Samsung Smart TV System 2012 Review
Smart enough for you?
IntroductionIt was not so very long ago that the 'Features' section of our TV reviews was nothing more than a small side-show to the main event but with all the major manufactures ploughing ever more apps, streaming and convergence capabilities in to ever shrinking TV chassis the need for a separate 'Features feature' has grown apparent. Steve Withers got the ball rolling with his in-depth look at Panasonic's Smart VIERA concept and was suitably impressed and now it's the turn of Samsung to be placed under the 'Smartoscope'.
Samsung, perhaps more than any other manufacturer, has been banging the Smart drum for a number of years and has been first to market with a number of innovations; in fact the very term 'Smart TV' was synonymous with the Korean manufacturer up until recently when all the others decided it was a good idea to follow suit. Samsung certainly have had a few recent run-ins with a certain manufacturer of mobile devices and computers over patent infringements but, in the Smart TV world – where they lead the market in sales - it seems its them that they lead whilst others follow.
With their very own App Store, myriad streaming possibilities and new control interaction there's much to investigate so let's 'step inside the future' right now, as the advertising has it. Note: We apologise, in advance, for the gratuitous use of the word 'smart' in the text that follows.
SMART Hub InterfaceBesides the diversity of features, the greatest strength of Samsung’s offering lays in the fact that everything is readily accessible from a single location – the Smart Hub. We’ve lamented the efforts from other manufacturers that fragment their available content and features and it’s to Samsung’s credit that they’ve made the Hub so relatively easy to navigate. The Smart Hub is festooned with all the features we’ll be looking at later on - apps, video on demand content, media sharing, PVR functions as well as key Menu items; allowing it to become the command centre for all your activities. In fact, that’s almost certainly what Samsung will be hoping you elect to do. It’s all totally customisable, too, and it’s a cinch to create folders and move content around to avoid the pages looking cluttered, which can easily happen considering the breadth of offer.
Control OptionsNew for some of the 2012 Samsung Smart TVs are some innovative control methods. Currently voice and gesture control, together with face recognition technology. At the moment these features are limited to the top of the line LED and Plasma TVs – the ES8000 and E8000, respectively – as well as the near flagship ES7000. Not only are there some new controls but a new Smart Controller, too, that comes in the box with all three models.
The first thing we’d comment on is that you’ll need a ‘friendly’ environment for either the voice or gesture controls to work. The three high-end TVs named above, all feature a built-in camera to detect movements, as well as being used for the Skype app – more on which later. Samsung, by ways of an on-screen graphic, suggest that for the gesture control feature to work you should not have a major light source (e.g. a window) behind you else the camera will be unable to detect your movements and that certainly seems to be the case with the samples we’ve tried. In fact, daytime gesture control was not a viable option for us, at all, in anything like daylight conditions and we found it to only really function very late at night – by which time we were too tired to be bothered waving, swiping or pinching the air. We've had no problems with the very similar tech built in to the XBox 360's Kinect add-on, in the same environment, so clearly Samsung need to improve theirs.
The voice control feature is a little more impressive in its implementation. There are two options here; users can speak directly to the television or in to the, Star Trek like, Smart Controller with the first option requiring you to say the words ‘Hi TV’ before issuing any instructions. Like the camera, the built-in microphone is very sensitive to ambient room conditions and really struggles to detect commands with any extraneous noise present in the room; including the sound from the speakers in the TV – which is a bit of an issue. We found a great deal more success using the Smart controller and we were easily able to switch off the TV, change channels, adjust volume or call up a number of the Smart features. It does beg the question, however, if you’ve gone to the trouble of using a remote in the first place, why go through a process that takes longer than a couple of button presses can achieve? Useful if you’ve misplaced the remote but largely redundant if it’s within arm’s reach. The best thing about the Smart Controller is definitely the touch-pad that allows for a speedy, and fairly, accurate scroll around the web browser and Smart Hub. Unfortunately we did find that having the voice control enabled in the Menu meant it was frequently activated inadvertently by room (and TV) noise, which can be very annoying.
As another alternative to using the standard remote control, owners of mobile devices – either iOS or Android - can benefit from an app that turns it into a remote control that works through your Wi-Fi home network and those with Galaxy Tab’s are able to even stream content from the TV to the tablet using the Smart Share app. During the last few months we’ve tried both the iOS and Android versions and whilst they worked we didn't find them as well implemented as they are by other manufacturers. The layout is definitely best suited to a tablet or those with very large smartphones else it feels too cramped.
Almost 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. In reality we almost always find each manufacturer has a slightly different idea to the others on how it should work and we find that important controls are frequently missing or not where we would expect and thus we find ourselves searching for the original control. There’s no doubt that, for instance, a Samsung TV controller works well with a Samsung Blu-ray player but when you begin introducing kit from other manufacturers, it can all seem like more trouble than it’s really worth.
