Deutsch (via Google Translate)
I am not really a video purist and there are lots of reviews which cover image quality of today’s TVs in great detail. So I am concentrating more on the functional aspects which reviewers tend to ignore but are in my opinion much more important to the satisfaction of the average TV buyer.
This review has been conducted with a Sony BRAVIA KD-65XF9005 (X900F in the U.S.). The purpose however is to reflect the current state of Sony’s integration of Android TV, therefore being subject to frequent changes based on latest findings, but also to give advice on how to squeeze the maximum out of your Sony BRAVIA with Android TV operating system.
2019-05-25 - Google’s promotional channels can permanently be disabled again
2019-05-22 - FW 6.6510 - fixing DTS audio passthrough, NTFS/exFAT writability
2019-02-21 - Prime Video app update improves standby behavior
2019-01-30 - FW 6.5830 - introducing Android TV 8.0.0 Oreo
Hardware Platform & Performance
The 2018 XF90 is based still based on Sony’s 2nd generation hardware platform (later referred to as ATV2), featuring MediaTek’s 2016 SoC, the MT5891 (a.k.a. MT5596). It comes equipped with four equal ARM Cortex A53 CPU cores running at only 1.1GHz and OpenGL ES 3.2/Vulkan 1.0 compliant ARM Mali T860 MP2 graphics.
As an iPhone user I have to say that navigation isn’t exactly smooth on Sony Android TV with quite some lagging and apps starting rather slowly. Netflix for example takes about 15s to start. And due to RAM shortage, apps in the background are frequently being closed.
As time goes by, the system becomes noticeably more sluggish and less stable each and every day. Reminds a bit of the good old Windows 95 days. Reboots every now and then are inevitable. The long power button press quickly becomes your best friend. In fact, the TV may already struggle with common TV tasks like playing back high resolution high frame rate video (e.g. 4K@60fps).
Sony started deploying MediaTek’s 4th generation Android TV SoC (MT5598/MT5893) with their Master Series TVs in late 2018, more than doubling down on CPU and GPU performance compared to previous iterations. The MT5891 is still being used in 2019 for some lower end models though. So the old platform from 2016 is still pretty much alive, therefore hopefully benefitting from extended life cycle.
We live in times with sophisticated graphics which intuitively guide us through and mature voice recognition. Over are the days when we had to search our infrared bone for the appropriate button… you may think…
Sony did not manage to completely pull the “D-pad only” navigation paradigm with only the up-down-left-right controls through. For some people who are used to controlling their old-fashioned equipment via HDMI-CEC, the button packed remote might be a nice gadget. I believe in this one single and easy to use device however that can satisfy all my media consumption needs (+ sound system for which only volume control is needed).
Even Google isn’t exactly clear on how Android TV should be controlled. Streaming boxes typically come with a D-pad. Google also did this little app called Android TV Remote Control which pretty much defines all necessary controls. On the other hand there is Chromecast which implies a totally different philosophy. The two can easily coexist in one single product though.
Sony abandoned the One-Flick touchpad remote in 2016, merging voice functionality into the big bone, which in my opinion was a huge step backwards. Samsung made a bold move by going with their voice enabled and D-pad based Smart Remote only. Even though I am no big fan of Samsung I have to give them credit for that. They did bite the bullet and optimized the Smart Hub UI and accompanied apps throughout, whereas on the Sony you’ll find different navigation philosophies, none of which is completely pulled through.
Despite having Bluetooth LE/Smart onboard, button presses are transmitted via directional infrared. So this is still Stone Age with respect to how we interact with our BRAVIA in 2018 as voice control does not seem to be quite there yet. Or why else would you add Google Play and Netflix buttons? $$
There is really a lack of clear controlling concept throughout. It is just a mingle-mangle of half-baked and antiquated approaches. What I am quite glad about is that Sony didn’t jump on the “air mouse” train which has been hyped as THE next big thing in TV when LG released their Magic Remote. Just like with Samsung’s late gesture control, I found navigation to be much more cumbersome. Looks like I wasn’t the only one as both companies have been backpedaling ever since. Going with a simple D-pad with built-in mic for voice control probably makes the most sense today. It is only a matter of a decent voice assistant, which do exist (Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa, Bixby, Cortana), plus educating people.
The home screen, also known as Leanback Launcher, is Android TV’s central entry point and media hub. Its intrusiveness contradicts the minimal approach that many other smart TV vendors like LG and Samsung are taking, occupying the whole screen. Bringing it up rips you out of what has previously been playing as Google deprecates background playback (also known as VisibleBehind) as of Oreo. A bad move in my opinion as the added information content would have justified the feature more than ever.
Google also deprecates custom backdrops with Oreo, finally laying Sony’s noisy and banded one to rest.
Sony’s 2018 BRAVIA lineup has been “designed” with Android TV 8.0 Oreo and the new “content first” approach in mind, replacing the rather static and app-centric launcher with a more content-centric and customizable one, introducing what Google calls “channels”, allowing apps to promote their content via the home screen in a much more comprehensive and targeted manner. That’s probably the reason why Sony abandoned their original (rather limited) content bar, also known as the Discover menu.
The Recommendations row at the very top has been replaced by a Watch Next channel in Oreo, supposedly being much more user-driven than dictatorial now, theoretically allowing users to manually add content or apps to propose follow-up content based on stuff they have previously been watching. Contrary to what Google demoed at their I/O conference back in 2017, the Watch Next row is still more or less empty in 2019 due to a lack of app support. Also video previews are pretty much absent. The only exception I came across has been Sony’s own DTV player, adding the possibility to preview the least recently watched channels right on the home screen. The feature would have made so much sense for so many apps, but not the DTV player. Hard to understand why Google traded background playback for video previews.
The following rows are channels containing recommendations provided by individual apps. While being a nice idea on paper, channels hardly add any value at the current time as proper app support is rather limited. Some services are not available as native Android TV apps at all, many others do not integrate with channels. So we are left with a handful of services for which the quality of recommended content depends on how smart they are about our viewing behavior and preferences, most of which only show some non-personalized highlights or trending stuff though. It still feels like one has to deep-dive into every single app in order to browse the respective service’s content.
Sony’s recommendations are now realized as a channel rather than the Featured Apps shelf we got to hate in previous iterations of Android TV, occupying two rows at the far top. Good news is that this channel has now been stripped down to one row just like any channel and as such can either be moved to a less prominent place or hidden altogether. Also the input selection has been moved and is now realized as a shortcut at the very top. Selecting it brings up a Sony custom UI which does not blend very well with the Android TV one.
Unfortunately, the task manager is not accessible by long-pressing the HOME button anymore which allowed for quick hopping between recently used apps and easy app killing which one sometimes has to due to inconsistent state or even hang-up. It is however still part of Oreo and can for example be brought up by connecting a keyboard and pressing ALT+TAB. SHIELD TV has some useful remote control shortcuts which I would also love to see on BRAVIA. Oreo on BRAVIA is less multitaskable than ever.
Opinions on the new launcher are a bit of a mixed bag. I really like the idea of putting the content front and center. I however wonder whether it wouldn’t have been possible to even abstract the apps/services away. Nobody needs to know which service or even network a specific show or movie is on. Most important categories (or rows/shelves if you will) would be not yet finished, recommended (with some decent curation in place) and probably top/trending stuff. Plus the possibility to differentiate between stuff you get “for free” (i.e. is included in an active subscription) and stuff you have to pay an additional for.
