With interest in Smart TV growing daily I thought it would be useful to put together a Smart TV buying guide to simplify the choices. There's a risk of getting left behind. Equally there are some interesting developments to come. And if you're looking to buy a Smart TV in the next few months you'll need to be in a position to make some informed and considered choices.
That means not only understanding the different display technologies, screen sizing issues, pricing ranges, and which of the best Smart TV models offer the best balance of price, features and content options - but also what breakthroughs the future will or might throw up. Those are going to include developments in voice and gesture control, as well as extra features from the expansion of social TV, interactive TV, and converged TV technologies. You also need to consider the reasons not to buy a Smart TV yet.
So it's difficult to be certain whether now is really the right time to buy, although there are definitely some great sets on the market already (and reasonably priced too). That shouldn't stop us from taking a deep look at what's available right now though. There's no doubt it's a good idea to fully understand the details behind any high ticket purchase you're going to make, whether now or in the more distant future.
If you have decided now is the right time to be picking up your first Smart model, then reading through a buying guide to Smart TVs can be your first step and will give you a good grounding in the basics. It'll be wise to follow up with some studies of Smart TV buyer reviews.
And it doesn't end there either. Once you've half decided to buy, you'll probably want to compare Smart TV models to get a stronger feeling for what's available. All of that is to come though, let's start off on the Smart TV buying guide with the basics and move on from there. Here we go......
Not A TV - The Alternatives
What Does It All Mean?
Smart TV Buying Guide Tips - The Features To Watch For
I've covered much of what you need in the Smart TV buying guide above, but there's one area which I felt needed a written section all on its own.
So now we're going to talk about the things that actually make Smart TVs worthwhile. The things that actually give you something other than a great quality picture and nice audio. The features, benefits, and what Smart content you can actually get access to. All are important to consider in any buying decision.
1. The User Interface
To date this has been one of the biggest problems for users of Smart TVs. No wonder there's been so much interest in the Apple TV - the early rumours suggested it would be built to make it supremely easy for users to operate. Google TV was initially hammered for its poor interface, and has taken that on board with massive improvements. The major manufacturers are all focussing on making their interfaces intuitive and easy to operate.
Pay close attention to the way that internet services and apps are presented on screen. Are they well laid out? Easy to read? Easy to scroll through and select? The Smart TV portal of each manufacturer is their 'window' on the internet. They're all different, and worth deep analysis to choose the one that's going to work best for you.
2. The Content & Internet Based Services
The current crop of Smart TVs fall somewhat short of being truly 'Smart.'
The real breakthroughs will come with convergence of multiple devices and the TV itself. Yes, you can get internet access via browsers or apps on Smart Tvs right now, but the future promise is an integrated one, where smartphones, tablet PCs, and laptops become one with the TV. This will truly open up a social TV experience.
We're also looking for an interactive and personalised experience. One where content and services options are presented to individuals based on what they're watching or past preferences. Those kinds of features are still to be realised, though Samsung and Google are both at the cutting edge of development.
Getting access to the same TV programming currently offered by cable TV and satellite TV operators is still difficult. Those operators are holding on tightly to their content. But of course there are a number of options for getting streamed video, movies, and TV programming to your Smart TV. All those are available from services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Vidu. There are dozens more.
If you're buying a set built by one of the major manufacturers, take a look at their portal (see above). You want one with the biggest range of standard built in Smart TV apps, and perhaps more important an apps store that gives more options to buy extras.
3. Access To Cloud Gaming
There's every possibility that cloud gaming will take over from the discs and cartridges that we all know. Cloud gaming refers to the storage of and access to games within a virtual cloud outside of the console environment. Current cloud gaming services are provided by names such as OnLive and Gakai, and Google recently formed a partnership with Onlive to incorporate access into their Google TV offerings. We already know that ultimately cloud gaming access will be an integral app on future Vizio sets, with Gakai reportedly also working with LG.
Pay attention to availability of cloud gaming apps and access on any Smart TV you're interested in. Cloud gaming will be big news in future.
4. Convergence With Other Devices
This is a good place to introduce the term 'second screen'. You'll see this mentioned more and more, and it refers to those devices you use currently while watching TV separately. These include smartphones and the like. True smart TV will come when these devices are fully integrated with the TV, either by using as a remote control, beginning watching content on one screen and finishing watching on another, or entering info on one screen and seeing it on another.
Watch out for future developments in this area. An Apple Smart TV may well be the first model that really tackles this question of convergence.
