Just about any TV you buy today, except the lowest of the low end, is going to be smart and connected. In other words, besides tuning in regular television broadcasts via cable, satellite, or over-the-air, it will allow you to connect to subscription on-demand services like Netflix and Amazon, and pull in programming from websites such as YouTube and Hulu. It will also likely have a standard Web browser for more general Internet use, and might even connect to your computer or home server to let you browse home videos or downloaded movies.
None of this is particularly new; it started out in the highest end TV models and has been trickling down.
It seems, however, that the TV manufacturers have realized that although they put all this capability in their televisions, too many people were ignoring it. The reason: The user interface, to put it mildly, was dismal. “Smart TV has a high adoption because we put it into TVs, but people aren’t getting most out of it," Tim Alessi, director of new product development for LG,said during a panel session at the 2014 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) held in Las Vegas last week. "Yet we keep putting in new features. Making it more user friendly is one of the things we need to do.”
I’m one of those people who has been getting almost nothing out of the smart TV experience except headaches. I bought a smart TV in 2013 and I ignore the grid of buttons that pops up on my screen when I turn it on. In fact, I find these smart features annoying because they mean that I have to find the button on the remote that makes them go away before I can get a full screen view of the program I’m trying to watch. Searching for shows is horrendous: I have to use the arrow keys on the remote to painstakingly walk through an on-screen alphabet and input one letter at a time; I end up watching Internet programming on my laptop instead. (Yes, I know I could purchase and install a wireless keyboard, but I don’t want a keyboard on my coffee table. There are enough computers in the house as it is.)
That’s the state of the art. And it’s awful. So I was thrilled to hear several of the mainstream TV manufacturers at CES say that this year they threw away the old approach to TV control and set out to redesign the TV operating system for the new world that embraces a variety of programming sources. I’d be even more thrilled if they all magically settled on a new paradigm that became standard, so we’d all be able to use each other’s TVs without a lesson, but that day seems far off.
And I was eager to hit the show floor last week and try out the new interfaces. Some, it turns out, were more evolved than others. But they all have a ways to go. Still, the manufacturers are making progress, and that’s encouraging.
Before I give you my take on the new TV interfaces introduced at CES, I'll clarify a few assumptions I made. For one, as I mentioned, a TV interface shouldn’t require a keyboard. The manufacturers agree—they want us sitting back in our couches, not hunched forward typing.
For another, while virtually all the companies provide an app to allow you to control your TV with a smartphone or tablet, that’s not the interface of the future. You may think it’s a nice feature (until you want to answer the phone and change the channel at the same time), but there are some things for which you shouldn’t HAVE to use your smartphone. As Mo Selim, principal designer of the new Hisense interface, which supports a mobile app, told me, “Mobile apps are on glass screens, you get no touch feedback. You have to take your eyes off the TV and unlock your phone to use it. It’s not the best user model.”
Most of these smart TVs learn your preferences—I didn’t have enough time with any of them to find out how accurate their algorithms are, so I’m not evaluating that feature.
The company acquired WebOS, the operating system developed by Palm, and built its smart TV interface around it. It uses motion sensors in the remote to allow you to control an onscreen cursor [shown in the photo below on Hulu] by moving and pointing, and adds in a scroll wheel. But you still have to input search terms by selecting letters one by one. Pointing to them is better than using cursor keys, but it’s still insane.
Its Life+ interface uses a touchpad on the remote to control the onscreen cursor. The big leap forward is using voice commands for search and other functions. This is a huge improvement over trying to select letters on the screen. The microphone is in the remote, and has to be held close to the mouth; in the past, some demos of voice control required shouting at your TV. This setup makes much more sense. The voice recognition worked flawlessly in my very short test. (No one doubts voice control for LG’s WebOS is coming, but LG didn’t demonstrate it at CES.)
Its smart TV interface, SmartCentral, features a remote that looks a lot like my old Samsung remote—a disappointment after handling the sleek and small remotes from LG and Panasonic. However, I do like that Sharp retained the number keypad for those of us who want to change channels the old fashioned way. Sharp didn’t do anything to make it easier to communicate search queries from the remote to the TV. For that, it suggests you use a smartphone app or wireless keyboard, and you already know what I think of that. Of the interfaces I saw, Sharp did do the best job of integrating its search function across all the different media sources (cable or satellite, web sites, and streaming services).
The onscreen interface is called SmartHub; the remote is called SmartControl. Like LG’s remote, SmartControl uses motion sensors to allow you to move an onscreen cursor; I found its glowing cursor to be the prettiest of the bunch [photo below]. Samsung also upgraded to voice input from letter selection for search queries.
For the design of its Vidaa interface, Hisense turned to Canadian company Jamdeo. The Vidaa interface also features motion sensors in the remote and voice input for search and control. (Are you detecting a trend, here?). But Hisense differentiated itself with the addition of four translucent colored buttons on the remote—one each for TV, video on demand, locally stored media, and apps. I was initially little skeptical. (Who wants more buttons?) The demo did convince me that these are a good idea. If you move from one of the four areas to another, you can switch back instantly; the system saves your spot. And Hisense solved my problem of turning on the TV and having to navigate through a home screen before actually being able to watch a program. These buttons allow Hisense to eliminate the home screen, so if I don’t want to see a huge selection of apps and program options, I don’t have to. That’s huge.
Photos: Tekla Perry; Panasonic [remote]
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.