Content is one of the most powerful weapons in the tech wars, something which Samsung knows all too well. Over the last few years it has inked some impressive content deals to help it fight off Apple in the gadget space and Sony in the lounge room. Samsung's flagship Series 8 F8000 LED TV range reaps the benefit of these deals, with exclusive access to Foxtel along with an amazing range of other programming.
To be honest when I run my eye over a television my primary concern is picture quality, but here I want to focus on Samsung's slick Smart Hub internet features. I should say that in terms of picture quality this $4199 55-inch LED-backlit TV is very impressive, about as good as you'll find on the shelves for an LED LCD (although you should pit it against a Sony Bravia).
The colours and contrast are excellent and it does a great job of upscaling content, although personally I prefer the look of plasmas when it comes to fast-moving action. You'll need to tweak this Samsung's Motion Plus and Sharpness settings if you find the 200 Hz refresh rate leaves some content looking so crisp that it's no longer realistic (known as the "soap opera" effect).
Along with this 55-inch model you'll also find 60, 65 and 75-inch Series 8 monsters blessed with the Samsung's Smart TV features. The Samsung Smart Hub interface is built around five home screens. The default screen is "On TV" and then flicking to the right you find "Movies & TV Shows", "Photos, Videos & Music", "Social" and finally "Apps".
You can flick between these screens with the remote control or use the television's impressive voice and gesture recognition to flick between the pages. The ability to wave and shout at the television is worth a review in itself, but basically the built-in webcam lets you wave your hand at the screen to change channel, adjust the volume and navigate through the menus. Alternatively you can say "Hi TV" to grab the TV's attention and then issue a wide range of voice commands.
Getting back to Smart Hub, the default "On TV" screen plays the selected free-to-air channel in a small window. Click on it to make it full screen. Alongside this window are details of what's currently screening on the other channels, plucked from the Electronic Program Guide. From this screen you can also call up the full EPG as well as access shows you've recorded to USB storage.
The next Smart Hub screen to the right is "Movies & TV Shows" and this is where Samsung's content deals start to shine through -- not that you'd notice at first glance. Unlike some Smart TV interfaces, Samsung has shifted the focus away from content providers and instead put the focus on to the actual content. This "Movies & TV Shows" screen doesn't list all the content providers at your disposal, instead it displays a spread of movies and TV shows at your disposal.
Click on the Hugh Jackman movie Real Steel, for example, and you're shown a synopsis. Then click Watch Now and you're presented the option to hire Real Steel in standard-def from Quickflix ($5.99), or else hire it from Samsung's own Samsung Video Hub in standard-def ($5.99) or high-def ($6.99). You can also purchase it from Samsung Video Hub, paying $19.99 for stand-def or an extra $5 for high-def.
If you've got a Quickflix account you can watch pay-per-view movies like Real Steel or watch something older like The Karate Kid from Quickflix's all-you-can-eat Play catalogue (formerly known as WatchNow). This is a refreshing change from some TV makers who only let you watch the Quickflix back catalogue but don't let you rent Quickflix pay-per-view movies, lest it eat into their own movie rental service.
The picture quality from Quickflix is surprisingly good, especially considering it's running on a 55-inch screen likely to show up even small imperfections in the picture. It's obviously assisted by the television's impressive image processing which helps less than perfect content look its best. Even old standard-definition movies look sharp and clear with plenty of detail in the shadows and only the occasional trace of pixelation or motion blur. If you've an eye for detail you'll notice it's not quite on par with a disc, as you'd expect, but it's very watchable and you can easily forget that it's coming from the internet.
The "Movies & TV Shows" menu lets you browse for movies according to genre or what's new, but you can't search for specific titles. It's a shame that Samsung hasn't incorporated more content sources into these menus, such as Foxtel and the various Catch Up TV services. I guess this could come with time, but it would probably require someone to manually curate and cross-reference all that extra content. It's also likely that Samsung wants to push you towards the paid content rather than the free Catch Up TV services.
At this point it's worth mentioning Samsung's voice recognition features again to emphasise just how seamlessly Samsung is trying to integrate all this content into its Smart TV experience. From any screen or video source you can push the voice button on the remote control, say "Play Men in Black" or "Find Men in Black" and have the TV search through Quickflix, Samsung Video Hub and the TV guide for options.
