Wondering whether all those so-called smart TVs are really that smart? Are having those apps integrated into your set better than a dedicated streaming device? And could your connected set be used to snoop on you? We've got the answers to the most frequently asked questions about smart TVs.
Photo: Nick Bush/Tom's Guide, Guteksk7/Shutterstock
1. What is a smart TV?
Originally called "connected TVs," these sets were later branded as "smart TVs" by companies such as Samsung and LG. The term has come to denote any TV that can be connected to the internet to access streaming media services and that can run entertainment apps, such as on-demand video-rental services, internet music stations and web browsers.
2. Which companies make smart TVs?
Virtually every major TV manufacturer makes a smart TV today, with the trend toward making every set "smart." Budget sets from Chinese makers such as TCL and Hisense offer smart features, including built-in Roku services, while high-end models from Samsung include built-in microphones, and voice and gesture recognition. A partial list of the biggest smart TV makers includes Hisense, LG, Panasonic, Philips, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, TCL, Toshiba and Vizio.
3. How do smart TVs connect to the Internet?
A smart TV uses either a direct, wired Ethernet connection or built-in Wi-Fi to connect to a home network for internet access. Most models today have built-in Wi-Fi, but check that it does before you buy. For streaming movies, some sets support the latest and fastest 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard. If you plan on cutting the cord, the faster Wi-Fi hookup will help.
Photo: Nick Bush/Tom's Guide, ABB Photo/ShutterstockPeople with larger homes should also double-check their Wi-Fi coverage. If the Wi-Fi router is on the second floor and the smart TV is going to be in the basement, for example, the set may not be able to stream video from Netflix or other providers without experiencing hiccups. Furthermore, in our testing, most Wi-Fi receivers in TVs are not as sensitive as those in set-top boxes, such as Roku (more about set-top boxes in a bit),
If your smart TV isn't getting a strong enough wireless signal, you have a few options to remedy the problem. When your router is more than three years old, a new Wi-Fi router that supports 802.11ac could do the trick. Wi-Fi range extenders are also available from companies such as Netgear, but these devices require some time and patience to set up and install.
Routers that set up a mesh network or extend coverage throughout a home provide another option. The Netgear Orbi and Linksys Velop are two such models that, in our tests, have proved to be excellent solutions for people trying to cover a large home with Wi-Fi. However, these routers are also expensive: Netgear's Orbi, with support for two devices, is $399. Linksys' Velop two-device package is $349.
4. What services do smart TVs offer, and how do they differ from one another?
There is no standard operating system or interface for smart TVs. Nearly every smart-TV maker uses different software and a different graphical presentation. Some companies use a variety of operating systems and interfaces depending on the model.
Samsung's Smart TV interface
Most smart TVs support such popular services as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video and Pandora. However, some sets offer only a handful of apps that rarely change, while other models deliver several screens of offerings, ranging from MLB to Facebook to Stitcher. The lower-priced models of some manufacturers offer only the most popular apps, while higher-priced sets provide a complete array of services.
The arrangement of the apps also varies. Some smart TVs use scrolling screens of icons to display options; others use tabbed windows or scroll bars along the bottom of the screens. Still others use 3D-style carousels of screens to sort and arrange all the available services.
TCL's Roku TV interface
There are hints that manufacturers may be headed toward a Microsoft-versus-Apple–style duopoly, but in this case, it will be Roku versus Android TV. Models from Sharp, Insignia, Hisense and TCL have opted to incorporate Roku's easy-to-use interface and access to thousands of streaming services. On the other hand, Google has received a major endorsement from Sony, which decided to offer Android TV in its sets, with scores of apps available and the not insignificant support of Google going forward. LeEco is another convert with less expensive 4K sets that also use Android TV.
Upshot: Spend a little time at the store flipping through the set's smart offerings to make sure that you and your family will be comfortable with that model.
5. Will my smart-TV maker regularly update the software with new features?
That depends. For the most part, TV manufacturers are adding and customizing apps on their own. Some TV companies are quicker than others at fixing the occasional bug or working with developers to improve apps. Sets that are powered by such platforms such as Roku and Android TV have a distinct advantage in that they receive regular updates and additional channels/apps.
