We continue with our in-depth two part review of Samsung's new 2013 Smart TV Platform. To read part one please click here.
The all new 2013 Smart TV Platform from Samsung is by far more useful than the Social homescreen mentioned at the end of part one of our review. The new platform provides a beautifully presented window of all the apps installed on the TV, as well as links to other apps stored on Samsung's servers that are available to download.
Samsung 2013 Smart TV Platform - Apps Home Screen
In fact, the Apps homescreen quickly became our most used menu, as we found it to offer more straightforward access to the likes of the BBC iPlayer, Love Film, Netflix, Facebook and Twitter - making it much more handy and direct a route to the specific content we wanted than the Social and Movies & TV Shows homescreens.
Especially of note here is the discovery of an interesting Social TV app that allows you to Tweet, Skype or Facebook while still watching TV - exactly the sort of thing we wanted the Social homescreen to do!
Considering Samsung's new multiple homescreen system as a whole, our overall feeling is that while it's unfeasibly clever, it's also a bit inscrutable. The TV does so much automatically, behind the scenes, that it can actually leave you feeling lost at times.
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Couple this with the fact that, unlike Panasonic's My Home Screen system, there's very little scope for customisation, and you're ultimately left feeling like you're battling with a system that makes perfect sense to Samsung engineers but has gone beyond something a normal end user can fully appreciate.
Samsung 2013 Smart TV Platform - The Evolution Kit
At this point we should mention Samsung's unique Evolution Kit system. Introduced initially with last year's ES8000 and ES7000 TVs, we weren't entirely clear about what the Evolution Kits might deliver at the time. Now that the first ones have appeared for the ES models though, we can say that they're actually rather brilliant, as they allow you to update your TV in full with the next generation of interface as Samsung makes it available. In a TV world that's changing as fast as the current one, this sort of future-proofing is hugely attractive.
Our next port of call with Samsung's new interface is the different systems Samsung has provided this year for finding your way through all of its complex menus and home pages. The 'headline grabbers' here are undoubtedly the second generation versions of the gesture and voice control systems Samsung introduced to much fanfare - but a relatively tepid critical reaction - last year.
Both systems have been much improved. Where the gesture system is concerned, the TV's built-in camera recognises the little wave of your hand needed to activate the system more readily than last year, and the cursor responds to movements of your hands much more tightly. Being able to 'air swipe' through lists of icons and the five main Home Screens just by swishing your hand in front of you is a great touch, and you don't need to move your hand and arm over that much distance to achieve significant moves of the cursor.
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Samsung 2013 Smart TV Platform - Gesture and Voice Controls
Finally, the new gesture system is mercifully much more forgiving when it comes to the degree of leeway it gives you when you're trying to select an on-screen option.
As for the voice system, the biggest improvement concerns the engine's 'vocabulary' level. While you had to bark rather stilted commands at last year's equivalent TVs, this time round the system can parse much more complicated sentences, with the effect that you're able to talk to your TV far more naturally than you could before.
Also important is the shift in the focus of the voice recognition system towards content searching rather than merely operating the TV. This makes total sense, as having a system that's able to respond to a phrase like 'Show me Angelina Jolie movies' by generating lists of all the films it can find with Jolie in from a scan of all its various content bases is clearly much more useful and time-saving than simply being able to say 'volume up' or 'channel up'.
Both systems have been much improved. Where the gesture system is concerned, the TV's built-in camera recognises the little wave of your hand needed to activate the system more readily than last year, and the cursor responds to movements of your hands much more tightly. Being able to 'air swipe' through lists of icons and the five main Home Screens just by swishing your hand in front of you is a great touch, and you don't need to move your hand and arm over nearly as far a distance to achieve significant moves of the cursor.
Samsung 2013 Smart TV Platform - Gesture and Voice Control, Touchpad Remote Control and Second Screen Support
Samsung 2013 Smart TV Platform - Gesture and Voice Controls cont.
For all their improvements, we actually didn't actually use either the voice or gesture controls very often. For starters, despite the improvements the gesture control system is still extremely tiring to use, with soreness setting in after just a few seconds of using the system. We also still regularly suffered moments where the gesture control system failed to recognise one of our 'close hands to select' gestures, even with light levels in our test room set high enough that the camera should easily be able to see what we were doing.
As for the voice control, the system still fairly regularly failed to accurately understand something we were saying, and we'd also argue that the way some aspects of the menus have to be structured to accommodate voice command access can make them feel ultimately more long-winded than just using a remote control.
Samsung is keen to point out that the voice and gesture controls uniquely enable you to use its Smart TVs without needing a physical remote control. This could be handy if the dog's run off with your handset or, like us, you're prone to wandering around the house remote in hand, and then leaving it somewhere obscure.
There are also times - usually involving inputting text into search fields - where the voice control can have its uses, provided you don't mind wrestling with its frequent misunderstandings.
