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If you’ve had your television for more than five years, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard about smart TVs, but their expanded features have made them a popular force on the market. And chances are that when it comes time for you to invest in a new flat screen, there’s an excellent chance it will be a smart TV.
With a smart TV, you can stream content from your favorite providers without a streaming stick or video game system, add internet channels for free, and rent high-definition movies with ease. It’s everything you could ever want in one neat package.
What is a smart TV?
A smart TV is simply a TV that has a built-in internet connection that allows it to access content beyond its coaxial cable or over-the-air antenna. Beyond your traditional content, smart TVs allow you access apps and online channels to expand your viewing options. They also help simplify your viewing experience, sparing you from teaching everyone in your family how to switch back and forth between inputs when someone wants to use the Xbox or watch Netflix. Now Netflix is just a channel on your TV.
Thanks to the growing popularity of smart TVs, there are more options across a broad range of price points than ever before. Not all sets are created equally, so you shouldn’t just jump at the first model you see that advertises it can play Netflix out of the box. Depending on your needs and budget, you can get a staggeringly full-featured set for a remarkably small amount of money.
What are the best features of a smart TV?
The killer feature of a smart TV is putting all of your digital content in one place with one remote. Not everyone in your family has the same level of technical savvy, so it’s nice to simplify your viewing set up. Smart remotes are easy to use and intuitive, with clear menus that help guide your path to the content you’re looking for. Want your grandparents to be able to use Netflix? Get them a smart TV.
Smart TVs also make it easier stream digital user-owned content. Want to watch those old digital home movies on your big screen? Load them on an external hard drive and plug it in. Most smart TVs will be able to play your media directly from the hard drive.
If you buy a smart TV that has a Roku or Amazon Fire interface, the experience can be even better thanks to the smartphone remote apps for each brand. Each has their killer features, like Amazon Fire’s Alexa Voice search or Roku’s Private Listening mode that allows you to plug headphones into your phone to listen to your program without using your speakers.
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Where each product shines is their ability to use your mobile device as a smart remote, simplifying navigation and adding keyboard integration in the process. Have you ever tried typing in a password for an app using a direction pad to maneuver around a menu? It’s a nightmare. With your smartphone and a smart TV app, entering this necessary data is as fast as typing a text.
What if I already have a streaming stick or game console?
If you already have an Amazon Fire TV stick, Google Chromecast, or Roku, not to mention any modern gaming console, then you don’t have to buy a smart TV to connect to the world of streaming options those devices provide. If your TV is still in good working order and you’re happy with your setup, there’s no reason to rush out and buy a smart TV. However, when you need to replace your set, there’s also no reason not to get a smart TV. If you live in your Xbox, you’ll still be able to access all your apps there, but a smart TV will make it easier on everyone else who uses your set.
Also, should your Xbox or PS4 ever breakdown, you won’t have to wait until you replace it to start watching your programs again. Smart TVs may have begun as a luxury item, but thanks to the dramatic decrease in their prices recently, they’re a good value. A 32-inch 720p Roku Smart TV starts at $169.99 on Amazon, or for just $449.99, you can pick up a 55-inch 4k Ultra HD Roku smart TV. Those prices are less than or equal to some standard high-definition TVs that are still on the market. You may not need a smart TV right now, but why wouldn’t you pick up the extra features the next time you buy a set if it’s the same price as the alternative?
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Are there any risks?
As with any machine that’s connected to the internet, your smart TV can be hacked. For most users, this won’t be a problem, but it’s still something to consider. We recommend avoiding brands of smart TVs that have cameras built into them, which could be used by hackers to view inside your phone. Stick to using Skype or Facetime on your phone for your video calling. Also, don’t use social apps like Facebook on your TV set. Leave those activities on your smartphone or computer, as they will likely have better security than your TV.
You’ll want to change your default password to your smart TV after you set it up. And make sure you regularly check to see if your TV has the latest firmware and install updates when they’re available. If you plan on buying a lot of movies and will have financial information on your TV, use a router with a built-in firewall for an extra layer of security.
Roku vs Amazon Fire TV
The smart TV market is flooded with options, mostly by manufacturers with proprietary systems that let you watch only a few limited apps like Netflix, Hulu, or HBO Go. But if you want the most out of your smart TV, we recommend picking up a TV with a built-in Roku or Amazon Fire TV. Both of these interfaces have their advantages, and it depends on your tastes.
Amazon Fire TV Edition offers fewer sizes and options than Roku, but they’re great sets, even if they’re a little more expensive than Roku. Currently, there are only two sizes available, a 43-inch model for $449.99 and a 50-inch model for $549.99. Each one is a 4K Ultra HD Smart LED TV, giving you stunning picture quality and contrast, with the bonus of a built-in Amazon Fire streaming service. With thousands of streaming channels, including all the major players like Netflix, Hulu, and, yes, Amazon. It also comes with Amazon’s unique Fire TV remote with Alexa voice search, which allows you to control streaming on 140 channels and apps across the Fire device. Want to ask your TV to play Game of Thrones and order you a pizza? Amazon Fire TV lets you do that.
Roku, on the other hand, covers all the bases. Starting with its 32-inch 720p Smart TV for $169.99 all the way up to the 55-inch 4k Ultra HD Roku Smart LED TV for $449.99, Roku has an option that fits your lifestyle. As a personal owner of the 55-inch 4K Ultra HD model, I can vouch for the quality of the screen and the interface. Roku offers fewer streaming channels and apps at the moment than Amazon, but at 4,000 channels, you’ll still have a lot to choose from. Roku’s interface makes switching to your cable box or game console easy, and as we mentioned before, its smartphone app adds private listening for viewing when other people in your house are sleeping. It lacks voice search, but private listening is a killer feature. Otherwise, the two sets are largely the same. When it comes to picture, Roku’s 4k Ultra HD offers a higher refresh rate and high-dynamic range, something the Amazon sets don’t have.
No matter what you decide, the chances are good next time you go to buy a TV, it’s going to end up being a Smart TV. If you’re looking to pick one up now, we would suggest the 55-inch Roku, simply because it’s a larger TV with more features for a lower price. If you’re invested in the Amazon Fire system or want an Alexa voice remote, the Amazon Fire TV Edition is still a great buy.
Editor’s note: This article is regularly updated for relevance.
John-Michael Bond is a tech reporter and culture writer for Daily Dot. A longtime cord-cutter and early adopter, he's an expert on streaming services (Hulu with Live TV), devices (Roku, Amazon Fire), and anime. A former staff writer for TUAW, he's knowledgeable on all things Apple and Android. You can also also find him regularly performing standup comedy in Los Angeles.