Advice Guide

What is smart TV?

by Andrew Laughlin Back to advice guides

Access apps such as BBC iPlayer, stream films on Netflix or browse your favourite websites on the big screen - you can do all this with a smart TV.

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Price

Smart TVs are available from just a few hundred pounds

Smart TVs let you enjoy apps, surf the web and stream internet videos from the comfort of your sofa. Most new TVs are now 'smart', with a wide range of models to choose from, including Best Buy smart TVs at affordable prices.

In this guide, we'll explain how smart TVs work, analyse the best smart-TV brands and help you decide whether a smart TV is right for you. We'll also show you how to stay secure and protect your privacy while using a smart TV.

Smart TV: What are the benefits?

The vast majority of modern televisions now have 'smart' capability, and it's getting increasingly hard to buy a non-smart model. You don't need to connect a smart TV up to the internet to just watch television, but if you do go online with it, there are various benefits, including:

  • Apps: Apps on smart TVs either come pre-loaded, or available to download from an app store. We'll give exact breakdowns of the apps offered by Samsung, Sony, LG and Panasonic later, but most give you film streaming on services like Netflix and Amazon, catch-up TV on apps such as BBC iPlayer, and social networking on Facebook and Twitter.
  • Web browsing: Most smart-TV models have built-in web browsers allowing you to surf the internet and view web pages, images and videos on the big screen. However, some are much easier to use than others.
  • Additional services: Smart-TV brands offer additional services to differentiate their smart TVs from the competition, such as customisable homescreens and recommendations of things to watch based on your personal tastes. Some are useful, others feel like gimmicks.

Smart TV: What you'll need

  • Internet: You’ll need an internet connection to get your smart TV online, ideally broadband. Most smart TVs are now wi-fi enabled, meaning you can wirelessly connect them to your internet router. Most have built-in wi-fi, but some require a wi-fi dongle and it might not be supplied with the TV. You can also connect your TV using an Ethernet cable, although it'll need to be close to your router unless you have a long lead.
  • Decent broadband speed: This is essential if you want to stream video. It's best to go for an unlimited broadband package so you can avoid any extra changes for exceeding your data limit while streaming.
  • TV licence: This is only required if you plan to stream live TV on services such as iPlayer or ITV Player. You don't need a licence to watch TV over the internet if it's purely on-demand or via catch up. For more on this, please see our TV Licence Explained guide.

"If you want to stream video on your smart TV, it's best to go for an unlimited broadband package to avoid any excess data charges."

Smart TV brands

Smart TVs are available from all the major manufacturers - including LG, Panasonic, Samsung, and Sony - but each has its own strengths and weaknesses.

Samsung smart TV

Almost all of Samsung's newer televisions are 'smart', starting with the 5500-series models and expanding upwards. You get Samsung's 'smart hub' homescreen, plus a good web browser and a wide range of apps, including all the major UK catch-up TV services.

We find Samsung's smart-TV platform to be easy to use, although getting around is a bit more of a challenge on TVs with just the standard remote. Samsung also offers a 'smart touch control' remote with a laptop-style track pad for your thumb, but it's only available on more premium models. 

For more on this, see Samsung smart TV: Everything you need to know 

What apps do you get on Samsung smart TV?

  • Facebook: Yes
  • Twitter: Yes
  • Skype: Yes
  • YouTube: Yes
  • BBC News: Yes
  • BBC Sport: Yes
  • Amazon Instant Video: Yes
  • Netflix: Yes
  • Knowhow Movies: Yes
  • NOW TV: No
  • BBC iPlayer: Yes
  • ITV Player: Yes
  • 4oD: Yes
  • Demand 5: Yes

LG smart TV

LG now offers two flavours of smart TV - its legacy 'Netcast' platform and its new generation of smart TVs powered by webOS technology, previously used on mobile devices. We've found that the legacy platform has a rather cluttered home dashboard. The pages are packed with icons and it's all rather confusing to get around at first.

LG’s new webOS smart-TV service is better designed. You get a ‘launcher’ bar at the bottom of the screen that allows you to quickly jump into things like the TV guide, apps or the web browser. You can customise the launcher with your favourite services by simply dragging and dropping them into the order you want.

Just like Samsung, LG offers two types of remote control - a standard version and a 'magic' remote. The latter works a bit like a Nintendo Wiimote, with a moveable cursor on screen. It's great with the smart-TV functions, but it’s only included free on the pricier TVs, otherwise you’ll have to buy it separately, while some models don't support it at all.

What apps do you get on LG smart TV?

  • Facebook: Yes
  • Twitter: Yes
  • Skype: Yes
  • YouTube: Yes
  • BBC News: Yes
  • BBC Sport: Yes
  • Amazon Instant Video: Yes
  • Netflix: Yes
  • Knowhow Movies: Yes
  • NOW TV: Yes
  • BBC iPlayer: Yes
  • ITV Player: No
  • 4oD: No
  • Demand 5: Yes

Sony smart TV

Sony offers a good range of apps, including Netflix, Amazon Video, BBC iPlayer and Demand 5, but the continued absence of ITV Player and 4oD remains an issue. However, you do get Sony’s own Video Unlimited service pre-loaded, offering films and other video content to watch. Plus, Sony is the only one of the brands featured here not to have advertising on its smart-TV service.

We often criticise Sony's smart TV service for being hard to use. Navigating the smart-TV features with Sony’s standard remote control can be a pain. Sony has an extra remote featuring a laptop-style trackpad, but poor navigation on the smart-TV platforms means it's still not that easy to get around, and using the web browser is a source of frustration.

What apps do you get on Sony smart TV?

