It’s not so very long ago that ‘Red Button’ services were seen as the cutting edge of interactive services through the television. Next we were impressed by the ability to play back media files, either through USB or even via a home network, although file support was limited. Now we expect that kind of feature in even entry level TVs. The year is now 2012 and TV manufacturers are striking back in an effort to re-establish the television as the focal point for family entertainment in the home, under strong competition from tablets, smartphones, PCs and laptops not to mention games consoles and even ereaders. Enter Smart TV.
Where the major Korean manufacturers - Samsung and LG - have gone with the Smart moniker, others have labelled their bells and whistles differently. For example, Panasonic have VIERA Connect and Toshiba have chosen ‘Places’ but they all refer to any number of internet, device convergence, streaming or ‘app’ services with Smart TV pretty much the de facto terminology in the industry. We would never consider Smart Television features as defining factor in choosing a TV but where all other factors are running close, what the television can offer beyond picture quality alone may just tip the scales one way or the other. We’ve seen plenty of Smart TV products over the last year, so we bring you our Top 5 Smart TVs, where we can hopefully marry great picture quality to all the added sauce:
Not only were we bowled over by the 3D pictures the LG 650T delivered, the 2D performance was no slouch either. Out of the box colour reproduction and greyscale was in the realms of unbelievably accurate and if they can replicate that in mass production numbers, LG will have truly achieved something quite remarkable. In terms of Smart TV features, this 42inch LCD TV packs a punch too. LG’s App store houses an absolute host of free content, from games to recipes and kids stories to horoscopes. If that sort of thing doesn’t tickle your fancy you can stream videos from YouTube or check up on your Facebook page. We often criticise the good old TV remote as a barrier to enjoying Smart TV content where there’s a lot to navigate around but LG have an answer for that in the Magic Motion Remote Control. Anyone one familiar with the motion controller supplied with the Nintendo Wii would certainly take to the Magic Motion like a duck to water as it’s a virtual carbon copy, allowing for smoother and quicker transition between on screen options. Since we reviewed the LG 650T, it’s been given an update to even allow for voice command so we’ll be interested to get our hands on it again. If you're in the market for a 42" 3D Smart TV, the LG 42LW650T is well worth a look.
Panasonic’s mid-tier plasma ranges typically provide outstanding picture quality at very reasonable price-points and the Panasonic G30 plasma TV certainly didn’t disappoint there when we reviewed it early in 2011. Featuring virtually industry leading contrast and black levels this 42 inch Plasma Television was one of our favourites of the last 12 months. There’s more good news in that this 42” TV features a Freeview HD tuner, meaning there will be plenty of high definition content available to owners without the need for a costly subscription; but to get best results we’d advise teaming it up with a Blu-ray player to make it really shine. Panasonic’s first attempt at connected TV, VIERA Cast, seemed a little lacking compared to the efforts of, say, Samsung or LG but the Japanese Manufacturers caught on quick with the launch of VIERA Connect - their cloud based internet portal. The Panasonic TX-P42G30 fully supports the VIERA Connect platform and it gives owners the opportunity to sample the ever-growing range of apps and service on offer. Panasonic have been busy updating the service and has launched the VIERA Connect Market which enables users to purchase applications and accessories directly from the TV. There will also be a few free apps available shortly including Aupeo!, an online music streaming service, and CNBC news, allowing viewers to access contents from CNBC TV and get latest business and financial news as well as Live Market data. The ‘app store’ is complemented by the more usual BBC iPlayer, YouTube and AceTrax video on demand/streaming services and the almost ubiquitous Twitter and Facebook widgets. There’s a Skype application in there too if you’re willing to purchase a separate camera and microphone attachment. This Full HD Plasma television is also Wi-Fi ready but, again, you’ll need additional hardware to take advantage of it but, either wired or wireless, the G30 is able to connect to your home network for media streaming duties. We consider the Panasonic G30 plasma TV to be a compelling combination of quality, features and value.
