Top critical review
11 people found this helpful
Nice experience with Media Remote - otherwise painful
on January 22, 2012
I bought this player almost entirely to get Hulu. My TV is not really videophile quality, so I can't comment on that aspect. It's a disk player and it plays disks perfectly adequately for a person who's looking for an inexpensive player.
I have a Boxee, but Hulu blocks the Boxee due to some kind of behind-the-scenes shenanigans. TVs, game consoles, disk players - all these devices now have a basket of apps which are just about the same, and have the same features and flaws. For example the YouTube app on the S480 and the Boxee presents things in a side-by-side format which looks nice, but leaves very little room for the title, so when you're looking for things with multiple parts, like "My really awesome video that you want to see Part 01" - the end of the title is just truncated. But anyone who's used YouTube for 5 minutes quickly learns that's where critical part of the title info is located. Because when you want to watch a 5 part video and your search turns up 5 videos all with the title ""My really awesome video that you wan..." - you have no idea which is the first one. And if you figure it out by trial and error, then when part 1 is over, you don't know which is part 2. This kind of thing is probably not Sony's fault (I assume they are not the app authors) but if you're buying one of these for the first time, and you see "Apps! Apps! Apps!" all over the box, all over the product display in Best Buy, and all over the Amazon product page, you may not realize that they spent a lot more time on promotion than actually using the software and making sure the experience is nice.
All the apps have these weird quirks regardless of which device and manufacturer you choose. The real differentiator is the remote. It may not be obvious at first, but if you're going to use Hulu or YouTube, eventually you're going to want to search, and that means typing text. That is where things get heinous really fast. If you use Sony's remote, you have to type it in phone-pad style using the number keys. If you want a 'C', you have to push the '2' key 3 times. You can imagine what it's like to type in "buckaroo banzai across the 8th dimension" and then realize you made a typo - or you're trying to find the right part of your video but you have to do it by trial-and-error because the titles are truncated - and you picked the wrong part - and now you have to type all that over again *every time*. The ghost of Steve Jobs may well come back and murder the engineers who designed this in their sleep.
And this brings us to the meat of the issue. Device manufacturers quickly realized that if you're going to interact with these "Apps", keying in words with a traditional remote is just a non-starter. What many of them are doing is creating their own remote control apps for phones and tablets that give you another way to control the device. Sony's is called "Media Remote" - if you have a smart phone or tablet, you can install this app and then navigate using the touch screen and type text as required using the virtual keyboard on the device. This changes the experience from one of incredible tedium and frustration to something almost workable. Generally, I'd say don't even *think* about buying any minimal device like this for the apps unless it supports using a smart phone or tablet as a remote. I've heard that LG's remote does not support text entry - which is like an ironic fork in the eye - to go to all that trouble and then leave the main pain point unaddressed - incredible.
In order to use Sony's "Media Remote" app, you need a wireless network that supports UPnP. They aren't exactly up-front about that. Possibly because just about every modern router does support it. The ones that don't are typically routers supplied by internet providers, like AT&T's 2Wire gateway router used with U-verse. If you're stuck with one of those, you'll have to buy another router and switch your network over to it in order to use Media Remote. If you envision yourself using the apps, then plan on doing what it takes to get Media Remote going. It's conceivable that you could use Netflix with only clicks by setting up the searches on your computer in advance and adding items to your queue. But sooner or later you'll want to search, and without Media Remote, any kind of text entry is very painful.
One serious negative is the "browser" application - don't imagine that this box is a substitute for a Boxee, Roku, or Google TV in that regard. The browser works alright, but there's no concept of a cursor. You have to navigate around page objects with the arrow keys to find something selectable, and the first video I tried to play locked up the whole box hard. I had to unplug it for a couple of minutes to get it to reset. It's really amazing that you can get so much from a device that is so inexpensive - but some parts are just not ready to use. Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube apps have all worked fine for me. The browser, however, is a disaster.
So if you want a disk player that also supports all the popular app-driven services, AND you have a smart phone or tablet, and a wireless network that supports UPnP, then you're all set for a great experience with the S480. It's a metric ton of value for a pittance.
After using this box for about 4 months, I have to amend this review to say that it crashes a LOT. By "crash", I mean that it gets into a state where it won't respond to the remote or the front panel buttons at all. When that happens, you have to unplug it for a good 30 minutes, then plug it back in. It must have some kind of internal system for holding the memory through brief power outages, because you can't just unplug it and plug it back in. 5 or 10 minutes is not enough. That can be really annoying - say you invite some people over to watch a movie, but while you weren't looking, the box crashed and it won't turn on. Sorry folks - we need 30 minutes to reboot the player. It has a hardware reset by holding down the power button for 10 seconds - that usually is ineffective. One crash got it into some weird state that locked up my whole LAN. Overall, lots of value for a small price, but very quirky little box.
** UPDATE 5/21/12 **
New software update from Sony - but it's still doing the same thing. The LAN lockup behavior seems to coincide with powering it down with a disk inside. I have a Netgear 8 port gigabit switch that most of my LAN traffic goes through - including the player. When the LAN is knocked out, I see a ton of traffic coming from the powered off BluRay player into the switch, and no traffic goes anywhere. When I unplug the BluRay player, everything goes back to normal.
** UPDATE 1/14/13 **
After putting the player on filtered power from a UPS, it crashes only every couple of weeks, instead of every few days. But after several firmware updates, it still exhibits the crash behavior that takes out my entire LAN. Last night, I had to shut everything down and reboot after one of its spaz attacks to get my network going again. I would be curious to know what it's blasting out on the network that can kill it so thoroughly, but not enough to put a network analyzer on it to find out. Overall, given the time this thing has wasted, I have to say it's just not worth it. It's a great little player until it locks up your entire network and wastes an hour of your time. After repeated episodes of that, I'm lowering my rating to 2 stars and throwing this thing in the trash.