The concept of Smart TV and the very reason why manufacturers have been pushing it onto the masses is simple. The phenomenon of YouTube videos sporting million-odd views and socially shared viral content is largely restricted to browsers, whether they exist on desktops, laptops or smartphones. The truth is that the boob tube is far more ubiquitous than any computer or smartphone can be, and therein lies a potential to get this largely untapped demographic hooked to this social video-sharing rage and in turn compel them to adopt the newest line-up of smart TVs. The idea is to get the kind of people who are loath to put up with a computer for all this.
All manufacturers of note have been busy making a push towards this trend with increasingly sophisticated smart TV sets that do more than just deliver streaming capability to the idiot box. Just yesterday, Samsung showcased its 2013 range of smart TVs that embody the current trends in the consumer technology space--that is a marked increase in hardware as well as technical complexity and a diametrically opposite simplicity in the user interface. With most of the country still stuck in the same rut of unreliable and slow Internet connectivity, the success of this smart TV endeavour is questionable given the circumstances. At any rate, it's still worthwhile to see how much Samsung's 2013 Smart TV range has improved over its 2012 predecessor.
Each 2013 Smart TV features a camera on top to enable motion control
Like any upgrade cycle these days, the secret ingredient for success is more cores. The 2013 Smart TV range uses the same tried and tested formula and upgrades the dual-core processor to 1.3GHz quad-core madness. The idea is to deliver more powerful apps and complex UI animation while keeping the experience smoother. The extra horsepower has also been harnessed to optimise motion and voice control, in addition to better face recognition that works in tandem with these features. Samsung touts the upgraded SOC to deliver better multi-tasking and faster web browsing experience while also promising an improvement in contrast and colour enhancement, motion control, upscaling, 2D to 3D conversion and other picture enhancement algorithms.
Owners of the now outdated 2012 dual-core Samsung Smart TVs also have the option of upgrading to the current quad-core range with the help of the Evolution Kit, a small box that–like any other third-party smart TV box–latches onto the proprietary port on the back panel and bypasses the old smart TV hardware with the new 2013 quad-core goodness. When I quizzed a Samsung rep about what happens to the Samsung 2012 Smart TV owners who don't wish to upgrade, I was assured that they can still access the newer apps, but the experience may not be as smooth as it can be with the current hardware. Apart from apps, the last gen Smart TV users will also not be able to access newer UI features such as dual-handed gesture control; however, they will still be able to continue using single-handed gesture controls.
I tried out the Smart TV implementations across different TV models at the launch event, but the experience was the same since they all utilise the same quad-core SOC irrespective of the model heirarchy. The gesture control is reminiscent of that pioneered by the Kinect and leverages a similar wave-to-enable functionality that lets you seamlessly move from regular to motion-based control system. Despite poor lighting conditions at the venue, the TV was able to recognise faces and lock the gesture control to that individual. Needless to say, all my efforts to distract the inbuilt camera by waving at it while the Samsung rep was busy showcasing the system were in vain.
Of course, there's streaming content
However, just like the Kinect, this motion control scheme isn't the ideal Minority Report-esque replacement to conventional input methods that everyone envisions it to be. While you can blame this partly to the bad lighting setup that silhouetted us to the camera, the entire gesture control setup wasn't as responsive or accurate as I had expected it to be. Various gestures such as selection, dragging, scrolling, swipe to skip between screens and pinch-and-rotate functions weren't always reliably executed. The whole exercise is still too slow and cumbersome to replace the default remote. It works as a novelty and it's great to impress guests with the thumbs-up-to-like-FB-posts gimmick, but I don't see it being used on a daily basis otherwise.
It's a good thing then that these TVs ship with slick remotes bearing a touchpad at the centre, which takes care of all your navigation needs. The minimalist remote has been kept free of clutter by using clever gestures to perform most of the functions. For example, you can select a particular channel by simply drawing the number on the touchpad. Unfortunately, since the demo TVs weren't actually fed with any broadcast content, I couldn't really test this feature. The remote controller houses an inbuilt microphone with a push-to-talk implementation to enable voice commands. Considering severity of ambient noise at the venue, I was surprised that the Smart TV actually managed to execute at least some of the voice commands that I blurted out to it. Having said that, it's unfair to judge the efficacy of the system in a less than ideal environment.
Surprisingly unlike what one would expect from Samsung, the UI looks pretty clean with a pleasing minimalist aesthetic theme running across it. Dubbed Smart Hub, the UI consists of three main screens where you can access the Smart TV features. These include the Apps, Social, as well as Photos, Videos and Music screens. The Apps screen didn't seem customisable, but it can show a maximum of 30 apps at a time. Strangely, there's no mention of the size or type of storage included to handle apps. The rep, however, informed me that all 2013 Smart TVs come with 4GB of inbuilt memory for this purpose. The social panel opens access to Facebook and Twitter, but you're better off on your smartphone, unless you plan to purchase a wireless keyboard to pair with the TV. The final screen allows you to wirelessly access photos, videos and music from your home network or from storage devices hooked up to any of the USB ports.
If you own a Galaxy S3/S4 or a Galaxy Note II, you can mirror content between your TV and smartphone, and vice versa
The final feature I test drove was quite impressive, that is, if you own a Samsung Galaxy S3, S4, or a Galaxy Note II. Just enabling an option in the aforementioned phones allows you to mirror the phone's screen onto the TV, thereby allowing you to play games, browse the Internet or air movies from your smartphone to the big screen. The converse applies as well once you download a small app that lets you watch TV content mirrored on your smartphone. The practical application becomes even more profound when you can watch, say, a Blu-ray movie on the TV while streaming a Saas Bahu serial onto your missus' phone.
Samsung's 2013 Smart TV range incorporates oodles of processing power with its 1.3GHz quad-core SOC and tempers it with a unified UI hub that, prima facie, appears to be both intuitive and simplified enough to be inviting. The camera-enabled dual-handed gesture control scheme doesn't seem to be responsive, but I'd like to test it under ideal lighting condition before reaching a conclusion. The touchpad-equipped remote, however, seems well-suited to navigate through the screens. While the international version of the latest Smart TV range feature adaptive learning algorithms that tailor suggestions in the Smart TV hub according to your viewing behaviour, this interesting feature, sadly, hasn't been advertised in the Indian version. I didn't find it in the TVs showcased at the events either.
At any rate, in the absence of reliable and fast Internet connectivity, it is such TiVO-esque features that will be crucial in shaping consumer adoption of Smart TVs. The 2013 Smart TV range with its snazzy UI, social integration and an evolved touch navigation seems a logical step towards making the Smart TV concept a more appealing proposition over the clunky, unintuitive efforts we have seen so far.
The Smart Hub neatly segregates apps, TV programming, social networking and local content into seperate homescreens