Wondering whether all those so-called smart TVs are really that smart? Is it better to have those apps integrated into your set than to have 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.
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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.
A growing number of models now include voice recognition tools, like Alexa, for switching channels and searching for programs. Voice control and the integration of smart home features, such as Samsung's SmartThings hub on its sets, mean that TV manufacturers will be working to integrate their sets with the internet of things, including lights, door locks and other sensors.
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 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.
Credit: Tom's Guide/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 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.
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 $348. Linksys' Velop two-device package is $350.
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 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. 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 interfaceThe 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 of the available services.
There are signs that manufacturers may be settling on a few major platforms. Roku and Android TV are starting to dominate, but Amazon is coming on strong. Models from 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, Android TV has received endorsements from Sharp and Sony. The platform has scores of apps and, importantly, the support of Google, which tends to add more apps more frequently than others.
Sony will also be adding support for the Google Home voice assistant. It will allow Sony's latest sets to understand a wider array of voice commands from Google, as well as add commands in the future that could control compatible devices ranging from thermostats and webcams to lights and locks.
Following the runaway success of its Alexa voice assistant, Amazon has partnered with a couple of TV makers to introduce Amazon Fire TV Editions of their sets. The main feature of these sets from Westinghouse and Element is that they recognize a variety of, but not all, Alexa commands or skills.
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.
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. 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.
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 a 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 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.Many sets, thanks to more powerful processors, include basic voice recognition for searches, as well as gesture recognition for switching between screens. (The recent debut of Alexa and Google Assistant in some sets may increase their popularity.) Many sets also let you mirror or share pictures and video from a connected smartphone on their big screens.
A new trend in smart TVs is vastly improved built-in sound systems. LG and Sony are making particular advances in this area, hoping that the smart TV will also do duty as the home stereo system to stream music and online radio stations.
8. 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 HDTV. The leading models are from Amazon, Apple, Google and Roku.
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)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.
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 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.
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. 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.
12. Can you surf the web on a smart TV?
Some, but not all, smart TVs let you go online. This requires a special browser that is 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)If you want to surf the web on your TV, make sure your set has its own browser. Also, ask if there's a wireless-keyboard option, which is far less common.
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, most television stations have not followed the lead of radio stations, which stream their live broadcasts online.
14. 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 Hulu Plus and Netflix. You can use your smart TV to take advantage of these services and cut the cord, with certain limitations.
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, for example, is available through smart TVs powered with Roku, Android TV and Amazon TV software, as well as on select LG sets. 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.
To stream content from Netflix or Amazon Prime Video onto a smart TV, a broadband connection is necessary. In fact, slower DSL speeds can stymie video services such as 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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