A smart evolution rather than a revolution.
Until late, Samsung has been the undisputed kings in the realms of Smart TV platforms but this year they are under serious assault.Not least from their countrymen, LG, who seem set to revolutionise the market with their webOS platform. But there are other threats including an Android TV due from Philips and if the Roku platform ever does hit TVs in the UK market – as it is doing in some other regions - then everyone has a fight on their hands.
So, with the competition getting closer than ever, what has Samsung got up their sleeves to remain at the top of the pack? For reference, this review was undertaken using the HU8500 and HU7500 4K TVs which are clearly premium sets but most of the major features trickle down the ranges so let’s see if the best has got any better.
Smart Hub InterfaceThe first apparent change from last year’s UI hits you as soon as you boot up a 2014 TV. By default, a Smart Hub shortcut and a selection of most used apps and services, running in a card style across the bottom, will greet you, although you can switch them off in the menus. We have to say the shortcut tiles bare more than a stylistic resemblance to LG’s new webOS interface but it looks good nevertheless.
Samsung has slightly refined their Smart Hub pages from five down to four but we think they could possibly have streamlined even further. There are separate pages dedicated to Samsung Apps, Films and TV Shows, Multimedia and a new Games Page. Each of the pages then has some further options to refine the categorisations further so, for example, on the Films and TV Shows page, one can drill down to Featured content, look at some Trailers or browse more specifically on either Movies or TV Shows.
Overall, it’s a clean and well-presented look but perhaps there was no real need to give Games their own dedicated area, although we do understand that Samsung is pushing this content more heavily in 2014.
Control OptionsYou’ve all seen a standard TV remote control and it’s clear that Samsung would rather you shun the ones they supply in favour of their newly-designed ‘Smart Control’ handset and, you know what, for day to day operations we almost could, had they made accessing the standard menus using it a more straightforward process. As it is, you have to access an on-screen replica of the standard remote to do so, which is more of a chore than it really should be. That said, if you’re not a regular tinkerer in the menus, this won’t be a concern and it does provide many other benefits.
The biggest improvement for 2014 comes in the Wii-like gesture control which is very accurate and easy to use. Wafting the Smart Control at the TV when the various UI’s are on screen conjours up a beacon of light, allowing you to track your navigation process easily and a click on the scroll pad access the apps or functions. You can also use said control pad in much the same fashion if you’re not able/can’t be bothered to get easy line of sight to the TV but it’s not as quick as the motion control.
For the first time, last year, we saw a reason to get excited about voice control and Samsung has improved it further in 2014. For instance, launching an app is as easy as pressing the voice button on the Smart Control and uttering the words, ‘Launch Netflix (xyz app) and you should find it loads up within seconds. Or, for a more general approach, say the words ‘Action Movie’ and a whole load of choices will pop up at the bottom of the screen for further investigation. In truth there’s almost nothing you can’t do with the voice controls, including launching the Menu, changing channel, searching the web and even installing apps so it warrants you taking the included tutorial to find out more but we have to say, it is truly excellently implemented.
The very high-end Samsung TVs also come with a built-in camera. It’s definitely an improvement over last year’s in terms of handling poorly lit rooms and is very effective in providing a great platform for the built-in Skype App. The camera also affords the opportunity for hand and finger gesture control, but we have to say we’re still not sold on the idea of that in practice and it’s not as reliable as the motion or voice controls in any case. For those TVs that don’t come with the camera built-in/on, which is most of them, there is a separate USB add-on available but we wouldn’t recommend its purchase based on the gesture controls, alone.
A smart controller you'll actually want to use
Mobile AppSmartView 2.0 is what you’ll need to be seeking out in the Apple App Store or on Google Play for the 2014 range of Smart TVs and it’s great. The app breaks down in to three main areas of functionality encompassing casting content, watching channels from Freesat or Freeview and as a remote control substitute. For reference, we tested using an iPad 4 as Samsung heavily restricts the number of Android devices able to run it. In fact, support is limited to Galaxy S Smartphones – 3 series and above, Galaxy Tab 3 and above plus Galaxy Note 2 and up. We can understand Samsung’s wish to ensure a smooth experience on Android but we feel they could have been more generous in device support to at least include the Nexus ranges and other premium mobile devices from the big players.
But it does work extremely well, in all facets, so we guess we can’t be too critical of their approach. Casting video, photo or audio content from your tablet or smartphone really couldn’t be simpler and it’s just a case of accessing the type of content you want from a tab at the top and then adding it to a queue on the right hand side of the screen, tapping Play on TV and away you go.
Provided you’re currently tuned to the Freeview or Freesat input it’s also possible to view channels from around the house and, if you have a dual tuner model, you’re not limited to what’s currently showing on the TV either, which is a genuinely useful option which adds real value to the second-screen experience. Given how good the new Smart Control is we’re not sure how many will opt to use the remote control functionality but it works well enough and for those that simply can’t put down their phone or tablet, it will prove popular.
