While many of us have our collection of nice electronic toys, most of us can't afford to walk into a store, take a look at a company like Sony's complete line of Bravia media add-ons and walk out with it all. And your conscience might stop you anyway-even if your wallet could take the hit, you know enough to look around at other respectable brands, maybe some Samsung or LG equipment, and make a more informed decision.
Well today we're taking the role of "that guy" for you. Sony shipped us their latest Bravia LCD TV along with all of its modular Link components: a wireless HDMI streamer, their internet video player, an HDMI port expander and an extra slim DVD player-a set of matching electronics designed to hook nicely to the back of your Bravia TV while integrating with the display at a software level.
After fervently unpacking five cardboard boxes and dusting the styrofoam specs off of the jet black components, I remembered just how nice Sony's equipment can be. Everything feels solid in the hands, everything matches with the same amount of gloss and everything has the shining Sony logo that was the beacon for technological enlightenment to anyone who lived through the 80s.
But I am disappointed.
I know that most all of this stuff is supposed to hook right to the back of the television, yet I have no natural inclination as to how that happens. I see screws, flimsy clear plastic tracks and manuals in three different languages. I swallow my pride and open one up (and it's a good thing I did).
Starting with the DVD player, I learned that one must screw a mount into the television, screw the component into the mount and then make sure to plug in the three or more cords to make it work.
What? This isn't what I pictured at all. I wanted to equip this TV like a gun. I wanted to lock and load, hear the fulfilling clank of metal on metal and live a Rambo montage while I prepped for an onslaught of 1080p. Instead, I was fiddling with screws and wires, scratching up my entertainment stand in a precarious position while making my sleek beautiful new TV resemble the trash bin of a wire factory.
The feeling was akin to any time you've bought cereal for the toy, only to realize that the toy was really just a 2-cent piece of rubber. And by the way, that box of cereal just cost you $3,500.
Bravia Internet Video Link - $300
The Bravia Internet Video Link was maybe the most indulgent component I had to test, mostly because I would personally never purchase this component on my own. Why?
1. It's essentially a box that puts streaming video like YouTube onto your TV (which is done by many other components as a second function) and
2. It works exclusively with Bravia TVs. The Internet Video Link uses the television's DMXe (USB) port and fits the content into the TV's XMB menu system.
Yet my alternate persona, my big spender identity who sucked down a $5 iced coffee while writing this review, enjoyed the IVL.
It really is ingenious that the system works within the television's menu system. In fact, it doesn't even have a menu system of its own. Utilizing the TV's XMB (Cross Media Bar), the interface is not so different than the PS3. Flipping through the list of content providers made way for a very intuitive experience in which I click any content provider that looks interesting, from AP to cooking classes. Once I select a clip from within their menu, fast forwarding through content or skipping ahead is extremely responsive with the user interface acknowledging my commands smoothly while allowing the clips time to buffer.
Sure, most of the content looks like crap, the compressed YouTube clips especially. But Sony's understated blue skin framed it well, adding a bit of class to often tacky content.
Especially with Amazon Unbox (tested in beta here), we see Sony's design touch can add a lot to the experience. While managing Unbox content is a pain on my TiVo, the Internet Link puts a pleasant icon skin on your media and has a multitude of simple to navigate categories that makes it all palatable. Plus, you get the same navigation bar in Unbox as you do in YouTube or any other of the services, simplifying the experience of viewing dozens of different content feeds. Simply, it's the best presentation of Unbox I've seen to date.
I'm happy again. The world is rainbows and sunshine.
Then the practical side of me kicks in. I spit out the Brazilian coffee (most of it gone by now, to be honest) and realize I've been hoodwinked. Why didn't the PS3 have all of these neat internet video channels in its XMB? I had no answer.
Bravia Wireless Link - $800
Regardless of how things may have gone with the Internet Link, I was ready to move on to the Wireless Link. It's a piece of equipment that we all hope will be a mainstay in every home within 5 years. The system streams HDMI and component video wirelessly, allowing you to reroute that DVR to a different room while maintaining a pristine HD image.
I knew there would be catches. Even $5 coffee guy could understand that the HD video would be limited to 1080i streaming, nixing the dream of watching Blu-rays in the bedroom. The second catch is even bigger. The Wireless Link transmitter does not double as an HDMI port splitter. This is a vital point, as it means that you can't double dip your home theater to two televisions. Even if it's 1 foot away, the components plug in to the transmitter, and the receiver accepts the data wirelessly.
