Review: Sony SMP-N100 Streaming Media Player

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The Sony SMP-N100 is Sony’s addition to the media streaming device market. It’s a small, unobtrusive device that doesn’t attract any attention to itself. It supports Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Video On Demand, and a whole host of other streaming media services. In pretty typical Sony fashion, the device performs its primary tasks admirably well, but everything else falls a bit short.

Features

  • Wirelessly stream Netflix, Hulu Plus, Pandora, and much more
  • Full 1080p HD with HDMI output
  • MSRP $99.99

Pros

  • Easy setup
  • DLNA support
  • Free remote control app for iOS and Android

Cons

  • Sluggish boot times
  • Aggravatingly unfriendly search controls
  • Brittle, inflexible interface

Review
The Sony SMP-N100 is a small, lightweight box that comes with a full sized remote control. Setup was extremely easy, and within minutes of unpacking it was connected to my TV and wireless network. Minutes after that I was on the Sony website activating my Netflix and Amazon Video On Demand accounts on the device. The entire process was quick and painless. Once setup, I was browsing through my Netflix queue. Borrowing some from the venerable Playstation 3, the main interface of the SMP-N100 is a horizontal bar for major functions (Movies, Music, etc), with sub-menus aligned along the vertical access. The navigation controls weren’t entirely intuitive, but they weren’t so hard that you’d never get used to them.

We’ve had a Mac Mini connected to our TV for several years now acting as our gateway to Netflix and Hulu. We use a wireless mouse and keyboard to navigate, but the normal web version of Netflix is not easy to use from our couch. We almost always have to stand up and approach the TV to be able to read movie titles and descriptions. Alas, the Netflix interface as displayed by the SMP-N100 is only marginally better suited for the television. The number of elements displayed per screen are reduced, so as not to overly crowd things, but the font sizes were sufficiently small that both my wife and I found ourselves moving closer to the screen to read.

The primary function of the device works fine, once you get there. We experienced no problems at all streaming movies from Netflix or Crackle. The playback startup time — during which network quality is measured — felt just a couple seconds longer than from the web version, but that’s an entirely subjective claim: I never actually timed it on either the SMP-N100 or the Mac Mini.

We also played music from Pandora, watched a couple episodes of Epicurious, and listened to some National Public Radio. Once the program started, the device itself stayed pleasantly out of your way allowing you to enjoy your entertainment. Unfortunately, the SMP-N100 is all too in-your-face when you’re trying to get to your entertainment.

Sony’s no slouch in terms of consumer electronics so I was surprised, to say the least, at just how unfriendly the SMP-N100 can be. It seems that when the device boots, it does not fully activate the WiFi connection. After booting the unit, I’d select Netflix from the menu, and be presented with a screen detailing the process of “preparing the Internet content”. Once this was complete, I’d get the following screen:

If the connection is ready, why do I need to click a button? Why not just take me right to the content I had already selected?

While the device supports a Favorites list, it’s not possible to add a particular show to your list of Favorites: you can only add whole channels. This means that I can add NPR to my Favorites list to access the NPR channel, but I’ll still need to work through the dozens of pages of NPR shows listed to find the ones I really want to listen to. Or I could search…

Search was the most surprising let down of the SMP-N100. To access the search function, you first press the “Options” button on the remote control, and then select “Search” from the sub-menu that pops up. The very first thing you see after selecting “Search” is this:

Why show me an empty input box when I’ve selected “Search”, Sony? Do so many people accidentally stumble upon the search screen that you need to provide them the opportunity to backtrack before inputting any search terms? You need to actually click inside that empty text box before you can really start searching. Doing so brings up this screen:

That’s right: T9 input for your search. You have a remote control in your hands with which you can easily navigate left and right, but Sony gives you an on-screen numpad and forces you to use T9 to input your search term. Fine. You work your way through that, and press the on-screen “Enter” button at the lower-left screen. Guess what happens next. Go ahead, guess. Give up?

Yup: back to the first search screen, from which you can decide to not perform your search after all. The whole process is so remarkably unfriendly as to make the search functions almost useless.

If you’re using the free remote control app on iOS or Android you can get a normal fulltext input box, but you’re still forced through the unnecessary pre- and post-input screens. Moreover, the free remote control app on iOS has the gall to display advertisements across the upper third of the screen. Really, Sony, are you guys so strapped for cash that you need to monetize the remote control app for your media players? Presumably I’ve already given you money to buy your hardware. Why are you ruining my experience by showing ads in your app?

The SMP-N100 has a front USB port, allowing you to connect USB storage to playback files you already possess. I had such disappointing experiences with the overall interface that I never bothered to try this. If you’re the kind of person who might even consider putting your media files onto USB, I’m guessing that you’ll be similarly dissatisfied with the SMP-N100. In short, this is not the device for you, even though it purports to support a healthy variety of audio and video codecs and container formats.

The Verdict
The SMP-N100 could have been a great media streaming device. It’s a small, unobtrusive device with the minimalist style that Sony pulls off pretty well. But the overall experience makes it pretty clear that this was built by engineers with presumably little — if any — usability analysis by actual customers. For the price, you can get something better.

Product Page: Sony SMP-N100