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Make Your TV Smart With This Simple Hack

Here's how to turn your old TV into a modern streaming monster.

Ty Pendlebury Editor
Ty Pendlebury is a journalism graduate of RMIT Melbourne, and has worked at CNET since 2006. He lives in New York City where he writes about streaming and home audio.
Expertise Ty has worked for radio, print, and online publications, and has been writing about home entertainment since 2004. He majored in Cinema Studies when studying at RMIT. He is an avid record collector and streaming music enthusiast. Credentials
  • Ty was nominated for Best New Journalist at the Australian IT Journalism awards, but he has only ever won one thing. As a youth, he was awarded a free session for the photography studio at a local supermarket.
Ty Pendlebury
3 min read
$39 at Amazon
012-roku-express-4k-plus
Roku Express 4K Plus
Best streaming device overall
$29 at Amazon
Chromecast with Google TV and voice remote
Google Chromecast with Google TV
Best voice controlled streamer
$130 at Roku
Roku Streambar with remote
Roku Streambar
Best sound and streaming combo
$125 at B&H Photo
Apple TV 4K 2022
Apple TV 4K (2022)
Best for power users

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) to premium cable replacements (YouTube TV). 

If you have a TV made since 2005, then it will likely have an HDMI port, which means you easily can add an inexpensive device to get you up and streaming. From bare-bones streaming adapters to soundbars to gaming-friendly set-tops, there is a smart TV device out there for you. Firstly, here are four of our favorites.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET
Number of channels 2Wireless subwoofer NoConnections Bluetooth, optical, HDMI, USBDolby Atmos No

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 $40 discount via Amazon.

Read our Roku Streambar review.

Apple/CNET

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. 

How to install a streaming device

101-how-to-set-up-a-roku

Connect your Roku into your TV's HDMI port. 

Sarah Tew, CNET

If you buy yourself a new smart device, there are a number of easy steps you'll need to take. Each device works a little differently, and we have step-by-step instructions for Roku and Amazon Fire TV in particular. If you're not using one of those, or want a general overview, this is what you'll need:

  1. Wi-Fi: First, make sure you have your Wi-Fi details handy -- you will need the access point name (your router) and your password.  
  2. Is there a smartphone app? Some devices also require the installation of an app for your smartphone or tablet, so check your phone's app store. These apps can also make inputting the Wi-Fi details easier. 
  3. Find a spare HDMI port: On the back of your TV, find a spare HDMI port, and remember what number it is. For instance, HDMI 1 or 2 are usually free. However, if your television is older than 2005, an inexpensive HDMI-to-AV adapter may be in order.
  4. Power: Plug in the supplied power cable and attach it to your device -- note that while some TVs do have USB ports, it's best not to use them, as they may not provide enough power to run your streaming device. 
  5. Plug it in: Plug the device into the port on your TV, switch the TV to the HDMI input you chose, and then follow the device's on-screen instructions. 

Congratulations -- you now have a smart TV! 

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. 

  • 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.
  •  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

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. Here's CNET's breakdown on the best free TV streaming services.