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 firmware.
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.
In January 2016, around and at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Sony promised a faster main processor for the 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.
Source1 | Source2
Something seems to have terribly gone wrong though. As it turned out, Sony put the old BRAVIA 2015 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, it will be interesting to see how Sony explains to XD93/XD94 customers that their expensive premium TV, actually featuring the display technology to properly reproduce HDR, won’t be 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 BRAVIA ATV2 platform. So after 3-4 months on the market, the expensive March 2016 models have already been rendered out of date.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 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 high-end models.
VP9.2 is not just important for YouTube HDR. H.265/HEVC won’t win that decisively against VP9(.2) as H.264/AVC did against VP8 with respect to the future 4K/HDR video format. Limited hardware support and patent issues have pretty much been ironed out. So it might very well be the other way around this time. You just can’t sell a premium HDR TV in 2016 without VP9.2 support. Some people might argue that AV1 (VP10) will become the standard 4K/HDR format, rendering all current TVs from any brand incompatible.
Samsung already released a new firmware for ALL their HDR capable 2016 models in December of the same year, enabling YouTube HDR playback via VP9-profile 2 decoding. Sony on the other hand failed to enable any device to play it back till this very day, even latest 2017 models. Don’t get fooled by the fact that your Sony TV plays clips promoted as being HDR. In fact, only the SDR pendants are being played back.
The BRAVIA 2015 platform also failed to receive the promised Marshmallow update throughout the whole year of 2016, having been delayed countless times. It wasn’t until February 22nd 2017 that Marshmallow finally started rolling out in Europe, just to be pulled again one week later due to severe issues, see Software Support. Keep in mind that nVIDIA already rolled out Nougat(!) for their SHIELD TV in January, being more than a 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 functionality inside the Video & TV SideView app or the Opera TV Store which I regarded more as bloatware though.
In 2015, Sony released their 1st generation Android TV platform called BRAVIA 2015, hosting the MediaTek MT5890 SoC, actually being a renamed MT5595 which is supposed to feature 4 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 disabled or removed for some reason, so actually being dual core rather than quad core. There seem to be different flavors of the MT5890 as the one used in Philips sets indeed features quad core.
GPU is an ARM Mali T624 with 3 shader cores which is not suited for any serious gaming.
The newer “BRAVIA ATV2” (2016) platform, which all models after July 2016 are based on, features the MT5891 (MT5596) SoC with 4 equal 64-bit Cortex A53 cores. An A53 core (@1.1GHz) is quite a bit slower than an A17 core (@1GHz) though. So single threaded applications might very well run slower on the newer SoC, given the clock frequency figures are correct. Android and apps by now are heavily multi-threaded though. Also for an operating system like Android TV, where most apps keep lingering around in the background, more cores might do some good to the overall responsiveness.
The GPU has been updated to ARM Mali T860, only comprising 2 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 SoC lacks support for 64-bit, OpenGL ES 3.2 and Vulkan. Google is currently phasing out OpenGL ES 3.0 support with Android 7 Nougat. Sony will most probably drop support alltogether 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 should be sufficient for most common TV tasks. A more mature Android operating system could help sustaining performance over a longer period of time though. 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.
As an iPhone user I have to say that navigation isn’t exactly smooth on Sony Android TV with apps starting rather slowly. Marshmallow doesn’t change that either.
Early 2017 XE models are again based on last year’s MT5891 (2nd generation platform). The Sony and MediaTek major release cycles obviously don’t match. This time Sony didn’t make any fake announcements though. Still sad to see that there again won’t be any performance boost.
MediaTek already announced their 3rd generation Android TV SoC, the MT5597 (MT5892?), supporting all major HDR video and metadata formats to date directly within the SoC without requiring external silicon or software. It will be just another quad core ARM Cortex A53 design though. Sony might start deploying this chipset mid-year or probably not at all as they are already working on a software (or FPGA) solution for Dolby Vision based on the old ATV2.
The main goal of MediaTek’s Android TV SoC line-up seems to be cost effectiveness (not to call it cheap shit). There is nothing premium about it which Sony claims their products to be.
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 but failing to include a lot of our daily media, especially here in Europe.
