One of the major themes at this year's CES was the smarter "smart TV." Sure, TV manufacturers are still hyping 3D, and improved cosmetics and form are always a popular topic of discussion. But companies like Samsung, LG, Panasonic, and Toshiba devoted a lot of booth real estate to highlighting the more advanced features you can expect in this year's smart TVs.
What is a smart TV? It's marketing-speak for a networkable TV that grants you access to Web services like video- and music-on-demand, games, news, sports, and anything else an app developer can think up. Most smart TVs can also access personal media files streamed from a computer or handheld device, to enjoy on the big screen. Web functionality used to be a feature reserved for the top models in a company's TV line, but it has slowly trickled down to a point where, this year, you're likely to see some type of Web platform even in a company's lower-tier lines. Now that these Web platforms are practically ubiquitous, the big push is to refine the platforms--to offer smarter services and apps, as well as smarter ways to tie all the different pieces together in a user-friendly package.
A Smarter Experience
Multitasking was a buzzword at CES. Thanks to the use of more robust dual-core processors, some 2012 HDTVs will allow you to multitask, meaning that you don't have to quit one app before you launch another--as is the case with most current smart-TV platforms. We're now being promised an experience similar to what we're accustomed to in the computer realm, where you can jump quickly and easily between applications.
Most of the big-name manufacturers have either slightly tweaked or thoroughly revamped their Web platform to provide a cleaner, more intuitive interface with better search capabilities across the different content options (TV, on-demand, and personal media). Sharp has completely redesigned its AQUOS Web platform, and Toshiba will launch its new MediaGuide interface, which uses Rovi technology to offer in-depth content info, personalized searches, and other advanced features. MediaGuide will be offered on top-shelf Toshiba lines like the L6200 and L7200 Series.
What's a consumer electronics event without talk of the cloud? Panasonic's VIERA Connect platform is moving to a cloud-based architecture that will allow for the addition of unlimited new apps, while Samsung's AllShare Play service will now offer Web storage so that users can upload and share content between all of their connected devices, including TVs, smartphones, laptops, and cameras.
Not surprisingly, a smarter TV needs smarter, more interactive apps, and there were a few of those on display, as well. Samsung will be the first TV manufacturer to add Angry Birds directly to its TVs. Samsung also showed off a new Fitness program that allows users to connect a TV and smartphone to track fitness regimens and goals; you can even connect a WiFi-enabled scale and even use the TV's built-in camera as a virtual mirror. Samsung's Family Story makes it easier for family members to share photos, videos, and memos across devices, like the TV, cell phone, and computer. Samsung and Panasonic also debuted new kid-friendly interactive content; Panasonic has partnered with Disney to provide interactive storybooks.
As an admitted TV addict, I was particularly interested in Panasonic's announced partnership with MySpace to bring the MySpace TV app to Panasonic TVs later this year. Panasonic already offers a Social Networking TV app that allows you to simultaneously watch live TV while accessing Facebook and Twitter (and will add a similar function for Skype this year). MySpace TV takes that idea even further, more thoroughly integrating the live-TV and social-networking experiences to allow friends and families to enjoy shared, real-time entertainment channels across multiple platforms (TV, phone, computer, etc.). The service will put a large emphasis on music and music videos during the early-goings but is expected to branch out into other areas like sports, news, and reality TV programming.
Let's face it: The smarter the TV gets, the dumber a traditional remote control seems. As part of the goal to improve the overall user experience, manufacturers are experimenting with creative ways to navigate and control the TV. LG's motion-controlled Magic Remote has been available for a couple of years; this year, the remote adds a microphone and voice-recognition mode for easier text input, and gesture control will also be available in higher-end models. Likewise, Samsung's premium TVs will feature "Smart Interaction" technology that combines motion control, voice control, and face recognition.
Smarter control also demands smarter integration with peripheral devices, like a smartphone or tablet. Most of the major TV manufacturers offer a remote-control app for your phone or tablet, and wisely most of them now include a virtual keyboard for easier text input. For those who don't own a smartphone or tablet, consider a TV that supports the addition of a wireless keyboard.
Look for the ability to throw or push content from a computer, tablet, or phone to your TV, and vice versa. Some LG TVs will incorporate Intel's Wireless Display (WiDi) technology, which allows you to directly connect your TV and PC without Internet access or cables, and the new Screen Share function in LG's Smart Share Plus system lets you stream TV content to an external device over WiFi. Samsung, meanwhile, offers an app called SwipeIt that allows you to throw videos and photos from your iOS or Android device to your Samsung networkable TV. Panasonic demoed a similar function that will be part of its new VIERA Remote App version 2.0.
Perhaps the smartest claim of all comes from Samsung, which is calling its 2012 smart TVs "futureproof"--thanks to the development of Smart Evolution kits that can be inserted into an expansion slot on the TV's connection panel to incorporate new technologies down the road. Now, I think we all know there's no such thing as "futureproof" in this industry, but the Smart Evolution kit is still an intriguing concept that can help prolong your TV's relevancy when this year's smarter smart TV become next year's smartest smart TV.