Nevertheless, most major manufacturers perform software updates periodically, including updates to the set's own internal firmware (often downloaded automatically late at night). And if one company adds an additional popular service, such as Twitter, the rest of the manufacturers generally follow suit.
6. Can a smart TV crash or hang like a PC?
Definitely, and they do. Smart TVs require computer chips to juggle video processing, upscaling, multiple screens and an internet connection. These sets also use memory to buffer streaming video and music, and need additional processing power to deal with graphics. Just as phones have become computers, so, too, have smart TVs.
We've seen particular apps crash or freeze a smart TV. We've witnessed upgrades that have caused sets to power-off unpredictably, along with a raft of other glitches. However, the sets are getting better, with quad-core processors that can better handle the tasks that are becoming common. On the other hand, simply turning a set off and then on usually resolves the issues.
7. Aside from apps, do smart TVs have other benefits?
Smart TVs do offer other potential advantages. Because these TVs have built-in computers and online connections, manufacturers can add other features, such as casual games, which are now quite common on smart sets. The games are nowhere near as sophisticated or as compelling as those available on a PlayStation or Xbox console, but they can be addictive.
Skype's video-calling service comes built-in to some smart TVs.Using a built-in camera or optional video-camera accessory, some high-end smart TVs offer video-calling services, such as Skype. Other sets, with more-powerful processors, include basic voice recognition for searches and gesture recognition for switching between screens. Many sets also let you mirror or share pictures and video from a connected smartphone on their big screens.
Samsung's smart TVs also integrate with the company's SmartThings smart home devices, allowing you to control your lights, locks, and other connected devices from your TV.
MORE: Best Smart Home Hub
8. How does a smart TV compare to set-top boxes like Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast or Fire TV?
You do not need a smart TV to get streaming Netflix movies or YouTube videos on your screen. Many set-top boxes can stream those services and more to an HDTV. The leading models are from Amazon, Apple, Google and Roku.
As an example, the Roku Streaming Stick, which costs just $50, delivers thousands of channels and apps. That includes nearly every major service, as well as hundreds of more-obscure channels, ranging from Kung-Fu Theater to Victory Westerns. In fact, Roku offers more options than any other set-top box or any smart TV on the market. So if you don't need to buy a new TV but do want smart-TV services, a separate, inexpensive streaming-media player is the prudent choice.
In addition, set top-boxes, such as the Roku Ultra, offer 4K content.
If you live in an Apple household and want your iTunes collection on the big screen, you'll need an Apple TV, which is the only device able to deliver that iTunes connection. No smart TVs have apps for iTunes. The latest, 32GB iteration of Apple TV is $149 and includes Siri support for finding programs. However, it does not offer 4K ultra-HD support and has a limited number of streaming services.
Apple TV and Siri Remote (Photo: Jeremy Lips/Tom's Guide)Google's $35 Chromecast lets you stream content from your computer's Web browser but doesn't include a separate remote. Amazon's $100 Fire TV doubles as a basic gaming console and offers 4K content.
9. Is it better to buy a smart TV or get a cheaper TV and a set-top box?
A smart TV costs around $100 more than a comparable set that lacks smart services. However, that price difference is quickly evaporating, and soon most sets will have smart services built in.
The price difference can also be deceiving, because higher-end TVs often offer more than just connected services. Usually, smart TVs also include better video processing — in other words, better picture quality — and expanded features, such as more HDMI ports on the back. That means you get more for your money than just an internet connection and apps.
10. Can my smart TV get hacked or contract a virus?
In theory, the answer is clearly yes. So-called white-hat hackers have brought attention to the issue by demonstrating ways to break into a smart TV connected to the internet and do things like steal passwords and change channels. Recent WikiLeaks documents purporting to reveal CIA techniques for surveilling smartphones and smart TVs confirm what many cybersecurity experts have said privately for years: Government agencies can and do break into such devices.
Although smart TVs have a variety of interfaces, most run some version of Linux underneath, a popular operating system that hackers know how to manipulate well.
