A sneak peek at Xiaomi’s Android-based Mi TV

Chinese smart phone maker Xiaomi may be getting ready to sell some of its wares in the U.S., but its smart TV devices likely won’t be part of that U.S. line-up any time soon: Xiaomi VP of International Hugo Barra told me on the sidelines of a press event in San Francisco Thursday that Xiaomi’s TV set is heavily customized for the Chinese market, thanks in part to content licensing agreements, and the company isn’t looking to strike similar deals in the U.S.. The same goes for Xiaomi’s Mi Box mini, a streaming device that the company introduced last month.

However, never say never: Xiaomi revealed last year that it plans to invest $1 billion in online video content, which could eventually pave the way to target Chinese expats, or even wider audiences, outside of China as well. With that in mind, it’s worth taking a closer look at Xiaomi’s Mi TV, the company’s 47-inch smart TV, which was on display at the press event as well.

Xiaomi Mi TV

Mi TV is based on Android, but it doesn’t look at all like the Android TVs Google is currently introducing with manufacturers like Sony and Sharp. Instead, Xiaomi has custom-built its own user interface, which boasts access to TV, movie and game content as well as an app store and access to user-generated local and cloud content.

IMG_4129

At the center of the experience is definitely Xiaomi’s movie and TV content, which the company is licensing from China’s ICN TV. “Essentially, you get a Netflix-style subscription for free,” Barra told me.

IMG_4132

Barra stressed that all of the content available through Mi TV is licensed, and said that it’s possible to offer free content in part because licensing costs in China are a lot lower.

IMG_4134

Mi TV also offers access to Android games, which can be played with an external game pad.

IMG_4136

Mi TV users can also access Xiaomi’s Mi Cloud service, which offers personal media backup and synching across devices. That way, they are able to view photos and videos taken on Xiaomi smartphones on their TVs.

IMG_4137

Xiaomi President Bin Lin said Thursday that Mi Cloud already stores 30 billion photos. Over time, the company wants to extend the cloud functionality to connect all kinds of devices through the company’s IoT platform.

Samsung TVs start inserting ads into your movies

Thought you could watch that video on your local hard drive without ads? Think again: A number of owners of Samsung’s smart TVs are reporting this week that their TV sets started to interrupt their movie viewing with Pepsi ads, which seem to be dynamically inserted into third-party content.

“Every movie I play 20-30 minutes in it plays the pepsi ad, no audio but crisp clear ad. It has happened on 6 movies today,” a user reported on Reddit, where a number of others were struggling with the same problem.

Reports for the unwelcome ad interruption first surfaced on a Subreddit dedicated to Plex, the media center app that is available on a variety of connected devices, including Samsung smart TVs. Plex users typically use the app to stream local content from their computer or a network-attached storage drive to their TV, which is why many were very surprised to see an online video ad being inserted into their videos.

Samsung accepted the blame for the ad a day after this story originally published, with a spokesperson telling me it was an error that was confined to TVs sold in Australia:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”We are aware of a situation that has caused some Smart TV users in Australia to experience program interruption in the form of an advertisement. This seems to be caused by an error, and we are currently conducting a full and thorough investigation into the cause. This situation has been reported only in Australia. We would like to apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.”[/blockquote]

A Plex spokesperson had previously assured me that the company has nothing to do with the ad in question. It looks like the Pepsi ad isn’t just making an appearance within Plex. Subscribers of Australia’s Foxtel TV service are reporting that streams watched through the Foxtel app on Samsung TVs have been interrupted by the same commercial. A Foxtel employee responded to these reports by saying that “this absolutely should not be happening and is being escalated immediately.”

It looks like the ad insertion was accidentally turned on by default for apps that it wasn’t actually meant for, but the faux pas points to a bigger issue: Device makers like Samsung have long tried to figure out how to monetize their platforms and generate additional revenue in a time where margins on hardware are slim at best.

Samsung initially tried to sell ads on its smart TVs, but shuttered its paid app store for the big screen a year ago because it realized that most people simply didn’t want to pay for TV apps. Another popular idea in the industry has been to monetize smart TV platforms through media services — but it turns out that isn’t all that easy either, especially at a time where most people are perfectly happy with just using Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime Instant.

