A whopping number of new TVs claim to be Smart TVs in some way or another, no matter how stupid the built-in “smart” features really are. In fact, Smart TV is such a vague term that just about any TV with built-in Internet connectivity and a couple of incredibly lame apps can boldly claim the label. Thankfully, there are also quite a few highly deserving Smart TVs with amazing capabilities on store shelves, too. Of course, just because this or that function is “incredible” doesn’t mean that you’re going to use it. The best Smart TV for most people lies somewhere between the two extremes of dim witted on one end and misunderstood genius on the other. If you’re shopping for a new Smart TV, here’s a list of 10 of the most important, must-have features.
1.Fast User Interface
One of the most must-have of the must-have features in a Smart TV is one that you won’t give a second thought—or a second’s thought to—if you already have it: speed. If you have a Blu-ray Disc player, you know how annoying it is to wait for what seems like an eternity for the disc’s main menu to load and finally appear on your screen. Likewise, some Smart TVs take eons (okay, maybe it’s only decades) to switch from one app, function, or input to another. A blazingly fast interface that lets you do what you want to do almost before you know you want to do it is a must if you don’t want to find yourself endlessly irritated by how sluggish your Smart TV is.
2. Streaming Video Services
If all you do is watch movies rented from a red kiosk or tune in to the local nightly news broadcast, then you don’t need a Smart TV. Frankly, if that’s the case, you need to get a life. The other option is to get a Smart TV and sign up for at least one (but probably more) online streaming video service, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant, Vudu, Hulu Plus, Crackle, or even Funny or Die. There’s also Showtime Anytime, HBO Now, and CBS All Access. If you have a fast Internet connection, there are more movies and TV shows to stream than you’ll ever have time to watch—but, you can only stream them if your Smart TV has an app(s) that supports the online service(s) you want to use. Sling TV, for example, is an affordable alternative to your cable subscription, but it might as well not exist if your TV isn’t compatible with it.
3. 4K UHD Streaming Video
At the moment, there isn’t a deluge of 4K Ultra HD content available to stream from the Internet. There is a bit, though, mainly from Netflix, Amazon Instant, M-GO, and a few others. While it might seem logical that owning a 4K UHD Smart TV with a subscription to one of these services would automatically provide access to their particular 4K UHD selections, it doesn’t. Your Smart TV has to be compatible with that specific service. Not all TVs are, nor are all the services, and vice versa, and…confused? If 4K UHD streaming is important to you, check with the websites for these services to see which Smart TVs are compatible—and make sure you have a fast Internet connection. (Netflix recommends “at least 25 megabits per second to stream Ultra HD titles.”)
4. Music Streaming
Listening to music might not be the first activity you think about when considering a new Smart TV, but—if it’s available on your TV—you’ll be surprised at how much you’ll use it, especially if the TV is in a kitchen, a bedroom, or some other location in the house where you don’t already have an audio system. As with streaming video services, though, not all Smart TVs have apps for some of the most popular services, such as Pandora, Spotify, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn. Check the Smart TV’s app store to see if your favorite music streaming service is available. The speakers in nearly every TV—smart, average, or dumb as a brick—sound weak and wimpy, however, so we highly recommend using a set of bookshelf speakers or a decent soundbar with the TV to make the experience more enjoyable.
5. Media Player
It’s much more pleasant to look at family photos on a 50- or 60-inch screen in your living room instead of scrunching everyone together in front of a tiny computer screen—or, worse, passing around a smartphone. A basic DLNA-compliant media player can provide access to all of the digital videos, photos, and music located on a network-attached storage device or computer on your home network. More advanced media players and servers, such as Plex, can organize, categorize, and convert your content, making it super-easy to access all of your digital stuff.
6. Recommendation Engine
Netflix does it. Amazon does it. Even friends do it. “If you liked this,” they say, “then you might like…” or, “Other people who bought this also bought…” So why shouldn’t your Smart TV offer suggestions, too? It’s true that sometimes recommendations from these single-minded algorithms can be a little strange and creepy—especially when multiple people get swirled together under the same profile—but more often than not they can provide some very useful suggestions when the specific movie or TV show you want isn’t available to stream.
7. Universal Search
One blessing of the Internet is that we have so many choices of online streaming services, but it’s also a curse because finding what you want to watch is often a daunting, time-consuming task of searching through each service one-by-one. Most Smart TVs have a built-in search engine or “guide” that will look for the particular movie, TV show, actor, genre, or whatever. They’re not all equally as thorough, though. While some look virtually everywhere, others only peruse certain services. If you want a really smart Smart TV, get one with the widest search capabilities.
You can use your Smart TV to watch movies and listen to music, so why not use it to play games, too? Many Smart TVs have game apps, which is okay as long as you like playing Solitaire or Angry Birds. But gaming is getting more sophisticated on some of the newest Smart TVs. Several models from Sony and Samsung, for example, can access the PlayStation Now game streaming service. Take note: These require using a Sony Dualshock 3 or Dualshock 4 controller.
9. Transfer Smartphone Content to the Smart TV
Different companies call it different things, such as “flinging,” “casting,” “second screen experience,” or “swipe & share.” Whatever the name, the ability to send content from your smartphone or tablet to your TV can be priceless. (Well, maybe not priceless, but extremely valuable, at least.) With a compatible app on your phone or tablet, you can display photos, play videos, and transfer streaming content wirelessly from your smart device to the Smart TV. It’s not limited to just your smart device, either, so friends and family can “fling” their photos and videos to your Smart TV if their devices and apps are compatible.
10. App Store
Your Smart TV may be the smartest in the world today, but technology doesn’t stand still. It’s important that your Smart TV has access to an app store that offers a wide variety of applications so it can keep up to date with new services and features as time goes on by downloading new and updated apps. Some Smart TV companies, such as Samsung, Vizio, and LG, have their own proprietary app stores with different numbers of apps. Smart TVs from Sony and Sharp, which are based on the Android TV operating system, have access to over 600 apps. The recently developed Firefox OS, which Panasonic is beginning to use in its Smart TVs, will have its own app store, as well.
Extras: Of course, there are more than 10 Smart TV features that could be considered “must haves.” Skype capability, either built-in or with an optional camera, is a must-have feature, for example, but only for people who actively use Skype to make phone and video calls. Voice control and/or motion control is a feature on some Smart TVs that you should definitely check out because it’s a tremendously cool way to operate one. Not everyone likes using these methods, however. (Voice control can be finicky at times.) Another feature that’s helpful to have is a wired Ethernet connection in addition to the more common Wi-Fi connectivity that’s built into most Smart TVs. Although a wired connection is faster, more reliable, and can pass more data, a lot of people don’t have an Ethernet port near their TV.
Nothing in life is perfect, but if you get most—preferably all—of the features above, you’ll have about the most perfect Smart TV. EH