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JUly 2011

Group test: Connected TV Portals

LG Smart TV

Panasonic VIERA Connect

Philips Net TV

Samsung Smart Hub

Sony BRAVIA Internet Video

Toshiba Places


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Connected TV Portals Panasonic VIERA Connect

Philips Net TV

Samsung Smart Hub

Sony BRAVIA Internet Video

Toshiba Places

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Connected TV portals Any new TV worth its salt is net-connected and swarming with IPTV functionality. But which TV-maker offers the ‘Smart’-est portal and how do they compare? Net-connected ‘smart’ TVs and home entertainment devices are on the rise. Every major brand is offering access to its own proprietary IPTV portal, allowing you to stream video from the internet and download all manner of apps. All you have to do to enjoy this avalanche of free stuff is get your Connected TV (or similarly enabled product such as recent Blu-ray players) online, via Ethernet cable or WiFi. But though much of this content is common across brands (most obviously in the form of the ubiquitous

BBC iPlayer and clip giant YouTube), the various branded portals and platforms are all quite different. Some, such as Samsung and LG, have put the emphasis on downloadable apps. Others, like Sony and Philips, are following a more traditional IPTV route by combining free streaming content with pay-VoD. We’ve auditioned all the connected services available to discover which is best at what it does. We’ve also considered how adept each is at playing your media files.

Buying tips n:Format and app support varies among products as well as brands n:Philips Net TV is the only portal to offer a parental lock for VoD n:Sony offers the best Twitter integration. You can search for topics and #hashtags, and tweet a commentary as you watch shows


n www.lg.com/uk

LG smart TV Ratings PLUS

n Intuitive interface n Excellent media streaming

options

Minus

n Media Link Plex client requires

a live connection to a PC n Media Link not exactly plug-and-play

Interface hhhhhhhhhh App choice hhhhhhhhhh File support hhhhhhhhhh Ease of use hhhhhhhhhh Social media hhhhhhhhhh

80%

Much like Samsung’s Smart Hub, the service is primarily apps-based, underpinned by some familiar IPTV services. The Smart TV home page looks good. It combines a live TV window with easy access to all the big service providers. BBC iPlayer, YouTube, Facebook, Picasa and Acetrax are all given prominent space on the home page. The TV window is large enough to ensure that you can browse the interface without losing track of the channel or programme you’re following. Beneath are shortcut buttons to AV inputs, setup menus and EPG. LG is chasing rival Samsung hard when it comes to the sheer number of apps it offers. These cover the familiar mix of casual games and infotainment oddities. You can download Colour Blindness and Eyesight charts, grab a deck of tarot cards, play simple puzzle games or stream TV shows from the Revision 3 IPTV network. Apps appear on virtual shelves (a nice touch) under headings such as Game, Entertainment, Education and news Info. The browsing experience is good. The bottom half of the main home page can be customised with your favourite content. Here you can also power up the web browser and stream media.. Utilising Media Link, a media server client based on

the popular Apple Mac platform Plex (itself an offshoot of the open source XBMC media player project), this is unusual in that it creates a rich, graphical environment to browse your own video and music files. For it to work you’ll need to download a server client on your PC. This catalogues your entire media collection, resulting in a gorgeous browsing experience. Smart TV is DLNA-compliant and file support is excellent. From the Smart TV interface we successfully played AVI, MKV, AVCHD and H.264 video files from a test NAS. Music support is limited to MP3s only. Overall, we’d rate this as a great choice for those with large collections of video and audio files.

n www.philips.co.uk

Philips Net tv Ratings PLUS

n Subscription content n Good media file compatibility n Some original content

Minus

n With French news, it doesn’t feel UK centric n Limited number

of apps n Clearly a work in progress

Interface hhhhhhhhhh App choice hhhhhhhhhh File support hhhhhhhhhh Ease of use hhhhhhhhhh Social media hhhhhhhhhh