In order for Android TV to become the super-aggregator we’ve all been waiting for, a Utopia in which we can install all our desired services with Google making them work together seamlessly through one unified interface, Google’s biggest challenge seems to be getting content providers on board.
Personalization is still pretty much of an unsolved problem. Different family members with different age and therefore interests might use the same TV. So it is less personalizable than a smartphone for example. Nougat added the possibility to maintain and switch between multiple Google accounts. This feature does not reach very far though, not even inside Google’s own eco-system, see Google Play Movies. It is also not possible to customize channels per account. In fact I have yet to find a single benefit of having multiple accounts on Android TV apart from being able to more easily switch the YouTube account. But even if Google added mechanisms for more fine-grained control, I doubt that a lot of apps would make use of them.
Voice control is not science fiction anymore, but a key feature of today’s smart devices. So-called assistants are also supposed to improve interaction with the TV, especially with regards to searching for content, but also to controlling it via spoken commands. Wouldn’t it be cool to ask things like ‘show me new/top/recommended/most recently watched movies/TV shows’ and it would return results from any installed service? Content discovery done right…
Even though voice should be the preferred way to search for content, it hasn’t tightly been integrated with 3rd party apps since the very Android TV beginnings back in 2014. Many popular content apps like Prime Video are still not globally searchable, services only available over Chromecast obviously won’t show up in the results either. Search therefore is pretty poor which is quite a shame, given Google’s expertise in this area. Question is how much one can trust in a service-dependent platform for showing really unbiased information anyway.
I am also not impressed by Assistant’s ability to understand context. When for example saying “show me movies with Arnold Schwarzenegger”, adding “only those with Sylvester Stallone” won’t show you movies starring both.
Android TV’s search UI improved quite a bit usability-wise with the advent of Google Assistant. Apps running in the foreground are not able to override the voice button anymore, meaning that pressing it always brings up the Assistant with its global unified search, theoretically enabling one to find anything from anywhere. Results are shown in an overlay rather than ripping the TV out of what has previously been playing. The UI is pretty sluggish though, taking several seconds to load up in case it hasn’t been used for a while, also causing stuttering in background video playback.
An interesting thing about Google Assistant on BRAVIA is that as of Oreo, voice response is always output via the TV’s internal speakers rather than a connected external amplifier or soundbar. What seems weird at first glance is most probably a workaround for BRAVIAs always chopping off the first 1-2s of audio data via HDMI-ARC, swallowing part of each voice response.
Besides opening apps via voice command (e.g. ‘Open Netflix’), it is also possible to initiate playback of a certain movie or show, e.g. by saying ‘Play Lie To Me’, with Assistant (hopefully) picking the right app and automatically resuming from where you just left off. This however only works for a handful of services like Google Play, YouTube and Netflix.
Just like it is possible to open apps via voice command, it is also possible to switch the input of the TV. Unlike described in this article, you have to prepend ‘Input’ to the respective source name though (e.g. ‘Input HDMI1’). Slight deviations from that make the TV stumble again. I would have assumed Assistant to be smarter than that.
Simple commands like ‘Open program guide’ or ‘Switch to channel XY’ are supported for the integrated DTV. Switching channels is pretty useless in its current state as the BRAVIA fails to resolve many of the spoken German channel names. More complex queries like scheduling an event for recording also require the remote to be accomplished.
Playback control (like for example pause/play, skipping forward/backward,...) via spoken command works for apps which implement the MediaSession API.
Unfortunately Google Assistant has not yet been made available in quite some countries in which you are therefore limited to the ancient Google Now. Assistant doesn’t change things in a dramatic way on the TV though, at least for those not into home automation yet. Neither is it possible to find content across your apps/services nor can you control a hell of a lot. I am also not impressed by its ability to understand context and natural conversation.
Even though not too big a fan of Amazon’s business practices and ethics, their services are quite worthwhile which is why I happen to be a Prime member, also owning an Alexa-enabled smart speaker (UE MEGABLAST) which enabled me to try the respective Sony Android TV skill. For those with an iPhone wanting to try the technology, there is also a respective app which unleashes the full Alexa potential without requiring another gadget.
The skill is rather limited in functionality. Searching for content is not supported at all. It is however possible to turn the BRAVIA on and off, control things like playback (play state and volume) and to switch TV channels or the input source. Most commands are not working properly though…
Just like Google Assistant, also the Alexa skill fails to resolve many German channel names. Switching channels by number isn’t very practical either.
Audio control via HDMI-CEC/ARC is not usable at all. Volume can only be changed in steps of one. Unmuting didn’t work at all.
So just like everything on Sony Android TV, also the Alexa integration feels pretty half-assed. But hey, Sony can now write “Alexa built in” on their boxes…
Motion - Everything 60Hz
Sony lacks support for the public Android API for switching the refresh rate/display mode, presenting at a permanent 60 frames per second which results in micro-judder for a lot of content here in Europe when being played back within the 3rd party app context. The only exception to this limitation seems to be the integrated TV player where Sony has access to some private API, switching to 50Hz for smooth PAL playback.
Sony’s Motionflow is supposed to make up for it, being capable of upconverting everything to the native panel refresh rate. Using Custom mode and somewhat raising the Smoothness slider results in decent frame rate conversion of PAL content without introducing a too visible soap opera effect (SOE). The more you crank up that Smoothness, the more visible it gets and the more artifacting Sony’s implementation exhibits in scenes with lots of fast movement and panning. Don’t forget to also lift the Film mode (or CineMotion for U.S. models) option as otherwise no frame interpolation is applied at all. Setting it to High (or Auto in more recent BRAVIAs) results in proper cadence detection for most video and film based content. So keep in mind that the Film mode option only determines for which content to apply frame interpolation, but not its magnitude (which is controlled by Motionflow Smoothness).
As for 24p film content via apps, Sony’s image processor is capable of detecting the 3:2 pattern, reverse it and perform a 5:5 which only works for 120Hz panels though. For this to happen, one has to set Motionflow to True Cinema (or Custom with Smoothness=Min) and Film mode to High. In order to smoothen out the 3:2 pulldown judder on 60Hz panels or the inherent 24p stuttering due to the low frame rate, one can play around with Smoothness and Clearness in Motionflow Custom mode. Motion processing is one of Sony’s sweet spots. Optimal settings depend on the actual panel and personal preferences. There is no right or wrong when it comes to satisfying your eyes.
It always takes one or the other second for the motion processor to detect and lock on the given cadence, especially for interlaced PAL content. For some content, the TV even fails to lock or constantly loses lock, resulting in (intermittent) judder. Talking about interlaced content, the BRAVIA unfortunately does not perform frame doubling when being played back from inside apps via Android’s MediaCodec API, resulting in half the motion resolution.
Purists for sure prefer refresh rate switching over frame interpolation which unfortunately is not supported on BRAVIA. Those purists probably use external players (like Blu-ray) anyway. BRAVIAs accept any common display mode via HDMI.
nVIDIA supports the APIs as of Marshmallow for their SHIELD TV. Some Amlogic SoC based Android TV boxes support what they call HDMI Self-Adaptation. It works by determining the source’s frame rate and setting refresh rate accordingly, which is all handled by the “system”, so no app support is required. As of tvOS 11.2/3, Apple TV is also capable of switching display modes based on the content that is being played back.
With my origin being HTPC, I’ve had a fair share of issues with automatic refresh rate switching in the past. Enough to not like the concept too much, also given the inconsistent UI response time at 24Hz versus 50/60Hz, which is why I do not totally disagree with the approach taken by Sony.