To its credit, Samsung caught on to this shift in consumer behavior earlier than others as well, and shuttered its movie rental service last July. The last option for Samsung is to monetize third-party apps — and the company isn’t alone in trying. Roku has been particularly aggressive with ad and revenue sharing agreements, but I’ve been told that almost all platforms are trying to strike some kind of deal with more successful developers to either run ads against their content or get a cut of their revenue.

Consumers rarely ever get to know about these deals — unless something goes wrong, which seems to be exactly what happened in the case of that Pepsi ad that popped up on Samsung TVs this week. That’s bad, because there are other issues at hand than interruptions from unwelcome ads. Who, for example, gets what kind of data when TV manufacturers strike deals with advertisers? And how can consumers opt out of data collection altogether?

Coincidentally, the Pepsi ad started to pop up on Samsung TVs a mere day after the company was in the hot waters over another smart TV-related privacy mishap: Earlier this week, an owner of a Samsung smart TV discovered that the company’s privacy policy included warnings not to disclose private information in front of the TV, with the implication that the device might be listening in on our all your conversations. Samsung has since clarified that this isn’t the case — the device is only capturing voice commands when you press the microphone button on your remote control, and otherwise using hot words to monitor for voice commands.

But the incident clearly indicated that companies like Samsung have to be more transparent about the data collection capabilities of their devices. The Pepsi app just seems to be the icing on the cake, urging the company to get serious about this now.

This story was updated on 2/11/2015 with a statement from Samsung.

First look: This is Panasonic’s Firefox OS-powered TV

Panasonic is getting ready to ship a smart TV based on Firefox OS this spring, and the company is previewing the device at CES in Las Vegas, with an emphasis on preview: At the Panasonic booth, I only got to see a TV set running a Flash demo of the TV’s user interface, and a spokesperson told me that the final version isn’t ready yet.

Here’s what the company showed in Vegas:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=midsZK1Q0RU]

Interesting about Panasonic’s approach is that the company isn’t emphasizing the geeky side of Firefox OS, and instead appealing to simplicity, with app pinning apparently being one main feature.

P1090798

Also noteworthy are integrated notifications, which will first come from apps, but eventually also connected appliances. And finally, there is a kind of universal search that includes web content, which can be accessed through the integrated Firefox browser.

Panasonic's Firefox OS TV features integrated app notification support.

Panasonic’s Firefox OS TV features integrated app notification support.

I was told that apps from all major content providers are going to run on the platform, and the demo showed apps from Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Vudu and others as well as the Firefox browser. Also noteworthy is that there was a dedicated icon for Miracast; Mozilla has been cooperating with Matchstick on an open protocol for screen mirroring and casting, but Panasonic hasn’t announced plans to support the protocol yet. However, a spokesperson told me that there are definitely plans for multiscreen interaction with apps on mobile devices.

P1090804

Mozilla and Panasonic first announced a Firefox OS-powered TV at last year’s CES, but that device never materialized. The new model is now supposed to ship in spring, and feature 4K with a 64 inch screen size. Panasonic hasn’t announced any plans for additional models or screen sizes yet, and a spokesperson tamed expectations by calling Firefox OS on TVs a “special project” for the company.

P1090800

ces-2015-3

Netflix unveils seal of approval for streaming-optimized TVs

Netflix wants smart TVs to be less dumb: The streaming service will unveil a new seal of approval at CES in Las Vegas Monday that is meant to highlight TVs optimized for streaming video. TVs that feature the new “Netflix-recommended TV” logo will feature easier navigation, a snappier performance of the Netflix app and other features that are supposed to make streaming just as easy as watching regular TV.

Netflix's new seal of approval for streaming-optimized smart TVs.

Netflix’s new seal of approval for streaming-optimized smart TVs.

Some of the first companies to make [company]Netflix[/company]-recommended TVs at the show include [company]Sony[/company], [company]LG[/company], [company]Vizio[/company] and [company]Sharp[/company], as well as makers of Roku’s TV sets. Some devices, including LG’s 2015 webOS TVs, are expected to be on display at CES. The program will launch in the U.S. first, but it obviously would make sense for the company to expand it to its other markets as well.

