What is a Smart TV?
To answer the question directly, a 'smart TV' is any TV that has built-in Internet connectivity, allowing it to access a range of online services including video on demand, social networking and instant messaging. Some TVs even have a fully featured web browser which allows access to most websites.
These days, many mid- to high-range TVs will offer smart functionality, and even some budget models and brands are starting to include online features. Smart TVs are one of the first and easiest devices you can add to your living room to start to make your house in to a smart home.
Obviously, in order to access the extra features offered by a smart TV, you'll need some sort of Internet connection at home. Most smart TVs will feature an Ethernet port on the back, allowing you to plug it directly into your home broadband router. Some models are also capable of accessing Wi-Fi, either using built-in hardware or a USB dongle that plugs in the back (usually an optional extra).
Either way, once your TV is connected, you will have access to a whole range of online services – and in the rest of this article, we'll take a look at what they are!
Oh, and by the way: you don't need a top-of-the-line telly to enjoy the same smart features. You can add them to just about any existing TV by using a set-top box or special dongle – and you can do so for less than £30! Check out the Alternatives section below to find out how.
The features available on your smart TV will vary depending on the precise make and model, but most will allow access to popular social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Some feature instant messaging applications like Skype and, with the addition of an optional webcam, some higher-end TVs will even allow you to do fullscreen video calling with your friends and family.
Probably the best and most-used feature of a smart TV is the ability to access Video on Demand services. These range from well-known free services like YouTube for watching the odd video clip, movie trailer or music video to subscription-based services like Netflix that offer access to a vast online library of movies and TV shows to stream whenever you want. The majority of smart TVs also offer access to catch-up services such as the BBC's iPlayer and Channel 4’s All 4 (formerly known as 4oD) – very handy indeed.
Apps and accessories
Taking inspiration from the likes of Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store, some TV manufacturers are following in the footsteps of modern smartphones and developing their own online stores, allowing users to download extra apps on to their TVs. In particular, Panasonic and Samsung have really taken this concept to the next level.
As well as the various video on demand and social networking apps, the Panasonic app store features quite a wide selection of games to download. They also offer a range of optional accessories, such as game controllers and smartphone applications to make the games easier to engage with.
The range of accessories doesn’t stop there, either: you can also get an 'Electronic Touch Pen' which allows you to write directly on your TV screen, leaving messages for people as if it were a household notice board. There's even a set of Wi-Fi-connected Body Mass Index scales and a health-monitoring wristband, allowing you to keep track of your weight and fitness via your TV. Personally, I’m not sure fitness accessories go hand-in-hand with sitting in front of the TV – but it could perhaps guilt you into turning it off and doing some exercise every now and again!
A perhaps more useful feature comes from Samsung’s Smart Evolution Kit. This accessory allows owners of certain older Samsung TVs to upgrade to the latest spec by simply plugging a box into a slot on the back of their TV.
Depending on the model and the type of Evolution Kit, this adds a faster quad-core processor and access to the latest smart TV features, along with a slew of upgraded connectivity options including HDMI 2.0 and USB 3.0. This provides a welcome degree of future-proofing: a new TV can be a huge financial investment, so it’s nice to know it’s not going to become obsolete within a year when the new model is released!
If you like what you’ve heard so far but don’t want to splash out on a new TV, don’t worry – there are a range of cheaper alternatives that give you access to most, if not all, of the features of a full-fledged smart TV. These include set-top boxes, games consoles, smart Blu-ray players and even 'home theatre PCs'.
There a now a whole range of set-top boxes available that give similar features to a smart TV along with all sorts of media streaming options.
These work much like the set-top digiboxes which convert old analogue TVs into digital-ready ones – although there are very few old analogue TVs out there in the wild these days! Just plug them into your TV's HDMI port, follow the on-screen instructions and voila, your TV receives an instant brain transplant!
For our money, one of the best out there at the moment is the Chromecast by Google, which costs about £30. Not only does this allow you to stream a huge range of online content to your TV, but it also connects directly with your home computer, Android or iOS device, making it incredibly easy to stream all kinds of media – including photos, videos and music – directly to your big screen.
It's not the only option on the market, though. The Apple TV costs a little more but comes with a handsome remote control and integrates very smoothly with Mac computers and iTunes.
Beyond those two, there are a whole host of set-top boxes out there, priced from as little as £14.99. They come in all shapes in all shapes and sizes to suit your setup, and offer everything from basic Netflix access through to 1080p, surround-sound streaming joy. If you're looking to enjoy smart TV features but aren't currently in the market for a new TV, set-top boxes are the simplest and most affordable way to do so!
All of the major games consoles now offer access to various media streaming and video on demand applications. In fact, Netflix have said that at times the PlayStation 3 is the most popular device used to access the service.
Naturally, Sony’s latest console, the Playstation 4, continues to support a range of video on demand services. Microsoft’s newest machine, the Xbox One, takes thingseven further: it offers built-in TV guides and even allows you to control your TV with your voice.
With games consoles being so expensive, we wouldn't recommend getting one solely to enjoy smart TV functionality – if you're not interesting in gaming, a set-top box is a much better choice. But if you do enjoy blasting a few baddies every now and then, then your console can certainly help you kill two birds with one stone!
Smart Blu-ray players
Some TV manufacturers now offer (sometimes limited) access to their smart TV platforms via their own Blu-Ray players.
If all you're interested in is the video and music streaming side of things, this can be a cheap way of upgrading your system as Blu-Ray players are available for less than £100. Sony in particular offer a great system similar to that of its own PlayStation interface.
The home theatre PC
For the ultimate smart TV experience, using a 'home theatre PC' (HTPC) give you complete access to any programs, websites, games and so on that you would have on a normal desktop PC.
A HTPC is usually a low-power PC, allowing it to run efficiently and quietly without interrupting your viewing, and there are dedicated media centre programs like Windows Media Centre and XBMC that are easy to navigate with a basic remote control.
The great thing about HTPCs is the option to bolt on extra hardware further down the line, should demands for playing back your preferred type of media change. This was a common occurrence when we shifted to HD video formats, when many older types of streaming hardware couldn't handle the new power requirements. The same is likely to happen when 4K video becomes more widely available in the near future.
HTPCs are definitely an option for the 'power users' out there – and if you’re interested in finding out more, take a look at our introduction to home theatre technology.
So there you have it: our rundown of the features of today’s smart TVs. But manufacturers are adding new features all the time – so keep checking the Geek Squad Knowledge Vault for information on any future advances!