It isn’t possible to decode any modern video format at HD resolutions in software on the underpowered ARM CPU/GPU combo. We are therefore pretty much limited to formats that can be decoded in hardware on MediaTek’s video decoder ASIC, which are plenty though, the most common ones being MPEG-2, MPEG-4 Part 2 ASP (DivX, Xvid), H.264/AVC (Hi10P), H.265/HEVC (Main 10) and VP9(.2).
VC-1 Advanced profile, even though supported by the MediaTek video decoder ASIC, lacks proper driver support for the respective public Android MediaCodec API. Software decoding it at 1080p is just not feasible. Keep in mind that this format is used on 15-20% of available Blu-ray discs today. Those rips therefore won’t play smoothly inside 3rd party apps on BRAVIA.
So far, decoding has been fine for most modern video formats I threw at it, except for the mentioned VC-1. Due to the weak CPU, video pipelines inside apps need to be sufficiently optimized in order to play high resolution high frame rate content smoothly (e.g. 4K@60fps). Most are not which is even true for Google’s very own YouTube2 or built-in Chromecast.
HDR / Dolby Vision
Sony’s HDR integration is not without some major woes, the most severe one being that non-video-planes are not properly tone-mapped in HDR mode. So there is always a distinct color- and luminance-shift in the UI elements which however also hurts while playing true CinemaScope HDR content for which black letterbox bars are not encoded into the video, but have to be added by the app/TV. When for example watching the original version (OV) of I Love Dick on Prime Video, one will find those bars to be gray rather than pitch black.
Sony’s history of integrating Dolby Vision is also a difficult one. Apart from the massive delay and requiring external players to explicitly support a new “low latency” operation mode via firmware update, also internal app support suffers from limitations as BRAVIAs only support single-layer Dolby Vision (profile 5/dvhe.stn) which is common to streaming media. This implies that Ultra HD Blu-ray rips won’t play as HDR, just like the common LG trailers which are also dual-layer. This restriction only applies when the BRAVIA is acting as a Dolby Vision decoder in case of app/file playback. In case of HDMI, the connected player is responsible for handling the dual-layer decoding with the BRAVIA only acting as Dolby Vision display.
Unlike with HDR10 and HLG, where the video stream just has to be passed to the common HEVC/VP9 decoders for proper HDR playback, Dolby Vision requires some special app treatment, enumerating the compatible decoders and choosing the correct one based on the given profile and level. I successfully tested playback of some single-layer Dolby Vision files via the stock Video and MX Player apps. Others either failed to play the video stream (Kodi) or displayed the content at wrong colors/luminance (VLC).
Most of today’s TVs still only support HDMI-ARC over which uncompressed and lossless multi-channel audio (like LPCM, TrueHD or DTS-HD MA) is not specified due to bandwidth limitations. I still believe that the good old lossy Dolby and DTS formats with 5.1 channels are enough for the average home user with a soundbar anyway. And all modern audio formats by Dolby and DTS have some sort of backward compatibility baked in.
Atmos works over ARC when being encoded in lossy EAC3 (DD+/Dolby Digital Plus) rather than MLP (Dolby TrueHD). The Netflix app however restricts support to certain 2018 and later models, most probably a Sony directive in order to sell the newer and higher end products.
As for Android API support, it took Sony only four years to get the standard HDMI-ARC audio formats right, including DD+ and DD+ encoded Atmos. Oreo finally added support for DTS. BRAVIAs now even pretend to support DTS-HD over HDMI-ARC. DTS-HD MA works as such that the DTS compatible core is extracted for transmission which however does not seem to work properly at the current time as audio reproducibly cuts out after several seconds. So hopefully your desired app supports disabling the passthrough of DTS-HD. Another workaround would be to set the TV’s digital audio output format to PCM which will however result in a stereo downmix for everything.
As for network connectivity, the whole Sony Android TV line-up till this very day features a 100mpbs Ethernet port only and up to 802.11ac Wi-Fi with 2x2 MIMO rated at 866mbps (on 80MHz wide channels). This looks perfectly sufficient for media streaming at first glance. However, Ultra HD Blu-ray specifies up to 128mpbs which disqualifies the Ethernet port right away. Question is though, whether you really want to waste 80-100GB per movie on your media server, not to mention streaming it off the internet.
In order to test the actual network playback performance over Wi-Fi, I used the jellyfish bitrate files. For Ultra HD Blu-ray compliancy, I even went up to the 140mbps (17.5MB/s) sample which probably is a bit of overkill for 4K@30fps with a 4:2:0 chroma subsampling. Unfortunately, those samples are not available in 60p which would have stressed playback even further. The files have been streamed off of a fast Linux server with various protocols such as DLNA, NFS and SMB.
I first tried to play the samples off of a fast USB 3.0 HDD in order to verify that the SoC is capable of decoding HEVC at such a high bitrate (Main 10 High@Level 5.1). I also stress-tested my network infrastructure (server ⇒ Gibt Ethernet switch ⇒ Wi-Fi access point ⇒ Wi-Fi client station) in order to rule out any potential bottleneck. All tests went well with the network achieving a TCP throughput north of 500mbps (via iperf3) over 802.11ac using an iPhone X as client at the same distance as the BRAVIA in direct line of sight of the access point.
With the BRAVIA being equipped with the same 802.11ac 2x2 MIMO configuration as the iPhone X, iperf3 attested a sustained download speed of “only” around 250mbps.
iperf3 -c 10.0.0.4 -i 1 -R
Connecting to host 10.0.0.4, port 5201
Reverse mode, remote host 10.0.0.4 is sending
[ 4] local 10.0.0.7 port 57534 connected to 10.0.0.4 port 5201
[ID] Interval Transfer Bandwidth
[ 4] 0.00-1.00 sec 28.3 MBytes 237Mbits/sec
[ 4] 1.00-2.00 sec 29.9 MBytes 251Mbits/sec
[ 4] 2.00-3.00 sec 30.2 MBytes 253Mbits/sec
[ 4] 3.00-4.00 sec 29.9 MBytes 250Mbits/sec
[ 4] 4.00-5.00 sec 29.9 MBytes 252Mbits/sec
[ 4] 5.00-6.00 sec 30.0 MBytes 252Mbits/sec
[ 4] 6.00-7.00 sec 30.0 MBytes 251Mbits/sec
[ 4] 7.00-8.00 sec 29.9 MBytes 251Mbits/sec
[ 4] 8.00-9.00 sec 30.1 MBytes 252Mbits/sec
[ 4] 9.00-10.00 sec 30.0 MBytes 250Mbits/sec
[ID] Interval Transfer Bandwidth Retr
[ 4] 0.00-10.00 sec 300 MBytes 251 Mbits/sec 281
I am not yet sure whether this is a performance or radio related issue. Throughput and connection stability however drastically decreased with distance and obstacles in between. Radio design therefore indeed does not seem to be too good on BRAVIA.
As for video playback, I could not go any higher than the 120mbps jellyfish sample (at optimal radio conditions) after which playback became jerky, also suffering from occasional rebuffering. The bigger the stream, the higher the CPU usage, the more fragile playback became. Maximum playable bitrate also very much depended on used protocol and app though. The combination of Kodi and DLNA gave me the best result.
It is hard to make a final assessment of whether a Sony BRAVIA is the only playback device you’ll need or whether you are better off with a more powerful media streamer, supporting a greater variety of A/V formats and wired Gbit Ethernet. Sony Android TV has been designed with the relatively thin and standards compliant streams of the common OTT services in mind. So don’t expect too much.
