What is a smart TV anyway?
Nearly every TV you can buy these days is a ‘smart TV’. That term pretty much just means a TV can go online to stream content. Here’s what to look for.
Smart TV systems have come a long way in the past few years, from clunky web browsers that were little more than a curiosity, to sophisticated video streamers that most people now consider essential.
In fact, most TVs you buy today will be Smart. So what are you getting for your money, and what do you need to know?
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So what makes a good smart TV?
- First and foremost, it should include as comprehensive a set of video streaming providers as possible. That doesn’t just mean the ubiquitous Netflix, Amazon and YouTube, but all the UK TV catch-up services, such as BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All4, My5, BBC News & Sport and UK Play. If it also includes other subscription services such as Now TV, Rakuten and Chili, then so much the better.
- Of course, people still watch regular TV, so an effective electronic programme guide (EPG) is important, and time-shifting content to an external storage device is also convenient. If you do miss something then there’s always the catch-up services, but with so much choice these days, a smart platform that can collate and recommend content is essential.
- The ability to effortlessly select any connected source such as a games console or disc player is crucial, as is a smart platform’s ability to access your home network and stream content (videos, music and photos) from other connected devices such as smartphones, tablets or NAS drives.
- An app store of some sort is another must-have feature, allowing users the option to load additional apps to the platform. This ensures the system can adapt and evolve as new features are added or improved.
- Finally, voice control – either directly or via a third party such as Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant – is becoming increasingly popular.
What’s the ideal Smart TV system?
There are smart TV systems available from every TV brand, but which is the best? Each has its strengths and weaknesses, so it’s really about what’s right for you.
Some opt for a fairly basic approach, others are more sophisticated – there are even platforms based on the Android operating system.
In this article, we’ll take you through the major smart TV systems, describing their layout, identifying key features and revealing how they perform in practice.
So, in alphabetical order, here are the various TV systems, and their strengths and weaknesses.
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1. Hisense VIDAA
The Chinese manufacturer Hisense specialises in building solid TVs that deliver decent performance at a competitive price. The company’s VIDAA smart TV system reflects this approach, with a relatively simple in-house platform that gets the job done.
You access VIDAA by pressing the home button on the remote. This will give you the option of choosing tiles for Freeview Play, Apps, Inputs, Media and Settings. You can immediately see that VIDAA has all the main features covered.
The system overlays the tiles onto the picture, with each providing direct access to that specific smart function. This particular smart TV system keeps things relatively simple, but in doing so it’s very easy to use.
Freeview Play provides access to all the UK TV catch-up services and even integrates with the EPG, allowing you to go backwards in time if you’ve missed one of your favourite shows. There’s also a feature that allows you to time-shift programmes by recording them on a connected drive, turning your TV into a personal video recorder (PVR).
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Not surprisingly, the Apps section contains all the apps that the TV can run – including Netflix, Amazon, YouTube and Rakuten TV. In fact, of the main video streaming services, only Now TV is missing. Netflix and Amazon support 4K and HDR (High Dynamic Range), while the BBC iPlayer app supports 4K and HLG (Hybrid Log-Gamma).
The homepage also provides direct access to all the inputs, including any connected devices. These could be physical or wireless, and the Media option supports DLNA, allowing you to access content such as videos, music and photos on your home network.
You interact with the system using a standard remote control, and aside from being a simple and intuitive user interface, VIDAA is also responsive and robust thanks to quad-core processing.
The importance of this can’t be over-emphasised: there’s nothing worse than smart TV systems that are slow or have a tendency to crash. Overall, Hisense’s VIDAA is an easy-to-use platform that’s sure to meet the majority of your needs.
2. LG webOS
It’s hard to overstate how influential LG’s webOS smart TV system has been since it was first released four years ago. The platform was a real game changer when it launched, and despite being copied by a number of manufacturers, it remains one of the best.
What makes webOS so revolutionary is that it treats everything, whether its a video streaming service, a connected device or a feature, as an app. You then access all these apps using a launcher bar that appears along the bottom of the screen when you press the home button.
The launcher bar allows you choose apps for various streaming services and connected devices, as well as other features such as the Live TV, Sky Store, LG content, TV guide (EPG), recordings (PVR), gallery and web browser.
On the left-hand side of the screen are My Channels and My Content options, where you can add your favourite TV shows and content. Over on the right of the screen is a very useful Recommendations service that monitors your viewing habits and makes recommendations based on a predictive algorithm.
When it comes to the video streaming services, webOS is one of the most comprehensive platforms available. You’ll find all the UK catch-up services thanks to Freeview Play, as well as Now TV, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Rakuten TV and YouTube. The latter three include support for 4K, HDR and, in the case of Netflix, both Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos.
