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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 user.

This review applies to any Android TV based Sony product to date, as apart from the panel, all are based on a similarly performing MediaTek processor and pretty much the same operating system.

The purpose of this review 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 Android TV.

[Last updated: 2018-04]

Agenda

Untrustworthy Sony

Hardware Platform

Android TV

Navigation Philosophy

Home

Content Discovery

Voice Assistant

Unified Search

Commands

Media Playback

Video

Everything 60Hz

Supported Codecs

Audio Passthrough

Photos

Digital Broadcast TV (DTV)

Apps

Netflix

Amazon Video

YouTube

Kodi

Mobile Helpers

Chromecast built-in

Video & TV SideView

Android TV Remote Control

Keyboards

External Storage

Power Consumption & Standby Behavior

Network Streaming

Software Support

Milestones

Security & Privacy Concerns

Bug-Tracker

Oreo and the Future of Android TV

Verdict

Untrustworthy Sony

Back in January 2016, around and at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Sony promised a faster main processor for their 2016 models (see video) together with the at that time latest Android 6 Marshmallow (see video). They also announced (via FlatpanelsHD, Feb. 2016) that the upcoming HDR capable models are supposed to feature YouTube HDR playback:

YouTube will also start streaming in HDR quality later this year, using a new VP9-Profile 2 codec that brings HDR support to Google’s VP9 video format. Sony’s Motoi Kawamura, Head of TV Product Planning for Sony Europe, confirmed to FlatpanelsHD that the 2016 models will support VP9-Profile 2 and be capable of streaming YouTube in HDR. We saw a demo at CES and it looked very good.

Source1 | Source2

Something seems to have terribly gone wrong though. As it turned out, Sony put the old BRAVIA 2015 (also known as ATV1) platform on the whole spring 2016 line-up (XD85/SD85/XD93/XD94) without publicly communicating it. Those models therefore also lack the ability to decode VP9-profile 2 (VP9.2) video which hasn’t immediately become obvious due to a lack of respective content. With the advent of YouTube HDR, Sony chose to stay mum as to why their expensive premium TVs from 2016 (XD93/XD94), actually featuring the display technology to properly reproduce HDR, are not able to play it back. But the crucial part is yet to come as the cheap summer line-up (XD70/XD75, XD80/XD83), which has only been released 3-4 months later, finally received the new platform called BRAVIA ATV2. So after 3-4 months on the market, the expensive March 2016 models have already been rendered out of date. That is pretty bad mismanagement and misinformation on Sony’s behalf. Basing different models with the same nomenclature from the same model year (being released in close proximity to one another) on platforms from different generations is a big no-no. Especially if the cheap entry-level models get the faster and more capable hardware platform than the expensive premium models.

Samsung released a firmware for ALL their HDR capable 2016 models, enabling YouTube HDR playback via VP9-profile 2 decoding from day one. More than two years later, at CES 2018, Sony still had nothing to say about YouTube HDR. So they for sure did not have a working demo back in early 2016.

The BRAVIA 2015 platform also failed to receive the promised Marshmallow update throughout the whole year of 2016, having been delayed numerous times. It wasn’t until February 22nd 2017 that it finally started rolling out in Europe, just to be pulled again one week later for another two months due to severe installation issues, see Software Support. Keep in mind that nVIDIA has already started rolling out next generation Nougat(!) for their SHIELD TV in January, so being more than one year ahead of Sony.

Sony recently also started to abandon major features which they have actively been advertising in the past, like for example all TV guide functionality inside the Video & TV SideView app or the Opera TV Store.

And if you hoped 2017/2018 would become a year without any serious affairs, Sony again proved us all wrong. The Dolby Vision firmware update, which Sony promised for certain models back at CES 2017, finally arrived more than one year later. As if the delay wasn’t bad enough, users had to find out that the feature only worked for several select stock apps (Netflix, Amazon Video), but not for all of them (like VUDU) and not for external media players connected via HDMI (like Ultra HD Blu-ray players, Apple TV 4K or Chromecast Ultra) as Sony/Dolby had to come up with a new profile for displays that have not been designed with Dolby Vision in mind from the beginning. Luckily, most HDMI source devices seem to be flexible enough to adapt this new profile via firmware update. So after having waited for over a year already customers have pretty much been taken back to square one.

Hardware Platform

In 2015, Sony released their 1st generation Android TV platform called BRAVIA 2015 (also known as ATV1), hosting the MediaTek MT5890 SoC, actually being a renamed MT5595 which is supposed to feature four 32-bit ARM cores in a big.LITTLE configuration (2x Cortex A7 + 2x Cortex A17). It seems however, that the LITTLE cores (Cortex A7) have been removed or made invisible to the operating system, so actually being dual core rather than a true quad core. MT5890 inside Philips Android TV sets indeed features true quad core with all cores being visible to the operating system.

GPU is an ARM Mali T624 with three shader cores which is not suited for any serious gaming.

The newer “BRAVIA ATV2” platform, which all models released after July 2016 are based on, features the MT5891 (MT5596) SoC with four equal 64-bit ARM Cortex A53 cores. An A53 core is quite a bit slower than an A17 core at the same clock speed though. So single threaded applications might very well run slower on the newer SoC. For an operating system like Android, where apps in the background are able to do all kinds of nasty things, more cores might do some good to the overall responsiveness though.

The GPU has been updated to ARM Mali T860, only comprising two shader cores this time though, resulting in only mediocre performance improvements compared to the previous MT5890.