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 Nougat, 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. A good example is Amazon Video which is not available via the Google Play Store, but only on select devices, most probably because Amazon does not want to pay Google 30% of their revenue done through in-app purchases.
Also, after the Google TV disaster, not many seem to trust in Google’s TV ambitions anymore. Other platforms like Tizen (Samsung) and webOS (LG) are equally supported and probably more mature. Even Google does not seem to believe in their own platform, putting new features and services on their own Chromecast device and even competing platforms months before they arrive on Android TV.
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 through (with only the up-down-left-right controls). Some pre-installed applications still make use of color buttons for example.
For some people who want to control 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 though).
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 nice little app called Android TV Remote Control which pretty much defines all necessary controls. On the other hand there is the Chromecast feature 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 is 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 not a 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 infrared. So this is still Stone Age with respect to how we interact with our TV in 2017 as voice control is not 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 gesture control, I found navigation to be much more cumbersome. 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, Alexa, Google Assistant), plus educating people.
The Home screen (also known as Leanback Launcher) is supposed to be the central entry point and media hub of Android TV. Sony however decided to rather boot into the last selected input (like for example DTV or some HDMI), putting the Smart TV capabilities more in the background. I don’t really agree with this approach anymore today.
The Home screen 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 more of random nature, also taking ages to appear after boot. When deep diving into the app though, recommendations are far better compared to what gets promoted via the Home screen.
Recommendations today feel more like a market place for Google services and ads which will hopefully change as more apps are included, also getting smarter about our viewing habits. Currently it feels like Google is 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 interests might use the same TV. So it is less personalizable than a smartphone for example. Android 7 (Nougat) might change that as it introduces support for multiple accounts.
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 never ever presented me with anything useful, pretty much suffering from the same shortcomings as the content recommendations, probably even worse as it does not incorporate 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.
With the release of Marshmallow, it has become even more cumbersome to find your desired app on the Home screen, as apps that are already in the Featured Apps shelf will not appear in the Apps shelf anymore. So you now have to look in two places with the Featured Apps shelf not even being sortable and apps sometimes switching position or even shelf.
It is still possible to disable Sony’s 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 non-native apps like Maxdome for example are gone from the Home screen.
Right after the Apps shelf comes the Inputs shelf. It is a well appreciated alternative for those of us 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, being the fastest and most convenient one. Voice control however is another thing that has been put into the background which in my opinion is the wrong direction going forward. More on voice support later.
Android TV (up to latest Nougat) does not provide any higher level for content consolidation and discovery, apart from the rather useless recommendations on the Home screen. You have to deep dive into every single app in order to browse the respective service’s content.
Sony recognized this major weakness, providing their own Discover menu. The admittedly brilliant idea behind it is to consolidate media from DTV channels (showing hightlights/recommendations/what’s currently on TV) over online VoD services (showing you new/recommended/recent content) 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 playing on the TV.
This menu unfortunately has several decisive shortcomings, the major one being that 3rd party app support is limited to YouTube and Netflix only. No developer wants to implement Sony’s proprietary APIs.
It might also 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.
Also note that the menu can solely be entered via the DISCOVER control on Sony remotes. How about some voice command?
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 solve inside their operating system by providing a Home screen widget or app that content apps can hook up to in order to provide information via respective APIs, similar to Recommendations, putting the content front and center.
Voice is another way to control today’s TV and search for content. So let’s see how sophisticated this technology is on Android TV and how far you can get with it.
Even though voice should have been the preferred way to search for media, it hasn’t been tightly integrated with 3rd party apps since the launch of the Android TV platform in 2015. It wasn’t until late 2016 that Netflix content finally appeared in the search results. Voice search would still sometimes only show the pay items available on the Play Store but not the free ones from Netflix.
Also the DTV part has been voice enabled. Search results incorporate events from the TV Guide, only displaying up to 30 events in one single row though. Events in the more distant future might therefore get cut off.
Voice search on Android TV is not without major 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.
Still a lot of popular apps are not yet globally searchable on Android TV. Other platforms like Roku can pull search results from a lot more services, including Amazon Video for example. I also have more trust in such a service independent platform for showing really unbiased information.
