Best internet TV platforms compared
3rd Feb 2011 | 10:30
Internet TV from Sony, Samsung, LG, Panasonic, Philips and more
Best internet TV platforms compared
Call it what you want, but 'smart TV', 'connected TV' or internet TV is about to become big news.
With zero advertising so far it's the TV industry's best kept secret, but expect the big brands to break cover in 2011 and start shouting loudly about their portals, apps and widgets.
Just as Apple went from being a maker of unpopular computers to a major player in the entertainment industry when it invented the iPod and iTunes, so TV manufacturers are jostling for the role of content arbiters in a brave new world of TV and movie distribution.
And it's all down to the humble broadband router. Wi-Fi modules are in some TVs - for now usually only high-end models - while USB dongles are coming down in price, but what's to watch?
It's a rather strange state of affairs at the moment, with ring-fenced platforms and only a smattering of open web browsers in what has already become a very fragmented market.
Expect slick simplicity in 2011 as your TV begins to resemble a smartphone; cue a world of apps and customisation where choice is king, something that's bound to streamline services and get rid of the dross (and at the moment, there's plenty of that).
What is great about the world of connected TVs is that as well potentially lessening the need for a set-top box or DVD player, it relies purely on software updates; in short, your TV won't go out-of-date shortly after you buy it, with new apps and services likely to become available instantly.
Whether a particular interface from a particular brand of TV impresses or not often comes down to one very British preoccupation: BBC iPlayer.
As a public broadcaster, the Beeb's engineers work on a first-come, first served basis and show no bias, though the end result is a market distortion; some brands' portals have full access to BBC iPlayer, and others do not - yet.
But with Google TV a future possibility and the ever-delayed YouView slated to arrive on set-top boxes later this year, the race is on among TV makers to deliver a truly compelling smart TV experience - before someone else does.
So what's the best internet TV to buy? We take a look at the options...
Sony - Bravia Internet Video & Qriocity
Is Sony the current king of connected TV? Love it or hate it, you've probably used Sony's trademark Xross Media Bar on the PS3 or one of the brand's TVs or Blu-ray players.
On Sony's current range of TVs its latest content deals, widgets, apps and web-related options are integrated into the XMB; from all the web portals featured here, it's Bravia Internet Video that makes the most sense.
One moment you can be scrolling through digital TV channels, the next activating Lovefilm (albeit it at £9.99 per month) to stream the latest films - or even loading BBC iPlayer to look for last night's Question Time - and all from a simple and consistent grid-style user interface that lends unique uniformity.
MOVIES:Lovefilm joins BBC iPlayer on Sony's Bravia Internet Video service
Other services include Demand Five (exclusive to Sony), YouTube, Dailymotion, Twitter, Facebook, eBay, rolling news from Eurosport, and a plethora of small website channels like Videocast.com, FordModels and Singing Fool.
Weirdly not all Sony TVs have the same services; some only feature a basic service, which doesn't include the widgets (the headline acts there being eBay, Facebook and Twitter).
The provision of FIFA's World Cup video archives last summer was superb, but short-lived; at the turn of the year it was switched-off, which in itself is a warning; in this new age of connected TVs, software and services can be updated constantly, but it's not just about adding new content - it's about managing it.
Sony is currently in the process of taking the current concept and making it portable via its Qriocity service, which will eventually put all of your movies, music and games in the cloud to access from various Sony devices.
QRIOCITY:Sony's attempt at creating personal 'cloud content' across its TVs, PS3, PSP and Vaio laptops
Later this year Sony plans to fit Bravia Internet Video with an open Opera web browser, a Sky News video service, Skype (via a webcam, built into some models) and more comprehensive video and music streaming via Qriocity.
It will also feature control via a smartphone app, with Sony also confirming that more of its TVs will have Wi-Fi built-in. One thing is for sure' Sony's connected TV service is heavy on quality content, and growing fast - which suggests that Sony's States-side obsession, Google TV, isn't destined to visit these shores for some time to come.
Samsung - Internet@TV
Clumsily named but with more heritage than most, this once innovative platform is beginning to stale. The interface itself is a touch gaudy and not particularly quick to skip around … it's nowhere as slick as Sony, the only other platform that matches it for content.
Amongst a lot of clutter are Internet@TV's crown jewels, with BBC iPlayer nudging in front of Lovefilm movie streaming (Acetrax is also present), though all the 'essential' apps are here - Twitter, Facebook, AccuWeather and Google Maps - alongside some filler services such as Dailymotion, Picasa and, er, Getty Images. Other so-so options include Rovi (TV listings), The History Channel (a bland 'this day in history' feature), Muzu.TV (music) and USA Today (news).
