It used to be that people promoting flat panel TVs concentrated on the differences between plasma and LCD, 720p versus 1080p, and, most recently, the benefits conferred by LED and 3-D technologies.
Faced with slower than expected sales, television marketers and salesmen are no longer trumpeting technical specs and trying to convince us to buy based on which set has the best picture, biggest jack pack or greatest depth effects. Now it's about the unique experiences built into each panel.
Take Samsung. The South Korean company's latest line of plasma and LED living room displays look great. Pictures pop off the screen, there's little detectable image tearing or blur in fast moving scenes and dark images are filled with subtle details.
But the same can be said of many of its competitors' televisions.
That's why Samsung is shifting focus to talk about what their sets are capable of beyond great picture quality. And that leads directly to a discussion about "smart TV," a high-level label for a variety of web-connected features.
All of these features can be found in the Smart Hub, a single, simple dashboard - no nestled menus - that users can call up at the tap of a button. The current program plays in the top left corner while a variety of apps, which can be organized as you like and placed in folders, are spread out as tiles across the rest of the screen.
A lot of these apps - such as YouTube and AccuWeather - have been around for a while and are common among web-enabled televisions. Most people use them occasionally, but they aren't exactly home run features.
Samsung's new Social TV, on the other hand, comes a lot closer to knocking the ball out of the park.
Social TV lets people watch their Twitter and Facebook streams scroll down the right side of the display, laid over or beside the program they're watching. If viewers want to join a conversation, Samsung's dual-sided Bluetooth remote offers a full QWERTY keyboard on the back. That means you can watch TV and fully engage in your social networks without ever reaching for a phone, tablet, or laptop.
What's the point? When James Franco hosted the Oscars this spring he pumped out plenty of juicy behind-the-scenes tweets from backstage. With Social TV, viewers can follow all of his updates onscreen. Hence, the potential to enhance live programming.
Beyond live events, Social TV can facilitate conversations among audience members watching popular shows. Viewers can see how their friends are reacting to every dramatic turn in programs like Mad Men and True Blood without ever averting their gaze from the television.
I'm certain Social TV would be a boon to someone like my wife, who misses half of what's going on in the shows she watches because she's constantly looking down at her iPad to track her social network feeds. The problem, of course, is that I'm often in the room with her, and I might not want to read what her old college boyfriend or mommy group friend posts about the latest twist in Breaking Bad. Consequently, Social TV is more of a solo-viewing feature, or perhaps something people would bring up during commercial breaks when they're in a group viewing situation.
Two more appealing smart TV features on the latest Samsung sets include Skype and a web browser.
Skype requires a separate Samsung-made HD camera that sells for $150 (though you may find it bundled with TVs in special offers at certain retailers) and attaches to the top of the display. With just a few taps of the remote you can initiate video calls with anyone in your Skype contact list. Notifications show incoming calls in the corner of the screen. Sadly, though, you can't conduct a call while watching a show.
The web browser, meanwhile, is surprisingly robust. It's not app-based, but instead runs off the TV's Linux operating system, which means it supports Adobe Flash and is fairly speedy. Plus, you can continue viewing your current program picture-in-picture while surfing the web. Very small text can be hard to read - even on the enormous 60-inch screen I was viewing - but it should prove sufficient for the sort of sites most people might want to visit while watching TV, like IMDB.
Sadly, one of Samsung's most powerful smart TV features, "Your Video," isn't particularly useful to Canadians at the moment. It lets users can search for shows and movies in a variety of ways, such as by name, actor, and director. Then, if you live in the U.S. and have access to video streaming services like Hulu, Vudu, and CinemaNow, you can click "watch" to see the services on which it's available, whether you can view it in standard or high definition, and even compare prices. It's designed to eliminate the need to check multiple apps to find and access content.
I asked a Samsung rep if Canadians could use Your Video to search and find content through services like Netflix and Zip.ca (the Canadian video rental company's video streaming service is accessible via an app for Samsung sets), but Your Video requires metadata - information about actors, directors, genres - and I was told neither of these services currently attach metadata to their library selections.
Still, Your Video comes pre-loaded and is operational on sets sold in Canada. It's just waiting for suitable services, which, hopefully, will come north of the border before you need to buy another new TV. You might think of it as buying for the future.
In the meantime, Canadians will find more utility in Samsung's "Search All" function. Just enter a term - say, "ballet" - and Search All will return video results from YouTube, the web, the Your Video app (for what it's worth), Facebook, and even any computers connected your TV's network. It's a dead simple way of finding content locally and over the web.
About 80 per cent of Samsung televisions are equipped with smart TV functionality, but many of the features I've discussed here can only be found on their newest, premium models. Plasma screens with a full suite of web-connected features start at $2,499 with the 51-inch 8000 Series, while LED enthusiasts can get it all starting at $2,399 with the 46-inch 7000 Series.