Smart TVs: What You Need to Know

If you're thinking of streaming - or already do - a smart TV could be for you

Smart televisions are made by a variety of manufacturers, including, but not limited to, those made by LG, Samsung, Panasonic, Sony, and Vizio.

What Is a Smart TV, Anyway?

In a nutshell, a smart TV connects directly to the internet and incorporates an operating system/platform that lets you access, manage, and view online and network-based media content like Hulu or Netflix without the need to use an additional device such as a Roku or Fire Stick.

How Smart TVs Work

Smart TVs access online content by connecting to the same broadband router and Ethernet or Wi-Fi network you use to connect your computer to the internet. Ethernet provides the most stable connection, but if your TV is in a different room or a long distance from your router, Wi-Fi might be more convenient.

Once your TV is connected and turned on, you'll be prompted to enter any login information required by your internet service provider. The smart TV will display an on-screen menu that includes a list of available internet channels provided as apps (similar to the apps on a smartphone). Some apps come preloaded, and you can download more to add to the TV's app library.


How Do Smart TVs Work?

When you click on the icon for a specific channel/app, you are taken to its content offerings, which you can select and view.

Exactly how you navigate through the smart TV menu and manage your apps varies with the brand and model.

The Benefit of Smart TVs

The main benefit of a smart TV is access to many channels that offer TV programs, movies, and music without the need to connect a TV antenna or subscribe to a cable/satellite service. Also, some smart TVs provide web browsing, gaming, and access to compatible media content stored on your computer.

Although smart TVs also can receive TV programming via antenna or cable/satellite, Vizio has actually taken the bold step of eliminating built-in tuners and antenna/cable connections on most of its sets in favor of its built-in streaming platform as an all-encompassing replacement.

Additional Smart TV Features

In addition to internet streaming, some smart TVs provide more capabilities, such as Miracast and Screen Sharing, which allow users to view content from compatible smartphones and tablets on a TV screen. Other labels for this feature include SmartShare (LG) and SmartView (Samsung).

Some smart TVs can even do the reverse: send content from the TV to a compatible smartphone. After sending, the user can continue to view that content on the smartphone, away from the TV.

A smart tv screen

A Few Things to Consider

The hype surrounding smart TVs is compelling, but there are some cost considerations and limitations to consider.

Although smart TV platforms provide access to many free channels and services, many require either a monthly subscription or a pay-per-view fee. When you start adding up those costs, you could end up spending as much, or more, than a monthly cable/satellite bill. On the other hand, you will be paying only for the channels and content you want.

The brand/model smart TV determines the services and features that you can access. Although all smart TVs access a lot of the same core services (Netflix, Vudu, Hulu, Pandora), many additional and niche channels might not be accessible on some smart TV platforms.

Can Smart TVs Spy on You?

Using a smart TV may result in privacy issues. Smart TVs and content app providers usually track your viewing habits to provide you with viewing suggestions. For example, every time you log into Netflix, the menu shows what you've watched recently, as well as updated suggestions for related movies or programs that you might like based on your 'watched recently' list.

You might think that this type of tracking is a good thing because it cuts search time for movies or programs to watch, but a smart TV might be doing more than track your viewing habits. If your smart TV has a webcam or voice control, there is a possibility that someone could hack in and see/hear you.

Also, any credit card purchases you make using your TV might be trackable by third parties. If your voice control or webcam is on, don't say or do anything that you wouldn't do or say in public—and be cautious with your online credit card purchases.

Smart TV Shopping Tips

When shopping for a TV, just about all brands/models offer some level of smart functionality that expands your viewing options. Be aware, however, of variations in content access, additional subscription/pay-per-view costs, possible privacy issues, and the need to balance the attractiveness of a specific smart TV with other important factors such as picture quality, sound quality, and physical connectivity.

If you want to add TV, movie, music streaming, and other smart features to your home entertainment experience but don't know if you need a smart TV, here are some guidelines:

  • If you are shopping for a new TV and don't have any other devices that provide access to internet streaming content, then getting a smart TV is a good choice.
  • If you already have a smart TV that doesn't provide access to the number or type of streaming channels you would like, consider adding an external media streamer, streaming stick, or internet-enabled Blu-ray disc player rather than buying a new smart TV.
  • If you already own a TV without smart features but are satisfied with its picture quality and other features, you don't need to buy a smart TV. Just add a media streamer, streaming stick, or internet-enabled Blu-ray disc player to your current setup.
  • If you are concerned about privacy issues, consider an external media streaming device. It won't prevent purchase or viewing habit tracking, but it does prevent direct audio/video spying.
  • If you are interested in audio-only streaming, a network-enabled stereo or home theater receiver will provide better sound quality for music listening than a smart TV.

