Editors' note (March 4, 2010): The rating on this product has been lowered because of changes in the competitive marketplace, including the release of 2010 models. The review has not otherwise been modified. Click here for more information.
This year most major TV makers are using interactive features to distinguish themselves from the others, and unlike differences in black level performance and off-angle viewing, it's easy for shoppers to tell the various interactive add-ons apart. Whether they actually want said add-ons is another question. Sony's KDL-W5100 series represents the company's most affordable attempt at interactive TV, although it still costs a few hundred more than the entry-level Internet-ready sets from its competitors. Sony does offer a lot of extras, however, including select Yahoo widgets, scads of streaming Web video (much of it pretty niche), Amazon Video on Demand, YouTube, Shoutcast, and, coming soon, Netflix. The latter will propel the W5100 and other interactive Sony series past the current content-on-TV champ, LG's LH50 series, in the add-on arms race. Meanwhile the W5100 delivers better picture quality than most standard LCDs out there, making it a well-rounded package if you have the extra cash and really want streaming video on your TV.
Series note: We performed a hands-on evaluation of the 46-inch Sony KDL-46W5100 but this review also applies to the 52-inch KDL-52W5100 and the 40-inch KDL-40W5100. These three sizes in the W5100 series share identical specifications, and we expect them to exhibit very similar picture quality. This performance section of this review does not apply as closely to the 65-inch KDL-65W5100, which has a lower contrast ratio and thus may exhibit worse black-level performance.
[Editors' Note: Many of the Design and Features elements are identical between the Sony KDL-W5100 series and the Sony KDL-XBR9 series we reviewed earlier, so readers of the earlier review may experience some déjà vu when reading the same sections below.]
The external look of the KDL-W5100 series is refreshingly low-profile but still stylish enough to pass muster with the décor police. The sharply angled, compact frame measures about an inch and a half from the edge of the picture to the edge of the panel along the top and sides, thicker along the bottom, and is colored a tasteful dark charcoal gray fronted by a sleek transparent layer. The speakers are completely hidden, and a nonswiveling stand supports the panel.
We actually prefer the W5100's smaller remote to the many-buttoned clicker included on Sony's higher-end models. The central cursor is plenty prominent and surrounded by four buttons that are difficult to confuse. A cluster of keys at the top of the remote can command other gear that's compatible with the HDMI-CEC control-over-HDMI scheme, but the remote can't control other devices via infrared. The W5100 also adds a couple of buttons to the middle of the wand for interactive functions, one labeled "widgets" and the other "video." The former jumps directly to Yahoo widgets, while the latter summons the Video bar of the company's XMB menu interface.
Said interface, which will be familiar to users of Sony's newer gaming systems, has seven horizontal selections, four of which are devoted to non-TV functions called "photo," "music," "video" and "networking." Given the W5100's accent on streaming features (see below), the prominence of some of these extra selections is justified. The company did make some improvements in the Setup menu over last year, ditching the input-specific sub-menus for picture settings and grouping numerous miscellaneous controls together into a Preferences menu. We also laud the expanded explanations, which describe the main functions of various menu topics so you don't have to expand each one to find what you're looking for.
On the other hand, there still seems to be too much going on with the XMB, and we anticipate some users having a tough time finding what they're looking for. Shortcuts are available, however, including a secondary menu option, called "Favorites," which offers direct input access along with a few strange widgets like screensavers and sample music. We rarely used it, although we did like the context-sensitive Options menu, which offered shortcuts to setup items during regular TV watching, and switched sorting options when we browsed the online video selections.
Sony's least expensive model to feature the company's new interactivity suite, dubbed Bravia Internet Video, the KDL-W5100's feature set is distinguished mostly by what comes over its Ethernet cable. The company does include 120Hz processing, however, which enables improved motion resolution (aka less blurring) when you turn on the company's MotionFlow dejudder processing. Unlike Samsung's and Toshiba's video processing schemes, Sony's doesn't allow you to get the antiblurring effects without dejudder. Check out Performance for details.
The W5100 offers the same interactive capabilities as the XBR9 series. That includes select Yahoo Widgets--Internet-powered content and information modules that can be downloaded and activated right on the TV screen. Unlike the Samsung models the W5100 we reviewed doesn't offer access to the full panoply of widgets; as of press time it had only Twitter along with Yahoo's basic trio of weather, finance, and news. Check out the full review of Yahoo widgets for a look at the latter three, and our dedicated Twitter widget review for the former.
Sony's implementation of widgets is similar to Samsung's with a couple of important differences. Instead of confining the individual widget snippets to a bar along the bottom of the screen, Sony lets you move them around and place them wherever you'd like. Widgets can be called up individually, and depending on the widget, you can have more than one snipped visible at a time (to show the weather in more than one city, for example). In general we liked Sony's take better, especially because the system was much snappier than the relatively sluggish Samsung widget experience. We just wish Sony would include more widgets.
The other major interactive feature is streaming video. The W5100 basically offers all of the functionality of the Bravia Internet Video Link (BIVL) built-in--no need to buy the actual $199 box. The most compelling video client so far is Amazon Video On Demand, which also offers high-def videos. Amazon VOD worked well in our tests, once we waited the 20 or so seconds for the store to load (on more than one occasion the load screen actually gave us a "timed-out" message before it finally appeared), although we missed being able to watch previews--the service on Panasonic's VieraCast TVs and Roku enables previews, while on BIVL and TiVo, for example, it does not. Videophiles will appreciate that picture settings can be modified for the Sony's online video content, just like for other inputs.
Even more compelling is Sony's promise to add Netflix-on-demand to the system some time this fall. If it works as well as it did on the LG LH50 series, this will be a great addition to the BIVL feature.
The free, non-Amazon content is less compelling, and the video quality on most of the "channels," which include YouTube (nearly full functionality is provided, and we liked the client better than the Yahoo widget on Samsung TVs), Sports Illustrated (no sports highlights--just swimsuit model clips when we checked), the minisode network, blip.tv, style.com, howcast.com, and numerous video podcasts, is generally bad, especially on the big screen. In most cases it was designed for the Web, after all. The free videos from CBS offer generally better video quality in most cases, but don't expect anything close to TV.com, the network's official web portal for full TV episodes. Instead there's a confusing hodgepodge of clips and the rare full episode. (Note: CNET Networks is a division of CBS Interactive).
For more information, check out the complete review of the Bravia Internet Video Link, which is still pretty much up-to-date in describing the experience on the XBR9.
The final piece of the interactive puzzle, and one we didn't test for this review, is the Sony's ability to stream photos, music, and video from networked PCs that are running compatible DLNA-compliant software, such as Windows Media Player 11. All of these interactive features require running an Ethernet connection to your TV or installing a third-party wireless bridge--Sony doesn't sell its own TV-specific wireless network solution.
The W5100 series offers a host of picture-affecting features beginning with three picture preset modes in the main menu, each of which can be adjusted independently per input. Confusingly there's an additional Scene Select menu that adds a few more presets like Cinema, Game, PC, and Sports, which are also adjustable and independent per input yet not available from the standard picture menu. We'd prefer to have access to all modes from one menu to make keeping track of adjustments easier. Finally there's a Theater button on the remote that instantly engages the Cinema preset.
Among the basic settings, available on all presets, is a pair of noise reduction settings and four color temperature presets. The scads of more-advanced settings, which can't be adjusted while in the Vivid preset but can on many of the others, include a white balance control to further tune color temperature, a gamma setting and a few other adjustments that we generally left turned off for best picture quality.