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 software.

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.

Agenda

Untrustworthy Sony

Unkept Promises

Discontinued Features

Hardware Platform

Navigation Philosophy

Linear TV Integration

Standard DVB

Channel Management

TV Guide

PVR & Timeshifting

Picture in Picture

YouView

Android TV

Home

Content Discovery

Voice Control

Search

Commands

Media Playback - Everything 60Hz

Native Apps

Netflix, Amazon & Co.

KODI / SPMC

Live TV & PVR

Plex

Live Channels

Mobile Helpers

Chromecast built-in

Video & TV SideView

Android TV Remote Control

Keyboards

Storage Management

Standby Behavior

Network Streaming

Software Support

Marshmallow

Nougat

Verdict

Review History

Untrustworthy Sony

Unkept Promises

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, enabling YouTube HDR via VP9-profile 2 decoding.

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.

Discontinued Features

Sony recently started to abandon features which they have actively been advertising in the past.

There is for example the Opera TV Store. I never used it and regarded it more as bloatware. Just like Android TV, the Opera TV Store is a platform for TV apps. I never understood the necessity of having an insignificant TV platform like the Opera TV Store in a more relevant TV platform like Android TV…

What hurts way more is the discontinuation of all TV features inside the Video & TV SideView mobile app, like the web-based TV Guide from which recordings could be scheduled (even from remote), also serving as a convenient channel zapper, dramatically improving the otherwise aweful TV Guide and Live TV experience on the TV itself. I assume this to be the result of a cuts plan, not prolonging the contract with web EPG and metadata provider Gracenote. Typical end user price for a one year Gracenote subscription is around 20€. So one can imagine that this hasn’t been cheap for Sony. Ironically though, Gracenote was owned by Sony but got sold in 2013.

While others are investing more and more in this mobile driven world, Sony seems to be denying it. It is also a giant middle finger pointed at Freesat users who rely on the web-based EPG and customers who chose Sony for the very reason of remotely scheduling recordings.

Hardware Platform

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 (opposed to the MT5890 inside Philips Android TV). GPU is an ARM Mali T624 with 3 shader cores.

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.

The main goal of MediaTek’s Android TV SoC line-up seems to be cost effectiveness. There is nothing premium about it which Sony claims their products to be.

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 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).

Google is pretty clear on how Android TV should be controlled. Just look at the many available Android based boxes and the remotes they come with. Google also did this nice little app called Android TV Remote Control which pretty much defines all necessary controls.

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 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.

Linear TV Integration

Many people think that Google does not care at all about Live TV, which is not true however, providing quite a comprehensive framework (known as TIF or TV Input Framework) for integrating live sources into Android TV software, having seen significant updates in Marshmallow (6.0) and Nougat (7.0), adding APIs for Timeshifting, PVR and PiP. Google also provides a nice little viewer app called Live Channels on top, consolidating all live sources (for example from integrated tuners or the web), which implement the TIF, in a seamless way.

Standard DVB

Sony however seems to have decided not to use Google’s software but to integrate their own stack or actually porting it over from older models.

From a hardware point-of-view, all European mid-range and high-end models of Sony Android TV sets feature true twin tuners, each supporting all the common means of TV distribution (DVB-S/S2, DVB-T/DVB-T2, DVB-C). What sounds cool on paper has to be backed up by decent software though which is where Sony fails.

The Live TV experience is aweful. They did not bother to adapt the user interface to the Android TV experience. Instead you get some unloving, unresponsive, monochromic OSD. It feels as if it is coming from a very old external settop-box. This impression is backed up by the fact that the tuners are accessed via separate input (like an HDMI input) rather than a native app.

Google’s own Live Channels is getting more and more capable, perfectly being integrated with Android TV. There is of course no chance for diversification if all manufacturers use the same software, but providing inferior software is for sure no solution either. I can imagine several reasons which could have led to this decision. Google’s Live Channels might have been lacking basic functionality back at launch in 2015. Another reason could have been that Sony wanted to have their traditional look-and-feel for Live TV, which however does not go very well along with the Android TV one, being dauntingly old-fashioned. So you basically have two separate systems to handle. The aweful button packed Sony remote therefore makes sense which is a shame nonetheless.

