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Digital broadcast TV is still big despite the rapid growth of online streaming media. That won’t change anytime soon. Tuner integration is therefore still an important aspect of today’s TVs. From a hardware point-of-view, all European mid-range and high-end 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 which is what we will have a closer look at in this review.

Agenda

Live Channels

Channel Management

TV Guide

Video & TV SideView

PVR

Picture in Picture

YouView [U.K. only]

Final Words

Live Channels

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

Back at launch of the Android TV platform in 2014, Google’s TIF and Live Channels app were lacking basic functionality which is most probably the reason why device manufacturers were forced to go their own way concerning tuner integration. Sony’s is based on an early fork of Google’s Live Channels and ExoPlayer which could not do much more than surfing and displaying channels. Sony ported over some missing features (like DVR, NVOD and HbbTV) from older models and put their traditional look-and-feel on top, which however does not go very well along with the Android TV one, being dauntingly old-fashioned. What you get is some unloving, unresponsive, more or less monochromic OSD. It feels as if it is coming from cheap old external settop-box. This impression is backed up by the fact that the tuners are accessed via separate input rather than a native app. So you basically have two separate systems to handle. The aweful button packed Sony remote therefore makes sense which is a shame nonetheless.

Google’s TIF and own Live Channels app have gotten more and more capable over the years, perfectly being integrated with the Android TV experience. While you can install the app from the Google Play Store, you can’t make use of the recently added advanced features like Timeshifting or PVR as Sony does not implement the underlying APIs. I would love to see Sony embracing Google’s new TIF APIs, moving more in the direction of a vanilla Android TV. Sony just can’t do software…

Channel Management

Channel management is usually nothing to write home about. Sony however screwed it up so badly that it deserves an entire section of its own.

The whole Digital Setup is a total mess, far from a common structure or common naming conventions. Sony for example distinguishes between Digital and Satellite where Digital refers to cable (DVB-C) and terrestrial (DVB-T/T2) reception. Isn’t Satellite digital too? And why in the blue hell would you call your channel search/scan facility Digital Tuning?

Due to a lack of comprehensive manual, it is hard to find the place where to create or edit your favorite channels. The Action menu is your best friend. However, while the favorites editor is entered via the Action menu, the full channel list editor is to be found in the Settings menu.

In a perfect world, one wouldn’t have to mess with the full channel list. Favorites on Sony are dramatically borked though. Favorite channels, even though being re-sorted, retain the channel numbers from within the full channel list, resulting in the favorites channel numbering not being consecutive and impossible to remember. Navigating your favorite channels via numeric buttons therefore isn’t much fun. TV Guide and Discover menu at least provide a linear list in the intended order 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 name of the corresponding channel anymore. So you are completely blind as to whether you are able to watch or record the events returned by search or not, rendering it completely useless.

The most convenient way to switch between full and the up to four favorite lists is by using the Discover menu. What is really annoying though is that the TV quits “favorites mode” all the time, effectively re-activating the full channel list. This for example happens every time you leave Live TV for some other app or input source, but also when switching the TV off.

The flawed favorites implementation forced me into maintaining the full channel list, effectively turning it into a favorites list of its own. The respective editor inside the TV is hardly usable however. After having moved or deleted three channels, the bad usability (for example using replace/exchange instead of insert semantics) and unresponsiveness of the UI have already driven you crazy. In the end it turned out that maintaining the full channel list wasn’t worth the effort either as the TV decided to re-sort channels every night. Disabling Auto Service Update solved this issue but for some unknown reason also 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 in-TV 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.

While commercial SetEdit version is at 1.22, the free Sony Editor has been at 1.17 for several months now, suffering from some annoying malfunctions. SDBEditor is probably the better alternative, but unfortunately being another Windows-only tool. Source code of this tool is publicly available though.

A platform independent web-based thingy (like SamyCHAN) or mobile app would be a much nicer solution, 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.

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

Also when performing a full auto scan, all previously scanned channels are wiped, even the favorites, requiring one to start from scratch. So in order to add missing/new channels, one can either hope for the Auto Service Update to catch them up over night or get acquainted with the rather painful manual frequency scanning. Auto Service Update in most cases is more of a pain, with channels either getting re-sorted, reappearing upon deletion or even disappearing all the time.

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

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

TV Guide

The TV Guide comprises EPG data from both, the DVB stream (EIT - Event Information Table) and also the web (Gracenote) for 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 channels maintained within the web EPG database to the DVB network provider’s channels on the TV, many of them don’t receive any additional information. Manual channel assignment isn’t possible. Also Freesat users are out of luck as the TV won’t pull any information for those channels.

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

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.

Other 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 due to the flaws mentioned in Channel Management. So several settings seem to somehow correlate for no obvious reason, making the whole system behavior hardly predictable.

Video & TV SideView

The Video & TV SideView mobile app used to be the only bright spot in Sony’s DTV integration, dramatically improving the otherwise aweful experience. It offered a web-based program guide from which recordings could be scheduled (even from remote), also serving as a convenient channel zapper.

Sony recently abandoned those features. 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 relied on this web-based EPG on the mobile device and customers who chose Sony for the very reason of remotely scheduling recordings.

PVR

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 (> 32GB) has to be connected to the single SuperSpeed USB 3.0 port, effectively 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 either. So one has to make a decision here.

Beware that your storage gets formatted and encrypted when registering it for recordings. So you will lose all your data with the storage not being usable outside of this configuration anymore afterwards.

Recordings are stored in a DRM contaminated format and are therefore not meant to be portable… or edited… or archived. There is actually no legal requirement for manufacturers to protect recordings. Some broadcasters indeed require content copy protection as copyright owners like Hollywood would otherwise refuse to sell HD content to them. There are however mechanisms that are supposed to manage DRM only in case it is requested by the broadcaster for a specific program and not fundamentally for everything. I still doubt that it makes a ton of sense in a world in which one can easily take copies and share Hollywood blockbusters in HD the day and date they come out on Blu-ray.

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

One major letdown is that 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 (encrypted) channel in parallel. Looks like the CI is unnecessarily assigned to the first (FTA) channel or is hardwired to the first tuner.

The encrypted 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 some Motionflow.

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 Live 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 Android TV sets feature a nicely integrated Timeshifting. DTV really shines there. From a very powerful channel manager over Timeshifting to even making the integrated tuner(s) accessible to other TVs in the network. (video)

Picture in Picture

Sony also used to advertise 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), one 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!? Looks more like a marketing gag to me.

YouView [U.K. only]

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 own DTV integration 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 DTV (e.g. for satellite reception or recording) anymore, being either or. It is also not possible to record or timeshift within YouView. And if you decide to go with Sony’s conventional TV player, you lose some British catch-up services which are not available as distinct apps on Android TV (like All 4 and ITV Hub). So one again has to make a decision here. YouView integration into the existing ecosystem is quite poor, reminding more of a rag rug.

Final Words

If it weren’t for the twin-triple-tuners, it would actually look like Sony already gave up on digital broadcast TV, not having pushed any significant software update in recent years, probably thinking that streaming media will soon be taking over anyway. Broadcast TV will still be with us for several years to come and will probably always have the right to be around for things like live events.

Sony has been ignoring the importance of digital broadcast TV for far too long already. 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.

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