What is a Smart TV and do I need one?

Our ultimate guide to the connected Smart TV experience

by hodg100 Sep 24, 2014 at 7:05 AM

  • If you had asked us this question as little as five years ago, about the best a TV could muster was playback of a limited number of media files via a USB port.
    But things move on, and today we have Smart TV platforms that are rich and diverse in online content, offering all sorts of lifestyle apps and conveniences.

    So, do you need a Smart TV?

    In terms of considering a new purchase from any of the mainstream manufacturers, it’s almost a moot question. All but the most basic TVs now come with some form of Smart TV integration, albeit they may differ in scope as you go up the ranges.

    Another question to consider is, do you have any existing equipment that could take care of many of the most popular apps and services, already in the home? Games consoles, including the PS3, PS4, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Wii and Wii U provide a range of leading video catch-up and streaming services, already, although they don’t quite match the convenience a good Smart TV can provide - and it also means powering up another device.

    Most modern PC's and Laptops are also equipped with the necessary video and audio connections to hook up to your TV, too, so that's something to consider but there are concerns over noise and energy consumption there.
    Your existing games console may do what you need
    What can a Smart TV do?

    These days, they can do an awful lot, and they replicate a lot of the leisure pursuits found on smartphones, tablets or PCs. Video streaming services are obviously a natural fit, of course, and this is what most people use a Smart TV service for. Support for BBC iPlayer, YouTube and Netflix is almost universal, although most platforms have many more than that, including the likes of NOW TV, Amazon, ITV Player, 40D and Demand 5 to name a few examples.

    But there are plenty of other things a Smart TV can do. Skype video calling has been a popular app for manufacturers to add and some higher-end TVs even come with a microphone and a camera built-in, whilst others offer a USB peripheral to add the functionality. And if you’re a fan of staying in touch, most Smart TVs offer Twitter and Facebook integration, to some degree or other.

    Most recent connected TVs also allow you to attach your own USB storage device, on which you can record broadcast TV received through its Freeview or satellite input. They will also allow you to pause ‘live’ TV so, in essence, this means you might be able to ditch your digital hard drive recorder and some TVs even have dual tuners to give them proper PVR (Personal Video Recorder) status.

    Any Smart TV worth its salt will also be able to act as a fully-fledged DLNA media streamer, as well as being able to play back your video, music or photo files via USB or SD card storage. The range of file support is very extensive, these days, and it’s now unusual when you can’t get something to play. It’s also become rare to find a Smart TV without a web browser, although they can be difficult to use without assistance from apps for smartphones and tablets (more below).
    Gaming is a growing emphasis and soon you'll be able to stream 'console quality' through your Smart TV

    Whilst video apps are the most popular, we’re seeing an increase in the number of games available to play through the TV. They started off relatively simple – e.g. puzzle and word games – but things are progressing rapidly and it won’t be long before you will be able to stream ‘console quality’ titles through your internet connection. To cater for these more complex games, manufacturers are releasing ‘proper’ games controllers with more buttons and conventional thumb sticks.

    Fitness and lifestyle apps have also been pushed quite hard by the manufacturers with some even offering virtual personal trainers and exercise plans. Personalisation is also a theme which permeates most recent platforms. Custom home screens, individual user settings and content discovery and recommendation systems are also high on the agenda, at the moment, and their integration with some of the video streaming and broadcast TV services is really good.

    Are Smart TVs WiFI enabled?

    Almost all of them have wireless communication built into them these days and, if they don’t, you will certainly be able to purchase a USB dongle allowing for WiFi communications. All TVs with online services have a wired LAN connection, of course.

    Are Smart TVs easy to setup and use?

    In terms of setup, any mainstream Smart TV on the market now will do its best to guide you through the process. This usually consists of helping you through channel tuning and establishing network connections, as well as more routine language and location options. You will also usually find there are handy, built-in user guides to refer to, in case you get stuck.

    The question of ease-of-use is a bit trickier and experiences will vary dependent on a particular users’ familiarity with using tech gadgets. There’s also the factor that some manufacturer’s approaches are more intuitive than others but we will say usability is becoming better and better, as the technology evolves and matures.

    In a nutshell, we would say that the majority of users will soon get the hang of a given Smart TV service, for using the essentials, quite quickly but more work is needed by the manufacturers, in most cases, to make the experience as familiar as picking up a phone or tablet.
    Ease-of-use is definitely on the up
    What’s the best way of controlling my Smart TV?

    In these days of mobile devices, integration with smartphones and tablets is an essential component of the Smart TV experience and they all offer apps for Android and Apple users. These apps range from simple remote replacements to full-on companion services, allowing for content sharing and discovery, screen sharing and media playback control, amongst other things.

    Whilst the apps are becoming increasingly easy to handle, we’re not sure we are yet fully sold on the idea of using our phones and tablets for absolutely everything. Whilst it’s impressive, there’s some lack of convenience if you have to negotiate a lock screen and load up an app, when all you want to do is something routine such as change channel or alter volume. To bridge this gap, most platforms now offer dedicated smart controllers. The ‘big four’ – Samsung, Sony, LG and Panasonic – all have one and they boast a mixture of voice, gesture and touch control to make navigation and search functions that bit easier.