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 in 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.
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. More complex queries like ‘Record all episodes of The Big Bang Theory on channel XY’ are not supported.
Same with apps. While it is possible to launch any app via voice command (e.g. ‘Open Netflix’), something more complex like ‘Play Lie To Me’, automatically picking the right app and resuming from where you just left off, won’t work. Nobody wants to know which app or even network a certain movie or TV show plays on.
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.
German spoken voice commands only worked after setting the system language accordingly rather than the speech language. However, many of my spoken German commands were not recognized (like ‘Was läuft im Fernsehen?’/‘Was läuft im TV?’ ) 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. Especially DTV navigation and 3rd party app integration leave to be desired. I am also not impressed by its ability to understand context and natural conversation. I never used Google Now on a mobile device, but the one on the TV seems to be far from a modern A.I., reminding more of a voice control of the old days, requiring one to learn a specific syntax. The lack of a proper documentation leads to lots of trial and error.
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 app? Content discovery done right…
Google is currently rolling out its Assistant to mobile devices in the United States, running either Marshmallow or Nougat, soon followed by other English and also German speaking countries. Google also confirmed that it will come to Android TV, including Sony BRAVIA. That’s probably the Holy Grail going forward, allowing for much more complex and conversational queries.
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 where Sony’s software seems to have access to some private API, switching to 50Hz for perfect PAL playback.
Android otherwise renders at a permanent 60 frames per second, resulting in micro-judder for basically any content here in Europe when being played back within the 3rd party app context (e.g. Kodi, Netflix,...). All common refresh rates are accepted via HDMI input of course.
Sony’s MotionFlow is supposed to make up for this major crime, being capable of converting everything to the native panel refresh rate. Seems like I missed the point in time when motion interpolators actually became usable, not stressing the soap opera effect too much. The more you crank up that Smoothness slider, the more visible it gets and the more artifacting Sony’s implementation exhibits in scenes with lots of fast movement/panning. It is still better than anything I have seen so far.
The lack of refresh rate switching especially hurts when playing interlaced PAL video. In order to get smooth playback, you have to engage MotionFlow and set Film mode to High. However, the TV seems to switch to an inferior deinterlacing algorithm, sometimes using Weave for certain portions of the image which would actually require interpolation. For some content, the TV doesn’t lock on the frame rate at all, resulting in judder.
As for 24p film content, 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 say whether the TV with True Cinema being enabled is able to detect and reverse the 3:2 pulldown and perform a 5:5 on the 120Hz panel. I truely believe that the 24p issue is so much overhyped anyway.
Purists for sure prefer refresh rate switching over frame rate conversion/interpolation which unfortunately is not supported on Sony. nVIDIA supports the APIs as of Marshmallow and performs seamless switching on 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 duration via the SoC’s video decoder and setting refresh rate accordingly, which is all handled by the “system”, so no app support is required.
It isn’t possible to decode any video format at HD resolution 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 MT5890’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 only).
VC-1 Advanced profile (being a major video format used on Blu-ray), even though supported by the hardware, lacks driver support for the respective public Android MediaCodec API. Software decoding 1080p on the weak ARM cores is just not feasible.
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 hardware. This allows for 4K video playback without intermediary downscaling and even proper HDR processing.
As for audio, passthrough of multi-channel audio like Dolby and DTS is pretty broken for 3rd party applications 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. MediaTek however missed to implement it on driver level. So no DTS on Lollipop and Marshmallow via the standard APIs.
There is however also another way of passing on compressed multi-channel audio by misusing the uncompressed PCM pipeline (known as “PCM Hack”). Google strongly discourages app developers from using this method as data can always get altered along that path, effectively garbling the compressed audio bitstream, potentially harming audio hardware and even your ears.
So depending on the content, the 3rd party app and which passthrough API it uses, you might very well run into one or the other problem.
The pre-installed media player called Video does not suffer from the above restrictions as it has access to some private API definitions, but is otherwise aweful, suffering from other major limitations and nasty bugs. 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.
Find more details about media playback related Sony/MediaTek shortcomings in my issue tracker.
