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 So after 3-4 months on the market, the expensive March 2016 models have already been rendered out of date.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 released a new firmware for ALL their HDR capable 2016 models, enabling YouTube HDR playback via VP9-profile 2 decoding from day one. Sony and Android TV on the other hand still don’t support it till this very day. 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 guide functionality inside the Video & TV SideView app or the Opera TV Store.
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 made invisible to the operating system, so actually being dual core rather than a true quad core. MT5890 inside Philips Android TV sets indeed features true quad core with all cores being visible to the operating system.
GPU is an ARM Mali T624 with 3 shader cores which is not suited for any serious gaming.
The newer “BRAVIA ATV2” (2016) platform, which all models released 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, where apps in the background are able to do all kinds of nasty things, 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 MT5890 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. More mature operating system and drivers 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 MT5891 (2nd generation platform) from 2016. 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. 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 with its deep voice integration and TV app, 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 Oero when looking at the sorry state of Google(ASUS) Nexus Player, but even more so for the Sony where we are at least 1-2 iterations behind. We don’t know yet whether Sony will deploy the new OS to current TVs, Google Assistant has yet to arrive as well.
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 purchasing.
Also, after the Google TV disaster, not many seem to trust in Google’s TV ambitions anymore. Android TV only gained traction in the Far East where the OS is put on some cheap media players. So it is for sure not as significant as Google wants it to be. 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 long 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/Android TV 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 isn’t quite there yet. Or why else would you add Google Play and Netflix buttons? $$
There is really a lack of clear controlling concept throughout. It is just a mingle-mangle of half-baked and antiquated approaches.
What I am quite glad about is that Sony didn’t jump on the AirMouse train which has been hyped as THE next big thing in TV when LG released their Magic Remote. Just like with Samsung’s 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, Google Assistant, Alexa, Bixby), 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 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. Problem however is that many important apps (like Netflix or Amazon Video) still don’t provide any information at all, others are not very smart about our viewing habits. This is for example true for YouTube with recommended content being of random nature, not being very smart about our viewing habits. 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 Google ads platform, 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? The Recommendations row gets replaced by a Watch Next row in Android TV Oreo. So far it did not receive more love by app developers though.
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 (at least for Google services) 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 either, pretty much suffering from the same shortcomings as the content recommendations, not incorporating our own preferences at all. Sony’s featured apps should be presented in a less prominent place only, like for example the Sony Select store, just like Google’s are in their Play Store.
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, being entirely managed by Sony, 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 at Sony’s will.
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 Nougat) does not provide any means 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 Over-the-top services (showing you new/recommended/recent content), over DTV channels (showing hightlights/recommendations/what’s currently on TV), to your private library in one single “browser” which can be accessed from virtually anywhere. It can be blended over apps and DTV in a multitasking fashion instead of ripping you out of what is currently playing on the TV.
This Sony custom menu unfortunately has several decisive shortcomings, the major one being that 3rd party app support is limited to YouTube and Netflix only. 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 that service providers can hook up to in order to provide information via respective APIs, similar to Recommendations, putting the content front and center.
Voice is another way to control today’s TV and comfortably 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 2014. It wasn’t until late 2016 that Netflix content finally appeared in the search results.
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. Voice search on Android TV for example used to show only the pay items available on the Play Store but not the free ones on Netflix.
Another letdown is that voice search rips the TV out of what is currently running instead of showing results in an overlay. Android TV voice search is also not very smart about understanding context. You can for example say “show me movies with Sylvester Stallone”, but when adding “only those with Arnold Schwarzenegger”, it would not show you movies starring both.
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 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 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 and 3rd party app integration leave to be desired. I am also not impressed by its ability to understand context and natural conversation. It seems to be an ancient Google Now which is 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 presents at a permanent 60 frames per second, resulting in micro-judder for a lot of content here in Europe when being played back within the 3rd party app context (e.g. Kodi, YouTube,...).
