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.
Each of these shortcomings may seem minor on its own, but they really do add up and make the SMP-N200 more frustrating to use than it should be. That's a shame, because its core functionality (at this price) is among the best we've seen.
As you'd expect, the Sony SMP-N200 has both an Ethernet port and built-in Wi-Fi for accessing online content. When the SMP-N200 was announced, Sony put a lot of emphasis on the fact that it can handle 3D content, but we don't consider it to be an important feature on a streaming-media box. (There's not enough 3D content, and there aren't enough buyers interested in 3D.)
A streaming-media box is all about which streaming services are supported, and the SMP-N200 does a good job of filling up our chart.
|Other: Sony Video Unlimited, Sony Music Unlimited, CinemaNow, Crackle, Slacker, Moshcam, NPR, plus dozens of additional niche video services|
The SMP-N200 really shines with video services, and the combination of Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu Plus, and Vudu will certainly be attractive to the cord-cutter crowd. The music side also has some interesting options, including NPR, Slacker, and Moshcam. (Moshcam is actually a video service that streams live concerts for free.)
There are some significant missing services. MLB.TV is nowhere to be found, nor are many of the popular music subscription services, such as Rhapsody, MOG, or Spotify. (Sony's own Music Unlimited is supported, although that doesn't have nearly the support on other devices that competitors do.) There aren't any social media (Facebook, Twitter, and so on) apps, either, although that's not a big loss, since they usually don't translate well to the big-screen environment. We do miss support for a major photo-sharing service like Flickr or Picasa, as using a box like this is a nice way to show off photos.
In addition to all the streaming content available over the Web, the SMP-N200 is also DLNA-compatible and supports playback of several different file types off its USB port as well. The complete list of file types is available on Page 27 of the manual (PDF), and the important ones include MKV, Xvid, and MP3. We actually had pretty good success playing back a mishmash of content off a connected NAS drive, but you're best off searching user opinions on CNET and elsewhere if you're looking for compatibility with specific media types.
We'll also quickly note that there's an Internet browser, but the experience is so slow and frustrating that we doubt we'd ever use it.
|HDMI output||Yes||Analog audio output||Stereo|
|Component video output||Yes||Digital audio outputs||Optical|
|Composite video output||Yes||USB ports||1|
Most home video devices, like the Apple TV, are moving toward HDMI-only connectivity, but the Sony SMP-N200 still offers a full set of video outputs. That's good news if you have an older TV without HDMI, but it does add to the size of the box. There's also a USB port on the side, which is handy for playing back a USB drive full of digital content.
Performance was overall excellent with the SMP-N200. We had no problem streaming media over our home network or over the Internet, using both the wireless and wired connection. Although the SMP-N200 doesn't technically support 1080p Netflix streams, we found the HD Netflix titles to offer very good image quality anyway. Of course, streaming-video quality and network performance depend a lot on your broadband connection and home networking conditions, but we had consistently solid playback with the SMP-N200.
Is it better than the Roku 2 or Apple TV?
There's a narrow argument to be made for recommending the Sony SMP-N200 over its two major competitors, the Roku 2 and Apple TV. The Roku 2 doesn't really handle your own digital media collection and the Apple TV is limited in the streaming services it supports. The Sony SMP-N200 fills that niche, with a good selection of streaming services and decent playback of your own digital media.
The problem is that the SMP-N200 doesn't do anything particularly well. The subpar user interface holds it back as a streamer and it's just OK at handling your own digital media, especially compared with boxes like the WD TV Live or Boxee Box. And the SMP-N200 lacks a killer feature like AirPlay to make it stand out from the crowd. We imagine most buyers will go with the box that handles their personal lifestyle the best (Apple fans would go with the Apple TV, heavy streamers would stick with the Roku 2, and so on), which leaves the Sony SMP-N200 with limited appeal.