So even the 2nd generation platform is not remarkably faster than 1st for both, CPU and GPU tasks. The bigger issue of the early 2016 models still being based on the old 1st generation platform is probably long-term support as the MT5890 lacks support for 64-bit, OpenGL ES 3.2 and Vulkan. But Sony/MediaTek will most probably be dropping support altogether sooner than Google will be phasing out 32-bit or OpenGL ES 3.1 in order to render the MT5890 incompatible.

If you are not a passionate gamer in the hope of trading your gaming console for a Sony Android TV and are happy with the standard video formats that the integrated SoC is capable of decoding in hardware, the performance of the MT5890/MT5891 is probably sufficient for most common TV tasks. As an iPhone user I have to say that navigation isn’t exactly smooth on Sony Android TV with apps starting rather slowly. More mature operating system and drivers could help sustaining performance over a longer period of time. Android is not very good at managing resources. Reboots every now and then are inevitable. The long power button press quickly becomes your best friend.

Sony 2017 and early 2018 models are still based on the MT5891 (2nd generation platform) from early 2016. Performance therefore still leaves to be desired. Sony currently does not deploy MediaTek’s 3rd (MT5597) or 4th (MT5598) generation Android TV SoC. Probably not worth the effort anyway as the CPU didn’t receive a major upgrade, GPU has even been downgraded to an OpenGL ES 2.0 compliant Mali 450 from 2012! The main goal of MediaTek’s Android TV SoC line-up is clearly cost effectiveness. There is nothing premium about it which Sony claims their products to be.

Android TV

It is hard to get excited about Android TV. To be fair though, others haven’t cracked the TV business either, with Apple TV probably coming the closest in terms of content navigation with its fast processor, deep Siri voice integration and TV app, also offering the most complete list of relevant streaming services directly on the TV without requiring a mobile friend. In case of Android TV, not only does it fail to be revolutionary, you will also find unfinished business in pretty much every corner. Android TV just doesn’t feel ready for prime-time. This is true for its latest iteration Oreo when looking at the sorry state of the Nexus Player, but even more so for the Sony where we are at least 1-2 iterations behind.

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. Contracts and money determine what content is on which platform or even TV. Android TV and even Apple TV are no exceptions to that.

Also, after the Google TV disaster, not many seem to trust in Google’s TV ambitions anymore. It is for sure not as significant as Google intended it to be. Other platforms are much more functional with a wider range of useful good quality services and for sure more mature. Just don’t make the mistake and put Android TV on par with the mobile Android. The two are worlds apart. Even Google does not seem to believe in their own TV platform, putting new features and services on their own Chromecast device (and even competing platforms) long before they arrive on Android TV. I have yet to find any UHD/HDR content on Google Play Movies for example, YouTube HDR has yet to arrive as well.

The recent demise of Vizio’s SmartCast-only philosophy and Google Chromecast losing market share to Amazon Fire TV and Roku in the U.S. indicate that people indeed vote for a classic user interface. And Google has an answer to that trend in-house. They just need to put more energy and money behind it.

Navigation Philosophy

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.

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 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 Smart onboard, button presses are still transmitted via directional infrared. So this is still Stone Age with respect to how we interact with our Sony TV in 2017 as voice control on Android TV isn’t 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 AirMouse 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.

Home

The Home screen, also known as Leanback Launcher, is Android TV’s central entry point and app hub. Its intrusiveness contradicts the minimal approach that many other smart TV vendors are taking, occupying the whole screen, most of the time ripping you out of what is currently playing as only few apps support background playback. That’s not much of a problem though as the only real purpose of this menu today is switching apps anyway.

The whole menu consists of several shelves (rows), each serving a different purpose, with the first one displaying content recommendations provided by several installed apps. I really like the idea. Problem however is that many important apps (like Netflix or Amazon Video) still don’t provide any information at all, others are not very smart about our viewing habits. This is for example true for YouTube with recommended content being of very random nature. When deep diving into the app, recommendations are far better compared to what gets promoted via the Home screen.

Recommendations today feel more like Google’s market place, trying to force us into something rather than giving us what we are actually interested in. They have all our data and that’s all they can do?

Another major problem is that 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. Personalization does not reach beyond some of Google’s own services though.

Next up is the Featured Apps shelf which is basically Sony’s market place, presenting a mixture of already installed but also recommended apps which is quite confusing. Those app recommendations have never presented me with anything useful either, pretty much suffering from the same shortcomings as Google’s content recommendations, not incorporating our own preferences at all. Sony’s featured apps should be presented in a less prominent place only, like for example the Sony Select store, just like Google’s are in their Play Store.

Having pretty much wasted the top two shelves, we are finally approaching what people might be using the most, the shelves containing all their installed apps/services (and games). Sony’s catch on shelves however is that apps already present in the Featured Apps won’t appear in Apps anymore which can make finding your desired app on the home screen cumbersome at times. Featured Apps are entirely managed by Sony, not being sortable with apps sometimes switching position or even shelf at Sony’s will.

Fortunately, it is easily possible to hide Sony’s borked Featured Apps shelf. Most apps appear in the Apps shelf after a reboot, being manually or automatically sortable (based on a most recently used pattern), some minor non-native apps (like Rakuten TV in Europe) are unfortunately gone from the home screen.

Right after the Apps and Games shelves comes the Inputs shelf. It is a well appreciated alternative for those refusing to use Sony’s bad remote in order to switch the input source. There is however also a third way to do so via voice command, probably being the fastest and most convenient one.

