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Samsung SEK-1000 (2013 Evolution Kit) review: A brain transplant for Smart TVs

A cool idea and an innovative way to combat Smart TV obsolescence, the 2013 Evolution Kit effectively replaces the brains of certain 2012 high-end Samsung TVs.

David Katzmaier Editorial Director -- Personal Tech
David reviews TVs and leads the Personal Tech team at CNET, covering mobile, software, computing, streaming and home entertainment. We provide helpful, expert reviews, advice and videos on what gadget or service to buy and how to get the most out of it.
Expertise A 20-year CNET veteran, David has been reviewing TVs since the days of CRT, rear-projection and plasma. Prior to CNET he worked at Sound & Vision magazine and eTown.com. He is known to two people on Twitter as the Cormac McCarthy of consumer electronics. Credentials
  • Although still awaiting his Oscar for Best Picture Reviewer, David does hold certifications from the Imaging Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology on display calibration and evaluation.
David Katzmaier
12 min read

Smart TV has a few problems. In addition to the fact that cheap little add-on boxes like the Roku and Apple TV often offer better functionality, there's the upgrade factor. People tend to own their televisions for 5 to 10 years or even more, and in that span of time a smart-TV interface can age worse than a smoker on a diet of Twinkies. After three years my "smart" set at home just seems dumb, with clunkier responses and way fewer options than my $60 Roku -- which is why I use the latter for almost all my streaming needs. Even the most cutting-edge 2013 system will likely seem just as long in the tooth five years from now.


Samsung SEK-1000 (2013 Evolution Kit)

The Good

The <b>Samsung SEK-1000 Evolution Kit</b> fully upgrades the Smart TV features of a high-end 2012 Samsung TV to 2013's loftier levels. Excellent touch-pad remote; relatively simply DIY installation; doesn't affect TV's shape or appearance.

The Bad

Only works with a few high-end 2012 Samsung TVs; somewhat expensive; cable box control scheme still inadequate for heavy DVR users.

The Bottom Line

While a cool idea and an innovative way to somewhat ward against Smart TV obsolescence, the 2013 Evolution Kit is definitely a niche product.

The unique Evolution Kit from Samsung takes direct aim at this issue. Announced in 2012 as a panacea for obsolescence, the 2013 kit grafts onto a proprietary slot on the back of certain high-end Samsung 2012 TVs and turns them into 2013 models -- at least in terms of Smart TV features. It replaces the dual-core processor with a quad-core version and delivers an improved look and feel, better voice control, and a host of other tweaks (although better picture quality isn't one of them). The kit even includes a new remote control.

That seems like a great idea, but the SEK-1000 is still a niche product, appealing only to people who really want their 2012 TVs to be a bit better. Its $200 price tag is steep for a new interface and slightly better functionality, especially considering that the 2012 system is no slouch in terms of responsiveness and has basically the same major apps.

More interesting, potentially, is the fact that Samsung will offer new kits in 2014 and beyond. The company initially promised at least five years of upgradability with its 2012 TVs, and compatibility with future kits is offered on a few high-end 2013 models as well. Perhaps future kits will provide greater leaps than this one does -- Boxee-like cloud DVR functionality or cloud gaming, for example. In the meantime Samsung deserves credit for going through with a really cool idea. Now if only the company could figure out how to improve picture quality without making you buy a whole new TV.

Compatibility information
The SEK-1000 is only compatible with the following 2012 Samsung televisions. I tested it using a PN60E8000 plasma and a UN55ES8000 LED LCD.

Note that since the PNE7000 series plasma lacks a built-in camera and mic, it will not support Smart Interaction voice and gesture control even after the upgrade (the optional external camera will still only work with Skype). Since it doesn't include the IR blaster found on the other sets, the PNE7000 also lacks the cable box control options described below.