So you just arrived back home after your well-deserved vacation and would like to share some amazing shots with your family and friends? Why not doing so on your shiny new 4K BRAVIA? You probably went for a 4K panel for this very reason? Well, you probably shouldn’t have…
Apart from video, apps on Sony Android TV typically render their visuals at 1080p which then get upscaled to the native 4K panel resolution. So your photos will first get downscaled to 1080p, just to artificially be blown up to 4K further downstream. There is no public API for 3rd party apps to bypass the downscaling and render to the 4K output directly like it is possible for video via the MediaCodec API. The only app capable of doing exactly that is Sony’s pre-installed Album app which again has access to some private API. Problem with this app however is that it is pretty “basic”. There is for example no way to pause a slideshow or change the interval at which photos are being presented. It also suffers from several show-stopping issues. For DLNA, Exif metadata is not taken into account for proper naming and chronological sorting of the photos. Slideshows are always started from the very first photo inside a folder and cannot be started at a random one. For USB, photos are enumerated in the reverse chronological order, so from new to old. There is no way of changing that apart from faking the date stored in the Exif metadata which of course is totally pointless, however being exactly what Sony’s support team suggests. Those bugs have been known for years already. Sony does not dare fixing them. Pretty embarrassing for a company that also makes cameras. So much for the One Sony monicker.
As for Chromecast, clients use the screen mirroring technique to display photos on the big screen, effectively encoding them into a 1080p H.264 video stream. Quality degradation again is inevitable. This has been tested with Google Photos on an iPhone.
Digital Broadcast TV
I moved most of my media consumption to the web with well over 90% being on-demand. I truly believe that linear TV via traditional means of distribution will be with us for quite some time to come which is why the topic can’t be ignored. Tuner integration is therefore still an important aspect of today’s TVs. From a hardware point-of-view, all European mid-range and high-end BRAVIA models feature true twin tuners, each supporting all common means of TV distribution (DVB-S/S2, DVB-T/DVB-T2, DVB-C). What sounds cool on paper has to be backed up by decent software though.
Many people think that Google does not care at all about linear TV, which is not true however, providing quite a comprehensive framework (known as TIF or TV Input Framework) for integrating live sources into Android TV software, having seen significant updates in Marshmallow (6.0) and Nougat (7.0), adding APIs for Timeshifting, PVR and PiP. Google also provides a nice little viewer app called Live Channels on top, consolidating all live sources in a seamless way.
Sony however ported over their own DTV integration from ancient BRAVIAs, with the user interface being dauntingly old-fashioned, not blending very well with the Android TV one. What you get is some unloving, unresponsive and mostly monochromic OSD. It feels as if it is coming from some cheap old external set-top box. So you basically have two separate systems to handle. The awful button packed Sony remote therefore makes sense which is a shame nonetheless.
Google’s TIF and own Live Channels app have gotten more and more capable over the years, perfectly being integrated with the Android TV experience. Unfortunately Sony didn’t follow suit. While you can install the app from the Google Play Store, you can’t make use of the recently added advanced features like Timeshifting or PVR with the program guide also being empty as Sony does not implement the underlying APIs. I would love to see Sony embracing Google’s new TIF APIs, moving more in the direction of a vanilla Android TV. Sony just can’t do software…
The whole channel setup is a total mess, far from a common structure or naming conventions. Sony for example distinguishes between Digital and Satellite where Digital refers to cable (DVB-C) and terrestrial (DVB-T/T2) reception. Isn’t Satellite digital too? And why in the blue hell would you call your channel search/scan facility Digital Tuning?
Due to a lack of comprehensive manual, it is hard to find the right place where to create and edit favorite channels. The Action menu is your best friend. However, while the favorites editor is entered via the Action menu, the full channel list editor is to be found in the Settings menu. In a perfect world, one would never have to mess with the full channel list. Favorites on Sony are dramatically borked though.
Favorite channels, even though being re-sorted, retain the channel numbers from within the full channel list, resulting in the favorites channel numbering not being consecutive and impossible to remember. Navigating your favorite channels via numeric buttons therefore isn’t much fun. TV Guide and TV (former Discover) menu at least provide linear lists in the intended order to scroll through.
The most convenient way to switch between full and up to four favorite lists is by using the TV menu. What is really annoying though is that the TV autonomously reactivates the full channel list on several occasions, for example when switching the BRAVIA off and on again. So each time the BRAVIA is turned on, the channel list has to be switched back to favorites.
The flawed favorites implementation forced me into maintaining the full channel list, effectively turning it into a favorite list of its own. The respective editor inside the TV is hardly usable however. After having moved or deleted three channels, the bad usability (for example using replace/exchange instead of insert semantics) and unresponsiveness of the UI have already driven you crazy. Sony recently released a new PC based tool called Sony Channel Editor which is nothing but a poor attempt at improving the editing of channel and creation of favorite lists, perfectly demonstrating Sony’s lack of a proper mindset for modern software development and technology. PCs are not that popular anymore. Fiddling around with files has also lost its cool. A platform independent web-based thingy or mobile app would have been a much nicer solution, directly connecting to the channel list on the TV.
Another problem for which I fail to find any workaround is that it does not seem to be possible to maintain a list with both, DVB-C and DVB-T channels. Scanning DVB-C wipes DVB-T channels and vice-versa. Also, when performing a full auto scan, all previously scanned channels are wiped, even the favorites, requiring one to start from scratch. So in order to add missing/new channels, one can either hope for the Auto Service Update to catch them up over night or get acquainted with the rather painful manual frequency scanning.
I wonder anyway how Sony maintains satellite transponder/frequency lists for the full auto scan. At least I couldn’t find a way to manually exchange/edit them. I don’t think that a “full scan” performs a full-blown blind scan. So you can either perform a network scan and hope for the NIT (Network Information Table) to be up-to-date and complete on the predefined transponder or again resort to manual frequency scanning.
Channel management on BRAVIA is more of a gamble. Typical scenarios and use-cases have not been thought to the end. Detailing all flaws and bugs would probably go beyond the scope of this review. Hopefully I haven’t lost you already…
The TV Guide comprises event metadata from both, the DVB stream (EIT - Event Information Table) and also the web (Gracenote) for additional information like highlights, cast/crew and related/recommended content. Sounds pretty cool from an informational point-of-view. However, many events do not receive any additional information which is most probably due to a flaky matching of the found events via EIT with Gracenote’s database. Freesat users are also out of luck as the TV won’t pull any information for those channels.
Just like the other Sony custom software on the TV, also the TV Guide feels like a foreign object in an otherwise modern looking Android TV operating system.
Major flaws are that TV events which have been scheduled for recording are unfortunately not marked. A vertical line indicating the current time would also be nice. Actually those are standard conventions for a guide like this.
What I like about the guide is the auto update in standby, providing you with complete and up-to-date information at any time. Unfortunately all guide data is lost upon a full reboot of the TV.
The guide is also integrated with Android TV’s unified search engine which is not without some major usability flaws though. Search can for example not be restricted to favorite channels only, returning results from channels you might not be able to watch due to a lack of subscription. It also doesn’t immediately become obvious which channel a found event is on. One has to deep dive into the respective events in order to find out. Stripping down the channel list to only the channels of interest dramatically improves search performance and accuracy.
Then there is the recording feature which has taken Sony over half a year to deliver after Sony’s Android TV launch back in 2015.