We can always rely on Sony to come up trumps when it comes to design and this 40 inch Full HD TV with a Freeview HD tuner typifies Sony’s understated design ethos and it wouldn’t look out of place in any living environment. The 40HX723 comes with an impressive list of internet features and once connected users will have the choice of a number of catch-up and Video on Demand services. There are the BBC iPlayer and YouTube services together with Demand 5, LoveFilm and Sony's own Qriocity on demand service. In fact last time we looked, there were 29 video services, alone, including 3D content via their 3D Experience service. There’s even a limited Web Browser in the suite of Smart TV options and owners of smartphones and tablets can control the TV with an application for both Android and iPhone/iPad/iTouch. This FULL HD LED TV is Windows 7 certified and DLNA compliant and has two USB 2.0 connections, one of which can be used with an external hard drive to act as a one-tuner PVR or for the playback of media files. Of course, this being AVForums, we wouldn’t be making a suggestion on looks and features alone and the Sony HX723 3DTV is capable of producing excellent images in both two and three dimensions with excellent contrast performance and convincing black levels. Picture processing is of a very high quality too and combined with accurate out of box colour performance it makes the Sony HX723 Smart TV well worth putting on your demo list. Click the link to read Steve Wither’s excellent review.
Toshiba Regza 55WL863
It would be fair to say that Toshiba aren't the highest profile TV manufacturer here in the UK, their marketing drives lagging behind the likes of Sony, Samsung and Panasonic. It's something of a shame given the quality of some of their displays and this 55” 3D LED TV packed more bells and whistles than a court jester with a part time refereeing job. It’s always nice to see built in Wi-Fi functionality and the WL863 doesn’t disappoint and equally the ability to hook up an external hard drive for some PVR lite duties is also a nice feature to have. What’s more, owners will be able to record in HD thanks to the inclusion of both HD capable aerial and satellite tuners. You will have gathered by now that the WL863 is a 3D capable set, producing Full HD 3D images as well as a 2D>3D conversion function. Taking centre stage, as far as Smart TV functionalities are concerned, is Toshiba Places which is a web based portal providing access to video portals such as iPlayer, Box Office 365 and The Cartoon Network. There are also a few news services and social networking/sharing in the Twitter and Picassa apps. Perhaps the star of Places is Woomi TV that's a cloud based video portal offering a wide range of content. The WL863 is fully certified for DLNA playback of media files and had no problem in picking up the media servers on our PC and there's also support for files from. As well as the ability to stream to the 863, the TV can also act as a media renderer to devices connected to your network, although we could never get it to play ball with anything we had to hand here. If that weren’t enough this Full HD LED TV features facial recognition technology - allowing for personal settings to be stored - and, for those inclined, an auto-calibration tool is available for those that want the ultimate in picture quality. We told you it was feature rich! Add in excellent contrast levels and the WL863 is a worthy adversary to competing - and more costly - TVs.
When we looked at the Samsung UE-40D7000 40inch 3D LED TV back in June 2011, it was largely an exercise to see if was just a slightly repackaged Samsung UED8000, a television that had wowed the masses with its almost bezel free floating pictures. The D7000 certainly matched up to its more heralded stable-mate and we actually preferred the transparent ultra-thin bezel to that of the chrome effect D8000, with the same superb contrast performance, accurate colours and almost identical feature set. The Samsung UE40D7000 also packed in all of - what we consider to be - the industry leading Samsung Smart TV features that we feel offer the most connected experience available at this time.
Samsung’s Smart Hub allows owners the ability to manage and utilise all those extra features from one location and we feel it really benefits the experience. Taking pride of place, atop the Hub, is the 'Your Video' section that actually works on a recommendation engine, where your viewing habits are tracked and suggestions based on genre, subject matter, director, actor/actress etc are made for your further viewing delight. The engine will search material from the various VoD services, including iPlayer and YouTube and will shortly add paid for content from the likes of LoveFilm. Habits are tracked from EPG selections, searched for material through the Smart Hub and recordings scheduled using the PVR functions. The D7000 has the ability to make recordings to external storage via USB and the interface is, again, through the Smart Hub. M Just to the right of Your Video sits the Samsung App store that includes Samsung's own Explore 3D app that gives access plenty of free 3D content. Naturally the more ‘mundane’ BBC iPayer, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook apps are also present. There are also interfaces for network/USB playback of media files, a Web Browser plus additional ways of accessing the EPG. As well as AllShare providing standard DLNA functionality, Samsung have recently released the Smart View app that allows owners of Galaxy S2 Android smartphones plus Galaxy S and Galaxy Tab tablets to view video sent from the TV via wireless ethernet. The really clever thing here is that the TV doesn't even have to be on or, if it is, the owner is not locked to viewing what's being shown on-screen as another input can viewed simultaneously through the phone. For those that have the urge to video chat through the TV, there's an optional camera/mic available that can be used in tandem with the pre-loaded Skype app with video quality up to 720p.
Smart TV was one of the core features promoted by several manufacturers at CES 2012, with Google TV one of the big stories and Apple looking set to hit the market with their own particular brand. You can check for all the major stories by looking in our dedicated CES 2012 News section.