They may be called Blu-ray players, but in 2011 they're as much about streaming-media services as they are about high-definition discs. With every manufacturer having a different collection of streaming-media services, we've been taking an in-depth look at each company's content portal for 2011.
Today, we're looking at LG's Smart TV, which takes a markedly different approach than Samsung's Smart Hub, which we reviewed earlier this month. LG's Smart TV doesn't have extras like cross-platform search or recommendations, but it does has our favorite collection of streaming-media services, plus a refreshingly simple user interface.
LG Smart TV is the same on most 2011 LG Blu-ray players--and home theater systems with built-in Blu-ray players--but slightly different on LG TVs. The entry-level BD630, BD640, and LHB326 don't offer the full LG Smart TV suite, instead only offering access to Netflix, CinemaNow, Vudu, and YouTube.
Editors' note (April 28, 2011): LG recently recently added several streaming-media services to Smart TV, including Amazon Instant and MOG. This story has been updated to reflect those changes.
LG Smart TV streaming services vs. competitors
Editors' note: The chart doesn't list every streaming-media service available on each content portal; for the sake of simplicity, we chose those we considered most important.
LG's selection of streaming-media services is the best we've seen for 2011. Samsung and Sony may technically have more services overall, but in our opinion Smart TV has more high-quality services, including all of the standard services you'd expect (Netflix, Pandora, YouTube), plus a very solid offering of standout extras, such Amazon Instant Streaming, MLB.TV, Napster, MOG and vTuner. The big missing service is Hulu Plus, which is offered on Samsung and Sony.
Amazon Instant Streaming is our favorite extra, especially for cord-cutters without cable. While competing services like Vudu are a compelling alternative for video-on-demand movies, Amazon Instant offers by far the largest selection of TV shows for pay-per-view watching, including both network and cable shows.
We also appreciate that it's tied into the viewer's Amazon.com account, which means we're able to watch our purchased content in a browser as well. If you're looking to "cut the cord" or just supplement your existing cable subscription, we've found Amazon Instant Streaming to be the best TV content provider. That being said, CinemaNow offers a solid collection of TV content, so it really comes down to which service you prefer.
The Premium section and LG Apps
LG's content portal last year was been named NetCast and although it looks pretty similar in 2011, the company has dropped the moniker (at least on its "Smart TV"-enabled players). Instead, you access the content portal by clicking on "Premium" from the home page. Premium isn't a very accurate name for the streaming-content portal, especially when many of the services, like Pandora and Picasa, are free, and we're betting it might throw off some less tech-savvy users. Further confusing things on the main screen, the icon says LG Apps though it doesn't take you the important, uh, apps you want to use.
The home screen may be a little misleading, but once you get into the streaming-content portal, the user interface is dead simple. Unlike Samsung's cluttered Smart Hub interface, LG's streaming-content home screen has big icons for the various streaming-content portals. It's the best interface we've seen for streaming content on a Blu-ray player in 2011, as it is easy to quickly get to the streaming service of your choice. Our main quibble is that LG's remote doesn't have a dedicated "Smart TV" button (similar buttons are available on Samsung and Panasonic players), which would make it even easier to access your content.
LG Apps is new for this year, but as of now, it's basically a worthless feature. There are currently only five apps available, with the most interesting being Boing Boing Video. Until we see more apps being developed for the platform, we wouldn't factor this into a buying decision at all. (At this time, we'd actually rather see it gone completely, since it doesn't add much functionality but does add confusion regarding the "Premium" section of apps you actually want to use.)
LG's Netflix interface is excellent. It's very similar to the interface offered on the PS3 at the end of last year, so if you're looking for more information, take a look at our detailed hands-on. Unlike with older versions of Netflix, you can search for titles as well as browse categories like new arrivals and different genres.
While there was significant variation in Netflix interfaces last year on Blu-ray players, this year they're largely the same, so it's not a major differentiating factor.
Overall, LG's Smart TV is our favorite content portal available on 2011 Blu-ray players. We love the basic user interface, and it features more high-quality streaming services that we care about than competitors. Sure, there's no search like there is on Samsung or Sony players, but since that feature doesn't work well, we didn't miss it at all. And while Sony technically has the most apps of all the manufacturers, its outdated user interface really works against it. If you're choosing a Blu-ray player based on its streaming content, we'd recommend going with LG.
Got LG Smart TV questions? Leave a comment below.