Samsung's Smart Hub is an ever-evolving Web platform; each year, the company seems compelled to tweak things to alter the user experience -- sometimes dramatically, sometimes subtly. While the 2014 version has the same general look and navigation as the 2013 version (which was a drastic redesign compared with previous versions), Samsung has made some notable changes. Smart Hub is found in all of Samsung's smart, network-connected HDTVs, but some features will vary based on which 2014 TV you purchase. This evaluation is based on Smart Hub as it appears in the UN65HU8550 Ultra HD TV that I recently reviewed, one of the higher-end models in Samsung's 2014 lineup. This TV includes voice control but does not have an integrated camera for motion control, Skype, and other camera-related activities. You can add a camera via USB, but I did not do so for this review.
The Smart Hub onscreen interface consists of five panels or pages, labeled On TV, Apps, Games, Multimedia, and Movies & TV Shows. When you first press the remote's Smart Hub button, a banner pops up along the bottom on the screen (while video continues to play full screen) that includes popular and recently opened apps, as well as recent video sources you've viewed. This allows you to quickly access a service or source that you use regularly without having to go into the full Smart Hub menu, which is a nice time-saver. Press the smaller Smart Hub icon within this banner to bring up the full Smart Hub interface, which opens first to the On TV page.
On TV offers suggestions, in the form of colorful thumbnails, for what's currently playing and what's coming up on TV, based on your service provider (should you choose to list it during setup). TVs like the UN65HU8550 come with an IR blaster cable that allows you to control your DVR/set-top box using the Samsung TV remote. Once you set this up, you can use the On TV page as a starting point to browse TV content and tune to the desired channel. I set up the system to control my Dish Network Hopper DVR, and it worked well. Last year, most of the Dish channel numbers were incorrect, so the Samsung TV always changed to the wrong channel when I selected a recommended show through the On TV page. This year, that issue has been fixed, and the On TV system worked as desired for me. The more you use it, the more it can tailor suggestions to your taste; or, you can tailor the options based on genres like Movies & Drama, Sports, Family, or Hulu Plus. A generic program guide is available to browse your channel lineup, but I found it to be very slow, both in loading show names and in moving through the pages. It also isn't customizable to eliminate channels you don't watch. The Dish program guide works much better and faster, so I stuck with that. Samsung's Timeline Grid is a bit more interesting, showing thumbnails of what's airing over the next five hours on each channel. Meanwhile, the trending section shows you what people are watching and breaks down demographics by gender and age.
The next page in the Smart Hub interface is Samsung Apps, where you'll find the Web-based entertainment services, and Samsung has all the majors covered, including Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, Vudu, M-Go, HBO Go, YouTube, Pandora, TuneIn, and more. The page is preloaded with some recommended apps along the top, and you can add more through the Samsung Store, with search options for Most Popular, What's New, and Categories running along the bottom of the page. A couple of free Ultra HD photo galleries are included that allowed me to take advantage of the UN65HU8550's higher resolution. Apps like Camera, Skype, and Fitness are designed for those who have an integrated or add-on camera. A Web browser is available that supports Flash and loads pages fairly quickly. The basic IR remote that comes with most Samsung TVs will get the job done in navigating Web pages; but, if your TV comes with the Smart Control remote that has a motion-controlled pointer, that makes it easier to navigate pages, click on links, and input text via the onscreen keyboard.
Click on over to Page to to find out what's new this year, The High Points and Low Points and the Conclusion . . .
This year, Samsung has added a dedicated Games page to Smart Hub, replacing last year's Social page that was home to services like Skype, Facebook, and Twitter (which are all still accessible via the Apps page). You can download a variety of free and fee-based games, and the onscreen interface tells you which remote(s) can be used with a particular game. I'm not a gamer, so I didn't spend much time in this area. The UN65HU8550 had 4.82 GB of onboard memory to store downloaded games and apps.
Last year's "Photos, Videos & Music" page has been renamed "Multimedia." Through this page, you can access personal media content from USB drives, PCs, cloud servers, and other network-connected devices, as well as get instant access to popular online video clips from places like YouTube, Vevo, and DailyMotion and direct links to radio broadcasts like ESPN Radio and BBC Radio. I had no issues connecting to my Seagate NAS drive to access and play media files; videos started quickly and played smoothly, as did music files. Playback from my Samsung Galaxy Tablet using the AllShare app was a little slower and choppier at times. Smart Hub supports playback of a wide variety of file formats, including: MP3, WMA, M4A, AAC, FLAC, OGG, WAV, and AIFF for music; AVI, MKV, MP4, MOV, and VOB for video; and JPEG, PNG, BMP, and MPO for photos.
The final page is called Movies & TV Shows, which gives recommendations for content available to be streamed. Click on a title, and you'll be taken to a page with a plot summary, cast/crew info, links to trailers, and a link to the streaming service where you can view this title. In most cases, that link was to Vudu, although I did come across one Hulu Plus link, too. The Movies area had a nice selection of popular and new releases listed, but the TV Shows area was less impressive, with lots of specialty content (like stand-up comedy performances) but very few links to big-name shows that are available through Hulu Plus. The trending section is here, too, if you care to know how 22 Jump Street is currently faring in gender and age breakdowns.
This year, Samsung has introduced a new (still free) iOS/Android control app, called Smart View 2.0. In addition to providing WiFi control of TV functions like power, volume, and channel, Smart View 2.0 includes a virtual keyboard to input text, making it easier to search for content and sign in to some (but not all) apps. Through the control app, you can also beam or swipe content from your phone/tablet to be played back on the big screen. I tried this with my iPhone 4 and had no issues sending music, videos, and photos.
WiFi Direct and Screen Mirroring are available on the UN65HU8550. WiFi Direct allows the TV to communicate directly with compatible networkable devices like phones and tablets without going through your home network. Screen mirroring lets you display your tablet or phone's screen on the big TV screen.
• The Smart Hub contains all of the major Web apps, and the Apps Store has a lot of options to further expand your apps library.
• The Smart Hub interface is intuitively laid out and easy to navigate. On my TV review sample, I was able to move through pages very quickly and didn't have any major issues with crashes or freezes.
• You can stream media from a variety of networkable and USB devices, and the platform supports a lot of file formats. I liked that, when I hit the TV remote's Source button, my Seagate NAS drive appeared as a source option, making it even quicker to access my networked content.
• The Smart View 2.0 control app worked better than last year's version that I tested.
• If your TV comes with the Smart Control remote, you can use voice control to search for content. For instance, saying "Watch baseball" will bring up a list of related items from your program guide. The standard IR remote has a Search button that lets you type in a title to search for content.
• The Smart Hub onscreen interface would often turn dark for a split second and then resume normal function.
• This year's "recommendations" process doesn't seem as robust. The Movies & TV Shows page and the search tool are linked primarily to the pay-per-use Vudu service, ignoring other subscription-based Web apps that might also offer the same content.
• A few buttons within the Smart View 2.0 app -- like Search, Info, and Guide -- did not seem to work. When I pressed them, nothing happened, even those the same buttons worked fine on the physical Samsung remotes.
• The Smart View 2.0 virtual keyboard does not work in major apps like Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, M-Go, and YouTube.
Samsung's Smart Hub is still one of the best Web platforms offered by the major TV manufacturers. It hits the right notes in terms of its number of services, integrated TV control and search, recommendations, file support for personal media playback, and general speed and intuitiveness. Sure, there are always things you can nitpick about, but all in all Smart Hub delivers on the promise of a truly integrated platform where Web services, personal media, games, and cable/satellite are easily accessible and presented in a clear, unified way.