Smart TVs let you access the internet, play games, download shows, and use all kinds of different apps – so if you've wondered what exactly your new smart TV is capable of, read on to find out!
To answer the question directly, a 'smart TV' is any TV that has built-in Internet connectivity – allowing it to access online services including video on demand, social networking and instant messaging. Some TVs even have a fully featured web browser, which allows access to most websites.
These days, many mid- to high-range TVs will offer smart functionality, and even some budget models and brands are starting to include online features. Smart TVs are one of the first – and easiest – devices you can add to your living room to start to make your house in to a smart home.
To access the extra features offered by a smart TV, you'll need some sort of Internet connection at home. Most smart TVs feature an ethernet port on the back, allowing you to plug it directly into your broadband router. Modern models can also access Wi-Fi – either using built-in hardware or a USB dongle that plugs in the back (usually an optional extra).
Either way, once your TV is connected, you'll have access to a whole range of online services – and in the rest of this article, we'll take a look at what they are.
The features available on your smart TV will vary depending on the precise make and model, but most give you access to social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Some feature instant messaging applications like Skype and, with the addition of a webcam, some higher-end TVs will even let you make full-screen video calls with your friends and family.
But probably the best and most-used feature of smart TVs is the ability to access 'video on demand' services. These range from well-known services like YouTube for watching the odd video clip, movie trailer or music video to subscription-based services like Netflix, offering a vast online library of movies and TV shows to stream whenever you want.
The majority of smart TVs also offer access to catch-up services like the BBC's iPlayer and Channel 4’s All 4 (formerly known as 4oD) – very handy indeed.
Taking inspiration from the likes of Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store, some TV manufacturers are following in the footsteps of modern smartphones and developing their own online stores, allowing users to download extra apps for their TVs. In particular, Panasonic and Samsung have really taken this concept to the next level.
As well as the various video on demand and social networking apps, the Panasonic app store features a wide selection of games to download.
There's also a range of optional accessories, like game controllers and smartphone apps to make the games easier to play. You can also get an 'Electronic Touch Pen' which allows you to write directly on your TV screen, leaving messages for people as if it were a household noticeboard. There's even a set of Wi-Fi-connected Body Mass Index scales and a health monitoring wristband, so you can track your weight and fitness via your TV!
Another useful feature comes from Samsung’s 'Smart Evolution Kit'. This accessory allows owners of certain older Samsung TVs to upgrade to the latest spec by simply plugging a box into a slot on the back of their TV. This adds a faster quad-core processor and access to the latest smart TV features, along with a slew of connectivity options like HDMI 2.0 and USB 3.0. It also provdes a welcome degree of future-proofing: a new TV can be a huge financial investment, so it’s nice to know it’s not going to become obsolete within a year when the new model is released.
If you like what you’ve heard so far but don’t want to splash out on a new TV, don’t worry – there are a range of cheaper alternatives that give you access to most, if not all, of the features of a full-fledged smart TV. These include set-top boxes, games consoles, smart Blu-ray players and even 'home theatre PCs'.
Set-top boxes work much like the set-top digiboxes which convert old analogue TVs into digital-ready ones. Just plug one into your TV's HDMI port, follow the on-screen instructions and voila – your TV just got smarter.
One of the best out there at the moment is the Chromecast by Google, which costs about £30. This lets you to stream a huge range of online content to your TV, and also connects directly with your home computer, phone or tablet – making it easy to stream media like photos, videos and music directly to your big screen.
Alternatively, the Apple TV costs a little more but comes with a handsome remote control and integrates very smoothly with Mac computers, iPhones and iTunes.
Beyond those, there are a whole host of other set-top boxes out there, priced from as little as £14.99. There are all shapes and sizes to suit your setup, offering everything from basic Netflix access through to 1080p surround-sound streaming. If you're looking to enjoy smart TV features but aren't currently in ready for a new TV, set-top boxes are the simplest and most affordable way to get them.
All the major games consoles offer access to media streaming and video-on-demand applications. The Playstation 4 continues to support a range of video-on-demand services, and Microsoft’s Xbox One takes things even further: it offers built-in TV guides and even lets you control your TV with your voice.
Games consoles are quite expensive compared to set-top boxes, so we wouldn't recommend getting one just to use smart TV features: if you're not interesting in gaming, a set-top box is a much better choice. But if you do enjoy blasting a few baddies every now and then, your console can also be your gateway to a world of entertainment.
Some TV manufacturers now offer (sometimes limited) access to their smart TV platforms via their own Blu-Ray players.
If all you're interested in is music and video streaming, this can be a cheap way of upgrading your system – as Blu-Ray players are available for less than £100. Sony in particular offer a great system, similar to that of its PlayStation interface.
But for the ultimate smart TV experience, using a 'home theatre PC' (HTPC) give you complete access to any programs, websites and games that you'd have on a normal desktop PC.
A HTPC is usually a low-power PC, allowing it to run efficiently and quietly without interrupting your viewing. Dedicated media centre programs like Windows Media Centre and XBMC are easy to navigate with a basic remote control, and you can even add extra hardware further down the line.
Hopefully that's all the help you need to make the most of your smart TV – but if you need any more help, you can get in touch with our Team Knowhow Experts here.