Nowadays, when we buy a television, the most important parameters to consider are screen size, picture quality, sound quality and connectivity. But in recent years, another factor has become increasingly important: Is the TV truly a Smart TV?
What is Smart TV?
In short, a Smart TV is a device that contains an operating system or platform that allows the user to access, manipulate, and view content on the internet and networks without connecting to any other device.
How does Smart TV work?
Smart TVs allow you to access the aforementioned content by connecting to a broadband router via an Ethernet or Wi-Fi connection, just like your computer does. Ethernet provides the most stable connection, but if your TV is in a different room from your router or simply too far from the router, a Wi-Fi connection is probably the most convenient option.
Once you have plugged in your TV and turned it on, you will need to enter your login details to connect to the internet. You probably already have the login details from your internet provider.
After logging in, the TV screen will display a menu that lists the available internet channels delivered as apps (similar to the apps on your smartphone).
Some apps are already pre-installed on your TV; others can be downloaded and added to your TV’s app library.
When you click the icon for a specific app or channel, you’ll be taken to their content menus, which you can select and view.
Browsing content and managing apps may vary depending on the model and brand of your smart TV.
Smart TV app platforms by TV brand
- Element – Amazon Fire TV
- Insignia, Hisense/Sharp, Hitachi, TCL – Roku TV (provides access to the largest number of streaming services – approximately 4,500 in 2017, depending on user location).
- LG – WebOS
- Samsung – Tizen Smart Hub
- Sony, LeECO – Android TV
- Vizio – SmartCast or Internet Apps Plus
The benefits of Smart TV
The main advantage of Smart TV is the ability to access a large number of “channels” that offer TV programs, movies or music without the need to connect to a TV antenna or subscribe to cable and satellite services. In some cases, your smart TV can also give you the ability to surf the web, play games or access content stored on your computer.
There are a growing number of people who could be called “cord cutters”. Such users have completely swapped cable or satellite connections in favour of internet streaming, sometimes combined with a conventional antenna to watch local TV stations.
Although even smart TVs have the ability to access TV programming via antenna, cable or satellite, Vizio has made huge steps forward in removing traditional built-in connectivity and cable or satellite from most of their devices in favour of an embedded streaming platform that serves as a versatile replacement.
Other Smart TV features
In addition to accessing internet streaming content, some smart TVs also offer other options – such as Miracast and Screen Sharing, allowing users to view content from portable devices (smartphones or tablets, on the big screen. Other brands that allow this possibility are LG (SmartShare) and Samsung (SmartView).
In some cases, the TV is also able to do the opposite – send content from the TV to a compatible smartphone. Once uploaded, the user can continue watching the content away from their TV on their smartphone.
Extra expenses and restrictions
The great enthusiasm around Smart TV is certainly well-founded, but there are some other factors to consider.
Although smart TVs provide access to a large number of free channels and services, most will require monthly fees or one-off payments to view content. In other words: When your fees add up, you could end up spending the same (or even more) as you would for cable or satellite. On the other hand, you only pay for the channels and content you want.
The make and model of the TV you buy can make a difference to the services and features you have access to. In other words, while all smart TVs have access to a lot of the same basic services (Netflix, Vudu, Hulu, or Pandora), you may come across some additional channels that you may be interested in but won’t be accessible on some smart TV platforms. Additionally, for those who use iTunes as a way to stream audio and video content, currently, there are no TVs that have this option. So even if you have a Smart TV, you’ll still need to get an Apple TV box.
Your Smart TV can track you
Privacy issues can be a consequence of using a smart TV. Smart TVs (and often TV app providers) typically track user habits to provide content recommendations. For example, every time you log into Netflix, you be shown a menu of what you’ve watched recently, plus an updated list of recommendations for similar movies and shows you might like, based on the list of what you’ve watched recently.
You may think that this way of tracking is a good thing because it saves some of the time you would spend looking for movies and TV shows to watch. But smart TVs can do much more than just keep track of what you usually watch.
