Jedidiah Becker for RedOrbit.com
Samsung Electronics announced earlier this month that it would start shipping out its much-hyped fifth-generation of Smart TVs.
Decked out with a panoply of hi-tech new features, the leading global innovator in consumer electronics is bent on transforming the old boob-tube into a multi-functional media center fit for George J. Jetson´s living room.
“Our goal with this year´s models,” explained the company´s senior VP of Home Entertainment Joe Stinziano, “was to truly redefine what a TV can be while providing unprecedented choice to the consumer.”
“We have delivered the incredible picture quality and beautiful design that consumers have come to expect from Samsung, as well as seamless connectivity, several new ways to control the TV and exclusive services.”
While availability varies from one model to the next, a few of the most impressive new features include:
– A dual-core processor for launching apps and navigating tasks: Combined with a few hundred gigs of storage, this makes the Smart TV essentially as computer-esque as any smartphone on the market — although you´ll need the Smart Wireless Keyboard (sold separately) to take full advantage of their interfacing potential.
– A built-in camera complete with noise-canceling microphone: Tired of those thousand-button remotes that seem to require 12 hours of college courses just to operate? Well, now you can rifle through most of the TV´s functions using voice and even gesture commands. Just say “Web Browser” or point at it on the screen, and you´ll be online in seconds. And if you´re sitting outside the range of the camera and built-in microphone, no worries — the new Smart Touch Remote also comes equipped with a microphone. “¦ Oh yeah, and did we mention that the camera is paired up with face-recognition software, allowing you to create and access separate user settings as well as Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts simply by flashing your mug in front of the camera?
– A new function called AllShare Play: This lets users connect with their mobile devices and even store up to five gigs of media in the cloud. It also lets you use your smartphone or tablet to search the Web for what you want and then launch the site to the TV with a tap of the touch-screen.
While these are just a handful of the new Smart TV´s innovate novelties, the most impressive feature might well be the dramatically improved picture quality on all of its Full HD LED and Plasma screens.
In addition to adding its state-of-the-art Micro Dimming contrast enhancement to even more of its LED models, the new Micro Dimming Pro and Micro Dimming Ultimate provide richly textured colors and mind-boggling sharpness that sets the standard for the industry.
All of its Plasma TVs will also now come equipped with its Real Black Filter, delivering the black levels and color contrast previously reserved only for high-end models. At the upper-end of the price scale (including models E6500, E7000 and E8000), Real Black Pro will take its place, absorbing even more external light reflections that its predecessor and yielding one of the most life-like pictures ever seen.
And what about all those YouTube videos we love to watch on the big screen but get annoyed at because of the grainy, low-resolution picture? The new Smart TVs come with innovative De-Mosquito and De-Blocking image filters that can dramatically improve the sharpness and clarity of even low-quality videos.
Samsung has also opted to include 3D technology on a larger range of its LED and Plasma TVs. What´s even cooler, they´ll also be shipping at least two complementary pairs of those expensive 3D glasses with every TV that´s equipped for it — and you get four free pairs if you´re ready to dish-out the cash for the high-end models.
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
The list of dazzling new features and improvements in quality goes on and on. But before readers start to suspect this writer of being ℠on the take´ from Samsung, it´s worth pointing out that not everyone is simply staring in jaw-gaping wonder at what the electronics gods hath wrought.
The tech-news site ARS Technica, for instance, was allowed to take some of the new Smart TVs for a proverbial test drive a few weeks before their release. While generally impressed with the visionary direction in which Samsung´s seems to be taking its Smart TV technology, they still saw considerable room for improvement.
Some of the smaller issues included the fact that the TVs´ built-in cameras do not swivel from side-to-side but only up and down, meaning that if the user isn´t standing or sitting directly in front of the TV, they won´t be able to use the motion-sensing and face-recognition functions, at least not optimally.
ARS Technica also pointed out that the TV´s voice-recognition appears to suffer from some of those same frustrating annoyances familiar to users of Apple´s Siri or its Android counterparts. However, this is more than likely just a reflection of the current state of voice-recognition technology (which, alas, leaves much to be desired) rather than any particular deficiency in Samsung´s products.
Like the voice-control functions, ARS Technica also found that the TV´s motion-sensing controls demonstrated a far-from-flawless functionality. Although a decided improvement over the likes of the Kinect and Wiimote technologies (from Xbox and Wii, respectively), it still found Samsung´s gesture controls to be “a little stutter and unsure.”
The Smart TV´s new Smart Touch Remote offers an elegant simplification and streamlining of its complex predecessors, adorned with only a few essential buttons (for volume and channel) and a convenient, highly functional touchpad. The buttons, however, had “little tactile feedback,” making them difficult to use. And on the whole, they just seemed incongruous with whole hi-tech package.
“The channel up/down button seems wildly out of place on a TV like this; paging through channels sequentially just to see what´s on seems like an antiquated action to include in such a modern device,” wrote ARS Technica´s Casey Johnston.
A POTENTIAL PRIVACY THREAT?
While this handful of minor technical shortcomings did not escape ARS Technica´s fastidious eye, other critiques of Samsung´s new Smart TVs have been of a more Orwellian nature.
Gary Merson, a tech writer for MSNBC´s TechnoLog and self-proclaimed “HD Guru,” sees a potential security threat in the new Smart TVs.
Now that the integration of Internet and TV is complete, the television experience has become an interconnected, two-way exchange of information. And with sensitive, built-in cameras and microphones always connected, Merson remains apprehensive about whether the technology is able safeguard the privacy its users.
“While these features give you unprecedented control over an HDTV, the devices themselves, more similar than ever to a personal computer, may allow hackers or even Samsung to see and hear you and your family, and collect extremely personal data,” Merson wrote on Monday.
Though such concerns may at first glance seem like the delusions of a paranoid technophobe, recent incidents involving the popular California-based webcam maker Trendnet provide grounds for a bit of reflection.
In January, rumors began surfacing in blogs and chat rooms that a seemingly minor coding glitch in the software of some of Trendnet´s webcams had led to a number of disturbing security breaches.
Using a simple hacking trick, savvy Web surfers were able obtain live video streams of hundreds of unsuspecting users without even entering a password.
Within days, numerous sites sprung up across the Web offering instructions on how to exploit the security blip. It wasn´t until February that the company publically acknowledged the embarrassing security breach and providing vulnerable users with software patches.
According to Merson, the only thing Samsung has officially stated was that it “assumes no responsibility, and shall not be liable” if a product or service is not “appropriate” — whatever that means.
Owners of the new TVs need to be aware that there is no simple on-off switch or plug for the camera and microphone. While a Samsung representative explained that the voice-command feature can in fact be turned off, the user has to get into the TV´s software to actually do so.
And what´s more, as Merson points out, neither the camera nor microphones have indicators to let users know whether they´re on or off. Essentially, the only way to be sure the camera isn´t watching you is to physically turn it upwards towards the ceiling.
Thus, like every form of technology, from stone-tipped spears to satellites, it appears that Samsung´s revolutionary new Smart TVs may — to put it dramatically — have the potential for both good and evil. Hopefully the forward-thinking company will quickly recognize that it´s in both the consumer´s and their best interest to iron-out any kinks in their products´ functionality and security.
Jedidiah Becker for RedOrbit.com