SAMSUNG APPS:Internet@TV is content-rich, though uses a rather tacky, dated design
Much like Philips' Net TV platform, these services can be added from, or sent back to, the Samsung App store. In December 2010 Samsung claimed the 'one millionth download' from its app store, though that's misleading - it's far more about customising which apps you want on the main home screen, and not at all about purchasing and downloading.
We're guessing that will change, with something akin to Apple's App store the presumed endgame for all connected TV portals. In 2011 Internet@TV will be replaced by Smart Hub, which premiered at CES in January. It looks decidedly phone-like and wisely includes apps aimed at kids as well as adults.
Also featuring recommendation software, Smart Hub ties-in with other devices on your home network (much like LG's Smart TV also promises to do), searching on the TV for a particular artist might produce a concert from, say, Lovefilm alongside some MP3 files on your PC, and relevant Twitter feeds.
The current Intenet@TV features are available on Samsung's C9000, C8000, C7000 and C6500 LED-backlit LCD TVs, its C750 and C650 LCD TVs, C7000 and C6500 plasmas, and BD-C7500, BD-C6900, BD-C6500 and BD-C5500 Blu-ray players.
LG - NetCast
LG has been a bit behind the curve when it comes to its internet TV platform, but has big, big plans; expect to see this brand shouting about its new-for-Spring Smart TV concept just as loudly as it was about 3D.
Until late November, LG's NetCast portal appeared to be a mere placeholder, with just a trio of services on its pretty home screen; Picasa, YouTube and Accuweather. More services have just been added - via a firmware download - that at last makes NetCast worth a look.
The most important is BBC iPlayer, a feature that's certain to help persuade many to invest immediately, but there's many more; Acetrax movie streaming (see the Panasonic section for details), Vtuner (web radio), MLB.tv (baseball), Accedo (games), Viewster (more movie streaming), Google Maps and the social networking duo of Facebook and Twitter.
NETCAST:BBC iPlayer, Facebook and Twitter have recently been added to LG's NetCast interface
It doesn't end there. Premiered at CES was LG's redesigned Smart TV platform, which will feature across its new spring range of plasma and LCD TVs. More movies, customisable apps, videos and open web browsing is promised as is a QWERTY keyboard app - crucial if you want to browse the web on a TV - for both iPhone and Android.
A TV Apps section also forms part of the dashboard, which will divvy-up services between TV Live or Premium Content icons. It's unclear whether this new platform will be an upgrade for current LG TV owners, though we do know that the web browser will only be available on 2011 models - though LG is also making a tiny Smart TV Upgrader ST600 box available for those wishing to upgrade, or get Smart TV without buying a LG TV.
There's another reason to buy-in to LG's Smart TV; Plex. Demoed to us at the CES, Plex is based on a popular open source platform called XBCM that aggregates all your content into one interface, whether it's stored within the TV's interactive services, on a PC, phone, online movie streaming service or media server on the same home network.
COMING SOON:LG's Smart TV interface will be unveiled in Spring
The current NetCast platform is available on LG's LED-backlit TVs, including the LX9900 (47 and 55-inch), LE8900 (42, 47 and 55-inch), LE7900 (32, 37, 42, 47 and 55-inch), LE5900 (32, 37, 42, 47 and 55-inch) and LE4900 (32, 37 and 42-inch). It also features on the LD790 (32, 42 and 47-inch), LD690 (32, 37, 42, 47 and 55-inch) and LD490 (32, 37 and 42-inch) LCD TVs, and LG's PX990 (50 and 60-inch), PX790 (50 and 60-inch) and PX590 (50 and 60-inch) plasmas.
Panasonic, Philips, Sharp, Toshiba and Loewe
Panasonic - VieraCast
Bespoke is the word here - a lot of time and attention has been paid to the way Panasonic's VieraCast menus react to your choices, and a wholly joined-up experience it is, too. It's the best looking, simplest interface of all, but has one significant problem; there's nothing to watch.
That's perhaps a little unfair; the portals for Eurosport and YouTube (both of which have a terrific 'predictive text' style search engine) are peerless, but the company has clearly struggled with content deals; just Picassa, Daily Motion and Euronews were on offer until late last year when Acetrax - a web-based movie streaming service - appeared (it's also available on LG and Samsung TVs).
ACETRAX:Pay-for movies from Acetrax is the main draw on Panasonic's VieraCast
Acetrax costs about £3.49 for a top-line title (once rented and started, you can watch a movie as often as you like for 24 hours), and its catalogue contains the latest flicks such as Inception and The Other Guys, as well as classics like Big Fish and Clockwork Orange.
