Samsung took the TV world by surprise with the UE55ES8000 -- the first TV that could be controlled by voice or by waving your hand in front of it, Minority Report-style. I wasn't all that impressed with it when I tested it in March, especially as it was so expensive.
Now Samsung's offering these features on the cheaper UE55ES7000 model I'm reviewing here and, crucially, the company claims it's improved the motion tracking and voice recognition software substantially.
So can the UE55ES7000, which is priced at around £2,300, impress me more than its pricier sibling?
The headline feature on this TV is the way you can control it by voice and motion, so let's look at these two features first.
The voice controls are fairly straightforward to use, as you'd expect. You say the trigger words to start up the voice recognition system and the TV displays a list of commands on screen that you can voice to activate certain features. There are only two trigger phrases -- "Hi TV" and "Smart TV" -- and you have to manually select one or the other in the main menu. So you can't just swap between them at random.
The trigger phrases are used to stop dialogue in movies or TV shows from inadvertently firing up the voice features. Unlike LG's voice control option, you don't need to have the remote to hand. You can just call out to the TV and the mic built into the chassis will pick up what you say. There is also a mic button on the touchpad remote control that you can use if you're not having much luck with the built-in mic.
The integrated mic actually works well as long as there isn't a lot of ambient noise in the room and the volume of the TV isn't set too high. At fairly normal volumes its hit rate is high, so most people shouldn't have a problem getting it to respond.
It's neat that it works with a range of voices without any training. However, there is a downside to this as my girlfriend found she was able to walk in the room, say the trigger word and then utter "channel down" to switch away from Formula 1 while I was watching it. Funny the first time, quite annoying after that!
Also, if you turn up the TV's volume high, its response to the trigger word becomes less reliable, to the point where you're shouting at it like a madman. It's at this point you need to use the mic built into the touch-pad remote.
There are two advantages to doing this. Firstly, you don't have to use the trigger word to activate the voice recognition system -- you just press the mic button on the remote and speak your command. The second is that you can speak much more quietly into it, so you don't feel as much of a prat. However, it begs the question that if you have the remote to hand, why not just use that instead?
The range of voice control commands is somewhat limited. You can turn the TV on and off by voice (although it wasn't hugely reliable when it came to responding to the "TV on" command), and you can change the volume level, move up and down through channels or go to a specific channel number. It also lets you launch a small selection of smart apps and the web browser by voice.
The issue with the voice control is not really that it's unreliable -- it actually works well enough as long as you go though the mic calibration process first time -- but that the system doesn't give you enough control over the TV. Instead of asking it to go to channel 80, I wanted to be able to say "switch to BBC News," or ask it what's on next.
You can't change the picture presets either, or control any of the smart apps by voice. So if you want to do anything other than launch a few apps or change the channel or volume level, you need to pick up a remote.
The other issue is that it's just not that fast to use. In the time it takes to say the trigger word, wait for the menu to pop up, say the command and wait for the TV to respond, I could have used the normal remote to open the programme guide, check what was on the other channels and switch to something I wanted to watch.
The other way you can interact with the telly is to use motion control. To start this up, raise your hand and give the TV a little circular wave. This should call up the cursor on screen, which you control by moving your hand around with your palm open and facing the TV. It's quite sensitive so you only have to make very small movements to shift the cursor quite a distance on the display.
To select an item on screen, you just close your hand to make a fist. Keeping your hand closed acts much like a long press on a mouse button and is useful for turning up and down the volume by multiple steps, or skipping through lots of channels. A short close of the hand acts more like a quick tap of a mouse button.
In a brightly-lit room, the motion control works quite well, although the tracking isn't always as accurate as it should be. Sometimes it decides you've finished giving it commands when you're still moving around. In low light it hardly works at all, something Samsung could probably have avoided if it had fitted an infrared senor like.
Also, the waving gesture to trigger the motion control is annoying, especially as it often takes a while to recognise that you're trying to start it up. And while I don't want to sound like a complete wimp, I actually found it was uncomfortable holding my hand up with my palm open while operating the set.
The granularity of the control isn't quite fine enough for certain tasks either. For example, trying to use motion to scroll down in the browser is a very hit-and-miss affair.
While Samsung has improved both the voice and motion control from the ES8000, it's not quite enough to make me convinced it's really worth the price premium. It's initially very cool to play with and has a futuristic feel to it, but I just couldn't see myself using it regularly on a day-to-day basis.
Also, I feel Samsung has made a mistake by not building a new user interface from the ground up for motion and voice control. These features have been bolted over the top of its existing menu system. When Apple moved to touch on the, it built the interface around the input system, which helped to mask some of the weaknesses of touch displays and improve the overall user experience.
User interface and EPG
The TV's overall user interface is slickly presented though, and on the whole, it's easy to get around. There's less of the duplication found on LG's user interface but the design looks quite similar as it centres on a home screen that gives you access to everything, from smart apps to the TV's input list.
The graphics and icons are cute and cheery, while the transitions are slick and polished. It generally moves at a decent pace too, which is what you'd expect given it's running on a dual-core Arm chip.