Chilling with the Fridge

I keep hoping my refrigerator would smarten up, but there it sits just keeping things well-organized and cold. For $600 or so, that’s what the biggest box in my house does all day long.

Ah, but what might $6,000 buy? (Ten refrigerators?) Okay, just one, but it’s pretty amazing.

Click on Flex Zone and you can turn the bottom drawer into either a fridge bin or a freezer bin, and adjust the temperature so it’s ideal for beer, veggies, fish or snowballs.

Adjust the humidity so that the cooling system doesn’t zap the life out of cheese, lettuce, radish greens and the like.

Watch TV. Yup, anything that you’re watching on a smart TV system in your house, you can now watch on the front door of your fridge. Not a big priority for me, but maybe for some people who spend a whole lot of time in the kitchen.

Check the weather. Again, doesn’t come up too often, but sometimes, when I’m scooping ice cream or cutting some bread, I think to myself, gee, I wonder what the weather is like, but my phone and my three computers are too far away, so thank goodness the info is on my fridge!

Listen to the radio, or to any music stream. Yes, this is a nice thing. I can do it with a $200 tablet, but if I’m spending $6,000 on a fridge, sure, why not? Pandora is a standard feature. So are built-in speakers, and if you’d like to spend a bit more money, you can opt for both a sub-woofer and surround sound (wireless surround speakers are best placed above the sink).

Control your automobile until self-driving cars come along. Just tell the fridge where you want to go, and it takes over your car’s computer system to assure a safe journey. Since the fridge is doing the driving, you can sit back and enjoy a cold drink which the fridge places in the accessory cooling chamber in any recent-model automobile.

There are refrigerator apps, too. One is called View Inside, and it allows you to peek inside the fridge using three video cameras. Another allows you or anyone in your family to post digital messages on the refrigerator door, or to add to a family calendar. You can turn the fridge’s panel into a family whiteboard, too. There’s a group shopping list, and a few other apps, too.

And, you can turn the whole thing into a picture frame for family memories.

Your new fridge comes in choice of color (stainless steel silver, or stainless steel black), and in two sizes, one for about 22 cubic feet and the other for about 27 cubic feet (the smaller one fits nicely into an upscale kitchen with counters).

Can all of this be true? Absolutely! I’m writing about Samsung’s just-announced Family Hub [TM].

Also true: I made up the part about the car. And the subwoofers and surround sound, but you probably knew that.

And I do wonder: this box seems pretty cool for 2016, but what the heck are you going to say in 2020 when everyone has something even cooler in their kitchen and you have to explain why you spent $6,000 for a device with features that are now widely available on a $1,200 fridge? Heck, that’s easy! You just buy a new model and ask the robot inside to take good care of the kids while you vacation for a few weeks on Mars.

See more!

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The Big TV, Part Two

Yesterday, I wrote about big TVs in general. Today, it’s the specific–the 60-inch screen that we now watch every day. It’s a Samsung plasma screen with many of the latest features.

The most important feature is, of course, the screen itself. It’s extraordinary. Great color, great detail, wonderful contrast, never a ghost image, rarely any digital lag (sometimes a concern with fast-moving sporting events and slower-moving processors).

Second most important is sound. As I’ve written previously, most large TVs are made with the assumption that an external system will be added. This particular TV is fine, but on some frequencies, there’s a bit of distortion. Doesn’t happen often. Shouldn’t happen at all. A common problem, but it goes away with an external sound system. (Note the loudspeakers below.)

Samsung-2013-interfaceThird most important feature is the interface–the ways that we interact with the TV set. This requires some explanation.

Mostly, we work with two remote controls. One is used to switch the cable channels, a feature we’ve never quite mastered within the Samsung interface, so we simply switch the channel on our original cable remote and put it aside. The main remote is the Samsung, and like most TV remotes, it takes a bit to understand most of the features, and, like most remotes, it contains buttons and features that I will never take the time to comprehend. Mostly, it’s useful for volume up-down, and for maneuvering a cursor around the on-screen interface.

