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Smart TV: the facts

By Anika Hillery | 10:12 am 07/10/2011

Just as smartphones changed everything about how we use mobiles, the Smart TV is set to transform the idiot box in your lounge room. Anika Hillery answers some of the most commonly asked questions.

What is a smart TV?

Smart TV is the term for TVs that connect to the internet to provide a suite of web-based features that extend your entertainment choices beyond TV broadcasts. These typically include the ability to watch video streamed from select websites, access and interact with social networking sites, and download apps in much the same way as a smartphone does.

Such features have been on offer in so called ‘connected TVs’ for the past four years, of course, so the Smart TV label is on one level the industry’s recognition of the category as now mature enough to warrant its own snappy marketing term.

Some commentators, however, make a clear distinction between the two terms, with ‘true’ Smart TVs being those which integrate an open web browser that allows you to surf the internet, just like you would on a PC.

With no rule book to follow here, though, manufacturers are free to describe their Smart TV models as they like. For instance, while select LG and Samsung Smart TVs are able to browse the web, Panasonic’s 2011 Smart TV Viera models do not.

They key, then, to buying any Smart TV is to look past the headline and check that the online and networking features you want are supported.

Do I need a Smart TV?

If you’ve got an eye to the future, a Smart TV is a good choice because, being connected to the internet, it will be able to receive upgrades and additional services as they become available. Of key appeal here will be the ability to download new apps and access the bourgeoning world of IPTV services.

What is IPTV?

Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) is programming transmitted from the web via an internet connection, and perhaps the single biggest appeal of Smart TV.

IPTV can take the form of catchup TV services from the major television broadcasters, such as Plus7 and ABC’s iView; niche online TV channels such as Billabong TV and Fashion TV found on Sony Bravia equipment, or internet video stores similar to Blockbuster from which you can rent movies.

Already some Smart TVs from Samsung and LG will stream TV channels and allow you to rent and stream movies from BigPond Movies. Some LG Smart TVs offer a bespoke music channel as well as select Foxtel Pay TV channels (and for free!).

The scope and variety of this type of IPTV goodness will increase as licensing agreements (by which we mean money) covering different geographic regions are worked out between TV makers and various content owners, both local and international.

At present, there aren’t enough Smart TVs in Australian homes to compel these content owners to get serious, but when that tipping point is reached a wealth of riches will rain down upon all couch potatoes.

What are TV apps?

Like the apps on a smartphone, TV apps are mini programs that add functionality to your TV. Apps are typically preloaded onto any Smart TV you buy, and new apps are downloaded automatically – or at the discretion of the viewer – from the manufacturer’s own app store.

Apps provide information about weather and stock markets, allow you to listen to internet radio, access popular sites such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Picasa and, for the time being, provide a range of simple puzzle and board games like Soduku, Scrabble and Tetris.

In the near future, however, gaming apps for the TV screen will be the huge deal they are on smartphones and, just as we’ve seen happen on downloadable services like the Apple App Store, simple, arcade goodness will share virtual store space with pocket renditions of the AAA videogames that you see on today’s most sophisticated consoles.

Panasonic has already signaled its faith in the area via a deal with premier developers, Gameloft, and with its credibility in gaming, Sony too is likely to have big plans in this arena.

A different type of games-based app can be found on LG and Samsung Smart TVs in the form BigPond’s AFL and NRL Game Anaylsers. These allow viewers to watch any TV broadcast of an AFL or NRL game in the last five years, access player and team stats while in-game, and revisit highlights such as tries, goals and big hits via a video timeline of action.

Can I use smartphone apps on a Smart TV?

The app stores of the big TV nameplates don’t use the Windows, Android or Apple platforms found in most smartphones, so no, the apps you love in your mobile handset can’t be transferred to the big TV screen. Instead, each brand has its own proprietary ecosystem, which unfortunately means there’s no cross-compatibility either. Apps for, say, Samsung, work only on Samsung Smart TVs, and no others.

