Samsung took the TV world by surprise with the UE55ES8000 -- the first TV that could be controlled by voice or by waving your hand in front of it, Minority Report-style. I wasn't all that impressed with it when I tested it in March, especially as it was so expensive.
Now Samsung's offering these features on the cheaper UE55ES7000 model I'm reviewing here and, crucially, the company claims it's improved the motion tracking and voice recognition software substantially.
So can the UE55ES7000, which is priced at around £2,300, impress me more than its pricier sibling?
The headline feature on this TV is the way you can control it by voice and motion, so let's look at these two features first.
The voice controls are fairly straightforward to use, as you'd expect. You say the trigger words to start up the voice recognition system and the TV displays a list of commands on screen that you can voice to activate certain features. There are only two trigger phrases -- "Hi TV" and "Smart TV" -- and you have to manually select one or the other in the main menu. So you can't just swap between them at random.
The trigger phrases are used to stop dialogue in movies or TV shows from inadvertently firing up the voice features. Unlike LG's voice control option, you don't need to have the remote to hand. You can just call out to the TV and the mic built into the chassis will pick up what you say. There is also a mic button on the touchpad remote control that you can use if you're not having much luck with the built-in mic.
The integrated mic actually works well as long as there isn't a lot of ambient noise in the room and the volume of the TV isn't set too high. At fairly normal volumes its hit rate is high, so most people shouldn't have a problem getting it to respond.
It's neat that it works with a range of voices without any training. However, there is a downside to this as my girlfriend found she was able to walk in the room, say the trigger word and then utter "channel down" to switch away from Formula 1 while I was watching it. Funny the first time, quite annoying after that!
Also, if you turn up the TV's volume high, its response to the trigger word becomes less reliable, to the point where you're shouting at it like a madman. It's at this point you need to use the mic built into the touch-pad remote.
There are two advantages to doing this. Firstly, you don't have to use the trigger word to activate the voice recognition system -- you just press the mic button on the remote and speak your command. The second is that you can speak much more quietly into it, so you don't feel as much of a prat. However, it begs the question that if you have the remote to hand, why not just use that instead?
The range of voice control commands is somewhat limited. You can turn the TV on and off by voice (although it wasn't hugely reliable when it came to responding to the "TV on" command), and you can change the volume level, move up and down through channels or go to a specific channel number. It also lets you launch a small selection of smart apps and the web browser by voice.
The issue with the voice control is not really that it's unreliable -- it actually works well enough as long as you go though the mic calibration process first time -- but that the system doesn't give you enough control over the TV. Instead of asking it to go to channel 80, I wanted to be able to say "switch to BBC News," or ask it what's on next.
You can't change the picture presets either, or control any of the smart apps by voice. So if you want to do anything other than launch a few apps or change the channel or volume level, you need to pick up a remote.
The other issue is that it's just not that fast to use. In the time it takes to say the trigger word, wait for the menu to pop up, say the command and wait for the TV to respond, I could have used the normal remote to open the programme guide, check what was on the other channels and switch to something I wanted to watch.
The other way you can interact with the telly is to use motion control. To start this up, raise your hand and give the TV a little circular wave. This should call up the cursor on screen, which you control by moving your hand around with your palm open and facing the TV. It's quite sensitive so you only have to make very small movements to shift the cursor quite a distance on the display.
To select an item on screen, you just close your hand to make a fist. Keeping your hand closed acts much like a long press on a mouse button and is useful for turning up and down the volume by multiple steps, or skipping through lots of channels. A short close of the hand acts more like a quick tap of a mouse button.
In a brightly-lit room, the motion control works quite well, although the tracking isn't always as accurate as it should be. Sometimes it decides you've finished giving it commands when you're still moving around. In low light it hardly works at all, something Samsung could probably have avoided if it had fitted an infrared senor like Microsoft did on the Kinetic.
Also, the waving gesture to trigger the motion control is annoying, especially as it often takes a while to recognise that you're trying to start it up. And while I don't want to sound like a complete wimp, I actually found it was uncomfortable holding my hand up with my palm open while operating the set.
The granularity of the control isn't quite fine enough for certain tasks either. For example, trying to use motion to scroll down in the browser is a very hit-and-miss affair.
While Samsung has improved both the voice and motion control from the ES8000, it's not quite enough to make me convinced it's really worth the price premium. It's initially very cool to play with and has a futuristic feel to it, but I just couldn't see myself using it regularly on a day-to-day basis.
Also, I feel Samsung has made a mistake by not building a new user interface from the ground up for motion and voice control. These features have been bolted over the top of its existing menu system. When Apple moved to touch on the iPhone, it built the interface around the input system, which helped to mask some of the weaknesses of touch displays and improve the overall user experience.
User interface and EPG
The TV's overall user interface is slickly presented though, and on the whole, it's easy to get around. There's less of the duplication found on LG's user interface but the design looks quite similar as it centres on a home screen that gives you access to everything, from smart apps to the TV's input list.
The graphics and icons are cute and cheery, while the transitions are slick and polished. It generally moves at a decent pace too, which is what you'd expect given it's running on a dual-core Arm chip.
The electronic programme guide (EPG) is excellent and has a video thumbnail window in the top left-hand corner of the screen, with programming information neatly presented below.
Design and connections
The ES7000 isn't just a smart TV in terms of features -- it also looks smart. The thin bezel and perspex trim around the outer edge really do look beautiful. And even though the cross-shaped stand might not appeal to everyone, I actually think it adds to the set's sophisticated feel.