Soundshare takes away the HDMI agony
Anynet and SoundshareAlmost every manufacturer includes their own implementation of HDMI Consumer Electronic Control (HDMI CEC), these days and with Samsung it goes under the name Anynet+. HDMI CEC is designed to allow the user to command and control other CEC-enabled devices that are connected through HDMI by using only one of their remote controls. For example one could use the transport controls on the TV remote to control a Blu-ray player, which is quite convenient and potentially cuts down on the number of handsets lying around.
The reality of the above is that all the manufacturers implement CEC in their own ways which can cause genuine grief when say you’re operating a LG Soundbar with a Samsung TV. We recently covered the LG NB5540 used in conjunction with the Samsung TVs noted above, and they just didn’t play nice together so we’d have to renegotiate the Anynet connection with the soundbar each time it was switched on in order it would all work together as expected.
A great a solution to this kind of nightmare scenario – and one we’re sure Samsung would love you to pursue – is to team up a Samsung audio product and TV using their SoundShare technology. Basically it’s a proprietary wireless communication protocol that enables all the behaviour we’d expect with HDMI CEC and ARC (Audio Return Channel) but without any of the frustrating fuss. So you power on the TV, on comes the soundbar and out comes the sound and you are then able to control the soundbar with the TVs remote. It’s seamless, cuts down and wires and will meet with the approval of the less tech savvy members of the house. It’s a shame there’s no cross manufacturer support but then we guess we’d be back to the HDMI CEC shambles its designed to avoid if there were.
EPG & PVRThe dual tuner equipped models in the Samsung TV ranges offer a genuine alternative to a dedicated PVR with just the addition of a USB hard drive. The Freeview EPG is reasonably attractive although we did prefer the older versions and it offers a 7 channel/two hour view by default. There’s also a handy timeline, in blue, to show you where you are at that moment. To schedule a recording or watch timer, is a simple as hitting the OK button and selecting the appropriate option and to access recordings, it’s just a case of going to the Multimedia page in the Smart Hub.
Samsung recommends an HDD with a minimum speed of 5400rpm and we’d suggest utilising the USB 3.0 compatible port for best results. You will need to format the drive using the TVs software in the System menu which then makes the recordings viewable on that TV, and that TV only as it will apply a form a Digital Rights Management (DRM) to make them unplayable on other devices for copyright reasons. As well as the option of recording programming, users can also timeshift – pause/rewind/fast forward content but it must be stressed that it will only work from the internal tuners and not with connected external equipment like a Sky Box, for example.
MHL 3.0 adds support for 4k phones & tablets
Applications - HardwareThe majority of Samsung 2014 TVs feature built-in Wi-Fi making it very easy to connect to your home network with support for the IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n standards. Most Samsung TVs also now feature support for the Mobile High-Definition Link (MHL), an industry standard for a mobile audio/video interface that directly connects smartphones and tablets to HDTVs. And the new 4K TVs all support MHL 3.0 which includes support for resolutions up to 2160p at 30 frames per second so if you’re short of something to watch, you can always provide your own UHD content.
MultimediaFrom this new page you can access all your photos, videos, music and recorded TV from whichever device is connected but the page is actually dominated by suggested content from the internet which we don’t really feel is necessary. It’s at the bottom where you can access network devices, USB storage and cloud services and we really think they should have been given more prominence. Still, you can’t complain about the wide-ranging file type support of the media player and it played literally everything we threw at it in terms of video files but music and photo support is also more extensive than most.
Samsung’s own software, AllShare, runs on a number of their devices including PCs, TVs, smartphones, tablets and cameras and allows for a fairly seamless sharing of music, video and photos between them through your home network. For instance, with an android smartphone it’s easily possible to browse your media files through a TV and there is also Dual View and Screen Mirroring with Samsung devices. AllShare isn’t limited to interaction with Samsung products, either, and will happily talk to DLNA media servers but there’s no doubt you’ll see more benefits from it should you own multiple devices from the Korean’s where a nice eco-system can be built
Apps & GamesWhen it comes to VoD (Video on Demand) services, Samsung has virtually all the major services tied down. At the time of writing curiously that didn’t include BBC iPlayer but we’re assured that is on its way and it will join ITV Player, 40D and Demand 5 is providing as comprehensive set of catch-up services as is available in the UK right now. To those one can add paid-for streaming apps including Netflix, Wuaki TV, Amazon Instant and the ubiquitous everything-ness which is YouTube.
Speaking of Netflix – and we’re fond of doing just that –the HU8500 review gave us our first chance of steaming their new Ultra HD catalogue and we must say the experience was seamless and almost instantly reached the 2160 HD resolution, even on a fairly modest – but generally stable – 20Mb broadband connection. We gave our thoughts on the picture quality in the review but the short version would be that House of Cards is at least Blu-ray quality and well beyond that of any streaming we’ve seen before. Roll on 4K Breaking Bad coming in June 2014.