75%

Philips has long supported the idea of net connectivity. It first introduced a range of networked appliances under the Connected Planet brand back in 2004. Net TV is the brand’s latest netconnected drive, also used by Sharp and Loewe for their TVs. It may lack BBC iPlayer and Facebook, but at least there is news channel France 24. The interface is a tiled grid. Buttons include App Gallery, Quick Guide, Internet, YouTube, Picasa, Twitter, TuneIn Radio, Funspot, CineTrailers and so on. More can be added from the apps store. We rather liked Screen Dreams – wallpapers that play against a backdrop of classical music. You can choose from a number of themes, from the work of the Old Masters to scenes of deserts and forests. High-res images slowly blend into each other – it’s actually rather nice. Some services are subscription-only (Cartoon Network, Box Office 365, Hit Entertainment), but there’s some great free material too. iConcert opens up a rich selection of music videos, covering artists as diverse as Alice Cooper and Kanye West. You can filter by artist or genre and the quality of streaming video is very good. Some clips may be sporadically blocky, but compared with some bitrate-

starved Freeview channels it’s not unwatchable at all. The internet button opens a web browser. This does not support Flash, but it’s well presented and usable when you need a quick Google. Media support within the Philips Net TV environment is very good. We successfully streamed all our test files across a network, including MKV-wrapped material, and played them out from USB. Audio support is equally impressive. WMA, MP3, WAV and AAC are all recognised. Album art is plonked centre-screen with metadata. Overall, Net TV is a good, solid IPTV portal with some interesting content. We hope to see more apps come onstream, but it’s a fine opening effort.


Connected TV Portals n www.panasonic.co.uk

Panasonic viera Connect Panasonic is not a brand that rushes to embraces change. Consequently, its new VIERA Connect portal looks identical to the old VIERA Cast service. A dark-blue background loads up with a Live TV window in the centre of the screen and content services populate around it. However, though it looks much the same, the content offering is far richer. Navigation is distinctly different from the other net connected portals in this group. You need to step ‘backwards’ into the user interface to explore services – this certainly makes a change from scrolling up and down or left and right. The main home page features Facebook, Eurosport, BBC iPlayer, YouTube, Acetrax and Skype apps. Panasonic sells the dedicated £130 Skype webcam, which is a cosmetic match with its TVs. There’s also a link to the VIERA Market store, home of apps and games. If the default apps on the Connect landing page are not to your taste you can rearrange the selection, although editing this three-dimensional interface can seem a bit like wrestling with Star Trek’s 3D chess board. Step on through the interface and you’ll find DailyMotion, Cinetrailers, and some German news. It may be early days for the VIERA Market but its

Ratings PLUS

n Excellent file support n Great MP3 playback with album art n Skype integration n Growing games support

Minus

shelves are slowly filling with free downloads covering Video and Movie, Music, Sports, Games, Social Networking, News & Lifestyle, and Health & Fitness. VIERA Connect TVs now support USB joypad controllers so you can get an arcade experience from your TV without recourse to a games console. Not only is the new VIERA Connect portal easy to navigate, it’s bolstered by top-notch media playback via USB or a network. It recognised all containers and played every video file including AVCHD, DivX, AVI, MKV, MP4, MOV and MPEGs. MP3s play with album art (if you have it in your folders) and metadata is consistently correctly read, so artist and track data are featured.

n No open web browsing n With German news, it doesn’t

feel very ‘UK’

Interface hhhhhhhhhh App choices hhhhhhhhhh File support hhhhhhhhhh Ease of use hhhhhhhhhh Social media hhhhhhhhhh