Sony’s Motionflow is supposed to make up for this major crime, being capable of converting everything to the native panel refresh rate. Setting the Motionflow Smoothness slider in the middle (3) results in decent frame rate conversion without introducing a visible soap opera effect, clearly preferring frame doubling over interpolation. The more you crank up that Smoothness slider, the more visible the SOE gets and the more artifacting Sony’s implementation exhibits in scenes with lots of fast movement and panning.
Don’t forget to also lift the Film mode setting as otherwise no frame interpolation is applied at all. This setting only determines for which content to apply frame interpolation, but not its strength (which is controlled by Motionflow Smoothness). For progressive content, you need to set it to Medium, for interlaced content even to High.
The lack of refresh rate switching especially hurts when playing interlaced PAL video in 3rd party apps. After engaging some Motionflow Smoothness, the TV seems to switch to an inferior deinterlacing algorithm, sometimes using Weave for certain portions of the image which would actually require interpolation. It takes one or the other second to lock on the frame rate. For some content, the TV doesn’t lock on it 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 truly 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 for their SHIELD TV. Some AMLogic SoC based Android TV boxes support what they call HDMI Self-Adaptation. It works by determining the source’s frame rate via the SoC’s video decoder and setting refresh rate accordingly, which is all handled by the “system”, so no app support is required.
With my origin being HTPC, I have had a fair share of issues with automatic refresh rate switching in the past. Enough to not like the concept too much, also given the slow and totally different UI response time at 24Hz versus 60Hz.
The above of course does not apply when using external media players connected via HDMI. The TV accepts all common display modes via HDMI of course.
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 on MT5890, profile 2 on MTT5891).
VC-1 Advanced profile, even though supported by the MediaTek video decoder ASIC, lacks driver support for the respective public Android MediaCodec API. Software decoding VC-1 at 1080p on the weak ARM cores is just not feasible. This format is used on 15-20% of available Blu-ray discs today.
It is highly recommended to use MediaCodec Surface video acceleration mode inside any app. It allows the GUI to be rendered in 1080p with subsequent upscaling (as a native 4K GUI is not feasible on the weak MediaTek SoC) while leaving the decoding and rendering of the video entirely up to the TV’s dedicated video hardware. This allows for 4K playback without intermediary downscaling and even proper HDR processing.
As for audio, passthrough of multi-channel audio is pretty broken for 3rd party applications on Sony via the public Android AudioTrack APIs. While Lollipop only supported Dolby formats (AC3/EAC3) to be bitstreamed, Marshmallow finally added DTS support via API level 23. MediaTek however missed to implement it on driver level. So no DTS via the standard APIs on Sony.
There is however also another way of passing on compressed multi-channel audio by misusing the uncompressed PCM pipeline. This method is also known as “PCM Hack” which Google strongly discourages app developers from using as audio data can easily get altered along that path (volume control, audio mixing), effectively garbling the compressed bitstream, potentially harming audio hardware and even your ears.
So depending on the content and the passthrough API used by any given 3rd party app, you might very well run into one or the other problem with multi-channel audio.
The pre-installed media player called Video does not suffer from the above restrictions as it has access to some private APIs, 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, also often crashing. Using this app really makes you wanna throw a stone into its developer’s garden.
Sony/MediaTek should concentrate on standard Android APIs. What is Android’s app 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 lossless audio (like True HD or DTS-HD) is not explicitly specified due to bandwidth limitations. This will only change with the upcoming HDMI 2.1/eARC standard. I still believe that the good old lossy Dolby and DTS formats with 5.1 channels are enough for the average home user anyway. And all modern audio formats by Dolby and DTS have some sort of backward compatibility built in.
Dolby Atmos can work when being carried via lossy Dolby Digital Plus (instead of True HD), but the receiver obviously also has to support that.