In a sane world, of course, there would be a TV apps store based on a single platform with universal support from all brands. It would be convenient for consumers, and with developers freed from having to create apps (and adapt smartphone apps) for multiple TV environments, consumers would be quickly served by a greater choice of apps for their Smart TV.

Can I download movies to a Smart TV?

While you can download apps to the flash memory in a Smart TV, the capacity doesn’t run to the gigabytes necessary for storing hours of video. Instead, video is streamed from the internet to the TV, which means it plays on the screen as its being delivered. Think of it like drinking running water from a tap, rather than putting it into a glass to drink.

And while Smart TVs could be fitted with gigabytes of storage, there’s really not much point. That’s because IPTV is on-demand, meaning you can dial up what you want, when you want to watch it. Under this model, there’s no need to keep a copy on hand for later.

What else does Smart TV do?

In addition to apps and IPTV services, most Smart TVs will also share media with other devices over your home’s wireless internet (WiFi) network. They do this using a system called DLNA (Digitial Living Network Alliance) which, following a short setup procedure, allows you to stream photos, movies and music directly from DLNA-enabled computers, digital cameras, mobile phones, music systems and video cameras.

This is especially handy if you download a lot of media to your PC or mobile phone, as it allows you to get all the good stuff from these small devices up on the big screen without having to make any physical connections, either via cables or inserting a disc or USB stick.

DLNA has been around for several years now, and each year’s implementation of the technology by the different TV brands is easier to install, faster to use and provides ever wider support for the audio and video formats found on the web. In another bonus, it’s becoming a common feature on even entry-level televisions.

Many Smart TVs also allow you to make internet video calls via Skype. You need a Skype account and an optional camera accessory to connect up to the TV (Sony bundles one with some of its models), after which making and taking calls is pretty much like what it is on your PC. Except you don’t have to cram the family around the small screen – everyone can sit comfortably on the couch – and you get see your friends and rellies almost full size on the big screen. (To see you writ large, they would, however, need their own Skype TV.)

The quality of the camera accessory is important here, so look for 720p recording and sensitive directional microphones that can pick up your voice from ‘way over there’ on the couch. Some accessories are magnetic, which makes it easy to fix them on to the TV, and in a nice touch, Panasonic Skype TVs allow you to record a video answer message for when you’re unable to answer a call. The caller, too, can leave their message as a video.

Why would I want to surf the web on a TV?

As mentioned before, the latest (or smartest?) Smart TVs let you browse the web, just like you would on a computer. While you probably wouldn’t want to view text-heavy websites on the big screen, the net’s more visual experiences – like photo sharing websites, movies trailers and catchup TV channels – are well served by 40-plus inches of HD real estate.

Shared online activities, too, will find a place on a web browsing TV. Instead of crowding around the PC, for example, the whole family could collaborate on planning the next holiday, using the TV as a giant high definition brochure to choose destination and accommodation. Alternatively, everyone could decide on which concert or movie to go to, then book tickets online via the big screen.

Is a 3D TV a Smart TV?

No – 3D effects are not dependent on your television being connected to the internet. That said, most – but not all – Smart TVs include 3D as part of their premium feature set. As always, check that any prospective TV purchase has the functionality you’re looking for or might want in the future.

How do I use a smart TV?

Recognising that all the extra features of a Smart TV have to be found in order to be used, TV makers have revamped their UIs (user interfaces) to look more like smartphones, using graphical icons rather than an index list of text to help you navigate between apps, DLNA, Skype, web browser and the more traditional ‘settings’ and ‘input’ selection functions.

These new interfaces even have special names: Smart Hub (Samsung), Dashboard (LG), and Connected TV (Panasonic), and allow the icons to be moved around – just like on a smartphone – according to your preference, or how frequently they’re used.

Do Smart TVs have touchscreens, like smartphones do?

