During a review of Samsung's spectacular new UA55F8000 TV which goes on sale in Australia this month we came to the conclusion that Samsung's latest Smart TV multimedia/online platform was so sophisticated that we couldn't possibly cover it properly within the boundaries of a normal TV review. So we decided to do a two part special review of the new software.
The most significant change from last year's Samsung multimedia TV interface is the way the new one introduces five separate 'home screens'. Recently Panasonic introduced a similar way of delivering content to a screen.
Samsung's approach even follows roughly similar themes for each home screen to those chosen by Panasonic. But there are also plenty of significant differences between the two rival platforms.
Samsung 2013 Smart TV Platform - On TV Screen
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When you first switch your new Samsung Smart TV on, the default homescreen is 'On TV'. This features a reduced version of the live picture from the AV input, or the broadcast you were watching when you last turned the TV off; a selection of six recommended 'currently showing' broadcast programmes to the right of the live picture; and a row of six 'coming up' programmes running along the screen's bottom.
All these quick TV links are presented with full photo-quality icons of the shows in question.
The really clever bit about this page, though, is that the programmes on show are those the TV thinks you're likely to be interested in, based on a record of your viewing habits. Yes, that's right: Samsung has gone all TiVo on us, using the programme data digital broadcasters send with every show to build up a viewing profile of your favourite genres, actors etc.
Obviously the effectiveness of this system will increase over time, as the set is able to record a more detailed record of your preferences. But even after a few days of use while doing this test it had started to get at least a feel for what sort of stuff we were watching via the built-in Freeview HD and Freesat HD tuners.
Samsung 2013 Smart TV Platform - Personalisation
What's more, since Samsung's Smart TVs can set up separate accounts for and even automatically respond to the presence of different individual users, the 'recommendations' feature can be personalised to the extent that the TV will track different viewing patterns for different logged in users separately.
For all its attractiveness there is something a little confusing about the layout of this home page though. The main reason for this, we think, is that it focusses too much on recommendations, when perhaps allowing space for an EPG programme list down the side might have been helpful. Strangely, by limiting the options available to just 12 recommended ones, you actually feel a little as if the TV is trying to dictate to you what to watch, rather than trying to make your life easier.
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To put it another way, unless you happen to want to watch one of the recommended programmes (which in the early days of getting the TV you most likely won't), the On TV page can sometimes feel more like a barrier to search than an aid.
Samsung 2013 Smart TV Platform - Other TV Search Aids
At least the On TV screen provides links to three more screens along the bottom that turn out to be extremely useful. The Guide one (which is only available if you're watching one of the tuners) calls up an attractive full electronic programme guide. The Timeline calls up a gorgeously graphics rich list of what's showing on your five favourite channels at each hour ahead from the current time. (Though again, it seems a shame you can't also scroll down on this screen to see all the other channels too.) A final link takes you to the library of recorded TV shows you've got stored on a USB HDD or memory stick.
The bottom line is that all the information you want can be accessed from the On TV menu sector, but we don't entirely agree with Samsung's decision to put Recommended services on the first screen.
Shifting across to the right from the On TV header page gets you to Movies & TV Shows - a menu essentially devoted to helping you find and quickly access on-demand content.
It aggregates content from - to quote Samsung - 'catalogues from selected partners who have worked with us on integrating with our service'. In principal this is a great idea, of course. The reality, though, as we'll discover, is a little more complex...
First, let's quickly discuss the layout of the Movies and TV page. On the left in a large box is a 'Featured' film apparently hand-picked by Samsung to represent a specific genre at a specific time - oddly at the time of writing the Feature titled on our review TV was Crazy Stupid Love. To the right of this in slightly smaller form are three Recommended films based again on an assessment of your favourite types of films, favourite actors, etc. And below these three titles are three smaller ones featuring recommended TV shows.
Again the page is extremely attractive, and will seem like the greatest system in the world if you actually want to watch one of the seven films/TV shows it shows. However, again the limit on the link available from the opening screen can also make you feel a little like you're being dictated to by the TV.
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Samsung 2013 Smart TV Platform - Information Underload
The lack of information on this page is also problematic. You just get the name of the film or show, without any hint of which online platform you'll be linking too if you decide to watch it. It can be pretty annoying if you click through on, say, a link to Gedeon Naudet's awesome 9/11 documentary only to find that it's a ?7.99 file available from Acetrax rather than being available under your Netflix or Lovefilm subscription.