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 DTV Integration
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…
Apps from all major content providers are WebViews only, all having a different look and feel to them, not following any of the Android TV design guidelines. There are simply too many TV platforms around which is the reason why content providers prefer easy portability over a truly integrated user experience.
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, 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. Even 5€ for HD still hurts considering what I used to pay in rental stores. This will hopefully change with Apple joining the 4K game. A high price for rentals might still be necessary as a tool to limit the demand as I don’t think that we have the required bandwidth to deliver 4K on a larger scale.
The Amazon Video experience on Sony was and still is subpar. Despite constant improvement, the pace at which important changes happen is quite slow. We had to wait over one year to get Dolby 5.1 audio for Amazon content on Sony, something that has been an industry standard for two decades already. As of Marshmallow, also seeking video (fast forward/rewind) has finally become practical, using a thumbnail view to indicate the current position.
Video playback suffers from occasional quirks, mainly at playback start or when overlaying a menu. Navigating Amazon content is also 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.
Searching for media is a major pain as the app is neither integrated with the global unified (voice) search, nor can you use any 3rd-party keyboard to input text in the search field, see Keyboards. There is also still mild usage of color buttons.
The reason why I dedicate a section to YouTube exclusively is that I recently started to observe and document my media consumption habits, quickly realizing that YouTube has grown from occasional fun clip watching to a serious entertainment platform for all kinds of genres. A good YouTube experience is therefore a key aspect of today’s TVs.
With version 2.0, Google brings their aged unified Smart TV look also to Android TV, moving from a truly native Android app to a WebView, with navigation being noticeably more laggy which becomes especially obvious when quickly flicking through video menus or when using the virtual on-screen keyboard in search which is not the native and localized Android TV keyboard anymore.
The video player inside YouTube 2.0 is poorly optimized for the weak MediaTek SoC inside Sony Android TV, now consuming way more CPU time, resulting in jerky playback of high frame rate (60p) content at resolutions higher than HD. And the worst thing is that it is not possible to manually pick Quality anymore.
YouTube HDR is still not supported on any Sony TV while competing platforms from LG and Samsung received a respective update months ago.
Positive aspects about YouTube 2.0 on Android TV are the usability-wise improved content curation and that it is finally possible to play live streams at resolutions higher than a pixelated 240p. And it took Google only over a year to fix this severe annoyance.
So if you think that Android TV will give you a better YouTube experience compared to competing TV platforms, you are wrong. The move to YouTube 2.0, in many ways being a regression compared to 1.X, clearly demonstrates the love and care that Google puts into their own TV platform and how significant it really is.
Kodi (former XBMC) is one of the most popular media players available today. Good news and probably the biggest advantage over other Smart TV platforms is that it natively supports Android TV. The slow and buggy MediaTek SoC doesn’t make Sony Android TV particularly well-suited hardware for Kodi though, suffering from several driver limitations, see Media Playback.
So why bother with Kodi? These are my personal top-5 reasons why I prefer Kodi over the Video app:
- Access to a virtually unlimited number of web content in a consistent UI (and I don’t mean pirated stuff)
- Play media from any kind of network share or attached storage
- Proper media management and navigation
- Lip-sync (audio offset) adjustment possibility
- Live TV/PVR functionality, connecting to an external TV backend
SPMC 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!
SPMC also supports quite some nice Android TV features like Background Playback (VisibleBehind) and hooking up to Recommendations and (voice) search in order to even more efficiently approach your private media libraries. Those features are currently being pushed mainline and will be part of Kodi 18 Leia next year.
Live TV & PVR
After having fiddled around with Sony’s bad TV tuner integration, you might want to consider an alternative approach, like for example some TV backend server, making the installed DTV tuners accessible to any device in the local network, also to the Sony TV running Kodi, and even over the web.
The user interface is fabulous compared to Sony’s. It is amazing how fast and easy it can be to navigate Live TV with just a D-pad and OK/Back buttons.
