- Lovely interface
- New Smart controller is great
- Plenty of apps including 4K & HDR
- Intuitive to use, mostly
- IoT integration is promising
- Currently missing UK catch-up services
- Web browsing is still a chore
What is Tizen?
While Samsung can be credited for inventing the idea of a ‘Smart TV,’ way back in 2008, they’re almost in the position of having just torn it all up and started afresh. The Tizen operating system – which is a serious departure from what went before – was first equipped in a Samsung TV in 2015 and it was a bold move, given their previous ‘Smart’ sets were probably the best on the market, in terms of the range of apps available and diversity of features. There’s little doubt that Samsung’s local rivals, LG, might have at least partially precipitated the move to Tizen, with their game-changing WebOSplatform in 2014, but it was always on the roadmap for Samsung.
So, what can Tizen do? Most folks reading this will no doubt be aware of at least some of what a Smart TV can do. Quite naturally, the most popular apps are those for video streaming, whether that be paid-for subscription services like Amazon and Netflix, or free-to-use ones like BBC iPlayer or YouTube; almost all new Smart TVs have at least three of these services available and lots more besides. Music streaming apps are also popular and there’s an increased focus on playing games through them, too, as internet speeds and graphics processing power both increase.
What sets the Tizen TVs apart, however, is the fact that they’re one of the new industry favourite terminologies – IoT, or Internet of Things – ready. And what does that mean? You may very well ask. Well, it means they can control and interact with other IoT devices in the household; e.g. you could view a security camera or control your lighting from an app on the TV, or even check your energy consumption and turn down a radiator. While the possibilities, at this time, aren’t exactly endless, the consumer electronics industry is hugely behind the idea of the ‘Smart Home’ so expect the range of IoT devices, and what you can do with them, to rapidly expand over the coming years.
In the here and now, let’s get on with seeing what the 2016 Samsung Smart TVs can do. Please note, all testing was carried out on a 65-inchKS9000 running software version 1111.
Considering all that it is capable of, the user interface (UI) of the 2016 Samsung Smart TVs is very minimalist. It used to be the case that the Samsung Smart TV platform had at least one – and at one point, four -homepage(s) but that’s all gone to be replaced by a new ‘ribbon,’ which has a touch of the Android TV OS about it, and that’s no bad thing. Basically, everything including all inputs, apps and services gets its own graphical card that is accessed from the ribbon at the bottom of the screen. If that card has any content associated with it, e.g. the YouTube app, then a further suggestions ribbon – or content bar – pops out on top of it and you can then select directly to go to that content with just a press of a button. Another for instance, if you sign in to your Netflix account, the Netflix card will produce a suggestions bar, above it, affording direct access to the latest episode of any series’ you’re watching as well as other viewing suggestions – it’s very quick and convenient compared to navigating via the app.
In effect, the UI layers upwards from the bottom of the screen and adds layers of operability to the device, or app, highlighted in the bottom ribbon, and it’s pretty intuitive stuff. It’s not all content discovery, connecting a set-top-box, for instance, will produce a bar with shortcuts to its programme guide, settings menu and stored recordings and even direct access to ‘favourited’ channels, which is again slick. The only thing we did find unintuitive, at times, was input source selection, where selecting an AV Receiver connected via ARC (Audio Return Channel) would see the message, ‘The Source is already set as a speaker,’ pop up, instead of taking you to the HDMI input to which the AVR is connected. To do that, you have to select the AV Receiver card in the bottom ribbon, which is a bit puzzling considering there’s a separate menu for selecting the sound source. To be fair, that was about the only thing that frustrated and we applaud the steps Samsung has taken with not just simplifying the Smart TV user experience but also in adding easy-to-use enhancements to it.
Samsung’s new Smart Controller is pretty central to the whole idea of end-user convenience and it’s a mostly successful exercise. Its major selling point is in that it acts as a universal remote, with a database of thousands of infra-red commands for a multitude of different devices. In theory, it means you can put all those other remotes away and use this sleek little handset.