EPG Quality & PVR FeaturesWe’ve always been fans of the Electronic Programme Guides (EPG’s) built in to Samsung TVs; they are very legible with an alternating grey/black colour scheme to delineate Channels and white text overlaid and we’d always prefer the option of having a video window to keep an eye on events whilst we browse for programming, Samsung duly oblige where others see fit to kill both audio and video whilst the EPG is on-screen. The Guide offers a 6 channel/2 hour view with programme information laid next to the video window. Users have the ability to skip forward or back 24 hours, by means of the Yellow and Green buttons, alter the EPG to show TV/Radio/Data/All content by use of the Blue key and to enter the Schedule Manager using Red.
From the aforementioned Schedule Manager it’s possible to schedule Watch or Record Timers, with the latter only possible with USB storage attached via the appropriate input; which port is appropriate will be indicated by a sticker bearing the printing ‘HDD’ upon it. To get the external drive to work as a Personal Video Recorder (PVR) users will first need to format it via 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. Recordings can only take place on the currently tuned channel so it doesn’t offer the record one/watch another found in even the most basic Freesat/Freeview PVR’s but it’s perfectly possible to view material from another source simultaneously. It’s certainly a nice to have but no real replacement for a dedicated PVR unless the user's demands are only light.
Applications - HardwareAll of the modern high-end Samsung TVs feature built-in Wireless LAN adapters making it a cinch to connect to your home network with support for the IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n standards but those that want to stream high definition video to their televisions may still be best off seeking a wired connection or, alternatively, one of the domestic powerline solutions that are capable of carrying high bandwidths more reliably.
Some of the very latest Samsungs feature support for the Mobile High-Definition Link (MHL), a new - proposed - industry standard for a mobile audio/video interface that directly connects smartphones and tablets to HDTVs. The MHL standard features a single cable with a low pin-count interface able to support up to 1080p high-definition (HD) video and digital audio while simultaneously charging the connected device. At the moment the mobile devices that are MHL enabled are pretty much the top of the range from the likes of HTC, LG, Sony and, of course, Samsung themselves but it might just catch on in a bigger way.
AllShare, Networking and Media playbackSamsung’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 you’re home network. For instance, with an android smartphone it’s easily possible to browse your media files through a TV, using the remote control, although we have encountered audio codec difficulties with Galaxy smartphones when trying to play video content. 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.
Should you, for whatever reason, prefer to use another media server with your Samsung Smart TV then, thanks to seemingly robust support of the DLNA protocol, the choice is yours. In our time with Samsung TVs we’ve had them working with HomeStream, Servio and PS3 Media Server so it would be safe to assume they’re not too fussy but you might find some more flexible than others in terms of transcoding awkward files; for this reason we’ve tended to stick to PS3 Media Server although its interface isn’t the kindest.
Although we’ve just mentioned transcoding, whereby the media server will re-encode files – on the fly - so that they’re compatible with the DLNA sink (the TV in this case) the Samsung TVs are generous in their native media file support. As well as handling all your standard jpeg photo files, it’s possible to plug in a USB drive to replay .mpo, 3D photo files, of which they are numerous on the web freely available to download if you haven’t a 3D camera to snap with. Musically, there’s mp3, wma and AAC support but it’s the video file support most will be interested in. Instead of us embarking on a list that would take us down to the foot of the page, we’d invite those interested to click on the photo below, to view Samsungs’ own summary.
Owners of high-end Samsung smartphones or tablets are able to take advantage of the Smart View app which allows users to stream video from the TV. It’s even possible to watch a channel from the TV, even if someone else is watching different content on the TV. For instance, User A could be watching a Blu-ray whilst User B watches something from the built in tuners. The app also incorporates a remote control interface and can transform your gyroscopically equipped mobile device in to a controller for games downloaded from the app store.
App Store and AppsEven in a dedicated review it’s impossible to cover all that’s on offer in terms of available apps through Samsung’s platform, which should speak volumes as to the variety on offer. Studies show the most used services are Video on Demand (VoD) with the BBC iPlayer and YouTube generally at the top of the pile. We must say we’re big converts to the convenience VoD brings and although we wouldn’t want to suffer the compromises compression brings to the table for a big movie, the quality of streaming through the likes of NetFlix, means they’re more than acceptable for catching up on TV series’ you might have missed or were unable to receive at the time. In addition to NetFlix, other subscription VoD services on offer include LOVEFiLM, AceTrax and PictureBox and as well as the iPlayer there’s plenty of free content on offer from the ITV Player and BBC Sport app. For those with 3D enabled TVs, Samsung’s own ‘Explore 3D’ service provides quite a lot of free 3D – from promotional stuff to films and documentaries – but we found the experience quite frustrating with lots of pauses and ‘buffering breaks’.