Sony/MediaTek should concentrate on standard Android APIs. What is Android’s app centrism good for anyway if the APIs don’t work as specified?
Keep in mind that TVs typically only feature HDMI inputs, so no outputs, meaning that we are limited to HDMI-ARC, over which HD/lossless or “3D” (Dolby Atmos, DTS:X) audio is not explicitly specified. So it might or might not work. 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 though. And all modern audio formats by Dolby and DTS have some sort of backward compatibility.
Digital Broadcast TV (DTV)
I moved 100% of my media consumption to the web with well over 90% being on-demand. This is why I “outsourced” the linear TV topic. It is well worth reading for those of you who still receive broadcast TV via the traditional means of distribution.
Sony Android TV - Linear TV
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 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…
Netflix, Amazon & Co.
I love this “new” and convenient way of consuming premium content online and on demand without lifting my ass off the couch. The Netflix and Google Play Movies experience is pretty neat on Android TV with good quality encodes (mostly at 1080p with growing number of 4K/HDR titles), also supporting 5.1 audio via passthrough.
(Google Play Movies pricing however remains an issue. I am not going to spend 8€ for renting a top movie in UHD and also 5€ for HD still hurts.)
The Amazon Video experience is still subpar. Video playback suffers from occasional quirks, mainly at playback start or when overlaying a menu. Stopping and restarting playback helps most of the time.
Searching for media is a major pain as the app is neither integrated with the global unified search, nor can you use any 3rd-party keyboard to input text in the search field. The only way to do so is by using the painful on-screen keyboard together with the remote’s D-pad. There is also still mild usage of color buttons.
Navigating Amazon content feels quite laggy on Sony Android TV while it is buttery smooth on even the first generation Fire TV Stick, which is powered by a slow ARM Cortex A9 and Android Lollipop.
Firmware V3.533 finally brought us Dolby 5.1 passthrough. So we only had to wait one and half years for something that has been an industry standard for more than a decade. As of Marshmallow, also seeking video (fast forward/rewind) has finally become practical, using a thumbnail view to indicate the current position.
With version 2.0, Google brings a unified look based on the material design to all TV platforms. That’s probably why the app feels more like a webview than a truely native one today. Weird thing is that competing platforms received this update months before Android TV did. It clearly demonstrates the care that Google puts into its own platform.
The new version is finally able to play live streams at resolutions higher than 240p. And it took Google only over a year to fix this severe annoyance.
4K 60fps clips only play at up to 1440p resolution, which is already too much for the poorly optimized YouTube 2.0 app on the weak MediaTek SoC. Playback is severely stuttering at resolutions higher 1080p60. And the worst thing is that it is not possible to manually pick quality anymore. HDR still isn’t support at all.
What in the blue hell is Google doing there?
Kodi / SPMC
Kodi (former XBMC) is probably the most popular media player available today. And the good news and one of the biggest advantages 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
SPMC (Semper Media Center) is a Kodi fork, specifically tailored for the Android TV platform. It is currently based on Kodi 16 Jarvis, still supporting compressed audio passthrough using the old “PCM Hack” in IEC Passthrough mode which might give you DTS audio on Sony. It might very well only give you some high-pitched noise instead though. So use with caution and turn down the volume in the beginning! It might also happen in the middle of a movie though…
SPMC also supports quite some nice Android TV features like Background Playback, the Now Playing card and hooking up to Recommendations and (voice) search in order to even more efficiently approach your private media libraries.
Chromecast (former 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 singed up to 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? Like Vizio does it with their SmartCast technology, which is similar to Chromecast, but being the only way to operate their TVs. Whereas on the Sony, you get everything, but nothing really.
Chromecast is not without its woes. Many content apps don’t support Chromecast at all, for some it does not work even though supported and for most other apps/services, playback is not without major limitations.
When trying to get Dolby 5.1 (AC3) passthrough working by casting a suitable video off of a Plex Media Server. At first I only got stereo PCM out of the AVR connected via HDMI-ARC as audio probably got transcoded to AAC on the server. After fiddling around with the Chromecast(.xml) config file of Plex in order to enable AC3, the video didn’t even play anymore. Dolby passthrough however works beautifully when casting via the Google Play Movies mobile app.
