Smart TVs: Viewing in a Connected World
What Exactly Is Smart TV?
Let’s be honest. “Smart TV,” as the term is used today, is nothing more than marketing hype. The appellation refers to television sets or set-top boxes that offer connectivity to the Internet, typically via Wi-Fi wireless technology, as well as built-in Web 2.0 apps that enable viewing of various streaming video services, such as Netflix and Hulu. There’s nothing inherently smart about a smart TV; it’s a marketing term used to convey the ability to view Internet-based programming.
The concept of the smart TV isn’t particularly new. Smart TVs have been around since 2007 or so, under many different labels, including “connected” TV, “hybrid” TV, “IPTV,” and “Internet” TV. (One could even argue that the concept has actually been around since 1995’s WebTV box, which served as an Internet client for traditional TVs.)
Note that a smart TV doesn’t actually have to be a TV. Streaming media boxes and dongles that connect to a TV and offer the requisite streaming video connectivity also fit under the broad category of smart TV devices. So Roku and Apple TV settop boxes are smart TV devices, as are the Google Chromecast, Roku Streaming Stick, and Amazon Fire Stick. For that matter, Blu-ray players and videogame consoles that offer streaming video connectivity are also classified as smart TV devices.
What’s Inside a Smart TV?
At its most basic, a smart TV is a television set that can connect to and interact with the Internet. In practical terms, that means the television must include the following:
- Wi-Fi radio or Ethernet connection, for connecting to your home network.
- Central processing unit (CPU), the computer brain that manages all the device’s operations and commands.
- Operating system (OS) that serves as the interface between the CPU and software-based applications.
- Graphical user interface (GUI) for displaying menus and other options.
- Software-based apps that enable connection to various web-based services. For example, a smart TV might have built-in apps for Netflix, Hulu, and Pandora. Most smart TVs come with several apps pre-installed; some smart TVs enable additional apps to be installed after purchase.
Some smart TVs also include apps and associated technologies that enable the device to play back media stored on your home network. In some cases, this capability is built into the OS, as with the Apple TV; in other cases, this capability is enabled by DNLA or UPnP compatibility.
Some smart TVs include a built-in camera and microphone, like the one shown in Figure 3.1, for connecting with video-sharing and chat services, such as Skype. Some more advanced smart TVs use the built-in camera/microphone to navigate the onscreen menus, via a series of hand gestures or voice commands.
Figure 3.1 The integrated camera on a Samsung smart TV.
Naturally, a smart television set (not a set-top box) will also include a traditional television tuner for viewing broadcast, cable, or satellite programming. You typically switch from the normal viewing screen to a GUI menu for the web-based services and apps.
All smart TVs are controlled by some sort of remote control. Some remotes are basic affairs, with just enough buttons to navigate the onscreen menus. Others include keyboards (useful for typing in search terms), trackpads, even game controllers. Most smart TVs can be controlled by universal remotes, such as those in the Logitech Harmony line. Some smart TVs can be controlled by smartphone or tablet apps.
Remember, too, that a smart TV doesn’t have to be a literal TV. A smart TV device, like the aforementioned Roku box, contains the same circuitry and apps as a literal smart TV, but without the TV part. Instead, the set-top box connects to a regular TV (typically via high-definition multimedia interface [HDMI]), enabling the TV to display media played on the external device.
What You Need to Use a Smart TV
Right out of the box, a smart TV has little or no functionality. To utilize all the features of a smart TV, you need to provide the following:
- An Internet connection.
- A home network that interfaces with your Internet connection. This can be a wireless (Wi-Fi) or wired (Ethernet) network.
- Electricity. Duh.
If you have a smart TV set-top box, you’ll also need an HDMI cable to connect the device to your traditional television set.
What a Smart TV Does
So a smart TV is a TV or set-top box that integrates Internet capabilities. What exactly does that mean?
Most smart TVs can perform the following functions:
- Connect to the Internet via a local network. That means connecting to your home network and sharing your Internet connection. Most smart TVs connect via Wi-Fi, although some can connect via Ethernet.
- Play video content from web-based streaming video services, such as Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Instant Video.
- Play music from web-based streaming audio services, such as Pandora and Spotify.
- Play digital media stored on other devices connected to your home network.
- Access selected websites and web-based services, such as Facebook, Twitter, and AccuWeather. Some smart TVs offer full-fledged web browsers, although it’s more common to find discrete apps for specific sites and services.