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What Is a Smart TV, Exactly?

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Do you have any idea what a Smart TV is? It’s now more difficult to find a TV without smart features than one with pre-loaded content. Web-connected TVs can do it all, from Netflix and Hulu to web browsing and photo-sharing. But, aside from apps and widgets, what makes a smart TV truly “smart?” We decided to take a stand on the issue. From apps to Alexa, this guide covers everything you need to know about smart TVs.

What makes a TV smart?

The internet connection is the main feature that distinguishes smart TVs from non-smart TVs. Almost all smart TVs have both an Ethernet port and built-in Wi-Fi — some older models may require an adapter to enable Wi-Fi — so you should be able to connect from anywhere in your house. Wi-Fi should be fast enough for most applications, but if you plan on streaming games or 4K Ultra HD content, you should hardwire your network instead.

Netflix, Hulu, HBO, and YouTube are just a few of the apps and services that use an internet connection to stream television shows and movies (among others). There will be some free content available from time to time (for example, on Crackle, Tubi TV, Pluto TV, or the Roku Channel for Roku TVs), but for the most part, you will need to subscribe to these services in order to access their content. Many smart TVs also include built-in web browsers, though these are typically unwieldy and difficult to use, and some even include cameras for use with video-conferencing apps.

All about the apps

A smart TV isn’t very smart unless it can access a variety of services, which is why almost all of them come with their own app store. Roku OS and Android TV are currently leading the pack in terms of app selection. There are thousands of apps to choose from on Roku, which refers to them as “channels.” The majority of these are content-driven, with numerous subcategories such as sports, religion, philosophy, automobiles, and more. Everyone will find something to their liking. These are available on Android TV as well, but in smaller quantities; it tends to have more games and utilities. There are also a lot of apps available for Samsung’s Tizen and LG’s WebOS platforms.

One Rome, many roads

Despite the fact that all smart TVs have the same goal in mind — allowing you to access your favorite content without the use of a middleman (in this case, a set-top box or streaming stick) — they don’t all function in the same way. In general, each manufacturer uses a different operating system with its own set of features and quirks, though some systems, such as Roku TV, are built into multiple brands of televisions. A quick rundown of the most common systems is provided below.

BrandOperating systemThe lowdown
SamsungTizenTizen is extremely fast, and it’ll automatically detect devices that you connect to the TV, labeling inputs accordingly. Plus you can control some connected devices with the TV remote.
LGWebOSWebOS is extremely simple and fun to use and may support motion control with the included remote, as well as Google Assistant.
SonyAndroid TVIf you use an Android phone, this should be immediately familiar. Sony smart TVs support Google Cast, which lets you project content from your phone (or tablet) onto your TV, and Google Assistant.
 TCLRoku OSLike Roku streaming boxes, Roku OS is awesome, featuring simple navigation and best-in-class search that looks through every app for your chosen content. There’s even voice search.
ToshibaAmazon Fire TVIn addition to the inclusion of the Amazon Video app, you’ll get access to Alexa, a personal assistant to help navigate your TV and control your smart home devices.

Voice search

Smart TV interfaces are, for the most part, designed to be simple and intuitive enough for anyone to use without any training or tutorials (after all, lots of people check out display TVs before buying). Still, there are times when you don’t want to hunt and peck, which is when voice search comes in handy.

Voice search, which is a fairly common feature in newer smart TV remotes, makes navigation a simple one-click task, no matter what you’re looking for. However, keep in mind that some platforms, such as Roku, have more robust search tools than others, and remote microphones aren’t always good at understanding your voice, so be patient.

But what kind of commands can they handle? Here’s a brief look:

  • “Play the latest episode of Lucifer on Netflix.”
  • “Open Amazon Prime Video.”
  • “Switch over to HDMI 3.”
  • “Mute the volume.”
  • “Turn off after this episode of Friends.”

Some of the higher-end models include Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant, which provide access to a much larger knowledge database. You’ll be able to use one of them to not only tell the television what to do, but also to search the internet for answers to questions and search your connected accounts for contextual information like calendar events.

If your TV doesn’t come with a voice remote, you might be able to use voice search through a smartphone app or by connecting an Amazon Echo or Google Home to it.

Privacy of user data

With all web-connected devices, a good rule of thumb is that any user data you enter is always at risk. Smart TVs are no different. When it comes to subscribing and purchasing, we recommend sticking to the app store on your TV. Hackers can easily manipulate TV web browsers because they are clumsy. If you need to order something from Amazon, do so from your home computer or phone.

Alternatives

Smart TVs aren’t all created equal. Perhaps the TV you like doesn’t have the most up-to-date operating system, or you simply don’t have the funds to invest in a brand-new screen. If this rings true, set-top boxes and streaming sticks are excellent alternatives that provide nearly all of the features of a high-end smart TV at a lower cost. Roku’s products (such as the Streaming Stick 4K) and Google’s Chromecasts and Amazon’s Fire TV devices are excellent at converting existing dumb TVs into smart TVs.

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