VIERACAST:For now it's low on content, but VieraCast boasts a beautiful design
Still, VieraCast is badly in need of BBC iPlayer, though on some of its TVs you can access that service if you hook-up its built-in Freesat HD tuner to a satellite dish.
And then, of course, there's Skype. We're not sure if anyone wants to use a PC as a telephone, let alone a TV (there's a reason why Skype is now available on smartphones), and the idea of video calling on a 42-inch plasma will horrify some - but that's what's on offer on VieraCast. If you like a big face, Panasonic's TY-CC10W Skype-enabled USB camera and microphone is yours for a shade over £130.
Nevertheless, the platform is slated for an overhaul in Spring when it will be renamed VieraConnect. Like a lot of the new platforms, there will be more of an emphasis on downloading apps to the TV from a virtual marketplace (though specific new services are yet to be announced), with the added bonus of control by Panasonic's first tablet computer.
VIERACONNECT:Spring's VieraConnect refresh will include control by the brand's debut tablet computer
Philips - NetTV
If the idea of an open internet browser sounds appealing after perusing the 'walled garden' approach by most brands, the freedom it promises comes with huge caveats on Philips' Net TV platform.
Based around an Opera browser and relying solely on an intuitive and fast virtual keyboard that pops-up along the bottom of the screen, the message along the bottom says it all; 'Some internet pages may not take viewing on a television into account or may depend on third party plugins not available for TV browsers.' In other words, you can't just head to the BBC iPlayer homepage and start watching EastEnders, but you can read the news.
It's a tad clunky to use, with a cursor necessary slowly moving down each page from link to link, with many pages taking a while to load, and often with plenty of holes. Net TV needs plugins such as Flash (and many more besides) to display the web effectively, as well as significantly more processing power.
Elsewhere on Net TV is a distinctly Euro-flavoured choice of content, though it's simple enough to remove France 24 from the line-up and effectively put in back in the 'app store', a kind of vault for stuff you don't really want.
Interfaces for YouTube, Picasa, Twitter and Ebay are all available, as is subscription-based content from Box Office 365. For £2.99 a month it offers access to Cartoon Network, Hit Entertainment (Bob The Builder et al) and a range of dated ITV comedy and drama series, though the interface isn't a patch on developer BiBC's slick websites.
PHILIPS:NetTV boasts an open Opera web browser, but it lacks functionality
A similar, but free service is offered by iConcerts, though only a raction of what's available on their own website - we counted just 29 artists' gigs ranging from 'Noughties fare like Keane and James Blunt to 'classics' such as Johnny Cash, Tina Turner and, er Mark Knopfler. As with all the video content from Net TV, the quality is good without ever reaching hi-def.
Other apps include Tunin.FM Radio (which automatically finds radio stations and podcasts in your locality - though no BBC), TomTom HD traffic (in the living room? Seriously), Myalbum.com (a Picasa alternative), Dailymotion, Cinetrailer and Funspot (rudimentary games like Sudoku, Black Jack and Solitaire).
There's no word on additions for 2011, but despite its unique web browser it's in need of UK-specific deals with broadcasters - with BBC iPlayer and a movie streaming service essential.
Sharp, Toshiba and Loewe
Although Toshiba's Net TV service has hosted a few apps (Facebook, Picasa, Twitter and Flickr), it's so far largely avoided streaming video in the vast majority of its range (with the exception of its flagship WL Series, which includes YouTube and BBC iPlayer - but nothing else).
It's a similar story over at Sharp and Loewe, though all three brands will embrace internet TV more fully in 2011.
At the recent CES Toshiba was demoing Skype services on its forthcoming Regza ranges of TVs for 2011, though UK-specific content deals have yet to be announced. Details of Sharp's plans - a brand that has so far rebutted the whole idea of connected TV - are similarly scant, but we do know that its US models will host movie streaming services.
A minor brand it might be, but Loewe TVs have been trading digital files with computers for yonks.
LOEWE:MediaNetwork is the German brand's first go at an online dimension
Loewe's first stab at an online dimension, MediaNet appears to be a pared-down version of Philips' Net TV in terms of content; Cinetrailer, iConcerts, Aupeo (music screaming) and, er, German language audio books (via hoerbuch-direkt.tv). However limited it proves to be, you can be sure that the luxury German brand's MediaNet interface will be top notch in terms of usability.
Liked this? Then check out Internet TV: a fragmented future?
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