This interface is a point-and-click design, limited in its alphanumeric capabilities. Mostly, we select an app from the Smart TV interface, then scroll through a series of visual menus to find the movie or TV show that we want to watch. There’s an Amazon Prime app that we’ve used to watch every episode of “Arrested Development” at no additional charge, and there’s a Netflix app that we use to watch “House of Cards” and the strange assortment of movies and documentaries that is rich in niche material and (happily!) lacking in major mainstream movies. These work well enough, but everything falls apart with the oh-so-promising YouTube app–no fault of Samsung here, for YouTube develops its own software. It’s one of those circa-1983 interfaces where you must use the up-down-left-right arrows on the remote in order to choose each individual character, each space, each deletion of an error. For YouTube, with its many idiosyncratic titles, it’s simply dreadful.

There are some other useful apps–one to watch TED Talks videos, another to check the weather, another which provides access to what may be the slowest internet web browser I have ever encountered. In truth, these criticisms are beginning to melt away because each year’s models tend to improve upon the (few) weaknesses of predecessors, and here, I’m discussing a 2012 TV set, ancient in current technology terms.

If you look closely at the above picture, you’ll see that the 2013 Samsung interface is clean, easy to use, and features a tremendous number of apps (you can add or delete them at will). You are, of course, looking at the future of TV on this screen. There’s an app for YouTube and CNBC, another for USA Today and TED, one for HBO GO, and one for Netflix. Each of these is an independent experience essentially unaffiliated with Samsung, but it’s all here, all easily accessible in its “am I a TV channel or a web site? glory? There is so much video, so many images, so much text to be read on a screen that offers abundant clarity and contrast. It is now reasonable to read the Sunday paper on your TV set, stopping to check in, via Skype, with relatives calling from far away, checking email, doing all of that. At long last, we have arrived in the future, and so far, it seems to work pretty well. (See my comments about processing power in the yesterday’s post.)

And then, there’s 3D. This mystifies me. Yes, there are 3D glasses. Yes, they feel really silly. Yes, the effect is still that vaguely grainy, slightly out-of-phase experience. No, I have not felt much of a need to watch anything in 3D for anything more than a family demonstration. Maybe some time in the future.

How much does all of this cost? Less than $2,000, even for a larger screen.

So what else is new? The answer is clearly articulated, with only a modest amount of marketing-speak, on this page from Samsung’s website.

The Big TV, Part One

Overwhelming.

That’s the word we used when we first watched a 60-inch television set take over our family room.

No way would this TV set remain in the room. We had made a dreadful mistake. Living with this monster, even for a week, was simply unacceptable.

And then, we watched. Watching favorite movies, we noticed details in the background that we had never seen before. We’d darken the room and the experience felt superior to all but the best motion picture theaters. For the first time, we could clearly read every closed-caption, every sports score. In short, the experience was far better than we could have imagined.

Of course, the 60-inch TV set is not going anywhere. We’ve explored slightly smaller alternatives, but none offers the satisfying experience of the sheer size, scale and impact of the 60-inch screen.

Figuring out which screen type, which manufacturer, which features–all of that was useful research. Here’s the rundown.

Given the choice of plasma or LED technology, my eyes prefer plasma. I find the LED color palette to be too vivid, less lifelike, too difficult to adjust to my liking. Others may feel differently. During the inevitable research phase–which is not easy to do in the likes of Best Buy, but instead, far more successfully done in small, specialist shops because the sets are properly tuned and aren’t fighting big box store lighting–I found myself drawn to the plasma screens. Their reputation for greater power consumption, heat, reflectance and a darker room has proven to be a non-issue in our setup, which is, already, slightly darker than other rooms in the house. We have not noticed any change in our electric bill. If there is any substantial heat being generated, we simply haven’t noticed it.

Once the plasma decision was made, the choice of manufacturer became much easier. There’s a website that keeps up with the somewhat limited plasma industry, and apparently, there are just three companies in the consumer game: Samsung, LG, and Panasonic. The links in the previous sentence turn out to be quite useful. Each of these manufacturers offers their plasma wares in series form: the higher-end series include more features (3D, smart interfaces, etc.) and the lower-end series offer remarkably good image quality but less of the newest technology (improved black levels are a good example of what the higher priced devices offer that the lower priced models do not).