    We have to say they are getting so good now that we can actually consider dispensing with the services of the conventional remote controls which, of course, you’re free to use to access and use all the apps and features, should you wish. We would advise getting to know your new smart controller, however, as they are designed for that purpose – and it shows.

    Which is the best Smart TV Brand?

    Since we’re in the reviews business, we guess we have to put our necks on the line here but we don’t think there’s an ultimate winner and what’s best for you might not suit the needs of someone else.

    In terms of intuitiveness and usability, we have to give it to LG’s Smart+ (webOS) platform. Anybody familiar with using a smartphone will soon feel right at home with the approach of everything being treated as an app. Accessing the Freeview tuner – that’s an app. Firing up your Blu-ray/DVD player – that’s an app. Loading up your Netflix account, iPlayer or YouTube – yep, they are all apps and LG has made switching between them seamless and instant. Most other Smart TVs make you exit out to some form of menu or home screen before letting you open something else, so this is massive progression, in terms of the user experience. LG Smart+ also has an enormous range of services on offer and boasts the best Smart controller (in our opinion) out there, in the form of the Magic Remote. Others will mimic LG's approach in time to come, mark our words.
    LG's new Smart+ (webOS) system is a game changer

    Whilst LG might have the easiest to use service, we think the most comprehensive out there probably belongs to Samsung. In particular, we believe they have the best selection of video services available. Samsung has all the major UK catch-up services – BBC iPlayer, 4OD, Demand 5 & ITV Player – plus almost the full suite of major paid-for streaming services with support for Netflix (including the 4K service on compatible TVs), Amazon Prime Instant Video and Wuaki TV. Naturally there’s also a YouTube app and Samsung provides their new Smart Touch controller, almost as standard, with their connected ranges.

    Panasonic also states quite a case. Their recent bagging of the Freetime service was a masterstroke, allowing them to keep up with the Samsungs and provide all the UK catch-up services within their platform. Freetime gives you a time-travelling scroll-back programme guide, letting you look back through the schedules for anything you might have missed. Panasonic also scores big on the personalisation front, with my Home Screen letting you tailor your switch-on experience to suit your needs and my Stream, too, is showing great promise. My Stream aggregates video content as suggestions for you to watch, based on your viewing habits, from broadcast, VoD and online sources. We also think Panasonic’s VIERA Remote App 2 (iOS/Android) is one of the very best, with its seamless ability to share content between screens.
    Content discovery is an increasing trend

    Speaking of top quality companion apps, Sony’s SmartView takes some beating. Like most, the app can act as a full remote control replacement but its focus is really more centred on content discovery. It allows you to search the programme guides from all the major UK TV providers (Freeview, Sky, Freesat, Virgin etc) and then delve further into cast, director and episode information. It also has integration with imdb, Wikipedia and YouTube and the Sony platform has absolutely masses of video apps in the ranks. They don’t have all the UK catch-up services but virtually all the major streaming services are present.

    As things stand, LG, Samsung, Panasonic and Sony have the most complete smart TV services available but there are other very good offerings out there. Toshiba has made some interesting strides with their Cloud TV platform recently, with TVs now equipped with processors able to keep up with the demands. They don’t have quite the range of apps as those named above but you do get Netflix, YouTube and BBC iPlayer as part of the deal and the content discovery and personalisation features are also good. Even relative minnows, Finlux, offer an online service and, it too, has iPlayer, YouTube and Netflix up its sleeve, as well as a web browser, smartphone app and a media player.

    Philips is just prepping their new Android TV, which is quite exciting. Its based on the world’s most popular – or at least used – smartphone and tablet operating system so should provide instant familiarity to a wide user base. It’s Google certified, too, so comes with access to the Google Play store and there will be around 200 perfectly compatible apps available for it at launch. The Android apps will be on offer alongside the existing Philips smart TV platform which, again, has an emphasis on video streaming apps. Philips’ liberal Dutch heritage is evident in the availability of several ‘adult’ apps so you may want to make sure you keep the TV well supervised.

    What is the best Smart TV Box?

    You don’t have to buy a Smart TV however. Let’s face it, upgrading your TV based on a feature-set, rather than more important considerations of larger screen sizes and better pictures, is a somewhat lavish exercise and there are quite a number of streaming and media devices on the market to make your dumb TV brighter.
    There are little devices that can smarten up your TV at the fraction of the cost of upgrading

    These devices include the Apple TV, Roku 3 and Roku Streaming Stick, the Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast, which all provide smart features. These solutions certainly merit consideration and prices start at £30 for Google’s Chromecast. The Apple TV is a really good choice if you're tied in to the iTunes universe and the Fire TV is likewise a natural choice for those heavily involved in Amazon’s Prime ecosystem.

    But we believe content is king and we currently favour the Roku platform which is home to all the major UK catch-up services (4OD, iPlayer, Demand 5, ITV Player), in addition to Netflix, NOW TV, YouTube and many, many more. In fact, Roku UK has touching 1,200 ‘channels’ at its disposal, although not all are as high profile as those mentioned.

    Are Smart TVs worth it?

    Well that’s a question we can’t categorically answer for you, now is it? But hopefully we’ve provided enough in this article to help you make an informed decision. As with all our guides, we’ll be keeping this one regularly updated to take account of the shifting sands of the market. In the meantime, should you have any questions or comments, please use the section below.

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