On-test: Sony’s awesome new $200 ABC iView Player

Sony has been a bit of a trailblazer in allowing people to watch digital media on their TV — the PlayStation 3 has long been the gold standard in playing back and streaming digital media files. But it’s still an expensive beast if you don’t care about gaming.

The Sony BDP-S370 fills in this gap in the market beautifully. It’s an RRP $229 Blu-Ray player which you can find on sale in shops for less than $200 that gives you Blu-Ray disc playback as well as ABC iView Channel 7 and SBS catchup TV and all the Sony Bravia TV streaming TV channels.

I got it in for review because I was excited at the idea of being able to watch ABC stuff on-demand on my TV — especially because my Tivo has been missing recordings of my staples such as the 7:30 report recently due to all the last minute timeslot changes from election coverage.

Although the Sony interface for iView is different to the web interface that you’ll be familiar with it’s still quite easy to navigate. It’s more Apple TV-ish than anything else presenting episodes of shows in a grid format.

I was initially surprised at the fact that shows were presented in alphabetical order which meant a lot of scrolling to find the latest episodes of shows — but soon found the option to organise it by date descending which makes it a piece of cake to catch up on yesterday’s episodes of everything available via iView.

iView playback quality was fantastic — admittedly I tested it with an Optus 100Mbit/s HFC internet connection which is about the fastest connectivity available to consumers in the country but since iView is tuned for regular broadband connections I’d expect performance to be similar.

Watching the news through iView was practically indistinguishable from standard definition broadcast and there were no pauses for buffering throughout.

The great thing about ABC iView and Channel 7 / SBS catch up TV is that you can get really high quality shows that you would frankly otherwise probably be pirating via Bittorrent if you’d forgotten to record them. For example iView has The Colbert Report Doctor Who The Bill; SBS has Mad Men and Entourage; Channel 7 has Knight Rider Covert Affairs Parenthood and more.

It is also impressive to see Sony’s Xross (pronounced “Cross”) Media Bar interface implemented on a Blu-Ray player. Dedicated home theatre components including DVD/Blu-Ray players have been one of the last bastions of truly horrendous user interfaces for far too long and the Xross interface is a joy to use. It’s so easy to find what you’re looking for.

The Bravia TV channels aren’t exactly “channels” — they’re collections of streamable vodcasts really but they’re nonetheless not terrible — they tick the boxes of tech hot bodies sport travel and so on.

You can also search the titles of all videos in the Bravia Internet TV channels which makes it easier to find all content about “San Francisco” or “pasta” for example – though you’d probably be more likely to do this kind of thing on a computer with a keyboard not a remote control…!

For the record the Bravia TV channels (apart from the big hitters of ABC iView Yahoo!7 and SBS) are:

  • Golflink
  • eHow
  • Podcasts of your choice
  • Livestrong.com (healthy living)
  • Concierge.com (videos about lots of different tourist destinations in the world)
  • Epicurious.com (how to cook different dishes… Pasta e Fagioli con Salsicce… yum)
  • Style.com (catwalk fashion shows interviews with designers etc)
  • blip.tv (a curated collection of the best vodcasts on the web with stuff like Diggnation Your Geek News Photoshop User TV and so on.)
  • Video Detective (movie trailers!!)
  • Ford Models Fashion and Lifestyle (lots of fit girls’ modelling portfolios)
  • Wired (random video reviews of gadgets and geek stuff from Wired Magazine)
  • Moshcam (on demand recordings of live concerts at venues in Sydney; some decent bands like Josh Pyke Stereolab Skunkhour Sneaky Sound System The Herd Public Enemy — and various other lesser known bands)
  • NPR (US National Public Radio audio only)
  • FIFA World Cup collection (classic moments reviews of all the World Cups from 1930 onwards interviews with players)
  • UCTV.fm (more interviews and performances with both established and unsigned artists.)
  • Dailymotion (a competitor to YouTube essentially)
  • YouTube

The other awesome thing about this BluRay player is it has both a rear USB port (for plugging in permanent storage for BD-live stuff) and a front USB port (for temporary storage like USB memory keys external HDDs etc.)

I tested a downloaded TV episode in high definition MKV format — a format that’s often pretty hard for dedicated devices to support properly and it played perfectly — even though it was a massive 3.8GB file for a one hour TV episode.

The player also supports DLNA network streaming though I couldn’t get the player to even see my Mac (running MediaLink DLNA server which targets PlayStation3 as an endpoint). I didn’t persist much with this because there are so many forum threads about people having problems with DLNA on this device — and in general DLNA is a “big bag of hurt” (to borrow Steve Jobs’ phrase about BluRay).