If your TV has a webcam or microphone for voice control, there is a possibility that someone can remotely “hack” you to see or hear you. Any credit card payment you make on your smart TV can be tracked by a third party. If you have voice or webcam control on, never say or do anything you wouldn’t do or say in public and – just like on your computer – always be careful when paying by card over the internet.
Smart TV alternatives
Today, it’s easy to get caught up in the enthusiasm for new technology and we can often dig deep into our wallets just to have the “latest and greatest stuff”. However, if you’ve just bought a TV that isn’t a smart one, or you already have one at home, or you have an older Smart TV model with limited options, but it still works well and you’re happy with the picture quality, there’s no need to buy a new one. The devices we list here can give you access to similar features to a Smart TV but at a fraction of the price of a new one.
One way to add smart features is to use media centres. Media centres usually look like little boxes that you plug into the HDMI port on your TV and then into your internet router using an Ethernet or Wi-Fi connection. If you have an older TV that doesn’t have an HDMI port, your options are more limited. Only some media centres provide connectivity via legacy analogue video audio connections.
Other types of media centres are devices that are only slightly larger than a USB flash drive and can be used with televisions that have a free HDMI port. This type of media centre only provides a Wi-Fi connection, so make sure you have the right internet router. These centres also need to be powered via USB or a conventional socket.
Another handy way to add smart features to your current TV is with the help of a Blu-ray player. In addition to playing physical discs (Blu-ray, DVD, CD), almost all Blu-ray players provide the ability to access a range of internet streaming services (depending on the brand and model).
However the choice of internet channels is usually not as large as that of a media centre. It is certainly clear that it is not convenient to have both a media centre and a Blu-ray player connected. If you’re a fan of DVDs, Blu-ray and CDs but want to add streaming as an additional content source, a Blu-ray player could be the solution for you.
Interesting solutions were provided by companies such as Channel Master and TIVO, which introduced DVRs. A DVR is a combination of classic TV receiver, video recorder and internet streaming in one box.
As with Blu-ray players, the content selection may be limited, and the recording function can only be used for classic TV channels. Still, it’s another viable option to get rid of traditional connections. However, DVRs are a much more expensive option than media centres and Blu-ray players.
Stereo or home cinema (sound only)
Although smart TVs and media centres do include some form of online music, if you’re a big music fan then you’ll probably want to get a stereo with a network connection, or a home cinema. Not only does this option give you access to several music streaming services, but it also allows you to play music at an incomparably higher quality than the built-in speakers on your TV can.
A final word on Smart TV
When you go to buy a TV these days, virtually all models you’ll find will offer at least some smart features that will enhance your TV viewing experience.
But always be mindful of connection methods, any additional content charges and potential privacy issues. Try to balance the attractiveness of certain smart features of a particular smart TV with other important factors such as picture quality, sound quality, and connectivity.
If you want to add the ability to stream TV programmes, movies or music or other smart features to your home and are not sure if you need a Smart TV, then here’s some advice.
- If you’re buying a new TV and don’t have any streaming devices at home, Smart TV is definitely a good option.
- If you already have a Smart TV at home, but it doesn’t provide access to many of the streaming services you’d like to watch, then rather than buying a new TV, think about buying another device, such as a media centre or an internet-enabled Blu-ray player, as they may offer exactly what you’re looking for.
- If you have a TV that doesn’t have smart features, but you’re happy with its picture quality and other features, you don’t necessarily need to buy a new TV. Just follow the process described in the previous point, this means thinking about buying additional equipment such as a media centre or Blu-ray player with internet connectivity, rather than a new TV.
- If you’re worried about your privacy, consider a media centre instead. While it won’t protect you from having your habits monitored, it will avoid the possibility of being tracked or listened in on. This could make it a better option for you than a Smart TV.
- If you’re only interested in streaming music, think about buying a stereo with a network connection or a home cinema. This gives you much better sound quality than a Smart TV when listening to your favourite music.
Smart TV is just one way to enrich your TV viewing experience with internet streaming and other features. Based on the above advice, it shouldn’t be hard to figure out if it is the best option for you.