Samsung Smart TV System 2013 Review
The Einstein of Smart TV Systems!
IntroductionSamsung's 2012 Smart TV System was the best on the market, deservedly winning a Reference Status badge here at AVForums. That made the task of upgrading the system for this year all the more difficult for the Korean company's boffins. It wasn't just the desire to stay ahead of the pack that drove the manufacturer; there was also the need to deliver a system that would justify the cost of buying an Evolution Kit to upgrade your 2012 model. Of course as good as the 2012 Smart TV System was it had its faults - the motion and voice control features needed refinement and the remote app for iOS was a disaster - so that at least gave Samsung something to work towards. They also wanted to develop the system so that it was as intuitive to use as possible and gave the user as wide a choice as was feasible. So let's see if Samsung's latest Smart TV System has managed to build on its early promise and remain the market leader.
Smart Hub InterfacePerhaps in a slight step back from last year, the new iteration of Samsung's Smart Hub uses five home pages rather than the previous one. We liked the ease and simplicity of accessing everything from a single page but clearly with the amount of features and choice now on offer through Samsung's platform, the manufacturer felt that they just couldn't contain it all on one page. Instead the hub now intelligently organises and manages all your content into five easy to navigate panels. The intuitive interface uses vibrant thumbnails to provide instant previews to help you quickly and easily select what you want to watch. The TV defaults to the 'On TV' page when you first turn it on and there are four other pages you can go to, depending on what features you want to use.
If you want to access the Smart Hub at any time, you just press the Smart Hub button on either remote or use the remote apps available for either smartphone or tablet. All the pages are sensibly named based upon their primary purpose, so aside from the 'On TV' page which obviously contains all the TV related information, there is 'Movies & TV Shows' where you can download movies and TV shows. There is also 'Photos, Videos & Music' where, you guessed it, you can access all your photos, videos and music. Then there is 'Apps' where you can access all the apps and finally there is 'Social' where you can access all the social networking features. We will address each page individually as we go through the related features in this review.
Control OptionsAs with last year, Samsung continues to develop different methods of controlling both your TV and the Smart Hub interface. First of all there is the standard remote control, which Samsung definitely regards as something of a legacy these days. They only include it for those who still prefer the old-fashioned method of interacting with their TV - basically the older generation and, frankly, some TV reviewers. Despite all the different methods now available to control a Samsung TV, we still found ourselves using the standard remote for most tasks because it was just easier and faster.
The Smart Controller also includes a built-in microphone which can be used for voice control of your TV. Whilst last year you could also control your TV by speaking directly at the TV, this has been dropped this year, so no more shouting "Hi TV" across the room. Instead you just speak into the microphone on the Smart Controller using everyday language. You can control your TV, run applications or combine it with the new S-Recommendation technology (more on that later) for a personalised TV experience. You can ask the TV to find you something to watch and it will search live TV and online content and make recommendations by speaking back to you. We did find voice control to be quite effective but if you’ve already got the remote in your hand, why use voice control when you can just press a couple of buttons?
As with the Smart Controller, the higher end Samsung TVs also come with a built-in camera. This camera is a big improvement on last year, with a resolution of 5 mega pixels and the ability to work effectively in lower light conditions. We found that when making Skype video calls, the camera image was well lit even with just a single lamp on at night. This improved ability meant that the motion control worked much better than last year because the camera could see us without having to turn all the lights on in the living room. Using the motion control feature you can change channels and the volume level, swipe though the 5 panel Smart Hub and grab and select the content you want just like you would on any smart mobile device. There are new two handed gestures designed to recognise natural movements, thus enabling you to zoom in and out and rotate images, making the sharing of your latest holiday pictures a lot more entertaining. Whilst this might sound very Minority Report in theory, in reality the camera was constantly losing my hands and the motion sensors could be very temperamental. Yes, the feature is getting better but we're not there yet. The camera also allows for facial recognition login to your Samsung account, although when asked how it would handle identical twins, Samsung were reticent to answer. As a security measure, the camera can be pushed down into the chassis, thus preventing anyone from hacking it and spying on you. If your TV doesn't come with a built-in camera, you can buy an optional add-on one instead.
Last year, Samsung's Smart View app was a bit of a disaster and in fact we couldn't get it to work at all when testing the iOS version. However the manufacturer has definitely made amends this year, delivering the best remote app we have seen to date. There are two versions available for download, one for iOS devices and the other for Android devices. Whilst the two were similar, we found that the iOS version currently worked best, with non-Samsung Android devices being a little restricted at the moment. When you first launch the app, it immediately connects with the TV and begins streaming the live TV programme you're on. Whilst it only works with live TV, it is a useful feature and means you can make a cup of tea without missing any of the action in live sport. There are also all the usual controls including a touch pad and a full keyboard, as well as the ability to use the microphone in your smart device for voice control. We found the remote app combined the best of all worlds and we can see why Samsung sees the Smart Controller as nothing more than a stop gap.
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 them to be and thus we find ourselves searching for the original remote. There’s no doubt that, for instance, a Samsung TV controller works well with a Samsung Blu-ray player but when you begin introducing equipment from other manufacturers, it can all seem like more trouble than it’s really worth.