  • Facebook: Yes
  • Twitter: Yes
  • Skype: Yes
  • YouTube: Yes
  • BBC Nes
  • BBC Sport: Yes
  • Amazon Instant Video: Yes
  • Netflix: Yes
  • Knowhow Movies: No
  • NOW TV: No
  • BBC iPlayer: Yes
  • ITV Player: No
  • 4oD: No
  • Demand 5: Yes

Panasonic smart TV

Panasonic’s smart-TV service was a bit of a late developer compared to LG and Samsung, but it's now competitive with the other brands. Panasonic's big feature is homescreens that you can personalise to your tastes with your favourite apps, shortcuts and even decoration. 

Panasonic offers a free-to-download ‘Swipe & Share’ app allowing you to share content such as videos and photos from a mobile device with your TV. Some Panasonic sets come with TV Anywhere, an app service that lets you remotely watch TV channels or stored PVR content on a smartphone or tablet, even while away on holiday.

From our recent testing, we've found Panasonic's smart-TV service OK to use, although there's definitely room for improvement. The navigation can be unintuitive at times, particularly if you're using the standard remote rather than Panasonic's smart version with a trackpad and voice control options.

What apps do you get on Panasonic smart TV?

  • Facebook: Yes
  • Twitter: Yes
  • Skype: Yes
  • YouTube: Yes
  • BBC News: Yes
  • BBC Sport: Yes
  • Amazon Instant Video: No
  • Netflix: Yes
  • Knowhow Movies: No
  • NOW TV: No
  • BBC iPlayer: Yes
  • ITV Player: Yes
  • 4oD: Yes
  • Demand 5: Yes

How to make your current TV smart

If you don’t want to splash out on a smart TV, there are more affordable ways to get internet services on your current television. These include:

  • Streaming boxes: A wide range of devices allow you to transform your standard TV into a smart TV at a fraction of the cost. The likes of Now TV, Apple TV, Roku streamers and Google Chromecast can access video on-demand, catch-up TV and other internet apps. Head to our set top box reviews for more.
  • YouView: This subscription-free service combines Freeview digital TV with the internet catch-up TV services from all four main broadcasters (BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4oD and Demand 5). The YouView set-top box can be purchased standalone, or bundled with broadband deals from BT and TalkTalk
  • Computer: If you connect your PC to your TV, you can use it as a large computer monitor. For this, you’ll need an analogue VGA input. Some TVs can be connected via a digital input, either a DVI socket, or more commonly via an HDMI input configured for PC screen resolutions (check your TV manual for instructions on this). If your PC only has a DVI output, HDMI to DVI cables are available online, costing just a few pounds.

Smart TV tracking

As we reported in September 2014, smart-TV makers - including those listed above - are able to track and monitor the way you use your television like never before, including what you watch, what buttons you press on the remote and the websites you visit on the TV's browser.

This can have benefits, such as more personalised recommendations of things to watch, but there are also potential downsides. In theory, the TV brands can gather vast quantities of data on you and, in some cases, use that information to make money through posting targeted adverts on your smart-TV service.

You give permission for this to happen by agreeing to your TV's T&Cs. You can decline them and still watch TV. In many cases, however, that results in you losing access to some smart functionality of the TV.

We're calling on the TV manufacturers to be more upfront about what they're tracking, and why, plus give you clearer options to opt out if you want to.  Here's a brand-by-brand breakdown of how to turn any tracking off, and what you lose if you do:

  • Samsung: Samsung tracks you if you agree to its T&Cs. If you decline, you can’t access the smart-TV service. If you do agree you can still turn off tracking of your viewing habits by declining the ‘recommendations privacy notice’ in the smart hub settings menu.
  • LG: As LG has stopped tracking (as of September 2014), it has removed options for you to block it. LG's T&Cs still permit it to track you, and if you decline them you can’t access any apps or the LG Store, although you can still use the web browser.
  • Panasonic: If you don’t accept Panasonic's T&Cs, you lose access to all apps, the web browser and content recommendations. If you accept them, you can turn off tracking of your viewing habits via ‘Menu > Network > My Home Cloud settings > Notice > Stop collecting information’.
  • Sony: Sony tracks you like the rest of the brands, but doesn't do so to provide advertising on your smart-TV service - just to provide you with recommendations of things to watch. You can opt out of tracking by ticking ‘Disable Upload Data’ at the setup stage, however you'll lose the recommendations.
  • Toshiba: You can’t access any of the smart-TV services, including the apps and web browser, unless you agree to the T&Cs. Once you do, you can go to ‘Smart hub Settings - Log Upload agreement - and then click ‘disagree’. This should stop tracking. You lose features such as personalised recommendations and the MediaGuide EPG, but can still use the apps and web browser.

Smart TV security

When connecting any device to the internet, including a television, it is vitally important to protect yourself from the more negative aspects of the online world, including hackers and malicious threats. Here's some steps to make your TV more secure while going online.

  • Disable cookies: You can usually disable cookies, including third-party cookies, in your TV’s web browser settings, and can often enable a ‘private browsing’ feature. This will stop some of the web tracking, but bear in mind that it may also restrict your browsing experience on some websites (eg it won’t remember your preferences).
  • Secure your network: Make sure you properly secure your home wi-fi network to reduce the threat posed by hackers. Look for the wireless or ‘WLAN’ settings on your router and set them to the latest WPA2 standard, which is the most secure option on most devices. Ensure that your router’s firewall is enabled, as this will help protect you from outright threats and security vulnerabilities.
  • Set strong passwords: Use a strong password for your home wireless router, and do the same for any internet accounts you may use on your smart TV. Strong passwords typically use upper and lower case letters, numbers and ‘special’ characters such as !, ?, % and &.
  • Report it: If you’re concerned by your TV’s use of cookies or tracking, you can report the manufacturer to the UK Information Commissioner’s Office through a tool on its website at ico.gov.uk.