Tear down a Smart TV conceptually (don’t worry—no TVs of any kind were harmed for this article), and you’ll find that three key aspects form its foundation. At a bare minimum, your Smart TV should have all of the three listed below to ensure that you get your money’s worth. Even if TV A and TV B both possess these three important elements, it’s rare that they’ll look and perform exactly the same (unless they’re from the same manufacturer and product line). In addition to these common features, you’ll want to understand the key differences between them, too, in order to make a wise purchasing decision.
3 Key Common Features
Internet Connectivity Without an Internet connection, the best that a Smart TV can ever hope to be is an MCTV (Mildly Clever TV). Smart TVs need Internet access in order to connect to video and audio online streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, Pandora, and others). Of course, it’s also required for web browsers and apps that provide weather info, news, social media updates, etc. Updates to a Smart TV’s firmware are usually done via the Internet, too.
Operating System Another key feature of a Smart TV is its use of an operating system. The OS is what gives a Smart TV the ability to do more than passively display an image on the screen. Going back to the mobile phone analogy, you could think of a Smart TV as a jumbo-size smartphone, except it doesn’t make phone calls—unless Skype is one of the apps. Even so, you’re still not going to hold a 65-inch Smart TV up against your ear.
Dedicated Apps The final common feature of a Smart TV is the ability to run dedicated apps that are used to stream media and numerous other things. Smart TVs usually have access to an app store from which new apps can be downloaded. This gives a Smart TV the ability to evolve over time as the world becomes evermore connected.
Key Differentiating Features
Operating Systems Despite their common elements, Smart TVs have plenty of differences—many of which are the result of the wide range of operating systems used in Smart TVs. With smartphones, it’s relatively simple: Most run on a version of Android or iOS. When it comes to Smart TVs, it’s a much more perplexing situation. Until recently, each Smart TV manufacturer used its own proprietary OS. As if that weren’t confusing enough, in many cases they didn’t (and some still don’t) use the same OS in the different lines of the Smart TVs they sold.
Thankfully, this OS free-for-all is starting to settle down as Smart TV manufacturers have realized that, in addition to making things extremely confusing for consumers, researching, developing, and implementing a proprietary OS is both expensive and very difficult to do well.
Panasonic, for example, has partnered with Mozilla to create a standardized, open-source Smart TV OS that’s powered by Mozilla’s Firefox OS. The 2015 Panasonic Life + Screen series of Smart TVs will be the first from any manufacturer to run on the new OS, but Mozilla predicts there will be more in the future. One feature of the Firefox OS is that it will enable the new Smart TVs to interact with any brand of smartphone, tablet, or computer running the Firefox browser, as long as the device is on the same Wi-Fi network as is the Smart TV.
You can forget Google TV. Google recently reworked the OS and is calling the new version Android TV. Google TV was used in a number of enthusiast-oriented set-top boxes, and Android TV will show up in set-top boxes, too. But these won’t be the only devices that’ll run on Android TV. Several notable Smart TV companies—including Sharp, Philips, Hisense, and Sony—are planning on using the new OS in some of their 2015 Smart TV models. Sony, for instance, is including Android TV in all of its 2015 Bravia Smart TV models. Android TV-compatible apps are available for download from Google Play, just like Android tablet and smartphone apps are.
LG, on the other hand, is incorporating an enhanced version of its own webOS 2.0 in over half of its new Smart TVs. The updated webOS 2.0 uses a Launcher bar across the bottom portion of the screen. It’s designed to combine the new smart features (apps) together with the old-style functions (channel changing and input switching) in a single interface that eliminates jumping from one menu screen to another. As a bonus, LG says that webOS 2.0 boots up approximately 60 percent quicker than the previous iteration.
Samsung is also using its own OS. In fact, it aggressively plans on using the company’s proprietary Tizen OS in all upcoming Samsung Smart TVs, beginning later this year. Samsung calls the dock that appears across the bottom of the home screen the Smart Hub. The Smart Hub also utilizes a scrolling lineup of tiles for input or app selection.
Built-in Equipment Hardware features differ, too. Smart TVs often have built-in cameras and microphones that can be used by various apps. Skype, for example, uses the camera and microphone to make video calls. Some Smart TVs don’t include an integrated camera and microphone but have an input for the connection of an optional external Skype camera/microphone combo. A Smart TV with this option is usually labeled “Skype-ready.”
The use of cameras and microphones in Smart TVs isn’t limited to making video calls. Some sets also use the camera to enable gesture control—a feature that lets you control the TV by moving your hand in the air. The camera can also be used for facial recognition, so the Smart TV can adjust settings and menus based on the user-programmed personal profile of the person watching the set. A microphone, meanwhile, can facilitate voice control over a Smart TV.
Even though every Smart TV comes with a handheld remote control, the remotes are rarely the same. There are remotes that include built-in microphones for more elaborate voice control capabilities. Although it’s not common, some remotes include a small QWERTY keyboard that makes web browsing and entering search terms and passwords much easier. If game apps are available for the Smart TV, the remote might also function as a game controller.
A Smart TV’s built-in hardware will affect its compatibility with certain apps, such as Skype or Netflix. Without a camera and microphone (whether the combo is built-in or an optional add-on), for example, a Skype app is useless. While nearly every Smart TV has an app for Netflix, very few Smart TVs—including some of the newest 4K UHD models—are capable of natively streaming Netflix titles in 4K. So always check to make sure the Smart TV you’re interested in is capable of running the apps that are most important to you.
Connectivity Connectivity is another important hardware difference. In order to access the Internet, a Smart TV needs to be connected to your home network’s router. There are two basic ways of accomplishing this: wired (Ethernet) or wireless (Wi-Fi). The ideal is to have both connectivity options built-in, but not all Smart TVs to. The current trend appears to be heavily skewed towards Wi-Fi being the only built-in type of network supported. You’d think that it’s a no-brainer to use a wireless connection since, well, it’s wireless. Nobody—except maybe the people who make them—likes dealing with wires and cords. But, as most people know, there are inherent problems (range, signal strength, etc.) with Wi-Fi, so it is not always the best option if you’re planning on streaming HD and Ultra HD movies.
While we’re on the subject of connectivity, some Smart TVs include DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) compatibility, which enables them to play back media files (audio, video, and digital images) that are stored on hard drives connected to your home network. This is a great feature if you have a slew of digital pictures and home movies that you’d like to watch with family and friends while sitting comfortably in front of your Smart TV rather than having everyone huddled around your computer or passing your smartphone from person to person. EH