According to an Ofcom survey, in 2012 just 11 per cent of households in the UK had a smart TV – but by 2019, that had risen to 48 per cent. So with nearly half of the UK population watching television through a smart set, they are clearly here to stay. But what is a smart TV, and what does a smart TV do?
Read on for our lowdown on smart TVs, in which we cover what a smart television is, what they can offer, the leading smart TV brands and – most importantly of all – whether you should buy one.
For everything else you need to know about buying a new TV, check out our comprehensive which TV to buy guide. And if you happen to be looking for a TV that’s cheaper than usual, be sure to check out our pick of the Best cheap smart TV deals this month.
What is a smart TV?
In a nutshell, a smart television is one that can be connected to the internet – most probably, your home’s wi-fi. Whereas the TVs of yesteryear would only broadcast content from an antennae, cable, or a plugged-in AV source. (Rather predictably, these are now commonly known as ‘dumb TVs’.)
What does a smart TV do? A whole variety of things. Given the way it supports a wireless internet connection, a good way to think of smart TVs is like a smartphone, only one you can put in the corner of your lounge and park your feet in front of.
Firstly, you’re able to access a variety of apps from an app store. This technically includes streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Video, iPlayer and NOW TV – which is probably what’s on most people’s minds. You can also access social media like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
You can also use a smart TV for general internet browsing, although without the keyboard that a smartphone offers, this generally makes for a clunky experience. That’s why most smart TV users instead stream content from their phone, tablet or laptop to their televisions: another key feature.
It’s worth saying at this point that not all smart TV features are created equally, and different brands offer different bells and whistles with their televisions’ smart platforms.
Should you buy a smart TV?
If you’re buying a new television, yes. Indeed, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a recently made television that doesn’t come with smart capability. Some ultra-budget, tiny-sized TVs intended for kitchen counters might not be smart, but they’re few and far between these days.
Interestingly, ‘dumb phones’ are enjoying an unexpected surge in popularity, as lots of screen-addicted users want to keep a lid on their anxiety levels. But we highly doubt the same will happen with television, simply because TVs don’t live in our pockets, and don’t have the same pervasive presence in our lives.
But if you have a non-smart TV and don’t plan to buy a replacement set, you needn’t worry: there’s ways you can give your telly the added smarts.
How to turn your TV into a smart TV
Turning an older TV into one that’s smart is relatively easy, 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 a ‘TV stick’. If you pop these tiny little devices into the HDMI port of your TV and connect them to your home’s wi-fi, you can access all those streaming apps, and browse on the internet.
Standard TV sticks usually cost around £25 to £35, while those that support 4K are usually around £50. (Bear in mind these won’t be so useful if your non-smart TV isn’t 4K-ready, which it probably isn’t.) As a one-off cost, TV sticks offer real value for money. You can read our Amazon Fire TV stick review, Fire TV Cube review and our Roku Premiere review for details of these handy little devices.
But an even cheaper option is to buy what’s known as a ‘dongle’ for your TV. These are more like basic conduits that will connect a device like a phone or laptop to your TV. So you can access Netflix from your laptop’s browser, for example, and then send that to the telly. These devices are generally around £15.
Of the two options, we suggest you go for the TV stick, since for a little more cash you get a lot more ease-of-use with their in-built platforms and remote controls. But hey, if you’re happy with operating from your device, dongles are perfectly fine.
Smart TV vs Chromecast
As we’ve laid out, it’s pretty easy to turn your TV into a smart device. So is it worth investing in a smart TV for its own sake?
Well, as we’ve also said, if you’re looking for a new television, you’ll almost inevitably end up buying a smart TV anyway. The reason we’d push you towards buying a smart TV is for all the other things it will offer over a TV that’s not smart TV.
For instance, you might be able to get your fix of The Crown on your 10-year-old telly with a Fire Stick. But watching those sumptuous interior shots of Buckingham Palace in gorgeous, crystalline 4K? That’s a whole other matter.
That’s what it comes down to really: the wealth of other features most recent smart TVs will likely offer. Ultra HD picture quality is now more or less default – for more information, read our What is a 4K TV? explainer. This is simply the nature of the ceaselessly evolving world of television.
What to look for when buying a smart TV
Given the prevalence of smart TVs, you could argue this pretty much encompasses all TVs. But that’s a bit simplistic, so we’re going to take a dive into smart TV platforms, which differ from brand to brand, and what you should look out for in any online reviews you read.
The first is the platform’s ease-of-use, since you’ll want your telly watching to be as smooth and intuitive as possible. A lot of this boils down to the algorithms of the platform, which takes note of the content you’ve watched (across multiple platforms) and will show similar shows or movies it thinks you will enjoy.
Then there’s the effect processing power disparity, which will differ across the brand’s televisions. So while a platform can run ultra-smoothly on high-end TVs with more powerful processors, it might freeze and judder a little on cheaper sets.
You should also look out to see if voice control is included. This might sound a little frivolous – after all, you’re already sitting with your feet up with a remote control in your hand. But anyone who owns a smart speaker will know that once you’ve barked a few orders at a voice assistant, you soon get very used to it. Via the smart platform, you can potentially ask your TV to read the news, tell you the weather and integrate it with other smart devices around your homes.
Of course, one of the most important things to consider when buying any television is the quality of the image it will deliver. Depending on your budget, you might want to look out for sets with OLED, QLED and Nanocell screens – they will offer you 4K picture detail with even greater levels on quality. Read our what is an OLED TV explainer for more information on this distinctly deluxe screen tech.
One thing you should know is that 4K streaming takes up considerably more internet bandwidth than that of Full HD content or lower. It’s important to know if your home broadband is up to the task: make sure you read our what broadband speed do I need explainer to find out more.
You’ll also want to make sure you pick a television with the right screen size for your viewing space, so make sure you take a look at our What size TV should I buy? guide, and our explainer on How to measure your TV screen.
Which brands make the best smart TVs?
LG’s WebOS is widely regarded as the best smart platform, largely because of its Magic Remote technology. With this, you can use the remote much like the mouse on a laptop, moving the cursor around the screen with an incredibly simple fluidity. Take a look at the LG 55-inch CX 4K TV for an example of a TV with this OS, along with the Ultra HD picture quality that more and more people are coming to expect as standard.
The WebOS remote also has a built-in mic, and you can give instructions to the Google Assistant. It also has all the capabilities of a Google Home smart speaker, meaning you can operate everything from your Philips Hue smart lightbulbs to your Nest smart thermostat through your humble telly.
Then there’s Samsung’s Tizen platform, which has earned a good reputation for an user interface that’s simple and superbly intuitive. You can watch shows or films, whilst operating the platform via a two-tier strip at the bottom of the screen. The upper bar shows the content – films and programmes – while the lower one shows the apps themselves. It’s genuinely as easy to use as it sounds. The Samsung 55-inch 4K Q95T looks like a winning example of what you can expect from one of the brand’s televisions.
Google’s Android TV platform, meanwhile, is one you’ll find on Philips, Sony and Hisense televisions. As the name suggests, it’s much the same as Android, Google’s smartphone OS, only geared for TV. Also unsurprising is the built-in Google Assistant, which you can activate via a button the remote. Android TV displays its options, whether that be apps or content, in a series of easy-to-navigate ribbons across your TV screen. Check out the Sony Bravia XR A90J and Philips 58-inch PUS8545/12 4K TV for examples of smart televisions with Android TV.