We take a look at what Smart TV is and how it differs by manufacturer
Smart TV is essentially the common name for a whole series of technologies. It’s something of a generic name for the individually named services from the likes of Samsung, Panasonic, Sony and LG. What you’ll find in a smart TV are apps that give access to catch-up TV, such as iPlayer, along with film streaming including services, such as Amazon Instant Video and Netflix. Some TVs even offer access to 3D streaming video and in the case of 4K TVs even ultra high definition video streaming.
So what are smart TVs and how do they work? In this guide we’ll take a look at some of the services on offer, how the TVs do what they do and how you need to connect them to those online services.
These days it’s actually quite hard to find a TV that doesn’t have some sort of media streaming functionality. Even the very cheapest TVs will often have an iPlayer app that will let you keep up with the BBC’s TV and radio services via the Internet. But the reality is that smart TV can open up a whole new world of TV and entertainment that can reduce your reliance on broadcast schedules.
The history of smart TV and IPTV
Once ADSL and cable broadband became a reality in the UK there was a desire to see video delivered over the internet. The rise of sites like YouTube prove that people have a passion for video, and are more than happy to watch it on their computers. YouTube has grown to the extent that six billion hours of video are watched per month on the service.
Even in the early days of fast broadband the BBC was experimenting with delivering video to licence fee payers. All that started back in the summer of 2004 when the corporation launched a test product, then known as iMP (Integrated Media Player). At the time the selection was bad, and only a few trialists had access, but even HD content was demoed using this service.
While that was happening, we were all still using massive CRT TVs and the internet was nowhere near ready to deliver reliable video to televisions. In many ways, people sort of assumed that the PVR would be the answer to the problems of TV schedules, and indeed for some time they were. But the problem with a PVR is that you have to remember to press record. If every TV show from the schedule is stored on a server then the hassle factor all but disappears.
Digital technology obviously made all of this possible too, because TV broadcasters transmit everything from servers these days, so programmes are stored for broadcast on huge media servers, which opens up the opportunity to re-encode them for use via on-demand services like iPlayer. Today, the only thing that prevents the BBC or another broadcaster putting every programme online comes down to copyright, and if the rights-holder is prepared to allow it to be streamed.
Once services like Netflix launched in the UK, and ITV, Sky and Channel 4 launched their own catch-up services it became something that TV manufacturers wanted to integrate into their TVs. After all, if you can give your customers access to a really wide selection of added value content, then you’re basically going to sell more TVs for only a modest extra cost in manufacturing and design.
A smart TV needs access to the Internet, obviously, as the services are all delivered via your broadband connection. You’ll also need a reasonably quick service. For the likes of iPlayer and Netflix, faster services mean that you’ll get better quality video. At its peak, Netflix can run to about 15Mbit/s when it’s streaming 4K video.
TVs that connect to the Internet will almost always have a wired Ethernet socket, this means you can plug your TV into your broadband router, as long as it’s near your TV. If it isn’t, then consider getting a Homeplug adapter, which allows you to send Ethernet networking over your mains cables. Put one Homeplug by your TV and one by your router and you’re there.
Wi-Fi is mostly integrated these days too, so there’s no need to panic about wires. Check your TV to make sure, but for the most part configuring it should be nice and easy too. Of course, Wi-Fi will always be something of a problem in some houses, especially large ones with thick brick walls.
Problems with smart TVs
There are two big problems with smart TVs. The first is the availability of services on any given manufacturer’s TV or set-top-box. The reasons for the variation are often quite complex. For example, we’ve spoken to Philips about this, and were told that development of some apps for services like Netflix are usually developed in-house. Therefore priorities might be for certain manufacturers, which can leave others without a key app.
The BBC makes this a lot easier for TV manufacturers by offering a standard interface that can be used on pretty much any equipment. As such, iPlayer is ubiquitous – this is good for the BBC, which under its charter must cater for as many of the licence-fee-paying public as possible.
The second problem with smart TVs is often the interface. On some sets, it’s nothing short of brilliant. On others, it’s a massive disappointment, with either too few services or a generally fiddly user interface. This has always been a problem for TV manufacturers, who have simply not known how to turn a TV into a media-streaming device. This is starting to improve, and LG is setting the pace with its new WebOS-powered TVs that offer a brilliant user interface.
What can a Smart TV do?
There are a whole lot of options for smart TVs. Some TVs will do all of these things, while others will just offer a selection.
As processing power increases and the cost and size reduces, it’s a lot easier to build enough power into a TV to play games. You might get access to simple stuff like Angry Birds, or even connect your TV to an online service like OnLive, which allows you to access a library of premium games which are “streamed” to your home much as video is, but quickly enough to feel like a proper gaming experience.
Gaming is something that’s just getting started really. There are a lot of possible future options for gaming on a TV, but right now things look pretty basic. Samsung and Panasonic have conducted the most interesting experiments on this sort of experience, but even so things are still moving slowly. With services like Valve’s Steam getting what is called “home streaming” you could find a Steam app on your TV one day to stream the latest amazing “triple A title” from your PC to the TV.