Unlike smartphones, Smart TVs are not touchscreens. (They’re located too far away from viewers to be used as such, for one, and no-one wants grubby smudges all over their home entertainment centrepiece anyway.) You still need a remote control, then, to operate a Smart TV, and the best are designed to help you get maximum utility from a Smart TV’s unique features.

Samsung’s Flip remote, for example, is a conventional controller on one side and a fully QWERTY keyboard on the other. This makes typing in web addresses, Twitter feeds and Facebook posts quick and easy. It also has buttons for tabbing through websites, and a zoom function for magnifying page views

LG’s Magic Motion Controller is like a Wii remote – just point it at the screen and click to choose the app you want, type on the Smart TV’s virtual keyboard, or select a title to rent from BigPond Movies.

For Panasonic Smart TVs, there’s a dedicated 10 inch Viera Connect tablet, although the company’s not making it available in Australia. Not to worry though, as there’s an app that will turn an iPhone, iPad or Android handset into a touchscreen controller. LG, Sony and Samsung also provide free Smart TV control apps for smartphones.

What do I need to connect a smart TV?

A home network, which means a broadband connection, ISP provider and a modem router. All Smart TVs will connect via wired Ethernet cable to the router, but many allow a wireless connection, either via built-in WiFi or a dongle that inserts into a USB port on the TV chassis. If you can live with a length of trailing blue cable from your router to the TV, a wired connection is your best shot at enjoying stutter-free video.

If my TV goes out onto the net, what’s the deal with viruses and malware?

For a long time, Apple computers flew beneath the radar of hackers who were better rewarded by developing malicious code for the 98 percent of computers that ran Windows. With the growing popularity of Macs, users have only recently become a target for spam, viruses and other net nasties, and it is likely to be the same with Smart TVs in the future.

Currently, though, there is simply too small an install base and too many propriety operating systems for hackers to warrant chasing a return from. This means that having a TV connected to your network – and even surfing the web – on a Smart TV puts you at virtual zero risk from nefarious meddlers.

But what if I’ve just bought a TV?

Some Smart TV features can be found in web-enabled PVR set-top boxes, Blu-ray players and home theatre systems. Connect one of these to your home network and existing television and chances are you’ll enjoy IPTV, apps and more without the far greater expense of buying a Smart TV.

Be aware, though, that because manufacturers want you to buy their big ticket items, all the features of their Smart TVs won’t necessarily be available in these lesser-cost AV components. So be sure to check the fine print to make sure you’re getting the smart functionality you want.

What are the drawbacks of Smart TV?

The biggest impediment to your enjoyment of Smart TV is the limited content available via IPTV and apps stores. The creation of compelling apps by third-party developers is being stymied by the proprietary approach major TV brands have taken to their app stores, and much of the great IPTV content available to overseas consumers is off-limits here because local TV broadcasters have bought the rights to transmit them.

Poor broadband speeds can also be a problem, with video especially prone to stuttering and break-ups while streaming over a WiFi network. In addition, the large size of IPTV video files can be a problem for people on low data plans. Rent a couple of movies from an online video store or stream internet radio for a few days and it’s easy to exceed your monthly quota and incur extra charges – or have your service throttled back.

A good solution here is to choose an ISP that offers unmetered downloads for IPTV services. BigPond, for instance, doesn’t charge for data used while accessing its movie and TV services. These are presently found on LG and Samsung Smart TVs.

Is Smart TV worth it?

Definitely. A Smart TV is the current state of the art in consumer display technology, but online-networky-IPTV-appiness is not the only story. Premium Smart TVs exhibit luxe industrial design and are home to image making credentials – 200Hz processing, Edge-LED backlighting, precision dimming for superior contrast, 3D and more – that will satisfy for years to come.

Moreover, apps and IPTV services will explode, and today’s Smart TV will be able to take advantage of the potentially limitless content this promises.

 

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