Evolution-compatible 2012 Samsung TV series, models, and screen sizes
UNES9000 LED 75-inch UN75ES9000
UNES8000 LED 46-inch UN46ES8000, 55-inch UN55ES8000, 60-inch UN60ES8000, 65-inch UN65ES8000
UNES7550 LED 46-inch UN46ES7550, 55-inch UN55ES7550, 60-inch UN60ES7550
UNES7500 LED 46-inch UN46ES7500, 55-inch UN55ES7500, 60-inch UN60ES7500
PNE8000 plasma 51-inch PN51E8000, 60-inch PN60E8000, 64-inch PN64E8000
PNE7000 plasma 51-inch PN51E7000, 60-inch PN60E7000, 64-inch PN64E7000

Sarah Tew/CNET

What's in the box
The meat of the kit is a rectangular black plastic pod about the size of a pack of note cards: 5 inches by 3.6 inches by 0.6 inch. Inside the pod is a new quad-core 1.3GHz processor, the same used by the high-end 2013 TVs, as well as more memory (1.5 gigs) and software.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Designed to insert into the back of your flat-panel TV, a large proprietary rectangular plug combed with fine wires and flanked by clips protrudes from the back of the pod. When grafted onto the TV, mounted in a recessed area of the rear, the kit virtually disappears, and is thin enough that it didn't add to the overall depth of either the plasma or the LED I tested (although it does run pretty hot).

The other items in the box are the adapter for an Ethernet cable and a new remote control. Yes, the kit includes the same touch-pad clicker I lauded on the 2013 Samsung TVs I reviewed, except the finish is matte black instead of silver. If you like using a touch-pad remote, and especially if you hate the annoying, chronically unresponsive version that shipped with most Evolution-compatible 2012 Samsung TVs (the exception being the PNE7000 plasma), the new clicker might be worth the price by itself.

Sarah Tew/CNET

A better touch-pad remote
As I mentioned in my reviews of Samsung's 2013 TVs, despite a few flaws and the fact that it takes a little time to learn how to use it, it's one of the best remote controls included with any TV I've ever come across.

It's small, with just a few buttons above and below a spacious pad, but it fit perfectly in my hand. The remote uses Bluetooth to work without needing to be aimed at the TV. Responsiveness was superb and I found myself merrily swiping along large menus and rarely missing my selection. Convenient slider bars above and on either side of the pad worked perfectly to scroll past pages at a time. The whole pad depressed with a satisfying click when I made a selection, although (nitpick alert) a laptop-touch-pad-style tap-to-click, like Panasonic's touch-pad remote uses, would be even better. In total navigation was faster, almost as accurate and, I gotta admit, much more fun than with a standard remote, let alone Samsung's terrible 2012 touch pad.

The main flaw of Samsung's clever 2013 clicker is its lack of buttons. The few that are included have raised, uniquely tactile shapes and useful backlighting, but to improve the remote's size, design, and perceived simplicity, plenty of common keys were left out. To enter numbers, for example, you have to hit the More button, which calls up a numeric keypad that requires tedious swiping around to select each digit. You can also "rotate" the keypad -- it's fastest to use the top slider bar -- to access additional controls, such as transport functions (play, pause, stop, and so on), picture-in-picture, an Info screen, and various set-top-box controls.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Most traditional remotes have dedicated keys for these functions, and how much you'll miss them depends on how you typically use your TV remote. For example, I rarely need to dial in channels directly, but I do use the fast-forward, skip, and play/pause keys all the time when watching TV (to control my DVR, for example). That's a massive pain with Samsung's new touch-pad remote.

Another issue with the new clicker is the bottom area's "Recomm. Search" function, which I seemed to accidentally activate way too often when simply navigating or scrolling. Once again a dedicated button or two would have worked much better.

Of course, since 2012 Samsung TVs have come with standard IR remotes that still work fine after the Evolution Kit upgrade, and you could always stick with that clicker if you want. Or better yet, use a good universal remote.