This model isn't found wanting for connections. The downward-facing panel on the rear has an RF input for the Freeview HD tuner as well as a satellite input for the Freesat HD tuner. There are full-sized component inputs here and an Ethernet socket for hooking up to your router. Wi-Fi is built in so you don't have to use a cable connection if you don't need to.
The side-facing panel, meanwhile, houses the set's three HDMI inputs and three USB ports. You can attach a USB drive to one of these ports to record shows from either of the tuners direct to disc. Bluetooth is built in, so you can wirelessly connect external peripherals such as a Bluetooth mouse or keyboard.
Interestingly, this model has an expansion port on the back that Samsung says will allow you to update the TV's smart capabilities at a later date via a plug-in board. Whether this board will actually become available in the future, I can't say, but in theory it's a good idea so long as the price isn't extortionate.
Video playback and apps
Samsung's smart TV platform is perhaps one of the best on the market at the moment. All the big-hitting apps are present including both Netflix and Lovefilm. BBC iPlayer wasn't active on the set at the time of my review (there's a placeholder for it in the main menu), but Samsung says it should be ready shortly. For film rentals there's Acetrax and PictureBox, and there are plenty of information services including BBC Sport, USA Today and AccuWeather.
This model has a full web browser that supports Adobe Flash for playing web videos. Those on CNET UK worked, as did The Guardian and BBC News' sites. However, the ones on Channel 4's 4oD didn't play. The web browser is pretty slow at rendering pages and it crashed on me a few times.
One of the best features of the TV is undoubtedly its Skype software. Lots of TVs have a Skype app onboard, but you've got to shell out extra for the camera. As the camera is built into this model, you can load up the Skype app and start making video calls straight away. The Skype app works extremely well and speech quality -- both from the mic and TV speakers -- is excellent. The video quality is relatively low, but this is due to limitations in Skype's service rather than any Samsung issue. In fact, the Skype app is so good, I can see it being much more popular than the motion control features.
Samsung has added a few of its own apps. The Your Videos app lets you search for videos from on-demand services such as Acetrax and Lovefilm. Navigation is painfully slow, so I found it was better just to use each individual app instead.
There's also the Family Story app, which lets you share photos and memos with a limited group of friends and another app with games and activities for kids.
Video file playback is supported either via USB ports or across a network from a PC or NAS drive. Format support is patchy. It played MP4 and DviX/Xvid files, both locally and from a NAS drive across a network, but it would only play MKV files via USB, not over a network using the DLNA server built into my NAS drive.
Despite the slimness of the chassis, the ES7000 actually produces pretty decent sound. It hasn't exactly got lots of low-end grunt, but there's enough bass to stop it from sounding thin and weedy. Dialogue comes across crisp and clear. There are plenty of options for tweaking the sound including a multi-band equaliser and some interesting sound modes including Dialog Clarity, which boosts dialogue to help it stand out in the mix.
2D picture quality
The UE55ES7000 has plenty of strengths when it comes to 2D performance. On the whole, it produces likeable pictures. However, it does harbour a few problems.
As with most of Samsung's TVs, the picture presets are pretty poor. Many of the modes just have too much motion processing enabled, which gives images a glassy, unreal look. The backlight levels are universally set too high. If you know what you're doing, this is fairly easy to sort out by just turning off, or toning down, the motion settings and reducing the backlight level by a third or so.
Once you've done this, you'll find that the set can produce some really stunning images. It delivers pristine levels of sharpness with HD material -- something that adds real zing to the content. The TV also has bags of contrast on tap, so scenes tend to look very rich and velvety, especially movies. Even with the backlight turned down a touch, images are searingly bright, yet subtle colour tones are delivered with relative ease.
Naturally, as this is an LED display, there's some motion blur when all the processing circuitry is turned off and, unhelpfully, Samsung's motion presets are pretty much all too aggressive. If you manually set the levels at around the 2 mark, motion performance is improved substantially without making it look too silky smooth for movies.
Unfortunately, standard-definition pictures are slightly noisier than on competitors' models -- something that I found I couldn't really fully address just by tweaking the picture controls. Also, if you tend to watch movies at night with the lights turned down, some backlighting flaws become obvious.
The backlighting just isn't consistent across the display, leading to some areas of clouding. Samsung is far from alone here as a lot of manufacturers are currently struggling with this issue on their large LED models. There was quite a lot of light bleeding from the corners of the screen. This was annoying when watching a letterboxed movie on Blu-ray as the black bars on the top and bottom made the issue more obvious.
The backlight issue also affects black and dark tones in these areas of the picture, as blacks on these corners take on a slight blue-ish hue. What's more, turning the backlight down drastically doesn't sort out these problems.
I need to stress here that these issues are quite common on LED screens and can only really be seen under low light conditions. In a bright room, the black levels actually look very deep and contrast performance is excellent.
3D picture quality
The ES7000 puts in a very impressive 3D showing. In part, this is because the set pumps out so much brightness that it easily counteracts the dimming effect of the 3D glasses. In fairness, Samsung ups the brightness level when you turn on 3D to further heighten the effect, but even if you adjust this down, the TV still produces very bright 3D pictures.
This adds to the sense of depth, helping to really suck you into the action. What's more, crosstalk (or image ghosting) only rears its head every now and again and you have to really look for it to be able to see it. The 3D glasses are extremely light so they're fairly comfortable to wear and Samsung includes two pairs in the box with the TV.
There's an awful lot to like about this TV. It looks very stylish, the built-in camera works great with the onboard Skype software and its HD and 3D performance is very impressive. But the headline-grabbing motion and voice control features still feel like a work in progress. What's more, the set suffers from some backlight problems.
I think it's a tad overpriced too, with Sony's 55HX853 offering better picture quality for less money.