An introduction to Smart TV

Unlike 3D, which has a rather questionable future outside of the movie theatres, Smart TVs are set to take off in a big way – if only the industry could sort itself out a bit quicker.

There are plenty of different ways to get into the world of Smart TV, to suit all tastes and budgets.

You don’t necessarily have to buy a new TV either, as there are a multitude of ways to add Smart TV functionality to your existing television.

Here are some ways to get into Smart TV.

Buy a new television

There are plenty of manufacturers selling Smart TV, with sizes starting at 22-inches and going beyond 55-inches for those with deep pockets.

The larger sets generally come with 3D as standard and now offer both wired and wireless options.

LG – Link

LG G2 Series TV

 

Panasonic – Link

Panasonic Smart VIERA TX-L47WT50B

 

Philips – Link

Philips 40PFL8606T

 

Samsung – Link

Samsung 8000 Series Smart TV

 

Sony – Link

Sony KDL-26EX553

 

Plus other cheaper brands, including Technika (Tesco).

 

Buy a box for your existing television

Happy with your existing television, or not ready to shell out big bucks to replace it just yet?

There’s no need to worry, as there are a number of separate boxes you can purchase to sit below or alongside your current television.

Even the big manufacturers above might offer a standalone box to add Smart TV functionality via HDMI, or incorporate the functionality within a separate accessory that you might wish to purchase – such as a sound bar or Blu-ray player.

Otherwise, there are other boxes that can give you a taste of what Smart TV has to offer, such as access to On-demand services, apps and games.

Here’s a selection of what is on offer:

 

Apple TV – Link

Designed to work seamlessly with your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch, Apple TV is perhaps the only choice for loyal Apple users.

Although it was hoped and expected that Apple might announce the opening up of the Apple TV platform to allow more services, it appears that for now you’re limited to music, film and TV shows via iTunes, or media shared from a Mac or iOS device.

The exception to the rule is the inclusion of Netflix, which is perhaps a surprising addition given the fact that Apple doesn’t make any money from the monthly subscription.

Apple TV also offers access to other free video services, such as Vimeo and YouTube – but all rumours of an update to allow you to run other iOS apps/games have proven to be false so far.

Apple TV (TV not included!)

 

Google TV – Link

Manufactured by more than one manufacturer, just like the world of Android smartphones and tablets, it was thought that there would be loads of Google TV boxes on offer by the end of 2012. It didn’t happen, and recently Google spoke of issues with Google TV and how it should develop going forward.

It seems that Google TV is continuing to struggle to find a way into the market, much as Apple has.

Some manufacturers, such as Sony, not only offer a standalone box to add Google TV (a variation of the Android operating system, compatible with Android apps and games) but also a unit that contains a Blu-ray player too, reducing the number of boxes on your TV stand and HDMI cables fighting for access to your TV.

Google TV boxes can be hooked up to wireless keyboards, mice, game controllers or used with the standard remote – such as Sony’s innovative remote that includes TV controls, QWERTY keyboard and optical trackpad for moving the virtual mouse on-screen.

In theory, you can access all the games and apps you could ever need – but the reality is somewhat different. So far, the selection of apps on the Play store for Google TV is rather disappointing and shows no real signs of changing.

On the plus side, you do get access to Netflix and Flixster (where you can view UltraViolet movies you’ve purchased, or received a code for as part of a purchase of a DVD/Blu-ray with free digital edition) and a pretty decent web browser too!

Sony NSZ-GP9 Google TV/Blu-ray

 

Freeview+ HD – Link

Many of the latest generation of HD boxes include network connectivity to bring you on-demand services like BBC iPlayer, although that’s pretty much it. It’s definitely the most basic way in, and also one of the cheapest, but doesn’t really offer a true Smart TV experience.

YouView is perhaps the most advanced incarnation, available as a standalone box or as part of your subscription with BT or TalkTalk. YouView includes an innovative programme guide that lets you go back up to seven days in the guide to view broadcasts you’ve missed by downloading them over the Internet.

 

Freesat – Link

As an alternative to Freeview, or having a subscription with Sky, there’s Freesat – which works with any existing Sky dish (in other words, any dish pointed to the same collection of Astra satellites).

Like Freeview, there’s no subscription and a number of channels – including many more HD channels than that currently offered via terrestrial broadcasting. However, just like Freeview+ boxes, the range of Internet/On-demand services are still fairly limited – but that is likely to change later in 2013 as Freesat is rumoured to be adding Netflix support to its high-end boxes. The latest Freesat receivers include Freetime, a similar feature to that of YouView, allowing you to download programmes you’ve missed by going ‘back in time’ through the programme guide.

 

 

Sky+ HD with On Demand – Link

Sky now offers access to archived movies and TV series’ via your home broadband connection, with boxes offering 1 or 2TB of storage.

