Nobody knows exactly who coined the term “smart TV,” but it’s now become the default description for almost any TV you can buy today. The name conjures up an idea of an intelligent device that can think for itself, but thankfully TVs haven’t gotten quite that smart (yet!)

It was the arrival of digital TV (way back in 2000 in Australia) and with it, digital set-top boxes and ultimately digital-ready TVs, that set the stage for the smart TVs we know now. Digital TVs needed some sort of on-board computer to display a picture at all, as well as interactive things like the on-screen program guide. At some point, someone had an idea – what if these little computers deep inside TVs could run apps?

Soon we had TVs with support for YouTube, Skype, Facebook and more – but one major problem. Those apps were built into the TV’s software and couldn’t be updated unless the TV was. They were like giant old Nokia phones with a handful of apps included as extra “connected” features that were the background for the main event – the TV being, well, a TV.
We’ve come a long way in a very short time.

All systems go
Smart TVs really started to get useful when streaming made its way to Australia, kicked off by Netflix and Stan in 2015. Suddenly, here were services that were tailor-made for a smart TV – the one remote control opening up access to not just free-to-air channels, but also that massive world of on-demand entertainment. Problem was, streaming services getting themselves added to smart TV menus had been more difficult than it should be.

The big names in smart TVs solved the streaming problem by building their own operating systems and opening app stores, giving users access to a flood of streaming apps that could be added to the on-screen menu to choose from.

Today, the “big three” – Samsung, Sony and LG – all have their own ecosystems that let you effortlessly stream video from dozens of streaming services (there are more out there than you think!) But they’ve turned into something more than that – a vibrant user interface that’s designed to be the “home screen” of the TV, where you can access everything from streaming and video games to apps designed for big-screen face-to-face communication and more. Here’s what’s on offer.

Samsung
As one of the biggest names in smart TV, Samsung was a pioneer of the rich user interface that’s now pretty much the default for smart TVs, with their Tizen platform. Known as “Smart Hub,” it’s an ever-growing thing that Samsung keeps adding features to.

Alongside the usual row of streaming apps at the bottom of the screen when you’re watching TV, Smart Hub has expanded to include the features you wouldn’t expect from a TV, such as remote PC access. This lets you connect to a PC at work directly from the TV, use a cloud-based version of Office 365 and, with a wireless keyboard, get work done from home on the couch.

If you have a Samsung smartphone, you can just tap it gently on the TV to instantly connect and send your mobile screen onto the big screen, where the Multi View feature lets you keep watching TV while using your phone – great for keeping an eye on social media while watching a show.

Samsung has also built their SmartThings interface into their smart TVs, so you can control lights, air conditioning, even the washing machine from the SmartThings screen. Of course, voice assistants are built in – Alexa, Google Assistant and Samsung’s own Bixby. It’s the interface that comes closer than ever before to making the TV a hub for home activity.

Plug and Play
One thing many people don’t realise about their smart TV is that they can play a huge variety of content from any USB drive you have hanging around. Video and photos from your phone, camera or just about anywhere else can be thrown up on the big screen in seconds by copying them to a USB drive and plugging into the TV. Many smart TVs can also be set to record live TV on USB drives – a great way to capture a show you’d rather watch later.

 

Sony
Renowned for decades for their Bravia range of TVs, Sony got off to an early start with the “smart” concept, bundling a Skype camera with their TVs a decade ago, already realising the appeal of big-screen video calling and conferencing. Sony stuck to its own interface for a long while, though, with no app updates or store. Ultimately, they went for a solution provided by Google – Android TV, which runs extremely well even on less powerful devices – meaning it could be rolled out to almost the entire Bravia range.

Android TV uses a row-based design that lays out available apps, channels, suggested content and more, and makes it easy to find and install new apps via the Google Play Store (including big-screen games with a Bluetooth controller).

It comes with an in-built Google Chromecast, letting you cast from any supported video app (thousands of them) direct to the TV in full quality. Sony’s moved on to something bigger with the latest Bravia range, though. Billed as the “smartest Bravia yet,” new Sony TVs now come with Google TV.

This new smart interface is heavy on discovery – learning what you watch across a huge range of streaming services and recommending stuff to you based on what you might like. It makes for a great “pick up the remote and see what’s on” experience – but it also keeps track of where you’re up to with your shows on almost every streaming service, including Netflix
and Stan.

Of course, being powered by Google it has full Assistant support for everything from finding stuff to watch to controlling the same devices a Google Home can handle – lights, cameras, locks and more.

HDMI 2. what?
The HDMI 2.1 standard is now common on smart TVs, something that makes playing 4K Ultra HD discs through your TV far better, since it lets you send much higher-quality audio to your soundbar or speakers. But HDMI 2.1 is also brilliant for the current generation of game consoles that support desirable gaming features like variable refresh rate and smooth 120Hz display (great for those Forza Horizon sessions!)

 

LG
A brand known for bringing OLED TVs to the masses – as well as some seriously great LCD TVs that deliver incredible bang for the buck – LG has used an interface called WebOS for years now, with it being a fairly innocuous row of installed apps that popped up at the bottom of the screen when you hit the menu button. That’s changed in 2021, with LG redesigning the interface into a full “home screen” that brings together live TV, apps, recommendations, smart home device control and more. You can see all your connected devices on the one screen, too, even USB drives you’ve plugged in to play your own stuff.

It’s a big, interactive step up from LG TVs of the past, and comes with a new version of the company’s acclaimed “magic remote” – basically an “air mouse” that you can navigate the interface with instead of having to click through menu options. It works brilliantly, and has Alexa and Google Assistant support built right in.

It’s only year one for this new smart interface, but it’s already turned LG’s superb TVs into home hubs with a lot more “smart” on board than merely loading up apps.

Find out more – 2021 TV Buying Guide: LG’s OLED evolution

Pluggable smarts
While a huge percentage of TVs in homes have some smart features, older ones can be a bit of a pain to use, with slower menus and app performance. But there are ways to smarten up your TV just by plugging in a device to do the heavy lifting.

Amazon’s Fire TV Stick range has been a popular upgrade for streaming-hungry TV fans for years, and their latest version – the 4K Max – is hard to beat as a seriously fast smart upgrade for any TV with an HDMI socket. It’s been upgraded with faster performance, Wi-Fi 6 support, super-fast app loading and support for all major streaming services. It connects with other Amazon devices so you can control them with the Alexa voice remote – and even keep an eye on your front door camera while watching a show so you don’t miss a delivery.

There’s also the Fetch TV range of devices – including their latest, the Fetch TV Mini 4K, which merges live TV with streaming and on-demand movies for a lot of entertainment from a tiny box. Along with streaming support, it can pause and rewind live TV (if you want to record TV, the Fetch TV Mighty is the one to go for) and lets you buy or rent the latest movies and shows from your remote. You can even subscribe to Fetch’s own premium streaming TV channels.

Smart TVs are getting smarter, and their screens are getting better and brighter. Plugging in a smart streaming device is a great way to easily upgrade – but if you’ve been thinking about a TV upgrade, be sure to take a look at what smart TVs can do now. Streaming is just the start.

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