Testing smart controls for Samsung's smart TVs in the CR labs

Consumer Reports News: June 14, 2012 08:08 PM

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For the past few years, manufacturers have been adding Internet content and network connectivity to flat-panel TVs. This includes access to streaming-video services such as Netflix and YouTube, and social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Many now include full Web browsers, enabling you to go almost anywhere on the Web. But navigating the Internet using a normal TV remote control can be a chore. This has led several TV manufacturers to develop new ways of interacting with and controlling your TV.

For example, for several years now, LG has offered the Magic Remote remote control, which uses Nintendo Wii–like pointing gestures to navigate menus and access content. And this year Samsung introduced voice- and gesture-based control (similar to the Kinect for Xbox 360) on its flagship 8000-series TV models, and is also including a secondary remote with a built-in touchpad. LG is also offering voice control and gesture-based control on several models.

We recently tested two of Samsung's 8000-series sets, one LCD TV and one plasma, and found that smart controls, while limited, have some useful features.

Voice control. After activating the voice control by saying, "Hi, TV," you can turn the TV on and off without having the remote control nearby, by saying "Power on" and "Power off." And when using the TVs search function (or attempting to enter text) you can simply speak whole words into the second remote control's integrated microphone instead of typing letter-by-letter on a virtual keyboard.

While the voice control does require a mostly quiet room to work properly, it doesn't need complete silence. So as long as other people in the room aren't talking too loudly, voice control should work well. If the TV's volume is too high, you may not be able to use the TV's embedded microphone—but when you hit the button on the secondary remote, the TV's volume will automatically drop to a level suitable for voice controls.

Unfortunately, there are only a limited number of voice commands the TV can recognize and a certain number of apps it can open. And once these apps are opened, you'll need the remote or gesture control to use them further.

Also, for most normal TV functions, the voice control is more hassle than help. Changing the channel using voice requires a lot more effort then using the normal remote, and you can raise or lower the volume setting only by a single increment at a time. So, for example, if you wanted to raise the volume during a quiet part of a TV show, you might have to say "volume up" 10 times or more to get a reasonable volume level.

Gesture-based control. For the gesture-based control, a built-in camera (which can also be used for Skype and other apps) detects hand movements and uses them to move an onscreen cursor, similar to a mouse cursor on a computer. You can then select items by clenching your fist. This feature will not work in very-low-light conditions, but it should work well with typical home lighting.

At times, activating the gesture control can be difficult, requiring you to wave your hand for several minutes before it's detected by the TV. But once you get the hang of it, the process becomes easier.

Once again, this advanced feature does not make any normal TV viewing tasks any easier, but controlling the volume via gestures is much better than controlling it with voice command. Navigating Web pages and entering text is a bit easier than when using the standard remote, but after a couple of minutes, your arm can start to get tired, so it's not recommended for long navigation sessions.

In addition to the normal TV remote, Samsung provides a secondary Bluetooth universal remote. It provides basic TV functionality (channel, volume, power, and menu navigation), and it can control other devices, such as a Blu-ray player. The second remote also includes a touchpad interface and built-in microphone.

The touchpad, an alternative to gesture control, allows you to move the onscreen cursor by swiping the pad with your thumb. While we found that navigating Internet apps and entering text is easier with the touchpad than with the normal remote, the touchpad can be more sluggish than the gesture control, requiring too many thumb swipes to navigate a Web page or even to enter text.

This remote also has a dedicated button to activate voice control without having to say "Hi, TV," and the built-in mic is less sensitive to external noise then the TV's integrated mic, since it's closer to you. This makes the commands easier to understand. Also, the built-in mic is the only way to enter text using speech.

Bottom line: Based on our initial evaluation of these sets, we found these new types of interfaces do work—albeit with a few hiccups—and represent an interesting step forward in TV control. But due to some drawbacks, as noted, they often don't really add too much to the current experience, and in some cases may be more of a hindrance than a help compared to using a standard remote.

Because these TVs are connected, though, you can expect firmware updates from the companies that may remedy some of these issues or even add new features that make them more useful. So while these new interfaces may currently seem like a novelty, it's not hard to imagine a day when they become a typical way for consumers to interact with their TVs.

Find out more about the newest TV technology and check our free buying guide at ConsumerReports.org.

In our TV test labs, lower-cost 3D sets and expanded Internet access

—Christopher Andrade

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