Samsung’s new TV app could have cracked universal remote controls


Here’s a subject that I feel much more passionate about than the amount of writing I’ve done on the subject might suggest: remote controls.

So many ideas, so much innovation, so little progress from the basic design I grew up with in the 1970s.

This is why the most eye-catching thing I spotted at Samsung’s showcase currently running in Cape Town wasn’t the 88inch quantum dot TVs (although they are admittedly nice, and I learned something about modern gamut measurements I didn’t know before) or nine-amp sound bars. It’s the new version of its remote control app – Samsung Smart Screen – which has just been launched on iOS and will be updating on Android next week.

Let me preface this by saying I’ve tried a lot of universal remotes. From giant slabs of buttons to that weird Doctor Who sonic screwdriver shaped gesture control. Nothing has felt quite comfortable enough that I’d use it over having a pile of remotes next to the sofa. Phone apps, usually based around an IR blaster in the top of a handset, have also disappointed.

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Recently, however, I’ve been using a Raspberry Pi loaded with OSMC for watching online and streaming videos, and controlling that with the Yatse app on a phone has been brilliant.

It’s the first time that it’s felt really comfortable controlling the big screen from the small, with no delay between tapping on the phone and pausing or playing a video and a menu system in the app that’s genuinely easier to control than moving around with cursors on screen. And, of course, searching for titles with a phone’s keyboard input is infinitely more bearable than stabbing at letters with a cursor.

My first impression of the next-gen Samsung app is that it could be even better. Not only does it put TV controls and an EPG into a pleasant web-like UX, whatever apps you have installed on the TV also become fully controlled by the Samsung remote.

So you can search Netflix or ShowMax libraries from within the one app, as well as the contents of a local UPnP server. Tap a show or movie name from any source, and it just starts playing.

The only downside, of course, is that it only works with Samsung smart TVs.

I got to play with the app briefly at Samsung’s annual Africa Forum showcase, which took place in Cape Town this week. For the most part it was a showcase of products unveiled earlier this year at CES in Las Vegas, but there were a couple of standouts that looked particularly interesting for South African consumers.

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The remote app in standard TV mode. Support for other Samsung smart home products will be added over time.

Sticking with TVs, and if you aren’t quite comfortable with smart TVs – and let’s face it, with all the security concerns around connected devices right now you probably shouldn’t be – the new M5100 series of dumb televisions looks like a nice compromise.

These are HD screens which have a sort of half-a-Chromecast built in: they support WiFi Direct screen streaming and have built-in Bluetooth. So you can mirror an app from your phone (say, Netflix, for example) or connect any off-the-shelf Bluetooth headphones directly to the TV for quiet listening.

Blowing cold and cold

Elsewhere in the Samsung line-up, the other eye-catching new product launching this year is the AR9500M air conditioner. Bear with me – what makes this interesting is that it’s being billed as “wind free”, thanks to a low power setting which circulates cool air through a grid of 21 000 tiny holes without a powerful fan blowing. The effect – as far as one can tell on a show floor – is room cooling without the blowing gusts AC units put out. Samsung is billing it as ideal for keeping a bedroom cool without waking you up, for example, and it seems like a promising idea.

Pricing details are yet to be revealed, however, so I’ll reserve judgment for a bit. The AR9500M is, however, armed with an internet connection and app – as is most of this year’s line-up of white goods from Samsung.

Right now it’s a separate app to the one for the firm’s TVs, but the day won’t be far away when that universal video remote can control your whole house. If you want it to, that is.

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