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Mossberg: TVs are still too complicated, and it's not your fault

Welcome to Mossberg, a weekly commentary and reviews column on The Verge and Recode by veteran tech journalist Walt Mossberg, now an Executive Editor at The Verge and Editor at Large of Recode.

Last Thursday, my beloved Pioneer Elite 50-inch plasma HDTV suddenly died. I had owned it for nearly a decade, and when it was new it was regarded by many as the best TV on the market. I distinctly recall Steve Jobs recommending it to me, among others, and I sprang for it even though its roughly $5,000 price (with optional side-panel speakers) put a much bigger dent in our family’s budget than it had in his.

I never regretted the decision, despite the fact that it had only two HDMI ports and couldn’t quite muster 1080p (it maxed out at 1080i). The picture featured really black blacks, and a wonderful warmth.

So I set out to snare a new TV. I knew it couldn’t be another Pioneer Elite plasma, because plasma has long been superseded as a technology and Pioneer (at least the real, original Pioneer) exited the TV business in 2010. But it wasn’t as easy a task as you might think it would be, even for a longtime tech reviewer.

Distinguishing one TV from another involves a high degree of personal preference — for the picture, the remote, even the physical appearance. The in-store experience can be poor. And the set up experience, and tweaking of features post-set up, can take plenty of time and effort. Setting up a phone or a laptop is second nature to me, regardless of the brand or OS. But TVs are different.

I had long ago grown bored with big-screen TVs. I’d stare at what seemed like hundreds of them showcased in giant booths each year at the Consumer Electronics Show and find myself unable to tell which was better. I sneered at their failed features like 3D, their gimmicky touches like curved screens, and their marketing jargon-de-jour, like SUHD. As result, I hadn’t tested one in some years.

So I asked my colleagues at The Verge, and (at the cost of public irony) my friends on Facebook. Many liked Sony, Samsung, and Vizio, especially for relatively low prices. But people everywhere said there was nothing like LG’s OLED TV line, which use the same screen technology found on some high-end Android phones — if you were willing to spend more. I was.

The next day I headed for Best Buy with my grown son, who was being good to his dad, because like many in his generation (including his brother), he cares roughly zero about costly TVs.

In the store, two sales people who helped us were nice, but not very informative. They knew little about how to compare among brands, except to rave about the costliest one (LG). And it took them multiple tries on multiple TVs to demo the streaming app menu for us — even after they had turned off the store demo mode. They couldn’t actually demo the streaming apps themselves. They falsely claimed that the sound would be very weak unless we bought an expensive sound bar.

Still, we came home with a 55-inch LG OLED B series TV. It was much thinner, lighter, and even narrower than my old 50-inch Pioneer, and only a little more than half the price. Like all of its competitors, its picture has a much higher resolution and is much brighter than my old set. It has a far better remote and double the HDMI ports. Oh, and like almost every TV now, it has built-in streaming apps like Netflix and Hulu. And it has a cartoon bird (called “Bean Bird”) to guide you through setting up its webOS user interface. Yes, the same webOS which once showed huge promise on Palm phones, now barely recognizable on a TV.

But the biggest deal was the OLED screen, which doesn’t require a backlight that can wash out black areas, and thus has much better blacks. Even in the store, with optimal store demo video playing on every screen, I could see that the LG’s OLED picture was, at least for my taste, better than its regular LED competitors. The blacks seemed blacker, like on my old plasma. The colors popped. The brightness was great, and the viewing angle was wide.

And after a few days, my wife and I have been impressed by the way the LG takes some TV shows — even older ones streamed via Netflixand gives them a visual quality that in some shots resembles a stage play. This is probably due to something called motion smoothing, which some people don’t like, but I thought was terrific.

But learning to use the TV is a whole other story. The Bean Bird setup process was pretty straightforward, but it gets you going just enough to start watching something. Tweaking all of the TV’s many features, including common ones like picture tones and uncommon ones like zooming in on a part of the picture or using a built-in web browser, takes hours. You must wade through menus containing scores of choices.

And some controversial features common to modern TVs are buried deep in these menus. For instance, while I like motion smoothing others strongly dislike it — it’s sometimes known as the “soap opera effect.” If you don’t like it, the LG’s interface doesn’t make it at all easy to understand what’s happening to your picture or what setting to adjust to turn it off. It’s not even called motion smoothing in the menus — LG calls it “TruMotion.”

The user interface is also somewhat confusing. There are at least three ways, for instance, to change inputs and at least two to bring up quick settings. The menu for launching apps like Netflix, inputs, and more appears to have a million icons in it and marches for what seems like miles across the bottom of the screen. So you have to edit it, which takes a bunch of time.

I give LG an “A” for effort on organizing the setup and adjustment stuff — it’s much better than on my Pioneer, which is a low bar. But LG gets a “C-” for execution overall.

Another example. The LG’s “Magic Remote” is very cool because, like a few remotes I’ve seen in the past, it controls a large cursor on the screen by waving it in the air. You activate whatever on-screen item the cursor is on by pressing a button that’s also a scroll wheel. It’s kind of like a mouse for your TV. (The cursor disappears after a short period of idleness. You shake the remote or click the button to get it back.) The scroll wheel can quickly move you through, say, a list of channels.

But the Remote isn’t so Magic at everything. For instance, it’s supposed to become a “universal” remote, controlling all your connected set-top boxes, but I can only get it to control some, but not all, of the basic features of my cable box, a TiVo Bolt. And its voice search is pathetic — far worse than the one on the latest Apple TV. For instance, “Arrested Development” repeatedly came out as “Rest Development”.

So… we mostly use the TiVo and Apple TV remotes, just like before. (The TiVo remote activates the LG’s input switching menu, power, and volume).

I don’t have buyer’s remorse… yet. The OLED is great, and I may even be able to dump my Roku because Amazon Prime Video is built into the TV (I’ll keep my Apple TV because I’m invested in iTunes, Apple Photos, and AirPlay).

But I kept thinking while being barely helped at Best Buy, and then stumbling to explain the UI to my very smart wife, that it was no wonder that my old TV advisor, Steve Jobs, thought toward the end of his life in 2011 that the TV as a device was ripe for disruption.

He never got a chance to do it. But somebody should. Even a cartoon bird and a promising operating system still make LG’s $2,800 TV harder to use than it should be.


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