2013 will be the year of the Smart TV, they say – a new paradigm for interacting with your TV. The TV gets intelligent, with gesture and voice controls, downloadable apps, and can even make you a coffee. OK, I lied about making a coffee – but what exactly is a Smart TV, and should you buy one?
What Is a Smart TV?
The concept of Smart TV has actually been around for quite some time. The first Smart TV related patent was filed in 1994, though it’s only in the last 5 years that we’ve seen features in commercial sets.
There is no one answer which can describe exactly what a Smart TV is. Generally speaking, Smart TV refers to a trend of integrating Internet-connected technologies into a TV set; a convergence of computer-like features.
More specifically, Smart TVs may have one or more of the following features, though not necessarily all – the term is used for marketing purposes, not as an international standard. Features vary by manufacturer and by age of the TV. My 4 year old Smart TV will have a lot less features than a new Smart TV bought this year, for instance, but they both adopt the moniker.
- Video Playback Via DLNA/USB. This is a much base level feature for Smart TVs and has been for some years now, though format support varies, particular on older devices that would play video through USB, but were restricted to FAT32 formatted drives and AVI files only. With DLNA streaming, a server application on the network can often take care of transcoding to compatible formats, but this isn’t foolproof, and a server machine is needed somewhere to do the actual conversion.
- Apps & Games; Angry Birds on your TV? That’s a thing now, along with catch-up and on-demand streaming such BBC iPlayer, Netflix, and YouTube.
- PVR/DVR Functionality; the ability to schedule and record shows without using a separate device. You may also be able to search for media across a variety of sources, similar to TiVo or Roku.
- Gesture & Voice Control; embedded Kinect or Wii Remote-like devices enable control of the TV from the sofa without using a traditional remote. Just wave your hand, or shout at the TV. I can’t comment on how effective these are as I havn’t tried them out, but if it’s anything like the Kinect then I expect it’s quite frustrating once the initial wow factor wears off.
- Social Networking; because you can’t ever have enough Facebook. Some will also have Skype video conferencing.
- Web Browsing.
- Smartphone Connectivity; for streaming media and sharing content to the big screen.
Considered by many to be the leading Smart TVs, Samsung have teased a new design to be unveiled at CES2013 this year, due to kick off about the time this post is published – expect to hear more about these very soon. Existing Samsung models already have gesture control and apps.
LG have announced their 2013 will have NFC capability; this enables quick pairing of a smartphone with the TV to easily stream content. This is in addition to existing “Magic Remote” gesture controls, branded Google TV OS and apps.
Here’s a demo from CES2012.
Sony, Panasonic and Sharp also offer smart TV features in their higher-end models.
Is It a Future Proof Solution?
Not really. The trouble with integrating computer-like features into a TV is that they get outdated very quickly. Having “smart” features involve computing of some kind, but unlike an actual computer, you can’t upgrade your TV components. Manufacturers are also unlikely to offer “firmware upgrades” for additional features or new software; you get what you pay for at the time, and that’s it. However, if the Smart TV offers an app store, you can expect app updates and new apps.
Also know that not all broadcast networks are happy with Smart TV features either: since the end of 2010, NBC, ABC, CBS and Hulu blocked Google TV devices from accessing their on-demand content. Before buying, be sure to make a list of features you definitely want and services you need access to; and accept that at some point, they may completely stop working – at least on a PC, you can find some kind of workaround.
Should You Buy One?
If you’re in the market for a new TV, it’s actually going to be difficult to not buy a Smart TV. Regardless of whether you want the features or not, most new TVs are going to have some form of Smart TV functionality built in to varying degrees. It’s a similar situation to 3D – if you’re buying a good TV, then chances are it will also be 3D capable, purely because 3D features require good quality components.
That said, if you already have a TV that you’re happy with, the new Smart TV features are certainly nothing worth upgrading for. If you already have a computer, an Apple TV, Xbox 360 (all great media center devices), or an iPad – these perform the same job better, and your Smart TV isn’t going to offer anything new. If you don’t already have a PC or other device hooked up to your TV, or have been living under a rock for 10 years, then you will undoubtedly find some value in a Smart TV.
Personally, I have a Samsung 3DTV that’s a few years old; it has some kind of Smart TV features for streaming media, but I’ve never used them. A computer that you can upgrade, install new software, and send the output to the TV is always going to be a better choice.
Do you have a Smart TV, and do you actually use some or all of the features? Let us know in the comments, and why you chose that manufacturer in particular. Are you going to buy a new TV this year, and do Smart TV features sound like something you might want?