It’s 2016, and we still don’t recommend buying a smart TV. In fact, if you have an old HDTV that’s working well, you should stick with it. You can easily turn it into a smart TV — nay, better than a smart TV.
The most basic definition of a smart TV is any television set that lets you access the internet. But you need so much more than just “access” alone. You want to watch Netflix or Hulu, or stream news and sports if you’ve cut the cable cord.
Most smart TVs don’t do a good job of this. Plus, they have serious security flaws. And importantly, buying a smart TV doesn’t make you future-proof. New video standards and apps are introduced regularly, and smart TVs don’t get regular updates to accommodate these.
Which brings us back to the first point. It’s better to stick with a regular HDTV, and turn it into a smart TV with specialized gadgets. Here are the best options.
The cheapest option of all is to buy a Google Chromecast. The little $35 gizmo fits into an HDMI slot on your TV. Once you set it up, you can stream media from computers or mobile devices, as long as both are connected to the same Wi-Fi network.
Chromecast is incredibly easy to use. Any app that supports it, like YouTube or Netflix, will let you cast a video to the TV. You can even cast your device’s screen or a browser tab, in case an app doesn’t support it.
The only downside of the Chromecast is that it isn’t an independent device. Your “smart TV” with Chromecast needs an input device, like a phone, tablet, or laptop.
Roku / Media Players
There are several good media players out there. But we recommend Roku over all others. It’s the most foolproof, easy interface for the non-techie user.
Roku works with all major streaming services, like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video, ESPN, and more. It comes with a dedicated remote control, which has a little headphone jack. That’s right, you can use your regular headphones to listen to the TV wirelessly.
The new Roku 4 also supports high-resolution 4K and HDR (High Dynamic Range) videos. It’s not a necessity for most people, to be honest, and you should buy it only if your TV supports 4K already. Otherwise, get one of the older models, which will cost less.
There are a range of Roku models, so you need to know which Roku media streamer is right for you.
Intel Compute Stick / Mini PCs
Both the Chromecast and Roku are excellent. But if you want a truly powerful smart TV, ditch Chromecast and get an Intel Compute Stick or Mini PC. You’ll get a full-fledged Windows computer running on your TV.
It’s a little costlier, but you can do so much more with it. Obviously, you get all the Windows 10 apps and you can stream anything on a browser like Edge. That includes 4K streams, too.
But more than that, it makes your smart TV about more than just watching videos. You can work with Office, check your emails, browse social media — all things you often want to do. Heck, you can store all your photos on it too.
Pair it with a good wireless keyboard with trackpad, or use a remote keyboard app on your phone. Either way, it’s an excellent Home Theater PC (HTPC) for your living room. And better than building your own, since the Compute Stick and mini PCs are tiny, and can be hidden away in any home theater setup.
If the Windows operating system isn’t that important, then a Raspberry Pi is a cheaper option for an HTPC. It offers the same low-energy, small-size benefits, while running on a Linux operating system.
The Pi will also require a keyboard or a remote app. You’ll also ideally need the new Raspberry Pi 3, since it has integrated Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Add an HDMI cord, a case, and a microSD card, and the total cost shouldn’t be more than $50. Not bad to get a full PC for your HDTV, eh?
In case you have any other queries, our guide to set up a Raspberry Pi media center with RasPlex should answer them all.
Android TV Box / Apple TV
We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again. In Apple vs. Android, buy the ecosystem, not the gadget. So if you use an iPhone and a Mac, do yourself a favor and get an Apple TV. If you’re on an Android phone with a Chromebook or Windows laptop, an Android TV box might make sense.
Both smart boxes will turn your TV into a smart TV, but are rooted in their ecosystem. Don’t try to mix and match, it’s not the ideal experience.
It’s difficult to fully justify buying these instead of one of the other options, but if your purchases are mainly on the Play Store or App Store, then it makes sense.
PlayStation 4 / Xbox One
The two major video game consoles are both capable media players in their own right. The biggest feature they have that others don’t is a Blu-ray drive to watch high-definition movies. The consoles also output better quality audio than any of the other options, in case you use external speakers. And they will soon be getting HDR support as well.
In particular, the Xbox One is a fantastic media player. It supports all of Microsoft’s services, like Groove Music. It even features the Plex media server, in case you use that.
Over the last year or so, PlayStation 4 has received updates to make it a capable media player too. The interface isn’t as intuitive as the Xbox One, but once you get used to it, it just works.
Do You Actually Use Your Smart TV?
While we have articles to help choose between a media player, media streamer, and HTPC, in the end, only you can figure out the right device for you. The common thread here is that a smart TV isn’t necessary.
A lot of people who buy a smart TV don’t end up using the “smart” features at all. If you purchased a smart TV, we want to know, do you use its smart features regularly? Or have you got a Chromecast, Roku, or console that receives more attention?
Share with us in the comments section below!