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Smart TVs: Everything You Need to Know

Nearly every TV on the market calls itself smart. But what is a smart TV and how smart are they? What do they offer, and how does it vary from one brand or model to the next?

Is a smart TV really better than a dedicated streaming device? What about privacy concerns? And which is smartest? We've got the answers to all your most frequently asked questions about smart TVs. And be sure to check out our top picks for the best smart TVs you can buy.

1. What is a smart TV?

While regular TVs have been around for decades, these so-called "dumb TVs" only do one thing: Receive signal from an HDTV antenna, cable or another A/V source. That was great when those were you only TV viewing options, but today's connected world expects something a little smarter.

Smart TVs, much like smartphones and smart home devices, offer internet connectivity and support for a range of apps. This opens up a world of new entertainment options, from streaming video on Netflix and Hulu to playing games, checking social media, and controlling a whole house full of connected gadgets, including devices that work with Alexa and Google Home-compatible products.

Credit: Tom's Guide/Shutterstock

(Image credit: Tom's Guide/Shutterstock)

A growing number of models now include voice recognition tools, like Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, for switching channels and searching for programs. Most smart TVs will work with the smart speaker you already own, and a few will offer some or all of that same functionality built right into the TV.

Smart TVs are also gaining more integrated smart home features. Many TVs are compatible with other connected devices in the home, including lights, door locks and other sensors, and some TVs even include a dedicated dashboard for controlling all of the devices in your connected home. Samsung's SmartThings – which comes built into Samsung Smart TVs – is our current favorite, but similar offerings are available on LG and Sony smart TVs.

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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. High-end models offer even more navigation features; LG's sets frequently offer gesture controls that let you point and wave the remote to control an on-screen cursor and voice interaction has become standard on TVs from every major brand, showing up on sets from LG, Samsung, Sony.

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A partial list of the biggest smart TV makers includes Hisense, LG, Panasonic, Philips, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, TCL, Toshiba and Vizio.  While most of these companies tout their smart platforms as the latest and greatest, watch out for budget-priced TVs that only vaguely mention smart TV capability. These off-brand smart TV platforms may leave you stuck with limited app selection, sub-par performance and worrisome security holes. See our comparison of smart TV operating systems for a closer look at which companies make smart TVs and which systems they offer.

3. How do smart TVs connect to the internet?

A smart TV uses your home network to provide streaming video and services on your TV, and smart TVs use wired Ethernet and built-in Wi-Fi to stay connected. Most current TVs support 802.11ac Wi-Fi, but watch for older models, which may still use the older 802.11n standard. We have a guide to optimizing your home Wi-Fi for streaming, whether it's adjusting your router placement, tweaking settings or just opting for a wired connection.

Credit: Tom's Guide/Shutterstock

(Image credit: Tom's Guide/Shutterstock)

People 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 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 were 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. If your router is more than three years old, a good 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.

Mesh routers that 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 $348. Linksys' Velop two-device package is $350.

And keep an eye out for the faster 802.11ax standard, also called Wi-Fi 6. The newer, faster version of Wi-Fi is already showing up in the latest routers, and TVs with the new standard are likely to show up in 2019.

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.

Most smart TVs support such popular streaming services as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime 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. As smart TVs have become more prominent, the number of dedicated streaming apps has also grown, with apps like PlutoTV offering live news and streaming shows and movies for free. The lower-priced models of some manufacturers offer only the most popular apps, while higher-priced sets provide a complete array of services.

Samsung's Smart TV interface

Samsung's Smart TV interface

The arrangement of the apps also varies. Some smart TVs use a single scrolling row of icons to display options; others use full-screen menus with rows of options to chose from.

While LG and Samsung still rely on proprietary operating systems, there are signs that manufacturers may be settling on a few major platforms. Android TV continues to make gains and Amazon’s Fire TV Edition sets have come back for a second year, but the strong leader is Roku TV. Models from TCL and Sharp have opted to incorporate Roku's easy-to-use interface and access to thousands of streaming services.