Depending on the backend and therefore the Kodi PVR add-on in use, it might even be possible to timeshift using a connected USB storage device. With the DVBViewer Client add-on, which connects to the DVBViewer Media Server, Timeshifting for example can be configured to either be permanent, adding the possibility to skip backwards at any time, or triggered when pausing Live TV.
With respect to image quality, Sony’s DTV integration has the edge over Kodi, as the latter one fails to switch refresh rate to 50Hz due to the Sony lacking support for the respective public Android API, therefore requiring quality degrading motion interpolation for smooth PAL video playback.
Google Cast, beside being a streaming technology, also implies a very powerful content navigation paradigm. And all Android TV based devices have it built-in. It is based on the idea that tablets and smartphones have become brilliant navigation devices, being perfectly personalizable with the multi sign-on problem already being solved as your mobile device is probably already signed 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?
Unlike Google Chromecast 1&2, which only support H.264/AVC up to 720p60/1080p30, Chromecast built into Android TV Marshmallow can go all the way up to 4K (2160p60) using the VP9 codec.
Google Cast is not without its woes and limitations on Android TV though. The built-in video player already struggles to play high frame rate HD video (1080p60) in a judder-free way. Also consider that refresh rate of the display cannot be changed either. So you’ll need to engage some Motionflow.
A general limitation of the Google Cast technology is the still sparse format and container support. It works for most web video, but when wanting to cast a versatile home library, one might need a potent server with transcoding capabilities.
A mobile device based on Android is probably the better Chromecast companion compared to iOS, as it supports the casting of almost any HTML5 (MP4 or WebM) web video using the Chrome browser. On iOS, you are mostly restricted to Chromecast-enabled websites only (even when using the Chrome browser). Some 3rd party browsers like Video & TV Cast can overcome this limitation, but usability of those is usually poor.
I really like the casting idea, but it needs more care by both, Google and app developers/service providers. Many content providers still don’t support it at all, some apps/services seem to only work properly in tandem with the real Google Chromecast device.
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 the Chromecast idea, but only for media stored on your local DLNA Server, letting you browse your libraries on your mobile device and initiate playback on the TV. It is actually quite a nice feature as most other DLNA apps on the App Store are not available free of charge (like Infuse). However, the DLNA Renderer/Player on TV side (native Video app) fails to play a lot of media files from my Synology NAS, especially recorded MPEG-2 TS with H.264 video inside, most probably due to a MIME type incompatibility. Kodi as DLNA Renderer/Player so far played anything from anywhere though.
What also didn’t get kicked out 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 moving a pointer over the TV screen with the swipe of a finger. This might come in quite handy when using sideloaded apps which have not been optimized for the TV. Navigation is quite laggy with the pointer not moving very fast though.
The virtual keyboard functionality is of limited use, only working with the global Android TV search and native apps, see Keyboards.
Android TV Remote Control
Just like Video & TV SideView, this app also features D-pad and touchpad remotes. Android TV Remote Control (or simply Android TV on iOS) however is much better with respect to handling it eyes-free thanks to its few big buttons. But some essential controls are missing, which are volume control (at least on iOS) and an on/off switch. 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 Google Cast.
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 therefore hardly usable under iOS.
I perfectly understand that people just don’t want another computer-like device in their living rooms, me included. That’s the reason why Google TV failed in the first place. But the lack of comprehensive voice search support is why I also tested several other text input possibilities together with some of the most popular apps providing search (like global Android TV search, Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Video). Also when it comes to signing into every single service/account on the TV, an alternative to the standard D-pad remote is well appreciated.
I tried today’s most common means of text input in the form of a mobile device (iPhone) running the Android TV remote app and the MINIX NEO A2 remote, providing a HID compatible keyboard with full QWERTY layout on its back.
There are basically three categories of apps providing text input. Truly native apps which make use of the standard Android TV facilities, WebViews using standard HTML facilities and WebViews using custom facilities. While all 3rd-party keyboards I tried worked with native apps, those are unfortunately the least represented as most major content providers chose WebViews for easy portability.