Central to Sony’s Live TV navigation concept is the ACTION MENU. If you are looking for something, this is probably the place you might want to go to first. It is the kind of menu where you just stuff everything inside because you don’t want to spend time and money on developing a visually pleasing and intuitive user interface.

Channel Management

Channel management is usually nothing to write home about. It just has to work reliably and be somewhat usable. Sony missed both requirements big time though.

Without any sort of documentation it is hard to find the places where to create or edit your favorite channels and where to switch channel/favorite lists. As already pointed out, the ACTION MENU is your best friend. However, while the favorites editor is entered via the ACTION MENU, the full channel list editor is to be found in the Settings menu. Actually the whole Digital Setup is a total mess, far from a common structure or common naming conventions.

The favorites editor, seemingly being Google software, is actually quite good. It is fast and usage is intuitive. One thing I desperately miss is the ability to organize several channels into what is called a bouquet (channel group). All channel lists on the Sony are completely flat.

Favorite channels, even though being re-sorted, retain the channel numbers from within the full channel list, resulting in the favorites channel numbering not being consecutive and impossible to remember. Navigating favorites therefore isn’t much fun. TV Guide and Discover menu at least provide a linear list to scroll through.

Another flaw of the favorites concept is that the TV event search uses the full channel list instead of favorites only, returning TV events from channels you might not be able to watch (e.g. due to a lack of respective pay TV subscription). With latest Marshmallow update, the TV events returned by search don’t even show the corresponding channel anymore. So you are completely blind as to whether you are able to watch or record the events returned by search.

The flawed favorites implementation forced me into maintaining the full list, effectively turning it into a favorites list of its own. The full channel list editor inside the TV, this time being Sony custom software, is hardly usable however. After having moved or deleted three channels, the bad usability (for example using replace/exchange instead of insert semantics) and unresponsiveness of the UI have already driven you crazy. In the end it turned out that maintaining the full channel list wasn’t worth the effort either as deleted channels mysteriously kept coming back over night. Disabling Auto Service Update inside the settings solved this issue but for some unknown reason killed the automatic guide updating in standby, see TV Guide. And without a comprehensive TV Guide, search again becomes useless. So this is nothing but a vicious circle.

Sony is perfectly aware of the troublesome editor and made a special deal with the SetEdit developer, providing the Sony edition of the tool (called Sony Editor) for free to customers, simplifying the editing of channel lists and the creation of favorite lists by using a Windows PC. Buying into this tool perfectly demonstrates how incapable of action Sony is concerning their own software on the TV. A platform independent web-based thingy (like SamyCHAN) or mobile app would have been a much nicer solution though, directly connecting to the channel list on the TV. PCs and particularly Windows are not that popular anymore. Fiddling around with files has also lost its cool. SDBEditor is probably the better alternative, but unfortunately being another Windows-only tool. Just consider that channels are moved via right mouse button instead of left which took me quite some time to figure out and getting used to.

With the Video & TV SideView app, it is actually possible to download the channel list to a mobile device and select/deselect favorite channels. The result can be pushed back to the TV. Neither can you sort nor delete channels though, pretty much limiting its usefulness.

Another problem for which I fail to find any workaround is that it does not seem to be possible to maintain a list with both, DVB-C and DVB-T channels. Scanning DVB-C wipes DVB-T channels and vice-versa.

Also when performing a full auto scan, all previously scanned channels are wiped, even the favorites, requiring one to start from scratch. So in order to add missing/new channels, you can either hope for the Auto Service Update to catch them up over night or get acquainted with the rather painful manual frequency scanning. After finding and entering the correct parameters, the desired channels will hopefully be added to the channel list. My results have been… well… inconsistent.

Auto Service Update in most cases is more of a pain, with channels either getting re-sorted, reappearing upon deletion or even disappearing over night.

