Sony Entertainment Network: 2012 smart TV hands-on
From phones to cameras to TVs game consoles, if you've played with a Sony device over the past 5 years, then you'll be quite familiar with the company's Xross Media Bar (XMB), which also forms the backbone of of its 2012 TV interface. This year Sony is also pushing its Entertainment Network even harder, which for some reason meant adding a new, completely different-looking interface on top of the old one and keeping both.
Sony's 2012 app selection, as seen on the HX750 series I recently tested, is basically the same as last year (Sony recently added Amazon Instant Video to its PS3 console but the service already existed on Bravia TVs). High-profile apps include Netflix, Hulu Plus, Cinema Now for video, Pandora and Slacker for audio, and Skype (optional camera/speakerphone required), Facebook and Twitter for networking. The Sony remotes also carry a dedicated Netflix button for easy access to the video service.
The only major missing video services are Vudu and MLB TV, while subscription music services are conspicuously absent, probably so they don't compete with Music Unlimited.
The big change for 2012 is a more prominent role for the Sony Entertainment Network, which rolls together the Internet video apps above with storefronts for Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited. Access to Music Unlimited requires a subscription of $3.99 for basic streaming, or $9.99 for premium access, which enables you to keep a private, cloud-based library of tracks, including your personal collection and playlists (similar to other music lockers like Amazon Cloud Player or Google Music). Subscribers can stream from the cloud to the TV, PCs, or any number of Sony devices, and offline access is provided via Android and Vita apps.
Despite the name, Video Unlimited is not a subscription-based all-you-can-eat service like Netflix. Instead it's a pay-as-you-go service that offers movies at between $3 and $4 for SD and $6 for HD. I don't see any reason to use it over something like Amazon Instant or Vudu.
If you're a music fan, then Moshcam is one of the best apps available on any TV: full, free concerts by bands from Blondie to Gotye to Jay Reatard. It's hard to find; you need to access it via Apps > Internet Video, but the payoff is worth the digging. Sony also offers a unique Shazam-like app called Gracenote Track ID that can identify music from movies, TV shows or commercials, and a 3D Experience app with a few movie, video game and 3net and miscellaneous clips -- most of which seem to promote Sony products or properties.
Sony still offers numerous minor apps--3D Experience, Flixster, DailyMotion, Style.com, eHow, Dr. Oz, Snag Films, The Wiggles & Friends, etc--under its old Bravia Internet Video name. You can search for content across many of those minor video apps, but the search doesn't include any of the major services except YouTube.
A couple of Yahoo widgets for weather, news, and the indispensible Daily Puppy are also onboard, and you can access many, many more via Yahoo's Connected TV platform. Unlike Samsung, LG, and Panasonic, however there's no dedicated Sony "app store" that allows downloads of additional content.
Finally, Web browsing on a TV with a remote control is a terribly clunky affair, but if you really have to, then the Sony certainly lets you. Samsung's and LG's 2012 TV-based browsers are better, for what it's worth.
Last year our big hangup with Sony's smart TV implementation was its interface. Apps like Netflix and Amazon used Sony's own custom interface, complete with tiny thumbnails, instead of their superior native interfaces (Netflix in particular is so much better on a PS3 than a Sony TV). That complaint still stands this year.
Sony's numerous video sources and ways to access them still seem more haphazard, with worse interfaces compared with the competition, but there's plenty of content if you can figure out where to find it.
Look out soon for more in-depth looks at other makers' smart TV suites in the near future, as well as a comparison and verdict once we've had the chance to test them all. Is it worth using smart TV services in your TV buying decision, or would you rather just get a box like the $50 Roku and be done with it? Let us know in comments.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Music Unlimited does not offer offline access.