Sony Android TV Hands-on: A Big Step Forward

LAS VEGAS - Sony's design teams make good-looking products on the outside, but not necessarily on the inside. That's certainly been the case with smart TVs, which have involved scrolling trough long, multiple menu pages in a profusion of icons. Like several TV makers here at CES 2015, Sony has handed some of the smart TV development over to a third party - in this case, Google with its Android TV software. (Sharp has also gone the Android route.) 

With Android TV, Sony's new ultra HD sets, the X900 and X910C, gain some sense of order. Scrolling rows of icons - instead of whole menu pages - come up from the bottom of the screen for accessing anything from inputs to rows of online content apps such as Netflix or (Sony-owned) Crackle. The TV's also come with a second, slim remote the uses a simple thumb touchpad for scrolling through the interface. In my quick hands-on, however, I didn't find it as intuitive as Roku TV's basic grid of content apps or LG's and Vizio's launcher bars with slick-looking icons for favorite apps or channels.

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It also gets a bit overwhelming to have an icon for every possible menu scrolling up the screen. A row of icons for inputs is tolerable: Scroll up or down to that row, and then scroll sideways to choose between the TV's internal tuner, an attached Blu-ray drive, etc.

The rows of icons scroll up from the bottom of the screen.The rows of icons scroll up from the bottom of the screen.It can quickly get overwhelming. Apps or Games may squeeze potentially dozens (or more) options into a row or two on the TV - forcing you to scroll left or right for a long time to run through them all. Still, getting everything on one screen - especially an overlay that doesn't require leaving what you are currently watching to dig into a menu - is a big improvement.

The scrolling-row concept continues after you choose an app. Click on YouTube, for example, and you scroll left and right through video options. Whatever you had been watching (such as a Blu-ray) appears frozen and slightly dimmed in the background.

You can potentially avoid a lot of menu digging by using the text- and voice-based search options, which look across all your sources. I didn't get a chance to test them out thoroughly at Sony's booth, but we've seen good results in our other tests of the Android TV OS in our review of the Google Nexus Player (though its functionality on that device was restricted to Google Play and YouTube).  

Sony's Android TV interface may not be as slick as LG's or Vizio's, or as dead-simple as Roku's, but it's a big step forward from what Sony offered in the past.

Sean Captain is a senior editor at Tom's Guide. Follow him @seancaptain. Follow us @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.

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