvantage when compared with the spiffing Western Digital WD TV Live Hub. But still, with network functionality, you could argue that it's just as easy to store your video on a network-attached storage device or laptop as it would be to store it on your streamer's hard drive. In fact it could even be easier.
Generally speaking, one of the biggest problems with media playback is that, if you use Fat32 as your hard-drive file system, then you're limited to playing files that have a maximum size of 4GB. The SMP-N100, however, can also play files stored on an NTFS volume, which gives you far fewer hurdles with big, high-definition files. We're very pleased to see this -- NTFS support is too rare on media players.
The SMP-N100 also supports Wi-Fi. A wireless connection won't prove the best way to watch bulky HD video files, but it's a great way to quickly get online and catch-up with iPlayer, or check out the latest cat videos on YouTube.
For speed demons or people without a wireless network, there's a wired Ethernet connection. If you haven't got your house wired with Ethernet cable, then you might like to consider a powerline adaptor, which allows you to move HD video and audio around using the mains cables in your house. Such an adaptor will cost you around £80. Do be aware, though, that powerline adaptors work best on fairly new cables, so, if you have a Victorian house, prepare for reduced speeds.
Making iPlayer, Demand 5 and a host of other online video services available, the SMP-N100 is one of the best-specified media players around. We've yet to see much more than YouTube support from most other players, although some do offer Internet TV services such as Revision3. The point is that the SMP-N100 is the first media player to provide premium content over the Internet.
The first time you use an online service, the player logs on, authenticates itself and downloads some data. This takes a few seconds but, from then on, using a service like iPlayer is super-easy. It's even better than the system on the PlayStation 3, which we're also very fond of.
If the PS3 is anything to go by, there will be more services coming to the SMP-N100 in the future. For example, ITV Player is available on the PlayStation, but not the SMP-N100. It seems logical that this will change at some point. Just don't blame us if it doesn't.
This device makes HD video from a USB stick, or footage sourced from an online service like iPlayer, look really great. We were especially pleased to see that iPlayer video looks much crisper and more detailed than it does on other such systems. This is clearly down to the processing within the box, and that's something to be applauded. We watched Question Time -- well, we are knocking on -- and felt that the image was of broadcast quality.
Movies are available to stream from LoveFilm too. If you're not a LoveFilm customer, then the company provides free film trailers to lure you in, and some of these are even presented in HD.
When it comes to displaying HD video via USB, the SMP-N100 is, again, one of the leaders in its class. We don't think it quite manages to deliver image quality on a par with that of the Popcorn Hour devices, but it's still excellent. We found 1080p video sent via USB to be a thorough delight.
High-bit-rate playback proved impressive too, with the player managing a 90Mbps test file with no problems. This test file can cause stuttering on lesser machines.
It's probably worth noting that the SMP-N100 doesn't seem to support Apple's QuickTime format. Although Apple uses standard MPEG-4 for its videos, it's the MOV wrapper that the SMP-N100 seems to dislike. Perhaps this will change at some point with a firmware update, but we're not holding our breath.
The Sony SMP-N100 is a simple and well designed media player. Its online video support is already pretty amazing but it's likely only to improve in time. While we've seen better codec support on other streamers, it's not a big problem, as most of the file types not supported by the SMP-N100 aren't especially popular.
Edited by Charles Kloet