Review: Samsung Evolution Kit Makes Obsolescence a Thing of the Past
I hate to be that guy—the guy who talks about how different technology was back in the Good Old Days—but the fact remains that from the time I was born until I left the nest for good in my twenties, my family owned exactly two TV sets: an old tube-powered RCA and a fancy new solid-state Zenith purchased in 1979, which served my dad just fine until high-definition came along and made it obsolete.
I, on the other hand, have owned eight new TVs since I moved into this house fifteen years ago, and these days it seems like I’m tempted by some shiny new TV tech every year: new picture enhancements, new Smart TV apps, new connectivity options, new display technologies altogether. It’s like the vicious cell phone upgrade cycle, but worse, since a new iPhone or Galaxy S will only set you back a few hundred bucks. If you dropped a few thousand on a new Smart TV last year, though, you’re probably looking at the upgraded features of this year’s models and kicking yourself for not holding off on that purchase just a few more months.
Unless, that is, the new model you bought last year was a Samsung. Unlike other Smart TV manufacturers, Samsung is breaking the cycle of yearly obsolescence, allowing you to quickly, easily, and pretty quickly upgrade last year’s model to (most of) this year’s specs.
If you purchased a 2012 Samsung E7000 or E8000 Series plasma, or ES75000, ES8000, or ES9000 LED TV, check the back for a little black sticker labeled “Evolution Kit.” If it’s there, you’re eligible for an upgrade, without having to ditch your original investment.
Samsung was kind enough to send me a 2012 46-inch ES8000 LED TV, along with its new 2013 Evolution Kit, so I could perform the upgrade process myself and compare the features of the old model to its newly Evolved self.
Having already reviewed the 2012 ES8000 last year, I was already quite familiar with its performance and control capabilities, but spent a few days reacquainting myself with it just to jog my memory. My impressions from last year still held true: Voice Control was a pretty spiffy function, but I found the TV’s Gesture Control—which works similar to Xbox’s Kinect—was lackluster. I installed the TV in my well-lit bedroom, but even with the window shade open and the overhead light, my big floor lamp, and both nightstand lamps on at full retina-scorching brightness, my room failed the brightness test and the TV would not let me activate Gesture Control.
Who could have known that simply slapping a box on the back of the TV could fix that?
Okay, to be fair, installing the Evolution Kit involves a little more than merely “slapping it on.” The process isn’t terribly complicated, though. You merely have to unplug the TV, line a few tabs on the Evolution Kit up with corresponding slots on the back of the TV, and rotate it into place. I’m pretty well versed in hardware upgrades, though—having had plenty of experience building my own computers, and recently I replaced the video board of my Anthem D2v processor to upgrade it to 3D—but even I’ll admit that plugging the Evolution Kit in gave me the heebie jeebies. There’s no satisfying “click” when you finally get the upgrade box in place, and the only confirmation you have that it’s plugged in properly is that it won’t pull back off with a firm tug.
If you’re not comfortable with simple hardware upgrades—like, for instance, adding new RAM to your computer—you might want to hire a home technology specialist to perform the upgrade. But either way, the entire process, including adding the hardware, performing all of the software updates to the TV, and adjusting all of the new settings, takes less than half an hour.
It’s totally worth it, though, because the Evolution Kit doesn’t just update last year’s TVs with this year’s Smart TV apps and interface; it also replaces the television’s brains from a dual-core to a quad-core processor, upgrades the onboard storage, adds additional RAM, and adds new video enhancement features. The result is faster load times, more apps to choose from, and significantly better navigation. In the process, the Evolution Kit also delivers a vastly upgraded Voice and Gesture Control experience, dubbed Smart Interaction.
At the end of the upgrade process, the Evolution Kit walks you through a series of tests with its newly upgrade Smart Touch remote control (included in the package), along with new Voice and Gesture Control tests. To my surprise, Gesture Control worked with a fraction of the light required by the old, un-evolved 2012 model, despite the fact that the camera itself isn’t upgraded in the process.
And that’s handy, because Gesture Control is actually worth using this year. Last year, even when I could get it to work in the den, my reaction to all of the hand-waving was a resounding “meh.” With the Evolution Kit in place, though, and the Smart TV upgraded to 2013 specs, it’s actually a lot of fun. Not only does it work with much less light—in fact, the light from the TV screen itself is almost sufficient, although I did have to turn on the overhead light for it to work reliably 100% of the time—but there’s more to do with Gesture Control this year. Yes, you can still play Angry Birds by plucking and releasing invisible slingshot strings in the air, but you can also hold your hand up in a sort of I-solemnly-swear kind of way, grab app icons, squeeze your fist to activate them, or wave your hand from left to right or vice versa to move from screen to screen.
Voice Control, especially via the new Smart Touch remote, is also improved a bit, much to my surprise. I thought it worked pretty well last year, but this time around there were far fewer false activations, and I was able to interact with the TV in a much more natural speaking voice.
The really neat thing about the improved Voice and Gesture Control, though, is that—in a strangely ironic way—it sort of renders the original remote control that came with the TV obsolete. The touch remote that came with last year’s TVs was a pretty interesting pack-in, and it did make web surfing and some apps a little easier. But it was, at best, a supplement to the proper hard-button remote. Combine the improved voice and gesture interaction afforded by the Evolution Kit with the significantly upgraded touch pad experience of the new Smart Touch remote, though, and unless you have an advanced home automation system, that’s really the only control solution you’ll ever need to use with this TV.
Interestingly, though, a feature of Samsung’s 2013 Smart TV platform that I expected to care little about became one of my favorite new additions of the Evolution Kit. This year, the Smart TV hub and the live TV experience are much more intertwined. During the setup process, you feed the newly evolved TV your ZIP code and TV provider, and as a result the TV not only knows what’s on and when, it can also take control of your cable or satellite box. As you use the On TV feature of the Smart TV hub, it also starts to learn your habits, and can make informed recommendations about which new shows you might want to check out later. I only used On TV for a few days, but even by the second day it was starting to get a much better sense of my rather eclectic viewing tastes.
Add an IR repeater to the system, and the Smart TV hub can even change the channel for you. Which means you could change the channel on your cable or satellite box using your voice alone. Unfortunately I didn’t have access to the repeater, but the Smart Touch remote changed the channels on my Dish Network Joey Whole-Home DVR Client just fine.
Of course, that isn’t to say that the Evolution Kit completely and utterly brings your 2012 Samsung Smart TV up to 2013 specs across the board. This year’s LED TVs benefit from better local dimming and inkier blacks, which the Evolution Kit can’t replicate since it only replaces the brains of your TV, not the panel itself. Also, last year’s E7000 Series plasmas aren’t eligible for the upgraded Voice and Gesture Control for some reason.
That aside, though, there aren’t many downsides to the 2013 Evolution Kit at all. It remains to be seen, of course, whether next year’s Evolution Kit will upgrade 2012 TVs to full 2014 Smart TV specs. At a press event earlier this year, Samsung representatives did tell me that next year’s kit will add upgraded HDMI—or possibly even DisplayPort—connectivity to this year’s 4K “Ultra HD” TVs, but I’m not sure anyone knows just yet whether the Evolution Kit platform can add more than a year’s worth of evolution to an old TV. That remains to be seen.
But for now, though, if you have one of the compatible 2012 Samsung Smart TVs, the 2013 Evolution Kit is an obvious and affordable upgrade will make your old TV feel (almost) brand new.
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