5. Options For Connecting Other Devices
At some point you're going to want to connect another device to your TV - maybe an internet TV box or a games console. To do this you'll need HDMI connections. Most new Smart TVs are being built with four HDMI connection points, as a minimum you should really be looking for three.
6. Remote Controls
Pretty much every TV comes with its own remote control. The only model I can think of recently that didn't was the Playstation 3D TV. But even though you do get one there are problems coming. They get lost, people fight over them, and the batteries run out.
One way to overcome these is to get a universal remote control, and there are a handful of good options.
Sony, Samsung, LG and Panasonic all have access to apps that can use Wi-Fi or Bluetooth to work in conjunction with other mobile devices to work as remotes
Samsungs Android app is noteworthy. On newer Samsung models, it lets Galaxy Tab tablet PCs and smartphones like the Galaxy S II operate as remotes plus as game controllers or second screens.
We all want a great, crisp, clear picture. Here are some quality elements to watch out for:
We've talked about contract ratios further above, that's the difference between the blackest black and the whitest white. Whites should not be tinged with green, blue, or pink. Blacks should be black, and not tinged green, blue, or grey.
With colours you're looking for solidity and brightness. Are coloured images sharp around the edges? Do skin tones look natural?
3. Edges & Outlines
This is where you're most likely to see ghosting, or blurring around images. Keep an eye open for this along with any jagged appearance or halo effect around objects.
Smart TV processors have been enhanced to the point where their performance often eliminates any motion blur, but there are still some TVs where it is noticeable. To avoid a set with obvious motion blur, you really do need to see it in action displaying some form of fast paced sport - tennis or football will give good test results.
5. It's All In The Detail
We're looking for crisp, well defined edges to small elements of a viewed image. A good example would be to see if you can pick out individual leaves on a bush or tree.
Choosing Display Size
Display size is of course extremely important, and choosing size comes down in the end to two main factors - budget and practicalities. It's worth noting here that one of the biggest regrets after purchasing a new TV is often regarding size, and wishing you'd bought a bigger one.
From a budget perspective, it's clear that the bigger the set the higher the cost. This of course varies between different makes. Obviously you can get a larger, lower quality set than perhaps you can for a higher quality smaller screen. It's all about balance, trading off size against quality against what any set can do or deliver.
The larger sized Smart TVs offer some benefits in increased visibility of apps and images on screen, and when you add in 3D capability too it does bring in the question of immersion. 3D is all about escape and immersion, bringing you into the screen. There's no doubt that 3D works better on a bigger screen, as is amply demonstrated by watching 3D movies at the cinema.
Choosing display size also brings in some practicalities. How big is your room? Can you comfortably watch from the optimum viewing distance? Will the TV take over the room and create a focal point that you don't want? Are you going to wall mount it? Do you need to watch from different angles to the display. These questions are all answered on the best guide to TV viewing distances that I've managed to find.
Always take a look at any Smart TV you're keen on in a real life environment. The best you can probably achieve is either to find a friend who already has at least a similarly sized one, or to visit a store that has demo models. Store sales people will always be helpful if there's a chance of a sale, although it's still not easy to visualise how a set will look in your own home.
As a general rule you can work out optimum viewing distance by multiplying your seating distance from the set by 0.53 inches and rounding up to the next nearest screen size. An alternative way to look at it is to plan to sit around 3 or 4 times the height of the display - for HD sets that'll give good results.
When you visit a store, go armed with your room measurements. Think in advance where it's going to go - kitchen, bedroom, living room, office?
If you're wall mounting, don't forget to add on costs of brackets and the ease of doing it yourself or not. Brackets can cost anywhere up to around $200. Getting help to mount could be around $200 too. Make sure your chosen model is capable of being wall mounted, and that your wall is strong enough to take the weight.
Know your budget. It's easy to get blown away with that set that costs $2000 more than you want to spend. Upscaling a little is nice, but you do want to have at least some idea of how much you can afford to spend.
There's nothing worse than screeching, tinny sound. Fortunately most TVs have this covered with good quality built in speakers, but it's still worth a double check unless you intend to hook your new TV up to a home surround cinema system.
Turn up the sound to a reasonably high volume and listen for rattles and distortion. Pay attention to how voices sound, as well as music, and watch for synchronisation between lips and the spoken words. Listen to bass sounds for any rumbling and make sure they don't overwhelm other sounds. The direction of sound is important too, with sounds being projected to the front, sides, and rear.
Do In Need To Think About Processing Engines?