On TV, EPG & PVRWhen you first turn on your TV it opens to the 'On TV' page of the Smart Hub, which makes sense as it includes all the features related to actually watching TV. There is the current channel or input in the top left hand screen and if you want to go straight to that, you just press the enter button. To the right you can see what is currently on other channels and at the bottom it shows what is coming up. You can also access the EPG and any programmes recorded on a USB drive from this page. Another new feature is the timeline page, which shows what is coming up in more detail. This information is obviously being drawn from the internet because it still worked, even when the aerial wasn't connected. The S-Recommendation pop up bar is accessed by the user through pressing a button on the remote, and /or using the voice interaction feature on the remote. This feature will suggest what's new to watch based on what you like using a proprietary algorithm. It intelligently learns your preferences and instantly searches live TV, video on demand services and apps to recommend TV and on line content tailored based on your viewing history. It pulls content from linear TV broadcasting, VOD partners and apps based on your viewing history but contrary to some reviews, it does not use metadata from other third party providers like Sky or Virgin.
We’ve always been fans of Samsung's Electronic Programme Guide (EPG), finding them to be well designed, easy to navigate and informative. We also prefer the option of having a video window to keep an eye on events whilst we browse for programming and Samsung duly oblige where others see fit to kill both audio and video whilst the EPG is on-screen. The Guide offers a 7 channel/2 hour view with programme information laid next to the video window. Users have the ability to skip forward or back 24 hours, alter the EPG to show TV/Radio/Data/All content and to enter the Schedule Manager.
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 but 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. This year Samsung have added twin tuners to their higher end models, which means that if you add a USB drive, you will have a genuine PVR with the capability to watch one programme whilst recording another or record two programmes at the same time.
Applications - HardwareThe majority of Samsung 2013 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. However if you want to stream high definition video to your television you may still be best off using a wired connection or, alternatively, one of the domestic powerline solutions that are capable of carrying high bandwidths more reliably. However the Wi-Fi certainly worked very well in testing, offering a simple and stable platform for accessing the myriad of internet features that Samsung offer on their new Smart Hub platform. The higher end models also included powerful quad-core processing that significantly boosts performance with faster access to Smart features, higher quality video streaming and true multitasking capabilities.
Most Samsung TVs also now feature support for the Mobile High-Definition Link (MHL), a new industry standard (except Apple of course) 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. The Source button on the remote will show you all the devices that are connected including broadcast TV (both Freeview and Freesat if included), HDMI, USB, via a connected network or through Screen Mirroring.
AllShare, Networking and Media PlaybackThe next new page in Smart Hub is called 'Photos, Videos & Music' and brings together all the AllShare, Networking and Media Playback features into a single page. From here you can access all your photos, videos, music and recorded TV from whichever device is connected. The All Content page gives you access to your network, a USB device, Picture Storage and Web Storage.
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. 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. We found that Samsung's latest TVs had no problems accessing the media server on our home network and everything worked as we expected.
Samsung TVs are generous in their native media file support and 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 and in terms of video files they support all the major formats.
Samsung has introduced a new app called SwipeIt which allows you to easily view content from your mobile devices on your Smart TV. As mentioned previously, the Smart View remote app also works very well and incorporates a remote control interface that can transform your gyroscopically equipped mobile device in to a controller for games downloaded from the app store.
Applications - SoftwareThe next page within the Smart Hub is 'Apps' which rather obviously provides access to all the apps you've downloaded as well as the Apps Store if you want to download more.
There is a bewildering array of apps available but with TVs the most popular are the Video on Demand (VoD) services. This year Samsung have this area extremely well covered with the BBC iPlayer, YouTube, Netflix, LoveFilm, Vimeo, 4OD, ITV Player and Demand 5 to name but a few. 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 - which is handy given the general lack of 3D content.
If you go to the 'Movies & TV Shows' page of the Smart Hub, there is even more content available for download. The information on this page (for example title, synopsis etc of each movie) is provided by Samsung's video metadata partners, and features movies available on catalogues from selected partners who have worked with them on integrating with the service. When it comes to Movies, you can look for favourites, look at featured movies and any movies you've already purchased. In terms of the featured movies, Samsung decides and operates the content that is shown in this area, it is not paid for by broadcasters or studios. The feature is designed to provide the end user with movies and TV show recommendations based on a certain theme during a certain duration. With TV Shows you can look at what's new, the most popular shows and you can search for shows by genre.
There is a page called Featured, which gives you suggestions for apps relating to Family, Food, Kids, Romance or Sports. There is also a page called What's Hot, which includes video content that's currently popular and trending.
The number of available apps runs into the thousands but as an overview there are informational apps such as the Football app, various news bodies and weather information services, not to mention numerous independent fitness regimes and exercise services. There's Spotify, internet radio and even a fishing TV channel. There’s now retail integration such as the Marks and Spencer app and you can browse for your next home via Right Move. The fact is that whatever your interests, there will almost certainly be an app available.
