What functions does a smart TV have?

According to an Ofcom survey, only 11% of households in the US had a smart TV in 2012 – by 2022, that figure had risen to 48%. This is definitely reflected among our readers: in a recent RadioTimes.com survey we conducted with over 500 participants, we learned that 47% of them own a smart TV.

With nearly half of the US population watching TV on a smart set, they’re clearly here to stay. But what is a smart TV and what does a smart TV do?

Read on for our smart TV information, where we cover what a smart TV is, what it offers, the leading smart TV brands, and – most importantly – whether you should buy one.

For more information on buying a new TV, check out our comprehensive Which TV to Buy guide. And if you’re looking for a TV that’s cheaper than usual, check out our pick of the best TV deals this month.

What is a smart TV?

In a nutshell, a smart TV can connect to the Internet – most likely to your home’s Wi-Fi. Whereas TVs of yore only broadcast content from an antenna, cable, or connected AV source. (Rather predictably, these are now commonly known as “dumb TVs.”)

What does a smart TV do? Quite a few things. Because it supports wireless Internet connectivity, you can think of smart TVs as a smartphone, only one you can put in the corner of your lounge and park your feet in front of.

First, you can access a wide range of apps via an app store. This technically includes streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Video, iPlayer, and NOW TV – which is probably what most people think. You can also access social media like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

You can also use a smart TV for general web browsing, though this is generally a clunky experience without the keyboard that a smartphone offers. For this reason, most smart TV users stream content from their phone, tablet, or laptop to their TV instead: another important feature.

At this point, it’s worth noting that not all smart TV features are created equal, and different brands offer different bells and whistles with their TVs’ smart platforms.

Should you buy a smart TV?

If you’re buying a new TV, yes. In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a recently made TV that doesn’t come with smart features. Some ultra-budget, tiny TVs meant for kitchen counters may not be smart, but they’re rare these days.

Interestingly, “dumb phones” are enjoying an unexpected surge in popularity as many screen-addicted users seek to control their anxiety levels. But we highly doubt that will happen with TV, simply because TVs don’t live in our pockets and don’t have the same pervasive presence in our lives.

However, if you have a non-smart TV and don’t plan on buying a replacement, you don’t have to worry: There are ways to give your TV that extra intelligence.

Here’s how to turn your TV into a smart TV.

It’s relatively easy to turn an older TV into a smart one, and there are two ways to do it.

One is to invest in a device like an Amazon Fire Stick, Google Chromecast, or Roku Express, which are commonly known as ‘TV sticks’. By plugging these tiny little devices into your TV’s HDMI port and connecting them to your home’s Wi-Fi, you can access all those streaming apps and browse the web.

Standard TV sticks usually cost around $25 to $35, while those that support 4K usually cost around $50. (Keep in mind that these aren’t as useful if your non-smart TV isn’t 4K capable, which it probably isn’t). As a one-off cost, TV sticks offer real value for money. You can check out our Amazon Fire TV stick review, Fire TV Cube review, and our Of the Year premiere review for details on these handy little devices, and there’s also the best streaming device article for an overview of the best ones we’ve tested.

An even cheaper option, however, is to buy what’s called a “dongle” for your TV. These are rather simple wires that connect a device like a phone or a laptop to your TV. For example, you can access Netflix through your laptop’s browser and then send that to the TV. These devices usually cost around $15.

Of the two options, we recommend you go for the TV stick, as you get a lot more usability with the built-in platforms and remotes for a little more money. But hey, if you’re happy with the operation from your device, dongles are perfectly fine.

Smart TV vs. Chromecast

As we’ve already described, it’s pretty easy to turn your TV into a smart device. So, is it worth investing in a smart TV?

Well, as we said, if you’re looking for a new TV, you’ll almost inevitably buy a smart TV anyway. The reason we’re pushing you to buy a smart TV is all the other things it offers over a TV that isn’t a smart TV.