Representatives of the second category are Netflix and YouTube 2.0. While input via MINIX NEO A2 keyboard works fine, input via the iOS app suffers from the show-stopping issue that the very first character is always captured twice and a non-functional backspace.
“lie to me” for example becomes “llie to me”.
The third category is the least user-friendly one, not being compatible with any 3rd-party keyboard. The only way to input text is by using the painful virtual on-screen keyboard together with the remote’s D-pad. A representative of this category is the Amazon Video app.
I also tried the Video & TV SideView mobile app on an iPhone, being an alternative to the official Google Android TV remote app, only respecting Android TV’s native text input facilities though, so only working properly in tandem with the first category of apps.
To sum it up, there is no keyboard which works throughout the system. As most major content apps are WebViews nowadays, those lack support for the native Android TV text input facilities and localized keyboard. Depending on the used app, you will see varying virtual 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.
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) was suddenly not 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 after Lollipop.
Power Consumption & Standby Behavior
Looking at today’s streaming boxes, those consume 2-3W peak under load and even less when being idle. Maybe they don’t have tuners or a very sophisticated image processor built-in. Those parts could however indeed be switched off in standby, only leaving the application processor running at little power consumption, being able to serve requests at any time. So why does a Sony TV still consume ~20W after the display has been switched off? Doesn’t look like a very good hardware design to me.
After hitting the power button on the remote, the shallow sleep state in which the TV still consumes ~20W is kept for a rather long period of time (up to hours) until deep sleep is finally entered, reducing power consumption to about 0.5W, from which there are frequent wake-ups though. I have no clue what maintenance work the TV does after switching it off. Guide (EPG) and service updating certainly do not take that long when done right.
If you don’t require your (mobile) devices to power on the TV from standby over network, I strongly recommend the respective option to be disabled (Settings ⇒ Network ⇒ Remote start). The TV might otherwise not reliably go into deep sleep anymore. Some network activity (e.g. from discovery services like Bonjour) might keep it quite busy, swichting between shallow and deep sleep state every few seconds.
Even after disabling Remote start, the TV is still constantly waking up:
Wake-ups happen every few minutes, so several dozen times over the course of one single night. This has something of E.T. phoning home, as wake-ups are dramatically reduced after disabling Wi-Fi and unplugging the LAN cable.
Sony Android TV therefore neither deserves the green nor the trusted badge!
The number of reports about dying power supplies has also been increasing lately and I can imagine that the frequent wake-ups might have a considerable influence on that.
Sony’s statement to this misery is that it is quite normal for Android TV to constantly wake up… whaaat?
Certain settings and even apps can block deep sleep altogether. This has for example been observed with radio/music apps like TuneIn Radio and Spotify when switching off the TV without manually stopping playback before.
Find a more detailed examination of the standby behavior here.
As for network connectivity, the whole Sony Android TV line-up till this very day features a 100mpbs Ethernet port and up to 802.11ac Wi-Fi with 2x2 MIMO rated at 866mbps (on 80MHz wide channels). This looks perfectly sufficient for media streaming at first glance. However, Ultra HD Blu-ray specifies up to 128mpbs which 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 on Sony right away is that the Wi-Fi controller seems to internally be hooked up to the SoC via USB 2.0 only. Sony probably cut some costs here by not adding an USB 3.0 hub controller, or their intention was to reserve this single non-shared USB 3.0 port/controller for optimal real-time behavior while recording DTV.
In order to test network streaming performance, I used the jellyfish bitrate files. 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 with 4:2:0 chroma subsampling.
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 how Sony performs in my test...
The samples were streamed off of a DLNA Server running on my Synology NAS. Kodi has been used as DLNA Player on the Sony, but I also verified the results with the native Video player.
