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Samsung UE55ES8000 smart TV test: WINS & FAILS video

Samsung’s been doing smart TV from the early days, taking a risk when few outside Asia had broadband that could carry TV-quality video and processors were barely up to decoding it.

The last year has seen a lot of effort into bringing a rich choice of video providers on board, from arthouse cinema chain Curzon to Digital Theatre’s live performance library. 

Has Samsung now matured its Smart TV service to a point where it can build consumer loyalty to a smart TV brand that could challenge traditional TV platforms like Sky and Virgin?

The UE55ES8000 doesn’t have a snappy name, but it’s the flagship model of the 2012 Samsung Smart TV campaign.

You can catch most of the same smart experience models from 5000 upwards, and on many Blu-ray players and hard disc recorders. You won’t get voice and gesture control on all models, and Skype video calls will require a separate camera purchase, but this is the full experience.

The 2013 Smart TV range will see a significant upgrade and some 2012 Samsung TVs are upgradeable to the latest features – have a look at our Samsung Smart TV page for details. Here’s a quick roundup of our findings, or scroll through the pictures to read more.

Design and specifications

WINS FAILS
  • Very thin chrome bezel and thin screen, very light, elegant stand
  • Built-in HD camera and WiFi
  • Good connectivity
  • Smart TV Evolution kit slot
  • USB ports hard to access on back panel
  • Camera fiddly to adjust up/down, no sideways angle adjust – no auto adjust
  • Stand can’t rotate or tilt the TV to fit your room

The UE55ES8000 is a 55in LED 3D TV with Full HD (1080p) resolution. Features include LED local dimming for the backlight to enhance contrast, and there are two pairs of passive 3D glasses supplied if you’re interested in that particular broadcasting cul-de-sac. Even without smart TV, this is a great screen.

It’s got four HDMI ports, three USB sockets, optical digital audio in/out, a single Scart/component video port with adapter, analogue stereo audio in/out, and composite video in (for older video cameras). 

There are both Freeview HD and Freesat HD tuners, and a blanked-off TV Evolution Kit which you can use to add more processing power so the TV can keep up with new smart TV features.

The 2013 kit had just been unveiled at International CES in Las Vegas when this review was written – we’ll publish UK pricing and functionality when it’s announced.

Controls: voice, gesture, remote and smartphone

WINS FAILS
  • Lots of control options for different needs
  • Smart View phone app easy to use
  • Standard remote handset is nice to use
  • Voice control needs quiet room
  • Gesture control tiring and difficult to use
  • Smart View remote app has very limited device options
  • No Qwerty keyboard on Smart View app for easy text entry

Two remotes are supplied with the UE55ES8000, a standard buttons and numbers unit and the Magic Remote, which combines a touchpad with a microphone for voice control.

On top of that, the TV’s camera can be used for gesture control, and you can control the TV from your phone with the Samsung Smart View app (Samsung Galaxy S2 and Tab only), which includes three remote control modes, a game pad mode, channel list and recording scheduler for recording to USB memory.

After much effort, we found ourselves resorting to the old-fashioned remote control again and again: unless your smartphone has no timeout it’s just not ready when you want it; voice control feels stupid and shouty; and gesture control is both tiring and slow.

Old point-and-click wins every time. 

TV smarts: programme guides and recording

WINS FAILS
  • Record to USB-attached memory
  • Choice of Freeview or Rovi EPGs
  • Can’t record to networked storage
  • Rovi programme guide has very limited personalisation

This Freeview HD TV has two TV guides – the broadcast Freeview data and a broadband-enhanced model.

There’s also a master channel list which appears on the main Smart TV page and is very easy to edit, with five favourite channel lists and both most-viewed and recently-viewed lists.

The Freeview guide is a typical seven-day ahead grid EPG with a thumbnail window. You can set recordings but it doesn’t have genres (although the Freeview EPG is now broken down into several genres).

The Rovi guide lets you set up recordings and reminders, downloading detailed programme info daily. You can also create a personal channel list using channels, genres and keywords, but it’s not very smart.

Recording to USB memory is a nice option and has the advantage of being portable, but recording to network storage would be a very useful option, and you could really start laying down a personal TV archive.

Smart TV basics: layout and operation

WINS FAILS
  • Simple layout is easy to navigate
  • Face recognition login saves time
  • Access channel list, programme guide, and AV sources
  • Logging into services too complex for screen – needs app or web interface
  • Can’t customise enough of the home page
  • Smart TV should auto-load when TV comes on  

Smart TV is triggered by the multicoloured button on either remote, and displays three rows of apps, with key apps at the top, between a live TV thumbnail, a search bar and a featured apps promotion.

