Hewlett-Packard's new 37-inch MediaSmart LCD TV, the first networkable television, may be the wave of the future. Or not. In the turmoil created by two worlds colliding–televisions and computers–anything is possible. Still, this product looks like as good a bet as any.
MediaSmart is a widescreen HDTV with built-in networking–wired and wireless–and limited computing functions. It lets you access photos, music and video stored on other computers on your home network, and web-based services, such as Rhapsody radio and HP's Snapfish photo sharing. Actually, those are the only web services you can access right now, but the company is promising more, including movies on demand.
As a TV, MediaSmart more than passes muster. I compared it with another recently released LCD TV, a high-end 40-incher from a well-regarded maker. The MediaSmart set was better, hands down. The contrast ratio of 1,200:1 delivers pleasingly black blacks. The fast six-millisecond response time means you don't get motion blur with fast action–a problem with some LCDs. HP talks about its proprietary “photorealistic sharpness enhancement” and “3-D colour enrichment system” that supposedly deliver optimum detail and colour. I only know that while objects on the other set, especially moving objects, sometimes looked slightly jaggy or fuzzy, the Media-Smart image more often looked crisp and clean.
HP sees people putting the MediaSmart TV in their living rooms, where they typically don't want a PC junking up the decor. Now they can show digital snapshots stored on a computer in another room, and maybe hook up a small stereo system and play digital music from the PC. Or they might put MediaSmart in the bedroom–another place where PCs typically aren't welcome–to play music and access web resources. The built-in speakers and sound system are better than average for a TV, and definitely a cut above any clock radio. Fine for a little mood or sleepy-time music.
The MediaSmart set is a little thicker and bulkier than some LCD TVs because of the digital media adapter/computer module bolted on the back, and for that reason it will not be as easy to wall-mount. But with its elegantly proportioned matte-black bezel, it easily holds its own in terms of aesthetics. It should look good in just about any room.
Setting it up is fairly simple if you can follow instructions, especially if you've already set up a home network. The onscreen user interface features an uncluttered, un-computer-like look and feel, with big buttons. I had a few quibbles. For one, anything that requires you to search for digital content by keyword is a pain because you have only a TV remote with a phone-like alpha-numeric keypad to enter letters.
The more serious downside is that you can't use MediaSmart to surf the web. How much extra would it have cost to add this functionality? In its absence, HP needs to offer very compelling online services through its MediaSmart web portal. It's not doing that, at least not yet, or not in Canada. Rhapsody, which provides 25 music “stations” for free and has reasonable, though not great, sound quality, is a start. In the U.S., HP is already offering web-based video on demand, and it promises similar for Canada, but won't say when, what or how much. It also promises access to news services but isn't committing to Canadian content.
The 37-inch model (HP is promising other sizes in the future) is currently available in Canada exclusively at Best Buy stores or through HP's shopping website, www.hpshopping.ca, and lists for $2,800. The few competing 37-inchers list for a couple of hundred less, but often have inferior specs.
Bottom line: MediaSmart is a very good HDTV with some useful extra features that may become even more useful in time–and you don't pay a huge premium for them.