AUG 13, 2022 / Gadgets

What is a Smart TV – and do you really need one?

Long gone are the days when the only “smarts” you needed to plug into a TV was a roof-mounted antenna. Modern flat panels have nearly as much silicon sitting behind their screens as our laptops and phones do. Some of that silicon is running the picture and audio functions of the screen, but a lot of it falls into what’s generally called “Smart TV” functions.

So, what is a Smart TV anyway?

Smart TVs rely on apps in pretty much the same way that your smart phone does. In the early days of Smart TVs, these encompassed a huge range of sometimes quite weird applications, because nobody was really sure where Smart TVs were headed at that time.

These days, when we talk about Smart TV apps, it’s nearly always to do with access to streaming media services – the likes of Netflix, Disney+, Stan as well as the catch-up TV streaming services like ABC iView, SBS on Demand and commercial TV services. It’s a nicely natural fit, because it turns out that when we sit down in front of the TV, many of us like to actually watch TV.

Most Smart TVs will offer an app-related interface at a press of a button on the remote, and many will offer quite direct access to specific services such as Netflix or YouTube with dedicated buttons to bring those services up directly.

What’s the best Smart TV?

This is a nearly impossible question to answer, for a variety of reasons. Everyone’s budget varies, and so too do the interests that you might have for smart TV apps. For some, access to Netflix would be a must-have, while others might not care at all, because all they want is a TV that can hook to Disney+.

There’s a secondary challenge around smart TV apps here too, because unlike smartphones, where new streaming apps tend to launch across both iPhone and Android platforms simultaneously, smart TV apps need to be written for specific vendors; the Netflix app for a Samsung TV is different to that for an LG TV, because they’re actually different software platforms.

Some TV makers slightly sidestep this by offering up Google’s Android TV as a reference platform with access to a version of the Google Play store, but even there apps need to be specified and updated over time.

What all of that means is that the “best” Smart TV at a given point in time might not be the “best” in a few years, especially if new services come along that you wish to access.

Some manufacturers are better with updates than others – I’ll give plaudits to both Samsung and LG in this regard as they’ve got better track records than some of the smaller makes – but the odds are pretty good that you’ll have that telly longer than the manufacturer will keep pumping out software app upgrades for it.

That’s why my central advice for years now has been that while Smart apps are great and convenient, they should be secondary to buying the best screen you can get.

A really nice OLED or QLED screen will remain a joy to view for years to come – and there are ways around the smart TV app upgrade problem that can cover for the app problem in the meantime.

Buy a cheap “Smart TV’ with a low-quality screen, and you’ll always be looking at sub-standard video, no matter the app availability.

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Will my Smart TV work without an Internet connection?

The answer to this one is yes… and no. If you’re still connected to a regular TV antenna, none of that infrastructure relies on a direct Internet connection, so you could still keep watching free to air TV without an issue even if the Internet is down.

Likewise, if you have other devices such as games consoles or DVD/Blu Ray players hooked into them, they should work just fine even if your broadband connection betrays you.

Basically, a Smart TV will still keep being a TV, even if it’s not hooked up to the Internet at the time.

However, the specific Smart TV features like streaming media services very much do rely on having that persistent Internet connection to operate. If your broadband goes down, they will stop working as well.

I don’t want to buy a new TV – can I make my existing TV “smart”?

This is totally doable, and honestly the way I tend to advise people looking for a new TV anyway. You typically can’t “upgrade” the hardware in a smart TV, but you can upgrade the hardware you plug into it, adding smart TV features for quite reasonable costs with smaller smart dongles and set top boxes.

If you’re on a budget, consider one of Amazon’s Fire TV sticks, or Google’s Chromecast with Google TV to add smart features to any TV with an HDMI port. If you’re after something a little fancier, the Apple TV 4K is very nice, as are NVIDIA’s Shield TV set top boxes.

This does add another remote control to your TV mix – though you could get around that with a programmable universal remote in many cases – but it also adds a more flexible and often faster updated app environment to your TV. It also means that down the track, if there is a streaming service that your Smart TV doesn’t and won’t support, all you might need to do is drop a few bucks for a new set top box, rather than thousands on a new telly.

Need help setting up your TV or home entertainment system? Give Geeks2U a call! We can set up your television, connect it to the internet, hook up your sound system, and more!

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Alex Kidman
Tech Journalist