In order to perform recordings, a hard disk or large pen drive (> 32GB) has to be connected to the single SuperSpeed USB 3.0 port. Beware that your storage gets formatted and encrypted when registering it for recordings. So you will lose all your data with the storage not being usable outside of this configuration anymore afterwards. Unfortunately Android’s adoptable storage cannot be used for the purpose of recording.
Recordings are stored in a DRM contaminated format and are therefore not meant to be portable… or edited… or archived. There is actually no legal requirement for manufacturers to protect recordings. Some broadcasters indeed require content copy protection as copyright owners would otherwise refuse to sell HD content to them. There are however mechanisms that are supposed to manage DRM only in case it is requested by the broadcaster for a specific program and not fundamentally for everything. I still doubt that it makes a ton of sense in a world in which one can easily take copies and share Hollywood blockbusters in HD the day and date they come out on Blu-ray.
When productively using the PVR, one will soon stumble over tens of imperfections which make the whole stuff pretty impractical. The user interface is just horrible. Sony clearly concentrated on DRM, not on usability.
One major letdown is that for overlapping recording timers, only the first one is executed despite the TV featuring twin tuners. Watching one channel while recording another works for FTA. If you record an FTA channel, it is not possible to watch a scrambled channel in parallel. The problem most likely is that there is no way of knowing beforehand whether scheduled events will be scrambled or not. Sony chose the easy way out, always assigning the CI to the recording.
With Oreo, Sony finally fixed the annoyance that PAL recordings have so far been played back at a wrong 60Hz, resulting in micro-judder unless some motion interpolation had been engaged.
PiP & Timeshifting… NOT!
With Android Nougat adding APIs for PiP (Picture-in-Picture), Sony added the possibility to overlay the picture coming from a tuner or HDMI source on top of the Android TV user interface. As soon as you start playing another video, the PiP window is effectively being closed. So it doesn’t allow two video sources to be blended, let alone following two DTV channels in parallel despite the BRAVIA featuring twin tuners. So this certainly isn’t the PiP that many people have imagined, not providing the slightest practical use. This together with the limited twin tuner support in the PVR makes you wonder why Sony deploys twin tuners at all!? Looks more like a marketing gag to me.
Timeshifting is also not supported. It is however possible to perform a recording and start playback while still recording. This is not very convenient though as you have to start recording while in TV and then jump over to the recording player in order to start playback. And when done, you have to go back to TV, stop the recording, then go back to the recording player in order to delete the recorded file. Talking about deleting a recording, it takes way too many steps to do so. Well over 10 button presses, depending on where you start counting.
All basic functionality already seems to be there in order to do a fully automatic Timeshifting. Sony is still in total refusal.
Content & Apps
Don’t fool yourself into believing that Android TV has the same app machinery behind as its mobile brother. After the Google TV disaster, not many trust in Google’s TV ambitions anymore. Even Google does not seem to believe in their own TV platform, putting new features/technologies/services on their Chromecast device and even competing platforms long before they arrive on Android TV. What adds up to this is the fact that contracts and money pretty much determine which content is on which platform or even TV. TCL perfectly demonstrates the segmentation we are currently experiencing in the TV world, putting the Roku OS on TVs in the United States while using Android TV here in Europe.
Sony advertises their Android TV line of products as having access to “thousands of apps” which is nothing but a bold marketing gag. An overwhelming number of those apps have only been carried over from mobile, hardly being optimized for a 10-foot user interface with its controls, mostly being of niche interest at best (not to call them totally pointless on a TV), or games that are hardly feasible due to the slow SoC and lack of available disk space.
A good TV platform is not defined by the number but the quality of the important content apps and services anyway. Still hardly any major content provider integrates with Android TV’s enhanced features like the unified (voice) search, the Recommendations/Watch Next rows or this new “channels” idea in Oreo, most of them only providing a bare minimum WebView to browse and watch content, all having a different look and feel to them, not following any of the Android TV design guidelines. In fact, every app/service is of so much better quality on an Apple TV, integrating with Siri voice search, using tvOS’ rather minimalistic but brilliant video player. I have yet to witness a single stutter, no matter the content. Also seeking video has never been more fun and consistent across streaming apps.
There are simply too many (TV) platforms around which is the reason why content providers prefer easy portability over a truly integrated user experience. Some even lack a dedicated Android TV app (like Sky or Eurosport for their respective web streaming services), only supporting Chromecast, making Android TV the inconsistent platform that it is today.
I love this “new” and convenient way of consuming premium content online and on demand without lifting my ass off the couch. The Netflix experience is pretty neat with good quality encodes, unlike Google’s own services supporting 4K and even HDR (including Dolby Vision) on Sony BRAVIA here in Austria. Navigation is quite fast and not perceived as being too laggy even on the slow hardware.
There are still some things I would like to see improved. Dolby Vision mastered Originals mostly look too dim on an XF90, even when watched in a pitch black room. Needless to say that those are hardly watchable at daytime. Subtitles on the other hand are literally glowing, also resulting in quite some blooming.
A major annoyance is the library integration into Android TV’s unified voice search. It wasn’t until late 2016 that Netflix content finally appeared in the results. Search however seems to scan the U.S. catalog instead of the local one, therefore pulling incomplete and even wrong results for other countries, sometimes only showing the pay items available on Google Play rather than the free ones on Netflix. Can you believe that Google left this broken for so many years? Shame be to him who thinks evil of it.
The Amazon Video experience has been appallingly poor since the very beginnings of Sony’s Android TV endeavor back in 2015. The pace at which important changes happened used to be shockingly slow. Marshmallow finally brought us Dolby 5.1 audio (so something that has been an industry standard for two decades already) and the possibility to more effectively seek inside a video (fast forward/rewind) by using a thumbnail view to indicate the current position. So we only had to wait over one year for such basic functionality to be included. The update on the other hand introduced severe A/V sync issues which manifested themselves in frequent video stuttering and audio dropouts. Another year had to pass before those issues finally got mitigated with the release of an official Prime Video app.
The experience is still far from the Apple TV or Fire TV one though. Navigating video menus is quite laggy on the XF90 with lots of annoying waiting times involved. Netflix perfectly demonstrates that OTT services can indeed be quite fast even on slow hardware. Funny is that the Prime Video experience is so much better on an old Fire TV Stick which is built on even slower hardware than the BRAVIA.
Searching for media is a major pain as the app does not integrate with the global unified (voice) search. Keyboard support on Android TV is quite messy which mostly leaves you with the laggy on-screen keyboard and the D-pad controls of the remote to input search terms.
Recent updates to app and web front-end brought several decisive regressions with it. The Prime filter got removed. So you will always be confronted with a mixture of free Prime and non-free purchase/rental content which can be cumbersome and confusing at times. There is also still mild usage of color buttons which is so out of fashion nowadays. Color buttons have never been a good solution to easy and intuitive navigation in the first place.
The Prime Video app still takes a long time to start on BRAVIA, also not being backgroundable. So the app will start from scratch each time it is being left and re-entered.
To my surprise, you can use the Prime Video app for renting and purchasing stuff via Amazon’s store on BRAVIA. 3rd parties typically have to pay Google 30% of the revenue made through in-app purchasing. I don’t know how the Sony/Amazon deal with Google looks like or whether they use some backdoor here. I don’t think that Amazon follows by the rules here as they have a track record of circumventing such payments.