What else is different after the upgrade?
Aside from the new remote, the main advantage to buying and installing a 2013 Evolution kit on a 2012 TV is the improved Smart TV interface. On the other hand, part of the usefulness of that new interface requires proper control of a cable box/DVR, and an "Evolved" 2012 TV isn't any better than the 2013 models in that area.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Samsung's 2013 Smart Hub offers the usual array of apps, social-media hooks, and access to local content, but that stuff is presented as secondary to an ambitious "On TV" section. Like LG's On Now system, it basically attempts to replace your cable or satellite box with the TV's own interface -- and when it can't do that, at least control the box via Samsung's own remote.

The Hub's new design is reminiscent of an Android smartphone, with five different home pages you can flip through by swiping the remote touch pad's scroll bar. Navigation and the slick animations were superquick on the quad-core kit, although the 2012 system moved along at a nice clip too (at least on the dual-core TVs with which the kit is compatible), so I didn't notice much improvement in overall responsiveness. The new design however is refreshing, colorful, and relatively simple, a welcome change from the cluttered feel of the company's previous Smart TV suite.

TheWeb browser is also faster and better now, with slightly quicker load times, a better virtual keyboard, and, most important, easier control via the touch-pad remote. As always you can connect a wireless keyboard, either a cheapie like the Logitech K400 ($30) or one of Samsung's official Bluetooth models like the VG-KBD2000 ($99), for an even better browsing experience.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I haven't fully tested Samsung's 2013 TV voice and gesture control yet to the extent I did last year, but after some brief tests I can tell the new version is much improved. It seemed to recognize show names I spoke more accurately, and the search results made more sense -- although since the TV can't fully control a DVR, you can't use the system to set up future recordings found via search. I also appreciated that I didn't need to jump through hoops to search; just hitting the remote's microphone button got me there. The gesture system, for what it's worth, is still tough to control and made my arm tired, but the addition of a nifty "gesture command" menu helps a little.

Rather than paste in my full description of the 2013 suite from my UNF8000 review, I'll just refer you there if you want more details. The version found on an Evolved 2012 TV is basically identical. The pages, apps, browser, search, and everything else seem exactly the same.

The main difference I found is that cable box control is a bit more sluggish than on true 2013 TVs, perhaps due to the 2012 TVs' wireless Bluetooth IR blaster (the 2013 models have a simpler wired version). There was more of a delay between commands, making menu navigation, in particular, a bit slower. As I describe in my reviews, however, using Samsung's remote to control your DVR cable box is still a massive pain given the need to use the virtual, onscreen "remote" for common DVR transport commands like Pause and Play.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I didn't do a full picture quality evaluation on an Evolved TV, but the kit doesn't appear to have much effect on that aspect. I did measure the two TVs' grayscale and color before and after evolution, and the results were similar. The biggest difference I saw was somewhat reduced light output on the plasma after Evolution -- it went from 32fL to about 25fL. That's not a big deal if you don't have a bright room, but as I mentioned in my reviews, the already relatively dim 2012 Samsung plasmas need all the light they can muster. Black levels measured basically the same on both TVs both before and after the upgrade, and color was likewise very similar.

There are a couple of minor changes to picture settings after the upgrade. On both TVs the name of Digital Noise Filter changed to Digital Clean View, and there's a new Analog Clean View. Meanwhile, the LED's Auto Motion Plus menu gets an LED Clear Motion option, but it didn't have any effect I could discern. You also now get a Picture Off option to turn off the picture but leave the sound on, as well as the option to apply picture settings to different sources.

Other menus have other settings differences too, for example to account for the On TV settings and other new additions.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The upgrade experience
The unique experience of performing a brain transplant on your Smart TV is one to be savored by a geek like myself, and the engineers at Samsung managed to make the process relatively simple, although not without a few hitches. Time spent varies widely for some reason -- my E8000 plasma took more than an hour thanks to a very large extra software update, while the ES8000 LED didn't seem to require that update, so it took about 15 minutes.

