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22 April 2021

What is smart TV? Best smart TVs for 2021

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.
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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 TVs are smart, so there are plenty of models to choose from.

High-end TVs, as well as some mid and low-end ones, 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 internet TVs and tell you more about the smart features available from each brands. 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.

Best smart TVs

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72%
Best Buy
£499.00
Reviewed

This 49-inch marvel is one of the cheaper Best Buys that comes close to matching some of the top-tier OLEDs and QLEDs from 2020. There's very little this excellent set does wrong.

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71%
Best Buy
£599.00
Reviewed

This relatively low cost TV is an excellent all-rounder, with easy to use menus, great sound and sharp picture.

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70%
£399.00
Reviewed

Smaller TVs don't often do well, but this one proved that you don't need a big screen for great picture, sound and smart menus.

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Smart TV: what are the benefits?

The vast majority of modern televisions now have 'smart' capability, with only a handful of  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.
  • Streaming and casting: 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.
  • Recommendations: if you opt in many TVs will now recommend shows and films for you to watch based what you've been watching and you favourite genres.
  • Smart home control: as more devices around the home the TV has become one way of keeping on top of everything. Some smart TVs let you access and control everything on your network, such as washing machines, light bulbs, thermostats and more.

TVs losing access to catch-up apps many of us use every week can be enormously frustrating. Use our guide on what to do if you've lost access to streaming apps to try and get them back.

Smart TV: what you'll need

  • 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. You can find the fastest broadband for your budget by reading our guide on the best broadband deals
  • 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.

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

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 (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.

You'll now find Universal Guide software included in Tizen, which is a recommendations tool that flags shows and films it think you'll like based on what you've watched and your favourite genres.

Find your new Samsung set with our Samsung TV reviews

LG smart TV

LG's smart TV platform is called webOS. Models released before 2021 have 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.

Models released in 2021 and beyond have a more traditional homescreen with rows of apps, previews and quick links to shows you've been watching. This should cut down on the number of clicks it takes to get to the shows and films you want to see.

Unlike Samsung TVs, most LG models (with the exception of many 2020 TVs) 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 ranges support the Magic remote.

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 smart TV

Sony's smart TV platform is powered by Google TV. It's a clean, simple interface, with plenty of customisation to populate the homescreen with the channels, apps and services you use most. 

Sony has kept things traditional in terms of remote controls. The remote that comes with Sony's higher end TVs still has a traditional look, but some have backlit buttons. There's no motion-controlled cursor that could make navigating the smart TV platform easier, but intuitive button placement means it's straightforward.

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 smart TV

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 makes it easy to access catch-up services, such as BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub and All 4, from the programme guide.

Panasonic's ranges are 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 given many Panasonic TVs don't have any built-in voice control.

Browse expertly-tested models in our Panasonic TV reviews

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 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 Streaming Stick, 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. See our guide on connecting a PC or MacBook to your TV for more information.
  • 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. Methods differ depending on the phone you have, so check our guide on connecting an iPhone or Android phone to your TV to learn how.

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.

How we test smart TVs

The app store is our first port of call when testing the smart capabilities of a TV. We're looking for a good range of apps, intuitively laid out with a good search function. Speed is important, since these menus can be slow making adding new apps to your TV a laborious exercise.

We look to see how easy it is to arrange the apps you've downloaded. Ideally it should be simple to add favourites to your smart homescreen for easier access later.

We check to see if pre-installed apps can be removed, check to see whether voice control is present and try a few sample commands, too.

TV internet security

With any internet-connected device, security is paramount, so we look at what data your TV collects and where it goes.

Data transparency

The information your TV collects ranges from the mundane, such as what you've been watching (which is still personal and private), to more important things like your wi-fi password and app logins. If we think it's collecting more data than it needs to, not sending it to secure places, also known as safe harbours, or being up front about what data it's collecting then we'll flag that in our reviews.

Data encryption

We check to see if the data is encrypted when it's sent. This means the data can't be read if it's intercepted on its journey from your TV to the data centre.

Data settings for users

The final thing we check is how easy it is to access the data collection settings, which can be buried in the deep recesses of TV menus. We always check how many options are available to you in terms of disabling data collection and tracking, as well as noting what terms and conditions you need to agree to when you set the TV up, and how this affects the data the TV collects.

Thankfully we haven't come across any TVs that are playing fast and loose with your data, but we will continue to check each and every one that passes through our labs so you can buy with the confidence that any information it collects is safe.

Smart TV tracking

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.

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 &.

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