I wonder anyway how Sony maintains satellite transponder/frequency lists for the full auto scan. At least I couldn’t find a way to manually exchange/edit them. I don’t think that a “full scan” performs a full-blown blind scan. So you can either perform a network scan and hope for the NIT (Network Information Table) to be up-to-date and complete on the predefined transponder or as mentioned resort to manual frequency scanning.

Channel management is more of a gamble on Sony. Typical use-cases have just not been thought to the end. Detailing all flaws and bugs of the channel management would probably go beyond the scope of this review. Hopefully I haven’t lost you already…

TV Guide

The TV Guide comprises EPG data from both, the DVB stream (EIT - Event Information Table) and also the web for channels lacking comprehensive long-term DVB-EIT data (like Freesat for example) and also additional information like highlights, cast and related/recommended content. Sounds pretty cool from an informational point-of-view. However, due to a flaky automatic matching of web channel EPG to the DVB network provider’s channels on the TV, many of them don’t receive any additional information from the web. Manual assignment isn’t possible.

Just like the other Sony custom software on the TV, also the TV Guide feels like a foreign object in an otherwise modern looking Android TV operating system.

As of Marshmallow, Sony finally fixed the severe annoyance that whenever the TV Guide was brought up, a display mode change happened, blanking out and muting the TV for several seconds. Until recently, this switch even resulted in frequent spontaneous system reboots. Such reboots have become less, but are still randomly happening for no obvious reason.

Other minor flaws are that TV events which have been scheduled for recording are unfortunately not marked inside the guide. A vertical line marking the current time would also be nice. Actually these are standard conventions for a guide like this.

What I like about the guide is the auto update in standby, theoretically providing you with a complete and up-to-date TV Guide at any time. This however stops working after disabling Auto Service Update which makes no sense. I want the guide to be updated (for which there is a separate setting called Update Guide in standby anyway), but not the channels/services as deleted channels mysteriously get readded which might not be desireable as those are also taken into account for TV event search instead of favorites only. So several settings seem to somehow correlate for no obvious reason and the whole system behavior is hardly predictable.

PVR & Timeshifting

Then there is the recording feature, which has taken Sony over half a year to deliver after the Sony Android TV launch back in 2015, and is probably the other big fail after channel management.

In order to perform recordings, a harddisk or large pen drive has to be connected to the single SuperSpeed USB 3.0 port, actually disqualifying the possibility to extend the Android TV internal memory via some external storage as I don’t recommend using USB 2.0 for that. Unfortunately “internal” memory cannot be used for the purpose of recording. So it is pretty much either or.

Beware that your storage gets formatted and encrypted when registering it for recordings. So it cannot be used outside of this configuration anymore afterwards.

Recordings are stored in a DRM contaminated format and are therefore not meant to be portable… or edited… or archived. Manufacturers claim this to be a legal requirement, for which I fail to find any clear evidence though. Here in Europe, everything that is FTA (free-to-air) or descrambled via CI-CAM should be recorded as-is without any DRM being applied. CI+ is the only mechanism that is supposed to manage DRM. But since Sony is part of the content Mafia…

When productively using the PVR, one will soon stumble over tens of imperfections which make the whole stuff pretty impractical. The user interface is just horrible. Sony clearly concentrated on DRM, not on usability.

One major letdown is that the TV Guide forbids two overlapping events to be scheduled for recording despite the TV featuring twin tuners. The reason probably is that with the TV featuring only one CI slot, it is not (easily) possible to descramble two channels in parallel. And there is no way to reliably determine at scheduling time whether the events will be scrambled or not. Sony chose the easy way out.

Watching one channel while recording another works for FTA. If you record an FTA channel, it is not possible to watch a scrambled channel in parallel. Looks like the CI is unnecessarily assigned to the first (FTA) channel or is hardwired to the first tuner.

Recordings can only be accessed via the Recorded Title List app, playing PAL video at a wrong 60Hz, resulting in micro-judder unless you engage MotionFlow, see Media Playback - Everything 60Hz.