We’ve yet to play a really compelling game directly through a Smart TV platform but Samsung has evidently been putting in some work to rectify that situation. That’s not to say that the games available are going to rival even a last gen console in terms of graphics or gameplay but the fact most are optimised to work with the Smart Control and, moreover, are free is a genuine plus. We quite enjoyed a few games of Sky Chaser and Running Dog but we’re still not sure the games merit their own page and we’ve placed them accordingly within the review.
Netflix 4K is the new benchmark in streaming quality
Web BrowsingAs per the general gaming experience built in to a TV, we’ve never really been taken with using one for a web browser. That’s primarily because navigation has generally been a chore – with whatever control input method – but also because a large screen TV, by nature, also slower to flit about upon. There’s nothing that can really been done about the latter issue and we still think casting of content, as and when something is worth sharing on the living room TV is the way to go, but at least the Smart Control addresses the former issue in meaningful fashion.
The Samsung Browser, itself, is very good and incredibly quick to load pages – at least on the higher tier models we tested it with - and it’s compatible with HTML5 so you won’t struggle to see the full content of most web pages you’ll visit. We even found that majority of embedded video we found dotted around the internet would play, which is a major step up from most TV browsers.
There are options to zoom pages, set bookmarks and home pages and review your browsing history, which really speeds things up for those frequently visited sites. It’s even possible to have a tabbed browsing experience by means of opening new windows that are accessible from the top right of the page. The browser also includes PIP which means you can watch something and browse at the same time. As we said above, it’s still not our first choice for internet surfing, and likely never will be, but at least it’s now a flexible and fluid option.
Smart Evolution Kit & One ConnectAnd if you’re sat there reading this review from in front of your 2012 or 2013 Samsung Smart TV with slight envy, you might want to avail yourself of all the latest features by investing in the Smart Evolution Kit which will come in two guises for 2014. The first is a simple plug-in TV card/module whilst the other – specifically tailored for the Ultra HD TVs – comes in the form of the One Connect Box.
One Connect is an essential upgrade for 2013 owners
The new Evolution Kit will add Samsung’s 2014 Smart TV platform, an enhanced Quad Core Pro processor and the new Multiscreen feature, with support also added for the new motion controls on the new remote. The One Connect Box adds all that plus HEVC decoding up to 4K in 60 fps – for your Ultra HD Netflix, HDCP 2.2 compatibility MHL 3.0 and USB 3.0. The standard evolution kit has yet to receive pricing or a release date, at the time of writing, but we can testify the One Connect box works perfectly and we’d consider it an essential upgrade for you real early adopters.
- A huge array of apps
- All major UK catchup services
- Easy to navigate interface
- Smart Control is really good
- Voice commands work exceptionally well
- Free Games
- Netflix 4K is stunning
- Maybe one screen too many
- Limited support for Android devices
Samsung Smart TV System 2014 ReviewIt's not always easy being at the top of the pile and Samsung has chosen a conservative approach to their Smart TV platform in 2014. Cosmetically, there is little to set it apart from the 2013 iteration although there has been a slight re-jig to the Smart Hub to include a new page dedicated to games. Quite whether it is needed at this time is open to debate however but at least they are mostly free to play.
The most radical new arrival to the platform is the new Smart Control remote which is a genuine rival to LG's Magic Motion and something that genuinely adds to the experience. It features highly accurate voice and gesture control and a touch pad that also aids speed and ease of page navigation. It's a definite winner but we wished they'd included a dedicated Menu button to allow us to dispense altogether with the conventional controller.
In terms of hardware, the top-tier Samsung's come armed with just about every weapon necessary. Highlights include built-in video cameras for Skype video calling and gesture control (we still don't really believe in that), built-in WifI and MHL 3.0 compatibility for your 4K phone or tablet. There's also the matter of the One Connect Box and Smart Evolution Kit which gives owners of older Samsung's the opportunity to upgrade to the latest set of features and processing chips.
As ever, Samsung provides an absolute wealth of apps to choose from including all the major UK catchup services and just about every major streaming service on the market. The undoubted highlight here is the new 4K service from Netflix which truly sets the picture quality benchmark for streaming, going forwards. The app is incredibly slick to navigate and reaches maximum 3840 x 2160 resolution in no time at all, provided your internet connection can handle it.
Throw a superb mobile app, which acts as companion, content-caster and full-blown remote replacement, in to the mix and one has just about as comprehensive a Smart TV platform as one could wish for. We're still waiting to see exactly what their closest competitor has to offer - and we know it's going to be great - but, for now, this is still a market leading proposition.
Ease of Use8
Media Playback Quality9
Applications - Software10
Applications - Hardware9
Voice and Motion Controls9
Our Review Ethos
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