The processing engine of a TV is its powerhouse. The technology that makes it work, similar to a processor in a computer. Most manufacturers have developed their own technology that drives their models, and they'll make all kinds of marketing claims that theirs gives deeper blacks, or sharper images, or less blur on any fast motion.
You really need to see each set in action to make a choice, but things to watch for are 100 Hz scanning and 24p playback. In conjunction these give a smoother feel to motion of images on screen.
Shopping Around For The Best Deals
Once you have a good feel for the handful of Smart TVs that'll give you what you want, it's time to hunt around for the best deals and pricing. There are a number of places to look, ranging from the easy option of online ordering to the more time consuming visits to brick and mortar stores.
1. Buying Smart TVs From Online stores
The easier option. There are a wide number of online electronics stores which sell 3D TVs. Often these will have sections covering buyer reviews and star charts to show the best liked models. I'm not going to try and list individual stores here, you can check them all out on our page dedicated to buying a Smart TV.
2. Price Comparison Websites
These are great destinations to compare the prices offered by many of the online electrical retailers. Personally I find them frustrating at times, often not returning the results I'm really looking for. That said, if you're precise with your search entries they can be useful. Again, you can read more on the 'buy a Smart TV' page.
3. Specialist HiFi Dealers
Most likely you're going to come across these on the High Street or mall. They're usually the best place to go if you're still uncertain about what you want, or if you need more technical details plus a demonstration. Some of the stores that operate online do actually have live stores as well. Staff are often well trained, but probably not as clued up as some of the more specialised stores.
It's always worth looking out for when a model gets replaced by a newer version. Often this results in discounted prices for the older models, which actually might well be high performing Smart TVs in their own right.
It won't work online, but being a cash buyer has its advantages if you're prepared to bargain a price downwards. Knowing the prices a set is up for sale at in other stores is an advantage too. You'll need to ask for a price match or reduction to beat the competition, but if you don't ask you don't get.
As the developments in Smart TV gather pace, there will be an ever increasing number of extras to watch out for. Some of these include:
USB Port - Can be useful for connecting up devices such as cameras and viewing photos you've taken on screen Bluetooth Built in cameras Hard disc drive Integrated freeview/satellite tuner - comes as standard on many TVs though worth double checking. The alternative of course is to buy a cheap standalone version.
...And The Negatives? Why Shouldn't I Buy A Smart TV Yet?
I've covered a lot of positives in this Smart TV buying guide, but we do also need to consider the reasons why it may not be a good idea to get involved just yet.
1. It's Early Days, Isn't It?
Most certainly there are more developments to come. The Apple TV is likely to be a ground breaker, although likely to be on the expensive side too. Either Apple or one of the major manufacturers could come up with something that puts all previous Smart TVs in the shade.
2. Is The Current Content Availability Really That Great?
Well, this one is fairly straightforward to answer. The reality is that any internet site you want to get access to can be got to on a laptop, PC, tablet, or smartphone. And we all already have at least one of those, right?
What about Netflix and other streaming service you might ask. You can get these on other devices too. Sure, they might make better viewing on a bigger TV screen. Fairly soon there will be other options from pay TV providers (Sky is a good example in the UK, Time Warner and HBO in the US). But why would you want to buy a Smart TV to get access to services that you can already? If it's that important, why not just buy a Smart TV box or upgrader for a fraction of the cost?
3. Are Smart TVs Really Seeing Innovative Improvements?
It's debatable how far Smart TV technology has really advanced in the last 2-3 years. Yes we are seeing announcements of new technologies. Yes we are seeing enhanced performance and quality. But we don't yet have a fully converged solution that gives you all of the capability found in smartphones and tablets, plus a way to integrate those fully with our TV watching.
That's all still to come.
There's every possibility that those of us who took the plunge early and bought a Smart TV will be looking to upgrade. Taking the position now that there'll be no need to upgrade for 2 or 3 years might be a mistake. There could be future killer apps and features on the way which we're only just beginning to appreciate.
Some of these are in early stages of development, but not quite with us yet (and this is a 'not limited to' list!!).......
In-built cameras for videoconferencing with friends while watching programmes jointly True personalisation of content, delivered in real time depending on what you're watching and with whom Perfectly functioning voice and gesture recognition In-built apps for voting on reality TV programmes, eliminating the need for Twitter and texts.
Congratulations if you've managed to battle your way through my Smart TV buying guide. By now you're going to have some good understanding of the considerations you need to make to buy a Smart TV. If you've decided that buying now is right for you, then draw up a list, read up on some Smart TV reviews, and hunt around for the best prices. Visit some stores and get some demonstrations, and remember that in the end it is what's right for you that really counts.