Timeshifting is not supported at all. It is however possible to perform a recording and start playback while still recording. This is not very convenient though as you have to start recording while in TV and then jump over to the Recorded Title List in order to start playback. And when done, you have to go back to TV, stop the recording, then go back to the Recorded Title List in order to delete the recorded “timeshift buffer file”. Talking about deleting a recording, it takes way too many steps to achieve that. Well over 10 button presses, depending on where you start counting.

All basic functionality already seems to be there in order to do a fully automatic Timeshifting.

Philips, being the other “big” player in the Android Smart TV game, features a nicely integrated Timeshifting. Live TV really shines there. From a very powerful channel manager over Timeshifting to even making the integrated tuner accessible to other TVs in the network. (video)

Picture in Picture

Sony also advertises the PiP (or Twin Picture) feature for their Android TV line of products. However, after a lengthy web search (as the TV lacks any comprehensive manual/documentation), you might find out that the sources which can be mixed are rather limited. No clear statements exist on what is actually supported. In fact, PiP is said to only be available for the combination HDMI/tuner, so no tuner/tuner for example, rendering it pretty much useless. I could not even get that working using this FAQ. The ACTION MENU just didn’t give me that Twin Picture option. It seems that Sony silently stripped the feature. FAIL!

This together with the limited twin tuner support in the PVR makes you wonder why Sony deploys twin tuners at all!? Currently it is not much more than a marketing gag.

Starting with Nougat, Sony will make use of Android’s native PiP functionality in order to show a small thumbnail in the top right corner on top of Android (apps and HOME screen) with the source either being Live TV or some HDMI input. I have no clue what I could use this for and it is for sure not the PiP that most people have imagined.

YouView

YouView is a TV platform, only being available in the United Kingdom, providing access to terrestrial TV channels and web-based on-demand content in a hybrid fashing. I pretty much like the YouView interface on the Sony (except for the color button usage), especially the genre-based filtering in the TV Guide and the “Mini-Guide”.

Why can’t Sony’s Live TV look more like that too? The “Mini-Guide” could be faded in when switching the channel instead of the ugly top info banner. It would even be possible to replicate the YouView TV Guide’s catch-up feature over which you can browse several days into the past, trying to find the content via the web. Past events could be searchable via Android TV’s search engine and maybe some app will yield useful results. Many broadcasters already provide a lot of their content online and/or via respective apps.

A big drawback of YouView on Sony is that when being enabled, it is not possible to use Sony’s conventional Live TV integration (e.g. for satellite reception or recording) anymore, being either or. It is also not possible to record or timeshift within YouView. So integration into the existing ecosystem is quite poor, reminding more of a rag rug.

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 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. O(reo?) might finally change a lot of that.

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. We are far from the open app believe that we all got so much used in the mobile space. A good example is Amazon Video which is not available via the Google Play Store, but only on select devices.

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.

Home

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 Live TV or some HDMI), putting the Smart TV capabilities more into 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 but you better get used to the Preparing Recommendations screen as gathering information seems to sometimes take forever, also consuming quite some CPU time, even after having excluded most apps. Many important apps (like Netflix or Amazon Video) still don’t provide any information at all, others are not very smart, sometimes recommending content being more of random nature. This is for example true for YouTube. Recommendations inside the app itself are far better than what gets promoted via the Home screen though.

The Recommendations shelf today feels more like a Google ads and market place 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 the Sony market place. It presents a mixture of already installed and also recommended apps which is quite confusing. Those app recommendations have 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 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.

Content Discovery

The Discover menu is yet another Sony addition which feels so out of place, being a major break with the Android TV user interface design. The admittedly brilliant idea behind it is to consolidate media from Live TV 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 Live TV in a multitasking fashion instead of ripping you out of what is currently running 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. 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 Live TV 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-pad and touchpad remotes.

Also note that the menu can solely be entered via the DISCOVER control on Sony remotes. How about some voice command?

