What is smart TV?

What is smart TV?

by Andrew Laughlin
Want to access apps such as BBC iPlayer, stream films on Netflix or surf websites on the big screen? You can do all this with a smart TV.

Just want to see great smart TVs? We've got hundreds of expertly-tested models to suit all needs and budgets in our TV reviews.

Internet-connected smart features help you get more out of your television. Most new TVs are now smart, with a wide range of models to choose from, including Best Buy smart TVs available at affordable prices.

In this guide, we'll explain what you get with smart TV and show you some of the best new models. We'll also show you how to stay secure and protect your privacy while using a smart TV.

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Best smart TVs of 2015Our verdictPicture qualitySoundScore


It's got one of the best smart-TV services available on board, and a special 'smart' remote to use with it. There are loads of apps and a menu system that pops up while you're still watching TV. Plus, the picture quality of what you're watching will look absolutely superb.

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If you're in the market for jumbo TV with a top notch smart-TV service, then this set simply must be on your radar. It's one of the best sets we've tested in 2015 and offers a wealth of internet apps and services to enjoy on the large screen.

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Available for a wallet-friendly price, this 48-inch TV has picture and sound quality to compete with more expensive rivals. It offers all the major UK catch-up TV services, too, in a user-friendly and versatile smart-TV operating system.

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Although not cheap, this big screen TV justifies its price tag with superb picture and sound quality, plus a good smart-TV service. You get a well designed remote control and loads of apps to choose from.

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This TV's smart-TV service comes from a familiar name and gives you a brightly coloured menu screen that you can customie with your favourite apps, services and TV channels. It's no slouch, either, when it comes to picture and sound quality.

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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 there are various benefits, including:

  • Apps: Apps on smart TVs either come pre-loaded, or are available to download from an app store. Most smart TVs offer TV and 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, photos and videos from the comfort of your sofa. 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. Many 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, but if it's not close to your router then you'll need a long lead.
  • Decent broadband speed: This is essential if you want to stream video, and a super-fast speed is preferable. For example, if you want to stream 4K Ultra HD content on Netflix, you'll need at least 15Mbps to get the best experience. Also, 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 from the 5500-series models and 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 have in the past found 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 2015, Samsung has announced a brand new smart-TV service powered by Tizen software, previously seen on smartwatches and mobiles. This has a completely redesigned user interface, backed up by a revamped smart-TV remote. 

For more on this, head over to our Samsung Tizen smart TV review

LG smart TV

In 2014, LG launched its new generation smart-TV service powered by webOS technology, previously seen on mobile devices. An improvement on LG's rather cluttered legacy smart-TV platform, webOS features 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 for clicking on apps and icons. 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. Some models don't support it at all.

For more on LG's new smart-TV service, head over to our LG webOS 2.0 review

Sony smart TV

Sony offers a good range of apps, including Netflix, Amazon Video, BBC iPlayer and Demand 5. It has previously lacked ITV Player or All4, but that will change for selected Sony TVs that are getting the YouView TV guide in 2015 (check our reviews for more on this). All Sony smart TVs get the Sony 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've criticised Sony's smart-TV service in the past 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.

In 2015, Sony revamped it's smart-TV offering by brining Android TV to its new 4K TVs and some HD models. Based on Google's popular operating system, this smart-TV service features apps, games and other internet services presented in a colourful user interface. 

You can read more this in our Sony Android TV review

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 a homescreen 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.

In 2015, some Panasonic TVs featured a redesigned smart-TV service powered by Firefox, the popular web browser. Firefox OS has a refreshed and customisable homescreen among its various features - read more about this with our Firefox OS review

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 over to our internet TV 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 to buy in shops and online.

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 your 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.

Is your smart TV listening to you?

Which? research has shown that some 2013 and 2014 smart TVs from Samsung and Panasonic transmitted voice searches unencrypted over the internet. Shockingly, we were able to pull the actual audio out of the raw data drawn from the Samsung models. This means if you haven't secured your wi-fi and if someone's eavesdropping on your network, they could hear what you say to your TV. 

Samsung said that it deployed a software update on 11 March 2015 that it claims encrypts the voice search data. This extended to all Samsung smart TVs at the end of March. As long as the TV has the latest software update this vulnerability should no longer be an issue, but we'll be checking this for ourselves. 

If you own a Samsung smart TV and want to disable voice recognition – meaning the TV no longer stands in readiness for you to say 'hi TV' and activate the voice features - head to the Settings menu and select Smart Features. Then go to Voice Recognition and switch it off.

Panasonic told us that its TVs do not "constantly monitor conversations", but it advises users not to "include any personal information in the voice commands". It said that it plans to launch a software update that will encrypt the voice data. We’ll be following up with Panasonic on this. 

Voice search is only activated on Panasonic TVs if you hold down the microphone button on the remote control. Some TVs have an 'info bar' feature that listens out for your voice and activates various features on the TV. This can be turned off in the smart-TV settings menu.

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.