LG also includes voice control, which uses natural language processing, making interaction more ‘conversational’. It’s actually quite effective and can prove useful, especially when searching for content. When voice controlling the TV, there are also simple guidelines built in that can be accessed using the appropriate button on the remote.
The launcher bar provides direct access to all the inputs, including any connected devices, whether that’s physical or wireless. Plus webOS supports DLNA, allowing you to access videos, music or photos on your home network.
LG has recently added ThinQ AI to webOS. This proprietary artificial intelligence technology is based on the Internet of Things (IoT) and uses ThinQ open-standard control protocols to enable communication with other supporting devices. Among other features, ThinQ adds Google Home and Amazon Alexa skills to webOS.
LG’s webOS sets the standard as far as smart TV systems are concerned. It’s fast, responsive and robust, with a highly intuitive user interface and a comprehensive set of features.
You interact with the system using an onscreen pointer controlled by LG’s Magic Remote, although you also have the option of voice control using the microphone built into the remote, LG’s remote app or via Amazon and Google.
LG’s webOS remains as impressive now as it was when launched, and once you’ve experienced the platform, you’ll find it hard to go back to other smart TV systems.
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3. Panasonic My Home Screen
At first glance, Panasonic’s My Home Screen smart platform appears rather dated compared to much of the competition.
Although on its third generation, My Home Screen remains largely the same as the Firefox OS on which it was originally based. However, in operation the system impresses, with an intuitive and simple approach that gives you quick and easy access to all your favourite content.
The home button on the remote brings up three options: Live TV, Apps, and Devices. This approach is easy to understand and even easier to navigate. You can quickly access Live TV and the EPG, as well as find all your frequently used apps in a single location. You can even pin your favourite apps to the homepage for quicker access.
All the apps can be found in the Apps option, and Panasonic’s system is fairly comprehensive when it comes to video streaming services. There’s support for Freeview Play, so you get a complete set of UK catch-up services, and there’s also Netflix, Amazon and YouTube.
The latter three support 4K and HDR, while the BBC iPlayer supports 4K and HLG. The platform also includes services such as Rakuten TV and Chili Cinema. In fact, the only major streaming service missing is Now TV.
The Devices option on the homepage provides direct access to all the inputs, including any connected devices, whether that’s physical or wireless. The platform also supports DLNA, allowing you to access content such as videos, music and photos on your home network.
One of the joys of using the My Home Screen smart platform is that it’s robust and responsive, primarily because it doesn’t require excessive processing power.
It also avoids the unnecessary fragmentation seen on some smart TV systems, and it doesn’t inundate you with recommendations. Instead it just concentrates on all the main streaming and catch-up services.
You interact with the system using the provided remote control, although there’s also a handy remote app for iOS and Android.
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4. Philips Android
The majority of smart TV systems are developed in-house, but Philips is one of two major manufacturers to use an operating system provided by a third party.
The Philips platform is based on Android, which immediately gives it a degree of familiarity, but also means that Philips are dependent on Google to deliver new features and updates.
The Android TV platform itself uses a series of selectable cards that are grouped into five main sections: Recommendations, Philips Collection, Apps, Games and Settings. You can scroll down through these sections and then scroll across to access something that interests you.
The Recommendations section uses an algorithm to monitor your viewing habits, and then suggests various content based upon the results. The Philips Collection is a throw-back to the manufacturer’s own in-house smart platform, and contains a selection of apps provided specifically by Philips themselves.
The Apps section is more generic and here you’ll find Google Play Store, Google Play Movies & TV, Google Play Music and Google Play Games. The Games section provides access to gaming providers such as Gamefly, whilst the final section provides access to the settings menu.
There’s a reasonable selection of video streaming apps including Netflix, YouTube, Amazon and the BBC iPlayer. The first three support 4K and HDR, while the latter supports 4K and HLG. There is a well-designed EPG, combined with the option of adding an HDD to turn your Philips TV into a PVR.
Philips includes the option of voice control, either using the provided smart remote or the Philips TV Remote app, which is available for both iOS and Android.
Since Philips uses the Android operating system, it also has Google Assistant built in. As with most voice control features, it can be a bit hit-and-miss, and success often depends on how you phrase instructions or questions.
The system allows access to any connected devices, whether that’s physical or wireless. It also supports DLNA, allowing you to access content such as videos, music and photos on your home network. Since the platform uses the Android operating system, there’s also Google Cast built in.
The implementation of Android TV has been problematic, with some TVs lacking the necessary processing power to run the system optimally. Thankfully, Philips uses quad-core processing in its TVs, and the result is a responsive and stable Android platform, free of the software glitches and crashes that have plagued it in the past.
