Over the past few years, the way many of us watch television has been forever changed by the rapid rise of streaming. Giving viewers complete control over what they watch and when they watch it, subscription streaming services like Netflix have made the idea of TV on demand the new normal.
But streaming TV needs a device that can do the streaming – which for many people means buying an external device to stream from your broadband connection and display the results on the TV. And the best of these are excellent at the job – Apple TV, Roku boxes, even Google’s clever little Chromecast dongle. But not everyone wants to add more complexity (and yet another remote control) to their home entertainment. Wouldn’t it be better if the TV just handled streaming services the way TVs have always handled receiving broadcasts? That was very likely the thought process that led to the creation of Smart TVs.
What Exactly Is a Smart TV?
While the origin of the term is hazy, a smart TV is, like any computer, only as smart as the software that runs on it. That’s because a smart TV essentially contains a fully functioning computer alongside its TV circuitry – but it’s not quite as simple as that. Modern TVs all require some sort of computing power to translate digital broadcasts into pictures we can see, and there’s more computer power needed to drive the typical flat-screen display and the TV’s menus. “Smart” TVs expand on this by having the ability to download and run apps, very much like your phone or tablet can do. Unlike regular TVs, smart TVs are able to connect to your broadband internet service so these apps can stream programs to your screen.
If you think about the better-known streaming devices like Apple TV – or even the streaming side of recording boxes like YouView – you’ll have an idea of what is inside the typical smart TV. It’s like getting a TV and a streaming box all in the one place, with one remote control able to access everything. That makes them easy to set up, easy to use and incredibly versatile.
Of course, not all smart TVs are created equal – and just like the huge price differences between the cheapest and the most fully-featured streaming boxes, the capabilities of a smart TV depend heavily on the quality of the smarts inside it. If you’re buying a fairly high-end TV – one of the latest OLEDs from LG, for example, or Samsung’s much-admired QLED range – you’ll be getting a smart TV with plenty of streaming power under the hood. But at the cheap end of the scale, the “smart” features of some TVs can be slow, cumbersome and frustrating. As with anything else to do with technology, you get what you pay for!
What Are the Best Smart TVs?
The key to any successful smart TV is the operating system that it runs. Just like how almost every PC runs Windows because that’s what all the apps are made for, smart TVs need apps to be useful – and, preferably, a way for new developers to easily make apps for it. The reason you want that is simple – if a new streaming service arrives like, say, the upcoming Disney Plus, you’d want your TV to have an app that lets you access the new service. But even the biggest streaming services can’t make apps for everything, so they pick the most popular choices and go with them.
What that means for you when buying a smart TV is simple – choose a brand that has a history of good app support on its chosen operating system. This narrows the choices down pretty drastically – but luckily, still gives you plenty of choice.
It can’t be stressed enough, though, that you want to go with a TV that uses an operating system with wide support. There’s no point buying a smart TV only to find, six months later, that you’ll need to go buy an external streaming box anyway just to get access to a new service your TV doesn’t support.
Smart TV Operating Systems
The operating system a smart TV uses is not the only thing you should be looking at when shopping for one, of course. But if you’re planning on using your new TV as a streaming hub via its smart features, you’ll want to give the different choices a test drive in the store first to see how good a fit it is with you. Just like how some people love Macs and others swear by Windows, it’s got a lot to do with your personal preferences.
Amongst several more minor players in the field, the dominant ones are the following – all of them well supported by app developers, but not always equally. If there’s a particular streaming service that you simply must have on your smart TV, be sure to check that service’s web site out to make sure they’ve got an app for the smart TV you’re thinking of buying.
Actually an operating system known as Tizen, Samsung’s SmartHub has evolved massively over the last few years, taking on new features at a startling rate to the point that now, it offers everything from integration with voice assistants to controlling your other Samsung home appliances. Easily the most popular smart TV operating system with around 21% of the market, SmartHub is also one of the best-supported when it comes to apps. Not surprisingly, streaming services make Samsung support a priority, and even Apple chose Samsung SmartHub to be the first smart TV platform with iTunes and AirPlay support (letting you send video, photos or anything else from Apple devices straight to your screen).
If WebOS sounds like a strange name for a smart TV operating system, that’s because it grew out of one that was developed for handheld computers. You’d never know that now, with this incredibly sleek and stylish operating system full of smoothly animated menus and effortless user interaction. The key to its success is what LG calls the “Magic Remote,” the Bluetooth-powered remote control that acts as an “air mouse”. You simply move the remote around to point at what you want to access and the on-screen pointer follows your moves. It sounds like a gimmick, but it quickly becomes second nature. LG’s more recent TVs add Google Assistant support to WebOS, but support for Apple AirPlay isn’t there yet – nor is any other form of casting from your mobile device to the screen. Support for all the major and minor streaming services is there, as well as a dizzying array of obscure ones.