Samsung 2013 Smart TV Platform - Touchpad Remote Control
However, overall, despite the improvements, we still feel that the gesture and voice controls remain not only pretty niche in their usefulness, but also arguably an extra complication rather than a way to make life easier. Highlighting the frustrations of the gesture and voice control systems is the groovy new touchpad remote Samsung is shipping with its upper-tier TVs this year.
This improves in every way over the touchpad remote Samsung introduced last year. The touchpad section is much more tactile and much more sensibly calibrated in terms of its responsiveness. The application of 'slider' bars around the touchpad's edges so you can shift instantly between pages is a great touch too, and the button layout is excellent. The way the sparsely-buttoned remote interfaces with a new on-screen menu system accessed via the 'More' key also works a treat.
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Add to all this the glorious weight, balance and finish of the touchpad remote and it's little wonder that it almost immediately became our default 55F8000 controller. Last year, by comparison, we found ourselves falling back for the most part on the standard remote design that was included alongside the touchpad model. Samsung has included a normal remote with the F8000 models too, although we hardly ever felt compelled to use it.
Samsung 2013 Smart TV Platform - Second Screen support
The last key element of Samsung's latest Smart interface we need to check out is the way it liaises with second screen devices via Samsung's Smart View app. And here again things are a bit hit and miss.
For starters, there isn't currently the level of feature parity across Samsung's Android and iOS apps that we'd really expect to find in this day and age. Samsung assures us that the currently lagging iOS app will be raised to something at least similar in abilities to the Android one, but we can't help but think that all apps should be equal from day one.
Focusing on the Android platform, given that this is the most fully developed system at the time of writing, the most impressive feature without doubt is the way you can stream not only what's showing on the TV screen to your mobile device (even it's coming in from an AV input rather than the tuners), but also a different broadcast channel to the one being watching on the TV. Just press the video screen in Samsung's Smart View app and the image is overlaid with two separate volume and programme controls: one for the TV and one for the app. Switching to a different channel on the second device really couldn't be easier.
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This is the main feature you don't currently get with the iOS app. You can only watch the same programme on your Apple device that you're watching on the TV screen.
Samsung 2013 Smart TV Platform - Second Screen Features, Rival Apps and Verdict
Samsung 2013 Smart TV Platform - Second Screen Features
The Android platform allows you to throw your phone or table screen onto the TV in its entirety - Screen Mirroring, as it's called. This can be quite fun if you're wanting to, say, play a game like Dragonvale on a bigger screen. And the quality of the video reproduction from your phone on the TV screen is remarkably good.
The only pity is that the feature isn't available through the Smart View app. Instead you have to enable Screen Mirroring on the TV, then enable S3 AllShare Cast on the Android phone.
You can also share all the multimedia stored on your Android or iOS device on your TV. However, as with the screen mirroring, the software for this is not built into the Smart View app, which is rather frustrating. Instead you need to use the AllShare Cast app on your Android phone, or with iOS the situation is even more of a pain, as you need to download the third party Zappo.tv app to enjoy the full version of Samsung Media TV - an app that costs ?1.99.
All this requirement for separate apps for separate second-screen functions is messy and complicated, and enough to seriously confuse many mainstream users we believe. And it's made worse by the fact that so far as we can see, none of the information you need to find all the necessary apps and functionality is provided in any easy to find way. We only found everything out via a huge stream of emails with Samsung's UK technical labs.
Samsung 2013 Smart TV Platform - Rival Apps
This is all a far cry from the simplicity of the Viera Remote 2 app for Panasonic's latest TVs, which brings multimedia playback and screen sharing into one easy-to-follow app, while also already delivering broadly similar functionality across both the iOS and Android versions of its apps.
We missed, too, the sheer intuitiveness of the Swipe and Share system of Panasonic's app when it comes to shifting content between the TV and our second device.
To be clear about what we're saying here, Samsung's second-screen support is strong overall in terms of the quality of its video streaming and the amount of features available. It's just a shame that accessing all of those features is made so complicated by the way Samsung hasn't consolidated more functionality into a single app.
There really is an exceptional amount of stuff going on under the bonnet of Samsung's latest Smart TV engine. And the boldness of Samsung's attempts to streamline the ever-tricky process of finding content amid all the potential sources available these days is doubtless a vision of the future.
The fact that the Smart engine can be updated by Evolution Kits on F7000 and F8000 TVs to keep up with future iterations is hugely appealing too, and Samsung's Smart TV content is still outstanding, especially when it comes to video streaming platforms.
However, we continue to be unconvinced about the viability of gesture and voice controls in a TV environment. Also at the moment some aspects of the interface feel rather obscure and confusing, potentially providing a barrier between the user and some of the features the Smart TV system can deliver.
We couldn't help but think overall that it would have been nice if Samsung had taken a leaf out of Panasonic's My Home Screen book by a) allowing users a bit more freedom in how the main menus are built, and b) providing a built-in tutorial to make it easier for users to get the most out all the high-tech goodies Samsung has to offer.