What defines a smart TV? If the past year is any indication, the answer is apps. But calling a TV smart just because it offers Netflix seems… wrong. These devices should do more than just offer us some content; smart TVs should be working for us, like how Samsung’s platform will actually recommend TV shows, or how LG's Google TV eases the burden of channel surfing with its excellent voice controls.
Toshiba’s new Cloud TV platform does more than just Netflix and Hulu—it features cable TV integration similar to what Samsung and LG have done. Unfortunately, Cloud TV is not in the same league as those two. Toshiba has the right idea—provide video streaming content and cable content in one platform—but the execution is done so poorly that you’ll be reaching for a smartphone and your cable remote in no time.
Smart Platform Video
Getting to Cloud TV is painless. Navigating it is not.
Accessing Cloud TV is a simple task: Just press the Home button (you know, the one shaped like a house) on the remote and presto, you’re there. The first screen you see, conveniently called Home, is a neatly-arranged welcome page featuring a PiP screen of your cable content, the date, current news stories, and your inbox. And before you get your hopes up—no, Cloud TV does not keep track of your email. The inbox is for messaging other Cloud TV users, which involves sending them invitation codes. Good luck with that.
There are two other screens you can use: My Page and Contents. My Page may sound like a customizable home screen, but it is not. It merely lists most of Cloud TV’s apps and has quick access to USB media files, but lacks a PiP screen. Contents is similar, and places an emphasis on apps, but that’s about it.
As you traverse these screens, Cloud TV’s fatal flaw becomes obvious: It is painfully slow. Just clicking around and moving from section to section had a slight lag that started to wear at our patience. When you actually click on an app or link, be prepared to wait. And when you switch to a different screen, you'll wait some more.
Aside from a handful of apps, there isn't much to see.
Since two out of the three screens on Cloud TV are app-centric, we expected there to be a lot of apps to choose from. That is not the case. Highlights include Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Vudu, and Pandora. Skype is included, but a separate camera is needed. Noticeably absent are Facebook and Twitter apps, but since these have yet to be done right, we’re OK with this.
One app that looked interesting was KontrolTV. This program tells you to download the smartphone version, which will allow you to “control” your TV (hilarious!). Alas, you are only able to do a few things, like play awful games that you control using your phone. There is a feature on KontrolTV that allows you to play videos, but when we tried to play the latest from Drake, it asked us to install Flash. On our TV. We’ll stick to YouTube.
An internet browser is included, too, but we don't recommend using it. While it looks harmless—it actually has tabbed browsing!—it is sluggish to a fault. Toshiba’s flagship L7300U TV comes with a Bluetooth keyboard, which helps with navigation. Still, it doesn't do anything about slow-loading web pages (our internet connection was fine).
So close, yet so slow
Toshiba at least had the foresight to offer some sort of cable interfacing with Cloud TV, right? While we appreciate the effort, the actual interface is a lag-infested mess. Users can access it by either pressing the Guide button on the remote, or by finding the MediaGuide icon on the Home screen. Once there, you will have three options: Program Grid, Movie Portal, and TV Portal.
Program Grid mimics the typical TV guide found on most cable boxes. You can find a TV show you like and press the OK button on the remote, which will bring you to the program. This would be fine and dandy if the Program Grid wasn’t a lag-fest, but sadly it suffers the same fate as most other Cloud TV features. On top of this, we were only brought to the correct channel when an SD program was selected; clicking on an HD channel always brought us to the wrong station.
Movie Portal supposedly offers… movies, but it says “Coming Soon,” so we won't comment on it. We will comment on a TV being released with unfinished features, though. Why let the public see this? Come on, Toshiba.
TV Portal actually aims to be smart: It categorizes content by type, such as now-playing, sports, and music. You can then click on icons for specific TV shows and watch them. The idea is solid, and we’re reminded of the way that Samsung displays content on its Smart Hub. Unfortunately, things fall apart because of the aforementioned lethargic speed and inability to find HD channels. Is this really an issue in 2013?
At least it has Netflix.
Aside from a small collection of apps, a few screens to display those apps, and a frustrating way to view cable content, Cloud TV doesn’t have much else to offer. There is a calendar you can view and create events for, but we weren’t in the mood after being forced to watch standard definition content. There’s also a search feature, which lets you search for movies and TV shows, but an error message tells us that the feature isn’t available yet.
And that is what Cloud TV is in a nutshell: unfinished, unpolished, and frustrating. Even more infuriating is that Toshiba has the right idea. Cloud TV offers a simple interface for accessing content, both streaming and cable. If it actually functioned the way it should, we’d be looking at an impressive smart platform. As it stands, though, Cloud TV is a disaster.