Smart TV is the latest buzzword, and we take you through what it takes for a TV to be “smart”, detailing some of the best features including IPTV, apps and web browsing.
The major feature separating smart TVs and not-so-smart TVs is an internet connection. Nearly all smart TVs come equipped with both an Ethernet port and built-in Wi-Fi — some older models may require an adapter to enable the Wi-Fi functionality — so they should be able to connect from anywhere in your house. Generally speaking, Wi-Fi should be fast enough for most purposes, but if you plan on streaming games or 4K Ultra HD content, you might want to hardwire to your network instead.
Smart TVs dominate store shelves, but do you really need one? To find out, let’s explore:
- What Is a Smart TV?
- How Smart TVs work
- The Benefits of a Smart TV
- Extra Costs and Limitations
- Smart TV Privacy Issues
- Smart TV Alternatives
What Is a Smart TV, Anyway?
In a nutshell, a smart TV incorporates an operating system/platform that allows you to access, manage, and view online and network-based media content without the need to connect to an additional box (such as a Roku or Fire Stick).
The popular definition of smart TV is a regular television which can connect to the Internet to fetch content. This gives the user the ability to access more content that what is traditionally available through devices such as set-top boxes and Blu Ray players. The connection to the Internet can be either wired or wireless; most smart TVs today have an Ethernet port for wired connectivity, and can also connect to a Wi-Fi network.
Once connected, the TV will be able to access the Internet to fetch content from a number of sources, including streaming services, social media networks, and websites. Content most suitable for the big screen can be found on streaming services, which can be used to stream movies, TV series, music videos, and online videos, to name a few. Popular streaming services such as Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Prime Video, and Hotstar can be accessed on the big screen when you have a smart TV.
Smart TVs work a lot like smartphones, using apps built into or installed within an interface. The core interface will allow users to scroll through options and apps, while apps will give users access to the service, optimised for the big screen. Smart TV interfaces are often designed to be controlled by typical TV remotes, but many smart TVs may offer newer ‘air-mouse’ remotes, which allow you to move a pointer around like a computer mouse using motion gestures.
How Smart TVs Work
Smart TVs access online content by connecting to the same broadband router and Ethernet or Wi-Fi network that you use to connect your computer to the internet. Ethernet provides the most stable connection, but if your TV is in a different room or a long distance from your router, Wi-Fi might be more convenient.
All of the smart TVs have a home page that lets you access all of the different functions, and from there they also link to individual app stores. At the moment, all of the apps available on smart TVs are free, but the manufacturers are hoping to translate the popularity of paid apps on mobile devices to televisions.
Once your TV is connected and turned on, you’ll be prompted to enter any login information required by your ISP (Internet Service Provider). The smart TV will display an on-screen menu that includes a list of available internet channels provided in the form of apps (similar to the apps on a smartphone). Some apps come preloaded, and you can download more to add to the TV’s app library.
Sony and Panasonic have traditionally been different in that new features are automatically downloaded once available, and become selectable from the main page. However, Panasonic has just announced its own app store, so this may change.
When you click on the icon for a specific channel/app, you are taken to its content offerings, which you can select and view.
Apps currently include games, internet radio, weather and entertainment. One of the most original apps so far is Bigpond’s NRL/AFL Game Analyser, which includes several seasons worth of full games marked with highlights that you can stream to your TV.
Exactly how you navigate through the smart TV menu and manage your apps varies with the brand and model.
App Platforms by Smart TV Brand
TV brands incorporate one or more platforms through which they offer apps. (This integrated platform is what makes a TV smart.) Here are a few of the brand/platform you’re likely to find:
- Element, Toshiba, Westinghouse: Amazon Fire TV
- Insignia, Hisense/Sharp, Hitachi, TCL, Philips, Element: Roku TV
- LG: WebOS
- Samsung: Tizen Smart Hub
- Element, LeECO, Sharp, Sony, Toshiba, Westinghouse: Android TV
- Haier, JVC, LeECO, Philips, Polaroid, Sharp, Skyworth, Soniq, Sony, Toshiba: Chromecast
- Philips: NetTV
- Sharp: VEWD
- Vizio: SmartCast or Internet Apps Plus
The Benefit of Smart TVs
The main benefit of a smart TV is access to a large number of channels that offer TV programs, movies, and music without the need to connect a TV antenna or subscribe to a cable/satellite service. Also, some smart TVs provide web browsing, gaming, and access to compatible media content stored on your computer.
Although smart TVs also can receive TV programming via antenna or cable/satellite, Vizio has actually taken the bold step of eliminating built-in tuners and antenna/cable connections on most of its sets in favor of its built-in streaming platform as an all-encompassing replacement.
Additional Smart TV Features
In addition to internet streaming, some smart TVs provide more capabilities, such as Miracast and Screen Sharing, which allow users to view content from compatible smartphones and tablets on a TV screen. Other labels for this feature include SmartShare (LG) and SmartView (Samsung).
Some smart TVs are even able to do the reverse: send content from the TV to a compatible smartphone. After sending, the user can continue to view that content on the smartphone, away from the TV.
TV Buying Guide Cheat Sheet
If you’re only going to read one thing, read this.
Here are the 7 most important things to know (or do) when buying a TV, in bitesize form:
- Go with 4K (aka Ultra HD) and make sure it has HDR. These are huge — the most important factors for TV picture quality.
- Bigger is better. Always. “I wish I bought a smaller TV” said no one ever. (Bigger + 4K these days = spectacular. Jaw-dropping. Wow.)
- Upgrade your HDMI cable. It’s all about the plumbing, and the extra $30/40 bucks is more than worth it. Get an HDMI cable worthy of your TV investment and see every single pixel replicated in glorious form.
- Upgrade the sound. Audio is more than half the experience, and your TV’s built-in speakers aren’t up to the task. (In fact, they were actually better years ago.)
- Choose a trusted brand. We have a reputation for testing and vetting brands. In short, we put them all through the wringer. What TV brand is the best? Three clearly rise above: LG, Sony, and Samsung, and you can’t go wrong with any of them.
- Buy your new TV from an authorized dealer. You get the manufacturer’s warranty, service, and support. (In our case, guaranteed support even long after the sale. Not to brag, but we did take #2 in Customer Service by USA Today. Just sayin.’)
- Or just skip the rest of this and buy one of these: The Top TVs of 2020. Then give yourself a standing-O. You now have what experts are calling some of the best TVs anywhere, at any price.
Should I even buy a smart TV?
The answer to this largely depends on your viewing preferences. If you only watch cable or DTH television through a set-top box, a smart TV isn’t needed and you might be better off investing in a decent non-smart TV. A smart TV will only come in handy if you watch a lot of online content, and ideally have a subscription to a premium streaming service. However, services such as YouTube and Hotstar have a variety of content available to watch for free, and even someone who doesn’t watch any online content might be inclined to give it a shot if they have a smart TV.
Another way to look at this is to consider buying a streaming device. Decent streaming hardware is a good substitute for a smart TV interface, giving the same connectivity and access to apps and services, but with a different and often better interface. These devices usually connect to your TV using one of its HDMI ports, and often come with their own remotes. These might serve as an effective way to add smarts to a dumb TV, or even improve the quality of your streaming experience by bringing capabilities such as 4K and HDR streaming, as well as a smoother interface.
As we mentioned earlier, a smart TV is an absolute must only if you want to access streaming content but don’t want to shell out for a streaming device. If you’re looking at the simplicity of using a single remote for all of your TV needs, and have an idea of what kind of apps and services you plan to use, a smart TV could work well for you.