This is a rather impressive trick and one of the few times where using the voice commands is actually faster and more convenient than using the remote control to wade through the menus. Unfortunately the results can be hit and miss and the voice recognition can sometimes let you down. If a command like "Find John Lee Hooker" or "Find Black Books" can't find any results, and the television feels in the mood, you're sometimes offered the option of "Search All". This scours YouTube as well as content from your home DLNA servers, such as a computer or network drive.
Unfortunately the DLNA search results aren't very useful. It only seems to search through file names, not metadata, and it doesn't list the results intelligently. You're very unlikely to find what you want from your home DLNA library this way.
Like I said, it's a shame more of the television's online content can't be incorporated into this search ecosystem. To access the rest of the internet video services you need to flick across to the "Apps" Smart Hub screen. Here you'll find Foxtel on Internet TV, Quickflix, Seven's Plus7, ABC iView, SBS On Demand, YouTube, Vimeo, TuneIn and several other content sources pre-installed. Unlike the "Movies & TV Shows" menu, the apps will let you search for specific titles rather than just browse categories.
What's particularly interesting is that Seven's Plus7 offers extra content not available on other internet-enabled home entertainment gear such as my Sony Blu-ray player. My Sony Blu-ray player only offers a choice of nine Plus7 programs while this Samsung TV offers 26 programs including Home & Away and Packed to the Rafters.
Sources tell me that Samsung is striking similar exclusive content deals with other providers, which will give it even more of an advantage over the competition in the next 12 months.
Other pre-installed Smart TV apps include Skype (using the TV's built in webcam), Twitter and Facebook, plus you've got access to the Samsung App store. There's a lot of junk in there but you will find some gems such as Bigpond's Movies, AFL, TV and Game Analyser apps along with EPSN3, MLB.TV and BBC News. If you tend to download content and stream it to your television then you'll be pleased to discover the Plex app in the store, although the television does have decent built-in USB and DLNA streaming features.
The fact the Bigpond apps aren't pre-installed is a reflection of Samsung's current alliances, but it's great to see the option remains and Samsung isn't afraid of a little competition. These Bigpond apps alone add a wealth of extra content which should be unmetered if Bigpond is your ISP. The option to integrate all this content into the "Movies & TV Shows" menu would be great, but I doubt it's a priority for Samsung.
The Bigpond TV app mimics the slick interface from Telstra's T-Box and even lets you watch most of the free-to-air digital channels, drawing on the TV tuner rather than the internet. You can also watch several Bigpond internet channels including AFL, motor racing and music, although the sports picture quality can vary. It's not possible to record or time-shift the free-to-air or internet channels within this app, which is fair enough, but it's a shame the remote control's channel up and down buttons don't work within the Bigpond TV app.
At this point Samsung already offers the most extensive internet video options of Australia's major home entertainment players. Of course we haven't even got to the real showstopper: Foxtel on Internet TV. This is a Samsung exclusive which you won't find on other televisions, although you'll find similar offerings built into Telstra's T-Box and Microsoft's Xbox 360.
Unlike the Foxtel Go mobile app, Foxtel on Internet TV doesn't come bundled with a standard Foxtel subscription. Even if you're a full Foxtel subscriber you'll still need to pay extra for Foxtel on Internet TV. You can subscribe to several packages of channels starting from $19.50 per month, but you don't have the same breadth of channels as if you were a Foxtel cable or satellite subscriber.
The picture quality is excellent, better than Quickflix, and even on a 5 Mbps broadband connection your average viewer will never realise that they're not watching "real" TV. As with Bigpond, the one exception is live fast-moving sport which can look a little blurry and pixelated. An AFL channel is included in the sport package, but you won't get every game every week under the broadcast agreement "blackout" rules.
Once again you can't record or time-shift the Foxtel on Internet TV content, but what is impressive is that the remote control's channel up and down buttons work within the Foxtel app, contributing to a very slick user experience.
If you're considering this television for its internet features then you'll need a generous monthly download allowance, especially if you have kids who will probably never watch live TV again once they discover all the internet options. Foxtel says to allow around 1.3 GB per hour for Foxtel streaming channels. I'd say a busy household would want a monthly allowance of at least 200 GB -- which thankfully isn't as expensive as it once was -- to play it safe with this TV .
Samsung's Smart Hub has been evolving for several years and it's far from done, but already it is an amazing example of what happens when TV makers focus less on owning the customer and more on giving them what they want. Samsung has really thrown down the gauntlet to other hardware makers who try to lock customers into their own services or simply dump a list of video apps on the screen and leave viewers to find their own way. As the line between broadcast and IP content continues to blur, Samsung's Smart Hub offers a tantalising taste of things to come.