On the other hand, Android TV has received endorsements from Sony and Hisense. The platform has scores of apps and, importantly, the support of Google, which tends to add more apps more frequently than others. Amazon has also begun selling its Fire Edition TVs in a partnership with Best Buy, with the Alexa-fied smart OS showing up on Toshiba and Insignia TVs.

Several manufacturers are also adding support for popular voice assistants, such as Google Home and Amazon Alexa. It allows new smart TVs to understand a wider array of voice commands, offer deeper content search and even control compatible devices ranging from thermostats and webcams to lights and locks. Manufacturers adding broader Alexa and Google Assistant support this year include Hisense, LG, Sony and TCL.

But not all smart TV systems are the same. Some, like Vizio's SmartCast series, have minimal built-in support for apps and other smart functions, instead relying on built-in Google Chromecast to let you stream content from a phone or tablet. While that still delivers plenty of options for streaming and connected media, it means you'll need a separate device for the functions that come standard on most smart TVs.

The upshot: Spend a little time at the store flipping through the set's smart offerings to make sure you and your family will be comfortable with that model, and read our detailed comparison of the major smart TV platforms to help you make a decision.

5. Will my smart TV maker regularly update the software with new features?

The general answer is yes. All of the major TV manufacturers routinely put out updates for their smart TV software, adding new features, refining old ones and patching bugs and security issues, just like any other operating system. Some of these updates add entirely new features, such as expanded support for high dynamic range (HDR) formats like Dolby Vision, or merely making refinements to the TV's internal firmware (often downloaded automatically late at night). You may even find manufacturers updating the entire operating system – Sony recently began moving all of its Android TVs to the new Oreo 8.0 version of the software, which offers significant improvements over the previous version.

But it also depends on some other factors. Smaller TV brands and older models may not be as quick to push out updates as larger companies, like LG, Samsung and Sony. TCL does quite well in its partnership with Roku, but many other value-priced brands will be slower to issue updates or add new apps. Nevertheless, most major manufacturers perform software updates periodically. 

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. TVs that are powered by such platforms, including Roku and Android TV sets, have the distinct advantage of receiving regular updates and additional channels/apps.

MORE: Best Streaming Services - Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and More

And don't worry about getting left behind; if one company adds a popular service, such as Netflix, the rest of the manufacturers generally follow suit.

6. Can a smart TV crash or hang like a PC?

The simple answer is yes. As smart TVs take on more of the roles once exclusive to computers and smartphones, there is a risk of hanging or even crashing. Just as phones have become computers, so, too, have smart TVs. We now expect our TVs to pull in content from the web, run sophisticated apps, manage other connected devices and even include voice interaction. Despite this, smart TV problems often catch us off guard because we aren't used to thinking of them as anything other than basic displays.

The good news is that, while crashes and laggy performance have been a problem in years past, these sorts of hiccups are much less common now. As the smart TV market has matured, manufacturers have introduced more powerful processors, outfitted systems with better components and memory, and refined the software platforms that handle apps and TV functions.

That said, problems may still occur, especially in low-end smart TVs that may not have the latest hardware and polished software. If you do run into a frozen screen or hanging process, powering the TV off and on will usually resolve the problem.

7. Aside from apps, do smart TVs have other benefits?

Smart TVs do offer other potential advantages. The newest sets have added popular voice assistants to the mix. Voice search now lets you find content from live TV as well as streaming services, and adds search for everything from weather and stock prices to looking up the latest celebrity gossip. The voice integration lets you access other services from your couch, letting you order a pizza or summon an Uber in comfort. And if you don't like the TV's built-in voice assistant, you can usually pair it with the smart speaker of your choice.

These new features also let you control smart home devices like connected lights and thermostats, view feeds from your Nest camera or Ring doorbell, or control your robot vacuum. As voice assistants continue to evolve, you can expect to see the same improvements come to current smart TVs via software and firmware updates.

Because these TVs tend to have beefier processors than regular sets, as well as 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.

