Sony XBR-X950G series review: Long on Google-powered smart TV goodness, shorter on value – CNET

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Sony XBR-X950G series review: Long on Google-powered smart TV goodness, shorter on value


Sony’s 2019 TVs have more Google smarts than any TVs since, well, Sony’s original Google TV nine years ago. The XBR-X950G boasts the latest version of the Android TV smart TV system and, unlike past iterations, it works quickly and allows plenty of customizations. And Sony is the only TV maker so far to offer Google Assistant voice control hands-free, without having to touch the remote. Saying, “Hey Google, turn on the TV” is sweet indeed. 

But since you can get great streaming and app features, and even voice control, from any number of cheap external devices, the real question remains: “Hey Google, how good is the picture quality for the price?” I may not have access to Google Assistant’s algorithms and scads of user data, but I can tell you the answer myself: not great. The XBR-X950G costs more than rivals like the Samsung Q70R, Vizio M8 and TCL 6 series, yet it didn’t perform as well as any of them in my side-by-side comparisons. The Sony has its strengths, including a bright HDR picture and accurate color, but less impressive contrast and local dimming spoil the deal. 

Minimal silver and black metallic

The X950G is sleek and modern-looking, and typical of Sony it doesn’t try too hard to stand out. The dark metallic frame around the screen is nice and thin, with a very slightly thicker bottom edge and a line of silver at the bottom, matching the stand legs.

Those legs, thick enough to make Samsung and Vizio’s look a bit spindly, are otherwise pretty standard. On the back they incorporate token cable management, although more than a couple HDMI cables will be too much.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Speaking of the back, Sony touts a pair of tweeters mounted behind the TV that fire outward, saying it increases sonic immersion compared to standard down-firing speakers (which the TV also has). I don’t test audio quality for CNET TV reviews, but don’t expect miracles here — any decent sound bar will likely outperform the X950G’s built-in audio by a long shot.

Sony’s 2019 remote underwent a facelift and now has metallic silver finish on top. It’s still an old-school multibutton flyswatter however, and I prefer the sleeker, simpler clickers of Samsung and Roku, as well as the motion-infused wands of LG. 

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Android TV is faster, Assistant is hands-free

After years of buffering, slow load times and crashes, Google’s Android TV system on Sony TVs finally nailed it in 2019. The X950G’s revamped system loaded and ran faster than its predecessor the XBR-X900F, and it wasn’t even close. Apps launched in a trice, I zipped around thumbnails and navigation screens with ease, and it all worked as quickly as competitors from Roku, Samsung and LG.

Now that it’s fast, Android TV is one of the best. Only Roku has as many apps as Android TV, and it lacks the joy of Google Assistant. Roku’s search is better, however. LG has Assistant, as well as Alexa, but its app selection falls short. Android TV’s new menus are an improvement too. The home page is clean and simple, with favorite apps grouped at the top for easy access and clear routes to get more apps, search and more. Yes that “more” includes ads, but that’s par for the course on TV menus these days.

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Assistant on TVs has a nicely evolved interface: Commands are transcribed on-screen, along with suggestions for follow-up commands. New for 2019, thanks to a far-field mic on the TV, is the ability to summon Assistant hands-free by saying, “OK, Google” or, “Hey, Google,” just like on a Google Home speaker, without having to touch the remote. (Yes, privacy nerds, you can turn this feature off and just speak into the remote’s mic as usual too.) It worked great in my testing, and was especially useful for turning the TV on and off. You can do all the usual voice stuff hands-free too — launch apps, perform searches, mute/change volume, “Play cat videos on YouTube,” get the weather, set timers and so on — but for other operations like browsing menus, selecting settings and pause/fast-forward, the remote works best.

The one hands-free hitch happened when I had the TV volume up relatively high and had to practically yell “OK GOOGLE!!!!” to get it to respond. As usual the volume then dipped so the TV could “hear” my command, but the dip was too brief in some cases.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

You can also link the Sony TV with Google Home or Amazon Alexa speakers for more hands-free action. The TV lets you use your phone to cast apps via its built-in Google Cast functionality, which works just like a Chromecast. And coming later this year is Apple’s AirPlay 2 and HomeKit compatibility. AirPlay 2 basically works just like the same feature on an Apple TV box, letting the TV function as a display for TV shows, movies, music, photos and web pages with an iPhone, iPad or Mac as the controller. It’s not the full Apple TV app found on Samsung’s 2019 Apple integration, however — there’s no on-screen functionality and all the control happens via your iOS device or Mac.

Features

The best picture-enhancing extra on the X950G is full-array local dimming (FALD). It improved black levels and contrast by illuminating different areas of the screen separately as needed. Unlike Vizio or TCL, Sony doesn’t disclose the number of dimming zones.

Key TV features

Display technology LED LCD
LED backlight Full-array local dimming
Resolution 4K
HDR compatible HDR10 and Dolby Vision
Smart TV Android TV
Remote Standard

Other picture-centric extras include a native 120Hz refresh rate, a notable improvement on paper over the fake 120Hz refresh rates (they’re actually 60Hz native) found on the Vizio M and TCL P series. New for 2019, Sony says it has improved video processing yet again, courtesy of the same X1 Ultimate processor found in its Master Series models. The X-Motion Clarity mode that debuted in 2018 is also on board. It boosts motion resolution by applying black frame insertion only where it’s needed on the screen, which is said to eliminate the flicker and dimness evinced by similar modes in past sets. See the picture quality section for more.

Unlike Samsung and Vizio, Sony doesn’t use quantum dots, so its HDR color gamut isn’t as wide. In addition to standard HDR10, the X950G supports the Dolby Vision HDR format, unlike Samsung.

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Sarah Tew/CNET
  • 4x HDMI inputs with HDMI 2.0, HDCP 2.2
  • 3x USB ports
  • Composite video input
  • Ethernet (LAN) port
  • Optical digital audio output
  • 1x headphone/subwoofer audio output
  • 1x RF (antenna) input
  • RS-232 port (minijack)

The X950G has a healthy selection of jacks. Unlike many of Samsung’s sets, the Sony actually has an analog video input, albeit composite-only, and I also appreciate having a headphone jack.

All of the HDMI inputs will work with 4K and HDR devices, but for best results Sony recommends using “HDMI enhanced” mode with 4K Blu-ray players (Settings > Watching TV > External inputs > HDMI signal format). Unlike LG and Samsung TVs, the X950G will not detect and automatically change that setting for you, which is a shame, but unlike last year, the setting is available on every input.

The X950H supports enhanced audio return channel (eARC). Support for the other two major HDMI 2.1 features — variable refresh rate (VRR) and automatic low latency mode (ALLM, or auto game mode) — isn’t final yet. A Sony representative says that once the HDMI 2.1 evaluation period is over, the company will be able to provide more information.



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