back to article Why do Smart TV UIs suck?

Years ago, TVs were simple. My grandparents’ set, for example, had a single channel-change button which clunked through to the next VHF preset each time you pushed it. My own family's TV had two standards, enabling us to “Switch to U for BBC 2” in time for Play Away. Inevitably, matters have became much more complicated than …

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Unhappy

Just like PC's

I can TV's becoming just like PC's, pre-installed with all sorts of crap with the manufacturer getting a cut of any subscriptions.

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Re: Just like PC's

It's worse than just the PC-like functionality causing UI overload - the "dumb" TVs without the PC section also have awful UIs. It seems to be an industry with no UI skills at all - I guess they think nobody makes a purchase choice based on the UI menus.

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Re: Just like PC's

Whitter said: " It seems to be an industry with no UI skills at all."

That's exactly right. TV manufacturing is an industry historically focused on hardware. Now that TVs include software, the UI is left in charge of the same old team of hardware engineers, who are reluctant to admit they're totally out of their depth. Good UI design is a craft unto itself, and needs a very different mindset to hardware design. You see the same thing in most hardware categories: phones, printers, scanners, AV gear... hardware companies make lousy software.

Apple is one of very few companies that understands software UI design, which is a big reason for its massive dominance these days. Unfortunately, Apple values its control of the user even more highly than the user's control of the device, which explains why its dominance is never complete.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Just like PC's

Absolutely, the focus on hardware. I worked with Japanese monitor/TV manufacturers in the 1990s and discovered a different world, oriented around the factories, UI barely a thought. Improved to some degree since but the whole idea of integrated smart TV is flawed. Consumers expect screens to last 7-10 years at least so building in technology that is undergoing a rapid rate of change is pointless unless the objective is to somehow annoy your customers into early upgrade. Rapid built in obsolescence such as we find in 2-year contract smartphones does not translate to the TV industry. Keep the smarts outside the panel, its a no-brainer.

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Gimp

Re: Just like PC's

So here I sit, all alone in my darkened room, playing with my socks.....

"Hello Mr Rabbit"

"A good day to you too Mr Farmer."

"Did you know that TV's are too full of shit and are hard to use - for retarded people?" - said Rabbit.

"Oh I thought the damned things made you retarded" - replied Farmer.

"Ohhhhh really? You mean the idiot news presenters are pretend people just like us - hand up the arse and all, just mouthing shit at each other and their imaginary audience?" stated Rabbit.

"Noooo" said said Farmer - "We are real people, it's the TV that is full of lies."

"Oh" said Rabbit.

Best thing I ever did was throw my TV out - gave it to the accursed junki next door, so he could sit there taking two types of drugs for his brain, while I spend my spare time designing furniture and making it.

LOL.....

TV be fucked.

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FAIL

Never mind the UIs

I'd just wish they'd fix the damn bugs in these things. I have 2 HD Recorders by Humax and Sagemcom and both sometimes "forget" to record a sheduled program or worse lockup or outright crash as and when they feel like it. I also have a Sony Blu Rayer player with "internet" facilities (yeah, I bought into the hype) none of which work properly.

I'm sorry , but when I buy non-PC home electronics I expect it to Just Work. I DON'T expect to have to download a fix just to sort out problems that should have been obvious with 2 minutes of testing when they were writing the damn firmware! I never had to download a "firmware" fix for my VHS deck or CD player and I don't see why I should have to damn well do it with with an HD Recorder or blu ray player. You can argue they're more complex but frankly I don't give a sh*t - they should work out of the box and if that requires them to spend and afternoon testing it before release it then so be it.

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Re: Never mind the UIs

Part of the problem is that makers see the software as firmware, not as an OS with a need for extensive functionality, a credible UI, and competent applications using a reasonably standard API. And because they think it's firmware, they leave it all to the TV designers to produce closed systems that they can't be bothered to update.

I never thought I'd say this, but given the abominable standard of "software" on my three year old Samsung smart TV, I'd like my telly to run Windows.

Actually, no, no, I recant...I'll settle for Android, or even a proper version of Linux. But something that runs proper application programmes and offers intuitive control over setup and layout, instead of bringing me customed craplets via a UI as fast and as pretty as a salted slug.

