What’s smart about Smart TV?

I’ve just been reviewing smart TV sets for Computeractive – the results will be in Issue 384, on sale on 8th November. There are some clever things out there; Samsung and LG, for instance, are both experimenting with ways of going beyond the traditional remote control. And whatever you think of their current efforts, at least they’re doing something.

I’m not going to go into too much detail here about the sets I reviewed – though I have plenty to say about some of the manufacturers, which I’ll post after the review in Computeractive hits the streets.

For now, I’ll keep to more general ideas, and say I really do wonder if many of the smart TV makers are going in the right direction. They’re throwing as much as they possibly can into their TV sets, and frankly the results aren’t always pretty. Sometimes, they’re a complete dogs dinner.

If you read about online TV, you’ll probably have come across this article last week. iPlayer is one of the biggest online video services around, yet while there’s a lot of viewing from the iPad – an expensive, premium device – there’s very little from connected or ‘smart’ TV sets. Other research has suggested that a lot of smart TVs aren’t even connected to people’s home networks.

There are various reasons for that; some people won’t connect a set if it doesn’t have WiFi, because they don’t want to mess about with more wires. Others will try WiFi and find that it’s a horrible experience, entering passwords, and then discovering there’s so much congestion and interference that you can’t watch reliably.

And others will, frankly, try the experience of using a so-called smart TV and run screaming in horror from the room. Some of those specific horrors I’ll address next month, but for now let’s just say that there are elements in some smart TVs that make Symbian look like a paragon of good UI design.

They want control

I think one of the problems is that many of the TV manufacturers have realised that smart TV might give them a chance to be the ‘gatekeepers.’ Instead of people relying on what they get through their TV, or the content they watch via a DVD player, with smart TV, there’s a chance for the TV makers to push people in certain directions, by choosing which content they put on the TVs.

And so they believe they can be deal makers, pushing some catch-up services here, and other film on demand offerings there. Somewhere in the deranged minds of the people who make marketing decisions, there’s money to be made by foisting certain choices on the people who buy their TVs.

I think that’s a load of crap, frankly; it’s the same short sighted nonsense that saw Panasonic TVs saddled with adverts in the EPG for years; those have thankfully now gone – not even people at Panasonic UK seemed to like them, but it was a decision made elsewhere.

When it comes to smart TV, too many TV makers are trying to get between you and what you want to watch. Want to link your TV to flickr? Just create an account on the TV maker’s web site, link that to your flickr account, and then link the TV to the manufacturer’s web site. I’m sure they have a marketing wonk to explain that this makes things much easier; but I don’t think it does. Instead it gives them control, and information, and they think that will bring them money.

What I think it does is turn people off using smart TVs. We don’t want to jump through unnecessary hoops to access content, and we don’t want TV makers to be the gatekeepers of what we watch. Some of them have tried this sort of stuff before – with exclusive periods for some Blu-Ray releases on certain brands of player – and I don’t think there are many people who are desperate enough to fall for it.

And, in doing all this, the smart TV makers are pushing people to their own interfaces, with their own registration systems, and making it much fiddlier and complex to use services like iPlayer than it really needs to be.

Every set that I’ve just tested had Freeview HD on board; the latest Freeview HD specs mean that they were all IPTV capable. All could show, for example, the ConnectTV streams like CCTV. And that means that they could all, if they wanted, have BBC iPlayer on the red button, just like my Digital Stream Freeview HD recorder does.

iPlayer the easy way – press Red then OK on Freeview HD

That would mean that, to get to iPlayer, you’d do it in the same way on any capable device – on a BBC channel, press the red button. If the box detects that it can do iPlayer – as well as the technology, it needs an authorisation key from the BBC – then the service is the first option highlighted on the red button menu, so just press OK, and you’re at the iPlayer start screen. Two button presses, and that’s all it would take.

But none of these TVs does that. They all insist on adding iPlayer to the list of ‘content’ available via their smart TV portals. So it’s different on every brand; and on some, it’s downright quirky; on none is it as straightforward as ‘Red button, then OK.’

And they call that smart?

5 thoughts on “What’s smart about Smart TV?

  1. “the latest Freeview HD specs mean that they were all IPTV capable…And that means that they could all, if they wanted, have BBC iPlayer on the red button, just like my Digital Stream Freeview HD recorder does.”

    Does that work on other oD services? Can you access 4oD, ITV player, etc. using the red button?

    1. No, sadly not. While it’s technically possible, no other broadcasters – perhaps lacking the BBC’s remit – have bothered.

      None has gone down the standards route offered by Freeview HD, instead opting for less useful alliances.

      4od has a deal with YouTube, but that doesn’t allow access on the TV YouTube clients.

      ITV player is on Samsung sets, and Demand 5 is on Sony ones,

      And that’s it – if you want all the services on one box, get YouView. Which also has a sensible interface.

      Frankly, some heads need to be banged together, because the current mess certainly doesn’t serve consumers well

  2. I agree it is a mess and it is because of lack of regulation. If things are left to broadcasters, all they will think of will be how to leverage their position and/or earn more. Bum the consumer!

    YouView is so far the best example of self regulation, but it is too late. If it had been out a couple of years ago, our ‘inventive’ friends in the Far East would have copied its functionality into their TVs and we would have ‘smart’ TVs that are not only smart in the name.

    I hope YouView succeeds though. I’m a user and I like it. It is what I will call smart.

    1. It’s not just the broadcasters, I think the manufacturers are key to this too – they want to be the ones doing the deals, and believe they are gatekeepers, just like the mobile phone companies tried to do with their portals.

      I must admit, it is very odd that none of the other broadcasters has decided to go down the road of a red-button catch up service on Freeview HD. It would make life much easier for the consumers if all agreed to do it, and in the same way, so it was always the first highlighted option on any capable set, then you would know that “red, then OK” would take you to catch up for whatever channel you’re watching.

      No shareholder value in that, though…

  3. It says a lot about current smart TVs when it is still *much* easier to watch iPlayer by firing up the PS3 or even the Wii and using their interface and connection.

    I have an early generation (6000 series) Samsung TV. I have tried iPlayer on its portal and frankly its so slow and clunky that I would never use it out of choice.

    Until they build a standardized YouView or Freesat style of interface, it will never take off. Am I right in thinking one reason why all the native TV interfaces are so slow is because they need a lot more processing power in the set to do it properly?

    I can’t think of any other activities that I would want to do “on ” the TV. This whole idea of trying to get us to watch socially is crazy. We can do that much more effectively with a phone or a tablet, leaving the TV for actually showing TV!

    The only real innovation I can see gaining traction is in remote control, maybe with the gesture thing. However this still seems like such a small part of the TV experience and even if we were madly waving our hands like Tom Cruise in Minority Report, it still would be not much more than a gimmick.

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