The one supplied with the KS9000 had a two-tone, black and silver finish and an ergonomically curved body that fits in the hand perfectly. There’s a navigation pad right where your thumb comes to rest, a power button, top-left, and the number select and ‘Extra’ buttons also toward the top. The Number select button obviously acts as the number-pad on the remote it’s replacing, with an on-screen version, while the one for ‘Extra’ will bring up the likes of the coloured buttons on it. There’s also the obligatory ‘Home’ and Back buttons and another for play and pause – you can skip forwards and backwards through content using the right/left directional buttons on the central pad. There are also volume and channel buttons at the bottom which, although not immediately apparent to us, work in a rocker fashion, where levering upwards goes up and downwards, well, down in channel number or loudness of volume.
The Smart Controller also has a microphone built-in which can be used to change channels, inputs, alter the volume, launch an app or search the web and more.The universal remote functionalities of the Smart Remote are invoked upon the connection of new equipment where, generally, the TV will recognise what it is and download the necessary commands or you can go through a quick manual process to achieve the same ends. It’s a very useful feature, for basic operations, but there will be times when you need to reach for the original remote when there’s an area that Samsung over-looked a function or menu command from a particular interface. As an example, we had our Virgin TiVo box hooked up and using the Smart Remote to exit from the programme guide is far more cumbersome than it should be but we expect Samsung will plug the usability gaps with popular devices sooner or later.
EPG & PVR Features
You could potentially replace a box based personal video recorder (PVR) with one of the higher-end twin tuner Samsung TVs which allow for two recordings at once, although we find it a bit lacking in some of the niceties, such as Chase Play and proper season recordings, compared to a dedicated device. Setting up the PVR functions is easy enough, it’s a case of attaching a USB drive to be formatted and then you can select programmes from the EPG (Electronic Programme Guide) to record and then accessing them to view later from the ribbon at the bottom of the screen. Despite all the changes to the platform, the EPG is unaltered and quite attractive with a seven channel/two-hour view by default. There’s also a handy timeline, in blue, to show you where you are at that moment.
We, like most of the rest of the UK public, primarily use the Smart features built-in to a TV for video streaming services; it just makes sense given what the fundamental purpose of a television is. In years gone by, Samsung TVs ruled the roost in terms of VoD (video on demand) and catch-up services but the transition to Tizen has seen them falter, somewhat, as developers are charged with catering to the new software. That’s not to say the 2016 TVs are severely lacking, just that they need a little more time to, excuse the pun, catch up. As things stand (July 2016), all the UK catch-up services (BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4 and Demand 5) have yet to be added to the platform but Samsung tells us the players from ITV and the BBC will go live in quarter 3 of 2016, while the one from Channel 4 will follow in Q4. Demand 5 doesn’t have a date but that, to be fair, is the least important/popular anyhow.
The streaming apps pre-installed include YouTube, Amazon and Netflix with all three offering 4K/Ultra HD content, provided your internet connection can handle the speed. We would say you’re looking at a minimum of a 25 Mbps connection, which is within the reach of most urban areas, and if you can, run a wire from your router instead of relying on a Wi-Fi connection. The wireless capabilities built in to the 2016 Samsung Smart TVs is actually very good – the KS9000 has dual-band (2.4/5GHz) AC Wi-Fi which can comfortably handle the streaming speeds required but you can never be certain something won’t disrupt the signal. In the case of Netflix, the app is also capable of High Dynamic Range streaming (that’s just Marco Polo, for now) but the Amazon app will also soon feature the ability as well. Other video apps pre-loaded include Curzon Home Cinema, MUBI and Yupp TV but there are literally dozens of others available.