Casting high frame rate 4K video is not supported on Marshmallow. The Google Cast Receiver on Android TV already struggles to play 1080p60 judder-free. Many casting services seem to only work properly in tandem with the real Google Chromecast device right now.
A general limitation of the Chromecast technology is the sparse format and container support, see Supported Media for Google Cast. It works for most web video, but when wanting to stream a versatile home library, one might need a potent server with transcoding capabilities.
A mobile device based on Android is probably the better Chromecast companion compared to iOS, as it supports the casting of almost any MP4 and WebM web video using the Chrome browser. On iOS, you are mostly restricted to Chromecast-enabled websites only (even when using Chrome). 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/service providers.
Video & TV SideView
After the discontinuation of all TV features inside the Video & TV SideView app, one of the few leftovers is the DLNA Controller. It is similar to Chromecast, 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 (native Video app) fails to play a lot of media files from my Synology NAS, especially recorded MPEG-2 TS with H.264 video, most probably due to a MIME type incompatibility. Kodi as DLNA Renderer/Player so far played anything from anywhere.
What also didn’t get kicked out are 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 navigating 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 (or a web browser). I don’t recommend using those though. Navigation is quite laggy with the pointer not moving very fast.
The virtual keyboard functionality is of limited use, only working with the global Android TV search, 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. On Android 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.
The Discover menu on the Sony is proprietary, so asking for a control or gesture to open that one would probably be too much. But Google needs to fix content discovery in Android TV itself anyway.
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 hardly usable under iOS.
I perfectly understand that people just don’t want another computer in their living rooms. 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 with some of the most popular apps providing search (global search in Android TV, Netflix, Amazon Video). Also when it comes to signing into every single service/account on the TV, an alternative to the standard remote is well appreciated.
Android TV Remote Control
Marshmallow finally fixes text input from the mobile’s on-screen keyboard arriving in a garbled way at the TV.
This keyboard still does not work properly with Netflix though. Seems like the very first character is always captured twice, resulting in no hits.
“lie to me” for example becomes “llie to me”.
The reason most probably is that the app does not use the native Android TV keyboard. Same happens in YouTube 2.0. This app is also more of a webview than a native app.
The Android TV Remote Control app on Android does not work at all.
No text arrives in the search input field of the TV.
MINIX NEO A2
(applies to any HID compatible keyboard)
no text arrives in the search input field of the TV
The MINIX NEO A2 front side controls are not fully supported as the Sony lacks the appropriate keyboard layout (KL) files:
Those can unfortunately not be added by the user which would make a ton of sense though.
Video & TV SideView
error “no text input screen found”
error “no text input screen found”
To sum it up, there is no keyboard which works throughout the system. There still seems to be a lack of a standardized system-wide text input API or usage thereof. Depending on the used app, you will see varying on-screen keyboards with limited input possibilities.
Even though usable flash memory on Sony Android TV is only 8GB in size, this is perfectly sufficient in most cases, given the poor gaming performance and still sparse variety of useful apps and services (at least here in Europe). As of Marshmallow, it is however possible to extend internal memory via some external USB storage. Problem with this so-called adopted storage is that it is afterwards tied to the TV and cannot be used outside of this configuration anymore. If you remove it, all hell might break lose. Since “internal” memory can never be fast enough, it is probably best to use a fast USB 3.0 drive connected to the single respective port. This however disqualifies the use of a recording HDD. So one has to make a decision here.
I strongly discourage the use of adoptable storage at the moment as it might not be accessible anymore on the Sony after standby.
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. I am for example using an (NTFS formatted) USB 3.0 pen drive as timeshift buffer for Live TV within Kodi.
There are also some compatibility issues with USB attached storage devices. The pen drive that I frequently used on my Sony (also for updating firmware) is suddenly not being properly recognized/initialized anymore after updating to Marshmallow. Conventional formatting didn’t fix the issue, rewriting the partition table eventually did. So you should consider low-level formatting your storage in case you experience detection issues.