A smart TV is just one way to add internet streaming and related features to your TV viewing experience. Use the guidelines above to decide if it's the best choice for you.

On a Budget? Try a Smart TV Alternative

If you recently purchased, or currently have, a TV without smart features or an older smart TV with limited options, you don't need to buy a new smart TV if your TV still works well and satisfies your picture-quality needs. You can add smart features to your current TV viewing experience at a minimal cost.

Media Streamers

  • A media streamer is typically a small box that plugs into your TV's HDMI port and connects to your internet router via Ethernet/Wi-Fi. If you have an older TV without an HDMI input, your options are more limited. Older model Roku Express+ media streamers (which you might find on Amazon or other retailing sites) provide analog video audio connections for those cases.
  • Another type of media streamer is a stick that is slightly larger than a USB flash drive and plugs into an available HDMI input. The stick-type media streamer provides Wi-Fi access to your TV, so make sure you have a wireless internet router. The stick also needs to connect to a USB or AC power source.

Blu-ray Disc Players

  • In addition to playing physical media such as Blu-ray discs, DVDs, and CDs, almost all Blu-ray Disc players provide access to many internet streaming channels (depending on brand and model).
  • The internet channel selection is usually not as extensive as with a media streaming box or stick. Still, it is undoubtedly convenient: You don't have to connect both a media streamer and a Blu-ray disc player to your TV, which cuts down on cable clutter. If you are a fan of DVDs, Blu-ray discs, and CDs but want to add streaming as an additional content source, a Blu-ray disc player might be the solution for you.


  • Companies such as Channel Master and TIVO market over-the-air DVRs that combine the reception of over-the-air (OTA) TV signals, video recording, and internet streaming in one box.
  • Like Blu-ray disc players, the internet channel selection might be limited, and recording features work only with OTA programs. It does provide another option that cord-cutters can take advantage of, though. DVRs are more expensive than media streamers and Blu-ray disc players.

Stereo and Home Theater Receivers (Audio Only)

  • Although smart TVs and media streamers include some online music channels, music fans appreciate the capabilities of network-enabled stereo or home theater receivers. This option provides access to several streaming music services and plays that music back through the stereo or home theater speaker setup. The result is a much higher-quality listening experience than built-in TV speakers or even a TV combined with a soundbar can deliver.

App Platforms by Smart TV Brand

TV brands incorporate one or more platforms through which they offer apps. (This integrated platform is what makes a TV smart.) Here are a few of the brands and platforms you're likely to find:

  • Element, Toshiba, Westinghouse: Amazon Fire TV
  • Insignia, Hisense/Sharp, Hitachi, TCL, Philips, Element: Roku TV
  • LG: WebOS
  • Samsung: Tizen, Smart Hub
  • Element, LeECO, Sharp, Sony, Toshiba, Westinghouse: Android TV
  • Haier, JVC, LeECO, Philips, Polaroid, Sharp, Skyworth, Soniq, Sony, Toshiba: Chromecast
  • Philips: NetTV
  • Sharp: VEWD
  • Vizio: SmartCast or Internet Apps Plus
  • Do I need the internet to use a smart TV?

    Yes. Unless your TV supports antenna or cable/satellite television, you need an internet connection to watch TV. That said, you can still connect game consoles and DVD players, although you don't need a smart TV to use those devices.

  • Do smart TVs come with built-in Wi-Fi?

    Yes, most of the time. Look for "Wi-Fi-enabled" in the product description to be sure. To connect your smart TV to Wi-Fi, go to the TV's welcome screen, search for available wireless networks, select your network, and enter the password.

  • How do I add apps to my smart TV?

    The steps for adding apps to your smart TV depend on the brand, but most models have an option to search for apps on the home screen. You can download apps for free, but you may need to set up an account to use some streaming services.

  • How do I connect my phone or tablet to my smart TV?

    The easiest option is to use an HDMI cable, but you may need an adapter to use the HDMI cable. If you want to wirelessly connect your phone to your smart TV, use Google Chromecast (for Android) or Apple AirPlay (for iOS). In addition, many apps, including Google Chrome and YouTube, offer the option to cast to your TV.

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