China's recent economic development has been remarkable and the last decade or so has seen them move from building Christmas cracker toys for the West, to supplying them with their iPads, cheap solid wood furniture and if they get their way in the next few years, phenomenally cheap cars that will make Western ones look distinctly overpriced.
Where they're making the real killing right now is in cheap electronics. Without the economies of scale and cheap labour that China has it would be impossible to buy a 10" tablet for under £100 as you can now, or a 40" LED TV screen for £350. Both unimaginable a few years back.
Whilst this is apparently good news for the consumer, it's definitely bad news for established electronics manufacturers from the rest of the world. Big screen TVs in particular have seen such a 'race to the bottom' in terms of price, that some Japanese companies, who've been in the game for decades have decided to walk away, Hitachi being of recent note.
The remaining contenders have been searching around for a hook to make their TVs profitable again. There was a lot of hype around 3D, but a lack of content and consumer interest has seen this technology slip into all but the base model TVs as a standard that most people won't ever use. So where to turn next? Well, the likes of Samsung hope that they have the answer in the form of Smart TVs.
I had the good fortune to receive an invite from a friend recently to come and play with his new 40" Samsung ES7000 series smart television and I would say it took nearly all of the 2-3 hours I had there, just to glimpse each of the features that Samsung has squeezed into a very stylish, very skinny frame.
First up, we needed to turn the TV on. No need to hunt for the remote "Hello TV. Switch on" is all you need to say and the ES springs into life. Actually, that's not all you need to say as during our conversation beforehand, the TV switched itself on more than once, but it's still pretty impressive when it's behaving itself. Word to the wise though, your toddler will learn this quick, then you'll need to do more than hide the remote control!
The ES is not only smart because it understands voice commands. It also understands gestures, so waving at the screen and other motions are recognised by the small camera at the top of the screen and subsequent actions are performed like channel changes. Again, we didn't find this to be 100% accurate, but it was kind of fun!
So why, why dear reader are there three remote controls for a TV that can be controlled with voice and gestures?
Well, there's a whole lot more it can do yet.
I think the reason that these TVs got the moniker 'smart' is because of their similarity with smartphones. For example, this Samsung has an AppStore. Press the 'Smarthub' button and you're wisked off to an attractive store full of apps under such catagories as video, games, sports, lifestye and education.
The TV comes with 765MB of memory built in and can be filled with these apps as you see fit. The apps all appeared to be free, but it definitely looked like it might try to sell you something eventually if the idea takes off.
Most of the apps are pretty basic and are essentially repackaged versions of the makers websites. For example there was an exercise app which allowed you to download various workout videos, each roughly 20 minutes long. We downloaded a few and the picture quality was acceptable - however there was nothing you couldn't find on Youtube (yes, the Samsung has a Youtube app!) and they would play immediately rather than having to be downloaded.
The 'BBC News' app was nice too, but the most geniunely useful ones, had to be the video players. These include the BCC iPlayer, DemandFive, PictureBox, Netflix and Lovefilm. Streaming from the iPlayer was as good as I've seen anywhere else and Netflix or LoveFilm users would no doubt be pleased to have these services built into their televisions. The other apps I'm not so sure of though, they felt like smartphone apps that had been quickly blown up to fit on a larger screen and they weren't comfortable for it. Although we couldn't try it, I did note that Skype was present in the appstore, with the built in camera, this could prove to be a popular use for a smart TV allowing a family to communicate all togetherrather than crowding round a laptop or tablet screen.
We decided to leave the smarthub behind and see how the television performed as, er, a television. With a Freeview HD tuner onboard, we turned over to BBC HD and .... WOW. What a picture. Detail, motion and colour all so crisp, smooth and vibrant that during one close up, I could have told one actor that the small red pore on his cheek would be a pimple by next week! I feel sorry for actors now, the picture quality shows every flaw. We did experience some strange behavior with some of the quicker scenes, but turning off all the picture processing in the settings left things looking more natural and only the motion-smoothing was left switched on.
Next we tried a few blu-rays to see what it could do with a really high quality source and we were blown away. You could practically reach in and pick up the characters in Toy Story 3, you felt like you could fall in after the train as it plunges into the chasm just before Buzz catches it and saves the day. Incredible.
Then we switched to 'The A-Team' and again, the picture was so jaw-dropping it was like looking through a window at the real goings on! I can imagine watching a full film on this TV being very immersive indeed. That said, the film has to be well put together. Any flaws in the production stand out a mile. The most recent Star Wars movie for example was largely shot using real actors in front of a flatscreen onto which all the special effects were added later and boy, did it show. I think it would be impossible to watch that film on this TV.
Finally, it was time to don the silly glasses and try out the 3D. We had a blu-ray documentary film showing spectacular sea life shots, predominantly around coral reefs. Now I'm not really convinced about 3D, done well on a cinema screen it can be good (Avatar), but on a smaller TV in the living room, not so sure. In practice, at it's best the 3D did look really good. When the whole scene was shot in focus bringing a sense of depth to what you were looking at, I really enjoyed it - but the moment something in the picture was not in focus it became hard to watch. Whilst the documentary got away with it, I really can't see it replacing much of what we watch in 2D.
So the question is, is it worth spending more on a TV to get a smart one? I'm not sure it is. The ability to stream from Netflix etc is nice, but the other apps were rather poor and done better with any laptop/tablet perched on your lap whilst the TV focuses on it's core task of showing you programmes and movies. Makers of older smart TVs have also let their buyers down in the past by refusing to keep them up to date, which leaves me suspicious that they want us to start buying new TVs as often as we buy computers. We shouldn't let that happen.
However, I must say that the Samsung is a spectacular set that more than justifies itself in its design and picture quality that it should definitely be on any discerning buyer's potential shopping list, especially as the price comes down - you may never use the apps, but it's a competitor without them.
For now I recommend keeping the focus on the sound and picture quality and let the boxes underneath your TV handle the rest.