Netflix executives have be talking for some time about the need to improve the streaming experience of smart TVs. Netflix’s Partner Devices Director Scott Mirer told me back in 2013 that the company had begun to talk to TV manufacturers and chipset makers to improve their TVs, which traditionally have been optimized for cable or broadcast viewing. “They are really still old-style linear TVs with some network feature bolted on,” Mirer said at the time about existing smart TVs.

One example Mirer gave me back then was instant-on: When you turn off your iPad or phone, it goes into a standby or sleep mode. Turn it back on, and you’re able to resume whatever you’ve been doing before, whether it was watching a video on Netflix or interacting with another app. TVs, on the other hand, are off for good. Press the power button to turn a TV back on, and you’ll have to go back to the smart TV app section, select the Netflix app, and then find your last video to continue watching.

That’s why instant-on is one of seven criteria Netflix developed for its new seal of approval. A Netflix spokesperson declined to share the full list for this story, but said that device makers who want to slap the Netflix-recommended TV logo on their models need to meet a total of five of those seven criteria.

It makes a lot of sense for TV makers to optimize their smart TVs for easier Netflix viewing and streaming in general. The average Netflix subscriber now watches 90 minutes of programming from the video service every single day, and TV makers like Vizio have been talking about a nearing inflection point, with streaming overtaking traditional TV viewing.

ces-2015-3

Insignia and Haier start making Roku TVs, Roku builds 4K support

Roku scored two new partners in its quest to rule the living room: Best Buy’s Insignia brand and Haier will both joining the list of TV manufacturers using Roku’s smart TV platform in 2015. This indicates that Roku continues to bet on bargain-priced TVs for budget-conscious consumers. But with future 4K support, Roku is also gearing up for higher-end devices.

[company]Roku[/company] announced its first Roku-powered TV sets at CES in Las Vegas last year, at the time signing up [company]TCL[/company] and [company]Hisense[/company] as its first consumer electronics partners. Now, [company]Best Buy[/company] is throwing its hat in the ring as well. The retailer will be starting to exclusively sell Roku TVs made under its Insignia in-house brand this spring. [company]Haier[/company] will start selling its very own Roku TVs in Q3, with screen sizes ranging from 32 to 65 inches. The company will also continue to sell so-called Roku-ready TVs, which are essentially just regular TVs with a bundled Roku streaming stick.

Spring TCL Roku TV_front

Roku TV launch partner TCL is also back for more: The company will announce twelve new Roku TV models this spring. A Roku spokesperson wasn’t able to provide any further details on features and screen sizes, but a recent FCC filing suggests that at least one of these devices will feature a 55-inch screen size, and go by the model number 55FS3700.

That TV, as well as the other eleven the company is set to announce, will all feature regular HD resolution, but TCL is also the first partner to commit to Roku’s forthcoming 4K support. Roku is announcing a reference design for 4K at CES, which TCL and others can use to build their own 4K-capable Roku-powered smart TVs.

Roku SVP of Product Management Jim Funk told me during a recent interview that Roku-powered 4K TVs will be able to play 4K content from Netflix and other yet-to-be announced streaming partners. Funk didn’t want to commit to a firm date for 4K Roku TVs, but said they’d likely not be available in the first half of this year. Funk also declined to comment on whether Roku plans to make 4K-capable streaming boxes.

4K was supposed to be a big deal last year, but failed to really take off due to limited content. However, Funk was optimistic that this will change in the long run: “I have no doubt 4K will be a successful format,” he told me.

ces-2015-3

Roku raises $25 million in additional funding

Streaming device maker Roku has raised an additional $25 million round of funding, according to a disclosure filed with the SEC on Wednesday. A Roku spokesperson confirmed the funding and said that it would provide “additional growth capital,” but declined to comment on who participated in the round, which brings the total amount raised by Roku to $155 million. The funding comes at an interesting time for the company; Roku is getting increased competition from the likes of Google and Amazon in the streaming device space, but it could get a boost from both Hisense and TCL shipping TVs powered by Roku’s platform.