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Ah, smart TVs. Once touted as the future of in-home entertainment, the services they offer have been largely surpassed by media streaming devices like Roku, Chromecast, and Apple TV.
Except, that’s not entirely accurate. I guarantee you’ve fallen for a lot of smart TV lies over the last few years. These days, almost every TV you see is “smart” in some capacity.
But there’s still a lot to think about before you hit the shops. What features should you look out for? What’s important and what’s a gimmick? And what other issues do you need to consider?
Here’s a look at why 2017 marks the best year so far for purchasing a new smart TV.
Before I get into the exciting user-facing features, we need to spend a few minutes discussing what’s “under the hood”. It’s a TV’s internal specs that will often go a long way to determining how much enjoyment you can get out of it.
The first spec to look for is RAM. RAM is important because it stores the program instructions you use frequently. The more RAM a television has, the better its performance.
When smart TVs first hit our shelves at the turn of the decade, they had a paltry amount of RAM. Apps were sluggish and lagged a lot. It made them impractical to use compared to dedicated set-top boxes.
Today’s TVs have improved. Manufacturers are packing more RAM into their devices. Most TVs will ship with at least 4 GB, but some have as much as 6 or 8 GB.
The second spec to look for is the processor. Again, the faster the processor, the better your TV will perform. The benefits of a fast processor will be most evident when switching between apps or using TV-specific functions like multi-screen.
Like RAM, the speed of the processors has increased dramatically recently. If you about to make a purchase, make sure the model you’re looking is quad-core at a minimum.
The Samsung 4K range of sets are all quad-core, but if you can afford the $4,999 for the company’s 55-inch Class JS9000 model, you can even enjoy octa-core. If that’s outside your budget, the $726 VIZIO D55u-D1 has a quad-core and a dual-core processor, giving you six cores in total.
In contrast, some entry-level sets are still lumbering along with dual-core processors — give them a wide berth.
Nobody has just a TV anymore. There are loads of peripheral devices you might want to plug in. Games consoles, media streaming devices, cable boxes, DVD players, and even your laptop will all need to be hooked up.
Therefore, it’s important to pay attention to what ports are available. You need an HDMI port for all your devices, USB slots for flash sticks and other multimedia devices, an SD card slot could be useful, and you might even need component and composite connections for your non-HD devices (e.g. Nintendo Wii).
If you want to dig a little deeper, see if the TV you’re looking at has HDCP 2.2. It’s a next-gen form of copy protection that uses encrypted keys to perform a “handshake” between the source and the display. Lots of 4K models don’t support it, and it’s not backwards-compatible. If you’re planning on buying a non-4K 1080p set, you don’t need to worry, but if you’ve got your eye on the latest Ultra HD 4K model, it’s an essential feature to future-proof yourself.
HDCP 2.2 is different from HDMI 2.0. HDMI 2.0 is merely used to pass 4K video resolution.
4. Operating System
It might surprise you to learn that smart TVs typically rely on an existing operating system to run the platform.
There are five main options available: Roku, Android TV, Firefox OS, Tizen OS, and WebOS. Here’s a brief assessment of each of them.
Roku-based TVs deploy the same interface as the Roku set-top boxes and streaming sticks. They offer a universal search function, allowing you to find a show or movie on any of the apps you have installed, and have in excess of 3,000 channels in their store (more than any of their competitors).
Android TV-based sets are renowned for having the highest storage capacity. The most recent models boast as much as 16 GB. Gamers will also appreciate this OS: it can play any game from the Google Play Store as well as offering emulators for classic consoles.
Firefox OS is dead. Panasonic was the only mainstream manufacturer using it and you’ll still see it on older models in shops, but you should avoid it. Its passing is a shame, as it was arguably the most customizable and user-friendly of all the options.
TVs — Old Panasonic models.
Tizen uses a Linux kernel. Samsung is the only manufacturer using it, and you’ll only find it on the company’s 2017 models. It logs what you watch and which apps you use to make recommendations, and also has a customizable on-screen icon and a link to the old Samsung Apps store.
TVs — 2017 Samsung models.
WebOS has been praised for being the fastest and most fluid smart TV OS. 2017 smart TVs now run version 3.5, 2016 models run WebOS 3.0, and models from 2014 and 2015 have WebOS 2.0. Users can expect a taskbar at the bottom of their screen, on which all apps are given an equal prominence.
TVs — LG.
All the extra bits are great, but the most important feature of any TV is how it looks when you’re watching it. After all, the screen is still a TV’s primary purpose.
Unfortunately, comparing the different displays when you’re in a shop can be a minefield. Much of what you read in the accompanying literature is nothing more than meaningless marketing guff.
Do you want Samsung’s SUHD or Hisense’s uLED? What about Sony’s Triluminos or Sharp’s Spectros? It may seem impossible to keep everything straight, so here’s what you need to know.
In 2017, 4K resolution (also known as UHD) is commonplace. Prices of 4K sets are plummeting, and you shouldn’t expect to pay more than $1,000. 4K TVs have four times as many pixels as a 1080p resolution HD TV, but unless you’re getting a 70-inch screen, you’ll be hard-pressed to tell the difference.
Your TV’s ability to produce deep blacks has the biggest bearing on picture quality. It does a better job of separating light and dark colors and gives you a richer contrast.
If the depth of black meets your needs, you should also check out color saturation and color quality. All three are better in 2017 than they’ve ever been.
Now I’ve discussed all the behind-the-scenes stuff, you need to consider the user-facing features. Here are some newer features that might be important to you:
- Curved Screen — Possibly more of a fashion statement than a feature, curved TVs are continuing to gain traction. They might not offer a better viewing experience, but they’ll look gorgeous in your lounge.
- 3D — 3D movies haven’t quite taken the world by storm as promised, but for some people, the feature is important. The Samsung H Series, Sony W LED TVs, LG LB Series, and Panasonic AS models all have this capacity.
- Voice Control — Pressing buttons is so 2008. Top models now let you change channels, turn your set on or off, and ask for recommendations with your voice. Just be alert to the various privacy implications an “always listening” television can subject you to.
- Smart Remote — What good is a smart TV without a smart remote? Some of the newest models have a smart remote that supports touch gestures.
- Screen Mirroring — Do you want to cast a lot of content from your phone or tablet? In 2017, more and more televisions have Miracast support, letting you seamlessly beam your mobile device’s screen to your 4K display.
- Web Browser — Web browsers are something you might expect to be a standard feature of smart TVs in 2017, but they’re not. If you want to surf the internet on your big screen, make sure your TV includes one.
- Dual Screen — Want to watch two sports games at once or browse Facebook while watching a movie? You’ll need a dual screen compatible device.
What Else Makes Smart TV a Good Purchase in 2017?
I’ve introduced you to some of the “headline” features that make 2017 the best year so far for buying a new smart TV.
But what else are you looking out for? Is refresh rate an important consideration? Are you more interested in the audio than the display quality? What about resolution? Or even customer support?
You can let us know what you think about the state of the smart TV market in the comments section below.
Image Credits: Africa Studio/Shutterstock