Review: Smart TV from Samsung, LG, Sony

Smart TVs are the way to go for home entertainment because they help to connect your television to the internet and even your mobile devices. But just how good are the systems available on the market? We check out the offerings from Samsung, LG and Sony. 

The operating system (OS) war has moved to a new battleground – the living room. At least four major TV manufacturers each support a different smart TV OS in their 2015 TV models – and they are looking to dominate the space in your TV console.

Unlike regular TV sets, smart TVs come with built-in computer processors and a Wi-Fi receiver that allows you to surf the Internet. Like a tablet or a mobile phone, they come with a smart interface loaded with apps that allow you to play games and even check your 4D results. Some even feature built-in cameras.

Some smart TV apps come with the television, while others have to be downloaded from the app store. The great thing about these apps is that they’re free and there’s a wide variety to choose from. Games, news sites, and apps for Youtube and Twitter can all be downloaded through your TV set.

Korean electronics giant LG continues to use its Webos platform, which it licensed from US tech firm HP in 2013, to power its smart TVs. The OS had been designed for smartphones and tablets, and was introduced to LG’s TVs last year.

Samsung uses the Tizen OS, which it created for mobile devices such as phones and watches. Sony has adopted Google’s Android TV platform, which is an established one.

Based on Android 5.0 Lollipop, Android TV is a conduit to the thousands of apps available in the Google Play store. Panasonic uses Mozilla’s Firefox OS. The OS was released for use in phones in 2013, but has not been offered in mobile devices meant for the local market.

These types of software are designed for more powerful mobile devices, and reviews by The Straits Times show that the interface on the new 2015 TVs is smoother and much faster, compared with that of smart TV models from last year. But, like last year’s models, this year’s smart TV platforms are still limited in their features when it comes to local units.

Unlike their counterparts in Europe and the US, smart TV features here may offer some games, apps and Internet connectivity, but key features in the form of content streaming apps such as Netflix and Pandora are restricted by regional availability. Luckily, at least three of the four TV brands have workarounds that enable local users to access the full features of their smart TV OS. Social media manager Gerald Chan, 31, waited for Sony, Samsung and LG to launch their 2015 smart TV models, and studied their features before choosing Sony’s 55-inch W800c Full HD Android TV.

It was the compatibility with streaming software Plex, which he uses to stream family photos and videos, as well as overall functionality of his many Android phones and tablets, that drew him to the platform. “It has the best chance of continuing with the ecosystem and developers are also more likely to build on the platform,” explains the father of one.

Meanwhile, retailers are hoping this move will spur TV sales. Research company GFK Asia says over 93,300 non-smart TVs were sold here this year, compared with 152,400 smart TVs which are more expensive. Alvin Lee, managing director of electronics retailer Audio House, notes that there are cost-conscious customers who just want feature-free TVs. This is because some of them have Android set-top boxes that are able to provide the smart features. A smart TV has an app store and requires an Internet connection.

“Generally, the choice of OS is still not a major purchase consideration factor,” says a spokesman for electronics retail giant Courts. “But it has already generated interest among the more tech-savvy customers, who are keen on the wider range of apps and compatibility with mobile devices, such as screen mirroring. The Android OS seems to be the most popular choice.”

Here’s how the user experiences of these smart TV platforms differ.

SAMSUNG WITH TIZON OS

The palm-size remote offers gesture control via a pointer, on top of the directional buttons. Press the Smart button on the remote and a taskbar-like menu pops up, giving you access to the TV’s smart apps. Tapping on the main menu takes you to the app store.

Pressing the Menu button gives you the traditional options, such as switching between the different sources and accessing the TV’s main settings. If you prefer a traditional numerical controller, there is one available as an on-screen pop-up, which you can use with the pointer.

Where Samsung’s OS shines is in setting the TV to receive content-streaming services. While all three systems are limited by the range of content-streaming apps due to geographical restrictions, Samsung offers the easiest way to access those apps.

Streaming apps such as Netflix and Amazon Instant Video offer 4K movies and TV shows via their apps. These come pre-installed in markets where the service is being offered. Singapore users just have to set their 4K TVs with the US as the location.

LG WITH WEBOS

LG was the first major TV manufacturer to use a mobile operating system to power its TVs last year. Its Webos software has been updated this year to wthe faster Webos 2.0.

The premise of the OS is integration. It is very easy to navigate the apps, other connected devices and TV channels – all from a single menu.

LG smart TVs also come with a gesture remote controller, which allows you to move your remote to control the on-screen cursor. This year, the company added a numeric keypad to the controller. There is even a scroll button, for accurate selection of the many different on-screen options. Of the three brands, LG’s remote is the easiest and most intuitive to use.

The TVs sold here come preinstalled with options only for this region. This means you can switch to settings for Australia, but not the US or Europe. Thankfully, users can get Netflix, which made its regional debut in Australia earlier this year. Changing regions is simple. Unlike Samsung, there is no hidden code to enter. Change regions from the settings menu and the TV will reset itself.

The catch: Users have to register for an account for each market’s LG Content Store by using a different e-mail address each time. This means visiting, say, five stores will require five e-mail addresses. And because the TV cannot access the US store, Netflix is the only 4K content streaming option available, since others like Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant Video are not available in this region.

SONY WITH ANDROID TV

The Google Play store on Android TV offers only a subset of the apps found on mobile devices. This is to be expected, since some touchscreen apps and games will not work on a big-screen TV.

Navigation is via one of two remote controls. The first is a traditional multi-button remote that is both useful and frustrating.

Imagine moving the cursor numerous times just to highlight an available listing at the bottom of the page. On a website filled with different panels and links, it becomes frustrating as some links are not highlighted when you hover the cursor over them.

The other way to navigate is using the remote with a gesture pad that you can swipe your finger on. This speeds up the movement of your highlighted options.

But this is not the usual movable cursor you can control on screen, so you are faced with the same problem of links that cannot be clicked on. This causes problems when sideloading Google app installation files, also known as Android application packages APKs).

The local store does not offer content streaming apps. If you want Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video or Netflix, you’ll have to install the respective APKs designed for Android TVs. Downloading the Amazon app was simple, but not so with Netflix. Apparently, the Netflix app is already installed in the TV, but cannot be used in markets that do not offer the service.

The trick is to install the APK to make the app usable. But when doing so, I found the version installed in my review set was the newest APK in the market, and you cannot replace new software with an older version.
My advice would be to update the OS on the TV only after you’ve installed all the necessary APKs. The risk here is that an official update from Sony can also render the Netflix app unusable, and you will then have to reinstall the app.

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Article by Sherwin Loh, originally appeared in The Straits Times

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