Buyers Guide: What Is a Smart TV?
If you’re in the market for a new TV, you’ve almost certainly run across the term smart TV. And if you’re like most folks, you’re almost certainly wondering what the heck that is.
Well, wonder no more. We’re here to walk you through everything you need to answer the question, “What is a smart TV?”
Smart TV Buyers Guide Summary
- Make sure the smart TV you’re interested in has Wi-Fi connectivity built in and apps that allow it to function as an online media streamer.
- Buy a smart TV from a proven brand like LG, Samsung, or TCL.
- Use the TV’s operating system (OS) as a tiebreaker if you’re stuck on two models because each brand uses its own OS, which lets you interact with your content in unique ways.
- Choose a screen size based on the size of your living room and how far you’ll be sitting from the television.
- Shoot for 4K resolution whenever possible, though 1080p can still be good on smaller TVs.
- Be prepared to pay for amazing picture quality, especially if you want an OLED TV..
- Don’t expect miracles from your TV’s built-in speakers—add a soundbar for the best experience.
- Get HDR—it’s worth it.
- Aim for a TV with a refresh rate of at least 120 Hertz (Hz) to get the best experience. 60 Hz is decent, but not necessarily future-proof. 240 Hz may be overkill.
- Look for a TV with as many HDMI ports as possible. Only worry about other port types if you have equipment that requires them.
Still have questions? Learn more about how to choose the right TV.
The Best Smart TVs for Every Budget
If you just want to know the best smart TV in your price range, we’ve got you covered there, too. We have recommendations for the best budget smart TV, best midrange smart TV, and best high-end smart TV below.
What Is a Smart TV?
A smart TV is a TV that connects to the internet. This connection is most often used to access streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, or Sling TV.
You can also use the internet connection to integrate with home automation systems or voice control via digital assistants like Alexa
Smart TVs have pretty much become the standard these days, so any new TV you buy is more likely to be a smart TV than not. This even includes budget TVs in the $200 range.
This is great because it gives anyone access to the wealth of content that streaming services offer.
Smart TV Brands to Consider
Every manufacturer under the sun is making smart TVs these days. Not all of them are created equal, though. Which brands are worth your hard-earned money, and which brands should you steer clear of?
Top Smart TV Brands
LG has been the king of the TV hill for several years, thanks to its stunning OLED panels. These amazing TVs are far from cheap, but if you’ve got the cash to burn, they make for an incredible viewing experience.
Samsung and Sony sit just behind LG in terms of display quality, and together, these three brands dominate the high-end market.
There’s another player in the budget and midrange categories, though, that offers a ton of value for your money: TCL. This company’s Roku smart TVs are some of the best you’ll find in the lower price brackets.
Smart TV Brands to Avoid
We’ve said this before, but Insignia and Sanyo both have some issues with quality control, which makes it tough to recommend them, especially when you could just get a TCL, Samsung, or LG for a similar price instead.
Sharp rounds out the B-list because it focuses mainly on appliances and office electronics, not TVs. Sharp smart TVs aren’t bad, but they just don’t compare well to the competition.
Quick FAQ about Smart TVs
Got questions? We’ve got the answers.
Do smart TVs have built-in Wi-Fi?
Most smart TVs include built-in Wi-Fi. Some may have a wired Ethernet port instead of or in addition to Wi-Fi.
Just to be on the safe side, it’s still a good idea to double-check and make sure before buying a TV. But we’d be surprised to find one that didn’t have Wi-Fi nowadays.
Do smart TVs require updates?
Yes and no. They don’t necessarily require them, but most smart TV manufacturers (the good ones, at least) release software updates that add new features, fix bugs, and keep things running smoothly. It’s recommended that you install these.
Can smart TVs get viruses?
In theory, yes. In practice, there have only been a handful of known cases where a TV was the target of a virus. TVs aren’t a terribly lucrative target for hackers. That could change in the future, though.
Can I convert my regular TV into a smart TV?
The only major difference is that you’ll have to use a separate remote and flip to a different input on the TV to use the streaming device.
How is a smart TV different from a streaming device?
There’s not much difference. A smart TV is essentially a TV with a streaming device and Wi-Fi built in.
One difference is that certain streaming devices have access to more apps—Apple TV has an extensive app store, for example.
Specs and Features to Look for in a Smart TV
Now you know which brands to shop, but each one has dozens of models. What exactly should you be looking for in a smart TV?
It may not be the first thing you think of when shopping for TVs, but these days, the OS matters.
Yes, even your TV has its own operating system (or smart TV platform). While that’s always been true, it’s much more visible these days with smart TVs, since you have apps and various screens to navigate through on a regular basis.
