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/ShutterstockCredit: Tom's Guide/ShutterstockA 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.

Here are some that are on sale now:

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.

MORE: Best TVs - Top-Rated Smart and 4K Televisions for Every Budget

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/ShutterstockCredit: 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.

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 interfaceSamsung's Smart TV interfaceThe 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?

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.

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

Nevertheless, most major manufacturers perform software updates periodically. 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.

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, with Android TVs from Sony and Hisense getting integrated Google Home functionality and Amazon's Alexa built in to sets from Insignia and Toshiba. LG's new smart TVs actually offer both, with no need for an external smart speaker. 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.

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. 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.

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.

MORE: Bitdefender Box Review: Smart Home Security

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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 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, 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, 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.

MORE: DirecTV Now vs. PlayStation Vue vs. Sling TV: Face-Off

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 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.

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    Your comment
  • Minister of Truth
    Ty. that explained a lot.

    but what's the minimum connection speed needed for Netflix?
  • AllanJones
    Great article John. For those who live outside US like me, you can access Netflix, Hulu and similar media stations on your Smart TV by using UnoTelly or similar tools.
  • Sweetchickers
    I have what is called Mifi in my home which I pay for data usage for wifi capability on my iPhone and PC. I bought a smart tv a proscan and will it require the usage of my data plan to make use of the wifi services as it gets expensive to use if you use a lot of data?
  • Sweetchickers
    Is it possible to download tv shows and watch them later on my smart tv ? And will doing it this way save me on my data plan?
  • HZ
    I don't care too much about hulu/netflix etc. How do I know if a smartTV allows you to install an app (such as XBMC) from a usb drive? I googled around and could not find much info...
  • what12
    I live in the country and Netflix worked with my DSL (1.5 Mb/sec....150 kB/sec) without much interruption. Even with others on the internet at the same time.
  • darude1
    why bother with a smart TV? i just use a computer and stream all my tv series, if the title isnt available i just torrent it, same goes for movies.
    i also have all the music i need + any application there ever is
  • Vertulus
    Excellent article! You answered all my questions and then some!
  • Docdish
    Excellent except can you turn off the smart features and use the 4k UHD tv with a streaming device (Apple). Finding i cant buy a 4k UHD tv without it being smart, all smart browsing platform are pc based, ie, virus and hack porous.
  • alstanton
    Can you use a smart TV in an RV and connect to WIFI while traveling? Is there any other equipment needed?
  • Samantha_37
    I was just wondering if you can attach your blueray to a smart tv?
  • Asturia
    Finally Explanation in ""ENGLISH"" LOL. Lord I am going crazy with all this technology; which found this article before we bought tv last month. now i need to buy a roku device.
  • seegiej
    I've heard that my smart tv may have to be replaced in 4-5 years due to a failure to be able to upgrade any more. Is this true, does anyone know?
  • D_8___
    you forgot to mention the difference between a "Smart TV" and a "Smart Cast TV". Mainly, a Smart Cast TV is NOT a Smart TV.
  • armecia
    I bought a "smart TV" and it is the dumbest TV in our home. In fact, it "freezes" so much that if I want to watch a TV show to its conclusion I use the bedroom TV (the "dumb" one). Perhaps some time in the future these "smart" TVs will be perfected, but the "smart" TV in our home is going on the auction block to the highest bidder.
  • Snowhite88
    Is it possible to track the location of a stolen Smart TV? If yes, please elaborate.
  • rgd1101
    2505130 said:
    Is it possible to track the location of a stolen Smart TV? If yes, please elaborate.

  • rgeiken
    I had Direct TV with my current Samsung Smart TV, but now have an indoor antenna and You Tube Red, Netflix, and Amazon. The streaming services cost about $35 a month versus $110 a month for Direct TV. I rarely watch much on OTA TV, but sometime watch local newscasts. For me, Steaming Services have cut my TV viewing since I can watch the things that I want anytime and not on a Network Schedule. It will be interesting to see what the future of TV becomes in the years ahead. The best thing about Streaming TV is that you eliminate commercials for the most part.
  • lrdalucard
    You forget to cover Gamming and lag input...
    So how much lag input does a smart tv has comapred to a normal hd tv?
  • m.corb
    JVC smart tv, requires the TV areal and the TV to be tuned in , in order to access the on demand services such as bbciplayer, itv, 5oD, 40D for these apps to work
  • richardjr
    Also FYI, if you have old Nintendo Wii or other gaming devices around or are buying the new Nintendo switch..note that these can be used with a tv that is not smart or Wi-Fi ready to access and online services. We have spectrum services for cable internet tv channels etc. We also have an Amazon account and Netflix. One thing about our cable company and many may be the same, we already had all Samsung brand smart tv's so when spectrum took over our area, we were told if we have Samsung smart tv's we do not need a set top box which is a monthly rental fee. I know a lot of people who really want to cut the cable cord. But I never will until a faster option and more reliable option comes out for internet, and channels. With the spectrum app, our daughter away at college or any of us on any device can use the cable app anywhere and watch all of our channels which include all ESPN and BBC, etc. Etc. Just like we do Netflix. to me paying for my cable service makes so much sense. Not only do have 300mps or faster internet all the time. I also have all these channels the app, and my favorite whole house DVR. something I will not ever live without, recording 6 channels at a time, and watching them whenever while ff all commercials, PRICELESS. But even if it was just the internet connection it would be worth it. Never goes out...ever.
  • richardjr
    Wow, are you going to tell people not to get a smartphone either. Just take an old Nextel and put a stick in it. Ok. For the price of an iPhone x i can get a 65 inch Samsung smart UH tv. Hard decision. Duh
  • mgaissert
    During a lecture by the local sheriff, the sheriff strongly suggested to have your driver's license engraved on the TV. As in when they see a known thief driving by with a large unwrapped TV in their car they can look for ID on the set and call it in. No ID and they have to let the thief drive on.
  • oldog3
    Ok here is my question situation ..
    I got Dierctvnow on my phone and bought a SamsungSM-j727A phone to project on my non-smart tv

    I can watch Directvnow without a wi-fi now [ out in a field]

    I project to my TV now through Ruko device and a DSL phone line wifi [ Fronter ] with 2,4 mpbs[?] signal strength

    My phone keeps rebooting while projecting Directvnow onto my TV .

    My phone has been hard reset and warranted replaced

    Will a “smart” TV stop this rebooting problem ?

    Please help and THANKS!!!