As of Nougat, long-pressing the Home button brings up the newly added app switcher, which in theory allows for quick hopping between apps and easy app killing which one sometimes has to due to hang-up. Problem is that a lot of apps can’t properly be backgrounded, not even most of the stock apps can be (e.g. Amazon Video, Netflix, YouTube).

Content Discovery

Android TV (up to Nougat) does not provide any means for content consolidation and discovery, apart from the rather useless single recommendations row on the home screen and the not too functional integrated voice assistant. So you basically have to deep dive into every single app in order to browse the respective service’s content.

Sony recognized this major weakness, providing the what they call Discover menu. The admittedly brilliant idea behind it is to consolidate media content from VOD/OTT services like Netflix (showing you new/recommended/recent content), over DTV channels (showing highlights/recommendations/what’s currently on TV), to your private library in one single “browser” which can be accessed from virtually anywhere. It can be blended over apps and DTV in a multitasking fashion instead of ripping you out of what is currently running.

This Sony custom menu unfortunately has several decisive shortcomings, the major one being that 3rd party app support is limited to YouTube and Netflix only. Hardly any content provider wants to hook up to Sony’s proprietary APIs. Private library integration is not very well thought through either, only showing some seemingly arbitrary media files found on connected USB storage devices and DLNA servers.

It might become cumbersome to find anything if too many sources are enabled as only one layer of information is displayed at any time. Multiple layers are already occupied by default just for all the DTV channel lists and different views on them (TV, digital/analog/radio only, favorites 1-4). Most recently watched channels are unfortunately not available which would dramatically improve navigation with D- and touchpads.

The menu feels quite sluggish at times, especially when not having been used in a while, probably because it gets kicked out of RAM from time to time due to shortage.

Like all Sony software on the TV, also the Discover menu feels so out of place, being a major break with the Android TV user interface design. Something like the Discover menu has all the rights to be around, but with the way it is currently executed, I am not using it at all. Content discovery is something that Google needs to address inside their operating system by providing a home screen widget that service providers can hook up to in order to provide information via respective APIs, similar to recommendations, putting the content front and center.

Voice Assistant

Voice control is not science fiction anymore, but a key feature of today’s smart devices. They 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… Let’s see how far we can get with the voice assistant built right into Sony Android TV.

Unified Search

Even though voice should have been the preferred way to search for content, it hasn’t been tightly integrated with 3rd party apps since the launch of Android TV back in 2014. Still most popular content apps are not globally searchable on this platform. Others like Roku can pull search results from a lot more services, including Amazon Video for example. I have much more trust in a service independent platform like Roku for showing really unbiased information anyway.

Beside the poor app/service integration with the unified search, there are also several other weaknesses. Apps running in the foreground can for example disable or override it, only searching their own databases. I think that apps should only be allowed to hook up to the global unified search, enabling you to find anything from anywhere. Queries could easily be restricted to a certain app by just stating its name.

Another letdown is that voice search rips the TV out of what is currently running instead of showing results in an overlay.

Android TV voice search is also not very smart about understanding context. You can for example say “show me movies with Sylvester Stallone”, but when adding “only those with Arnold Schwarzenegger”, it would not show you movies starring both.

Commands

While it is possible to launch any app via voice command (e.g. ‘Open Netflix’), something more complex like ‘Play Lie To Me’, with the OS automatically picking the right app and resuming from where you just left off, won’t work. Nobody wants to know which app or network a certain movie or show plays on.

Simple commands like ‘What’s on TV?’ (bringing up the TV Guide) or ‘Go to channel XY’ are supported for the integrated DTV. In most cases you will still need the remote in order to finish your desired task, like for example scheduling an event for recording.

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 (like for example ‘Open Input HDMI1’) make the TV stumble again. So there is certainly no smart A.I. behind it.

Media playback control (like for example pause/play, skipping ahead,...) via spoken command unfortunately isn’t supported at all.

German spoken voice commands only worked after setting the system language accordingly rather than the speech language. However, many of my spoken German commands have not been recognized (like ‘Was läuft im Fernsehen?’) and I couldn’t find a running list of valid ones. Switching the channel is basically supported (‘Schalte auf…’), but is pretty useless in its current state as the TV fails to resolve many of the German channel names, especially those with special characters inside (like Sat.1 or ORF SPORT+ HD).

The whole voice control for sure isn’t where it should be. Neither is it possible to find content across your apps/service nor can you control a hell of a lot. I am also not impressed by its ability to understand context and natural conversation. It reminds me of a voice control of the old days, requiring one to learn a specific syntax, being far from a modern A.I. like Google Assistant for example. The lack of a proper documentation also leads to lots of trial and error.

Unfortunately ATV1 based models won’t receive an update to Google Assistant/Home and/or Amazon Alexa. Sony instead uses Google’s work as an incentive to buy their newer products. This especially hurts customers of the early 2016 models. Sony chose not to comment on why cheap a XD70/XD80 received the Google Assistant update while an expensive XD93/XD94 from the same year did not. Total mismanagement. Hoped Google would ship Assistant independently. Seems not.

Some tech blogs like 9to5Google claim that sideloading the Google app for Android TV 3.X enables Google Assistant on unsupported devices. The only thing that changed for me was the graphical user interface which admittedly is a huge improvement compared to the previous one. The underlying voice assistant however remained a totally dumb Google Now. The reason for this might be that Google Assistant has not yet been made available in my country. It might also take more than just updating the Google search app in order to unleash the full potential.

