TVs get smarter, but not smart enough
It makes sense on paper: Add a microprocessor to a television set, throw in high-speed Internet, and you've got a TV for surfing the Web, playing video games, and streaming favorite shows. That's the idea behind the "smart TV," which is increasingly dominating the lineup of televisions available in home electronics stores.
And it does seem pretty smart — until you get the darn thing home.
I'm on my second smart TV, and after a day or two, I nearly gave up on trying to figure it out. But persistence paid off. With a fair-to-middling speech recognition feature and some halfway decent apps, our new Samsung 55-inch LED set is a big step up from the Samsung smart TV my wife bought four years ago. Still, its melding of Internet and television remains confusing and inconsistent.
Samsung isn't the only company looking to wise up its TVs. You will find similar features from other major manufacturers, including Panasonic and LG Electronics. Indeed, that's one source of smart TV confusion — each manufacturer is making a smart TV its own way.
Collectively they share similar features and similar flaws: clumsy controls, spotty voice recognition, erratic performance, and limited apps. Now, it may seem like I'm picking on Samsung, but that's the one sitting in my living room.
Figuring out the new Samsung took effort and persistence. It came with a skimpy user's guide; there's a more detailed manual online. It would be even better if Samsung included a USB drive stuffed with video tutorials showing how to make things work.
I gradually learned how to find upcoming TV shows, and program the set to tune them in automatically; rent or buy movies over the Internet and stream online audio; and browse the Web or hang out with my Facebook friends.
The new TV has a decent dual-core processor that performs much better than our original smart TV. But it also has Samsung's new Smart Touch Control, a remote that replaces the familiar numbered push-button version with a touchpad and a microphone. Neither of them are entirely satisfactory. Try changing channels by writing the channel number on the pad with a fingertip. A nice idea in theory but it hardly ever worked for me. You can activate an on-screen controller that contains all the buttons Samsung left out, then use the touchpad to press them remotely. But it's a clumsy alternative.
The speech recognition works a lot better, and was a good way to get at the TV's smart features. Say you want to watch an episode of "The Walking Dead." Press the microphone button and tell the remote. At the bottom of the screen there are listings of the next showings on cable channel AMC. You also get a link to past episodes that you can watch on the Internet service Vudu. Download the Vudu app from Samsung, install it, and tune in.
Pretty cool, but far from perfect. The TV also has an app for Netflix, which also offers previous seasons of "The Walking Dead." But the search didn't locate these shows.
There were other speech-based blunders. I could tell the remote to tune in NBC, but it could never find ESPN or Fox News. When asked to add "CBS Evening News" to the viewing schedule, the TV refused, even though I had successfully scheduled other programs. Maybe I didn't ask correctly; use the wrong words in the wrong order, and the smart TV can't understand me.
The software apps are a mixed bag, ranging from the cheesy — an aquarium simulator — to the pretty good, like Amazon.com's Cloud Player, for listening to my online music collection. There's also a browser and a Facebook app, but forget about serious Web surfing or messaging. TVs are lousy for that sort of thing, though the Facebook app is good for displaying your friends' videos and photos on the big screen.
But since I created the online account in my name, the TV only offers my Facebook friends, my YouTube videos, and my Amazon music. My wife is out of luck, because Samsung doesn't provide a way for each family member to create a personalized profile, with her own selection of apps. A really smart TV would fix that.
Smart TVs still haven't caught fire with the public, and the new Samsung reminded me why. It doesn't matter how smart a TV is, if it makes the user feel stupid.