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Bronze badge

Re: Never mind the UIs

The latest Samsung 8000 series sets have an "Evolution" slot, enabling them to sell you upgraded memory, processor and so forth, so that you can be "future proof" when they come up with other exciting new services.

Given their history of updating software on some sets, it will be interesting to see if there ever is an evolution card.

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Re: Never mind the UIs - "Evolution slot"

"The latest Samsung 8000 series sets have an "Evolution" slot, enabling them to sell you upgraded memory, processor and so forth, so that you can be "future proof" when they come up with other exciting new services."

Sounds like the Mattel Aquarius, they promised the same in this magazine advert:

http://i26.tinypic.com/30rtq54.jpg

Needless to say it didn't.

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Re: Never mind the UIs

Download the latest update for my Blu Ray player.

You get the updates to the DRM so the latest FOX discs will play.

3-4 'new" services you never wanted (Darts TV, Basket Weaving, Poker...)

But the basic stuff still just sort of works.

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Paris Hilton

Re: Never mind the UIs

Yeah Samsung updating can be rather annoying, my Blu Ray has internet features which after finding how rubbish they were felt ripped off.

Well ever time I fire the damn thing up

<DOWNLOADING UPDATES>

No matter how much you scream at it, it just says Do not unplug.

Then it updates the internet firmware

Then the apps (Even ones not installed)

>_<

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Re: Never mind the UIs

My TV actually does run Windows, and of all the systems I've tried, I do think Windows Media Centre is the best. I haven't tried Windows 8 media centre yet, largely because I cba to figure out how to install the thing, but who knows, maybe TIFKAM works better on a 6 foot interface than it does for keyboard and mouse use.

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@Ledswinger

Get a Raspberry Pi and run XBMC on it?

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Silver badge

They're worse than crap

they're closed crap.

We have a nice big Tosh. A couple of years old, LED, "smart", lots of buttons on the remote control, nmap reports it's running Linux. The built-in formware has a "scan for upgrades" option. Has there ever been an upgrade?

Has there heck.

So we have telly that _should_ be tweakable: it's running a known O/S, it has upgradeable hardware and a UI that is in desperate need of a usability revamp - but there are none, and the ability for the open source brigade (despite my rude remarks about them) are unable to even give it their best shot. Hell: I'd even pay for an upgrade

Maybe the best thing to do with the set is to leave it be. Ignore the Youtube interface (awful), the Netflix access (never really worked) and all the other tickbox features. Just Hook it up to a RPi, one of the mini-Android dongles or somesuch and just use the TV as a big old dumb display.

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Re: They're worse than crap

Take it apart and look for a (possibly unpopulated) UART connection.

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Paris Hilton

Not just TVs

The strange categorisation of apps isn't just limited to smart TVs - the Xbox 360 has separate sections for TV and video apps. Currently the only app in the TV section is the Sky player while iPlayer, 4OD and Demand 5 are lumped in the Video category with such "gems" as Dailymotion and Crackle. Last time I checked, the BBC were still a TV provider and iPlayer a TV catch-up service.

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Couldn't agree more with this article. My friend bought a new Samsung Smart TV and we connected it to the net and proceeded to try to install some apps. Everything was so clunky and slow, and text entry using a remote is a royal pain in the arse.

Maybe we're all spoilt with the superb experience offered by mobiles / tablets these days, but TV manufacturers have a lot of catching up to do

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One of the many (I have a long list, but only so many words to write for an article) things that annoyed me with those Samsung apps is the way that you don't discover they need updating until you try to launch them, whereupon you have to sit twiddling your fingers for a few minutes while the new version is downloaded.

Sod that, I'll go make a cup or tea, or do something else. Why they can't update in the background like, for example, a £100 android phone, is beyond me.

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Silver badge

"and text entry using a remote is a royal pain in the arse."

Agreed. And the tragedy is that a smartphone or tablet offers an obvious and easy way to interract with the TV, offering a fairly useable keyboard running one of two or three phone OS's. All they need is to build in bluetooth to the TV, and stick a craplet on the phone to pass the text or set control comands. I suspect you could even do it over DLNA or wifi for existing non bluetooth sets, for no more than the modest effort of programming an app for the phone/tablet, and a widget for the TV.