To be safe, avoid doing anything sensitive on a smart TV, such as online banking or shopping with a credit card. Smart TVs are simply not as safe as computers.
11. Can a smart TV watch you?
Yes, it can. Information you share on a Facebook app on a TV or when ordering on Amazon or Netflix on the big screen is shared in the same way as when you conduct such business on a PC or a smartphone.
In 2012, computer researchers demonstrated ways to break into particular smart TVs that had built-in video cameras and microphones, and then eavesdrop on people in their living rooms.
In addition, companies can collect private information about you and your viewing habits from a smart TV. Late in 2013, for example, LG admitted that it had received information about what channels owners were watching, even after those users turned on the privacy setting. (LG said this was due to a software bug that has since been corrected.)
Recently, Vizio agreed to pay $2.2 million to settle claims that the company collected viewing data from 11 million TVs without getting the owners' approval. The secret monitoring included information about not just app use, but also what owners watched on their disc players, cable systems and even over-the-air broadcasts.
12. Can you surf the Web on a smart TV?
Some, but not all smart TVs will let you go online. This requires a special browser that is not only compatible with all the HTML standards that websites use, but also able to convert and display those sites properly on a big screen.
Some smart TVs allow you to surf the internet. (Photo: Samsung)If you want to surf the web on your TV, make sure your set has its own browser. Also, ask if there's a far less common wireless-keyboard option.
13. Can a smart TV get local channels?
Smart TV services and features don't affect a TV's ability to get local stations. If you have cable or satellite service, you will continue to receive the same stations. If you don't have either of those services, you'll still need some sort of internet connection (DSL or cable) for the smart services, and then an HDTV antenna to pull in local, over-the-air broadcasts for free. At least for now, television stations have not followed the lead of radio stations, which stream their live broadcasts online.
14. Can a smart TV replace cable?
Much has been made of "cord cutting," which refers to the termination of cable or satellite TV service in favor of paid online services such as Hulu Plus and Netflix. Some networks, such as PBS, also let you watch a limited number of shows for free using an app. Additionally, you can use your smart TV to take advantage of these services and cut the cord, with certain limitations.
For example, there are no a la carte options for subscribing to individual TV stations online (yet). So although HBO Go has apps that let subscribers watch the network's shows on different devices wherever the viewers are, a customer must still have a cable or satellite subscription to HBO. Other networks make similar requirements.
However, the biggest reason to maintain a cable or satellite TV subscription is so you can watch live sporting events. (Some apps, such as MLB.com, stream live sports, but these services cost extra and don't include all games.) Otherwise, if your household mainly watches movies, news and the occasional series, a smart TV could help you cut the cord.
Two exceptions to the limitation on network and live sports content are Dish Network's Sling TV and Sony's PlayStation Vue services, which bundle network and some sports channels into their streaming offerings. DirecTV Now and YouTube TV are two other options.
The other option, particularly in urban environments, is to add an inexpensive HDTV antenna to pull in free local broadcasts to supplement online streaming services.
Note that some smart TVs lack built-in digital TV tuners. Such sets cannot use antennas to pull in local stations, so check for this feature if you're planning on cutting the cord and using streaming and over-the-air broadcasts exclusively.
15. Does a smart TV need a cable box or broadband?
If you want to continue receiving your current lineup of stations and channels, and make use of the smart-TV streaming services, the answer is yes: You still need a cable or satellite box to decrypt the stations that TV providers scramble to prevent pirating.
For streaming movies from Netflix or Amazon Prime Instant Video onto a smart TV, a broadband connection is necessary. In fact, slower DSL speeds can stymie video services like Netflix, although these speeds can be sufficient for streaming music from the likes of Pandora and Spotify.
16. Does a smart TV have a better picture?
Not necessarily. Built-in Wi-Fi and a processor for decompressing video do not directly affect picture quality. However, since manufacturers initially added smart TV features to more-expensive, higher-end (and better-performing) HDTVs, shoppers will find that the picture quality on some smart TVs beats that of lower-priced models that lack the smarts.
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