Generally speaking, a Smart TV is a display device with built-in Internet connectivity for access to streaming media and other online services. Smart TVs also include integrated applications (apps) that give the TV extra, often non-traditional functionality. Several years ago, when TVs with limited Internet connectivity were first released, they were called Connected TVs:—but connected doesn’t sound nearly as appropriate as smart when it comes to televisions. [Attempting to provide “clarity for consumers and retailers alike,” the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) released voluntary guidelines for Ultra High-Definition (UHD) TVs that defined the minimum requirements for a TV to be labeled a Connected UHD TV. In addition to specifying video and audio codecs, the voluntary requirements are similar to those outlined in this Buying Guide for what defines a Smart TV. Voluntary means most companies are going to ignore the guidelines and call it a Smart UHD TV or something more compelling than Connected Ultra HDTV. So much for clarity…]. Frankly, considering that the capabilities of the latest Smart TVs go way beyond simple browsing of websites and basic movie streaming, the smart nomenclature isn’t all that far off the mark.
Smart TV vs. Traditional TV
In many respects, the differences between a basic TV and a Smart TV are similar to the ways in which a basic cellphone differs from a smartphone. Basic phones aren’t designed for much more than phone calls and texting. A smartphone, on the other hand, is a small computer with an operating system (OS)—usually Android or iOS—that runs a lot of apps, one of which lets you make phone calls. Likewise, a traditional, plain-and-simple TV allows you to watch TV broadcasts using the built-in TV tuner or view video from other devices, such as a cable or satellite box, a DVD player, or a game console. For the not-so-smart TV, changing channels and switching between source inputs is about as complex as things get.
As with smartphones, Smart TVs have operating systems with apps that let you do a lot more than just change sources and channels. In addition to pre-loading apps on the Smart TV, manufacturers typically have online stores that offer free apps, as well as apps for purchase, that you can download directly to your Smart TV whenever you want.
Smart TV or Bad Idea?
Now that you (hopefully) have a better idea of what a Smart TV is, you might be wondering if it’s a good idea—and, if so, is now the right time to buy one? Are Smart TVs really worth considering, or are they just a passing fad? And what if you already have a great TV? Are there any ways to smarten up an existing TV?
Considering that we’ve taken the time to put this Buying Guide together, it should come as no surprise that we feel Smart TVs are absolutely a good idea. It’s an even better idea if you’re interested in cutting down your cable bill and/or would like to eliminate as many boxes and remote controls in your home entertainment system as possible.
Not everyone agrees with this opinion; however. This is partly because, until recently, Smart TVs had clunky operating systems that were excruciatingly slow, totally non-intuitive to use, and had user interfaces reminiscent of old Atari games. (Sounds perfect, right?) But the new Smart TVs, especially the 2015 models, are vastly improved. The selection of worthwhile apps and online services is much broader now, too, and there’s no doubt that support for Internet-connected devices is going to continue to grow. The good news: Now is a great time to buy a Smart TV. The bad news: There are so many really good Smart TVs available that it’s going to take some time to decide which one is the best one for you.
If you have no desire whatsoever to have a Smart TV, there are still traditional, not-smart TVs on the market. And should you find that the TV you’d like to buy—because of picture quality or some other feature that’s important to you—happens to be a Smart TV, you don’t have to take advantage of the smart features. Nor do you have to connect a Smart TV to the Internet in order to use it for basic TV functions. Hook it up like a regular TV and ignore the extra capabilities. It’ll still provide a phenomenal picture, regardless of whether or not you use it to surf the web. When you’re ready to step into Smart TV territory, your TV will be ready to deliver all the goodies a Smart TV has to offer. EH