But that's another thing that makers struggle with, the concept of "supporting software". With a phone, PC or tablet, there's an acceptance by the hardware and OS makers that (at least some of the time) they'll offer improvements, upgrades and bug fixes for a couple of years. WIth TV's the brown goods mentality reigns supreme: When it's sold, they think they're on the hook for the shortest hardware warranty period they think you can get away with, and any other problem is simply a feature. As for ideas not thought of when the set was made, why bother - you've got the customer's money.

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Anonymous Coward

text entry

Tell me about it. My parents bought a Samsung (I suggested a Panasonic as their PVR/DVD was Panasonic). Smart hub has a browser built in. Not a bad idea but.

1) It's not intuitive to see how to type in the browser address or more importantly text into fields on the webpage

2) there isn't a paper manual, or a PDF manual supplied - it's a separate "app" in the Smart hub area

3) text entry isn't in the manual even when you do find it,

From my blundering around in google, I think short of buying the appropiate wireless keyboard, the answer lies in running the remote control app off a phone or a tablet

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Bod

Spend more

The higher priced Samsungs have dual core and quad core is coming (and available to some models as a plug in upgrade).

Got a dual core in mine and it's reasonable speed for what it is. Remote entry for text is still a pain, but that's not what Smart TV is for. It's select and click (or gestures on the fancy ones).

Quite happy with mine, and I'm surprised I'm getting regular updates. That the app updates only occur when you launch them is a little niggle but happy they have them (apart from Red Bull TV which still doesn't have a fix to the annoying audio stutter on their live TV feed). Also happy that there are newer apps coming along.

UI on the latest is relatively clean if annoyingly populated with "social" guff in parts.

The really rubbish bit however is the DLNA interface. It finds the servers okay but then it's a clunky interface of folders and cryptic names. Then again it's arguably the DLNA server at fault. Hence the likes of Plex to make them more informative, but then they've also gone and made an app for Smart TV anyway (not available on all Samsung models yet).

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FAIL

Dual/quad core

What, you're claiming that for TEXT ENTRY you need a dual or quad core processor? How in the world did all those computers get along with single core processors before we got to dual core? Text entry was fine on the first Mac and the first Windows PCs, despite both having single cores that ran at a single digit number of MEGAHERTZ, not gigahertz as in today.

If you are saying that these "higher priced Samsungs" that include a dual or quad core CPU is necessary to make the smart TV features perform "at a reasonable speed for what it is", then no way would I waste my money by paying the extra money for this as you suggest.

Best to save your money by forgoing "smart" TVs altogether since not one has been made that provides anything you will miss if you don't have it.

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Bod

Re: Dual/quad core

Bearing in mind these are low spec and low power processors. It's a bit like the old single core Atom based netbooks. The early ones were somewhat clunky and slow even at basic things.

Basically the kit that's in the cheaper or older TVs is equivalent to those or even lower spec. Like a £50 toy tablet.

And bear in mind the processors may be doing other work too (have to admit I don't know if they get involved in the video processing or that's done with separate processors).

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I don't have a telly.

I have a pc. I watch everything on my nice big monitor. Yes it is only a 22" one but I've never seen the need for a 46" mega screen in my tiny living room.

From a personal viewpoint I'd be happy if we just had inexpensive large monitors.

I haven't needed or used an actual TV in years. And I also thought the emerging paradigm was that people were very likely to stop watching broadcast telly in the near future too.

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Re: I don't have a telly.

BUMP,

No TV just a 42" monitor with an ITX PC with a few USB Freesat and Freeview tuners and the PC connects to a superb 5.1 PC surround sounds.

I don't even use the TV remote. Just turn the TV on and off. The very low power PC just stays on as its also the house file server

Also you NEVER lose a full sized wireless media keyboard down the back of the sofa.

Frack smart, just connect a PC, They do everything and really easily as well.

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Re: I don't have a telly.

We have inexpensive large monitors - they're called TVs. The economies of scale mean that large TVs are cheaper.

There's limited demand for large computer monitors, especially now people have discovered that several small monitors are easier to use - sadly, this happened after I spent lots of money on a single large monitor.

