LG’s New WebOS Smart TV: The Best Smart TV Yet?

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WebOS’ long, strange journey to the TV is nearing its end. LG, who bought the former mobile OS from HP last year (after HP bought it from it original creator, Palm, years before), took some time to showcase the latest iteration of the software at its annual CES press conference this morning. The Korean firm wasn’t giving out any hands-on time with the now-smart TV platform just yet, so we still have our uncertainties, but the demo we did see gave us some real hope for this new webOS.

(UPDATE: We were able to play around with the new webOS shortly after this article was published, so we’ve edited the original text and added some further clarifications and impressions.)

LG’s big buzzword for webOS is “simple,” and that fits in varying ways. This doesn’t look like the kind of platform that will get more people to actually use the smart features on its smart TVs, and it doesn’t look like it’ll offer many features that don’t already exist on other UIs.

Instead, LG’s trying to make the smart TV navigation a more unified and
straightforward experience, streamlining its multitasking capabilities and adding in some visual flair to boot. It won’t change the world, as far as we can tell, but it could make getting the most out of your TV less of a headache.

Your key to the new webOS is LG’s Magic Remote, which is used to motion control a pointer around your smart TV screen. The smoothness of this is obviously going to be key to the success of the entire OS, so it was great to see the Remote stay responsive and relatively zippy during our test time, even on the cowded CES show floor. Thankfully, those that aren’t interested in motion controls can always use the Remote’s standard navigation buttons to manuever through the OS too.

Either way, you’ll use the Remote to navigate webOS’ launcher, which is almost entirely based in cards listed at the bottom of the display. Your favorite apps get their own cards on the main menu, naturally — and you can access all of them by clicking on the far right of the launcher — but one of the keys to webOS’ apparent simplicity is the way that everything else gets one too.

So, you can click on YouTube, Netflix or Facebook’s card to get into those particular apps, as you’d expect. But right next to them on the launcher are cards for, among other things, live TV, your settings, a web browser, LG’s app store, a “Today” card that gives content recommendations, and whatever devices you have plugged into your TV’s HDMI inputs. “Everything is an app,” an LG rep told us, and that’s very much the idea here.

On that last example, LG says that webOS can actually recognize other devices plugged into your TV and display them in the launcher accordingly. If you have a PS4 plugged into your TV’s HDMI 2 port, for instance, your launcher will have a card for “PlayStation” amongst your options. All of these cards are presented in solid, vibrant colors, and they’re all sized exactly the same way. It makes the whole of your TV — whether it’s live, recorded, in an app, or through separate HDMI outputs — look more naturally conjoined. That’s a good thing.

About those apps — YouTube, Netflix, Facebook, Amazon, Hulu, Vudu, Skype, Crackle, and Angry Birds will all be on there, with various others around in LG’s proprietary app store too. (That marketplace, by the way, will have advertisements baked into it. LG says those can be tailored to your viewing habits if you agree to an opt-in clause.) Hovering over any program or app with the Magic Remote’s cursor will quickly bring up a full-screen preview. We weren’t able to get a look at too many of the apps, but we can say that YouTube’s looks like its usual self while Facebook’s appears a little stiff and dated. We wouldn’t say any of the apps we used felt sluggish, but they didn’t scream either. This is all still on a TV, remember. How each app performs will be another key to LG’s whole operation, so we’ll hold off on too many judgments for now.

But perhaps most impressively, webOS lets you switch between apps — as well as your live TV and connected devices — on the fly, without having to go back to a home screen every time you want to do something different. Moving to the right of the launcher brought up a list of open tabs reminiscent of what you’d see on a smartphone, which allowed us to switch between programs without druding through all the unnecessary steps we’re used to seeing on other smart TV platforms.  

This doesn’t allow you to truly multitask with every webOS app, but LG tells us that the tools are there for developers to make it happen. Some apps already work they way you’d hope: If you’re watching a movie on Netflix, for instance, and you want to switch over to Facebook for a second, the former will automatically pause your video and pick up where you left off once you click back on its tab. Stuff like that better leverages a smart TV’s hardware, and webOS seems to have the kind of UI that can really accentuate such common sense solutions.

The usual functions all look to be here too, so you’ll get your quick searching, app history, app notifications, and the like. LG’s even thrown in a cutesy setup process using a cartoon character called “Bean Bird,” who brings you through the ropes of all the new OS’ relevant features. We just hope its voice isn’t too annoying. In general, LG seems to have paid a good deal of attention to the aesthetics and presentation of webOS; its fonts, color schemes and menus are all pretty attractive, especially when compared to the current competition. Admittedly, that’s a low bar to hurdle, but there was a certain charm to seeing, say, the little ‘poof’ animation that occurs whenever we closed an open tab. Little things like that show that LG is putting some added effort into its work, which is appreciated.

It’s still not entirely clear why LG had to buy and use webOS to make its newest smart TV venture possible — our demoer spoke vaguely about LG’s newfound belief in the web when we asked — but it seems to be committed to the platform either way. The company says webOS will be available on more than 70 percent of its smart TVs in 2014, including 56% of its new models. The plan is for it to be near-universal on LG TVs by 2015.

We wouldn’t bet on webOS being the “completely new paradigm” LG touts it to be, but it just might make your TV-viewing life easier. Considering it was as good as dead 12 months ago, that seems like it’d be a pretty nice victory.



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