This is a big area in the UK, oddly, in the US streaming to TVs is not much loved by broadcasters, who have done all they can to stop it. Here it’s likely that you’ll get apps for BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4oD and Demand 5 included. Some TVs have just a selection of those though, so it’s very important that you check to make sure your favourite catch-up TV service is available on your chosen TV.
It’s less likely that you’ll get access to Sky’s streaming services, Now TV and Sky Go. LG had an exclusive deal for Now TV, but Sky doesn’t really allow Sky Go to be accessed on TVs or other set-top-boxes. You need a connected Sky receiver to use its services.
Streaming movies and TV shows
There are a few steaming services that deal with delivering both movies and TV shows. Netflix is almost like the BBC in its attitude; it has made sure that there is a Netflix app installed on pretty much every smart TV platform you can find. If you’re a Netflix subscriber, most TVs will accept your account details and let you stream video. Ultra HD TVs will also connect to Netflix’s 4K streaming service, providing some remarkable quality on a limited selection of shows.
Lovefilm, or as it’s now properly known Amazon Prime Instant Video, seems to want its service on as few devices as possible. You can get the app on Sony, LG and Samsung TVs, but that’s just about it. Support is also patchy on other devices, but the PS3, PS4, Wii U and Xbox 360 and Xbox One can all access it. In the battle of Netflix vs. Lovefilm, the clear winner for both quality and availability has to be Netflix.
DLNA for streaming media
Most smart TVs will also encourage the playback of media from your home network. This uses a standard called DLNA. The confusing acronym stands for Digital Living Network Alliance, and it is an attempt to create a standard around the streaming of photos, movies and music in your home.
Plug in a smart TV, head for the DLNA or media streaming option, and your TV will probably pick up a load of devices that it can stream from. Phones, tablets, computers and NAS drives are all often pre-installed with DLNA software, or you can simply download an app to both stream media from your device, or even to it. DLNA has a nice option that one DLNA device can manage a stream between two others. So, fire up a DLNA app on your phone and you can send a video from your NAS drive over to your TV. It’s actually very clever, and in recent years has become extremely reliable.
Real media enthusiasts will love Plex, which is a media server that can be installed on a PC that holds movies and TV shows. Once installed, it formats everything nicely, manages transcoding – where you might need to change a streaming format to be compatible with your TV – and makes all your media easy to find.
Samsung TVs have their own Plex app , as does Chromecast and a few other devices, such as the Popcorn Hour streamers. When you have this app, you can access a much richer environment than standard DLNA.
Most smart TVs will also give access to some of the Internet’s biggest names in online video. So, a YouTube app is a near certainty, as are the likes of Vimeo, Dailymotion, Revision 3 and podcasts from the likes of TWiT and the BBC radio.
Although all of the above are technically apps, a smart TV might also offer access to other services like Facebook or Twitter. The number of these “extra” apps will be determined by your TV manufacturer. In theory of course, your TV could become a hub for everything else in your home. You could monitor security cameras and keep an eye on your sleeping baby via a remote camera. You might even be able to see what’s in your fridge, and book a delivery with Sainsbury’s for any items that are missing.
One killer feature that is growing on smart TVs is access to Skype. Because a lot of TVs now have webcams built-in, or offer them as an optional extra, the ability to call friends and family in glorious 1080p is a real boon. If you have loved ones abroad, this sort of functionality will change your life.
Old TV? No Problem
What do you do if you’ve got a Pioneer Kuro that you love, but you’re desperate to get access to smart TV services? By far the most simple solution is to get a PS3 or Xbox 360, both of which have a really good range of services, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video and the catch-up TV services 4oD and iPlayer.
There are also dedicated media streamer boxes, including Roku, Apple TV and the upcoming Amazon Fire TV, that offer a lot of the same functionality as a good smart TV. Indeed, anyone with a lot of Apple hardware already, and with a substantial iTunes library may well want to go down the Apple TV route, as it has a lot of advantages.
With some of its TVs, Samsung has the Evolution smart TV upgrade. This lets you plug in a new box to an old TV, giving your old television a smart boost and access to the latest interface and range of services.
We, as consumers of media are not going to get less demanding when it comes to our smart TVs. Far from it, we’re going to want to be sure any TV we buy can connect to a wide range of services.
The future of TV is most likely going to be delivered over the Internet too. It makes far more sense for TV companies to provide online access to shows, where they can control when they are seen, and for what period of time. Piracy becomes less of a problem in general too, when you can be sure a programme will be available to watch when you want. Imagine, for example, if you could stream Game of Thrones every week, at the same time the Americans were watching it. Or perhaps first thing the next morning. No need to download, and no pesky spoilers.
Broadcast TV is enormously expensive and very wasteful. It would make a lot more sense for TV to be sent on demand. Of course, this would be bad news for channels that just re-run old stuff from other broadcasters, but for the viewer the options will be better and the selection far more varied.
In addition to that, internet delivery might be essential for formats like 4K and 8K where broadcasting them over the air just isn’t very practical. And as broadband speeds continue to increase, and compression gets better, the Internet becomes all the more viable, and so does your smart TV.