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IQ test: the state of smart TVs at CES 2014

Manufacturers are making progress, but there's still more bad than good

Chris Welch a reviewer specializing in personal audio and home theater. Since 2011, he has published nearly 6,000 articles, from breaking news and reviews to useful how-tos.

TVs have never looked better than they do at CES 2014. Gorgeous displays are all over the show floor, showcasing awe-inspiring demo footage. This year, perhaps more than ever before, TV manufacturers have all committed to following a similar hardware path: they’re building big, beautiful, and nearly indistinguishable televisions. But there’s one disheartening trend that remains alive and well this year: terrible software.

Technology giants like Samsung are seasoned experts when it comes to building quality TVs, but they’ve gotten no better at designing the software that controls them. User interfaces remain overwrought with unnecessary bloat, sacrificing speed and intuitiveness for features that most humans will never use. In 2014, smart TVs remain caught in a struggle between brand differentiation and usability. And too many consumers are losing as a result.

Panasonic is among the worst offenders. At the company’s keynote a few days ago, its new Life+Screen UI was unveiled onstage with some genuinely cool features like individual viewer profiles and a proximity sensor that turns on the screen when someone enters the room. But when you dig deeper, things get messy. Panasonic’s bloated software gets in the way, with multiple home screens, messaging features, and even video memos. And if you want to pull down your own music and video content from the cloud, you’ll need Panasonic’s custom smartphone app. Who’s going to bother?

Manufacturers are obsessed with differentiation and customers are paying the price

Things don’t fare much better at Samsung and Sony. Samsung’s experiments with multitasking are confusing and overwhelming. Worse yet, TV manufacturers continue to shoehorn web browsers into their software with no elegant way of interacting with them. Samsung says it’s made progress here with improved voice controls and new finger-based gestures — gimmicks that have been carried over from its hugely popular smartphones. But they’re equally as unintuitive when thrown on to the big screen in your living room, and merely serve as added "features" that Samsung leans on to differentiate its TVs from the competition.

But some companies are making progress. Sharp’s user interface is attractive and simple. The TV-show artwork that populates its guide looks fantastic, with helpful additions like upcoming episode schedules and similar titles offered on the same screen. Apps are laid out in a logical order, and on the whole it’s easy to find what you’re after. Sharp has seemingly learned the same lesson that helped Roku and Apple find success: put content first and then get out of the way. It’s entirely possible to make something "smart" while being mindful of a user’s experience. When sensible design is a priority, it shows.

And then there are the TV manufacturers that have finally relented and looked for a better approach to software. After buying the remains of webOS from HP, LG immediately put its weight behind the OS on the TV, and what we’ve seen thus far is impressive. The UI is modern and a breath of fresh air in a sea of bland lookalikes.

Hisense and TCL are simply outsourcing the challenge of software development — at least on some new TV models. By partnering with Roku, they’ve secured the know-how of a company that’s built a massively popular streaming platform, one that now extends beyond set-top boxes. For better or worse, the resulting interface isn’t ambitious. It’s all very simple to use, but your cable box is still in control of the most important piece.

Stacking features on top of features doesn't make something 'smart'

In the end, it’s about patience and compromise. The chances of seeing the TV industry ruled by a single operating system (like Android on phones) is growing lower with each passing year. Google tried and failed with Google TV, and with the company still licking its wounds, we don’t expect to see another attempt any time soon.

Thankfully, there’s always the option of shunning whatever forgettable software ships on your gorgeous new TV. With set-top boxes like the Xbox One trying to take greater control of your viewing experience, ignoring the ugly is easier now than ever before. It’s disappointing that those steps are necessary in the first place, but as another CES winds down, we’re seeing evidence that at least some companies are learning. Maybe next year.