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Summary:

One of the bigger surprises at CES was Hisense with its new line of Vidaa smart TVs, which are based on Android and show where Google TV is going now that it isn’t called Google TV anymore.

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If you’re interested in smart TVs, then CES 2014 had two surprises for you: The first one was LG with its webOS-based smart TVs, and the second one was Hisense. I ventured to the Hisense booth last week because I wanted to check out the company’s new Roku TV, but I quickly learned that at least for Hisense, Roku isn’t the big story: Vidaa is.

Vidaa is the company’s new smart TV platform, which has been developed by Jamdeo, a design and engineering company located in Ontario, Canada that’s co-owned by Hisense and Flextronics. I interviewed Jamdeo’s Principal Designer Mo Selim (see the video below) and after spending a bit of time chatting with his team about their thoughts on the smart TV space and their design philosophy, I came away impressed.

There are a couple things that intrigue me about the Vidaa smart TV:

It’s the future of Google TV. Hisense used to be one of the companies in the Google TV camp, producing the Hisense Pulse companion box. But Google TV was plagued with a long list of problems, one of them being the strict requirements Google put in place for its hardware partners. For example, the first generation of Google TV needed to include a full traditional QWERTY keyboard, leading to unwieldy and confusing remote controls.

Google eventually realized that Google TV was going nowhere, loosened up, got rid of the brand and started to allow manufacturers to build Android-based TVs, with the option to add Google services like Chrome and Primetime (Google’s TV programming guide) on top. The new Hisense Vidaa TVs are a first example of types of Android-based TVs in a post-Google TV era, and they show that the new freedom allows manufacturers to actually innovate and combine some of the better Google and Android apps with their own take on how smart TVs should look like and function. These first results are encouraging.

It’s using design to compete. TV is a tough market. Worldwide, close to 20 percent of all new TVs shipped come from Samsung. In the U.S., that number is closer to 30 percent. Chinese manufacturers have in the past primarily tried to compete through price, and apps were more of an add-on experience, which is why many hoped that Google TV would deliver them a complete product that didn’t require too much customization.

Hisense is still using this strategy with its Roku TV, but it also decided to spend some actual money on designing its own smart TV experience. The Jamdeo team told me that the first Vidaa TV premiered in China last year with an experience similar to the one now deployed in the U.S., but without Google services — and it turned into a hit, moving the needle for the company and significantly increasing its local market share. That’s why Hisense decided to bring Vidaa to the U.S., where it now wants to compete with brands like Samsung and LG and their take on smart TVs.

It actually gets things right. After seeing a demo of the Vidaa TV and talking to the folks who designed it, I’m actually impressed with this take on smart TVs. Take a look at many of the other smart TV platforms out there, and you’re often greeted by a convoluted desktop-like UI that bundles all kinds of stuff. That quickly results in information overload.

Jamdeo’s designers instead decided to do away with the home screen, and bundle apps and services around different activities, which is pretty smart. The ability to jump back and forth between these activities without having to back out of an app and launch another one is also neat, and the recognition that home media sharing is key to smart TVs, and possibly one day just as important as Netflix or any other video service, is right on the money.

Sure, there are still things to improve and some redundant features — but this is a big first step.

Check out Hisense’s official Vidaa promo reel for another look at the platform below:

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  1. All of the TV manufacturers are still showing off their Smart TV interfaces, which while better than before, I think fail to improve on the Chromecast paradigm. I’ve been using the Chromecast for months, and every time I switch over to the Roku 3 (for Amazon, or just to browse some other channels) I become slightly annoyed. Finding the content I want to watch is just more work on a Roku. I’m not just talking about the number of clicks either; there’s some mental aspect to it as well. There is something simple and pleasant about flipping through the content on your phone and just clicking play. I think its the disconnect between the clicks with your thumb and the effect on the screen, which is different than pressing on an actual image in your hand.

    Having TVs work like a Chromecast kind of goes against the TV manufacturers interest though. They want people to see their interfaces and differentiate themselves from competitors. If everything goes the Chromecast way, suddenly every TV is basically the same. It’s why Android manufacturers keep skinning their smartphone interfaces as well.

    I can’t imagine trying to find all of my personal media through a remote. That just sounds terrible. Using the Google Photos app on my phone is much more pleasant, and you previously mentioned that Chromecast support is coming soon.

    I’m interested in any articles about a future Roku or Chromecast supporting HEVC. I’d really like to know if Netflix will simply halve Super HD bandwidth, or enhance their Super HD even further due to the bandwidth savings. 7 Mbps HEVC approaches OTA broadcast quality. Now if Hulu Plus would just start competing on picture quality…

  2. Good article, a couple of questions.

    a) Isn’t Google doing a “Nexus TV” of some sort ? The L version of Android is rumored to serve the next form-factor (beyond tablets)..would be interesting to hear their view on parallel attempts by brands in this space. Especially because the “jump” concept most probably requires tweaks in Android…

    b) What chip powers this Hisense product ?

  3. This is everything I want in a $99 set top box, but I don’t want to replace my 50+ inch $1000+ TV every time someone makes a better one. I just want a dumb TV where I can replace the brains every once in a while. Please please please release a Vidaa box.

    1. My thoughts exactly ohoski, couldn’t agree more.

  4. If new technology was designed for the many handicapped, visually impaired, etc, then all products would be better; guess that would eliminate the ‘new developents’ and upgrades… gotta keep the interprize going.

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