Until late, Samsung has been the undisputed kings in the realms of Smart TV platforms but this year they are under serious assault.
Smart Hub Interface
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.
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.
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.
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.
Anynet and Soundshare
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 & PVR
Applications - Hardware
Apps & Games
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.
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 Connect
- 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 Review
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 Use
Media Playback Quality
Applications - Software
Applications - Hardware
Voice and Motion Controls
Our Review Ethos
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