Hisense's free TV streaming service is just YouTube in a trench coat

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Something weird has arrived on a number of 2020 Hisense TVs, and we’re really not sure how it got this far.

Hisense has been developing its own in-house smart TV platform called Vidaa U for some years now, and it can be found on a host of mid-price TVs from the affordable television brand.

There are some new features for 2020, though, that we spotted when reviewing the largely impressive Hisense U7QF QLED in the UK – including an imitator of the Art / Ambient Modes used on new Samsung TVs, called Vidaa Art.

Ambient Mode offers a host of screensavers, posters, hues, and photography samples for Samsung TV owners to display on their TV screen while not in use. It uses more energy than simply turning off the TV would, but it does enable televisions to blend into the decor a bit more, or offer a more ‘ambient’ use outside of bingeing on Netflix.

Samsung’s Art Mode is a natural extension of that, offering access to classic artworks and paintings from museums and galleries around the globe – though only on its art-minded The Frame TV, which is specifically designed to have the appearance of a picture frame when mounted onto a wall.

Hisense’s Vidaa Art, though, doesn’t quite have the same function as either.

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For art's sake

We were tentatively excited about the Vidaa Art feature, which appeared on the home screen of the Vidaa U smart platform when turning on the U7QF for the first time. However, it quickly became clear that Vidaa Art didn’t have nearly the amount of resources that Samsung’s version had in development. 

There aren’t any classic artworks, no stylish screensavers, and not really anything outside of some basic landscape photography and a number of illustrations from DeviantArt – the massive online website for fan art – that only serve to cheapen the endeavour. 

While many of these pictures are impressively sketched, plucking images from a community-sourced online database is totally in contrast to the largely slick and professional interface of Vidaa U.

We haven’t even mentioned Vidaa Free, another new feature on the platform that brings together ‘free’ video content for viewers to enjoy. What could be wrong with free TV?

There’s been a big push from smart TV platform developers to include their own free TV offering, as with Samsung TV Plus, which brings together free broadcast content, kids shows, and more in its Tizen OS – found by scrolling down from the main home screen. The ad-supported Roku Channel, too – which came to the UK last year – has around 10,000 TV episodes and films available to stream on demand, all at no additional cost.

The issue, though, is that this ‘free’ section simply pulls videos from YouTube – which, without an account login, shows all sorts of uselessly randomized content, and feels like a confusing repackaging of what would be available on the YouTube app, rather than a worthwhile app in its own right.

We gather this is only the situation in the UK, with services such as PlutoTV, TubiTV and Xumo integrated into Vidaa Free elsewhere. But these half-baked features, without quality consistency across territories, make us question why they went global at all.

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Vidaa U kidding?

Vidaa Art and Vidaa Free are both present on TVs using the latest version of Vidaa U (U4). That includes the A7100F (75-inch only), A7300F, AE7400F, A7500F, U7QF, and U8QF – meaning they’re currently active across a number of models worldwide too.

When approached for comment, Hisense informed us that its Vidaa team was “always searching for new partners and services to expand the breadth of content and functionality available to our customers.”

What still isn’t clear is why these features made it to Hisense smart TVs at all, at least without sufficient content or purpose for the user. In their current state, they feel like alpha builds designed to show proof-of-concept. They certainly feel like more of a distraction for the user – with prominent placing on the Vidaa U home screen – than something that increases the value of their TV purchase.

It will be very easy not to use these features, and older models (2019 or earlier) won’t, it seems, be updated with them. Unless these aspects get improved, though, we’re not sure why we’re being offered them.

Henry St Leger

Henry is a freelance technology journalist, and former News & Features Editor for TechRadar, where he specialized in home entertainment gadgets such as TVs, projectors, soundbars, and smart speakers. Other bylines include Edge, T3, iMore, GamesRadar, NBC News, Healthline, and The Times.