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its all a uishambles as far as I'm concerned

hidden in the dark and cobwebbed corners are a few nice facilities - like the iplayer on Sony BD 360 & up, which (as long as the action doesn't get to frantic) can nearly equal broadcast HD.

You didn't even mention the iplayer UI (which only intrepid ui explorers can usually find on much kit as you say), usually a nasty, clunky, lag ridden horror. The sony one is really clever 'cos it searches for matches from the first letter of the programme name, so you'd better look it up on a PC first and make sure you type it in ExactLY RIGHT. then it gives you a list where the key info (like which episode of the program) has disappeared off the right hand side of the little box, and you can't scroll over, so you have to select each one in turn, wait for it to load, then after trying a couple, try and reverse engineer the sort order to predict where the one you actually want will be.

The only 1/2 sane UI on any of my AV kit is the old humax Foxsat HDR box with modded firmware that means I can access it from web broswer.

If DNLA hadn't ended up designing a camephant, it might be the answer, or even Myth TV.

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dvd

Dream telly

My dream telly is a reasonable sized screen, good picture, good sound and a shedload of connectors. Not even interested in internal tuners.

Doesn't sound hard, does it?

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Re: Dream telly

Good sound - exactly. The problem with nice flat TVs is the sound is usually abysmal.

Also a remote control that people with adult-sized fingers & less-than-perfect vision in a darkened room are able to use.

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Re: Dream telly

Personally, if it's going to be a flat panel, then you may as well forget about the sound altogether.

You're never going to get really decent sound out of a box that's thinner than an old transistor radio, in my view. Sure, they may try to take the rough edges off by processing it to buggery, but frankly even a pair of £50 bookshelf speakers from Richer Sounds are likely to do a better job than the speakers built into most flat panels these days.

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Re: Dream telly

"Also a remote control that people with adult-sized fingers & less-than-perfect vision in a darkened room are able to use."

You jest. Although Sony have subtracted functionality in this area, judging by my HDR/DVD, which not only has tiny buttons and no backlight, but also prints the legend onto the buttons. Three years down the line and most of the legends have rubbed off, meaning that you need a damn good memory to be able to make it do anything.

It's the second Sony piece of kit which I've bought that is mostly excellent, but spoilt by a confusing manual and a dreadful remote. Not buying another Sony for this reason.

Thumbs up icon because some of us have only thumbs and no fingers.

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Forget the UI Bring me a TV with XBMC as part of the setup and you sir would have a sale.

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Windows Media Center has quite a good UI

Or I thought it did. Did it?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Windows Media Center has quite a good UI

Yeah its pretty straightforward. Just a shame the extenders are EoL and a pile of garbage. Hopefully Ceton will breathe some new life into the platform and support HD at the extender, then I'll be happy

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Re: Windows Media Center has quite a good UI

Yup. Very happy with the WMC7 UI on my media centre & TV and it passes the "can the missus use it on her own" test.

As much as I hate TIFKAM on a PC I think the first company to build Kinect and Win8 into a TV UI could have a big hit on their hands.

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Anonymous Coward

first smart tv....

....bought last week. Panasonic seems straight forward enough. Does what it says on the tin and no problems detected thus far. UI seems a bit teletubby, but smooth and reasonably quick in use..... It's a tv, not a PC. It's ok.

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Re: first smart tv....

Having just looked at quite a few, I do think that, in some regards, the Panasonic SmartViera interface at least has the merit of simplicity, in terms of finding the various apps, with its 3 x 3 grid that that the live TV in the centre. You can move things around, you'll only ever have eight items on the screen, so you can see them clearly from the sofa, and you can put the things you use a lot - and I doubt many people will use more than eight - on the first screen.

It may not look as fancy as some of the others, but it's certainly less cluttered and simple to navigate with a remote.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: first smart tv....

my thoughts entirely.....

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I'm a-feared of the future

This article perfectly illustrates why I still have a BT iPlayer digital set-top box (and a Philips 26" CRT)

The iPlayer is quick and has a great EPG. It is prone to locking on to one channel occasionally (although I must say not lately - switchover?) but to be honest it takes a while to notice. It also contains a 56k modem (woo!) and comes with a keyboard.

