Sony: Leaders in Stupid Software Design & User Experience

About a year ago, we picked up a 46″ Sony Bravia LCD TV (KDL46XBR2). Generally, a gorgeous monitor that has loads of inputs and, thus, has become the all-signal-switchbox for the various game consoles, media players, and computers that may be hooked up at any one time.

Great picture and generally easy to use. Amusing, too, that the manual came with a GPL license notice with a hyperlink to download source. Turns out that the UI is implemented via Linux (and, yes, Sony has a whole “source distribution center“).

However, it is not without its flaws and some of them are just so embarassingly stupid in terms of the concious Industrial Design choices made.

Click on through for the gory details.

Connecting a Mac Mini via a DVI->HDMI Cable Looks Like Crap

Now, this isn’t entirely Sony’s fault.

It is likely just as much a limitation in Mac OS X’s drivers as in the TV. However, given the number of complaints about driving a Sony TV via HDMI from any random computer, the TV seems to have a problem, too.

First, it is impossible to drive the TV at 1080p. Only 1080i is available. At any resolution (720p, for an even multiple), the Mac either overscans or underscans the video signal such that there is never a 1:1 virtual pixel to screen pixel ratio.

Once everything is tuned, the picture is too damned dark. Calibration doesn’t help, either. DVDs were unwatchable!

After reading about this issue all over the net, I switched ot using a DVI->VGA cable. Much much better quality image, brighter and perfectly sharp.


Stupid #1: The PC Input Cannot be Renamed

One of the reasons why we ended up with this TV is that it has 10 different inputs of many kinds; several HDMI, Component, S-Video, and — even — composite inputs. It included an HDMI+RCA input for devices (like a computer) that don’t send audio down the HDMI wires.

And the UI lets you assign actual names to the inputs. So, two clicks gets to a list of the devices hooked up and you can easily select between.

Except, that is, the PC input.

For some totally boneheaded and unknown reason, you can’t rename the “PC” input. It can be customized to “PC”, “” (Blank), or you can skip the input entirely.

How stupid is that? In this day and age of computers that blast multimedia just fine, why the hell does Sony special case the VGA input to not be labeled just like every other input?

Stupid, yes. But not the dumbest issue.

Stupid #2: Once selected, PC Makes The UI Go Modal

Dumb, but I can bring up the list of inputs and select the one BLANK one (no, I’m not calling my Mac Mini a PC. Personal flaw, I know) to pop over to the Mac Mini.

And I can just pop up the menu of inputs to bop back to the Wii or TiVo, right?


Once the “PC” input is selected, hitting the “menu” button brings up a completely different user interface that does not allow for input selection. It has pretty much the same set of controls buried in menus in any other input mode, so there is no indication as to why “PC mode” must be so modal.

The only way to select a different input is to hit “TV/Video” to bop over to the tuner input and then bring up the Inputs menu.

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. And, yet, made more stupid because….

Stupid #3: You Can’t Skip The Tuner Input

While every other input can be set to be skipped — set to not be selectedable in the input menu (though still visible — minor annoyance, but still…) — you cannot skip the tuner input.

In this day and age of almost exclusive external content delivery via Cable or Satellite into a box that delivers the signal over one of S-Video, Component Video or HDMI, you can’t avoid the damned tuner input.

Worse. Because the Tuner input is exactly that — a tuner attempting to gather an ordered signal out of near white noise present at the antenna connector with noth attached to it — you get a big white screen full of noise that, of course, makes the UI kind of annoying to look at.

At least it mutes the sound.

Beyond being dumb and the part of all of this that both irritates and saddens me is that Sony’s product design folk clearly went out of their way to make the TV work this way. Someone, somewhere, thought #2 and #3 were features. It is even documented in the manual (

I’m saddened because I remember a time when Sony’s industrial design kicked ass. I had one of the early Sony portable CD players. It was relatively thin and all metal. Awesome control design, easy to read display, convenient rechargeable battery. Sounded great, too. And you could pick up a beautifully designed, thin, all metal, external battery pack that added 9 to 15 hours of play time.

The physical industrial design of some of Sony’s products — like this TV — remain beautiful. But they seem to have completely dropped the ball when it comes to the software.

(As indicated in the comments, this kind of stupidity is not unique to Sony’s TVs. The Sharp Aquos suffers from similar dumb UE.)

19 Responses to “Sony: Leaders in Stupid Software Design & User Experience”

  1. n[ate]vw says:

    So do Sony provide a means of building/uploading a modified source to the television?

  2. bbum says:

    Nothing documented or obvious, as far as I can tell, but I haven’t looked that hard. Bricking my television would be bad.

  3. julian says:

    In the future every household item will be brickable.


  4. Rosyna says:

    “In this day and age of almost exclusive external content delivery via Cable or Satellite into a box that delivers the signal over one of S-Video, Component Video or HDMI, you can’t avoid the damned tuner input.”

    Because it’s a TV, not a monitor. Hook up an OTA antenna to it to get OTA digital channels or connect your Cable line to it to get Clear QAM channels (OTA and some cable channels) in Digital form, without needing a digital cable box (for those channels).

  5. bbum says:

    You completely missed the point. I know perfectly well what content I might get for free if I wanted to. The point is that I don’t have an antenna, do not want to bother with an antenna, and do not want to ever see the Tuner as an input signal.

    And I’m not alone. Of all the people I know with HD TVs, only one used an antenna and that was only because they house they were renting had it. Everyone else either has satellite or cable as their primary signal source and, like me, never use the Tuner on their TV.