Skype's video-calling service comes built-in to some smart TVs.

Many sets also let you mirror or share pictures and video from a connected smartphone on their big screens. Most manufacturers rely on proprietary apps to offer a more curated experience when sharing media, while others rely on third-party solutions like Google Chromecast. In either case, sharing the videos and photos from your phone or tablet has never been easier.

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A new trend in smart TVs is vastly improved built-in sound systems. LG and Sony are making particular advances in this area, offering Dolby Atmos sound on several models and hoping that the smart TV will also do duty as the home stereo system to stream music and online radio stations.

8. Can I use my smart TV with Amazon Alexa or Google Home?

The biggest trend in smart home technology is the smart speaker, a speaker with built in microphone and hardware to run a voice-enabled assistant. Amazon made the first big splash here with the Amazon Echo and other Alexa-enabled devices, but Google's own Google Assistant has made strides in products like the Google Home. And Apple's HomePod puts Siri into a similar form factor.

The great news is that these devices will usually work with most smart TVs, and compatibility is improving all the time as new software updates add capability to existing smart TVs. As it stands, all of the major TV manufacturers have smart speaker compatibility with at least one of the three main smart assistant platforms (Amazon, Apple and Google). These options often require using an additional device, such as a smart speaker or mobile device, but it will give you a way to control your TV and smart devices with the convenience of simple speech.

But even better, many of the smart TVs on the market now have these voice assistants built in. Google Assistant can be found in both Android TVs from Sony and Hisense, as well as LG TVs. Amazon Alexa is now offered in LG TVs as well, and Sony has announced compatibility with a new Amazon Alexa app for Android TV.

These models generally offer remote controls that feature built in microphones, letting you press a button to activate voice interaction. But some new models, like the Sony X950G Android TV, also have far-field microphones built in. When enabled, they let you simply speak to the room, and the TV will listen for your commands.

9. How does a smart TV compare to set-top boxes such as Roku, Apple TV, Google Chromecast or Amazon Fire TV?

You do not need a smart TV to get streaming Netflix movies or YouTube videos on your screen. Many streaming sticks and set-top boxes can stream those services and more to an older HDTV, or even a newer 4K TV. The leading models are from Amazon, Apple, Google and Roku. But, it's worth noting that these streaming devices rarely offer more functionality than current smart TVs will provide. In fact, all of the device manufacturers we just mentioned have the same interface and app selections available in their respective smart TVs.

For example, the Roku Streaming Stick, which costs just $50, delivers thousands of channels and apps. Those include 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 that can 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)

Apple TV and Siri Remote (Photo: Jeremy Lips/Tom's Guide)

Google's $35 Chromecast and $69 Chromecast Ultra let you stream content from your computer's web browser, but they don't include a separate remote. Amazon's $90 Fire TV doubles as a basic gaming console and offers 4K content, plus some Alexa skills. The Fire TV Stick is even more affordable.

10. 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.

11. Can my smart TV be 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. 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.

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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. The application programming interface (API) that lets your TV interact with apps and mobile devices is also a point of concern, and recently reported vulnerabilities might let hackers make mischief on Samsung and Roku sets.

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.

12. 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. In late 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.)

In early 2017, Vizio agreed to pay $2.2 million to settle claims alleging that the company had collected viewing data from 11 million TVs without getting the owners' approval. The claims accused Vizio of secret monitoring that included information about not just app use but also what owners watched on their disc players, cable systems and even over-the-air broadcasts.

13. Can you surf the web on a smart TV?

Most smart TVs let you go online, and will include a web browser among the preinstalled apps that come with the TV. These browsers may not be exactly like the desktop web browsers you're familiar with, but they are both compatible with all the HTML standards that websites use and able to convert and display those sites properly on a big screen.

Some smart TVs allow you to surf the internet. (Photo: Samsung)

Some smart TVs allow you to surf the internet. (Photo: Samsung)

Browsing the web on your TV can be a bit of a challenge, though. Unless you can add on a wireless keyboard (and they are rarely included with TVs), you'll be using your remote control buttons or voice-interaction to navigate to websites, and neither is a particularly comfortable or intuitive way to surf the web.

