New Device in the Lab: Sony SMP-N200
Looking at the description for the Sony SMP-N200 (SMP stands for “Streaming Media Player”), it appears to be the ultimate streaming device: It supports DLNA streaming, but also has access to all of the major services: Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Vudu, YouTube, Crackle, etc. — all for about the same price as the Roku 2 XS.
Unfortunately, a counterintuitive user experience and limited file support overshadow the many good qualities of this device.
The SMP-N200 has a lot of the same functionality as last year’s device, the SMP-N100, but comes in a prettier package. It has a smaller footprint, and the utilitarian design of the N100 has been replaced with a sleek metallic top and curved sides. It’s still on the large side — about 4 times the size of a Roku 2. They’ve also done a nice job overhauling the remote, in that it’s lost the old generic remote control look, in favor of a smaller size and flat plastic keys. It fits the hand well. My hand, anyway.
(new and improved remote next to last year’s model)
User Experience and Content Selection
When I fired up the device, I was greeted by the same old XMB interface that was on the last one (XMB stands for “XrossMediaBar”, Sony developed this interface for the PSX back in 2003 and it hasn’t changed much). This interface is fine for game consoles, but doesn’t work so well for a dedicated streaming device — all the video sources are organized under a single menu, and there are a lot of sources clogging the list that probably won’t be useful to most people.
The Sony media players are also the most memorable devices I have set up, and not in a good way. For starters, Sony has once again chosen to go with a T9 layout for the onscreen keyboard. This was mind-boggling enough on the previous device, but now that the remote control has lost its number pad even those of use with residual T9 texting skills are out of luck.
Setting up the services was another headache. In order to sign in to Amazon Instant Video, I first had to register for Sony Bravia service, then retrieve a code from the “Enhanced Features” menu in my network settings, to enter into Sony’s website. If this box is designed to stream video, can that really be called an enhanced feature? Fortunately Hulu and Netflix were a little more straightforward — I had the option of either entering my password using the onscreen keyboard (no thanks), or entering a 5-digit code into a web browser.
Sony also designed its own interfaces for services like Netflix and Hulu, and in the process made the user experience a lot worse. They reduced the size of the cover art so that it’s barely readable, but there aren’t any more titles on the screen at once than you’d see on a Boxee, for instance — it’s all just empty space. They also removed the ability to jump to a certain letter when browsing genres in Hulu, and for some reason renamed Hulu’s “Genres” menu to “Channels.” I found this to be very confusing alongside “Networks” in the main menu. The standard UIs for Netflix and Hulu are so much easier to use, I found myself wondering why Sony spent the time developing their own in the first place.
Network File Capabilities
The SMP devices are also DLNA-certified, which is rare for a device that runs in the $99 price range. For people who own a lot of digital content, this is often a bigger consideration than a slick user interface or ease of setup. The box does a great job of finding my network drives, but the files were hard to navigate and I had a hard time getting anything to play — even MP3 and MP4 files, which should be supported, came up as being unreadable or corrupted (though the Boxee Box recognized the same files without issue).
The Sony SMP-N200 packs a lot of important features and services into a sleek little box, and for a reasonable price. The device is quick and responsive, and it feels well made. With more robust file support and a better user interface, the SMP-N200 could really give the other devices a run for their money. But I think Sony will need to engage in a lot of user testing in order for that to happen.