Smart TVs - What You Need To Know

Smart TV Platform Examples (LG, Samsung, Sony, Roku)
Smart TV Platform Examples (LG, Samsung, Sony, Roku). Images provided by LG, Samsung, Sony, Roku

When shopping for a TV, the most important things to consider are screen size, picture quality, sound quality, and connectivity. However, in the past several years, another factor has risen to importance: Is the TV smart?

There is no getting around it—smart TVs dominate store shelves. However, do you really need one?

To find out if you do, let's explore:

  • What is a Smart?
  • How Smart TVs work
  • The Benefits of a Smart TV
  • Extra Costs and Limitations
  • Smart TV Privacy Issues
  • Smart TV Alternatives

What is a Smart TV?

In a nutshell, a smart TV is a set that incorporates an operating system/platform that allows consumers to access, manage, and view internet and network-based media content without the need to connect to an additional box.

How Smart TVs Work

The way a smart TV accesses this content is by providing the ability to connect to the same broadband router via Ethernet or Wi-Fi connection that you use to connect your PC to the internet. Ethernet provides the most stable connection, but if your TV is located in a different room than your router, or a long distance from your router even if it is in the same room, Wi-Fi may be more convenient.

Once connected and turned on, you enter any needed login information required by your ISP (Internet Service Provider).

After signing in, the smart TV will display an on-screen menu that includes a list of available internet channels, which are provided in the form of apps (similar to the apps on your smartphone).

Some apps are pre-loaded, while others can be downloaded and added to the TV's "app library."

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

Depending on brand and model, there may be differences on how to navigate through the smart TV menu and manage your apps.

Smart TV App Platforms by TV Brand

The Benefits of Smart TVs

The main benefit of a smart TV is the ability to access a large number of "channels" that offer TV programs, movies, music, without having to connect a TV antenna or subscribe to a cable/satellite service. Also, in some cases, a smart TV may provide web browsing, gaming, as well as access to compatible media content stored on your PC.

In fact, there is a growing number of TV viewers that are known as "cord cutters." These consumers have abandoned cable/satellite services in favor of internet streaming, sometimes combined with an antenna (for reception of local TV stations).

Although smart TVs also have the ability to receive TV programming via antenna or cable/satellite, Vizio has actually taken the bold step of eliminating traditional 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 accessing internet streaming content, some smart TVs may provide additional capabilities, such as Miracast and Screen Sharing which allows users to view content from compatible Smartphones and Tablets right on that big TV screen. Other labels used for this feature include: SmartShare (LG) and SmartView (Samsung).

Also, in some cases, a smart TV may be able to do the reverse - send content from the TV to a compatible smartphone. After sending, the user can continue to view that content on their smartphone away from the TV.

Extra Costs and Limitations

The hype surrounding Smart TVs is very compelling, but there are some cost and limitation factors to take into consideration.

  • Although smart TV platforms provide access to a lot of free channels and services, most do require either a monthly subscription or pay-per-view fee. In other words, when you start adding up those costs, you could end up spend as much, or more, than a monthly cable/satellite bill. On the other hand, you will only be paying for the channels and content you actually want.
  • The brand/model smart TV you purchase determines what services and features you have access to. In other words, although all smart TVs access a lot of the same core services (Netflix, Vudu, Hulu, Pandora), there may be a lot of additional and niche channels that you may desire that may not be accessible on some smart TV platforms. Also, for those that use iTunes to access streaming audio and video content, there is no TV that has this capability - so even if you have a smart TV, you still need to purchase an Apple TV box.

Smart TVs May Be Able to Spy On You!

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

You might think that this type of tracking is a good thing, because it cuts down spending time search for movies or programs to watch, but a smart TV may be doing more than just track your viewing habits.

If your smart TV has a webcam, or voice control, there is a possibility, although remote, that someone can hack in and see/hear you. Also, any credit card purchases you make using your TV may be track-able 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, just as with your PC, be cautious with your online credit card purchases.

Smart TV Alternatives

When confronted by hype for new technologies, it is tempting to succumb and reach into your wallet for the "latest and greatest". However, if you purchase, or currently have, a TV without smart features or an older smart TV with limited options, if that TV is still working well, and satisfies your picture quality needs, you don't necessarily have to buy a new Smart TV. There are devices that allow you add Smart features to your current TV viewing experience, at minimal cost.

  • Media Streamers
    • One way to add smart features is with a media streamer. A media streamer can take form of a small box that plugs into your TV's HDMI port and connects to your internet router via Ethernet/WiFi. If you have an older TV that does not have an HDMI input, your options are more limited, but Roku's Express+ media streamer provides analog video audio connections for those cases.
    • Another type of media streamer takes the form of a stick that is slightly larger than a USB flash drive, but, instead, plugs into a TV that has an available HDMI input. The stick-type media streamer only provides WiFi connectivity, so make sure you have a wireless internet router. The stick also needs to connect to a USB or AC power source (cables/adapter included).
  • Blu-ray Disc players
    • Another practical way to add smart features to your TV viewing experience is with a Blu-ray Disc player. In addition to playing physical media (Blu-ray discs, DVDs, CDs) almost all Blu-ray Disc players provide access to a number of internet streaming channels (depending on brand and model).
    • However, the internet channel selection is usually not as extensive as with a media streaming box or stick, but it is certainly convenient as you don't have 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 may be the solution for you.
  • DVRs
    • In an interesting move, companies such as Channel Master, and TIVO market over-the-air DVRs that combine reception of over-the-air TV signals, video recording, and internet streaming in one box.
    • Just as with Blu-ray Disc players, the internet channel selection may be limited, and recording features only work with the over-the-air received TV programs, but it does provide another option that "cord cutters" can take advantage of. However, the DVR option is more expensive than the media streamer and Blu-ray Disc player options.
  • Stereo or Home Theater Receivers (Audio Only)
    • Although smart TVs and media streamers include some online music channels, if you are a big music fan, you may opt to purchase a network-enabled stereo or home theater receiver. This option not only provides access to several music streaming services, but plays that music back through a stereo or home theater speaker setup that provides a much higher quality listening experience than those built-in TV speakers or even a TV combined with a sound bar.

The Bottom Line On Smart TV

When you go shopping for a TV these days, just about all brands/models you will find offer some level of smart functionality that expands your viewing options.

However, be aware 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, and/or music streaming and other smart features to your home entertainment experience, and don't know if you need a smart TV, here are some guidelines:

  • If you are buying a new TV and don't have other devices that provide access to internet streaming content, then getting smart TV is a good choice.
  • If you already have a smart TV, but it doesn't provide access to the number or type of streaming channels you would like, instead of buying a new smart TV, consider adding an external media streamer, streaming stick, or internet-enabled Blu-ray disc player that may offer what you need.
  • If you already own a TV that doesn't have smart features, but you are satisfied with its picture quality and other features, you don't necessarily need to buy a smart TV. Just as in the previous suggestion, you can opt to add a media streamer, streaming stick, or internet-enabled Blu-ray Disc player to your current TV.
  • If you are concerned about privacy issues, although an external media streaming device wouldn't prevent purchase or viewing habit tracking—it would prevent any direct audio/video spying—so it would be a better streaming choice than a smart TV.
  • If you are interested in audio-only streaming, getting a network-enabled stereo or home theater receiver would be able to provide more desirable sound quality for music listening than a smart TV.

Boiling it all down, a smart TV is just one way to add internet streaming and related features to your TV viewing experience, and based on the guidelines listed above, it may, or may not, be the best choice.