I recently started to observe and document my media consumption habits, quickly realizing that YouTube has grown from occasional fun clip watching to a versatile entertainment and information platform. A good YouTube experience is therefore a key aspect of today’s TVs.
With version 2.0 having been introduced in mid-2017, Google brought their unified smart TV look also to Android TV, moving to a more platform-agnostic WebView, using substantially more CPU time compared to the previous 1.x with navigation being noticeably more laggy which especially becomes obvious when quickly flicking through video menus or when using the virtual on-screen keyboard in search which is not the native and localized Android TV keyboard anymore.
Version 2.0 also introduced quite severe stuttering while playing back 4K 60fps content, still being one of the most annoying issues two years after its introduction. It also took Google two years to bring YouTube HDR to Android TV while competing platforms have been invited early on. Another half a year had to pass before Sony finally got it right, properly applying brightness and color settings when playing back VP9.2 HDR content. So if you think that Android TV will give you a better and more up-to-date YouTube experience just because both belong to the same brand, you might get disappointed.
The move to YouTube 2.0, in many ways being a regression compared to 1.x, clearly demonstrates the love and care Google puts into their own TV platform and how significant it really is. Positive aspects about this major update are the improved content curation and that it is finally possible to play live streams at resolutions higher than a pixelated 240p which took Google “only” over a year to fix.
Google Play Movies
Google Play Movies (& TV) is typically the single go-to source for renting and purchasing the most recent blockbuster movies (and TV shows) on Android TV. While you will be confronted with a rather large library of valuable content, I don’t really like the Google Play services on Android TV from a user interface point of view. I also fail to find any 4K content here in Austria, not to mention HDR, whereas on iTunes I get 4K HDR at the same price point as HD with Apple even having upgraded my existing library to the higher resolution (+ Dolby Atmos audio) automatically at no additional cost.
TV shows are neither available via Google Play nor iTunes here in Austria at the current time.
One thing that is beyond me is that even though the OS supports multiple Google accounts, it is not possible to switch between movie libraries, see Google’s respective help page. You have to remove your active account and add the desired one. One may ask what the purpose of having multiple accounts is then? Rightfully so…
Kodi (former XBMC) is one of the most popular media players available today. Good news and probably the biggest advantage over other Smart TV platforms is that it natively supports Android TV. The slow and buggy MediaTek SoC doesn’t make a Sony BRAVIA particularly well-suited hardware for Kodi though, suffering from several driver limitations like broken hardware VC-1 decoding and DTS passthrough (see Media Playback). The pre-installed media player called Video does not suffer from most of those as it accesses the hardware via some private low-level APIs (libstagefright) instead of using the public Android ones.
So why bother with Kodi? These are my personal top-5 reasons why I prefer Kodi over the stock Video app:
- Access to a virtually unlimited number of web content in a consistent UI (and I don’t mean pirated stuff)
- Play media from any kind of network share or attached storage
- Proper media management and navigation
- Lip-sync (audio offset) adjustment possibility
- Live TV/PVR functionality, connecting to an external TV backend
Live TV & PVR
After having fiddled around with Sony’s bad TV tuner integration, one might want to consider an alternative approach, like for example some TV backend server, making the server-side DTV tuners (e.g. Digital Devices) accessible to any device in the local network, also the BRAVIA running Kodi, and even over the web.
The user interface is fabulous compared to Sony’s. It is amazing how fast and easy it can be to navigate Live TV with just a D-pad and OK/Back buttons.
Depending on the TV backend and Kodi PVR add-on in use, it might even be possible to timeshift using a connected USB storage device. With the DVBViewer Client add-on connecting to the DVBViewer Media Server, timeshifting for example can be configured to either be permanent, adding the possibility to skip backwards at any time, or triggered when pausing Live TV.
With respect to image quality, Sony’s DTV player has the edge over Kodi due to how the BRAVIA handles motion in case of 3rd party apps as discussed in Media Playback.
Google Cast, beside being a streaming technology, also implies a very powerful content navigation paradigm. And all Android TV based devices have it built-in. It is based on the idea that tablets and smartphones have become brilliant navigation devices, being perfectly personalizable with the multi sign-on problem already being solved as your mobile device is probably already signed into all your desired services. So why not use those devices for the very purpose of browsing/finding stuff and let our big screen only display the desired content?
Just like the Google Chromecast Ultra device, Chromecast built right into Android TV on BRAVIA can go all the way up to 2160p60, even supporting HDR using the VP9(.2) and HEVC codecs. The video player is not without some major woes and limitations though. It struggles to play 60p video at high resolutions in a stutter-free way on the weak MediaTek SoC. Also consider that the refresh rate of the display cannot be switched either. So you’ll need to engage some Motionflow to get a consistently smooth video experience as services may support any common frame rate (e.g. YouTube).
A general limitation of the Google Cast technology is the sparse format and container support. It works for most web video, but when wanting to cast a versatile home library, one might need a potent server with transcoding capabilities (or take another media sharing approach instead).
A mobile device based on Android is probably the better Chromecast companion compared to other platforms, as it supports the casting of almost any HTML5 (MP4 or WebM) web video by using the Chrome browser. On iOS, you are mostly restricted to Chromecast-enabled websites only (even when using the Chrome browser). Some 3rd party browsers like Video & TV Cast can overcome this limitation, but usability of those is usually poor.
I really like the casting idea, but it needs more care by both, Google and app developers/content providers alike. Some content providers still don’t support it at all (e.g. Prime Video), some apps/services seem to only work properly in tandem with the real Google Chromecast device, most probably because it is the preferred testing device. Unfortunately the Android TV implementation does not seem to be 100% compatible.
Video & TV SideView
The Video & TV SideView mobile app used to be the only bright spot in Sony’s DTV integration, dramatically improving the otherwise awful experience. It offered a web-based program guide from which recordings could be scheduled (even from remote), also serving as a convenient channel zapper. Sony recently abandoned those features, basically stripping the app down to a virtual remote control and keyboard.
The app (being available for iOS and Android based phones/tablets) features D-pad and touchpad remotes, with the latter one being superior in terms of usability as it does not require one to constantly have an eye on it for navigation. Volume control is missing though and I certainly don’t want to resort to the D-pad for that as it is just a bad software replication of the big hardware remote. An up/down swipe on the very right of the touchpad or some multitouch gesture could for example do the trick.
There is also a third remote, being another virtual trackpad, this time moving a pointer over the TV screen with the swipe of a finger. This might come in handy when using sideloaded apps which have not been optimized for the TV. Navigation is quite laggy with the pointer not moving very fast though.
The virtual keyboard functionality is of limited use, only working with the global Android TV search and truly native apps, see Keyboards.
Another leftover is the DLNA Controller which many people are not aware of. It is similar to the Chromecast idea, but only for media stored on your local DLNA Server, letting you browse your libraries on your mobile device and initiate playback on the TV. It is actually quite a nice feature as most other DLNA apps are not available free of charge (like Infuse). However, people nowadays prefer different ways for sharing media (e.g. Plex or Kodi).
Android TV Remote Control
Just like Video & TV SideView, this app also features virtual remotes (like D-pad and touchpad) and a keyboard. Android TV Remote Control (or simply Android TV on iOS) however is much better with respect to handling it eyes-free thanks to its few big buttons.
With the Android version of the app, it is possible to use the mobile’s volume buttons to change the volume of the TV. This unfortunately does not work on iOS, therefore lacking volume control. The app also lacks a dedicated on/off switch. It is however possible to put the TV into standby via voice command and wake it up via any button.
