They may be called Blu-ray players, but in 2011 they're as much about streaming media services as they are about high-definition discs. With every manufacturer having a different collection of streaming media services, it can be tough to choose a player, which is why we're taking an in-depth look at each major manufacturer's 2011 content portal.
We're starting with Samsung's Smart Hub, the company's renamed content portal (formerly called Internet@TV), which features streaming media services like Netflix and MLB.TV, (supposedly) cross-platform search, and the Samsung App store.
Smart Hub is the same on nearly all 2011 Blu-ray players--and home theater systems with built-in Blu-ray players--but slightly different on Samsung TVs. The main exception on the Blu-ray side is the entry-level Samsung BD-D5300, which doesn't have the full Smart Hub interface.
Smart Hub streaming services vs. competitors
Editors' Note: The chart doesn't list every streaming media service available on each content portal; for the sake of simplicity, we chose those we considered most important.
Samsung has one of the most comprehensive selections of streaming media apps in 2011, especially on the video side. Standard services like Netflix, Vudu, and YouTube are covered, but also some standout extras, like MLB.TV and Hulu Plus.
For us, the main missing ingredient of Samsung's streaming media offerings is Amazon Instant Streaming. While competing services like Vudu are a compelling alternative for video-on-demand movies, Amazon Instant offers by far the largest selection of TV shows for pay-per-view watching, including both network and cable shows. We also appreciate that it's tied into the viewer's Amazon.com account, which means we're able to watch our purchased content in a browser as well. If you're looking to "cut the cord" or just supplement your existing cable subscription, we've found Amazon Instant Streaming to be the best TV content provider. That being said, CinemaNow and Hulu Plus offer a solid collection of TV content, so it really comes down to which service you prefer.
Purely in terms of quality of streaming services offered, the main competitors to Samsung are Sony and Panasonic. At first glance, Sony would appear to be the hands-down winner--especially with its glut of music services--but it's hamstrung by the subpar user interface for all its video services. (More on this in our upcoming review of Sony's Bravia Internet Video services.) Panasonic doesn't have quite the breadth of either Sony or Samsung, but it does have Amazon Instant and doesn't have the interface issues present on the Sony.
Of course, a lot of this comes down to personal preference. The nice thing is that you can check out what most of these services have to offer by visiting their Web sites.
Smart Hub, Samsung Apps, and search
Samsung's Smart Hub is more ambitious than any of its competitors. There's an application store, customizable home page, search, recommendations--really the kitchen sink approach to dealing with digital content. There's no doubt Samsung is trying to do a lot with Smart Hub, but unfortunately most of the implementation is clunky.
Take search. Smart Hub search bills itself as a cross-platform search engine for content, which is a great idea since it can be a pain trying to remember which content is available where. Unfortunately, we found that search only worked with Vudu, YouTube, and Facebook, leaving out major services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and CinemaNow. We doubt we'd use the feature at all if we owned a Samsung Blu-ray player. We felt the same way about the recommendations page, which didn't seem nearly as useful as Netflix or Amazon's similar features.
There's also the issue of text input. To start with, it's a pain entering the countless usernames and passwords for all the services. And despite the fact that we had to register separate accounts for Samsung Smart TV and Samsung Apps, there wasn't a Web interface where we could easily manage our account info. If you have a smartphone, it makes it a lot easier, as there are both iPhone and Android apps, although note that you won't be able to use the phone to input text for in-app search functions, such as on Netflix. It's fair to point out that competitors don't have great solutions to the account management problem either, but that doesn't make it any less frustrating.
The other side effect of Smart Hub trying to do so much is that it makes the home page feel cluttered and confusing. There's a tile that says "Your Video," but that doesn't lead you to your favorite streaming video apps, instead bringing you to Samsung's recommendations. There's a banner that says "Smart TV," but that brings you to what looks like an advertisement for Smart TV--which you already own. You're supposedly able to edit and make folders of the main apps on the home page, but we couldn't figure out how to add services, only delete them.
Samsung Apps was released last year and is also available through Smart Hub. The idea is similar to that other famous app store, allowing third-party developers to create programs that you can add to your Samsung Blu-ray player. Like in other app stores, the majority of the apps aren't worthwhile, but there are some good ones that don't come preinstalled like MLB.TV. So far, we don't see Samsung's line of products as having an advantage over standard content portals, as Panasonic and Sony offer similar services without an app store.
While we appreciate Samsung's effort to innovate in this space, we ended up feeling like the more curated content portals offered by competitors like Panasonic and LG made for a better user experience. When it comes down to it, 95 percent of the time we just want to access a few major services like Netflix, Vudu, and Pandora, and the rest of the stuff just gets in the way. Samsung may improve the service as time goes on, but right now it needs work.
We had our problems with Samsung's Smart Hub, but Samsung's Netflix interface is excellent. It's very similar to the interface offered on the PS3 at the end of last year, so if you're looking for more information, take a look at. Unlike with older versions of Netflix, you can search for titles as well as browse categories like new arrivals and different genres.
While there was significant variation in Netflix interfaces last year on Blu-ray players, this year they're largely the same, so it's not a major differentiating factor.
Samsung's Smart Hub promises a lot (search, recommendations, app store) and it's easy to get underwhelmed when a lot of those features don't work that well. However, there's no denying that Samsung has put together an excellent collection of streaming video services, including standouts like Hulu Plus and MLB.TV. If you plan on taking advantage of all of Samsung's streaming video services, it's a solid option and you won't find a few of its services on products from other manufacturers. On the other hand, if you think you'll mostly stick with major services like Netflix and Pandora, you'll probably be better off with LG's or Panasonic's simpler, more straightforward content portals. And Amazon Instant fans will likely want to stick with Panasonic, which offers a considerably better interface than Sony.
Got Smart Hub questions? Leave a comment below.