The highest I could go with the Jellyfish bitrate files was the 90mbps sample. Video playback wasn’t reliable anymore above. A WiFi Speed Test (app has been sideloaded on the TV), downloading data via TCP from my NAS to the Sony TV, pretty much confirmed the average bitrate to be around 100-110mbps, fluctuating dramatically, being far from common 802.11ac speeds.
For reliable video playback, stream has to be well below 100mbps on average. As for highly variable bitrate files, player buffering might play an important role too.
Throughput might dramatically decrease with system uptime and certain apps running in the background though. I have seen it go well below 10mbps permanently which only a full reboot could take care of. The slow MediaTek SoC and buggy/badly optimized NIC drivers will inevitably limit network playback performance.
Software support has been quite poor so far despite Sony updating their whole Android TV line-up to Android Marshmallow and even Nougat. What most people don’t understand is that even though Google delivers the Android TV operating system, Sony still has lots of responsibilities with respect to software which is where things start to fail. Linux kernel is an ancient 3.10 (which used to be the baseline for KitKat!) with MediaTek and Sony drivers/services being flaky as hell. Sony’s DTV integration is still a major pain, even more so after crippling the Video & TV SideView mobile app in that respect. So Android updates are worth nothing if the rest of the system is left behind. Every major Android update brought more new issues to the table than it actually solved.
I would go as far as to say that Sony/MediaTek are among the worst Android TV integrators. I truly 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 their savior, addressing all major issues present in Lollipop. It turned out to be a major disaster for Sony though with lots of devices getting stuck in a reboot loop, requiring customers to perform a hard factory reset, wiping all previously installed apps 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.
One might want to disable automatic software updates, not immediately jumping onboard when a new firmware version has been released. I therefore recommend installing the Sony Support app 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 did contain some bug fixes (mostly in 3rd party components though), it also introduced 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. Reports about Nougat on Sony’s newer models based on the ATV2 platform suggest that Sony 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 (like for example the new low-level IEC61937 API for audio passthrough or display mode switching).
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. But even after doing so, the TV still constantly contacts their servers.
The update is planned to arrive in autumn of 2017 for models based on the ATV1 platform. You might also want to take into account several months of delay though.
Android TV Oreo might change the game with respect to how we approach our media, replacing the app-centric launcher with a more content-centric one, also featuring video previews which is probably the reason why Background Playback/VisibleBehind is being deprecated with the new OS. Question is whether content providers will hook up to this new “channels” idea. So far they have been quite reluctant implementing platform-specific stuff.
I doubt that Sony/MediaTek will put Oreo on devices based on the ATV1 platform even though there is no technical reason not to as it is actually well optimized for slower processors with little RAM, finally placing limitations on what apps can do in the background. MediaTek SoC lifecycle is typically quite short. Moreover, the amount of time Sony has to spend on QA for such major updates increases with every model year. That is why I assume ATV1 support to be abandoned in the near future, which will especially hurt customers of the early 2016 models. Again Sony would have to explain why a XD70/XD80 (ATV2 based) receives the update, while a XD85 (ATV1 based) does not.
Beside this review, I am also maintaining a bug tracker, detailing major flaws of the Sony/MediaTek Android TV integration. One can filter for problem categories via labels (e.g. MediaTek, USB, Standby, Amazon Video,...) or for a specific firmware version via milestones.
Feel free to leave comments in case you have further information. Please note that it is no support forum though.
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.
If it was just for the display itself, I would probably recommend a Sony TV to people who are looking for a good panel with decent video processing capabilities, but Sony’s mismanagement, communication and commitment towards 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 and Android TV stand today. Consider that Samsung TVs don’t even run Google’s TV OS.
Sony is currently trying hard to piss people off, pretty much economizing its TV department to death. My feeling is that if this doesn’t change, the TV line of products will soon have to 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:
- Chromecast built-in (not without quirks though)
- awful DTV and PVR integration
- 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
- voice search app integration
- poor voice 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.