Sony SMP-N200 Media Player
Testing the Sony SMP-N200 made me consider how far network media players have come in the past few years. Sony’s base model, an upgraded version of its first player, the SMP-N100, handles most of the basic media streaming options with ease. It plays nicely with others, easily finding connections to DLNA servers, computers, tablet media controllers, and smartphone apps. It plays a wide variety of file formats. And it does it all for $100.
In the weeks I was testing the Sony player, I suffered not one single glitch, buffer, stutter, crash, freeze, or file not found. The SMP-N200 located most of the media files on my home network sources. It offers all of the popular online video streaming services. It is a media renderer that will play music and movies that are thrown to it from DLNA control apps on phones and tablets. It has an Internet browser. And it plays beautiful 1080p video with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound.
But while I’ve never had an easier time testing a media player, the SMP-N200 could use improvement in its menus and features.
Picture and Sound Quality
Blu-ray movies still have a slight edge over streaming digital, but the Sony player makes you work to see the difference. Capable of full 1080p, the video is as good as the video content. It can handle 12-bit Deep Color, x.v.Color, and 3D. You can no longer complain about the lack of content as online streaming services, especially Vudu, offer most movies in 1080p. For movies that are available in 720p or standard definition, it has the Sony Precision Cinema HD upscaler. While the upscaler improves many standard-definition videos, Sony offers more video adjustments that claim to further clean up SD picture quality.
I tested the Sony player on a Toshiba 47L7200U LED LCD TV. When viewing a standard-definition or highly compressed video I shot on a digital camera, there was video noise. Pressing the Options button while watching the streaming videos brought up a menu of adjustable noise filters: MNR reduces mosquito noise around the edges of objects, FNR reduces random noise, and BNR removes blocky artifacts. Unfortunately, no amount of adjustment had a noticeable effect on the picture.
The SMP-N200 has a few dozen online movie and TV streaming apps that include the popular Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon on Demand. Vudu has been added to this media player but is still not available on the SMP-N100.
Sony has included many of its own apps as well as apps with its own content. Along with the Video Unlimited rental service and Qriocity music subscription service, other Sony apps include Crackle TV, Michael Jackson TV, Dr. Oz, the Sony Movie Channel shorts, Sony Movie trailers, and SGNL videos about other Sony products.
You may notice an icon for video search. But don’t get excited that you can search for movies, as the search is for topics in the online video content from its many Web video apps: YouTube, Epicurious.com, Concierge.com, WealthTV, dailymotion, eHow, Livestrong, Yoga with Tara Stiles, NHL Vault, Snag Films, the Wiggles, and euronews.
The SMP-N200 has added an Internet browser. Like other media player and TV Internet browsers, you can play videos from some Websites, but the TV networks and many movie sites block the Sony from playing full episodes.
Unlike other media player or smart TV Internet browsers that offer a mouse-like experience, the Sony player exclusively uses the navigation arrows on the remote to move from link to link on a page. The highlighting box is hard to see. If you plan to use the Internet browser, you’ll want to have the MediaRemote app for your Android or iPhone because you can use its keyboard to type in the Web addresses (URL), search terms, and other information.
Remote Control and Remote Control App
Another difference between the SMP-N100 and the SMP-N200 is the redesigned remote control. Its sleek design was easy for me to use but may be a challenge for those with large hands. Sony’s MediaRemote app is a useful alternative, but the down button is too close to the home button, and more often than not, I found myself exiting a streaming service when I simply wanted to go down a row; then I’d have to start over.
XrossMediaBar and Media File Display
Sony has used the XrossMediaBar (XMB) menu system across a number of devices. Rather than drill down through menus and submenus, the main menu runs horizontally, and the submenu options cross it vertically. For example, when you highlight the video menu, all of the video options appear, including a list of home network sources—computers, media servers, NAS drives—as well as the video streaming services offered online.
While it is convenient to see the submenus this way, the same cross system is used to display media files. Instead of a full-screen grid of thumbnails as most media players display, the Sony shows the files in a vertical scrolling line. About 10 photos, songs, or video titles are listed on the screen. Granted, the SMP-N200 can scroll very fast; still, I would prefer to see a display of more files.
But while I didn’t like the way the photos and media files were listed, the Sony player did excel in how fast the files appeared. Regardless of the size of the library, the photo thumbnails populated quickly. Thousands of photos appeared almost as fast as I could scroll through them.
Video files did not display thumbnails of the title or movie still, as many other players do. There is no preview display as there is on WDTV Live. It doesn’t aggregate files or add metadata—descriptions, cast, and crew—as on the Boxee TV. Then again, neither competitor is as trouble-free as the Sony.
And the Music…Stops
When watching a slideshow of photos, it’s nice to play music in the background to enhance the mood of the pictures shown. Most players will continue to play music—from your music library or a streaming service like Pandora—allowing you to control the playback from any screen. Sony’s player is one of the rare exceptions. The SMP-N200 stops the music when you leave the streaming music app or music player. Early players that didn’t keep the music playing still offered the option to turn on music from within the photo app using the slideshow settings. This is not true of the SMP-N200, which doesn’t offer music and photos.
While I would have preferred that Sony add features like slideshows with music, the SMP-N200 has other features that aren’t found on most media players. First, it displays a bitrate indicator that shows the speed of a video or music stream. It was interesting to see that standard-definition video streams at 6 megabits per second, and many high-definition streams come in at 25 Mbps or more.
The Sony media player is Homeshare compatible. Homeshare is Sony’s wholehome audio solution that includes networked powered speakers and other music streaming devices. Music can be simultaneously streamed to all Homeshare devices, including a media player connected to your home theater to create a party mode with music in every room.
Also, the SMP-N200 has HDMI CEC (Consumer Electronics Control). When your home theater is turned off, simply turn on the Sony media player, and it will turn on your TV and A/V receiver and then switch to the right input. In testing, I accidentally picked up my Toshiba 47L7200U TV remote control and was using the navigation buttons. The Sony menu responded. I was able to use the Toshiba remote with the Sony player without any special setup. Play control buttons worked as well.
The Bottom Line
OK, so the Sony SMP-N200 has a few quirks I’d like to fix. I’m not crazy about the file navigation, or the Internet browser, or the way the music stops playing when you leave the app. But all in all, this is a solid choice for streaming media to your home theater. It easily finds media files and plays them. It’s easy to use once you understand the XrossMediaBar menu, plus it has onscreen hints to tell you which remote buttons you can use to accomplish tasks. And with its $100 price tag, this is an awesome player that will do the job in 1080p full HD while delivering great value. Recommended.