There is already a central hub for all our media, which is the Home screen. However, each app has to be brought to the foreground individually in order to browse its content. So 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 should 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.

Android TV O might change the game with respect to how we approach our media…

android-tv-launcher-o.gif

Voice Control

It is kind of hard to determine the philosophy behind how Sony TVs should be controlled. The Android TV philosophy for sure is a simple D- or touchpad remote + voice, just like with the Apple TV. This requires sophisticated voice search and control though. Let’s see whether Sony/Android TV can live up these expectations.

Search

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 firmware version 3.509 (from October 2016) that Netflix content finally appeared in the search results. Also the Live TV part has been voice enabled. Search results for example 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.

Querying certain apps for search results might take some time, like it is the case with Live TV events. Google services seem to be handled differently as you can’t exclude them from search and results appear instantly and even get updated while typing in a term via keyboard.

Still a lot of popular apps are not yet globally searchable (e.g. Amazon Video). Another letdown is that voice search rips the TV out of what is currently running instead of showing results in an overlay.

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.

Commands

Simple commands like ‘What’s on TV?’ (bringing up the TV Guide) or ‘Go to channel XY’ are supported for Live TV. 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 recognized.

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 Live TV 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 also come to Android TV, including Sony BRAVIA. That’s probably the Holy Grail going forward, allowing for much more complex and conversational queries.

assistant-tv

Media Playback - 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 Live TV 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 public 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 wouldn’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 Sony 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.

Native 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 apps is also way too complicated 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 fabulous on Android TV, being voice searchable 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 is still too much.

The YouTube experience is also great (except for live streams which only seem to play at a 240p resolution on Sony), loading video in no time, immediately picking a good quality preset.

YouTube HDR content can only be played back with models that have been released after the summer of 2016. Don’t get fooled by the fact that your Sony from 2015 and early 2016 plays YouTube HDR clips, also providing the HDR Video picture mode. In fact, only the VP9 encoded SDR pendants are being played back with the HDR Video mode, which is provided for any content, only adding an ugly artificial HDR effect.

The Amazon Video experience used to be subpar and still is, but keeps improving with every version. 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.

Searching for media is still a huge 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 is quite laggy on Sony Android TV while it is buttery smooth even on the first generation Fire TV Stick, which is powered by a slow ARM Cortex A9 and Android Lollipop.

Video playback stills suffers from occasional quirks, mainly at playback start or when overlaying a menu (e.g. ACTION MENU). As for 4K/Dolby content (like The Grand Tour), audio and video still slightly drift apart (lip-sync issue) which seems to be compensated by a video glitch every few seconds.

KODI / SPMC

KODI (former XBMC) is probably the most popular media player available today. And the good news and probably the biggest advantage over other Smart TV platforms is that it supports Android. KODI can easily be installed on any Android TV from the Google Play Store and is perfectly optimized for the big screen and even 4K. However KODI is not without its limitations on the Sony either. You already guessed that, right?

You won’t be able to decode much in software on the weak ARM cores, therefore being pretty much limited to formats that KODI can decode via the Android MediaCodec (AMC) 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, currently lacks driver support for the respective public Android MediaCodec API. Software decoding 1080p on the weak ARM cores is just not feasible.

As of KODI 17 (Krypton), which has just been released to the Google Play Store, S/PDIF and HDMI-ARC passthrough of multi-channel audio only works via the respective standard Android AudioTrack raw bitstream APIs as Google discouraged the use of the PCM pipeline (known as “PCM Hack” which has been used in KODI 16 Jarvis and is still used in SPMC in IEC passthrough mode). The reason is that data might get altered along that path, effectively garbling the compressed audio bitstream, potentially harming audio hardware and even your ears. While Lollipop only supported Dolby formats (AC3/EAC3) to be bitstreamed, Marshmallow finally adds DTS passthrough on an API level. MediaTek however missed to implement it on driver level. So no DTS passthrough with the official Krypton builds for the time being.

