Smart TVs have always had a big problem: smarter, more capable external devices.
Roku, Apple TV, Google Chromecast and now Amazon Fire TV are directly competitive with TVs' built-in Smart platforms, and often provide a better experience: more apps, slicker interfaces and more updates. Video game consoles are smarter than ever, incorporating the same apps and, in the the case of the Xbox One, essentially the same TV-centric functionality as an advanced Smart TV. And of course external cable or satellite boxes are necessary, in the U.S. at least, to provide TVs with most television programming and all-important DVR time-shifting.
The latest new Smart TV platform, and the one with the most positive buzz after LG acquired it last year and again at CES in January, is LG's WebOS. The name invokes one of the most beloved and dearly-departed smartphone platforms, and promises the same revolutionary simplicity that caused us to name the WebOS-powered Palm Pre one of the best products of its time, cerca 2009.
But is its simplicity-focused design enough to best other Smart TV platforms, let alone face the challenges posed by external devices?
Smart TVs with WebOS have just started shipping, and LG invited myself and a few other journalists to its Silicon Valley lab, the primary hub of WebOS development--it's a joint effort with the mothership in Korea--for some hands-on time. I expect to get a review sample shortly to put the system through its paces more thoroughly in our own Manhattan lab, but in the meantime here's some early impressions.
Simple is good, and WebOS is simple
"TV technology is incorporating both hardware and software, and at LG we wanted to double-down on the software," said Sam Chang, LG corporate VP and head of the lab. "That's why we set up a lab here, in the heart of Silicon Valley, right down the street from Google and Facebook. We wanted to think outside the box."
The slide behind him read "Make TV Simple Again," LG's thesis for WebOS.
And yes, WebOS is good. The interface immediately impressed me with its thoughtful, colorful layout. Hitting the Home button on the remote brings up a band of diagonally-aligned, pastel "cards," laying atop but not obscuring whatever program or app you're watching at the moment. Unlike some Smart TV systems--including LGs and Samsung's from 2013--that program stays full-screen as opposed to shrinking to an inset window and giving way to a profusion of icons, menus and/or ads.
Notably, Vizio and Sharp have been taking the same approach for years with their simpler overlay bands, and in 2014 Samsung's Smart interface is also less intrusive than before, with a similar band of app icons as its initial offering.
But LG's interface is prettier than any of those, and its slick motion remote it has most other clickers beat too (although most of Samsung's 2014 Smart TVs now include a motion remote as well). Waving the cursor around the screen--it behaves just like a Nintendo Wii controller, and is just as precise--is easier and more fun than repeatedly clicking from one icon to the next, and allows very quick selection of items on the home page. I called last year's LG clicker "The best TV remote yet," and this year's looks just as good.
You can customize and reorder the band to populate it with your favorite apps, and unlike most Smart TV systems WebOS aims to treats everything equally. So Netflix and Pandora get cards, of course, but HDMI 1 and 2 do as well, along with the web browser and local media available from USB or DLNA (WebOS also supports Plex). If you set up cable box control (see below), the name of the input changes to that of your cable system. On the demo TV I asked them to set up, the name changed to "Comcast Corporation," but I was assured that name could be changed; I'd probably opt for a simpler "DVR" or something.
Many Smart TV systems require multiple "pages" to show all of the content but WebOS takes a novel approach. Click to the left of the main band, which LG's Director of Product Management (and head demo maven) Colin Zhao said was envisioned as "The Past," and a history of the last few apps and other functions used appears. Conversely, the right of the band is "The Future," where reside the additional apps and functions you can launch and/or add to the main band in the middle. Another click to the "LG Store" takes you to the firehose; the many many other smaller apps. The arrangement makes intuitive sense, and also keeps down clutter.
The system also aims to simplify initial setup, or at least make it more entertaining. A Bean Bird cartoon character (seemingly stolen whole-hog from Angry Birds) rewards completion of the setup steps, like selecting your location and cable TV provider, with somewhat amusing animations and a prompts. In one example it marches at the head of what seems like a protest event, holding a sign that reads "We want our set-top box."
Quick app switcheroo with Netflix 4K
As I'd expect from a modern system LG's Smart TV felt very quick and responsive, with very few delays in bringing up content and other screens. When there was a delay, LG's reps were quick to blame the slow, crowded wi-fi in the lab.
It couldn't have been that bad, however, because one of the most impressive demos involved switching back and forth between streams of Netflix's House of Cards--the 4K version--and a YouTube video. Zhao claimed that including the 4K stream would really tax the system, and that seems logical to me. And the demo was impressive indeed. I hit "Home" while the stream played and selected YouTube, started a video there, hit "home" again and flipped back to Netflix and House of Cards resumed from where I'd left off, quickly and seamlessly.
If that worked with live TV from a DVR--sending a pause command automatically when you flipped over to Wikipedia or Twitter, for example, then resuming upon return--I'd be even more impressed. With no cable box available, however, I couldn't test that demo.
By the way, this is the first time I've seen Netflix's 4K streaming in person, but the demo was too brief the situation far from ideal to render a verdict on "is it better than 1080p Blu-ray?" All I'll venture to say now is that it looked great for Netflix; I'll wait to get it into CNET's lab before I go any further.
The fly in the ointment: cable box control
I've mentioned the cable box and DVR a few times already because it's still the main way people in the U.S. watch TV. Many Smart TV systems offer some way to control the cable box, usually via blasting IR (infrared) remote control commands via dongles or, in LG's case, the motion remote itself.
Unfortunately, none of these systems is as good as using the box's included remote, especially for DVRing. By that I mean pausing, fast-fowarding and resuming play, primarily to skip commercials. If you're a heavy DVRer, chances are you'll be unsatisfied using a Smart TV and its included remote to control your box.
I called the LG's 2013 version "the best example of cable box control I've tested on any TV," but I still prefered using a good universal remote. For 2014, despite all the improvements to interface design and switching brought by WebOS, LG told me its control system is the same as last year's. That means my complaints about lack of dedicated buttons for DVRing, the need to resort to an on-screen "virtual" remote for most control functions, and an inability to learn new commands and customize buttons for different devices, still remain.
Preliminary verdict: Maybe the best Smart TV yet, but boxes still win
After playing with WebOS and learning its advantages and weaknesses, I'm fairly certain it's "just another evolution" in the genre, not a game-changer that'll replace all those external boxes.
It definitely won't replace my Roku, for example, because LG doesn't have HBO Go. And my Roku, as well as Apple TV, Chromecast and the rest, are already very simple to use themselves. Yes, setup is a bit more complex, and you do have to deal with an external box, but those are minor issues in my book.
It also won't replace my universal remote, because I'm a heavy DVRer with a TiVo and an aversion to wasting my time watching ads. And of course, as someone who places picture quality higher on my TV wish list than Smart features, not even the best Smart system can overcome a mediocre image--and LG's picture quality has been disappointing in recent reviews.
On the other hand from what I've seen WebOS is the frontrunner for best Smart TV system of 2014. When I get the chance to compare it head to head against competitors from Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, Vizio and others in my lab, I'll know for sure.