Home Theater, Internet Style

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Sony; Panasonic

Five years ago, I headed to Costco and brought home the biggest flat-screen TV that would fit in my hatchback. The 42-inch Vizio LCD set I chose was my first HDTV and a massive improvement on the 25-inch tube TV it replaced.

Even so, it was a basic, budget-priced model, not a dream machine. And a lot has happened to TV in the past half-decade — most notably the advent of services such as Netflix Watch Instantly and Hulu Plus, which make the Internet a plausible alternative to cable and satellite TV. My Vizio can get online via the use of external gadgetry, but it feels like a throwback.

So when I recently got the chance to review a thoroughly modern television set — Sony's new Bravia KDL-55HX820 — I happily removed the Vizio from its place of honor in my entertainment center. The Bravia lists for $3,399.99 but is $2,799.99 direct from Sony and $2,144 at Amazon as I write this. With 55 inches of real estate and technical advances like LED backlighting, it resoundingly trumps my TV in terms of picture size and quality. Its minimalist black case and sleek profile — it's barely over an inch thick — also beat the boxy Vizio.

As long as I was going to have a home theater-worthy TV in the house, I set up a real home theater by adding Panasonic's SC-HTB520 Sound Bar 2.1 audio system. The $399.99 kit includes a 40-inch stereo speaker bar that can sit in front of the TV and a subwoofer that you can tuck pretty much anywhere you want, since it communicates with the bar wirelessly. Snooty audiophiles who'd cheerfully fill their living rooms with speakers and string the necessary cables might turn up their noses at this setup. I liked it, though — both for the five-minute installation and for the dramatic upgrade in sound quality over the Bravia's stock audio. The first time that bass boomed out of the subwoofer, it sent my cats scurrying for cover.

I hooked the Bravia and Panasonic up to my Comcast cable, TiVo DVR and PlayStation 3 (which doubles as a Blu-ray player). But I was most interested in test-driving the multitude of Internet services that Sony has built into this set. So much entertainment is in there that a box such as Apple TV or Roku would be superfluous. If it wasn't for the paucity of sports and news, you might even be able to get away with dumping cable.

This Sony TV has the best assortment of video services I've seen on one device that isn't a PC: Netflix Watch Instantly, Hulu Plus, Amazon Video on Demand, CinemaNow, YouTube, Dailymotion, Sony's own Qriocity and Crackle, and more. For music, you get Pandora, Slacker and Sony's Music Unlimited. Yahoo Widgets provide access to Twitter, Facebook and weather reports. If none of this stuff manages to amuse you, you can also use the Bravia's support for a technical standard called DLNA to tap into audio, video and photos stored on your home network. The set even has USB ports that let it access files on hard disks or thumb drives.

In short, the set offers an embarrassment of riches — although a few of its many offerings are embarrassing, period. For example, a page of video podcasts included outdated shows (Larry King Live!) and video that simply wouldn't play, at least when I tried. And I'm not sure who the intended audience is for its Internet browser, which expects you to enter text with a TV remote control and sluggishly displays Web pages with teeny-tiny fonts that you won't want to read from across the room. Still, even if you stick to the good stuff — especially the major movie and music services — the Bravia offers a smorgasbord of content.

I found the set's user interface, a fraternal twin of the one on Sony's PlayStation 3, to be merely tolerable. The profusion of menus and options makes it tough to find items, especially since some of them are pockmarked with oddities like a Barbie widget and show "recommendations" that look suspiciously like promos for CBS shows. The sign-up process for Amazon and Netflix is also less brain-dead simple than it is on most devices. I did like the fact that a search feature is available nearly everywhere, though. And when my wife Marie tried the remote and saw that it had a dedicated Netflix button, her response was simple: "Life is good."

The Bravia includes both built-in wi-fi wireless networking and an Ethernet port. I was skeptical about depending on wi-fi: High-definition video is one of the most bandwidth-hungry applications known to man, and I knew that my network's signal strength in the living room was less than fabulous. I gave it a try, though, and found that some video services worked fine but others suffered from intermittent pauses as they buffered video. I ended up ditching wi-fi and installing a couple of powerline networking adapters, which let the TV talk to my router over electrical wiring. That greatly reduced video hiccups but didn't eliminate them. (High-def movies from Amazon remained persnickety.)

Even if HD isn't glitch-free, it's the medium that you want to watch on the Bravia. (With HDTVs, the bigger and better the set, the crummier standard-definition content tends to look.) HD from cable looked good. Blu-ray — a format I hadn't warmed to on the Vizio — looked better. And HD from streaming services varied from okay to outstanding. (The best-looking, best-sounding Internet HD I found was on Walmart's Vudu, a service that isn't included on the Bravia but is available on the PlayStation 3.)

Oh, yeah: Like many new TVs, the Sony is 3-D capable. The special glasses, which aren't included, run about $70 each. Marie and I aren't exactly 3-D fanatics, but we dutifully donned spectacles and sampled a Blu-ray of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. We had about the same reaction to the technology that we have had at theaters: sporadic enjoyment of dimensionality interspersed with tedium and complaints about the picture being blurry. If you're more enthusiastic about 3-D than we are, you might find it more of a selling point.

After half an hour of Alice, we switched to watching Avatar in glorious, razor-sharp 2-D. Lounging in my own comfy chair a few feet from such a pristine picture, enveloped in sound from the Panasonic system, I didn't just find this borrowed home-theater system to be a step up from my aging Vizio. It also felt more civilized than our local cineplex. True, new movies like Captain America and Horrible Bosses aren't part of the package, but neither are noisy strangers, overpriced popcorn and hazardous parking lots. I can live with that trade-off — maybe not all of the time, but a lot more often than I ever would with a lesser TV.

McCracken blogs about personal technology at Technologizer, which he founded in 2008 after nearly two decades as a tech journalist; on Twitter, he's @harrymccracken. His column, also called Technologizer, appears every week on TIME.com.