Find more details about the Sony/MediaTek shortcomings in my bug tracker. The pre-installed media player called Video does not suffer from those 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.

Sony/MediaTek should concentrate on standard Android APIs as KODI won’t support any hacks or exceptions starting with v17 Krypton. And what is Android’s app centrism good for anyway if the APIs don’t work as specified?

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

Keep in mind that TVs typically only feature HDMI inputs, so no outputs, meaning that we are limited to HDMI-ARC (S/PDIF) audio formats only, so no HD or “3D” (Dolby Atmos, DTS:X) audio. This will only change with the upcoming HDMI 2.1/eARC. I still believe that Dolby/DTS 5.1 is enough for the average home user though.

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” 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!

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.

It is highly recommended to use MediaCodec Surface video acceleration mode inside KODI/SPMC. It allows the GUI to be rendered in 1080p (as a native 4K GUI is not feasible on the weak MediaTek SoC) while leaving the rendering of the video entirely up to the TV. This allows for 4K video playback without intermediary downscaling and even proper HDR playback. However, not all content plays smoothly via MediaCodec Surface. The slow and buggy MediaTek SoC doesn’t make Sony Android TV particularly good KODI hardware...

Live TV & PVR

After having fiddled around with Sony’s bad TV tuner integration for a few days, I revived my TV server based on the DVBViewer Recording Service, making the DVB tuners (Digital Devices Octopus) accessible to any device in my 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.

It is even possible to timeshift using a connected USB storage device. Timeshifting 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 Live TV integration has the edge over KODI, as the latter one fails to switch refresh rate to 50Hz, therefore requiring motion interpolation for smooth PAL video playback, see Media Playback - Everything 60Hz.

Plex

Plex is supported on any major TV platform, so being nothing that sets Android TV apart of others. But with its popularity in mind, I thought it was still worth giving Plex a shot.

The idea of having a centralized server which can prepare any media for any device imaginable and the way media can be shared with family and friends is pretty neat. However, the Plex team in my opinion does not have the flood of media formats and devices under good control. Almost every other version I tried broke some media on some device. On Sony Android TV, I recommend the KODI Plex add-on, using KODI’s media playback engine. Due to my Synology NAS, which lacks a dedicated transcoding hardware, I was limited to Direct Play and Direct Stream formats though.

With the way I consume media, Plex probably implies more limitations and problems than it solves.

Live Channels

Live Channels, as already mentioned, is Google’s catch on linear TV. And as of Marshmallow, this app can be installed from the Google Play Store to access the integrated tuners. Unfortunately only the very basic functionality like surfing and watching channels is provided. Sony does not seem to implement the public Android APIs for DVR/PVR (which are only part of Nougat anyway), Timeshifting and retrieving EPG data. Playback also suffers from the 60Hz juddering issue.

I would love to see Sony abandoning their own Live TV integration and embracing Google’s Live Channels instead, moving more in the direction of a vanilla Google Android TV. Sony just can’t do software!

Mobile Helpers

Chromecast built-in

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 set up for 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 on the big screen is not always reliable. Another major limitation of Chromecast is the sparse format and container support, see Supported Media for Google Cast.

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. Some 3rd party browsers like Video & TV Cast can overcome this limitation but usability of those is usually poor.

I also tried to get Dolby 5.1 (AC3) passthrough working by casting some video off of a Plex Media Server. At first I only got stereo PCM out of the AVR connected via S/PDIF or HDMI-ARC as audio probably got transcoded to AAC. After fiddling around with the Chromecast(.xml) config file of Plex to enable AC3, the sample video wouldn’t play anymore.

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 won’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 you 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 bad 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 (mouse) pointer over the TV screen with the swipe of a finger though. This actually comes in quite handy when using sideloaded apps which have not been optimized for the big screen or a browser. I don’t recommend using it though. Navigation is quite laggy with the mouse 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 on 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.

Keyboards

I perfectly understand that people just don’t want another computer in their living rooms. 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. Even better would be a single sign-on feature though.