Each TV brand has its own operating system that offers unique pros and cons. For the most part, they all do the same thing, but if you’re weighing two similar options, it’s worth playing with the TVs a bit to see if one has an interface you prefer.
Here’s a rundown of the smart TV platforms used by each major brand:
- LG: WebOS
- Samsung: Tizen OS
- Sony: Android TV
- TCL: Roku
When choosing a TV size, whether it’s a smart or dumb TV, make sure to take into account how far you’ll be sitting from the screen.
If you’re going to be sitting really close because of a cramped room, a bigger TV might actually hurt more than it helps. That’s because sitting too close can make it hard to take in all the details on the screen at once.
And as a side note: if your living room or media room is on the small side, you might consider mounting your TV. It can be a great way to get a little space.
Something else to consider is TV resolution. Smaller screens can get away with lower resolutions and still look sharp because the pixels won’t need to be as big to fill the screen. So, if you’re getting a 1080p TV, a slightly smaller screen may help make up for some of the resolution loss.
There’s no hard-and-fast rule for screen sizes. That’s one reason why some high-end home theater shops have virtual living rooms set up so you can sit and try out TVs from various distances and angles.
Honestly, the best way to nail down what size works for you is to actually try out different sizes with your unique viewing habits.
There are basically two resolutions you’ll find on a TV these days: 1080p Full HD and 4K Ultra HD.
4K is four times the pixel density of 1080p, and is basically always better, but it can sometimes be overkill depending on the size of your TV and how far away you’ll be sitting.
If budget is a concern, this is probably the first thing we’d look at to cut costs. That said, since 4K panels get more affordable to manufacture every day, more lower-end TVs are using this resolution. In fact, in a few years, it may be the new standard.
OLED is king.
There are two types of displays being used on modern smart TVs:
- LED stands for Light Emitting Diode. These displays are LCD (liquid crystal display) panels that are illuminated by LED lights either along the perimeter or directly behind the screen.
- OLED stands for Organic Light Emitting Diode. These displays incorporate the lighting into the panel itself, so each individual pixel turns on or off independently. If you think that sounds expensive, you’d be right. But the result is an infinite contrast ratio (the difference between the light and dark parts of an image) and an absolutely stunning picture.
Is OLED better than LED?
Usually. It’s not set in stone, though. A really great LED TV can have a better picture than a bad OLED. But at the top end, the best TVs with jaw-dropping pictures use OLED, so that’s what we’d recommend looking for in a high-end TV.
You’ll probably want a sound bar.
All TVs include a built-in speaker—they wouldn’t be much good without sound, after all. But these built-in speakers are usually adequate at best, which is why the market for surround sound systems and sound bars is so huge.
Other than a few standouts like the (extremely expensive) Sony XBR55A9F, we think you’ll get a lot more mileage out of your smart TV with a separate audio device. Whether you go for a sound bar or a full-on surround sound system is up to you!
High dynamic range makes for a high-quality picture.
HDR does exactly what it says on the tin: improves dynamic range, which is the difference between the brightest and darkest areas of a screen. HDR has been the buzzword of the TV industry since 4K started to go mainstream, and this is one case where the hype is actually deserved. It can make a big difference.
For the best picture, look for a 120 Hz or even 240 Hz refresh rate.
The picture on a TV screen isn’t actually continuously moving. It’s a still image that refreshes fast enough to make it look like it’s continuously moving. The refresh rate is the rate at which those images get, well, refreshed. This is measured in Hertz, or Hz.
The gold standard has been 60 Hz, which is a refresh rate of once per second. Newer TVs with more advanced displays are starting to introduce 120 Hz and 240 Hz refresh rates, which provide an even smoother picture.
These higher refresh rates are most noticeable when watching sports, where the rapid motion and frequent, sudden position changes of players make them especially noticeable.
Connectivity and Ports
The four-letter word: HDMI.
Since almost all smart TVs come with Wi-Fi built-in, you can focus on ports for connecting other A/V devices like a Blu-ray Disc player, your cable set-top box, and a sound bar.
The main port to look for is the HDMI. Most modern home theater devices use HDMI ports, since they can carry both sound and HD video over a single cable.
Beyond that, you’ll want to check your other home theater gear to see if there are other ports you’ll need. One that’s common on older equipment is stereo audio. You’re probably familiar with the red, white, and yellow three-cable system these use.
And that’s a wrap, folks. If you’ve made it this far, you’re now a certified Smart TV Expert, armed with more than enough information to make an informed decision. If you pick up a new TV, be sure to leave a comment and let us know how you like your model.
For even more TV-buying tips, check out our guide on how to choose the right TV.
And if you need a new TV service to go with your new smart TV, you can see the packages available in your area by entering your zip code below.
Dave is a freelance writer with a passion for tech and how it improves our lives. His work has been published on a variety of sites around the web.