Rather neatly, the Your Video feature integrates with some of the VoD services (we found it worked with iPlayer, YouTube and LOVEFiLM) as well as searching shared files on your home network and acts as a recommendation engine where your viewing habits are tracked and suggestions based on genre, subject matter, director, actor/actress are made for your further viewing. Habits are tracked from EPG selections, searched for material through the Smart Hub and recordings scheduled using the PVR. It’s all packaged up in a very nice interface and is something that can prove genuinely useful. It would be better still if it integrated with all the VoD services but Rome wasn’t built in a day.
In terms of non-VoD apps, Samsung are making big on their family friendly services this year with the Family Story, Fitness and Kids apps taking centre stage on the Smart Hub. The Family Story feature appears to be a kind of family blog where you can post photos, write comments, make diary appointments and share content with other members of your family. The Kids app delivers a number of educational and recreational games that can, in theory, be gesture controlled but fortunately more conventional methods are also supported. The Fitness centre is kind of self-explanatory and could turn a couch potato in to a catwalk star given the required dedication to carry out the series of exercise routines. The app will provide you with your own personal trainer and take note of your weight and height details and suggest exercise videos for you to follow. We’re not going to pretend for one moment that we donned a lycra leotard but there seemed to be plenty of videos available.
Elsewhere, in the Samsung app Store, there are bucket-loads of games; we tried Chess, Darts and AirForce One with the latter a nice waste of 10 minutes (honestly, Ed) here and there but the Chess and Dart games were a little on the easy side. Headlining the games line-up is the hugely popular Angry Birds game but it’s only available to owners of the camera fitted TVs (ES7000, ES8000 and E8000) as it is entirely gesture controlled. The fact that it’s free is a definite bonus but Samsung really should have allowed for either/or the Smart Controller and Mobile Device app to be used as a controller. We’re most perturbed to report we couldn’t really take advantage of Angry Birds on the big screen owing to the previously mentioned issues with gesture control. In fact, a lot of the games insist on mobile app control to make them playable which should go to show something.
There are also a number of informational apps such as the Football app, various news bodies and weather information, to name but a few, and also numerous independent fitness regimes and exercise services. There’s even some retail integration through a Marks and Spencer app and you can browse for your next home via Right Move. We’ve really only scratched the surface here but suffice to say there’s something for almost everyone. The question is, are people going to be convinced to move away from the smartphone or tablet to take advantage of what’s available through their television? We think it’s likely VoD services will continue to flourish and we see gaming as big potential market for Smart TVs but they can keep the likes of recipes, dodgy screensavers and dog walking apps for your mobile device.
Social Networking & CommunicationsWhere would we be without social networking? Possibly talking to people face to face but this is 2012 and it can’t be ignored by the manufacturers if they want to keep you in front of their TVs. Samsung’s Smart offering includes dedicated apps for Facebook, Google Talk and Twitter or all three through Social TV app. The implications of which are that you can perhaps chat to friends (real or internet) about what you’re currently watching. In practice, although we found the apps to function very well we did find them a little intrusive. ‘Second screen’ is where it’s at for us for this sort of thing as we’d prefer our nicely calibrated pictures not to be spoiled by notifications of the news of what someone’s had for lunch or the latest info on what the iPhone 5 can or can not do.
Far more suited to the TV is the Skype app, which is certainly a great thing to have to keep up with friends or relations who live some distance away. It’s much easier to gather the kids round the TV (they are biologically attracted) than it is a laptop or PC webcam and Grandma and Grandad will no doubt take great pleasure in seeing them cavort in front of the camera. Those Samsung owners that haven’t splashed out on the top-tier TVs needn’t despair as there are various USB camera/mic attachments available and the app works really nicely although, obviously, the instant messaging feature in Skype is much easier using a keyboard than it is a TV remote control.
Web BrowsingIt’s all the rage for the TV manufacturers to include internet browsing in the 2012 TVs. Thanks in part to the new control options and the dual core processors in many of the flagship TVs, the browsing experience, through the TV, is far more palatable than it was 12 months ago. The Samsung Browser is definitely one of the best we’ve tried and is highly compatible with HTML5. The search engine is powered by Bing and we found, with the dual core models, that it was very quick to load pages and most embedded video playing without issues. The Smart Controller was particularly effective here and by using the voice controls to search and touch pad to scroll we were able to have a browsing experience that was really quite pleasurable.
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 easily accessible from the top right of the page. The browser also interacts with the Family Story app allowing you to share web pages with those you’ve connected to using it. Whether or not you would choose to use the TV as your primary browser would be a personal choice and we really see it as secondary internet device but there’s something to be said for a browser custom designed for a 1080p display and it really is highly useable.