There are not one, but two, games streaming services available via the Tizen Smart TVs, with both Sony’s PlayStation NOW and Gamefly on offer. PlayStation NOW offers two options – either a pay per game model or a, Netflix-esque all you can eat subscription of over 230 PS3 games. At £12.99 per month, frankly Sony can stick it, thanks very much, but we guess some might find the premium pricing worthwhile even if we don’t. Gamefly is priced lower at $10/month but obviously that’s subject to the mercies of the exchange rate which are volatile with the EU Referendum just announced. There aren’t as many games available on Gamefly as there are PS NOW but the quality via streaming is very good and comparable to at least the PS3 and Xbox 360. Samsung does offer a games controller to buy with the Tizen TVs but they do accept most ‘standard’ USB remotes, as well as you being able to use a Dualshock 4 for PS NOW and even the smart remote for simpler games. It’s not just about games streaming, either, as there are some available to install, ranging from simple titles like Minion Rush to more complex fare such as Asphalt Airborne 8 and Modern Combat 5. There’s no doubt the TVs have the graphical power necessary to run them and provided they can raise customer awareness that they are actually available, the idea might catch on.
Given that we have the grand total of zero Samsung SmartThings – the name they’ve given to their collection of IoT devices – in our possession, there’s not much of practical experience we can impart here. In fact, we couldn’t even view any of the promotional videos or information that was apparently pre-loaded to the KS9000 as the content was marked as ‘terminated.’ Moving forwards, we’re sure there will be much more to relate but, for now, we’ll just sit tight and see how things develop.
We’ve never been totally sold, to put it subtly, on the merits of having a web browser in a TV when the primary means of control is a remote handset. However smart the controller, they are never as efficient as a keyboard and mouse or a touch screen for surfing the web, or more accurately, doing anything beyond just surfing. You can actually hook up a USB keyboard/mouse to the 2016 Smart TVs, should you wish, but we can’t see too many folks doing so but at least Samsung has made the experience as remote friendly as possible with an interface that is specially designed for the TV. It offers you quick access to your favourite sites. There’s a choice of Featured and Most Viewed websites, for your homepage, along with a search bar at the top for inputting the URL or a keyword. We would have liked for the voice commands of the remote to have worked with the browser but, alas, they don’t. Webpages, at least with the high-end KS9000, load very quickly and navigation wasn’t too bad with the buttons on the smart controller speeding up the mouse pointer the longer you kept it pressed in but, really, you will almost certainly have a device more suited to web browsing than the TV, although it’s still an occasionally handy feature if you want to show a room full of people something on the internet. That said, if your mobile device supports screen mirroring – and most Android mobiles now do – that’s easier.
Web browsing – still not much fun through the telly
You can’t install KODI on a Samsung Smart TV but there is a very good PLEX app available which brings with it lovely organisation of your stored home media and the ability to play back just about every file type, if your PLEX server behind it has the chops to transcode. That said, the 2016 Tizen TVs can natively handle a very wide variety of file-types, including HDR and Ultra HD, although the interface and load times when thumbnails are being created can be a bit slow. There are a variety of ways to playback your media, including DLNA, screen mirroring and via USB storage and there is very very little you won’t be able to watch/listen to on a 2016 Samsung Smart TV by one means or another.
The Tizen Smart TV platform from Samsung in 2016 is bold, easy to use and chock full of apps and features. The user interface is gorgeously designed and allows for some customisation and personalisation, with a ribbon at the bottom of the screen which has a content or feature bar popping up above it, depending on what is highlighted in the ribbon. Central to much of Samsung’s thinking this year is the new Smart Remote which has the ability to control most, if not all, of the devices connected to the TV with a simple connection wizard that will guide you through the process.
There are Ultra HD and even HDR video streaming services available through the likes of Netflix, Amazon and YouTube and many more video services that you can download through the apps market. The integration with gaming services, including PlayStation NOW and Gamefly allows for the streaming of console quality titles through the TV, with many third party controllers supported. We didn’t have the hardware to test out the Internet of Things (IoT) capabilities but the fact they’re included holds much promise for the future.
On the minus side, the major UK catch-up services, namely BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4 and My 5, are currently unavailable although they will be added in 2016 and there seems little reason to persist in offering a web browsing experience that relies on a remote control for operation. As it stands, with the UK catch-up services currently under development, we’re rating the Tizen platform as an eight but as soon as they’re present and correct, the score will be upgraded to a nine and it is still a highly recommended Smart TV platform.