This is a little harder to quantify, since Android TV (as the name implies, a version of the Android phone/tablet operating system redesigned for smart TVs) can be extensively customised by TV brands that choose to use it. Probably the best-known brand to adopt Android TV is Sony, which uses it on almost all their smart TVs these days. Other brands using it include Sharp, Toshiba and even Hisense on some models. Android TV was developed by Google and is very heavily a part of the Google ecosystem – you even sign into it with your Google account. App support is very good, though tends to lag behind Samsung and LG when it comes to streaming services; there are, however, plenty of games! Many Android TVs offer another very useful feature – a built-in Chromecast that you can cast to just like you would with the dongle-based version. One word of warning, though – make sure the TV you’re buying is actually running Android TV, and not the Android phone/tablet operating system. Some bargain-basement TVs try to get away with this trick, but avoid them – most streaming apps won’t run properly on them at all.
Better known by many for their standalone streaming boxes – they also make the NOW TV streaming stick and box – Roku is one of the biggest and most trusted names in streaming TV in the US. Their operating system has a special TV version that’s been used by some popular TV brands, most often at the budget end of the spectrum, since Roku TV runs well on less powerful devices. It’s well supported with apps – the vast user base for their products makes sure of that – but it’s not especially versatile. What you see is what you get, and you usually get it with a generous helping of on-screen advertising. Still, Roku devices are well regarded for their rock-solid reliability when it comes to the most important thing – streaming.
How Do You Connect a Smart TV to the Internet?
No matter which brand of smart TV you have, they’ve all got one thing in common; without a connection to the internet, they’re good for little more than tuning in to whatever comes down your home’s antenna. You’ll need to connect your new smart TV to your broadband modem/router, which for most people means using wi-fi. The first time you power up your new TV, it will walk you through the steps for connecting to your wi-fi network, so be sure to have the info you need at hand – know your wi-fi’s name, and its password.
However, wi-fi isn’t always the best option for streaming – especially if you’re intending to stream 4K shows from Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, which need a fast, uninterrupted stream of data. Wi-fi can be susceptible to interference from your neighbour’s own wi-fi and depending on how far away your TV is from your modem/router, speed can be restricted as well. If it’s possible to do so, we’d recommend connecting your smart TV via an Ethernet cable (look for a socket on the back of the TV that looks a bit like a telephone socket). You can run Ethernet cables for huge distances with no issues, they don’t cost much to buy, and they guarantee you a rock-solid connection between your smart TV and the internet. It’s not always convenient to run a cable from TV to modem, but if you can, it can solve many common issues like the dreaded “buffering”!
What Can You Watch on a Smart TV
Of course, regardless of which brand of TV you choose and which operating system your TV runs, it’s all in service of you being able to watch streaming TV – and that’s where all the major brands are incredibly well catered for. Netflix is, of course, ubiquitous on almost every smart TV, as is Amazon Prime Video. Alongside those you’ll find apps for the various UK TV networks’ “catch-up” services, with the most famous (and most popular) being BBC iPlayer. Having access to these is absolutely brilliant – because if you happen to miss a show you wanted to watch, streaming access to it is right there on your TV.
Depending on the platform, you’re also likely to find a NOW TV app available (currently on LG and Samsung smart TVs from the past few years) and even YouView has an Android TV app available. But as you dig deeper into the app store on your smart TV you’ll find a plethora of smaller streaming apps from services many and varied, including some ad-supported free services.
What if You Don’t Have a Smart TV
Streaming’s such a big deal now that even if you don’t have a smart TV and can’t justify going out and spending big money on one, there are plenty of options for streaming to the big screen in your living room. The most obvious alternative is an external streaming device, of which there are many options ranging from budget-priced (Amazon’s Fire TV Stick, NOW TV’s streaming stick or Google’s Chromecast) to the fully-loaded and expensive (Apple’s brilliant Apple TV, or Nvidia’s versatile Shield TV).
But you might already have a streaming device plugged in and ready to go. If you’ve got a game console – PS4, Xbox One or even an old PS3 – you’ve got a ready-made streaming device already, just download the free apps for your favourite services (all the big ones are supported) and you’re good to go. And some YouView boxes supplied by companies such as BT and Talk Talk can also run streaming apps, so you can get streaming without having to wrangle an extra remote. There are so many options available, in fact, that you really shouldn’t be thinking about replacing your TV just to get a “smart” model until you genuinely want to upgrade to a better TV.
Do I Need a Smart TV?
Here’s the thing – smart TVs are brilliant, easy to use all-in-one devices that keep streaming simple. But some of the other options, especially external streaming devices, can be far more flexible, often support way more apps and services and, best of all, can travel with you. That said, when the time comes to upgrade to a new TV – a bigger screen, perhaps, or one with a better quality picture and 4K support – you’ll find that a good smart TV can make interacting with all of your entertainment a much more seamless and simple experience.