Smart Dual ViewAnnounced at IFA 2012, alongside Samsung’s 55 inch OLED TV, was the coming soon Smart Dual View feature that will enable two users to view entirely separate content simultaneously. Perfect when you don’t want to watch the latest reality show when the other half does but when you don’t want to relinquish the recliner, yes we are speaking from extensive personal experience here. It will work through 3D eye-wear with some form of headphone attachment but will mean a loss in resolution and brightness, not to mention the colour shift the tint of the glasses brings. We’ve certainly not had any extensive experience with this up-coming feature but it does have some interesting possibilities and applications.
Smart Evolution KitThe most fitting way to end this review, as far as owners of the 2012 Samsung’s with the upgrade slot at the back of their TVs are concerned, is to let them know they needn’t be casting envious eyes at future generations that come equipped to deal with more challenging apps and features, as they will simply be able to pop in an upgrade pack to bring their TVs up to date. The evolution kit promises to boost CPU power to quad core capacity and thus be able to keep up as things develop. Samsung tell us the first evolution kits will be made available in 2013 and, what’s more, will be completely free for owners that apply. You can’t really say any fairer that that.
- Enormous number of apps
- High quality streaming abilities
- Free upgrade possible
- Excellent centralisation of feature set
- Very passable web browser
- Smart controller works very nicely
- Lots of free content
- Diverse control options
- Skype app is really good
- Excellent connectivity
- Great for social networkers
- Voice and gesture controls are far too temperamental
- Angry Birds is motion control only - boo!
- Mobile app could be better
Samsung Smart TV System 2012 Review
Samsung's SMART Hub is one of our very favourite interfaces for extra-curricular TV activities as it manages to centralise all the available features in one convenient and customisable location. The command centre feel really helps to push the possibilities of Samsung's extremely generous offering whilst not confusing with clutter; no mean feat. There's a wealth of control options too, including app control, the standard remote and, on some models, Samsung's new Smart Controller plus voice and gesture commands. Whilst we didn't really get on with the new interactive controls, the Smart controller is pretty nifty and the app for mobile devices works quite nicely.
Samsung's programme guide has always been very clearly presented and makes the use of the built in personal video recording (PVR) features very simple to use. The PVR features might be a little basic for those used to the likes of Sky HD or TiVo but what is there works well enough. Samsung Smart TVs feature a wealth of connectivity options and as well as the aforementioned app support, owners can connect their Smart TVs to their home networks by LAN but many also boast built in Wi-Fi and some even support Mobile High-Definition Link (MHL) connections.
One of the undoubted standard bearers for Samsung's SMART parade comes in the form of their AllShare software, which runs on a number of their devices including PCs, TVs, smartphones, tablets and cameras and allows for seamless sharing of music, video and photos between them. So, for instance, with your Android smartphone it's easily possible to quickly view your latest photos on the big screen for all to see. AllShare isn't limited to interaction with Samsung products, either, and will happily talk to most DLNA media. Samsung's media player is perhaps the most generous around for the breadth of file support on offer. Owners of high-end Samsung smartphones or tablets are even able to take advantage of the Smart View app which allows users to stream video from the TV.
In terms of the apps available through Samsung's Store, they're probably out on their own in terms of what's on offer. Undoubtedly the stars of the show are the Video on Demand services from the likes of BBC iPlayer, YouTube, Netflix and LOVEFiLM but some might get some pleasure from the numerous games, lifestyle and exercise apps available. Social networking fans are also well catered for with dedicated apps for Facebook, Twitter and Google or all three through the Social TV app. The implications of which are that you can perhaps chat to friends (real or internet) about what you're currently watching. In practice, although we found the apps to function very well we did find them a little intrusive. ‘Second screen' is where it's at for us for this sort of thing.
Whilst we wouldn't necessarily go straight to Samsung's built-in Web Browser as our first choice for internet duties, the experience is far above what we were expecting. It certainly helps if you're in possession of one of the dual core processor equipped TVs which make pages load with excellent speed and the Smart Controller is a particular boon with its combination of voice searching and scroll pad. We're also very impressed with Samsung's customer care in providing processing upgrades, free of charge, by way of the Smart Evolution Kit and their eye on the future with the upcoming Smart Dual View feature which will allow the simultaneous viewing of different content for two users.
In our estimation Samsung's current Smart offering is just that bit ahead of the pack and for its unparalleled combination of apps, streaming, connectivity and control options we're happy to confirm its Reference Status.
Ease of Use9
Media Playback Quality9
Applications - Software9
Applications - Hardware9
Voice and Motion Controls7
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