Review: Samsung's Smart TV Comes So Close To Being Perfect

Written by Tony Ibrahim     05/06/2012 | 06:44 | Category name i.e.TV & DISPLAY

Samsung's first SmartTV is here. But is this dual core, voice controlled Slim LED set worth the upgrade? Or should you hang on to your current set for the next gen?

Design

If you had to pick a single word to articulate the design of Samsung's ES8000, that word would be 'symmetrical'. Its 55" fascia is a wholesome black that contrasts strikingly with its fine metal bezel. The bezel is the same consistent width right around the border, except for the top where it subtly conceals a camera and microphone combo. To retain this sense of symmetry, Samsung have a similarly proportioned lip at the bottom of the TV donning the brands logo. Turn the TV on and this transparent element glows a soft blue, beating as if it's alive.


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The TV's stand is different to those on offer from its competitors. Adhering to the balance prevalent in the rest of the TV's design, it braces the TV up—not from the middle—but from either side. As a result you can't swivel the screen around, but because it is so skinny and light, most people will be able to gently prop it up with one hand, swivelling it whole for that optimal viewing angle. I dare say this practise requires no more effort than altering the screen angle on most 55 inch TVs.

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Interface

Samsung's interface has been split into two sections. The first is the run of the mill settings, and the company has done a good job at presenting sophisticated options in a friendly (and attractive) interface.  

There's a myriad of support options, including a detailed e-Manual, a self-diagnosis wizard and Samsung's contact details. An interesting find under the support tab is an option titled 'remote management:' a feature that allows Samsung support staff to remotely access your TV and troubleshoot it themselves.


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Samsung's SmartHub Dashboard

The second is their SmartHub portal, which is tasked with the job of managing online applications and TV features. From this interface, you can access the 5MP camera, browser, source options, program guides and more. It's split into three parts: at the top is a section dedicated to picture-in-picture viewing and premium content; the section below houses a rotisserie of default Samsung applications; and at the base is a series of 'desktop-style' shortcuts which alternate from one page to the next, a little like an iPhone's home screen.

In terms of user customisation, the SmartHub dashboard is rigid, only allowing users to change the background (users can pick one of five preloaded wallpapers only) and rearrange desktop shortcuts.

Although the application markets of all SmartTVs are in their infancy, Samsung has a strong portfolio of local and international content that spans a variety of genres. BigPond TV equips the ES8000 with localised sporting events (AFL, NRL and more), while Ninemsn handles localised news and Quickflix streams DVDs on demand to the TV. These are but a few notable services.

These content services are streamed effortlessly, with the ES8000 initially identifying your internet speed and moderating the picture quality to suit it. This way, it streams fluid video (albeit at compromised quality) rather than a few jittery high definition frames.

In addition are TV-tailored applications that are organised into Video, Game, Sports, Lifestyle, Information and education categories. By our count it has just under 400 dedicated apps, with the number expected to continually grow. It's fluent in social networks, featuring Facebook, Twitter and GoogleTalk, and a Social TV application will contextualise the program you're watching with relevant social updates.

The ES8000 is a jovial television that will mingle with a variety of DLNA devices. On board is a file manager that continues the tradition of looking attractive, but lacks intuition. If you plug in a hard disk drive or a USB stick, you'll have to manually nominate the source (USB), identify the type of media you want to browse (picture, video or music) and then sift through a bare bone file manager to locate the 'file.' This is an area that should've been refined, elevating the TV from dim-witted browser into a multimedia machine.

Also showing signs of immaturity is the TV's browser. Without a conventional keyboard and mouse, navigating the web on this TV is a succession of minor annoyances. It inherits a basic layout of the common computer browser, but without the ease-of-use. It takes time to recognise tabs and navigating via remote—or even through gestures—is inefficient and inconsistent. Even when you do plug in a keyboard, it takes a lot of time before the TV recognises your keystrokes, suffering from lag.


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Samsung's Browser

Playing flash videos on the expansive 55 inch screen is a real treat, adding a theatrical touch to even the most mundane infomercials. However, locating the video requires users to navigate through the browser, and that requires more effort than it should.

In short, the browser represents future potential. It has a healthy layout, is equipped with all the functionality you'll need, but without future updates that streamline operations, it will be a chore to use.

