We've gone from the idiot box to smart TVs, so why does it feel like more of the same, but with Wi-Fi?
Today's TV entertainment world is broader and deeper than it has ever been before. Completely free streaming services give you hours and hours of shows and movies, with linear and on-demand programming. Paid streaming services offer huge libraries that range from old favorites to the latest Emmy and Academy Award winning originals. And every major channel or media company is jumping on the streaming bandwagon, putting vast back catalogs of content onto their own branded services. The amount of TV that you can watch on your smart TV is pretty astounding.
But what if you want to do more with your TV? The best TVs have all of the capability of the internet and the processing power needed for interaction and apps, so why does it feel like the idiot box is just as stupid as ever?
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Well, the good news is that smart TVs are actually a great deal smarter than most people assume. And while shows and movies are the obvious use case for the center of home entertainment, it's not all your smart TV can do.
Just like your smartphone or laptop, your smart TV can do a whole lot. Going beyond entertainment, smart TVs have functionality that extends to education, productivity, home automation, fitness, mental health, and much more.
Don't believe me? We've put together a sampling of some of the smartest things you can do with a smart TV. It's not a comprehensive list, and it's definitely not exhaustive, with new capabilities coming to TVs all the time. But it gives you a good idea of how much more your smart TV can really do.
A note about TV brands and smart TV software
The TV world is a competitive one, with the best TV brands jockeying to find a place in your home. Smart features offer a huge opportunity for one smart TV to stand out in an aisle of nearly identical looking 4K TVs, so manufacturers have done a lot to drive the smarter side of smart TVs, adding new capabilities, expanding app selections and providing exclusive features. Some TV makers have developed proprietary smart TV platforms (like LG's webOS, or Samsung's Tizen) while others turn to big names like Roku, Google and Amazon.
But they aren't all exactly alike, and one app may be available on some TVs but not on another. Exclusive features may be unique to one TV brand, but the broader functionality can also be found on other sets (though it may take an extra step or two).
That's all to say that most of the capabilities below can be found on most of the best smart TVs out there, whether it's one of the best Samsung TVs, the best Roku TVs, or one of the latest sets with Google TV. And if an app we've highlighted isn't available on your TV's app store, don't give up hope! You can probably find an equivalent service, or use common functions like screen casting from your phone or tablet to put new apps and services on the big screen.
Replace your smart speaker
The majority of smart TVs offer some kind of voice control for searching content and controlling basic TV functions, but quite a few of them go above and beyond, offering Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant on the TV.
That means that you can use your smart TV's voice input for all sorts of things – most let you speak into the remote, but a few have room-listening microphones for hands-free voice input. With a simple "Hey, Google" or "Alexa!" you can search for news headlines, check stock values, get questions answered and even get a bedtime story told to your kid.
Control your smart home devices
We've already discussed how you can use Alexa and Google Assistant from your TV, and by linking your smart TV to your Alexa or Google Assistant accounts, you can control a whole house full of smart home gadgets right from your TV.
But what does that mean? What sort of devices can you control and what's improved by adding your smart TV to the mix? For starters, pretty much anything found on our lists of the best smart home devices or best cheap smart home devices can be controlled from your TV.
That means you can control the lighting in your house with a command. You can check the camera feed from your video doorbell or home security camera, turn power on or off on a smart plug, unlock the front door with a smart lock, and even open and close the garage door. With so many smart appliances in our homes, you can also find plenty of refrigerators, ovens and dishwashers with smart features that can all be tied into your TV, making it the center of an array of smart home devices.
You can even make your movie watching better with a few clever smart home additions. Dim the lights with a few of the best smart light bulbs or smart light switches. Spill some popcorn or chips while watching a movie? Call in a robot vacuum to clean it up. And if you don't want to interrupt your Netflix binge to make dinner, you can even order food right from your smart TV through Uber Eats or Doordash.
Stream music, podcasts and audiobooks
There are plenty of ways to listen to music these days, but one you might have forgotten is your smart TV. If you want music without music videos, there are plenty of options for streaming music in high quality, and often for free. And music isn't the only thing you can listen to. Podcasts and audiobooks are another great use of those TV speakers or soundbar, letting you listen to your favorite podcasters on the best speakers in the house.
Available for every major smart TV platform (LG, Samsung, Android, Roku and Fire TV), Pandora provides personalized music streaming, with both free and ad-free premium account options.
Spotify offers even more control, letting you pick and choose from a massive 70 million song catalog of music, browsing by artists, albums, songs and playlists. You can also listen to podcasts, as Spotify has grown to become a leading source of podcasts, as well. Spotify is available for LG, Samsung, Google TV, Roku and Amazon Fire TVs.
You can even listen to audiobooks on your smart TV. Amazon Fire TVs have an exclusive app for the Amazon-owned Audible (which tops the list of the best audiobook apps), but other smart TVs can also play audiobooks by casting from your phone to the TV through Chromecast, Airplay, and other sharing methods.