Social NetworkingThe last of the new Smart Hub pages is 'Social' and here all your various social networking accounts can be grouped together. All you need to do is create a Samsung account and you can access all your favourite sites - Facebook, Twitter, and Skype - from one easy location. You can then see what all your friends are doing, chat to them and simultaneously run other apps or watch TV. The 'Social' page includes options to look at Friends Picks, What's Hot or make a Video Call.
The latter feature is particularly well suited to a TV and we find that Skype is a great method to keep up with friends or relations who live some distance away. It’s much easier to gather around the TV than it is a laptop or PC webcam and 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. Overall 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 BrowsingThere's no doubt that we browsing on your TV is getting better, thanks in part to the new control options and also the dual and quad core processing in many TVs. The Samsung Browser is definitely one of the best we’ve tried and is compatible with HTML5. The search engine is powered by Bing and we found, with the quad core models, that it was incredibly quick to load pages play embedded videos and multi-task. 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 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. Whether or not you would choose to use the TV as your primary browser would be a personal choice but there’s something to be said for a browser custom designed for a 1080p display and these days they are becoming very useable.
Smart Evolution KitSamsung has made good on their promise of last year and launched a Smart Evolution Kit which allows owners of Samsung's high end 2012 TVs to upgrade to the 2013 platform. The kits aren't cheap, costing around £250 each but for that you get quad-core processing, the new Smart Hub platform and the Smart Controller. It certainly represents a way for owners of older TVs who are otherwise happy with their TV, to upgrade to a better Smart Hub platform without the expense of buying a completely new TV; so from that perspective £250 isn't that much at all. The 2013 TVs also include a slot for a future Smart Evolution Kit, so clearly there will be plenty of development to come as far as Samsung's Smart Hub is concerned.
- Enormous number of apps
- High quality streaming abilities
- Excellent central hub
- Well designed EPG and timeline feature
- Useful recommendation features
- Highly effective web browser
- Smart controller works well
- Remote app is a massive improvement
- Plenty of free content including 3D
- Diverse control options
- Skype app is extremely good
- Excellent connectivity
- Fully functioning PVR capability
- Great for social networkers
- Motion control still needs work
Samsung Smart TV System 2013 Review
When you consider how influential last year's design was on much of the competition, at first sight the breaking up of the Smart Hub into five pages instead of the previous single port of call may seem like a retrograde step. However when you consider how much there now is on Samsung's internet platform it makes perfect sense. The first page that you land on when accessing the Smart Hub (or turning the TV on) is the 'On TV' page which shows you all the related TV content. This includes what you are currently watching, what is on other channels and what's coming up. There is a more detailed Timeline page and you can directly access the EPG or any recorded content. The EPG is as good as ever and the inclusion of twin tuners on some TVs means that if you attach a USB drive you'll have a fully functioning PVR. There is also the new S-Recommendation feature which tracks your viewing habits and makes suggestions based on them.
The next page within the Smart Hub relates to 'Movies & TV Shows' and here there is more content available for download. When it comes to Movies, you can look for favourites, featured movies and any movies you've already purchased. With TV Shows you can look at what's new, the most popular and you can search by genre. The next new page in Smart Hub is called 'Photos, Videos & Music' and brings together all the AllShare, Networking and Media Playback features into a single page. From here you can access all your photos, videos, music and recorded TV from whichever device is connected. The All Content page gives you access to your network, a USB device, Picture Storage and Web Storage. We found that connecting with other devices, either directly or via a network worked very well, the performance was robust and the file support excellent.
The next page within the Smart Hub is 'Apps' which rather obviously provides access to all the apps you've downloaded as well as the Apps Store if you want to download more. There is a bewildering array of apps available but when it comes to TVs the most popular are the Video on Demand (VoD) services and Samsung have this area extremely well covered with the BBC iPlayer, YouTube, Netflix, LoveFilm, Vimeo, 4OD, ITV Player and Demand 5 to name but a few. For those with 3D enabled TVs, Samsung’s own Explore 3D service provides quite a lot of free 3D video content and there's also news and weather services, Spotify, internet radio and even a fishing TV channel. In fact with literally thousands of apps available, whatever your interests there will almost certainly be an app to suit.
The final page in the new Smart Hub is 'Social' and here all your various social networking accounts can be grouped together. All you need to do is create a Samsung account and you can access all your favourite sites - Facebook, Twitter, and Skype - from one easy location. You can then see what all your friends are doing, chat to them and simultaneously run other apps or watch TV. The 'Social' page includes options to look at Friends Picks, What's Hot or make a Skype Video Call. Other useful features in Samsung's Smart TV platform this year include voice and motion control, although the motion control still needs some work, and an excellent remote app.
There is also built-in Wi-Fi on most TVs, dual or quad core processing, MHL support and an excellent Web Browser.
As with their latest displays, Samsung has set the bar pretty high when it comes to Smart TV Systems. With an irresistible combination of features, interaction, choice and connectivity, the latest version of the Smart Hub remains the reference internet platform to which all other manufacturers must aspire.
Ease of Use9
Media Playback Quality10
Applications - Software10
Applications - Hardware9
Voice and Motion Controls8
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