79%

n www.samsung.com/uk/

Samsung Smart Hub Samsung has embarked on a concentrated drive to create an entire new market in TV-centric apps, with the result that Smart Hub now has the largest selection of downloadable doodads. The Home page design is extremely intuitive; there’s a live TV window to the left (unless you’re using a device without a TV tuner, such as a Blu-ray player), with a Recommended bar of top-line apps to the right. Content here is a moving feast, but typically comprises LoveFilm, Acetrax, YouTube and Skype. The brand sells its own dedicated Skype webcam. Currently occupying prime real estate centre screen is the Your Video and Search functions. The former is a kind of IMDB-lite database. The Search function allows you to enter a movie title, causing little portal-bots to scurry off around the net for relevant content. They typically return with trailers for the film on YouTube or route you through to the official Facebook page. Samsung says that in time, this feature will integrate with a streaming movie service, allowing you to rent/view the movie you’re looking for. A dedicated Social TV button gives fast access to Twitter and Facebook clients. Social media access is more of an overlay than integrated into the viewing experience, so while you can read incoming Tweets from

Ratings PLUS

n Huge choice of apps n Explore free 3D VoD n Best-in-class YouTube client

Minus

people you follow, you can’t search for ‘trending’ topics or ‘hashtags’. One compelling feature on Samsung’s Smart Hub is Explore 3D – the first dedicated 3D streaming IPTV service we’ve seen – with free-to-watch edutainment documentaries and movie trailers streamed impressively with a fast broadband connection. Smart Hub comes with an open web browser – the only one here to offer full Flash support. it doesn’t take too long to get used to using the remote to navigate. The YouTube app is the best in this group. streaming the best quality video available rather than just standard definition.

n Unpredictable file support for MKVs n Social media apps not

integrated with TV experience

Interface hhhhhhhhhh App choice hhhhhhhhhh File support hhhhhhhhhh Ease of use hhhhhhhhhh Social media hhhhhhhhhh

83%


n www.sony.co.uk n

Sony bravia internet video

Ratings PLUS

n Huge choice of IPTV n Qriocity VoD service n Excellent Twitter integration

Minus

n No apps store n TV web

browser basically unusable Interface hhhhhhhhhh App choice hhhhhhhhhh File support hhhhhhhhhh Ease of use hhhhhhhhhh Social media hhhhhhhhhh

79%

When it comes to netconnected TV, Sony has opted for a different route from its competition. Rather than go app-crazy, it has positioned its long-running BRAVIA Internet Video Service as the definitive IPTV content portal. If you’re looking for extra viewing to supplement your regular TV diet, this is for you. The BIV offers BBC iPlayer and Demand 5 catch-up TV services, plus YouTube, DailyMotion and the Sony Entertainment TV channel which, unlike its satellite counterpart, is a curious, unchanging hybrid of vintage shows, more modern reruns and cut-down ‘minisodes’ of sitcoms. There are also streamable film rentals and trailers for LoveFilm subscribers and trailers, Sky News highights, Eurosport, Blip.tv, Howcast, Ustudio, Golflinks, and Singing Fool. A fair percentage is guff, but who cares? More recently the BIV portal has been joined by Sony’s Qriocity PPV movie and subscription music streaming services, the latter allowing you to subscribe to a streaming music package which you can listen back to on any Qriocity-capable device (laptop, PS3, Blu-ray player, PSP) for £9.99 a month. Media file support is uneven between products.

Though AVIs and AVCHD files played across our test on the network and from USB flash drives, Sony TVs ignore MKV-wrapped content. However, the latest Blu-ray players from the brand are better file friends. Not only do they play AVCHD and AVIs, they unspool MKVs too. Audio file compatibility covers MP3, AAC, WAV and WMA. The user experience for the open web browser varies according to device. For TVs it’s largely unusable. The page itself is presented centre-screen with tiny type that’s impossible to read from any decent viewing distance. However, that seen on Blu-ray players is of a sensible size. Neither has Flash, although Skype is also available, with the brand selling its own Skype webcam.

n www.toshiba.co.uk n

Toshiba Places Ratings PLUS

n Innovative idea n Cross platform content sharing n Personalised service

Minus

n Full social integration requires

your friends to also have a Places account Interface hhhhhhhhhh App choice hhhhhhhhhh File support hhhhhhhhhh Ease of use hhhhhhhhhh Social media hhhhhhhhhh