Media Playback

Video

Everything 60Hz

Sony lacks support for the public Android API for retrieving and switching the supported refresh rates/display modes. The only exception to this limitation is the integrated DTV player where Sony seems to have access to some private API, switching to 50Hz for smooth PAL playback.

Android otherwise presents at a permanent 60 frames per second, resulting in micro-judder for a lot of content here in Europe when being played back within the 3rd party app context (e.g. Kodi, YouTube,...).

Sony’s  Motionflow is supposed to make up for this major crime, being capable of converting everything to the native panel refresh rate. Setting the Motionflow Smoothness slider in the middle (3) results in decent frame rate conversion without introducing a too visible soap opera effect (SOE). The more you crank up that Smoothness slider, the more visible the SOE 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) setting as otherwise no frame interpolation is applied at all. This setting only determines for which content to apply frame interpolation, but not its strength (which is controlled by Motionflow Smoothness). For progressive content, you need to set it to Medium, for interlaced content all the way up to High.

The lack of refresh rate switching especially hurts when playing interlaced PAL video in 3rd party apps. After engaging some motion interpolation, the image processor sometimes seems to be using Weave deinterlacing for certain portions of the image which would actually require interpolation.

It always takes one or the other second for the motion interpolator to detect the cadence. For some content, the TV fails to lock on the given frame rate at all or constantly loses lock, resulting in (intermittent) judder.

As for 24p film content (e.g. via built-in apps like Netflix or Amazon Video), I am not able to discern natural judder due to the low frame rate from judder introduced by a 3:2 pulldown. So I can’t really tell whether the TV with True Cinema being enabled is properly upconverting such content to 120Hz (via 5:5). I truly believe that the 24p issue is so much overhyped anyway.

Purists for sure prefer refresh rate switching over frame interpolation which unfortunately is not supported on Sony. 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 via the SoC’s video decoder and setting refresh rate accordingly, which is all handled by the “system”, so no app support is required. As of tvOS 11.2, Apple TV is also capable of switching display modes based on the content that is being played back.

With my origin being HTPC, I have 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 60Hz, which is why I do not totally disagree with the approach taken by Sony.

The above of course does not apply when using external media players connected via HDMI. The TV accepts all common display modes via HDMI of course.

Supported Codecs

It isn’t possible to decode any modern video format at HD resolutions in software on the weak ARM cores. We are therefore pretty much limited to formats that can be decoded via the Android MediaCodec API 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 (profile 0 on MT5890, profile 2 on MT5891).

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 VC-1 at 1080p on the weak ARM cores 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 properly inside 3rd party apps.

It is highly recommended to use MediaCodec Surface video acceleration mode inside any app. It allows the GUI to be rendered in 1080p with subsequent upscaling (as a native 4K GUI is not feasible on the weak MediaTek SoC) while leaving the decoding and rendering of the video entirely up to the TV’s dedicated video hardware. This allows for 4K playback without intermediary downscaling and even proper HDR processing.

Audio Passthrough

As for audio, passthrough of multi-channel audio is pretty broken for 3rd party apps on Sony via the public Android AudioTrack APIs. While Lollipop only supported Dolby formats (AC3/EAC3) to be bitstreamed, Marshmallow finally added DTS support via API level 23. Sony/MediaTek however missed to implement it in driver land. So no DTS via the standard APIs on Sony.

There is however also another way of passing on compressed multi-channel audio by misusing the uncompressed PCM pipeline. This method is also known as “PCM hack” which Google strongly discourages app developers from using as the compressed bitstream can easily get altered along that path (e.g. by mixing it with another source like system sounds or the speech of some assistant), effectively garbling the audio that is being output, potentially harming audio hardware and even your ears. 

So depending on the content and the passthrough API used by any given 3rd party app, you might very well run into one or the other problem with multi-channel audio.

Keep in mind that TVs typically only feature HDMI inputs, so no outputs, meaning that we are limited to HDMI-ARC, over which lossless audio (like True HD or DTS-HD) is not explicitly specified due to bandwidth limitations. This will only change with the upcoming HDMI 2.1/eARC standard. I still believe that the good old lossy Dolby and DTS formats with 5.1 channels are enough for the average home user anyway. And all modern audio formats by Dolby and DTS have some sort of backward compatibility baked in.

Dolby Atmos can work when being carried via lossy Dolby Digital Plus (instead of True HD), but the receiver obviously also has to support that.

The pre-installed media player called Video does not suffer from the VC-1 hardware decoding and DTS passthrough restrictions as it has access to some private APIs, but is otherwise awful. Since the app lacks folder tree support, it always indexes the whole medium at once, also creating a thumbnail for each found video file. Needless to say that loading only few media files from an USB storage might already take forever, navigating them is pure horror. Using this app really makes you wanna throw a stone into its developer’s garden.

Sony/MediaTek should concentrate on standard Android APIs. What is Android’s app advantage good for anyway if the APIs don’t work as specified?

Photos

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 it on your shiny new 4K TV? You probably went for a 4K panel for this very reason? Well, you better shouldn’t have…

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 be upscaled to 4K further downstream. There is no public API for 3rd party apps to bypass the downscaling and render to the 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”, for example displaying photos in the reverse chronological order, so from new to old. There is no way to change that apart from faking the date stored in the photo metadata which of course is totally pointless.

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 (DTV)

I moved 100% of my media consumption to the web with well over 90% being on-demand.  I still 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. So it has been outsourced but is well worth reading for those of you who still receive broadcast TV that way...