Combine no hardline output with the 1080i transfer limitations and you realize that all content you watch will all be in 1080i.
OK, but I'm still enthused. After all, I didn't pay for this stuff. So I put it through the most rigorous test I can imagine. I play the final levels of Gears of War 2, streaming my 720p component connection from my Xbox in my living room to my TV in my bedroom (a distance of only 10 or so feet). Still, the Wireless Link really impressed me.
There's no discernible lag. Maybe if I'd been playing online in some pro tournament, I'd have noticed a slight disadvantage. But as far as I could tell, the Xbox is hooked right into the TV I'm was using. And the image quality is just as good as it had looked when I had the system hardwired.
Sony explained later that the delay between the base station and a receiver was less than one millisecond-that's faster than most LCDs can draw the image being transmitted. Not bad, Sony. My 5GHz Wireless-N network didn't even interfere, as you'd warned me could happen.
But again, there's a catch where some engineer didn't think things through all the way. I couldn't stream my PS3 at all. Neither Blu-ray nor games worked, even when I reduced the resolution from 1080p. I could catch the signal for a moment or two, then the system would give me a "not supported" message.
UPDATE: My streaming problem was evidently an HDCP issue with the Link and a Samsung television. On the Bravia set, the PlayStation 3 functioned properly. Like all of the Bravia Link components, the Wireless Link is really not designed/tested to be taken beyond the Bravia infrastructure.
Bravia DVD Player - $200
Even my yuppie alter ego wasn't fooled by this one. The Bravia DVD Link may be called a link, but I know better. I know a DVD player when I see one.
Sony does promise a a few advantages with their Bravia branded item, of course. The first I discussed above, that the player could mount to the back of your set (be it in a not so glamorous way). The second is that, like the Internet Movie Link, the DVD component can hook to the television through the USB-based DMXe port.
Wait, I should rephrase this, the DVD Link needs to hook to the TV through DMXe. It won't work at all otherwise. And that's a problem, as the television only has one DMXe port.
So even though I have the HDMI hooked up correctly and even though I know most DVD players don't need USB connections to work, I am sitting here, pounding on the DVD remote that does nothing (yet, the DVD menu still auto-loads with "play movie" highlighted but unclickable, which just spites me more). The techie me is upset. The yuppie me is livid pissed.
When the DVD Link is plugged in and working happily, it's fine. It's pretty much as good as any other DVD player. If you hit the "display" button on the remote, it tweaks your TV's display, as opposed to messing with DVD player options. I guess there's an advantage to this, a certain technological configuration efficiency. But the benefit is small, and to quote the words of my truly yuppie wife, "It doesn't even play Blu-ray??"
Input Link - $150
The Input Link isn't the most glamorous of Bravia accessories, but like the others, it does hook to the back of your TV after a bit of effort. It's a 5X1 HDMI port expander. It matches the other Links. And it's a hugely missed opportunity by Sony if you think about it. A module like this could sync with DMXe and mount your components straight into the XMB through Sony technical magic. Instead, it just offers some extra HDMI slots. But of all the mounting components, the Input Link seemed the most at home, fitting snugly and solidly near the inputs.
So Is It Worth It?
To be fair to Sony, $3,500 isn't an absurd amount to spend on home theater equipment-especially when we break down the sheer amount of components we reviewed here and realize that it's all name brand equipment.
But I look at the pile of electronics I've got, this mountain of Bravia, and I can't help wishing it would do more or at least be a seamless experience to use.
I had more difficulty setting up the equipment than I have home theater components in years. For each component being design around the television, it certainly didn't fit on the television very easily or even all that well.
And while Sony may or may not be on to something with their DMXe integration (I think they really could be, actually), they need to make sure that users who own more than one component-their most loyal customer base-aren't being punished for it by limiting available DMXe inputs on Bravia TVs.
The thing is, I really like the Bravia television, the use of XMB for its menu system and the idea of Sony's "Links" integrating with this very solid platform. And the Wireless Link, even at $800, is highly technically impressive and genuinely excites me about the future of home theater.
Yet at the end of the day, both my ignorant yuppie and shamelessly techie self can't help but to look at my PS3 and wonder, why oh why can't Sony focus all of their development into this machine-or at the very least, make using my TV as straightforward and gratifying as firing a loaded weapon?