They may be called Blu-ray players, but in 2011 they're as much about streaming-media services as they are about high-definition discs. With every manufacturer having a different collection of streaming-media services, we've been taking an in-depth look at each company's content portal for 2011.
Today, we're looking at Sony's Bravia Internet Video. Sony's content portal is significantly different than all of its competitors: there's no app store, nor are streaming services kept in a separate section of the user interface, and all the services--including Netflix--have an interface customized for Sony.
Sony's Bravia Internet video is the same on most 2011 Sony Blu-ray players--and home theater systems with built-in Blu-ray players--but considerably different from the Bravia Internet video content portal offered on Sony HDTVs.
Sony Bravia Internet Video streaming services vs. competitors
Editors' note: The chart doesn't list every streaming-media service available on each content portal; for the sake of simplicity, we chose those we considered most important.
Sony's Bravia Internet Video is absolutely jam-packed with services, offering more streaming-media options than its competitors. Even beyond the services listed, Sony has a ton of niche video services that it supports, from Wired to Dr. Oz.
Amazon Instant Streaming is our favorite extra, especially for cord-cutters without cable. While competing services like Vudu are a compelling alternative for video-on-demand movies, Amazon Instant offers by far the largest selection of TV shows for pay-per-view watching, including both network and cable shows.
We also appreciate that Amazon Instant is tied into the viewer's Amazon.com account, which means we're able to watch our purchased content in a browser as well. If you're looking to "cut the cord" or just supplement your existing cable subscription, we've found Amazon Instant Streaming to be the best TV content provider. Sony Bravia Internet Video is also the only content portal to offer both Amazon Instant and Hulu Plus.
You may notice a lot of red at the bottom of the chart, but most of those are social media services that we don't find are that useful when viewed on a TV. The biggest missing service to us is MLB.TV, which is available on competing LG and Samsung players.
Sony also includes an Internet browser, but it's slow and doesn't support video playback (as far as we could tell), so we don't consider this a significant added feature. We also couldn't load a mainstream site like ESPN.com, instead getting an error that the page was "too large." In an age of smartphones, tablets, and laptops, a slow Internet browser on a TV would be our last choice to access the Web.
Bravia Internet Video user interface
Sony may have the most services, but its user interface is our least favorite. Rather than let each app have its own interface (like on all other players), Sony tries to creates a more unified look between all the services. Unfortunately that unified look is less-than-ideal The interfaces for Netflix and Amazon feature smallish cover art that can be difficult to read while you're leaning back on the couch. And though the layout has improved significantly via firmware updates over the last couple months, it still lags behind competitors like Panasonic and LG.
Even beyond the the layout of the individual services, Sony's XMB interface doesn't work as well on Blu-ray players as it does on the PS3. While competitors like Panasonic Viera Cast and LG's Smart TV feature several large icons for each service, Sony's interface has just a single row of small icons. That single row is even more difficult to sort through because it includes so many niche streaming services, which end up feeling more like filler than useful content. The fact that Blu-ray players don't have the lightning-fast response times of a PS3 makes it even more tedious to sort through.
Sony's Blu-ray players are the only ones we've reviewed to not feature the typical Netflix interface that's available on the PS3 and other Blu-ray players we reviewed this year. When we first looked at the Sony's 2011 Netflix interface it was very outdated, lacking search and limiting you titles in your instant queue. Recent firmware updates have improved the experience, although we still prefer the interface available on other players.
Our main gripe with Sony's Netflix interface is the one we mentioned before: small cover art. There were several titles that we need to select first before we knew what the movie was. Otherwise, we're happy to see that Sony has added additional genres and sorting options. You can now look through sections like "New Arrivals" or "Comedy" to see titles that aren't necessarily in your instant queue.
The trade-off with Sony Bravia Internet Video is straightforward. It has more streaming-media services than competitors and it's the only player have both Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant, but you'll have to put up with its mediocre user interface. We expect most buyers will use just a few streaming-media services regularly (Netflix, Pandora, etc.), so they'll be better off with a competitor like Panasonic or LG that has less overall services, but a better interface. However, if you think you'll take advantage of all the streaming-media services Sony Bravia Internet Video has to offer, it's worth putting up with the interface, especially because of its recent updates.
Got Sony Bravia Internet Video questions? Leave a comment below.