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“Smart TV” brands Samsung’s interface and feature package. Other manufacturers offer a similar suite of enhanced features. Buying a large-screen TV also involves selecting the best feature package for your needs. This can be complicated, but CNET and other specialist websites can simply the process. Often, reliable journalistic websites offer better, more up-to-date advice than you will find in a large retail store. Smaller specialty stores offer a better combination of well-trained sales personnel and a more home-like viewing environment.

In truth, the image quality on all of these plasma television sets is so extraordinary that individual reviews or product tests can describe only incremental differences. The details available on a true HDTV set are extraordinary, and the color rendition, especially on the plasma models, given proper adjustment, are just terrific.

The sound quality is a different matter. This is the one place where the beautiful, giant TV sets fall short. The reason, usually, is speakers that point in the wrong direction (down toward the floor or cabinet, not toward the listener) and are also too smaller to provide the fidelity that should be commensurate with the picture experience. (For more about this, see my previous blog post about audio systems for big screens–some of the specific products may no longer be current, but it’s easy enough to research newer models.)

None of these sets are easy to set up. They are all large, and require great care. A professional installer is recommended, especially for a set as large as 50 or 60 inches (remember, the measurement is on the diagonal). They are very well-made, but you want to be very careful about twisting or torquing the screen (or dropping it!).

Available as an accessory, the Samsung television keyboard serves as both a remote control and an input device with full alphanumeric entry. It also includes a touch pad. When the Bluetooth connection works properly, this is a wonderful addition to a smart television viewing experience.

Available as an accessory, the Samsung television keyboard serves as both a remote control and an input device with full alphanumeric entry. It also includes a touch pad. When the Bluetooth connection works properly, this is a wonderful addition to a smart television viewing experience.

Back to set-up. Each of these sets is a sophisticated computer and a TV set, and each offers a remarkable range of software features. The interface relies upon a fairly traditional TV remote control, and, increasingly, upon a screen interface that is navigated, mostly, by up, down, left and right arrows, or entry of numbers. This is a woefully inadequate way to control a device with so many features.  A touch-pad is a far better idea, and, in fact, a full wireless keyboard is an even better idea–when the Bluetooth feature works well enough to enable flawless communication between the TV set and what amounts to a rather large remote control.

Set-up also requires a level of coordination with other devices, including a DVD player,  an audio system, your wireless network, and, in the most-likely-t0-be-troublesome department, the cable box that is not specifically designed for use with such a modern TV set.

Of course, our original intention was simply to watch TV on a larger, prettier screen. We, like so many other consumers, were so self-assured when we insisted that the extra features were completely unnecessary, not at all interesting. Naturally, we spend nearly all of our viewing time with those special features. For the most part, they are the television equivalent of the iPad’s apps, but in the smart television world of 2013, those apps are, in essence, video-on-demand channels that provide access to a stunning amount of movies, television programs, and much more. These apps are also available on the newest Blu-Ray DVD players, game systems, and on other devices. On TV sets, the critical factor is the computer processing power built into the TV set. As a matter of common practice, TV manufacturers do not provide sufficient processing power to allow the apps to operate quickly and efficiently, so performance is often adequate, but could be so much better with only a small incremental price adjustment. The newer videogame systems offer both the same apps and also the increased processing power. Of course, you can plug any of those systems into the big TV and bypass the built-in apps entirely. Apple TV, which costs $100, serves the same purpose; similar products from Roku are also low-cost solutions.

So what’s it like to watch such a big TV? Stay tuned for tomorrow’s show, er, blog article.

Your New TV: The Ideal Screen Dimensions

Watching television in 1958.

Buying a new television set is not easy. Some stores tweak the settings of their TV sets, some tweak the lighting, some show the sets with no adjustment whatsoever, and others optimize to make each set look great. Of course, all of this is utter nonsense because no store can reproduce the environment where you will be watching at home. The next time you visit Best Buy, do not make any judgment about brightness, color rendition, or other qualities of the image–whatever you see in the store, it won’t be what you see at home.

There is one thing you can do in the store, of course. You can stand in front of the screen and wonder whether the set will be too big, too small, or just right for your room. Actually, you probably shouldn’t stand in front of the screen. Instead, with the set at eye level (not mounted six feet above your head), you can make a reasonable judgment. Here’s how.