There are several other features that I would love to see with this touchpad remote for Android TV. One is quick swiping, adding the possibility to move multiple menu items per single swipe (just like with Apple TV) as this makes touchpads so much more powerful.
Another one would be the possibility to define multitouch gestures for certain controls (e.g. volume).
Unfortunately the app suffers from some decisive bugs under iOS which render it pretty much useless.
I perfectly understand that people just don’t want another computer-like device in their living rooms, me included. That’s probably the reason why Google TV failed in the first place. But the lack of comprehensive voice search support is why I also tested several other text input possibilities together with some of the most popular applications providing search (like the global Android TV search, Netflix, YouTube and Prime Video). Also, when it comes to signing into every single service/account on the TV, an alternative to the standard D-pad remote in order to input the credentials is well appreciated.
I tried today’s most common means of text input in the form of a mobile device (iPhone) running the Android TV remote app and a HID compatible keyboard (e.g. MINIX NEO A2 with full QWERTY layout on its back).
There are three categories of apps providing text input. First the truly native apps which make use of the standard Android facilities, then there are WebViews using standard HTML facilities and finally WebViews using custom facilities. While all 3rd-party keyboards I tried worked with Android TV search and native apps (e.g. Google Play Store), those are unfortunately the least represented as most major content providers chose WebViews for easy portability.
Famous representatives of the second category are Netflix, Prime Video and YouTube 2.0. While input via a HID compatible keyboard works fine, input via the Android TV iOS app suffers from the show-stopping issue that the very first character is always captured twice and a non-functional backspace.
“lie to me” for example becomes “llie to me”, resulting in no hits.
The third category is the least user-friendly one, not being compatible with any 3rd-party keyboard. The only way to input text is by using the painful virtual on-screen keyboard together with the remote’s D-pad. Prime Video used to belong to this category for well over two years but recently got upgraded to the second category.
I also tried the Video & TV SideView mobile app on an iPhone, being an alternative to the official Google Android TV remote app, only respecting Android TV’s native text input facilities though, so only working in tandem with the first category of apps.
To sum it up, there is no keyboard which works throughout the system. As most major content apps are WebViews only. Those lack support for the native Android text input facilities and localized keyboard. Depending on the used app, you will therefore see varying virtual on-screen keyboards with limited input possibilities.
External USB Storage
Even in 2019, usable flash memory on BRAVIA is still only 8GB in size (and has even been reduced to 6GB for Sony’s Master Series due to an additional vendor partition required for Project Treble support), which is probably still enough anyway given the sparse variety of useful apps/services and playable games.
As of Marshmallow, Google added the possibility to expand internal device memory via some external USB storage (so-called Adoptable Storage). Keep in mind that not every thumb drive is well suited for adopting, even if the manufacturer attests high transfer speeds. And you probably don’t want to connect a mechanical (rotating) hard drive due to its bad random access performance and Android’s standby behavior.
After several disappointments, I picked up a 128GB Samsung BAR Plus which used to be one of nVIDIA’s recommendations before they pulled the respective list, yielding acceptable performance while properly being shielded against electromagnetic emissions. Unfortunately the feature is still flaky on BRAVIA with the thumb drive sometimes staying in a “safely ejected” state after standby which only a full reboot takes care of.
Using removable storage to play media from looks fine. NTFS and exFAT are read without major problems.
Looking at today’s streaming boxes, those consume 2-3W peak under load and even less when being idle. Maybe they don’t have tuners or a very sophisticated image processor built-in, those parts could however indeed be switched off in standby, only leaving the application processor running at little power consumption, being able to serve requests at any time. So why does a BRAVIA 4K TV still consume >20W after it has been switched off? Doesn’t look like a very good hardware design in terms of power efficiency to me.
After hitting the power button on the remote, this shallow sleep state (in which the TV still consumes the mentioned >20W) is kept for a rather long period of time (up to 1-2 hours) until deep sleep is finally entered, reducing power consumption to under 0.5W, from which there are frequent wakeups though. I have no clue what maintenance work the TV does in standby. DTV guide and service updating shouldn’t take that long when done right. And what those wakeups are actually good for remains a secret to me.
The above power consumption measurement plot demonstrates that from the time the BRAVIA has been switched off at 21:00 until it finally went into deep sleep spanned over one hour, from which it woke up every ~5 minutes, so several dozen times over the course of one single night.
The main cause turned out to be Android itself and some Google mobile(!!!) services setting up periodic RTC timers to wake up the TV in order to do… well… something. I don’t know what customer benefits those wakeups have. There are certainly no time-critical notifications on a TV. It does not have to look for updates with such a high frequency either. This behavior again shows that the OS has its origins in the mobile space with different requirements and hasn’t very well been optimized for the TV.
Those wakeups, while probably not violating any standby regulations, cause quite some misbehavior on BRAVIA. USB ports are also powered (causing a connected HDD to spin up/down or bias lighting to turn on/off all the time) and a HDMI handshake is performed on the respective ports which might turn on connected devices or cause interruptions on devices connected via the same AVR. So if a connected device mysteriously turns on or if you experience frequent short A/V dropouts on interconnected HDMI devices while the TV is in standby, you now know why. Plus they might have an impact on the lifespan of the affected devices. Sony is just pointing fingers at Google, stating that those wakeups are common to Android TV.
Certain settings and even apps might block deep sleep altogether. One really has to be careful that the Android TV at home does not become a power hog. Unplugging power while the BRAVIA is not in use would probably be a bad advise as OLEDs for example execute a panel cleaning program in standby. Google really needs to fix their OS and mobile services! Moreover, setting up RTC timers should require user permission on a per-app basis.
With the BRAVIA being a Google Cast ready receiver, it employs a mechanism which enables other devices (like for example a mobile device running the Video & TV SideView app or Alexa) to wake it up from deep sleep over network (also WiFi) which however seems to be very sensitive, not only reacting to magic packets addressed to the respective TV, therefore resulting in additional processor wakeups. I found Bonjour/mDNS to be the culprit. Devices like a NAS or a network printer might keep the BRAVIA quite busy.
No Project Treble
If you’ve ever owned an Android phone, you might already know that getting updates is an incredibly slow process. The situation is even worse on Sony Android TV, typically being up to two iterations behind, also lacking real long-term support. Early 2016 models (like the popular XD85 or XD93) for example came with Lollipop even though they should have been released with Marshmallow which then arrived with substantial delay of well over a year, when Nougat has already been well established on the market. And due to their very ATV1 (MediaTek MT5890) nature, those TVs already look to be EOL after having received the Nougat update as Sony only announced an update to Oreo for their ATV2 (MediaTek MT5891) based BRAVIAs. So truth be told, those early 2016 models only received one major Android update which did not bring much to the table from a TV point of view. Philips on the other hand announced an update to Oreo for their older MT5890 based TVs as well. So far Sony hasn’t at all been counteracting the norm in the TV industry with product life cycles being rather short. Managers probably only see the amount of time and money spent on development and QA for such major updates and the probability of failure which do increase with every model year. And Sony did screw updates up badly in the past. I stopped counting the number of updates that Sony had to withdraw eventually. Oreo has been no exception.
What most people don’t understand is that even though Google delivers the OS, Sony and MediaTek still have lots of responsibilities with respect to software which is where things fail. Android updates are worth nothing if the rest of the system is left behind. In fact, every major Android TV update from Sony brought more new issues to the table than they actually solved due to insufficient system adaptations and flaky drivers.