Below this are six apps: Samsung Apps (the app store), then the downloaded app library, including a web browser, TV guide, channel list, AV source selection and Samsung AllShare media sharing. It’s very hard to customise the front page and most people will want to chuck out a few of the pre-loaded apps.

You can navigate via the touchpad on the Smart TV Remote, or with gesture and voice control, but the biggest problem is setting up services with logins, such as Facebook, Lovefilm or Spotify. 

The TV remote’s a terrible way to input logins and passwords, and the SmartView app doesn’t pop up a keyboard when you need it. Far better would be a web interface where you can set up passwords for your various apps, or maybe something like YouTube’s TV pairing system where you just put in an activation code.

Ironically, face recognition for logging into the smart TV hub is quite quick and accurate, but it didn’t always activate.

Multimedia: content playback support and DLNA

WINS FAILS
  • Easy to use DLNA client with visual interface (easy by smart TV standards, anyway)
  • Can create and edit playlists
  • Allshare not on Mac (used Serviio)
  • Too many clicks to get to music, videos or photos

Samsung’s UE55ES8000 is equipped with AllShare, a DLNA client which will pick up any DLNA servers on your home network.

The AllShare software is free for Windows PCs, but there’s no version for Mac or Linux. Fortunately you can use any DLNA server software, and there’s lots about for all operating systems.

The AllShare interface is easy to navigate (by the standards of most DLNA clients on smart TV) and allows users to create playlists, but it can be frustrating to drill a long way through folders and artist/album lists to get to what you want.

Smart TV app: entertainment (video, music, photo), games, social and lifestyle

WINS FAILS
  • Good choice and selection of apps, particularly video on demand
  • Star apps include BBC iPlayer, HD Skype and Spotify
  • Interesting experiments with smart TV/smartphone game control
  • Odd selection of apps given prominence
  • Rovi Your Video app seems pointless
  • Most games are very basic arcaders

The UE55ES8000 comes with a nice range of apps pre-loaded, and the key apps – ITV Player, BBC iPlayer, Lovefilm, YouTube and Netflix – will serve many people.

Video is the most popular use for Smart TV, and Samsung Apps includes many brands such as Acetrax, BBC Sport, Blinkbox, Sony Crackle, KnowHow Movies, Red Bull, Curzon and Digital Theatre, to suit a wide range of tastes.

If you jump outside of video, there’s Spotify for its Premium subscribers, children’s games and education, radio players for the likes of Capital and Xfm, the major social networks, sports news and trivia, health, news and information.

Games are mostly basic arcade fodder, but include Angry Birds. There’s 755MB of memory for downloading games, and though around 500MB is pre-filled, there should be enough for a decent selection.

Of the pre-loaded apps, there’s support for watching TV with Facebook, Twitter and Google Talk wrapped around the screen, mostly for watching other people’s activity since the remote isn’t ideal for text entry.

Family Story is an interesting micro-social network for sharing with and managing your family, with web-based support for other devices. Fitness lets you create a workout programme and pursue goals, and a catalogue of HD videos to exercise with.

Rovi’s Your Video lets you rate your favourite film and TV, share it with others and see what they think, but you can’t watch videos or even trailers. It doesn’t deserve to be so high-profile.

You’ll have to search for interesting apps such as Picasa, Facebook, Picture Box and Skype. Quite how the very useful Skype app has been relegated to page two is a mystery.

Recombu Digital’s Smart TV verdict on the Samsung UE55ES8000

WINS FAILS
  • Upgradeable to 2013 smart TV
  • Good range of smart TV apps, including iPlayer and Skype
  • Samsung AllShare is a decent network media player
  • Control via phone, voice or gesture
  • Built-in WiFi
  • Setting up services is very tedious
  • Very limited smart TV home page customisation
  • Some apps lack quality control
  • Gesture control is a pointless novelty
  • Poor camera and stand design

The UE55ES8000 sells for around £2,000, which is not to be sniffed at for a TV, but it’s a very high quality LED Full HD screen, and the Samsung Smart TV service we’re focussed on can also be found on a wide range of lower-priced Samsung TVs.

This model is also upgradeable to the 2013 Smart TV edition. If it’s reasonably priced, we hope it will set a model for other manufacturers that TVs don’t have to be legacy devices 12 months after they hit the market.

Samsung’s is one of the most fully-realised smart TV concepts we’ve used, and the Smart Hub feels like the home page of a 21st century smart TV. The layout’s pretty good, but users need much more freedom to make it their own by choosing which apps are in the prime spots.

Ultimately the big money is decided by the screen and audio quality, for which we have no complaints. Samsung’s Smart TV platform will add long-term value and satisfaction across its entire range, with or without the frivolous features like voice and gesture control.

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