Power Consumption & Standby Behavior
Looking at today’s streaming boxes, those consume 2-3W peak and even less when being idle. Maybe they don’t have tuners or a very sophisticated image processor built-in, which however could 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 20-30W when the display is being switched off? Doesn’t look like a very good hardware design to me.
When hitting that power button on the remote, this shallow sleep state in which the TV still consumes 20-30W is kept for a rather long period of time (up to hours) until deep sleep is finally entered, reducing power consumption to under 0.5W, from which there are also frequent wake ups though. I have no clue what maintenance work the TV does in standby. Guide (EPG) and service updating certainly do not take that long when done right. Several settings and even apps might prevent deep sleep completely without the user noticing.
Sony Android TV for sure does not deserve the green badge!
If you don’t require your mobile devices to power on the TV from standby, I strongly recommend the respective option to be disabled (Settings ⇒ Network ⇒ Remote start). I also turned down automatic software downloading, both improving standby behavior. It is assumed that some network activity might still keep the TVs awake though.
The number of reports about dying power supplies has also been increasing lately and I can imagine that the standby behavior might have a considerable influence on that.
As for network connectivity, the whole 2015 and 2016 Sony line-up features a 100mpbs Ethernet port and up to 802.11ac Wi-Fi with 2x2 MIMO rated at 867mbps (on 80MHz wide channels). This looks perfectly sufficient for media streaming at first glance. However, Ultra HD Blu-ray specifies up to 128mpbs which would disqualify the Ethernet port right away. Question is though, whether you really want to waste 80-100GB per movie on your NAS, 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 400-500mbps at optimal conditions. Speed quickly decreases with distance and obstacles in between though. A bottleneck which limits theoretical throughput to about 200-300mbps 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, or their intention was to reserve this single non-shared USB 3.0 port/controller for optimal real-time behavior while recording.
In order to test network streaming performance, I used the jellyfish encodes. To comply with the Ultra HD Blu-ray specs, I even went up to the 140mbps (17.5MB/s) sample (HEVC Main10 Level 5.1). Even though that sounds like overkill, 4K @ 60fps means quite some data, even for HEVC/VP9. The sample is only 30fps though. Its only purpose is to prove the feasibility of any given bitrate.
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 Main10 Level 5.1. I also stress-tested my network infrastructure (Synology NAS, Gibt Ethernet Switch, Wi-Fi Access Point) to rule out any potential bottleneck. All tests went well with the network achieving a stable 300-400mbps over 802.11ac at the same distance as the Sony, pretty much depending on the used protocol. So let’s see whether the Sony is up to the task as well...
The sample was streamed off of a DLNA Server running on a Synology NAS. Kodi has been used as DLNA Player on the Sony, but I also verified the results with the native Video player.
With Lollipop on Sony, buffers ran dry several times while playing the short 140mbps sample, causing drop outs of several seconds for refilling. The 90mbps sample played fine inside Kodi. A WiFi Speed Test (app has been sideloaded on the TV), downloading data from my NAS to the Sony TV, pretty much confirmed the sustainable bitrate to be around that mark.
Marshmallow improved speeds to an average of 120mbps (fluctuating dramatically) which is still far from common 802.11ac speeds though.
Throughput might dramatically decrease with system uptime and certain apps running in the background. So again low performance and unpredictable behavior which is pretty common to today’s MediaTek based Sony Android TVs.
Software support has been quite poor so far despite Sony updating their whole Android TV line-up to Android Marshmallow and even Nougat. I pretty much assume this to be a Google order to fight against the norm in the TV industry with manufacturers keeping the product life cycles rather short. And this is totally way to go as TVs store more and more of our precious data, therefore requiring security updates to keep them safe.
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 break. Linux kernel is an ancient 3.10 (which used to be the baseline for KitKat!) with MediaTek drivers 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.
I would go as far as to say that Sony/MediaTek are among the worst Android TV integrators. I truely believe that Android TV was a huge opportunity for Sony to become the go-to company with respect to Smart TV. But they dropped that ball. Even some cheap Chinese sub-$70 boxes provide a better experience.
