The sky's the limit with Skype. You needn't restrict the virtual face-to-face call system's use to a computer or mobile device - or perhaps you don't happen to own either - as many of the latest smart TVs have a Skype app built in. In tandem with the big-screen Sony Bravia KDL-55HX853 Edge LED LCD TV that we received at Pocket-lint towers for review we also bagged a Sony CMU-BR100 camera and microphone unit to test out its integration with the Bravia's built-in Skype app. Bring on the giant-faced fun.
This particular review is focused on the Sony Bravia's CMU-BR100 accessory camera. The Sony HX853 series is one of the current smart TV sets that doesn't come with a camera built in, so you'll need to fork out the extra cash if the idea of Skype calls appeals to you.
Other competitors' models, such as the Samsung ES8000, for example, do come with a camera built into the top - great for saving on cash, although we don't particularly like how that Samsung model integrates the camera into the design. We're all for the non-permanent accessory idea.
However, here's something a bit cheeky on the Sony front: the Bravia HX853 series is designed to accept only this "official" Sony webcam - ie, not third-party ones. It's more a criticism of the TV than this camera unit, but do note that your latest Bravia won't accept any other camera. The CMU-BR100 isn't restricted to the HX853-series, however, so go to Sony's official page to check compatibility in advance.
At £89-£100, depending on where you shop, the official CMU-BR100 isn't a tiny investment for what is a pretty straightforward HD camera and mic combination.
Plug and play
Installing the CMU-BR100 is easy. Really easy. Take it out of the box, plug the unit's USB into the back of your Bravia set, clip it on to the top of the TV and you're done. Simples. That's because the TV has all the relevant software and drivers built in for plug-and-play use, which also explains why third-party units aren't supported.
To access the Skype app simply press the "Home" button on the Bravia's included remote, scroll to "Applications" and select Skype from the list.
Skype will prompt you to set up an account or log in. From there it's possible to sound test the service, decide if you want an auto sign in each time the TV is switched on, and adjust the camera's various options, including the "See Myself" option where any physical adjustments can be made to point the camera where you want it to face in order to set the scene.
The initial feeling is that the camera is rather wide angle, but then to fit in a whole family on the sofa to chat to some others further afield it makes perfect sense. If you're calling solo then the added "distance" can only be countered by moving closer to the camera, as there's no built-in zoom.
If Skype is on and you remain signed in while you're watching telly then it sits in the background and any incoming calls will appear to the bottom-right corner. A bit like a video phone.
Just like a phone call you can accept or decline and - here's the cool part - keep watching TV while chatting as the HX853 Bravia is powerful enough to operate both in separate windows on the same screen.
TV-based Skype is limited to calls with or without video rather than the full-blown computer experience with text, file sharing and so forth. Who knows, there might be scope for this to expand in the future, but for the time being the app delivers the sturdy basics in a solid package that's easy to understand and use.
The CMU-BR100 is a 1280 x 720 resolution camera, so while it should be capable of capturing base-level 720p HD footage it's not possible to do so direct from the TV. We did some digging and, according to Skype's official response, "the hardware capabilities of the 2011 and 2012 Sony TVs are the limiting factor here" - that's an HD camera that can't transmit HD footage.
The 640 x 480 - also known as VGA - quality and its inherent 4:3 ratio that we could achieve is workable, but it's less than we expected. Not great.
There is one workaround should you happen to own the Skype-enabled Sony BDP-S780 Blu-ray player on which - again according to Skype - the same CMU-BR100 unit will deliver 1280 x 720 HD footage.
It sounds as though the future is where better quality lies, as Skype continues that: "Sony has been working hard to support an upgraded HD Skype calling experience on their forthcoming 2013 Bravia TV range."
As well as the hardware's limiting factors, your internet connection can also pose an issue to the overall quality of video, as with any given camera. Up speed is key, and if you haven't got a good data rate then, well, wave goodbye to your friends and family receiving the best possible quality. That's a connection criticism, not a camera-specific criticism, but one that can be an issue for some Skype users.
What we got on the Bravia's massive screen was legible and workable; it's hardly like deciphering ancient scripts, but we did expect more from the quality overall.
The camera also offers autofocus, which can be turned on or off from within the menus, and we thought it offered a smoother experience than we've seen in some competitor devices - it doesn't seem to suffer from any sudden "jumps" in and out of focus.
Sound-wise we were impressed with how the four-way microphone that's built into the unit was able to pick up sound from around the room. Audio playback is channelled through the set rather than from the unit itself, so it can be volume adjusted to be as loud as you need it.
Overall it's best to say that the CMU-BR100 does the job and merges well with the current Bravia series' design, but doesn't stretch much further than that. It's not astounding, largely because HD footage isn't possible via most Sony devices and the Skype TV app experience is undercut by computer and mobile devices. However if Skype on your Bravia telly is a must then this is the only product that you can buy to achieve it.
We've had a fair amount of giant-faced fun with the CMU-BR100 Skype camera. Pocket-lint's staple communication tool is Skype, so we're used to having meetings and using the software on a daily basis. But that's on a computer. On the Bravia TV the app feels like a step back.
While it's incredibly easy to install and use, looks well integrated to the Bravia ranges' design and is capable of picking up sound with ease, we just expected more on the quality front. An HD camera that can't transmit HD quality 16:9 footage on the current range is a big stumbling block, made all the more questionable by the near-£100 asking price.
The CMU-BR100 does do the job and it may be an essential for some - indeed, it's the only product that can be used - but there's a lot of room for improvement to video quality, app capability and price fairness.