Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Smart and Smarter TV.

Mum has finally caught up with 21st century TV. And 21st century TV is finally simple enough for her to use. blog.mindrocketnow.com

Last weekend, I helped Mum buy her first new TV in two decades. She had an old 32 inch CRT TV, which weighed as much as I do, and occupied more volume. It took me a good 10 min of shoving and puffing to move it out of the way. Then I carried her new 32 inch LCD TV with one hand over to the stand – what a difference! The change in TV technology has not just benefited those of us to whom their mothers delegate manual labour. Nearly every aspect has improved in absolute terms: picture quality, sound quality, design aesthetic, cost, and the quality of content available.

The TV we chose (a Samsung UE32H5500 for £280 from the very nice people at Richer Sounds) is a very smart TV. It is a full HD panel, with lovely colour gamut and deep blacks, making the picture vibrant. The standard picture settings are well implemented, and need no further tuning. The sound is pretty impressive too, considering that they’re flat panel speakers; I don’t think Mum will miss not having a full-on amp+speakers setup.

Design, in common with all current TVs, is very minimalist. However, when you compare with the old CRT you can really see how the technology has enabled the svelte form. With all that volume gone, and no bezel to speak of, there’s nothing to distract from the screen, nothing to distract from what you’re watching. The only visual context is the furniture that the TV is sitting on, so the same screen size does seem a lot smaller.

For what you get, the TV was an extraordinary bargain. It has a Freeview HD tuner built in, so no need for an additional set top box. It has smart TV functions, apps like iPlayer, YouTube so no need to hook up a laptop. It even has third party platforms like Amazon Fire TV, so no need for another dedicated set top box. If you want to record off air, you can simply connect a hard drive. I found a 1TB drive for £50. If you want to play blu ray discs, you can pick up a very good smart player for another £55. Grand total = £385. This is less than the first DVD player that I bought 15 years ago (OK, maybe I did overpay a little).

A lot of thought has gone into the user interface, and the result is a very pretty user interface, and a very easy first boot experience. When you first plug in, the TV plays an impressive animation, full of fast-moving blemish-free computer-generated effects. The set up process takes 7 screens (complete with uplifting background pop) of tuning through all the DTT broadcast channels, finding the Wi-Fi, and of course, downloading the latest software version. And within an hour, the TV has learned enough about your viewing habits to start to present favourites and recommendations, which improve over time.

All this would be rendered moot if there were nothing available to watch. But Samsung has addressed this by opening the smart TV platform to a wide variety of third party apps that give access to their own content, as well as Samsung’s own TV portal. The content catalogue when aggregated across all of these platforms is so vast, that there will always be something to watch. Within moments of first boot, Mum was able to find a Bengali movie on YouTube and recreate the desi filmi experience.

It’s not all good – there are a few areas that still need work. Samsung hasn’t solved the problem of search, which means that Mum will have to learn which programme is best watched on which platform. She will have to compute whether to record Dallas onto the hard drive or to watch on Demand 5 – as long as she has enough time this week. There is still no integrated view of content catalogue.

Integration with third party hardware is also a problem. The hard drive works seamlessly when setting a recording, but playing it back at a later date requires navigating a folder structure of meaningless technical labels, as if driving a computer. Not user friendly. Also, Samsung has implemented the HDMI-CEC function (under its branding Anynet+), but it doesn’t play nice with the Sony blu ray player (Sony calls it Bravia Sync), which is disappointing. So I’ll have to figure out how to programme the blu ray controls into the TV remote.

Not all apps are of the same quality – iPlayer goes to the top of the class for being able to stream HD with Dolby sound. Sony Entertainment Network has let the class down, and itself down, for not being able to stream even a low-res commercial without buffering to a standstill. So the computation of what to watch needs to take into account expected quality as well.

Finally, subscribing to all of the smart TV services would be very expensive indeed. So even though the potential content catalogue is vast, most people won’t subscribe to all. Therefore the computation of what to watch will also need to take into account whether it’s within the service package.

So far, this post reads like a product review of the Samsung TV that we chose. The thing I find most surprising is that you could apply many of these observations to competitor offerings also. The entire TV market has improved. Some TVs are smarter than others, some TVs are prettier than others, some TVs perform better than others. However, smart, pretty and high quality is the baseline expectation for TVs nowadays, and that can only be good for the consumer.

It’s good to see that new features are still being crammed in, but these features are well-implemented and easy to use – which means they actually get used. As these features get used, the flaws are illuminated, so TV manufacturers will have to continue to improve, as well as to innovate. And this can only be good for the consumer too.

One thing is the same after all these years: after installing it at home, Mum complained that the screen size was too small. I remember making that same complaint of the old family TV too, two decades ago. 

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