You interact with the system using the smart remote or the Philips TV Remote app, and overall it’s an effective platform that benefits from a degree of familiarity to Android users.
5. Samsung SmartThings
Samsung’s smart TV platform might use the Tizen operating system, but it’s clearly been inspired by LG’s webOS. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because LG’s ground-breaking platform is among the best smart TV systems available.
Samsung’s system uses a similar launcher bar to webOS, which provides quick and easy access to all your favourite content.
However, despite its similarities Samsung has made a clever improvement. When you select various apps on the launcher bar, it provides a second tier with further options for direct access to content.
So, for example, if you select Netflix, you can then immediately select whichever programming you were last watching, without having to fully open up the Netflix app.
In terms of available apps, Samsung has you covered with just about every video streaming service you can think of, including all the UK catch-up services, Netflix, Amazon, Now TV and YouTube. In the case of the BBC iPlayer there’s support for 4K and HLG, while Netflix, Amazon and YouTube support 4K and HDR, with Amazon also supporting HDR10+.
Samsung’s new TV Plus option combines the streaming services with the TV broadcasters, putting all your TV content in a single location. There are also more TV recommendations available now, and they’re given greater prominence when browsing for content.
Naturally, the system also includes an effective EPG and the option to add extra storage, converting the TV into a PVR.
As is becoming increasingly popular with smart TV systems, Samsung’s platform includes the option of voice control. It’s reasonably effective and can prove useful, especially when searching for content.
However, as with most voice control features, the effectiveness of the system really depends on how you interact with it, and the way you phrase instructions or questions can affect the outcome.
The launcher bar allows access to any connected devices, whether that’s physical or wireless, and it also supports DLNA, allowing you to access content such as videos, music and photos on your home network.
One useful feature that Samsung includes is automatic device detection. When you connect a new device via HDMI, the smart system detects that device and automatically sets it up for you by naming the input accordingly and even loading the necessary codes to the TV’s remote control. If the connected device is a games console, the system goes one further and automatically puts the TV into game mode.
Samsung has integrated its smart platform with SmartThings, an on-screen hub that monitors and controls other smart devices in your home. You can also use the SmartThings app on your smart device (iOS or Android) to install your TV. This works really well, setting up the internet connection, adding all your relevant passwords and even tuning the TV channels.
You interact with the system by using the provided remote or Samsung’s SmartThings app, and the platform is one of the fastest and most responsive smart TV systems available.
In addition, the combination of an intuitive user interface and a comprehensive selection of features makes it one of the best currently available.
6. Sony Android
Sony’s platform is another of the current smart TV systems to use Android as its operating system and user interface. It’s a surprising choice given Sony’s history of using proprietary technology, but it’s an approach that brings a number of useful features, even if it does mean a loss of control on the part of Sony.
The platform itself uses selectable cards that are grouped into six sections: Recommendations, Featured Apps, Inputs, Apps, Games and Settings. You can scroll down through these sections and then across to access something that interests you.
As with Philips’ implementation, there are legacy features left over from Sony’s own in-house smart platform that sometimes make the Android system feel slightly fragmented.
The Recommendations section monitors your viewing habits using an algorithm, and then suggests content based on the results.
The Featured Apps contains a selection of apps provided specifically by Sony, and Inputs provides access to any connected devices. The Apps section includes Google Play Store, Google Play Movies & TV, Google Play Music and Google Play Games. The Games section provides access to gaming providers, whilst the final section provides access to the settings menu.
There’s a good selection of video streaming apps including Netflix, YouTube, Amazon. All support 4K and HDR, and the BBC iPlayer supports 4K and HLG. There’s also a well-designed EPG, combined with the option of adding an HDD to turn your Sony TV into a PVR.
Sony includes the option of voice control, either using the provided smart remote or the Sony Side View remote app available for both iOS and Android. Since Sony uses the Android operating system, it also has Google Assistant built in. As with most voice control features, it can be a bit hit-and-miss, and how well it works often depends on how you phrase instructions or questions.
The system allows access to any connected devices, whether that’s physical or wireless, and it also supports DLNA, allowing you to access content such as videos, music and photos on your home network. Since the platform uses the Android operating system, there’s also Google Cast built in.
Sony has had some issues with speed and reliability when it comes to implementing Android on its TVs. The company has managed to improve the performance over the past few years, although the platform can occasionally suffer from slow response times and crashes.
You interact with the system using the remote control or the Sony Side View remote app – and, reliability aside, it’s an effective platform that benefits from the familiarity associated with Android.