A few months back, we finally replaced our 2007-era Sony SXRD rear projection 1080p HDTV with a newer Samsung LCD/LED model. Not only do we find Sammy’s picture quality light years ahead of the Sony–even though it’s still “only” 1080p and not 4K—the new set shipped with all the bells and whistles of a modern “Smart TV.” In fact, it’s hard to find a large, high quality television nowadays that doesn’t have some sort of apps built-in. So whether you want them or not, you’re probably getting something.
Samsung’s Smart TV Hub is impressive, featuring one of the nicer TV UIs out there right now. While the LG WebOS TV unveiled at CES may be a contender, I’d say Samsung is probably the most sophisticated TV UI at the moment. It definitely has a lot of features and the Smart Hub is divvied up into five main screens: On TV (aka TV guide); Apps; Social; Photos, Video & Music (aka DLNA); and Movies & TV Shows.
The “On TV” guide screen is nice if you have over-the-air (OTA) reception, but mostly useless if you use a cable box since the guide is redundant…and probably not as comprehensive. If you use it to navigate shows it can learn your preferences and recommend what to watch. If you have a cable box you can control it with Samsung TV remote and include IR blaster (which may depend on model). You can also program other devices like a Blu-ray player and surround receiver—which also has ARC (Audio Return Channel)—to work with the remote. HDMI-CEC (what Samsung calls AnyNet+) works as advertised. We tried but gave up on the Samsung TV guide and fell back to using the Verizon FiOS remote for watching cable TV as well.
Our TV came with one of Samsung’s new Bluetooth “Smart Touch Control” remotes that replaces all number and navigation keys with a single touchpad and on screen menus. You use swipes to navigate on screen menus. It works well, but as I mentioned above we went back to using our FiOS cable box remote when watching broadcast TV. Our TV also came with hand gesture and voice recognition features—think of the Xbox Kinect but even less useful. We turned both of those features off.
The “Apps” screen is the center of the Smart Hub. The Samsung Apps store has the standard apps like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Vudu, HBO Go, Pandora, Plex, even Verizon and Time Warner apps (which only work if you have their cable subscriptions). The M-Go Ultraviolet service is also there, among a few dozen other video, music, and content apps. Many of the apps you’d find on Roku are there, and Vevo was recently added too.
We still use our Roku 2 XS at times, even if we have the same apps on the Samsung. The Roku UI is slick—maybe or maybe not slicker than Samsung’s UI—but the apps themselves are often slightly better to use on Roku. That may be changing, slowly, as Netflix just updated their Samsung app to be a bit more modern looking. The universal search on Roku is more powerful and searches more apps than the “universal search” on the Samsung, which barely searches anything at the moment. Performance-wise both our Samsung and Roku are about the same. We have a quad core processor in the Samsung (ours came with the 2013 Evolution Kit and is upgradable too) and have the older Roku 2 XS. Your mileage may vary.
The “Social” screen is neat if you attach your Twitter and Facebook accounts. You can watch the videos that people posted to your social networks on the big screen. Sadly, it only shows last four media posts from all networks and I can’t figure out how to browse more than those four posts. So it’s a cool feature but marginally useful with only four posts showing. Skype integration is also on the Social screen—either via built-in camera or a proprietary add on camera depending on which model.
The “Photos, Video & Music” screen can browse local or network files. The DLNA support is quite comprehensive. You can browse network DLNA shares and we were able to open most anything on our DLNA-enabled home server. The Samsung DLNA implementation also supports the network SiliconDust HDHomeRun Prime tuner which provides DLNA streams of digital cable to compliant devices. The Samsung can stream and render the digital cable—we have a FiOS CableCard in the HDHomeRun Prime—at HD quality with Dolby 5.1 sound.
SiliconDust is supposedly working on a Samsung Smart Hub app for a better browsing experience. They had one for the 2012 series TVs but for some reason it’s not available for the 2013/2014 TVs yet. I await with bated breath.
What’s also cool is that you can also use a mobile app to browse the DLNA channels on your phone or tablet and “Play to” the Samsung TV on the network. This works for DLNA content on our server as well as the DLNA channels from the HDHomeRun. This can be a more efficient way to browse and play DLNA content. The TV-based media/DLNA UI is okay but cumbersome when you have a lot of content to scroll through. We’re using the Media House app for Android.
Another cool feature we stumbled upon is that you can play to the Netflix and YouTube apps on the Samsung from a phone or tablet—exactly the same way it works with a Chromecast. Netflix and Google/YouTube have been working on the Discovery And Launch (DIAL) protocol, which is also part of Chromecast, and that’s now built into Netflix and YouTube apps on smart TVs and Blu-ray players. You use the little “play to” icon on your mobile phone or tablet app to play to the TV. Just like Chromecast, you can use the Chrome browser on Windows or Mac to play YouTube videos to the TV (Netflix doesn’t work this way). However you cannot share a Chrome tab or screen that way and other Chromecast-enabled apps don’t seem to work at the moment.
That said, Samsung has an implementation of Miracast (that Samsung calls “AllShare”) which works from a WiDi/Miracast enabled Windows or Android ultrabook or tablet to mirror your screen or act as a second screen. It can connect the display of the device to the TV without wires. However, in our experience it does not always connect or stay connected. Using a Rocketfish Miracast adapter on the same TV works flawlessly, so we’re wondering if there’s something up with Samsung’s implementation or a bug in our TV.
Lastly, the “Movies & TV Shows” screen is an aggregated suggestion view of a few of the built-in video apps like Netflix, Vudu, Hulu Plus, Cinema Now, Blockbuster, and a few others. It allows you to browse differnet types of movies and TV shows via what’s popular, genres, and if you’ve marked items as favorites. We honestly have not used this feature at all—I assumed it was just a proprietary Samsung store—but it looks like this section has promise. IF: they add search—I can’t find it anywhere, and enabled more services like Amazon VOD/Prime.
While we have no real complaints with the TV UI, picture, or performance, there is one little thing we should mention: Our TV has four HDMI ports. We can connect a surround receiver to it and pass audio via an HDMI (ARC) and/or optical cable. However, audio pass through from HDMI sources to the surround receiver is stereo only, not surround. Our 6-year-old Sony LCD HDTV has surround audio pass through, but this brand new Samsung does not. Apparently this is a known issue with some manufacturers, including Samsung. Sony is one of the few that do correct audio pass through.
We ended up hooking our Blu-ray player and Roku directly to the receiver via HDMI, and the cable box using optical cable to the receiver. Otherwise true Dolby 5.1 would not get piped through the TV to the surround receiver. As far as I know, there is no way around this.
Overall, the Samsung Smart Hub is a slick interface that likely fulfills the internet streaming needs of most people who buy Samsung TVs without requiring a separate streaming box like a Roku. Most internet streaming content is available, local and DLNA file access is built in, and it’s upgradable (at least on some models). I would love to see better search and discovery features as well as better integration with cable TV guides and DVRs, but highly doubt the latter will ever happen (see: Google TV). All-in-all, I’d likely recommend a Samsung Smart TV to anyone looking for interactive features built in that will last for at least a few years, even if a separate streaming box is still probably a better long term choice. With the Samsung Evolution kit this may—MAY—be something that simplifies internet TV viewing for many people, if Samsung keeps up their updates and backwards compatibility.