What is smart TV? Best smart TVs for 2020
By Martin Pratt
A smart TV is an internet-connected television that offers a range of online features, such as on-demand content from apps like BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub and All 4, access to streaming services like Netflix, and the ability to connect to other wireless devices like smartphones.
Most new TVs are now smart, so there are plenty of models to choose from.
High-end TVs now support voice control and the latest models from LG, Samsung and Sony now let you search for content on your TV. Some TVs even double as smart hubs, giving you control over smart bulbs, thermostats and other devices.
In this guide, we'll explain what you get with smart TV, show you some of the best new models and tell you more about the smart features on each brands TVs. We'll also show you how to stay secure and protect your privacy while using 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.
In this guide:
Best smart TVs
The vast majority of modern televisions now have 'smart' capability, with only a handful of small TVs releasing without access to smart features. You don't need to connect a smart TV to the internet to just watch regular television, but if you do go online there are various benefits, including:
- Apps: Apps on smart TVs either come pre-installed, or are available to download from an app store. Most smart TVs offer TV and film streaming on services such as Netflix and Amazon Video, 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.
- Streaming: smart TVs let you wirelessly stream videos, music and pictures from your phone, tablet or laptop straight to your TV. This is often called casting. You can find out how to set up casting and streaming in our guide on connecting devices to your TV.
- 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 more like gimmicks.
- Internet: You’ll need an internet connection to get your smart TV online. Most smart TVs are now wi-fi enabled, meaning you can wirelessly connect them to your internet router and other devices like smartphones. Some older models require a brand specific wi-fi adaptor, which usually slot into one of the USB ports. 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 or a power line adapter.
- 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 25Mbps 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.
"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."
- TV license: You don't need a license to watch TV over the internet if it's purely on-demand or via catch-up, though you do need one to watch or download on BBC iPlayer. For more on this, head over to our TV License explained guide.
Samsung's Tizen smart TV platform has evolved since its launch in 2015 into one of the best around. That said, while the other major TV brands have incorporated services such as Freeview Play and YouView (handy smart electronic programme guides with catch-up TV built-in) Samsung hasn't gone with the crowd.
We've 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. More expensive Samsung TVs come with a voice-control remote – this has been dubbed the 'One Remote' for the latest models. While it lacks a motion-sensitive on-screen pointer that we see from other manufacturers, the One Remote can control compatible devices that are attached to the TV, such as sound bars and Blu-ray players, making it a sort of universal remote
In 2019, Samsung incorporated its SmartThings software. This smart home tech gives you control of smart devices, such as light bulbs and thermostats from your TV. Bixby, Samsung's answer to Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, is now the default for voice commands on Samsung's TVs. The advanced features Bixby brings, includes searching for movies and TV shows starring specific actors, checking the weather and answering questions.
Not too much appears to have changed in 2020, but some Samsung TVs will have Alexa and Google Assistant built-in, so users will be able to choose.
Find your new Samsung set with our Samsung TV reviews.
LG's smart TV platform is called webOS. It 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 dragging and dropping them into the order you want.
Unlike Samsung TVs, LG's models also benefit from Freeview Play. This software combines catch-up TV features with the electronic programme guide, so you can see what shows are coming up and what you might've missed from one menu.
Just like Samsung, LG offers two types of remote control – a standard version and one known as the 'Magic' remote, with a moveable cursor on screen for clicking on apps and icons. It's great for smart-TV functions and where it was previously only included free on the pricier TVs, the vast majority of LG's 2019 support the Magic remote and we expect the 2020 range will too.
LG's ThinQ software lets you control other ThinQ compatible LG appliances from your TV. With the right devices, you could get alerts on your TV when the washing machine had finished its cycle, or when the timer was done on your oven. Voice commands continue to get more advanced on the. You can search for content with specific actors and directors and the TVs recommends content based on these searches. Only the Magic remote has the built-in microphone for voice control.
Browse our latest LG TV reviews.
Sony makes use of the YouView smart EPG. This gives access to the full range of catch-up apps, including BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub and All 4, as well as Netflix and Amazon Video. Using YouView, you can also pause, record and rewind and access some HD and Ultra HD channels.
Sony's smart TV platform is powered by Android TV, the service developed by Google. It's not as easy to use as Samsung and LG, but it's a clean, simple interface – the sort you'd expect from Google.
Sony has kept things traditional in terms of remote controls. The remote that comes with Sony's higher end TVs has voice text input system but otherwise it looks much like a traditional remote. There's no motion-controlled cursor that could make navigating the smart TV platform easier.
The remotes are simple, but some have a built-in microphone that lets you control certain aspects of the TV with your voice. You can ask the TV to go to specific channels and search for specific movies and shows, to see if they're are airing on any channels or streaming apps you have installed.
Find your perfect Sony set in our Sony TV reviews.
Panasonic's smart-TV service is powered by Firefox, the popular web browser. Its big focus is customisation, with a homescreen you can personalise with your favourite and most-used apps. Freeview Play is a standard feature on its smart TVs. This handy smart electronic programme guide is much like YouView (which can be found on Sony TVs), making it easy to access catch-up services, such as BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub and All 4, from the programme chooser.
Panasonic's 2020 range will be compatible with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. As long as you have a Google Home or Amazon Alexa you'll be able to control features on your TV, such as changing channels, adjusting volume and selecting inputs. It's a handy feature, especially if you're prone to losing the remote.
Browse expertly-tested models in our Panasonic TV reviews.
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 plug-in devices allow you to transform your standard TV into a smart TV at a fraction of the cost. Well known streaming devices include the Amazon Fire TV stick, Google Chromecast, Apple TV and Roku, and all can access video on-demand, catch-up TV and other internet apps when connected to your television and home wi-fi network. 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, All 4 and Demand 5). The YouView set-top box can be purchased standalone, or bundled with broadband deals from BT and TalkTalk. Some Sony TVs have YouView installed as standard.
- 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.
- Casting: you can display your phone screen on your TV screen through casting. This can be simply mirroring the screen or displaying the contents of an app, such as Netflix or YouTube. Your TV will need to an internet connection to do this.
Need help getting other devices connected to your TV. Use our free tool to see exactly which devices to wire in to which connection and further advice on hooking up everything from a sound bar to a smartphone.
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.
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 &.