Sony DTV Integration

Apps

Don’t fool yourself into believing that Android TV has the same app machinery behind as its mobile brother. Despite the fact that it is possible to sideload mobile apps, those are hardly optimized for a 10-foot user interface with its controls. The sideloading of mobile apps is also way too cumbersome for the average user as Google does not want you to use those on the TV… for a reason…

Sony advertises their Android TV line of products as having access to “thousands of apps” which is nothing but a bold marketing gag. A huge number of those apps are only have been carried from mobile and are of niche interest at best (not to call them totally pointless on a TV) or games which are hardly feasible due to the slow SoC or lack of available disk space (which you can’t really expand due to buggy USB). A good TV platform is not defined by the number but the quality of the important content apps and services.

Those important apps from major content providers are mostly WebViews only, all having a different look and feel to them, not following any of the Android TV design guidelines. 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 only support Chromecast which adds up to the fact that Android TV is such an inconsistent platform.

Every app/service is of so much better quality on an Apple TV, integrating with voice search, using tvOS’ rather minimalistic but brilliant default video player. I have yet to witness a single stutter on the fast Apple A10X processor, no matter the content. Also seeking video has never been more fun and consistent across apps.

Netflix

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 on Sony Android TV, also being capable of doing Dolby 5.1 audio passthrough. Navigation is quite fast and not perceived as being too laggy even on the slow hardware.

The only major drawback is the integration into Android TV’s unified voice search. It wasn’t until late 2016 that Netflix content finally appeared in the results. Search however does not seem to query the Netflix app for local results but instead searches the U.S. catalog all by itself, therefore pulling incomplete and even wrong information for other countries, sometimes only showing the pay items available on the Google Play Store but not the free ones on Netflix.

Amazon Video

The Amazon Video experience has been appallingly poor since the very beginnings of Sony’s Android TV endeavor. The pace at which important changes happen is 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 productively 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 Marshmallow firmware on the other hand introduced severe sync issues which manifested themselves in frequent video stutter and audio dropouts. Another year had to pass before those issues finally got addressed with the release of the Nougat firmware.

The experience is still far from the Apple TV or Fire TV one though. It for example sometimes takes two attempts to start a video and overlaying a menu still results in wild video judder and audio dropouts. Also navigating Amazon menus is quite laggy on Sony Android TV with lots of annoying waiting times involved. It has improved quite a bit lately, but is still far from the speedy Netflix.

Searching for media is a major pain as the app is neither integrated with the global unified (voice) search, nor can you use any 3rd-party keyboard to input text in the search field, see Keyboards. There is also still mild usage of color buttons. Unfortunately, latest update to the web front-end removed the Prime filter. So you will always see a mixture of free Prime and non-free purchase/rental content which can be confusing at times.

Amazon Video is one of the few apps that completely gets wiped from memory when going back to the home screen which means that reopening it always takes several seconds. I think this is due to the fact that the app is known to be pretty unstable, using a massive amount of RAM, often entering some kind of an inconsistent state in which it is hardly usable anymore. Going back to the home screen and reopening the app therefore takes care of such incidents.

The stock Amazon Video app lately silently got replaced by the Prime Video app from the Play Store on my TV. It still allows for rentals and purchasing. As I don’t think that Amazon is paying Google the 30% cut for in-app purchasing, it will be interesting to see how Google will react to that.

YouTube

The reason why I dedicate a section to YouTube exclusively is that I recently started to observe and document my media consumption habits, quickly realizing that YouTube has grown from occasional fun clip watching to a serious entertainment platform for all kinds of genres. A good YouTube experience is therefore a key aspect of today’s TVs.

With version 2.0, Google recently brought their unified smart TV look also to Android TV, moving from a truly native Android app to a WebView, 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.

The video player inside YouTube 2.0 is poorly optimized for the weak MediaTek SoC inside Sony Android TV, now consuming way more CPU time, resulting in jerky playback of high frame rate (60p) content at resolutions higher than HD. YouTube HDR is still not supported on any Sony TV while competing platforms from LG and Samsung received a respective update months ago.

Positive aspects about the YouTube 2.0 update on Android TV are the improved content curation and that it is finally possible to play live streams at resolutions higher than a pixelated 240p. And it took Google only years to fix this severe annoyance.

So if you think that Android TV will give you a better YouTube experience compared to competing TV platforms, you might be disappointed. The move to YouTube 2.0, in many ways being a regression compared to 1.X, clearly demonstrates the love and care that Google puts into their own TV platform and how significant it really is.

Kodi

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 Sony Android TV particularly well-suited hardware for Kodi though, suffering from several driver limitations, see Media Playback.

So why bother with Kodi? These are my personal top-5 reasons why I prefer Kodi over the 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

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 to the Sony TV 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 therefore the 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, which connects 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, as the latter one fails to switch refresh rate to 50Hz due to the Sony lacking support for the respective public Android API, therefore requiring quality degrading motion interpolation for smooth PAL video playback.

Mobile Helpers

Chromecast built-in

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 into Android TV can go all the way up to 4K (2160p60) using the VP9 codec. The default video player in Android TV is not without some major woes and limitations though. It for example already struggles to play high frame rate HD video (1080p60) in a judder-free way on the weak MediaTek SoC, similar to YouTube 2.0. Also consider that refresh rate of the display cannot be changed either. So you’ll need to engage some Motionflow to get a consistently smooth video experience as services (e.g. YouTube) may support any common frame rate.

