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Netflix tries to make smart TVs less dumb, at least for Netflix

Netflix Recommended TV certification promises a better Netflix experience for smart TVs that qualify. But what does that mean?

The Netflix Recommended TV certification is a badge given to TVs that are "Built for a better Netflix experience." You may be asking, how can a TV offer a "better" Netflix experience. Isn't Netflix, well... Netflix?

Yes and no. Using specific criteria, Netflix has identified several features and performance aspects that it feels make using their service a bit easier. Overall, it wants the experience using the Netflix app, and the TV in general, to be as easy to use as on high-end smartphone or tablet: smooth and not annoying.

One key thing to keep in mind is this is a constantly moving target. It expects the TV experience to improve each year, so this year's recommended TVs will be even easier/better to use than last year's.

Though it has released some details, we spoke with the team that helped develop the program for more specifics.

They've broken down the criteria into three main areas.

Features

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TV Instant On: Pretty self-explanatory. For years smart TVs were brutally slow to boot up. Turn on, sit and wait. Netflix Recommended TVs will turn on quickly and have direct access to Netflix (and other apps, of course). In 2014 they found most smart TVs took over a minute before you could access any apps. Now they've found many are less than 10 seconds, and some are less than 5.

TV Resume: If you turn on the TV, it remembers what you were doing and goes back there. So, in Netflix's mind, if you're watching Netflix, it goes back to Netflix automatically. Minor, but convenient.

Latest Netflix Version: "Your TV comes with the latest version of Netflix with the newest features." Another aspect that isn't as huge a deal as it once was, but the functionality of many smart TVs for many years would vary greatly.

Performance

Fast App Launch: How long it takes the TV to launch the Netflix app. How fast is "fast?" This is one of those "moving targets." According to Netflix, in 2015 it considered fast to be under 10 seconds. Its plan is to cut that roughly in half each year until it's effectively instant, which of course would be the ideal.

Fast App Resume: This one is a little confusing in its description, but basically what it means is the TV treats Netflix just like another channel. So if you're watching "House of Cards" and you switch to CBS to check the score of the sportsball game, you can switch back to Netflix and resume immediately where you left off.

That is, if you switch back right away. If it takes you a while to go back, it will go back to the detail page of the show you were watching (and from there you press "Play" to continue). If it takes even longer for you to go back, the software doesn't assume you're you anymore, and brings you back to main profile page.

Ease of access

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Netflix Button: We've seen these for a few years now. Specifically, it needs to also turn on the TV in addition to, you know, launching Netflix.

Easy Netflix Icon Access: "Netflix is prominent and easy to access on your TV." I can't remember the last TV I saw that didn't have Netflix at or near the top of its apps page. Can't blame them for including this, though.

Netflix and chill

There are some interesting aspects about this program I didn't expect. The most notable being, TV manufacturers don't (and indeed can't) pay for a Recommended TV badge. This is Netflix's independent testing. In many cases it buys the TVs itself, or is able to get a sample from the production line shortly before the TVs ship to stores (but always production, never preproduction).

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Netflix

According to Netflix, this isn't a marketing program. A manufacturer can choose to use the badge or not. All Netflix wants to do is to offer its fans an identifier to help them locate TVs that give the best/easiest/smoothest Netflix experience. Of course it certainly doesn't hurt Netflix when a manufacturer uses the badge.

It also admits, though it doesn't put this on the website, of course, that if the TV is fast enough to give a smooth experience with Netflix, it probably also gives a smooth experience with other apps, like Amazon Video, Hulu and YouTube.

Which TVs qualify and why?

Netflix maintains a list of the TVs that earn its badge. In 2016 so far, certain LG, Samsung, and Sony TVs are Netflix Recommended. In 2015, many more brands qualified, including many Vizio models and all Roku TVs, but Samsungs did not.

The site also lists a few reasons why the TV qualified. In the section on 2016 Sony TVs, for example, it says "Android TV interface enables easy navigation and switching between apps and inputs." Samsung's 2016 8 and 9 series TVs qualify, even though their remotes lack a Netflix button.

Just because a 2016 TV brand isn't listed yet doesn't necessarily mean it doesn't qualify. It could mean it has not yet been rated by Netflix's program. Since it's working with production models, it can't publish all the ratings at once at the beginning of the year. We'd be surprised, for example, if 2016 Roku TVs didn't receive certification. It will also be interesting to see whether Vizio SmartCast TVs, which depend on a tablet or phone to access Netflix, make the cut.

Bottom line

Netflix's stated goal with the program was to provide a shorthand for customers so it could get a sense of actual usability. Actual "smart, smart TVs" as the team told me. There are plenty of other certifications for picture quality, like THX and UHD Alliance's Premium Cert, but Netflix saw there wasn't one to let people know the TV was actually easy to use (other than reviews like ours, of course).

Since this is Netflix's independent research, it's not like other certifications a manufacturer has to pay for. So where a non-THX rated TV, or a non-UHDAPC TV, might perform as good or better as one that is certified, a non-Netflix recommended TV is probably slower and not as quick to use for some reason.

Is this a good reason to buy one TV over another? Probably not unless you are really into Netflix. But if you're trying to decide between two otherwise similar TVs, this promise of a faster, smoother interface and experience is definitely worth considering.


Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he's written on topics such as why all HDMI cables are the same, LED LCD vs. OLED vs. Plasma, why 4K TVs aren't worth it and more. Still have a question? Tweet at him @TechWriterGeoff then check out his travel photography on Instagram.

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