Smart Control

Shifting its focus away from the rage-inducing TV remote, Samsung has been investing in more organic ways of interacting with their new TVs. The ES8000 uses face recognising software, motion control and voice control technology to give it a natural texture.

Some applications have taken advantage of the facial recognition software, logging users into their account effortlessly by avoiding the tedious task of text input. Skype is one of the better examples, recognising my face (with glasses on) more often than not. However, at times it struggled with different factors, including lighting, attire and where you are positioned, proving most proficient when you're directly in front of the TV.

Whereas LG has employed motion gestures through a Wii-like remote, Samsung has bet on their built in camera and invite people to use their bare hands. To let the TV know you want to use motion gestures, you simply have to outstretch your hand and open your palm. The TV generates a cursor, from which you can navigate by moving your hand, return to a page by waving anti-clockwise and select an option by clenching your fist. For the odd task, this is a fun way to use your everyday TV and is beneficial when you can't be bothered looking for the remote control. For anything that requires text input—or for elaborate applications—motioning your TV becomes tiring.  

The third way a user can navigate the ES8000 is by speaking to it. Saying 'Hi TV' will prep the TV for following cues, and from thereon you qualify what it is you'd like to do. The TV has an aptitude for accurately identifying what it is you'd like to do, and there are times where using voice is really practical. On the other hand, the act of continuously qualifying your intentions does grow tedious. Here's an example of turning the TV off: Hi TV > TV Power Off> Ok.

Like the browser, the Smart Interaction options are promising. Although they're not bad, their functionality will blossom with addition software support from Samsung.

The ES8000 comes with two remote controls—one featuring a touchpad and microphone—with the consolation of an app which can be used on an Android or iOS smartphone.

Picture
 
Even though the ES8000 is host to a slew of SmartTV goodies, at the end of the day its primary duty is to broadcast TV, and it carries out this responsibility admirably. 


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Videos with vibrant colours are faithfully rendered using a vast colour gamut that subtly gradates one tone from the next. The ES8000 crystallises detail, balancing complex tones to discern the foreground from the background in 2D images, and this quality is maintained despite rapid motion. Admittedly it does have its limits, momentarily reached during a Blu-ray viewing of Avatar's climactic battle scene, but trailing ghosts are apparent for just a few frames and rarely occur.

The display's greatest gripe concerns its articulation of blacks. Watching TV on the ES8000, you get the impression Samsung is struggling to balance its exceptional brightness with wholesome blacks because it is so prominently backlit. They've excelled in colour articulation and image sharpness, but compared the black tones of plasma, there's still a little more wanting.


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Samsung's 3D is carried out with the company's active shutter glasses. Despite the heavier, battery-powered glasses (which do make you look moronic), the 3D viewing experience is a pleasant one. Crosstalk, which is the residual overlapping of two images, rarely ever happens. In addition, the TV's exceptional brightness also helps colours retain their enthusiasm.

Across the board, the ES8000 offers exceptional viewing angles with little discolouration or image saturation.

Sound

As the dimensions of TVs get thinner and thinner, the task of reproducing faithful, voluminous sound becomes harder and harder. Audio in the ES8000 is pretty decent, especially considering how fine the panel is. When cranked up sound retains its clarity—proving ideal for dialogue—and does cater decently to the high end. However, the low end is flat and mid tones could do with some more volume.

Truth be told, with a TV this striking, expansive and eloquent in display, skimping out on a complementing surround sound system would be an injustice.

Evolution Kit

A feature unique to the ES8000 is Samsung's 'evolution kit'. It is a port that allows users to update the picture quality, speed and contents of your TV, and according to Samsung an evolution kit will be released per year over four years, helping the ES8000 fight off obsolescence.

Verdict

As a TV, the ES8000 is one of the best. The Slim LED panel delivers an enthralling visual experience and doesn't come at the expense of stunning design. The integrated camera and the evolution kit give it an advantage over its rivals and are examples of Samsung's hardware expertise.

However, as a Smart TV its software needs a little more wit. The browser and multimedia player are two areas that can be improved, and although it has a slew of decent interactive technologies, the company hasn't mastered any of them. The ES8000 has the potential to be the best smart TV, but its fate rests in Samsung's software support.

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Pros & Cons

Pros:

Exceptional design; In-built camera; Evolution Kit; Great support;

Cons:

Peripheral connectivity; Half-cooked browser;