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 go with DLNA instead).

A mobile device based on Android is probably the better Chromecast companion compared to iOS, as it supports the casting of almost any HTML5 (MP4 or WebM) web video 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. Many content providers still don’t support it at all, some apps/services seem to only work properly in tandem with the real Google Chromecast device for whatever reason.

Video & TV SideView

After the discontinuation of all DTV features inside the Video & TV SideView app, one of the few leftovers is the DLNA Controller. 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 on the App Store are not available free of charge (like Infuse). However, the DLNA Renderer/Player on TV side (also the stock Video app) fails to play a lot of media files from my Synology NAS, especially recorded MPEG-2 TS with H.264 video inside, most probably due to a MIME type incompatibility. Kodi as DLNA Renderer/Player so far played anything from anywhere though.

What also didn’t get kicked out were the different virtual remotes, like a D-pad and touchpad, with the latter one being far superior in terms of usability as it does not require one to constantly have an eye on it for navigation. The on/off switch and a possibility to enter the Discover menu are well appreciated. Volume control is missing 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 quite 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.

Android TV Remote Control

Just like Video & TV SideView, this app also features D-pad and touchpad remotes. 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. But some essential controls are missing, which are volume control (at least on iOS) and an on/off switch. 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 even though respective APIs exist and are for example supported by the YouTube app when being connected via Chromecast.

Other features I would love to see with touchpad remotes for Android TV are quick swiping, adding the possibility to move multiple menu items per swipe, and the possibility to define multitouch gestures for certain controls (e.g. volume).

Unfortunately the app is quite buggy and therefore hardly usable under iOS (see bugs #44, #45, #46, #65).

Keyboards

I perfectly understand that people just don’t want another computer-like device in their living rooms, me included. That’s 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 global Android TV search, Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Video). Also, when it comes to signing into every single service/account on the TV, an alternative to the standard D-pad remote 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 the MINIX NEO A2, providing a HID compatible keyboard with full QWERTY layout on its back.

There are basically 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 and YouTube 2.0. While input via MINIX NEO A2 keyboard works fine, input via the 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”.

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. A representative of this category is the poor Amazon Video app.

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 properly 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 see varying virtual on-screen keyboards with limited input possibilities.

External Storage

Usable flash memory on Sony Android TV is only 8GB. As of Marshmallow, Google however added the possibility to extend internal memory via some external USB storage.

I strongly discourage the use of this so-called adoptable storage at the moment as it is very slow and flaky on Sony’s MediaTek based Android TV. (see bugs #12 and #68)

If you just want to feed some media into the TV or need some data store for your installed Android apps, you might want to use your storage as a conventional removable one which seems to work just fine.

There are however potential compatibility issues with some USB attached storage devices. The pen drive that I frequently used on my Sony (also for updating firmware) failed to properly be recognized/initialized after updating to Marshmallow. Conventional formatting didn’t fix the issue, rewriting the partition table eventually did. So you might want to consider low-level formatting your storage in case you experience detection issues after Lollipop.

Power Consumption & Standby Behavior

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 Sony TV still consume ~20W after it has been switched off? Doesn’t look like a very good hardware design to me in terms of power efficiency.

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 hours) until deep sleep is finally entered, reducing power consumption to about 0.5W, from which there are frequent wake-ups though. I have no clue what maintenance work the TV does in standby. Guide (EPG) and service updating for sure do not take that long when done right and what those wakeups are good for remains a secret to me.

If you don’t require your (mobile) devices to power on the TV from standby over network, I strongly recommend the respective option to be disabled (Settings ⇒ Network ⇒ Remote start). The TV might otherwise not reliably go into deep sleep anymore. Some network activity (e.g. from discovery services like Bonjour) might keep it quite busy, often switching between shallow and deep sleep state (see issue #70).

Even after disabling Remote start, the TV is still constantly waking up:

Wakeups happen every few minutes, so several dozen times over the course of one single night. The main cause turned out to be Google mobile(!!!) services setting up timers every few minutes in order to be able to phone home. I don’t know what customer benefits those wakeups have. There are certainly no time-critical notifications on a TV. And it certainly does not have to look for software updates with such a high frequency. It again shows that the OS has its origins in the mobile space with totally different requirements and hasn’t very well been optimized for the TV.

The number of reports about dying power supply boards has been increasing lately and I can imagine that the frequent wakeups might have a considerable influence on that.

Those wakeups also cause a handshake on the HDMI 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 dropouts on other connected devices while the TV is in standby, you now know why. Sony is just pointing fingers at Google, stating that those wakeups are common to Android TV. Not only do those wakeups cause trouble, they also violate applicable EU regulations.

Certain settings and even apps can block deep sleep altogether. The latter has for example been observed with some radio/music apps like TuneIn Radio and Spotify when switching off the TV without manually stopping playback before.

Sony Android TV therefore neither deserves the green nor the trusted badge!

Network Streaming

As for network connectivity, the whole Sony Android TV line-up 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.

With 802.11ac 2x MIMO, you are supposed to theoretically get real world data rates of up to 430mbps at optimal conditions. A bottleneck which cuts the maximum throughput in half on Sony right away is that the Wi-Fi controller seems to internally be hooked up to the SoC via USB 2.0 only. Sony probably cut some costs here by not adding an USB 3.0 hub controller.

In order to test network playback performance, I used the jellyfish bitrate files. For Ultra HD Blu-ray compliancy, I even went up to the 120mbps (17.5MB/s) sample. Even though that sounds like overkill, 4K@60fps means quite some data, even for HEVC/VP9 with 4:2:0 chroma subsampling.

