What Is a Smart TV & Do You Need One? [MakeUseOf Explains]

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what is a smart tv2013 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.

what is a smart tv

Manufacturers

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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qitm-mFH-AM

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.

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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?

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Comments (17)
  • Spider

    Thanks for this article. I feel guilty just having talked a friend into buying a smart TV, and was about to buy one myself. The article has made me think of buying a HD LED straight TV instead and rather spend the money for the “smart” bit on a larger screen. I have a 10 year old HD ready Sony Trinitron CRT that is too heavy and takes up too much space, and is also a heavy power consumer, so a standard flat LED HD TV combined with my laptop will do the job nicely.

  • TheCRTProductions

    Back in 2005 our old black TV stopped working and we got a new 32″ TV, it is a standard definition, 4:3 ratio screen CRT TV that doesn’t connect to the internet, doesn’t have useless apps, has great picture quality (like I say, quality and resolution are two separate things), and it works fine still. We won’t be upgrading any time soon because the TV has lasted almost a decade and I wouldn’t doubt if it lasts another. I’m not old, i’m still in high school, and I don’t see any use whatsoever in a smart TV. By reading these articles it sounds like they last about 2-4 years, we can’t afford that. Plus why would I want to watch a 240p Youtube/ Dailymotion video on a 1080p 3D smart TV? I’d rather watch regular satellite TV with real TV shows.

    • James Bruce

      What YouTube videos are you watching at 240p?!

      The screen ratio is a pretty big thing. Personally, I don’t watch broadcast TV – only movies, in 1080p – so 4:3 CRT would never work.

      But really, you’re absolutely right – don’t upgrade if you don’t need to. Solid advice for any gadget purchase!

    • TheCRTProductions

      I normally watch long (20- 40 minute) Youtube videos from people like Spocktra50 or Shango066 in 360p because I live in the boondocks

    • TheCRTProductions

      And also I usually watch TV on a converter box, which you can set to crop the signal to a 4:3 ratio, which works with all stations (some already broadcasting like that) except for FOX. And my converter box has USB functionality so if I were to find a 1955 Motorola 21K32 by any chance and get it running, hypothetically I could download and watch some Jerry Sludger on it.

  • Ihearthim

    Wow, great article. I was contemplating on buying a 47″ Smart TV but I’m glad I read this article. I would’ve liked the internet options on the TV so that I can have less hassle with connecting devices to the tv but since the Smart TV’s don’t have an upgrade function, I will def pass! Thanks for helping me save lots of big bucks! All I want is a bigger tv, an upgrade from what I currently have. Time to go tv shopping again. Thank you again ;)

  • dsfjsdk dsf

    Forgot to mention: Super cheap option – use a Apple TV, Boxee, etc. They give you access to Netflix, Hulu, etc, and if you jailbreak the Apple TV/install extra software on the others, you get web browsing too, I believe (don’t quote me on it).

  • dsfjsdk dsf

    Short Answer: You do NOT need one. Either put the saved $ toward a better regular TV, or buy/build a cheap PC and hook it up to your regular TV. The latter option ensures that you end up with ALL the capabilities of a PC (duh), with more powerful components and decent web browsers and peripherals. I checked out several of these “smart” TVs months ago. Horrible controls (trying typing on them, or using their pointers). This “smart” nonsense is the same as the “3D” crap. I’ve seen many 3D TVs – minimal 3D effects for maximum price tags. Pathetic attempts of the TV industry to gouge their customers instead of actually improving/innovating their product lines. Why the hell are TVs still 1080p, for example? Work on that issue, and the money will come as well.

    • James Bruce

      I have an active 3D TV and love it, though I’ve tried a few passive screens and the quality is absolutely appalling. Completely agree – smart TVs are probably a waste of money if you have literally any other modern device in the house.

      I think a big push of this years CES was ultra HD though, wasn’t it? 4k pixels! Do you really think we need a higher resolution? I’d rather look at more engaging ways of diplaying content… VR headsets, wrap around projectors, that kind of thing.

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Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.