Yesterday we got the official word that LG would be using WebOS as the brains for 78-percent of its upcoming smart TVs. There was a lot to like about WebOS back when it ran on smartphones, but we were a bit skeptical about how it would fair in a smart TV. After all, smart TV user interfaces are almost universally bad. Not this time.
We just got to spend some hands-on time with WebOS running on a few of LG's 2014 TVs, and we really liked what we saw.
The first thing you'll notice (see video above) is that navigation is incredibly fast. Using the joystick on the remote control, you guide the cursor around the screen, and as you do things pop up instantly. Not only that, everything is animated and really attractive. From the home screen you can access all of your favorite apps (and there are a lot already, from Netflix to Google Maps). If you don't like how they're laid out, you can just drag and drop to move them around. Very intuitive.
There are a fair number of second-screen like features built-in. For example if you're watching a British murder mystery on cable TV you can pop open an overlay on the right side that will give you more info on it, and/or links to other shows it thinks you'll like. It's all very nicely integrated.
The LG store acts as a sort of integrated hub for content. There you'll be able to download movies, TV shows, apps, and even games. You can plug a USB controller directly into the TV and play games as if there were a console attached. Or, if you don't have a physical controller, you can download an app to your smartphone and use it as a remote (it pairs via Wi-Fi). It was pretty responsive when playing a Spiderman game that had been downloaded for the demo, and while it looked pretty good, we're not talking PS4 graphics here or anything.
One of the sticking points is text entry. If you wanted to enter in some search terms, or type a URL into the built-in web browser, you'd have to pull open a keyboard, and hunt and peck your way through with the cursor. That's how Roku players work, too, and it's very tedious. To counter this, LG has included options for voice and gesture controls. Using a voice search we were able to get the upcoming weather forecast and search for content. It wasn't entirely accurate, but to be fair, there was a lot of background noise. Hopefully it would work better in a home environment.
The gestures are slick, too. You just raise a finger in the air (a polite one, please) and it immediately brings up an interface for adjusting the channel or volume simply by waving your finger. You can also bring your finger up to your lips to instantly mute. It was surprisingly responsive, though we have yet to see how it handles a room full of furniture and people. Some of the higher-end TVs will come with built-in cameras for this. Others will require you to purchase the small camera separately, and while WebOS will be on some of LG's Blu-ray players, the voice and gestures will be limited to the TVs.
Overall, we were really impressed by how polished the system looked and how responsive it is. We generally hate smart TV UIs, but this felt like something very different. I can say without question that it's the best smart TV interface I've ever seen. It was actually smart! It didn't look like an early-2000s feature-phone. It didn't lag or stutter. It was designed like it was meant to be on a beautiful 4K TV, and that says a lot.
Obviously, we only got to see a little bit of it, and the only thing we were allowed to use ourselves was the gesture control, so only time will tell if it can measure up to these auspicious first impressions. Hopefully we'll be reviewing one when they start rolling out later this year.