What is a smart TV, and why should you consider buying one?

Just like 4K Ultra HD resolution and High Dynamic Range (HDR), Smart TVs make up the bulk of what you’ll find on store shelves these days. Smart TVs aren’t just popular, they’re the status quo now.

But what makes a TV smart, and which TVs are the smartest? We’re here to answer those questions, and ensure you’re well-educated heading into your next big purchase. Doing your homework can be the difference between spending hundreds on a stopgap solution and picking out a TV that’ll last you for ten years or more. As smart as that TV you’re about to buy may be, it pays to be smarter than your TV.

What makes a TV smart?

The major feature separating smart TVs and not-so-smart TVs is an internet connection. Nearly all smart TVs come equipped with both an Ethernet port and built-in Wi-Fi support, so they should be able to connect from anywhere in your house. Generally speaking, Wi-Fi should be fast enough for most purposes, but if you plan on streaming games or 4K content, you might want to hard-wire to your network instead.

An internet connection is primarily used to stream television shows and movies from a variety of apps and services, like Netflix, Hulu, HBO, and YouTube (among others). Occasionally, there’ll be free stuff available (like on Crackle, or Pluto TV), but for the most part, you’ll need to subscribe to these services to access their content. Many smart TVs also have web browsers baked in — though these are typically unwieldy and frustrating to navigate — and some even have cameras for use with videoconferencing apps like Skype.

One Rome, many roads

Even though all smart TVs are built with the same goal in mind — helping you access your favorite content without a middle man — they don’t all work the same way. Each manufacturer uses a different operating system with its own individual features and quirks (though some systems, like Roku TV, are built into TVs from multiple manufacturers). Below is a quick breakdown of the most prevalent systems available.

Brand

Operating System

The Lowdown

Samsung Tizen Tizen is extremely fast, and it’ll automatically detect devices that you connect to the TV, labeling inputs accordingly. Plus you can control some connected devices with the TV remote.
LG

WebOS

WebOS is extremely simple and fun to use, and supports motion controls with the included remote.
Sony Android TV If you use an Android phone, this should be immediately familiar. Sony smart TVs support Google Cast, with which you can project content from your phone (or tablet) onto your TV.
 TCL Roku Like Roku streaming boxes, Roku OS is awesome, featuring clean, simple navigation and a best-in-class search that looks through every app for your chosen content. Also: Voice search!
 Element Amazon Fire TV In addition to the inclusion of the Amazon Video app, you’ll get access to Alexa, a personal assistant to help navigate your TV and control your smart home devices.

Voice search

For the most part, smart TV interfaces are designed to be simple and easy enough for anyone to use without training or tutorials (after all, lots of people check out display TVs before buying). Still, sometimes you just don’t want to hunt and peck — and that’s where voice search comes in.

As a fairly common feature in newer smart TV remotes, voice search turns navigation into an easy, one-click task, no matter what you’re looking for. That said, certain platforms (like Roku) offer more robust search tools than others, and remote microphones aren’t always great at understanding your voice, so patience is important.

Alternatives

Smart TVs may be all the rage, but they’re not without their flaws. Perhaps the TV you like doesn’t have the best operating system, or maybe you just don’t have the cash to pony up hundreds for a shiny new screen. If so, streaming set-top boxes and streaming sticks are great alternatives that offer nearly all the functionality of a smart TV at an affordable price. Roku’s products (like the Streaming Stick+) do a great job of turning dumb TVs into smart ones, as do Google’s Chromecasts and Amazon’s Fire TV.

If you want more info on streaming devices, check our rundown of the best streamers you can buy.