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Refrigerators

Samsung's new smart fridge is a $6,000 moonshot for the connected kitchen

With a 21.5-inch touchscreen and cameras that keep an eye on your leftovers, this is basically a concept car for the connected kitchen. The question is, does anybody want it?

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The Samsung Family Hub Refrigerator is the Korean manufacturer's latest and boldest attempt at selling us on the smart fridge. With a 21.5-inch touchscreen on the door and cameras on the inside that keep watch over your leftovers, it's arguably the smartest -- and inarguably the smartest-looking -- smart fridge to date.

And with a retail price starting at $5,600 (or $6,000 for a counter-depth model in black stainless steel like the one seen here) it's the most expensive one yet, too. It isn't available outside of the US yet like some of Samsung's other four-door fridges, but that starting price comes out to roughly £3,900 or AU$7,500.

However you convert it, $6,000 is a hell of a lot to spend on a fridge, even one that looks as nice as this one does. Take the Samsung RF32FMQDBSR, for instance. It offers the same, attractive four-door build, the same luxurious recessed handles, and the same "Flex Zone" in the bottom right quadrant that you can dial between fridge and freezer settings -- all for at least two thousand bucks less than the Family Hub fridge. The only differences between the two? The touchscreen, the cameras and the admittedly slick-looking black stainless steel finish.

So here's the basic question with this thing: Is that king-sized touchscreen (and the smarts that go with it) really worth the two thousand-dollar upcharge? Is this the fridge of the future, or a fridge too far?

To find out, we installed the Family Hub Refrigerator in the CNET Smart Home's kitchen. We'll save our full review for after we get our hands on a full production model. For now, here are our first impressions after spending about a week with a pre-production unit.

Chris Monroe/CNET

It's gorgeous

No surprise, here. Stylistically, Samsung knows it has a good thing going with its "Four-Door Flex" refrigerators, and with the dark finish and the eye-catching touchscreen, the Family Hub Fridge is the best-looking one yet.

The Tizen-powered touchscreen is well-organized and striking to look at, too, especially when it cycles through your photo collection. It's a dramatic difference from Samsung's previous smart fridges, where the touchscreens were comparably puny. Turns out size matters -- but, that said...

A $2,000 touchscreen it ain't

Let's get one thing clear: Samsung didn't just slap a tablet onto the front of this fridge. That's too generous a way of putting it. Tablets are personal and customizable, and they fill a wide variety of roles for a wide variety of users. The Family Hub fridge's touchscreen is just an interface, and one that's designed for the specific purpose of allowing you to interact with the refrigerator's smart features, the same way that an ATM's touchscreen is an interface designed to help you withdraw money from your bank account.

You can move the apps around on the home screen, but you can't delete any of them, or replace them with new ones from third parties. You can switch the screensaver between a photo slideshow, a weather rundown, and a look at your calendar, but you can't change the home screen, or set it to default to the latest images from those fridge cams. Good looks aside, it's still just an interface, not a personal computing device.

That applies to the feel of the thing, too, specifically the touch controls. While they're definitely a big improvement over the sluggish touchscreens found on the smart fridges of yesterday, they're nowhere near what you'd expect from a current-gen tablet. You have to type carefully, and you have to be sure you don't stray into the sizable bezel, where the screen loses track of your finger altogether. Try drawing a simple picture or signing your name in the whiteboard app, and you'll see just how limited the touch resolution is. I can't imagine comfortably writing much more than "hi mom" on it.

The drag-and-drop expiration date icons are fairly ingenious.

Chris Monroe/CNET

The cameras might surprise you

Fridge-cams might seem gimmicky. All right, fine. They are gimmicky. But to my surprise, this gimmick is growing on me.

There's three of them built into the refrigerator's "mullion," the strip of material that flaps shut between the doors whenever you close them. Each time you do, they snap a picture of the interior. Tap the "View Inside" button on the fridge's screen, or open up the Samsung Smart Home app on your phone, and you'll be able to check the latest picture. Samsung pitches it as a handy way of checking whether or not you need more orange juice or whatever while you're out at the grocery.

That seemed to me like the sort of feature that would come in handy maybe once or twice a year, and I didn't blame anybody for scoffing at the sound of it. But that "View Inside" feature has one other trick up its sleeve: little drag-and-drop icons that keep track of when things in the fridge will go bad.

It's easy to use, and a huge improvement from the ingredient-tracking capabilities of previous smart refrigerators, where you had to manually type in the details of the stuff you wanted to track. After all, if you really cared, you might as well just type those details into the notes app on your phone. Now, with the cameras in play, using your smart fridge to track ingredients finally makes sense -- although you'll need to make a habit of putting things back in the same spot, because the icons won't follow ingredients around if you move them.

The smarts are hit and miss

Beyond the "View Inside" mode, you'll find a web browser, an app that can mirror the feed from your Samsung smart TV, the Instacart and Groceries by Mastercard apps for getting ingredients delivered to your door, and an app called Sticki that syncs up your family's calendars into a shared, color-coded fridge calendar. I liked it, especially because it didn't force me to make a new calendar in a weird, new app -- I could just select events and meetings from my existing Google Calendar to show up on the fridge. Seems pretty handy for a busy family.

I also liked how easy it was to stream music or Internet radio using Pandora or TuneIn. The speakers are nothing special, but they're "good for a fridge," which is to say good enough for casual kitchen listening. If you want something that sounds better, you can sync the fridge up with external speakers via Bluetooth. I suppose that's a nice option, but I think I'd rather just get an Amazon Echo for the kitchen if it mattered that much to me.

Speaking of which, where is Alexa? When Samsung first pitched this fridge, the first and biggest bullet point on the press release was that it would be an Alexa-enabled device, with Amazon's voice-powered virtual assistant built right in. Then, at CES, Samsung backed off on the Alexa claims, saying it was really just more of a possibility for down the line.

Nothing has changed since then (except the price, which Samsung has bumped up from $5,000). Despite the fact that the fridge has speakers, a microphone and an Internet connection, and seems like an especially good fit for Alexa's hands-free music streaming, kitchen timers and unit conversions, there's still no sign of her. That's a distinct disappointment, and a bit of a head scratcher given that we're already starting to see Alexa pop up in third-party devices from much smaller manufacturers. If they can make it work, why can't Samsung?

Chris Monroe/CNET

Final thoughts (for now)

I get it. This smart fridge looks exponentially better and more futuristic than any other smart fridge ever made. Yes, it's expensive -- too expensive to be a realistic option for most of us -- but I don't think that's really the point.

The point is that nobody wanted the smart fridges of yesterday. That's the challenge Samsung and other appliance-makers must answer in order to capitalize on the smart homes of tomorrow. It sounds obvious, but they need to start making smart large appliances that people actually want. For now, at least, that means pulling out all of the stops and essentially producing their category's version of a concept car. You're almost certainly not going to buy it, but if it catches your attention and makes you want it, then it's done its job.

So, that just leaves one question -- do you want this thing?

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