For example, you can fix The Crown with a Fire Stick on your 10-year-old TV. But watching those gorgeous interior shots of Buckingham Palace in beautiful, crystalline 4K? That’s another matter entirely.

That’s really what matters: the wealth of other features that the latest smart TVs are likely to offer. Ultra HD picture quality is now more or less standard – for more information, read our What is a 4K TV? Explainer. It’s just the nature of the ever-evolving TV world.

What to look for when buying a smart TV

Given the prevalence of smart TVs, you could argue that this pretty much covers all TVs. But that’s a bit simplistic, so we’ll look at smart TV platforms that vary from brand to brand, and what to look for in any online reviews you read.

The first is the ease of use of the platform, as you want your viewing experience to be as smooth and intuitive as possible. A lot of this boils down to the platform’s algorithms taking note of the content you watch (on multiple platforms) and showing similar shows or movies that you think you’ll like.

Then there’s the disparity in effects processing power, which will differ across brand televisions. While a platform may run extremely smoothly on high-end TVs with more powerful processors, it may freeze and jerk a bit on cheaper sets.

You should also pay attention to whether voice control is included. That might sound a bit frivolous – after all, you’re already sitting with your feet up and a remote in your hand. But anyone who owns a smart speaker knows that once you’ve barked a few orders at a voice assistant, you’ll quickly get used to it. Through the smart platform, you might be able to ask your TV to read the news, tell you the weather, and integrate it with other smart devices in your home.

Of course, one of the most important things to consider when buying a TV is the picture quality it delivers. Depending on your budget, look for sets with OLED, QLED, and Nanocell screens – these will give you 4K picture detail with even higher quality. Read our OLED TV explainer for more information on this decidedly luxurious screen technology.

You should know that 4K streaming takes up significantly more internet bandwidth than Full HD content or lower. It’s important to know if your home broadband is up to the task: be sure to read our What broadband speed do I need? Explainer to learn more.

You’ll also want to make sure you choose a TV with the right screen size for your viewing space. So check out our articles What TV size should I buy? Guide and our explanation of how to measure your TV screen.

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Which brands make the best smart TVs?

LG’s WebOS is widely considered the best smart platform, mainly because of its Magic Remote technology. This allows you to use the remote much like a mouse on a laptop and move the cursor around the screen with incredibly simple fluidity. Look at the LG 55-inch CX-4K TV for an example of a TV with this operating system, along with the Ultra HD picture quality that more and more people expect as standard.

The WebOS remote also has a built-in microphone and you can give instructions to Google Assistant. It also has all the features of a Google Home smart speaker, so you can control everything from yours. Smart Philips Hue lightbulbs to your Nest smart thermostat through your humble TV.

Then there’s Samsung’s Tizen platform, which has earned a reputation for a simple and superbly intuitive user interface. A two-tiered strip at the bottom of the screen lets you watch shows or movies while you operate the platform. The top bar shows the content – movies, and shows – while the bottom shows the apps themselves. It really is as easy to use as it sounds. The Samsung 55-inch 4K Q95T looks like a successful example of what you can expect from one of the brand’s TVs.

Google’s Android TV platform, on the other hand, is one you’ll find on Philips, Sony, and Hisense TVs. As the name suggests, it’s similar to Android, Google’s smartphone operating system that’s designed just for TV. Also not surprising is the built-in Google Assistant, which can be activated by pressing a button on the remote control. Android TV displays its options, whether apps or content, in a series of easy-to-navigate ribbons on your TV screen. Check out the Sony Bravia XR A90J and Philips 58-inch PUS8545/12 4K TV examples of smart TVs with Android TV.

Google also recently introduced a new smart TV platform-or, more accurately, a sort of additional layer to Android TV-that you’ll find in Sony’s 2021 TV lineup, and undoubtedly much more in the months and years to come. To learn more, check out our What is Google TV explainer.