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

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The Good The Samsung SEK-1000 Evolution Kit 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.

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7.4 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 9
  • Performance 8
  • Value 6

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.

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.

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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