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Smart TV: what you need to know

Smart TV is the latest buzzword, and we take you through what it takes for a TV to be "smart", detailing some of the best features including IPTV, apps and web browsing.

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
5 min read

If you're buying a new television, you have probably heard of something called a "smart TV".

smart tv home screen
Smart TVs feature a home screen that gives you access to apps, video and more! (Credit: CBS Interactive)

Given the popularity of smartphones, such as the iPhone, it's entirely possible that the concept of a "connected device" could easily translate to a television. But what is a smart TV and what does it do?

What does smart TV mean?

Like a smartphone, a smart TV offers a number of "internet connected services" that normal televisions can't offer. It has the equivalent of a computer built into it, giving you a greater number of services. These televisions offer apps, media streaming, web browsing, games and, perhaps most importantly, Internet Protocol Television (IPTV). IPTV is a specific type of internet video standard, but is now also used as shorthand for any video streamed via the internet to your TV. It can take the form of short clips or continuous "live" channels.

While these features aren't new, and have been a part of some televisions and set-top boxes since 2005, the term "smart TV" has given them a name.

Why do I need one?

While smart TVs have plenty of whizz-bang features, there is one that promises to revolutionise how we use our televisions. Just as Personal Video Recorders (PVRs) brought with them the idea of "time shifting" -- where you no longer had to watch a program when it was aired -- IPTV is the next "killer app" of smart TV.

Not only that, but smart TVs use a system called DLNA that lets you stream media from computers or phones to your TV. If you currently download a lot of video or music from the net, then the right smart TV can access that content directly without you having to copy it onto a disk or USB stick!

How do I connect my TV to the internet?

All of the smart TVs currently accept an Ethernet cable at the back of the TV, while most also support wireless connection. To connect to the internet, you will need to set up a home network, and the process is very similar to connecting a laptop.

Some TVs support wireless but don't have it onboard, instead requiring an optional dongle that usually costs around AU$100. Our preferred method is a wired connection, however, and while you will need to hide the cable away, it will provide a much more stable link.

Did you know?

Smart devices have been with us for a long time. According to Wikipedia, the first smartphone was released in 1993. The IBM Simon was a touchscreen phone before its time with applications that we now take for granted, such as email, a calendar, an address book and games.

What can I do on a smart TV?

Aside from lacking productivity functions, such as email and word processing, a smart TV is a lot like a computer. It enables you to browse the web, watch YouTube and catch up on social networking. Some of the TVs (such as Samsung) currently support Flash as well, which means a better web browsing experience.

However, as the category is new, there are inevitably features that will come and go. For example, how many people will use Facebook -- which to many is a private activity -- on a TV in front of their family when they can easily use a laptop in front of the TV?

To us, the most exciting capability of smart TV is the ability to watch video on demand. At the moment, you can watch catch-up TV from ABC iView, SBS and Plus 7. On most TVs you'll also find dozens of specialty channels offering surfing, football, music and almost anything else you can imagine.

If you just want to sit down in front of the TV and relax without having to choose something else every three minutes, then services like Bigpond TV (currently on Samsung and LG) offer "regular" channels of music and sport. We look at some of the sports content currently offered here.

Panasonic is making a big deal of its forthcoming games titles, which will include titles by Gameloft, in addition to a number of exercise games that utilise an optional monitor wrist band.

Skype is another new application, which, with the addition of a webcam, lets you talk to your friends and family on your TV.

smart tv game analyser
The NRL Game Analyser on Samsung and LG TVs gives you access to full games with highlights. (Credit: Samsung)

How do TV apps work?

All of the smart TVs have a home page that lets you access all of the different functions, and from there they also link to individual app stores. At the moment, all of the apps available on smart TVs are free, but the manufacturers are hoping to translate the popularity of paid apps on mobile devices to televisions.

Sony and Panasonic have traditionally been different in that new features are automatically downloaded once available, and become selectable from the main page. However, Panasonic has just announced its own app store, so this may change.

Apps currently include games, internet radio, weather and entertainment. One of the most original apps so far is Bigpond's NRL/AFL Game Analyser, which includes several seasons worth of full games marked with highlights that you can stream to your TV.

Can I use apps across TVs or devices?

Unfortunately, all of the different TVs have their own unique operating environments, and you can't translate apps from one device to another. However, most smart TVs have their own remote applications on the Android and Apple app stores that will enable you to control the TV from anywhere in the house.

What if I don't want a new television?

If you have already bought a flat-panel TV recently, then there is a way to get the smart TV features without having to buy a whole new television. Several companies offer set-top boxes with smart features onboard, and are usually available for a few hundred dollars. Investing in a media player is also an economical way to bring streaming content to your home theatre system.

How do I control the TV?

To many people, a "smartphone" means that it has a touchscreen, but when your TV is six feet away this makes it hard to "touch". As a way to get around this, manufacturers have come up with several different methods available for controlling smart TV.

Our current favourite is LG's Magic Motion remote. It acts like a Nintendo Wii-mote and enables you to naturally point at objects on the screen. This comes particularly in handy when navigating web pages.