Android TV Remote Control

Global Search

Marshmallow finally fixes text input from the mobile’s on-screen keyboard arriving in a garbled way at the TV.

Netflix 

This keyboard still does not work properly with Netflix though. Seems like the very first character is always captured twice, resulting in no hits.

Amazon Video

No text arrives in the search input field of the TV.

MINIX NEO A2

Global Search

working

Netflix

working

Amazon Video

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 sense though.

https://cdn.chv.me/images/OmdphcGE.jpg

Video & TV SideView

Global Search

working

Netflix

error “no text input screen found”

Amazon Video

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.

Storage Management

Even though usable flash memory on Sony Android TV is only 8GB, this is perfectly sufficient in most cases, given the poor gaming performance and still sparse app variety. 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 respective port. This however disqualifies the use of a recording HDD in parallel which can only be connected and registered to the one single USB 3.0 port. Adopted storage cannot be used for the purpose of Live TV recording.

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 a 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 to update to Marshmallow) is suddenly not being poperly recognized/initialized anymore.

The whole attached storage subsystem seems pretty messed up with Marshmallow.

Standby Behavior

The standby behavior of Sony Android TV is pretty bad. Sony specifies a standby power consumption of 0.5W. This figure is an alternative fact at best. When hitting that power button on the remote, Android keeps running for a rather long period of time (up to hours), still consuming 20-30W until deep sleep is finally entered, 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 it. Sony Android TV for sure does not deserve the green badge!

The number of reports about dying power supplies is increasing and I can imagine that the standby behavior has a considerable influence on that.

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.

Network Streaming

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 (MediaTek MT7662U) 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 for the recording HDD.

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...

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.

It sure looks like a performance issue of the Sony TV, most probably again related to slow MediaTek SoC and drivers.

Software Support

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 sensitive 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 Live TV software is still a major pain, even more so after they crippled the Video & TV SideView mobile app in that respect. It is certainly Sony ruining the Android TV experience, not Google.

Marshmallow

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 rare 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.

Nougat

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 the latest 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. We are probably still months away from the update and in the end it might introduce more issues than it fixes.

nVIDIA is doing a pretty good 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. The Tegra SoC is really fast and drivers are stable.

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.

Verdict

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 Linux/Android based 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 linear 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). And that just does not work out well in the smart device world anymore, neither does the "we do the hardware, they do the software" philosophy.

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.

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 the Google operating system. And when it comes to publicly demoing new or upcoming Android TV major versions, this is done on the nVIDIA SHIELD TV long before Sony starts talking about it.

It looks like Sony is currently 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 piece with us. I would return mine if I could. But neither Sony nor my retailer (MediaMarkt in Austria) wanted to take it back.

Here is a final rundown of yays and nays of Android TV and Sony’s integration in particular:

  • Chromecast built-in
  • KODI / SPMC

  • Live TV and PVR integration
  • TV Guide discontinuation in Video & TV SideView app
  • general performance and stability due to crappy MediaTek SoC/drivers
  • content discovery/consolidation
  • bloatware
  • poor voice control integration
    (especially German language)
  • 60Hz for everything but Live TV
  • DTS audio passthrough via Android API not working
  • keyboard support
  • standby behavior/power consumption
  • Wi-Fi throughput
  • Sony support

I am also appending a link to my personal bug list together with detailed descriptions.

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.

Review History

[2017-04-19] update based on firmware V3.865

[2017-02-28] Video & TV SideView discontinuation info added

[2017-02-27] major overhaul based on firmware V3.843 (Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow)

[2017-01-12] Software Support added

[2016-11-25] KODI Live TV & PVR

[2016-11-07] several updates based on firmware V3.533

[2016-11-03] Android TV Remote Control added

[2016-10-28] Video & TV SideView added

[2016-10-24] major overhaul based on firmware V3.509

[2016-10-19] network streaming test added

[2016-09-19] KODI added

[2016-09-16] initial review based on firmware V3.473 (Android 5.1.1 Lollipop) published