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Tech Lab

LG’s smart TV not nearly smart enough

When it comes to television sets, I don’t ask for much. Just give me a crisp, clear picture, reasonably decent sound quality, and controls I can understand without remedial classes at Roxbury Community College.

So I’m reasonably happy with the 55-inch TV by LG Electronics that I’ve been testing recently. Perhaps I’d feel differently if I had to pay for the set, which carries a $3,600 base price, though you can find it elsewhere for a still steep $2,800. Still, for straight-up TV viewing, this big, brilliant set is as good as it gets.

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But the LG is supposed to be a “smart TV,” beefed up with a dual-core processor, a Wi-Fi Internet connection, easy access to online video sources like Netflix and YouTube, and a remote that lets you control the set through hand motions and even speech commands. Just what we need — a TV that seamlessly integrates traditional programs with Internet content. Well, we still need one; this LG isn’t it.

Still, the LG set is quite a dazzler. Thanks to the use of very small light-emitting diodes to light up the screen, it’s a remarkably thin set — an inch and a half at its thickest — and much lighter than I’d have expected for a 55-incher. It has a better-than-average sound system, too, including its own subwoofer.

The set is 3-D capable, in the best way. LG uses a passive 3-D system, in which all the high-tech hardware is built into the set. So you don’t get those bulky, battery-powered glasses that come with many other sets. Instead, the TV comes with six pairs of cheap “passive” glasses, similar to those used in movie theaters. They are comfortable even when worn atop standard eyeglasses. And though I think 3-D is a trivial gimmick, it seems a very attractive gimmick on the LG set.

Better still, two video gamers who want to play in “co-op” mode can set up the TV so that each sees a different picture on the screen.

The same system that generates 3-D images will instead flash two different 2-D images on the screen at very high speed. Each viewer can see the image of his choice. This amazing gimmick requires special glasses that did not come with this set. But I’ve tried it on another LG TV, and it works remarkably well.

The LG set’s app selection is limited, and where is the Pandora music service?

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But I mainly wanted to check out the smart TV features.

When Internet software apps began showing up on TVs several years ago, they were sluggish and hard to use. The LG set does a lot better with dedicated, well designed apps for YouTube, Netflix, and even Facebook. It’s no fun trying to type out Facebook status messages with a remote. But reading them on a big screen is a pleasant experience. However, the app selection is sadly limited, and where’s everybody’s favorite, the Pandora music service?

Even so, the best smart TV service comes from Microsoft Corp. Its excellent Kinect device for the XBox 360 game console lets you control apps with hand motions and voice commands. You can order up movies via Netflix with a sweep of the hand or a few words, or get on-demand videos from the Comcast cable TV service the same way.

Sure enough, the world’s TV makers vowed to build the same capabilities into their sets. So how are they doing? In LG’s case, not so hot.

Kinect uses a built-in video camera to track your physical movements. With LG, you use the Magic Motion Remote, a handheld device that projects a mouse-like pointer onto the screen. You aim at icons and push buttons to activate them. It works OK, but the remote is one more device to misplace.

As for speech control . . . well, it doesn’t control very much. Basically, it helps you search for Internet content. You first use the remote’s pointer to launch search, point and click again to start voice search, ask for what you want — “Clint Eastwood,” for instance — and then wait for the software to translate your words. It’s quite accurate, usually. Then two more clicks to confirm the translation and begin the search.

And after all that clicking, you only get listings of Clint Eastwood videos on the Internet, at sites like Netflix and YouTube. The search feature isn’t integrated with the cable TV listings, as a truly smart TV system would be. That’s largely the fault of cable companies, which haven’t given hardware makers easy access to their channel guides. But until this happens, smart TVs won’t be nearly smart enough to suit me.

I’m not heartbroken. Give me an old-school remote and a Bears-Packers game, and this LG would suit me just fine. Still, it’s a tantalizing hint of how much smarter our TVs could be.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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