Make video calls
If you've got a USB webcam and a smart TV, chances are good that you can video chat with people right on your TV, without having to fuss with a laptop. Smart TVs have started adding support for some of the best video chat apps, with simple calling and controls that let you skip the keyboard and mouse.
Google TVs from Sony and TCL offer built-in Google Duo support, while Amazon's new Fire TV Omni models will also have Zoom support. With simple video-first interfaces and controls adapted to TV remote controls and voice commands, these video calling services make it easy to get in touch with family and friends right from your couch, and get a little face-to-face time in, even when nobody lives nearby.
Check the weather
With a voice assistant like Alexa or Google Assistant, you can simply ask what the weather is like and get a quick update that includes current temperature and weather conditions.
But there's another option for smart TV users, who want to check the current weather and a short term forecast, but may not want to spend their time watching the Weather Channel. Apps like AccuWeather (one of the best weather apps) provide localized weather information, complete with a 10-day forecast, in an attractive format that looks great on the larger screen. AccuWeather is available for LG, Samsung and Android/Google TVs.
Your TV doesn't have to make you a couch potato. Every smart TV platform has a selection of fitness related apps that offer streamed classes and fitness advice.
Simply searching for "fitness" in your TV's app store will pull up plenty of workout options, but the specifics will vary considerably depending upon your brand of smart TV. Some, like LG, have their own apps, like LG Fitness, while other popular apps will be available on some TVs but not others.
A few popular favorites include Daily Burn (available on Roku and Amazon Fire TVs), Peloton (Google/Android TV, Roku, Amazon Fire) and Beachbody On Demand (Roku and Fire TV).
Samsung's most recent TVs take this even further, with Samsung Health tying an array of fitness activities and apps to your Samsung smartphone, smartwatch, and other devices. There's even the option to connect a webcam for AI-driven fitness classes that can critique your technique and automatically pause if you have to leave the room. Samsung also has a number of exclusive fitness smart TV apps included as part of Samsung Health.
Your smart TV can help keep your mind fit as well, with a number of apps and streaming services offering guided meditation. Granted, meditation can be enjoyed without any TVs or devices, but for those who need a little help – and the popularity of these apps suggest that's a lot of folks – it's nice to have the option to have your smart TV calm things down a bit.
Samsung TVs include the popular Calm app, and there are options to be found by searching for "meditation" in any smart TV app store. Many of the best relaxation apps have TV apps, so be sure to check if your favorite can be found in your TV app store.
But you might not need a new app. Netflix, in collaboration with popular meditation app Headspace, has a trio of interactive titles focused on meditation, relaxation, and sleep, respectively. Each includes several short episodes that share science-backed information and walks you through exercises that are great for beginners and long-time users alike.
Cook up a meal
Your smart TV can help out in the kitchen, too. While cooking shows have been a staple of TV programming for as long as TVs have been in people's homes, smart TVs offer a lot of useful features for any amateur chef.
Using a TV's built-in voice assistant, you can ask for nutritional information or even get recipe recommendations, complete with step-by-step instructions. You can also find substitute ingredients, add ingredients to your grocery list, set reminders to use things before they expire, and set timers so that you don't overcook anything. You can even control smart kitchen appliances, letting you start preheating the oven before you get off the couch.
There are also many food-related apps just waiting to find a home on your TV. One of the most widely offered is iFood.tv (Available on LG, Samsung, Roku and Amazon Fire TV), which offers both cooking shows to sit back and watch and a catalog of more than 40,000 recipe videos to follow.
Other big names in cooking have dedicated TV apps, like Bon Appétit (Android, Roku and Fire TV), Food Network Kitchen (Android, Roku and Fire TV) and Kitchen Stories (Android and Fire TV.)
Get some work done
With so many of us working from home, it's no stretch to look longingly at your smart TV as a big screen alternative to the tiny display on a laptop. And there are several options for doing just that!
Samsung has a special "PC on TV" mode that wirelessly casts your PC to the TV, for use as a second monitor. However, Samsung's wireless display feature requires installing and setting up an app on your PC or Mac. Samsung even offers a version of Microsoft 365 that's optimized for working on the TV.
TVs with built in Chromecast, such as Sony and TCL Google TV models, Hisense Android TV and Vizio SmartCast TVs, will all let you cast wirelessly to your TV using Google Chrome or Microsoft Edge.
AirPlay support is also available on many smart TVs, and with it, you can mirror your iPhone or Mac on the TV screen.
But even without an app for casting or mirroring your laptop on the bigger screen, you always have the option of connecting to a TV over HDMI, and using your TV as a larger monitor for productive work. Just keep in mind that not all laptops have a full HDMI port these days – you may need to find an adapter. They're available for mini- and micro-HDMI, USB-C, Thunderbolt, and DisplayPort connections.