14. 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, most television stations have not followed the lead of radio stations, which stream their live broadcasts online.

That said, pay attention to what the manufacturer calls the model you're interested in. If the model is described as a display rather than an HDTV or Ultra HD TV, it probably doesn't have a tuner built-in. Unless you provide your own tuner, you won't be able to enjoy over-the-air channels.

15. Can a smart TV replace cable?

More and more people are trying cord cutting, which refers to the termination of cable or satellite TV service in favor of paid online services such as Amazon Video, Hulu, Netflix and YouTube TV. You can use your smart TV to take advantage of these services and cut the cord, with certain limitations.

There are also several free, ad-supported services that provide hours of shows, movies, and even live news and sports without a subscription. Crackle, Pluto.tv and Xumo are available on most smart TV platforms and offer something for just about everyone. More specialized services, like the anime-focused Crunchyroll and the music video-only Vevo deliver niche content on most smart TVs, and others, like The Roku Channel, may be specific to one platform.

The biggest reason to maintain a cable or satellite TV subscription is to watch live sporting events. (Some apps, such as MLB.com, stream live sports, but these services cost extra and don't include all games.)

However, there are several cable replacement services that now offer both local broadcast networks and live sports, such as Dish Network's Sling TV and Sony's PlayStation Vue. Sling TV, another popular cable replacement option, was once limited to TVs using Roku or Android TV software, but is now available on LG and Samsung TVs as of 2018. 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, and are frequently called home theater displays. 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.

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16. Does a smart TV need a cable box or broadband?

If you want to continue receiving the same channels you have, then the answer is yes: You still need a cable or satellite box, because no other option will deliver the same channels and stations in the same way.

However, whether or not you need to stick with a paid subscription in order to keep getting the shows you want to watch is another question. Many channels offer their own streaming apps, and popular shows can often also be found on services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime.

Additionally, you can replace a cable subscription with a very similar streaming experience using a cable replacement service. These include services like Sling TV, YouTube TV and Hulu with Live TV, and they offer a cable-like experience with several channels for a subscription fee that's probably less expensive than your current cable or satellite bill.

As for the question of broadband, then the answer is unequivocally yes. If you want to take advantage of any connected apps and services – anything that makes the smart TV smart – you'll need an internet connection. As for what speeds you need, it will vary according to your intended use, but the following guidelines will help.

To stream video in DVD quality, at less than 1080p resolution, you'll need a minimum speed of 3 Mbps. For Full HD, at 1080p, you'll need 5 Mbps (according to Netflix) or 6 Mbps (according to Hulu).

But if you want to stream in 4K, the demands are much steeper: Hulu suggests a minimum bandwidth of 16 Mbps, while Netflix recommends "A steady internet connection speed of 25 megabits per second or higher."

17. Does a smart TV have a better picture or sound?

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.

They also are more likely to have the latest audio features, such as Dolby Atmos sound and HDMI ARC support. Dolby Atmos offers a richer sound experience with vertical surround capability as well as horizontal, and it uses a higher bit-rate to deliver fuller, more nuanced audio. Another feature, Audio Return Channel (ARC) lets you use a single HDMI cable to send audio data too and from your soundbar, so all of your connected devices get the best sound, no extra cable required. These features aren’t restricted to smart TVs, but manufacturers are far more likely to include them on their more premium products, which leaves TVs without smart functionality unlikely to get them.

But it is worth noting that streaming apps, like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, offer one of the easiest options for enjoying 4K and HDR-enabled content. While 4K Blu-rays are available to buy and rent, streaming offers the easiest way to get a wealth of content for your TV that truly takes advantage of your high-resolution, high-brightness display. You can get some of this same functionality with a streaming stick – provided you get a model that supports 4K and HDR – but smart TVs offer the best combination of convenience and content, often without costing any more than what you're already paying for your streaming subscriptions.