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Think smart TV is dumb? Samsung aims to change your mind by controlling your gear

Rather than compete against Roku and Apple TV, Samsung's 2016 smart TVs promise to do something no streamer can: command your cable box, game console, lights and thermostat, using just the TV remote.

Sarah Tew/CNET

"Gee, Samsung, what are we going to do tonight?"

"The same thing we do every night, TV viewer. Try to take over the house!"

The biggest TV maker in the world has little in common with the most ambitious mouse in cartoon history, but Samsung and The Brain do share one burning desire: to control more stuff. The company's 2016 TVs are doing just that. And unlike most smart TV features, these are actually pretty cool.

For years televisions have included "smart" extras that basically boiled down to building in apps like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon video. The problem is that devices like Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast do a better job with streaming. They deliver more apps, better search, and more frequent updates.

Rather than scuttle its own smart TV development in favor of a more well-known solution, like Roku TV, Google Cast (in Vizio TVs) or Android TV (in Sony TVs), Samsung throws in extras that no streaming device can match. The new capabilities take advantage of the TV's place in the center of your living room, as something into which you plug a lot of other equipment.

Now playing: Watch this: Samsung's 2016 smart TVs control your gear, from cable...

Plug-n-play universal remote control

Amazingly, the TV itself can recognize your external devices as you plug them in, and program the TV's remote to control them automatically, eliminating setup. No other tech device I know about can do anything like that.

When I first learned of this ability at CES I was pretty skeptical, but seeing it in action at Samsung's TV launch earlier this week, it seems entirely real. During the demo Samsung's rep plugged in a couple of devices, including an Apple TV and an Xbox One, and the TV recognized them all. Specialized icons appeared on the screen, along with commands like "Guide" and "DVR" for the cable box. The TV remote controlled them all.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It works in one of two ways. If the device works with HDMI-CEC, a control system that works over HDMI cables, the TV can recognize that and control it accordingly, mapping the TV remote buttons to the appropriate commands and operating the device via the HDMI connection. If it doesn't, the TV can analyze the device's video signal (Samsung wouldn't expand on exactly how) to identify it. Once identification is made, it queries its database and programs the IR (infrared) commands of the TV remote automatically, which are again mapped to buttons and blasted out by the clicker.

It sounds complex, but in the demo it happened seamlessly and relatively quickly as part of the TVs standard setup process, without having to enter codes or remember model numbers. Compared to setting up a standard universal remote like Harmony, it seemed like cake.

Don't throw away your Harmony Elite yet, however. The system isn't designed to work with setups where your AV receiver does the switching instead of the TV. Some functions will be relegated to on-screen commands instead of convenient buttons, or go missing entirely. And Harmony supports a much wider range of devices -- although Samsung to its credit says 90 percent of cable boxes are supported, and DirecTV is coming in June.

This device recognition and control feature is available in all 2016 Samsung TVs in the 7, 8 and 9 series.

Smart-home command from the TV screen

The second big addition is the ability to control lights, thermostats, security cameras, locks and even Big Ass Fans right from the TV screen.

Samsung's SmartThings smart home ecosystem is an open platform that supports thousands of devices. Now many of its midrange and more expensive TVs -- once again, all 2016 models in the 7, 8 and 9 series -- will act as SmartThings hubs, with all of the functionality of the external hubs that currently sell for $100. A SmartThings rep told me that at launch the TVs might not replicate all of that functionality, but "parity between the two is the goal" eventually.


The free SmartThings Extend dongle will enable smart home control in June.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Unfortunately, although many of those TVs are shipping now, they won't be able to act as SmartThings hubs until "sometime this summer," according to a representative I spoke with. At that point Samsung will ship out little white dongles called SmartThings Extend, which look like USB sticks and plug into the TVs' USB ports. The dongles contain (among other things) the antennas needed for control of SmartThings as well as ZigBee and Z-wave devices.

The TV boxes include a coupon that entitles the owner to get a free Extend once they come out.

All 2016 Samsung smart TVs will also be "Things" themselves, allowing control of four basic functions: Power on/off, volume, channel, and picture and audio mode. That means they could be included in a SmartThings routine, for example dimming the lights, closing the blinds and turning on the TV for movie night.

We're looking forward to testing Samsung's new 2016 smart TV suite ourselves soon.