    Why should the TV special case the Tuner as an input? Why should it force this particular option on me? What value does it add to do so? I don’t care if it is called a “TV” or not, this kind of backwards thinking is exactly why companies like Sony are waning.

  6. Ryan Brown says:

    Very helpful as I’ve been looking at getting a Sony XBR4 and an Apple TV for a while. I’ll have to make sure that these issues have been resolved in the new model. Thing is, while Sony’s UI may have some problems, it is far better than most. At least the UI is some what attractive, anti-aliased, and low latency. I’ve seen dozens of LCDs that take 150ms+ just to switch channels.

  7. John C. Randolph says:

    “it is impossible to drive the TV at 1080p.”

    This is likely a bandwidth limitation of HDMI.


  8. John C. Randolph says:

    BTW, Tim Schaaf is in charge of software development at Sony these days. If you brought this article to his attention, the mistakes might not be repeated in future Sony products.


  9. Vivek G says:

    I agree with the whole thing about confusing UI’s, the Sharp Aquos (LC-52D64U) has similar weird issues. You have to be in the tuner input to have the menus that let you look and see what version of software is installed in the the thing (no real reason it couldn’t have been included in the other inputs for the main menu of the tv). Also, this tv doesn’t allow you to skip the tuner either. The other interesting thing they do is that from HDMI it automatically picks up the label of the component connected to it (PS3 and Motorola fios tv box), but it doesn’t keep those labels when the components are off they go back to the generic names. And why in this day and age I have to pick from a menu of 12 choices for names for my inputs and not be able to give a real meaningful name just doesn’t make sense. The one nice thing is that the tv includes and rs-232 interface in the back so I can bypass a lot of the UI and control it from my mac mini (once I get a bit of time to work on it)!

  10. Ken Anderson says:

    To Ryan Brown:
    The issue Bill raises is with the DVI output of a computer… Apple TV has HDMI and component outputs that would not be subject to the same issues.


  11. bbum says:

    Yes — to be absolutely clear: I have an Apple TV and it looks absolutely stunning over HDMI at 720p. Perfect. I use it mostly for music playback while a slide show is running. Never fails to impress.

  12. Alderete says:

    I have a similar model Sony (smaller screen), and IIRC, you can get Sony to send you a USB stick drive with an updater on it, for a couple of specific issues. So I believe that that is the official update mechanism.

  13. Alderete says:

    Oops, I wasn’t clear: there’s a USB port on the TV, which normally is used for showing photos and the like. But if you stick in the updater, the TV runs it, apparently. I haven’t done it, I didn’t have the issues that were described, which had to do with uneven backlighting. You can read more on the Sony eSupport site,

  14. bbum says:

    Thanks, Michael!

    It appears that the open source bits for the TV are not on the page I linked, but on a different page called linux @

    Go figure.

    Anyway, the TVs do seem to have the ability to self update as Michael described. But I haven’t found any evidence that anyone has tried to write custom software for said TV. Not that I’m particularly tempted to go there, but it seems like an intriguing hacking platform — has USB, many video inputs, gorgeous display, can switch audio, etc…


  15. dirkstoop says:

    Strangely enough they do seem to get UI right in their car stereos. I recently got one and am still surprised about the many small UI details they got right. (hopefully not just because i got the cheapest/simplest one with a front aux port..)

    e.g.: the primary control is a dial with discrete ticks, which you can press to loop through some audio settings (EQ/balance/etc.). If you keep it depressed for a while you go to a prefs menu, the settings presented one at a time. There’s a ton of ‘on/off’ options in there, twisting the dial clockwise turns them on, CCW turns them off. Sounds very obvious so far..

    However, most car stereo’s I’ve used with similar discreet step dials actually flip boolean settings every time you hit the next notch, meaning two tick to the right would switch something on and then off again, really frustrating to deal with while driving. There’s a ton more of very well designed little interaction details in that thing, certainly didn’t expect that from sony when i bought it.. so it seems there’s still some hope left for their ID department.. — maybe from the interns who’re put to work on low-end products 😉

    A shame they fail designing the (G)UI for something that can actually show more than one line of text at a time..

  16. Lippy says:

    Hey BBlum!
    (you may remember me from the tequila Forum) Nice to learn we have the same tastes in TVs as tequila. I bought the XBR2 (piano black) in April and also have it hooked up to my Mac-mini (which I primarily use as a music server).

    That “PC menu-thing” has ALWAYS driven me batty. The only way I’ve found to back out of the PC menu is to hit the “ANT” button on the remote. This takes me to a full screen whitenoise image and from there I can hit the “menu” button on the remote and get back to the “external imputs” menu.

    Without turning this discussion into a Sony Manual replacement… um, what’s the way YOU’re getting back to the “external inputs” menu if you’re in the PC mode?



  17. Adonis says:

    It seems like Sony (and others) need to read: Taming HAL

    Great read about Human Computer Interfaces, from the serious side of the field: NASA and flight controls! (but, yes!, it talks about annoying interfaces of TVs and clocks, etc)

  18. Andy - HDMI Switches says:

    That’s technology for you. It is usually the biggest manufacturers and developers who tend to go the long way round during development, and end up creating platforms that seem utter nonesense. In my experience, whatever you plan on buying, is best researched first on the net to avoid situations or find solutions.


  19. LostBill says:

    How do you rename the video inputs?

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