The samples were streamed off of Windows and Linux based servers with various protocols such as DLNA, SMB and NFS. Kodi has been used as the primary player on the Sony TV.

I first tried to play the sample off of a fast USB 3.0 HDD in order to verify that the MT5890 is capable of decoding HEVC Main 10 High@Level 5.1 at such a high bitrate. I also stress-tested my network infrastructure (server ⇒ Gibt Ethernet Switch ⇒ Wi-Fi access point ⇒ Wi-Fi client station) to rule out any potential bottleneck. All tests went well with the network achieving a stable 300-400mbps (TCP traffic) over 802.11ac at the same distance as the Sony TV in direct line of sight of the access point.

The Sony TV however didn’t even come close to the throughput achieved by the other 802.11ac clients I tried. While WiFi Speed Test, downloading data via TCP from the server to the Sony TV, attested a staggering 100mbps on average with previous firmware versions, Nougat at least raised the bar to a stable 200mbps.

As for playing back the jellyfish bitrate files over Wi-Fi, the Nougat based Sony TV for the first time played the 120mbps sample just fine via various servers and protocols from within Kodi. But the weak ARM cores have pretty much been maxed out. Keep in mind that the sample is 30fps only. I am quite confident that the TV would have stumbled at 60fps. So still beware that those TVs have primarily been designed to play those heavily compressed 24p Netflix and Prime Video streams.

I haven’t performed any range tests. Access point and Sony TV have been positioned about 4-5m from each other in direct line of sight. Throughput might drastically decrease with distance and obstacles in between your TV and the access point.

Software Support

Software support has been quite poor so far despite Sony updating their whole Android TV line-up to Marshmallow and even Nougat. What most people don’t understand is that even though Google delivers the Android TV operating system, Sony still has lots of responsibilities with respect to software which is where things start to fail. Linux kernel is an ancient 3.10 (which used to be the baseline for KitKat!) with MediaTek and Sony drivers/services being flaky as hell. Sony’s DTV integration is still a major pain, even more so after crippling the Video & TV SideView mobile app in that respect. So Android updates are worth nothing if the rest of the system is left behind. In fact, every major Android update brought us more new issues than they actually solved due to insufficient system adaptations. I would go as far as to say that Sony/MediaTek are among the worst Android TV integrators. Even some cheap Chinese sub-$70 boxes provide a better experience. Marshmallow and Nougat didn’t bring any groundbreaking TV features to the table either.

Milestones

Marshmallow

The long promised and often delayed Marshmallow update finally arrived end of February 2017. Sony held customers off for several months, telling them that this update will be their savior, addressing all major issues present in Lollipop. It turned out to be a major disaster for Sony though with lots of devices getting stuck in a reboot loop, requiring customers to perform a hard factory reset, wiping all previously installed apps, data and settings. In some cases, the panel wouldn’t even turn on anymore, requiring the affected customers to send their devices in for repair. Frightening to know that a firmware update can brick the TV beyond user recoverability. Sony had to finally pull the trigger on the update, spending another two months to just fix the installation issues.

So one might want to disable automatic software updates, not immediately jumping onboard when a new firmware version has been released. I therefore recommend installing the Sony Support app (even though it isn’t Sony’s finest hour either) on your mobile device and setting up notifications for your TV in order to stay informed.

Luckily, installation went fine for me. While Marshmallow did contain some bug fixes, it also introduced quite some new severe issues like unreliable playback in Amazon Video or an attached USB storage often not being accessible after standby (deep sleep) anymore, also destabilizing scheduled DTV recordings. The worst part is that Sony does not feel the necessity to fix such severe issues in key features for several months to come.

Nougat

The Nougat update for ATV1 again arrived with substantial delay. It hasn’t seen the light until March of 2018 here in Europe. And it again wasn’t worth the wait as Sony/MediaTek again did not get their own act together with the underlying system still being flaky as hell, also not implementing some of Android’s latest TV APIs (like for example latest audio passthrough APIs or display mode switching). The worst part about Sony’s Nougat firmware is the addition of even more bloat- and even spyware. Instead of cleaning up the slow and buggy system, Sony is making it worse with every major firmware version, adding more and more malware which Average Joe can’t even uninstall. And each time Sony discontinues a feature, some dead bodies keep sticking around.

nVIDIA is doing a much better job with their SHIELD TV, already having been distributing the Nougat update since January 2017, so even before Sony started rolling out the previous generation Marshmallow to their first generation Android TV sets. The Tegra SoC is really fast and drivers are stable and more up-to-date concerning Android API support.

As already mentioned, ATV1 customers are out of luck as they won’t get Google Assistant. What they do get with the update though is this spying piece of **** called Samba TV. Many people wonder what Samba TV actually does for them as the information available on the web is rather vague. In fact it gathers lots of data about our viewing behavior which especially media companies and advertisers benefit from. Representatives also try to make the service look attractive to us end-users as otherwise nobody would opt in. But I really fail to see any tangible benefit. In fact, enabling Samba TV considerably slows down the already slow system.

Sony is seemingly putting all their efforts behind such dubious machinations instead of fixing the numerous issues that bother people on a daily basis. I pretty much assume that the Samba TV deal is a lucrative one for Sony.