The first step is to make sure the TV has the latest pre-Evolution software installed. In the menu under Support > Software Update, Samsung's reps said Current Version should read 001047 or higher. At the time of review both of my 8000 review samples read 001051 after updating (but before I installed the kits themselves). If your version number is lower than 001047, select "Online" and the TV will download the latest software. Once downloaded, you also have to install it manually by selecting "Alternative Software." The TV should restart afterward; make sure the version number is correct.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Next you'll power down and unplug the TV from the wall. The following step, and the first one I found actually satisfying in itself, was removing the Evolution Kit sticker on the back of the TV to expose the complex port designed to accept the kit's plug.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Part of my satisfaction was marred, however, when I realized that on the PN60E8000 plasma, I also needed to deface another sticker (the one illustrating the bottom row of TV's AV connections) to expose the two small clip holes necessary to keep the kit mounted correctly. I ripped the sticker partway off for my installation before it occurred to me I could simply carve small openings in it. Nowhere in the kit's documentation does it mention the possibility that the clip holes might be concealed behind a separate sticker, so E7000 and E8000 plasma owners will have to find the holes themselves. My ES8000 LED TV doesn't have this issue; peeling away its Evolution Kit sticker exposes both the clip holes and the main port (and incidentally its kit mounts horizontally, not vertically like the plasma's.)

Sarah Tew/CNET

I was also warned by Samsung's reps that I had to firmly embed the plug in the port, and they were right -- the fit isn't exactly easy. On the plasma I had to jimmy it slightly to get it to line up correctly, while on the LED it seemed to fit more easily. Once the kit looked properly piggybacked, a little lamprey to the TV's whale shark, I reattached the power cord, turned on the TV and crossed my fingers.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Unlike with the plasma, which worked great, the LED's first response to its new brain was pretty scary. The first time I thought I'd bricked the set; the only thing on the screen after I attached the kit was colored static. I powered down, unplugged, detached the kit, took a deep breath, reattached and powered up again, This time I was greeted by a wacky, red-tinged picture. Convinced the TV or kit was hosed, I still repeated the process a third time, which was successful.

Immediately I was greeted by an onscreen graphic complete with a picture of the kit, the reassuring words "Evolution Kit detected," and a progress bar that moved quickly to 100 percent. A couple more installation screens appeared before the TV restarted again. The whole process took about 4 minutes from the time I attached the kit to the time an entirely new startup screen appeared, welcoming me to my "new" TV.

Sarah Tew/CNET

My test TVs were both connected via Wi-Fi, but if yours has a wired Ethernet connection instead there's an extra step after the kit is installed. Remove the wire plugged into the TV itself and, using the included dongle, plug it into the kit.

The initial splash screen depicts the Ethernet connection and the new touch remote. You'll need to pair the new Bluetooth clicker with the TV. In my case I had to remove the battery cover and hit the little pairing button to get it to work, although the manual claims just hitting the power button should do the trick.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The remaining process is basically the same as what I described in the UNF8000 review, from the Muzak to the network setup to the cable box control (my E8000 and ES8000 had to be re-paired with their Bluetooth IR basters) to the myriad privacy and terms and conditions policies. After finishing it took me right to the main page of the Smart Hub, and in many ways it felt like having a new TV.

It's worth noting that you can always devolve your TV by removing the kit and restoring the original 2012 software, for example if you buy it and decide to return it later. You may want to do so if you miss any of the minor apps deleted from the 2012 system. See Samsung's website for the full list (click the Manuals tab), and thanks to commenter yelwar for the heads-up.

Samsung is the leading innovator in smart TV technology right now, and I'd be surprised if another maker (even Apple) stole that crown in the next few years. The 2013 Evolution Kit's better remote and interface will appeal mainly to those already unsatisfied with their high-end 2012 Samsung TVs. For everyone else with a compatible TV, it's worth waiting to see what future kits have in store.


Samsung SEK-1000 (2013 Evolution Kit)

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Performance 8Value 6