Sony did not dare touching the kernel for the ATV2 Oreo firmware update, therefore also lacking support for Project Treble which is Google’s attempt at improving the updating fizzle by cleanly splitting off the hardware-specific part from core Android, enabling the OS to be updated without relying on silicon vendors anymore. One can argue that transitioning to Project Treble is too risky as it requires additional disk space via separate vendor partition. Then again, nVIDIA did it for their SHIELD TV (Tegra X1 chipset) via firmware update as well. Even Xiaomi did it for their cheap Mi Box which uses the fairly old Amlogic S905X chipset. One can easily conclude that Sony/MediaTek are among the worst Android TV integrators.
With the XF90 carrying over into 2019 and some new models of the 2019 lineup (like the AG8 OLED) still being based on the three year old MT5891, support for the ATV2 platform seems to have just been prolonged which is why I assume that we will at least see Android TV 9.0 Pie on respective BRAVIAs. This makes perfect sense as Pie’s primary target has been to improve performance and reduce the hardware envelope.
With the move to the connected TV, we let another potentially vulnerable device in our home networks. More and more of our precious data is being stored on them, like for example several logins with credit cards attached to the respective accounts. Frequent security updates are therefore key to keep the data somewhat safe. The sheer lack of awareness among manufacturers concerning this topic is mind-boggling to me. Sony is no exception to that, only shipping latest Android Security Bulletins with major firmware updates instead of monthly. So it isn’t uncommon that security patch level is several months behind. It also took Sony almost half a year to include patches for the infamous KRACK (WPA2) vulnerability.
Linux kernel on ATV2 is an ancient 3.10 (which used to be the baseline for Android 4.0 KitKat from 2013!), even though Google actually mandates at least a 3.18 for existing devices if they get updated to Oreo. Looks like Google is bending their own rules in order to get more devices on Oreo.
3.10 is a so-called long-term support kernel (LTS) which has already reached end-of-life and on Sony hasn’t even been updated to latest .108 patch level, still sitting on .79 from May 2015. You might want to have a look at the CVE reports that have been filed since then.
Bloat- & Spyware
As we already learned, the application processor (don’t confuse with image processor) inside the XF90 can’t exactly be described as potent. To make things even worse, Sony has a track record of cluttering the system with all kinds of bloatware which runs in the background, occupying hundreds of megabytes RAM which may lead to shortage and frequent background app killing, also creating random spikes in CPU usage, causing glitches in navigation and video playback. A lot of the stuff could just be ripped out or at least be disabled by default.
When looking at the installed packages and running processes, one might find deprecated technologies (BIVL, DIAL, Miracast/WiFi Direct,...), most of which are poorly implemented anyway, platforms in the platform (Sony Select, BRAVIA B2B/Hotelmode), promotional stuff (Gameloft etc.) and even spyware in the form of Samba TV.
Opt-out of this Samba TV as fast as you can. It does not provide the slightest customer benefit even though Sony wants to make you believe otherwise. Pretty much the contrary is the case, dramatically compromising the TV’s performance with some spy trojan in place, collecting data about our viewing habits which is being sold to advertisers.
I have been pointing out several privacy concerns with Sony Android TV for quite some time already, like some Sony deployed services still happily exchanging data after disabling them and declining the respective privacy policies. Just in time for the 2018 privacy law changes in the EU, in fact one day before they took action, Sony released some mitigations in that regard which probably implies that they did have some dirt under the carpets. This is how far manufacturers go in order to make some extra money. Disgusting!
The recent demise of Vizio’s SmartCast-only philosophy and Google Chromecast losing market share to Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV and Roku indicate that people nowadays indeed vote for a classic user interface. And Google has an answer to that trend in-house. They just need to put more energy behind it, also attracting some of the bigger players, as Sony and Philips/TP Vision, both having a rather homeopathic market share compared to the likes of Samsung and LG, are just not enough to carry the Android TV platform forward. The nVIDIA SHIELD TV is more of a niche product and the many cheap Chinese streaming boxes won’t help Google make a lot of money either.
The fact that Google chose Samsung to showcase YouTube HDR is a testament to where Sony and Android TV stand today. So where is Android TV heading? Even though there is a new head in town, announcing yet another restart of Google's TV ambitions, the fourth one after Google TV, Android TV and Android TV Oreo, not even counting Chromecast which I envision more as being a mobile technology, I fear that it will just live on in mediocrity.
The BRAVIA family is set out to be this all-in-one carefree package which it just isn’t. Android TV on those sets is still a largely frustrating experience. You will find unfinished business in pretty much every corner. There are much better performing, less buggy and more secure streaming devices (both, TVs and OTT set-top boxes) out there and the integrated tuners and PVR are more like a bad joke, far from being state-of-the-art or even usable. Sony has been ignoring the importance of digital broadcast TV for far too long already. The whole stuff needs to be ripped out and rewritten from scratch. And not just for a future generation, but also for current and past, because this is simply not acceptable.
Sony is clearly a semiconductor company these days. If there is too much software involved, they are out (except for the PlayStation maybe, where they assign the required man-power). And that just does not work out well in the smart device world anymore.
If it was just for the display itself, I would probably recommend a BRAVIA to people who are looking for a decent panel with great video processing capabilities, but Sony’s mismanagement, communication and commitment towards testing and fixing bugs/security issues really piss me off. Plus they started screwing up in the picture quality department lately as well, introducing some rather severe ill effects (like the 50Hz stuttering and the OLED dimming issues).
Then there are the technical support people who either keep telling customers to perform a factory reset which hardly ever fixes anything, or pretending that the next firmware update will fix everything, even famine in the third world, seemingly holding people off until the deadline for returning has expired. Last thing you will hear from them is that everything is as intended and well within specification anyway. Judging from dealer feedback (some of which even banned BRAVIA sets from their shelves) and several online communities in Europe, customer satisfaction seems to have reached a low point. It seems as if Sony refuses to see software as part of the product, not acknowledging the numerous complaints which range from severe malfunctions over sudden discontinuation of core functionality to a totally weird and unintuitive user experience. There is a total lack of strategy and vision, apart from saving costs and ramping up their margin. Yes, they do produce outstanding panel and video processing technology, but they really missed an opportunity on the smart side of things. My feeling is that if this doesn’t change, the TV line of products will soon have to be carried over to the graveyard of technology as I am quite confident that Average Joe does care more about a truly integrated experience than the last percent in picture quality. Or how else would you explain that Sony’s market share plummeted from almost 15% in 2008 to a mere 5% in recent years?
Here is a final rundown of yays and nays of Android TV and Sony’s integration in particular:
- Chromecast built-in (not without quirks though)
- Android TV always 1-2 iterations behind (no support for Project Treble)
- awkward remote control
- laggy user interface
- security awareness lack
- standby behavior
- awful tuner and PVR integration
- stuttery playback of 4K@60fps content (YouTube, Chromecast built-in,...)
- sudden discontinuation of previously advertised features
- bloat- and spyware
- poor content search results
- poor Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa integration
- no refresh rate switching for video playback via apps
- limited text input possibilities
- no useful 4K photo viewer
Beside this review, I am also maintaining an issue tracker, detailing major and minor flaws of the Sony/MediaTek Android TV integration. One can filter for problem categories via labels (e.g. USB, Standby,...) or for a specific firmware version via milestones, e.g.:
Feel free to leave comments in case you have further information. Please also note that the issue tracker is no support forum though. It is important to keep this place clean so that it can act as a reference. Feel free to contact me in order to report reproducible issues.