75%

While other brands have basically built competing walled gardens of smart content, Toshiba – arriving fashionably late to the party – has adopted a more personal approach. Essentially, Toshiba Places is just that – a combination of popular, curated internet destinations and IPTV services, woven together within a neat modernistic interface. The service was still being prepped for launch at time of writing but we were granted exclusive early access. The Places in question appear as a series of designated buttons running horizontally across the screen, each pointing to different content. The signposting is kind of clunky – TV Place, Video Place, Social Place, News Place, My favourite services – but you get what it says on the tin. iPlayer, for example, can be accessed via the TV places button. YouTube is also available. A top bar gives easy access to streaming video, be it subscription content from Box Office 365, to pay-per-view rentals from Woomi (an aggregator of budget movies and dusty TV shows). In many ways it’s the most social of all the new net portals, allowing you to share content such as your digital photography, home movies or clips, or music with

other registered users via the likes of Facebook– although it does rely on you and all your mates signing up for the service. Toshiba Places is not limited to a single device – your account can be accessed via any netconnected device with a browser. A Personal TV mode gives each user one-button access to customised volume levels, picture settings and favourite channel lists. As for media streaming, we only have history to go on – but the omens are good. USB media playback has been extremely supportive, playing back a wide range of video formats including MKV-wrapped content.


Connected TV

And the winner is...

Platforms

YouTube

BBC iPlayer

Demand 5

LoveFilm

Subscription TV

Movies on demand

Apps store

Casual games

Games

MP3 playback

AVI playback

MKV playback

Web browser

Web browser with Flash

Facebook

Twitter

Skype

Rating (%)

l

l

-

-

-

l

l

l

-

l

l

l

l

-

l

l

l

80

l

TV

l

l

-

-

-

l

l

l

l

l

l

l

-

-

l

l

l

79

l

TV, Blu-ray player

l

-

-

-

l

-

l

l

-

l

l

l

l

-

l

l

l

75

l

TV, Blu-ray player

l

l

l

l

l

83

Philips Net TV

Samsung Smart Hub

Sony BRAVIA Internet Video

movies and film clips, will genuinely expand your viewing choice. Smart Hub also has the best YouTube client. With YouTube increasingly becoming a source of higher-definition content, this prowess should not be underestimated.

All the portal services featured here have their strengths, but it’s Samsung which is ultimately setting the Connected TV pace. It has the largest selection of downloadable apps and channels like Explore 3D, offering free 3D edutainment

TV,Blu-ray player, Smart TV Upgrader

LG Smart TV

Panasonic VIERA Connect

Verdict

l

DLNA-compliant

Make and model

The good news is that all the services here deliver a compelling experience. Philips’ Net TV feels a little bit cobbled together, and we didn’t appreciate the nag-screen to join Club Philips marketing drive, but it offers a good mix of low-cost subscription TV and free VoD. If you have a large collection of downloaded video files and MP3 music rips, then LG’s Smart TV proposition is the one for you. Media Link is outstanding but it needs the PC to be permanently on for it to work. Panasonic’s VIERA Connect portal also ticks all the right boxes. It’s the only service to offer Games downloads and its apps store is on the up. However, it does lack a strong USP. Toshiba may still be sprucing up its Places proposal, but what we’ve seen to date is intriguing. We love its personal account facility, which enables you to access your content across multiple devices. Sony’s BRAVIA Internet Video Service is the one to beat if you’re looking for the widest selection of streaming VoD, although Sony currently has issues elsewhere with network security.

l

Toshiba Places l

TV, Blu-ray player,

TV, PC

l

l

-

l

l

l

l

l

-

l

l

From PC and USB, NAS depends on media server application

l

l

l

l

-

l

-

-

-

l

l

Blu-ray players only

l

-

l

l

l

79

l

l

-

-

l

l

-

-

-

l

tba

tba

tba

tba

l

l

-

75


Connected TV Portal group test