The long promised and often delayed Marshmallow update finally arrived end of February 2017. Sony held customers off for serveral months, telling them that this update will be our savior, addressing all major issues. 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 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 disabling automatic software downloading makes even more sense now, not immediately jumping onboard when a firmware update is released. I therefore recommend installing the Sony Support app on your mobile device and setting up notifications for your Sony TV in order to stay informed.
Luckily, installation went fine for me. While Marshmallow does contain some bug fixes (mostly in 3rd party components though), it also introduces quite some new severe issues like an attached USB storage often not being accessible after standby (deep sleep) anymore, effectively breaking scheduled 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.
At CES 2017, Sony again made several announcements via Motoi Kawamura, who we already got to know in the Unkept Promises secton of this review, this time claiming that they will bring Android 7 Nougat to the whole Android TV line-up, including the 2015 models (via FlatpanelsHD). Any announcement by Sony should be taken with a grain of salt though and is for sure no reason to get excited as of yet. First reports about Nougat on Sony’s ATV2 platform suggest that they again did not get their own act together with the underlying system still being buggy as hell, also not implementing some of Android’s latest TV APIs (e.g. for audio passthrough).
nVIDIA is doing a pretty good job with their SHIELD TV, already having been distributing the Nougat update since January, so even before Sony started rolling out the previous generation Marshmallow to their first generation Android TV. The Tegra SoC is really fast and drivers are stable and up-to-date concerning Android API support.
The most useful addition to Nougat probably is the app switcher. Not only can you quickly hop between apps, it is also much easier to kill apps, which you sometimes have to do due to RAM shortage or app hang-up. Also nice are the non-intrusive settings menu and the possibility to maintain multiple Google accounts for improved personalization.
While Android Nougat adds APIs for PiP (Picture-in-Picture), it still won’t be possible to follow two DTV channels in parallel despite the TV featuring twin tuners, so still not being the PiP that many people have imagined.
The worst part about Sony’s Nougat based firmware is the addition of even more bloat- and adware in the form of Asphalt Nitro and Samba TV. 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 you can’t even uninstall. Here is a quick step-by-step guide on how to at least opt out of the annoying Samba TV alerts.
The update is planned to arrive in autumn (Q4) of 2017 for models based on the ATV1 platform. You might also want to take into account several months of delay though.
Android TV O might change the game with respect to how we approach our media. I doubt that Sony will put it on devices based on the ATV1 platform even though there is no technical reason not to. The amount of time they have to spend on QA for such major updates increases with every model year. So at some point in time they might cut off ATV1 support, which will especially hurt customers of the early 2016 models. Again Sony would have to explain why a XD80 receives the update, while a XD85 does not.
It is amazing how frustrating and boring “Smart” TVs still are in 2017 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 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 in Europe for far too long already. And it will still be around for quite some time. So the whole stuff needs to be refactored. And not just for a future generation, but also for current and past, because this is simply not acceptable.
If it was just for the display itself, I would probably recommend a Sony TV to people who only need a good panel with decent video processing capabilities, but Sony’s mismanagement, communication and commitment towards software development and testing really piss me off.
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 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 stands today. Consider that Samsung doesn’t even use Google’s TV OS. And when it comes to publicly demoing Android TV preview versions, this is done on the nVIDIA SHIELD TV long before Sony even starts considering it.
Sony is currently trying hard to piss people off, pretty much economizing its TV department to death. My feeling is that if this doesn’t change, the TV line of products will soon be carried to the graveyard of technology.
I certainly wouldn’t buy a Sony again and I am sure that many follow suit if Sony can’t make peace with us. Here is a final rundown of yays and nays of Android TV and Sony’s integration in particular:
- awful DTV and PVR integration
- DTV/TV guide discontinuation in Video & TV SideView mobile app
- Amazon Video experience subpar
- general performance and stability issues due to crappy MediaTek SoC/drivers
- content discovery/consolidation
- poor voice search and control
(especially German language)
- 60Hz for everything but DTV
- DTS audio passthrough not working for 3rd party apps
- limited text input possibilities
- standby behavior/power consumption
- Wi-Fi 802.11ac throughput
- Sony support
I am also appending a link to my personal issue tracker.
Feel free to contact me in order to leave comments, suggestions or change requests. Be informed though that I will only add stuff that I can experience/reproduce myself.