Basically, the provenance of every title on every part of the Movies & TV Shows menus should be instantly obvious before you go through all the steps to starting the stream.
We understand the reasons why Samsung has decided not to present much information in the system's current form; it wants the system to appear seamless, and take all the legwork out of the usual on-demand content-finding process. But unfortunately while the concept is sound, the realities of the way we consume our streamed media doesn't totally fit with Samsung's approach in its current form
A further problem is that the content providers covered by the Movies and TV Shows page isn't comprehensive. It only covers content from a relatively small selection of content providers, leaving off a whole plethora of other video services available on Samsung's platform including, crucially, free ones like the Foxtel, iView and SBS Player. We can readily imagine this content source limitation leading to many users quickly giving up on using the page, choosing instead to just head for their dedicated content apps.
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Samsung 2013 Smart TV Platform - Making Recommendations
Clicking through onto specific titles from the Movies & TV Shows menus allows you to give thumbs up/thumbs down recommendations to each title, as well as going through to your Facebook or Twitter accounts so you can make a comment about the titles you're looking at. You also get a reasonable amount of background information on each title: synopsis, director, release date, genre, writers and so on.
The coolest trick, though, is the way you get a list along the bottom of the screen of 'connected' content that's similar in theme to what you've chosen to watch, or other material that the director, stars and other significant crew members have been involved in.
This is a great evidence of the excellent 'joined up' thinking at work behind the scenes of Samsung's new Smart TV app. It's just a shame the results are hamstrung by how few content providers it's working with.
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Along the bottom of the main Movies & TV Shows screen are a series of links, taking you to Favourites (stuff you've identified as being preferred content by pressing a 'heart' symbol when accessing it through the TV's menus); lots more 'Featured' (ie, paid for) content; a further Movie market showing many more film-only links; and a further TV market showing many more TV-only links. Each of the content submenus can have their content divided into 'What's New', 'Most Popular' and 'Genres'.
Samsung 2013 Smart TV platform: The Multimedia and Social Home Screens
Samsung 2013 Smart TV Platform - Photos, Videos & Music
Moving right from the potential-packed but ultimately flawed Movies & TV Shows menu gets you to Photos, Videos & Music. This aggregates your personal photo, music and video collections from any connected sources available - including any computers equipped with Samsung's AllShare software; SugarSync; Dropbox; SkyDrive; USB devices; and PTP picture storage devices like mobile phones or cameras.
The main portion of the screen is taken up with eight large icons showing stuff you've played most recently, while links along the bottom allow you to access your photos individually; your movies individually; your music individually; your recorded TV content individually; or all your content together in one big list.
This part of Samsung's home page system is pretty self-explanatory - and useful - versus the other two sections. Something which can't be said of the Social page you get to if you scroll to the right again.
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Samsung 2013 Smart TV Platform - Social Screen
The Social header kicks off with a big 'Friend's Picks' box which, research uncovers, shows any videos that might have been shared by your Facebook and Twitter friends. This box failed to work for us during our tests, alas, so we weren't fully able to get to grips with its potential. But from seeing photographs of how it generates content, we're not entirely convinced that it's the sort of content people really want to see highlighted right away on their social page.
After all, videos are just a small part of the social media experience, so it seemed to us that it would be much better just to have straight Twitter and/or Facebook timelines coming up right away when you enter the Social home page.
Again, the content aggregation system Samsung is employing with this Friend's Picks approach is very clever on a technical level. But as with the Movies & TV Shows aggregation menu, it's maybe a bit too clever for its own good, leaving you once more feeling like you're being told what you should be looking at rather than just being allowed to get straight to what you actually want to see.
A smaller window on the Social home page is a Recent Calls box for Skype, which really is a genuinely useful shortcut to using the camera built into the F8000 models for video calling friends and family.
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Samsung 2013 Smart TV Platform - YouTube App
Further links along the bottom provide access to What's Hot (essentially a list of the 50 most 'trending' videos on Youtube), a separate Video Call directory listing all your Skype contacts; and a Friend's page that presents the icons and names of all the people you follow on Facebook and Twitter. This again sounds clever in principal, but in reality it feels rather cumbersome. After all, you only get 14 friend icons on the screen at once, yet many people follow hundreds, even thousands of people on Twitter and Facebook.
In short, the more we used - or tried to use - the Social menu, the more we felt that we really just wanted to have simple jump-off icons to the standard Twitter and Facebook apps, and their usual way of presenting things.
This seems a sensible point to wrap up part one of our exhaustive look at Samsung's new Smart TV interface.