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How to Turn Your TV Into a Smart TV

These are the best devices to turn your "dumb TV" into a streaming monster.

This story is part of Home Tips, CNET's collection of practical advice for getting the most out of your home, inside and out.

No matter the age of your television it's still possible to bring it into the modern age, and for all the functionality you'll enjoy, it doesn't need to cost very much. Smart TV is another way to say "streaming TV" and compatible devices offer dozens of streaming services from free (the Roku Channel) all the way through to premium cable replacements (YouTube TV). 

If you have a TV made since 2005, then it will likely have an HDMI port, which means all of the devices listed below will plug straight in. If the television is a little older, then an inexpensive HDMI-to-AV adapter may be in order.

From bare-bones streaming adapters to soundbars to gaming-friendly set-tops, there is a smart TV device out there for you. Here's four of our favorites.

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Making your TV smart for the price of a takeaway meal? The Roku Express 4K Express offers hundreds of apps and is easy to install on a spare HDMI port on your television. Roku is our favorite smart TV interface, and it's easy to set up with your own apps. 

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The Google Chromecast with Google TV comes with a streaming stick and a voice-enabled remote, and this can also be used to control other smart devices in your home. The Google interface is better than Roku's in one respect, because it surfaces individual shows rather than making you choose an app first.

$23 at Amazon
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A combination soundbar and 4K HDR streamer, Roku's Streambar is an excellent way to "smartify" a bedroom TV with improved sound and streaming in one fell swoop. This compact speaker will outperform the sound in just about any television and is especially good at elevating hard-to-understand dialogue. Even if you don't need the (excellent) streamer, the soundbar itself is a good deal at its current $30 discount via Amazon.

Read our Roku Streambar review.

 

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Apple

With zippy navigation and enough grunt to support cloud gaming (or Steam Link) the 2022 Apple TV 4K is the best option for power users. It features a modern A15 Bionic processor, a new USB-C powered Siri Remote and a lower starting price than prior models. It is worth mentioning that those looking for Ethernet will need to spring for the $149 128GB version. 

You're receiving price alerts for 2022 Apple TV 4K (64GB): $124

Smart TV FAQs

Samsung

What is a smart TV?

At its essence, all a TV needs to be "smart" is an ability to connect to the internet, and this transforms it into a "streaming television". Even the most basic smart TV can offer video services such as Netflix, YouTube and Hulu as well as music streaming from the likes of Spotify and Pandora. 

Smart TVs predate smart speakers -- which include voice assistants like Amazon Alexa and Apple Siri -- and while smart TVs can incorporate newer features like voice operation, they don't need to. 

Depending on when your TV was made, it may already have smart functionality built in, but there are still advantages to adding a third-party device. 

  1. Smart TVs typically only get updates for a couple of years after they're made, but separate streaming devices could keep receiving upgrades for many years. Plug in a 2016 Roku 3, for example, and it will get the latest versions of Netflix and even Disney Plus.
  2.  A third-party device can add functionality that wasn't available when your TV was made. For instance, the Roku Voice Remote Pro add-on not only offers a neat, voice-activated remote finder, but it can act as a wireless headphone adapter for use at night.

Do you need the internet for a smart TV?

The short answer is yes, you will need internet in order to make a TV smart, and possibly wireless internet at that. Though some streaming devices featuring Ethernet connections do exist, the main way most streamers connect is via Wi-Fi

If you buy yourself a new smart device, first make sure you have your Wi-Fi details handy -- the access point name and the password. Some devices also require the installation of an app for your smartphone or tablet, so check that as well; these can also make inputting the Wi-Fi details easier. Plug the device into a spare HDMI port on your TV and then follow the device's on-screen instructions. Congratulations -- you now have a smart TV! 

What channels are free on a smart TV?

Smart TV opens up your television to dozens of apps, or streaming channels, and a good deal of these are free. Each smart TV system usually has its own free service -- Roku Channel, Samsung TV Plus and Vizio WatchFree Plus are three examples -- but there are a bunch more. NBC's Peacock and Fox's Tubi are standouts, as they offer plenty of content for free, and in some cases offer exclusive shows like Australian Lego Masters. Here's CNET's breakdown on the best free TV streaming services.