Security & Privacy Concerns

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, typically being several months behind. The initial Nougat release in the U.S. didn’t even include a patch for the severe KRACK (WPA2) vulnerability. After putting some pressure on Sony, they at least managed to address this issue for the European release.

I also have several privacy concerns with Sony Android TV, the most severe one being that some Sony deployed services are still happily exchanging data even after disabling them (one of which even automatically re-enables itself) and declining the respective privacy policies. I added those concerns as issues to my tracker (#73, #74). One can clearly smell an infringement of users’ privacies here.

Bug-Tracker

Beside this review, I am also maintaining a bug tracker, detailing major and minor flaws of the Sony/MediaTek Android TV integration. One can filter for problem categories via labels (e.g. MediaTek, USB, Standby, Amazon Video,...) or for a specific firmware version via milestones. Consider that these are only the issues that are well reproducible. There are also transient issues which are hard to get hold of, like for example Wi-Fi sometimes not connecting properly (no internet) or system slowdowns/instabilities out of nowhere.

Feel free to leave comments in case you have further information. Please also note that it is no support forum though.

Oreo and the Future of Android TV

I got quite excited when Google first demonstrated their new home screen prior to releasing it as part of Android TV 8.0 Oreo, finally 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 compared to the single Recommendations row in previous iterations of Android TV.

android-tv-launcher-o.gif

Fast-forwarding to now, so several months after the Oreo release, it is back to business. Android TV Oreo on the Nexus Player is a mess. Not only does it lack many of the demonstrated features with the Home screen being more or less empty, navigation is also noticeably more laggy even though Oreo is actually said to be well optimized for slower processors with little RAM, finally placing limits on what apps can do in the background.

Still hardly any 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.

Google deprecates background video playback as of Oreo which means that the new launcher is taking over the whole screen, ripping you out of what has previously been playing. I would have preferred a less intrusive approach, instead ditching those rather useless video previews. The added information content on the home screen would have justified background playback more than ever.

This year’s CES (2018) marks the first time that Sony did not announce a future Android update to Oreo for all their Android TV model generations. This most probably means that they won’t put it on devices based on the ATV1 platform even though there is no technical reason not to. All MediaTek chips built into any Sony Android TV to date are sufficiently similar (functionality- and performance-wise), theoretically enabling relatively easy updating across the board. Then again it is just a MediaTek based Android device. People familiar with the matter probably know what this typically implies for the life cycle of a product.

What’s inherently wrong with the TV industry is that it is not about building outstanding products which are fun to use, it is just about keeping up with rest while spending as little money as possible. That’s why I doubt that Sony will counteract the norm in the TV industry with product life cycles being rather short. Sony managers probably only see the amount of time and money spent on QA for such major updates and the probability of failure which both increase with every model year. And Sony did screw updates up badly in the past.

Existing customers for sure won’t buy a new Sony TV just because of Oreo. I am quite confident that an extended lifecycle (also actively tackling the security issue) could however become a unique selling point, attracting new customers. Sony won’t be taking that opportunity though.

I am not even sure whether all ATV2 based models will get the update or whether it will artificially be restricted to current and future model years only. Otherwise Sony again would have to explain why they put Oreo on a cheap XD70/XD80 from 2016 while not putting it on an expensive XD93/XD94 from the same year.

With Sony potentially stopping support for some older models, we might want to look for some external media player, isolating the insecure TV from the outside world.

Sony and Philips/TPVision, both having a rather homeopathic market share compared to Samsung and LG, are just not enough to carry the Android TV platform forward. The nVIDIA SHIELD is more of a niche product and the many cheap Chinese streaming boxes won’t help Google make a lot of money either. On the app side, still many content providers lack a native Android TV app, many others integrate much better with competing platforms. Even looking at Google’s own services on Android TV pretty much tells you the story of how significant the platform really is. So where is Android TV heading? I don’t think that it will ever be big. It might very well live on in mediocrity for some time until it finally suffers the same fate as the late Google TV.

Verdict

It is amazing how frustrating and boring “smart” TVs still are in 2018 even though we have all the technology to do fancy stuff. The Sony Android TV family is set out to be this all-in-one carefree package which it just isn’t. There are much better streaming devices (both, TVs and settop-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.

If it was just for the display itself, I would probably recommend a Sony TV to people who are looking for a good panel with decent video processing capabilities, but Sony’s mismanagement, communication and commitment towards testing and fixing software bugs really piss me off. Plus they started screwing up in the picture quality department lately as well, introducing some rather severe ill effects.

Sony is clearly a semiconductor company today. 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.

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 Sony TVs from their shelves) and several online communities in Europe, customer satisfaction rate seems to be at its lowest. The fact that Google chose Samsung to showcase YouTube HDR is a testament to where Sony and Android TV stand today. Consider that Samsung TVs don’t even run Google’s TV OS.

Sony is currently trying hard to piss people off, pretty much economizing its TV department to death. It seems as if they refuse 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 misleading product information. Yes, they do produce outstanding LCD 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)

  • security/privacy issues and awareness lack
  • standby behavior/power consumption
  • awful tuner and PVR integration
  • sudden discontinuation of previously advertised features
  • poor Amazon Video experience
  • general performance and stability issues due to cheap MediaTek SoC and buggy drivers
  • content discovery/consolidation
  • bloat-/spyware
  • poor content search results
  • rather dumb Google Now voice assistant
  • no refresh rate switching -
    60Hz for everything but DTV
  • DTS audio passthrough not working for 3rd party apps
  • limited text input possibilities
  • no useful 4K photo viewer
  • pathetic technical support