Before you leave home, grab a tape measure. You’ll want one person to sit down in the chair where they are most likely to watch TV. Measure from the tip of the person’s nose to the place you intend to place the screen. In most American living rooms, this dimension will be about 10 or 12 feet. In smaller rooms, it might be 7 or 8 feet. Just for the sake of example, let’s assume the measurement equals 11 feet. Jot down this calculation:

  • Feet = 11
  • Inches per foot = 12
  • Inches from nose to screen = 132
  • Divide by THREE = 44 inch screen maximum
  • Divide by FOUR = 33 inch screen minimum

Try that again, this time with a larger distance to the screen, say, 16 feet. That’s pretty far away, larger than most U.S. living rooms. Here’s how the numbers look:

  • Feet = 16
  • Inches per foot = 12
  • Inches from nose to screen = 192
  • Divide by THREE = 64 inch screen maximum
  • Divide by FOUR = 48 inch screen minimum

Sure, we’re Americans! We love our television screens!! We want them as large as possible!!! (You’ll find article after article insisting that bigger really is better. For some people, that’s true. For most people, nose-to-screen distance is not more than 9 feet–not 11 or 16 feet as in our illustrations above). Add 10 or 20 percent if you’re VERY serious about sports or movies. Add 50 percent if your entire life revolves around a home theater.

No doubt. Certainly, many retailers would certainly prefer that you buy a set that costs $2,000 or so instead of $1,000 or less. For most principal viewing conditions, a TV in the 46-55 inch range will be suitable. For a bedroom, the answer is probably under 40 inches.

Hey, one more thought. There’s a lot of confusion about LED vs. plasma screens, and if you’re not lucky enough to connect with a knowledgable floor sales person, you could make a poor (and heavy) decision in the wrong direction. LED sets are bright and ideal for rooms where there’s lots of ambient light. Good for spots, not so great for movies because their color rendition is, well, extended and somewhat unnatural. Plasma sets are not as bright, but they do a better job with skin tones and lifelike color rendition. But they run hot, use more power than LED sets, and tend to be heavier, too. If your room has any significant ambient light (coming from windows or fixtures), you may be spending a lot of time fighting reflections. For several years, plasma sets were not popular, but a renewed focus on this technology, especially from Panasonic and Samsung, has resulted in plasma screens now widely available, even from big box retailers.

Before you buy, study the reviews. Editorial reviewers have the benefit of seeing many sets under the same (simulated real world) viewing conditions, so their comments are often more meaningful than the advice of people on the sales floor. I think cnet does an especially good job with TV reviews.

One more thought. I’m sitting here writing on a 21-inch iMac, a computer whose screen I regularly use to watch videos. The screen is not much more than a foot from the tip of my nose, so there’s no way that my formulas make any sense for those of us (lots of us) who watch videos, and the occasional movie, in this way. That makes me wonder whether we’re again crossing the great digital divide to some new way of thinking about the relative sizes of humans and their screens. Maybe our next screens will seem small at 100 inches. Maybe one wall of every room will be a TV screen. Heck, maybe every wall of every room will be a screen. Lots to think about!

 

Bend Me, Shape Me, See Right Through Me

This falls into the category of “totally amazing stuff.” You’re looking at one of several Samsung screens that will probably be available sometime in 2012. Yes, that’s a cell phone. Apparently, Samsung (which is turning itself into an awesome company on the display side, BTW) is working with Nokia to bring this concept to life, and to market, and to change everybody’s notions of what a phone, and a display, can be.

Initially, Samsung’s new screens will be introduced in Nokia phones.  Soon after, there will be tablets that are not only flexible, but see-through. Imagine looking through a map, with interactive directions, and directly in front of you at the same time. (Certainly, there will be heads-up displays used in automobiles for just that purpose, but maybe that comes a bit later on.)

The technology is called “flexible AMOLED.”

Interesting? This is just one of many mind-blowing moments in Samsung’s (Japanese-language) video. And, if you want more insight, check out this article in the London Daily Mail.

Even more interesting a thoroughly conceptual video from Samsung which illuminates the company’s view of their future. (It may take a moment to load.)

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