This article is long overdue.

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Mushroom

Philips

We have a Philips "smart" TV . So smart it sometimes forgets it is already to connected to the network and you have to run the setup again. Horrible UI. The media player on it is terrible as well. I can't wait for my Ouya to arrive so I can use XBMC instead.

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WDTV live has a nice UI, regular updates

My advice to anyone buying a TV is get one based on the quality of the panel, the "smart" features don't count for sh!t and will never be updated; leave that to a third-party box which you can upgrade more cheaply if needs be and still keep your TV.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: WDTV live has a nice UI, regular updates

Yeah the WDTV Live UI is actually quite slick. Sure the box is not perfect, but it has a fair stab at it, and plays most content. Regular upgrades at the moment, but these will tail off once the box is replaced. But for £70 its a better option to replace than your £1000 TV.

I have a Sumsung Smart TV from a year or so ago and it has possibly the worst implementation of DLNA I have ever seen.

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Re: WDTV live has a nice UI, regular updates

You haven't used an LG then...

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Re: WDTV live has a nice UI, regular updates

I have a WDTV, but prefer to use my Boxee Box instead. It's got a vastly better UI, plus the option to create named shortcuts to commonly used LAN locations. Which means my wife can actually navigate around my multiple NAS servers.

To be sure, the WDTV can create a media 'library,' but it then absolutely INSISTS on indexing everything. A ludicrous waste of processing power, network bandwidth and wear and tear on my drives. (Same problem with DLNA. What IS this fetish about indexing everything??) The Boxee just uses Samba shares. When I need to see what's on a server, no need to update an index - it just gets a directory listing.

The Boxee is also tops when it comes to ease of access to Internet programming. Not perfect, but better than anything else I've seen. (I'm sure Boxee software running on a PC would be even better, but I like the simplicity of a small, self-contained media box.)

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Anonymous Coward

They suck because they are designed by the same morons who design Android user interfaces.

If an Apple TV does come along it will show these people how to do it properly, just like they did with the iPhone and smartphones.

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@AC

"They suck because they are designed by the same morons who design Android user interfaces."

Android UI ?... the one we're told is a rip-off of the iOS one ? =:o)

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You're right that the TV market is ripe for a takeover, comparable to what Apple did with cell phones. But Apple's tightly-closed approach will always prevent it from being a total solution. (As it has with AirPlay, for example.)

Apart from the fact that TV UIs suck, there are way too many of them. What we really need is common UI platform that ALL manufacturers can implement - and add value to, differentiating their products while keeping to a familiar layout. Apple could never provide that; it would insist on being in the driver's seat, and the TV industry has already (understandably) refused to go along with that scenario.

Microsoft could have offered a solution, but it's too busy trying to become Apple. (And its recent approach to UI design sucks almost as badly as what TVs have now.) What we really need is a third party software developer who's competent, willing to be flexible and credible enough to rally support from the entire TV manufacturing community. I had high hopes for Google, but they seem to have blown Google TV so badly that no one will ever want it. If some group like Boxee or XBMC build support for a common spec, that would be ideal.

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Anonymous Coward

Yes, what TVs need is a giant grid of icons

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Display only

I'd much rather my TV focussed on offering a superlative display rather than attempting to integrate all manner of supposedly valuable services (read: filler). I expect my TV to last 5 - 10 years, which is probably at least five times longer than these services will be supported - the smart services are much better provided by a cheaper box or tablet which can be replaced more frequently.

With the possible exception of Sony's XMB why do all AV User Interfaces look like they were designed in 1995 with a copy of Macromedia Director?

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It's almost depressing...

... that a large bunch of people can all agree that the firmware and usability of the current crop of smart TVs is remarkably poor. Then, when Apple inevitably release their own integrated TV set with a fluid, responsive, intuitive and easy to use interface, they will no doubt be instantly derided for dumbing things down and charging a premium for it.

You know what I mean. It's the point that all the Apple haters will flood the forums with claims that their 2008 Sony Bravia had features and facilities long before the Apple TV came along (including a replaceable battery and a micro SD slot) whilst conveniently forgetting that actually operating one was like having their bollocks slowly squeezed in a vice.

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