There’s also access to the Sky store to purchase movies shortly after leaving movie theatres, with access to hundreds of other new movies and archived TV programmes – including ‘box sets’.

Sky’s recent update now means that you can access all of the On Demand services from the likes of the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Five and others via individual menus, by category or by channel (and on a day-by-day basis).

It means Sky is now one of the most comprehensive offerings available and subscribers can also access and control their box via apps for their Android and iOS devices, as well as viewing many channels on the move with the Sky Go app (and now the Sky Go Extra for £5 per month that allows downloading for offline viewing).

Due to Sky offering its own range of movies and sport, don’t expect any access to services like Netflix or Lovefilm!

Sky+ HD Box (1TB model)

 

Roku – Link

As an alternative to an Apple TV, Roku offers a very similarly sized box to hook up to your TV, with prices starting at £50 for the 720p model and £100 for the 1080p model. The latter also comes with a motion control for games, including a copy of Angry Birds, expandable memory and Bluetooth. Each model offers access to Netflix, BBC iPlayer and a wealth of other online services.

It’s environmentally friendly too, consuming just 2 Watts of electricity in operation.

Roku 2 XS Streaming Player

 

Virgin Media TiVo – Link

Just like Sky, you’re pretty much limited to streaming content from Virgin Media’s archive, although there is also access to catch-up content from the terrestrial broadcasters.

TiVo uses its enhanced programme data to make it possible to do detailed searching of programmes making it far easier to find things than Sky, allowing you to search by genre, a member of the cast or crew, by episode and much more.

Virgin’s TV Anywhere app allows access to a number of channels (in excess of 60 as of April 2013) via iOS devices, as well as remote control of the TiVo box.

Virgin Media TiVo

 

Hook up your smartphone or tablet to an existing TV

Another option is to connect your Android smartphone or tablet to your TV, allowing you run the exact same services you do today, simply output to the big screen.

For this to work, you’ll need a device with an HDMI output. Many suitably equipped smartphones and tablets have a separate HDMI port, which means you’ll be able to connect the device to your charger at the same time, to stop it running out at the most awkward moment.

Some devices, including the Samsung Galaxy S III and the HTC One X, One S and One V output a HD picture via a modified micro-USB port. A ‘MHL’ port serves as a way to charge, sync data and output HD video using a single port. Many new televisions can provide power to keep your device charged without needing a separate charger. If it does not, you may need to get an adapter or docking station that splits the two ports back up.

Many new phones also support Wi-Fi Direct, which is often given a different name by manufacturers keen to claim the feature as some sort of exclusive, or try and lock you into their products. This wireless technology allows you to keep hold of your phone or tablet and use it as remote control, while sending pictures, music and video straight to your TV. A newer variant allows mirroring of the display on your device, as if you were connected via a HDMI cable. One such technology is Miracast.

Apple also has its own take on this, called AirPlay and AirPlay Mirroring. It allows iPhone, iPad and iPod touch owners to share (or mirror) the screen via an Apple TV box connected to a TV (see above). With the release of Apple’s new OS X operating system (Mountain Lion) in July 2012, Mac users with compatible hardware can also share their desktop or laptop screens on a TV wirelessly too.

Another way to access content from your TV is setting your device to act as a DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) server, which allows your TV to access content via a (usually fairly crude) on-screen file manager. It’s quite an old technology now, but still works fairly well – although if you have a significant amount of content for the TV to access, it can be slow to scroll through – especially if the TV attempts to be clever and produce thumbnails for photo and video.

The advantages of a wired HDMI option are obvious; you already have a device that can bring apps, games and the web to a TV, and only need to invest in a suitable HDMI cable to make it happen. Check out an online retailer like Amazon, which will sell you the cable you’ll most likely need for a smartphone or tablet (a Micro HDMI to standard HDMI cable), with prices far lower than on the high street.

But, now that you’ve got your device hooked up to your TV, how do you control it if it’s sitting under the television? Well, if you have a device running Android 3.x or 4.x, you should be able to easily connect a Bluetooth mouse and/or keyboard. Alternatively, some smartphones supporting USB On-The-Go, or featuring a dedicated USB port, will let you connect USB accessories directly to the phone, including game controllers normally used by Xbox and Playstation 3 owners – allowing you to use cloud gaming services like OnLive.

It is important to note that some streaming services restrict viewing when you output your smartphone or tablet display to a HD TV, so while you might be fine watching your own ‘side-loaded’ content, you will likely find that On Demand services (e.g. 4oD, Netflix or Sky Go) will not work and just leave you with a blank screen.

About author
Involved in tech since 1990, from selling mobile phones and computers, to writing about them for trade and consumer publications, such as Mobile News, What Mobile, Know Your Mobile and Stuff. If writing about mobiles wasn't exciting enough, being paid to watch TV during work hours is the icing on the cake. Jonathan on Google+

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