How to Choose a Smart TV or Device
If you’re considering the purchase of a new smart TV or device, there are several factors you want to consider—once you get past the basic TV-related stuff, of course.
First, determine whether you really want a new TV or whether a streaming media player connected to your old TV will do the job. You get pretty much the same functionality with a sub-$100 set-top box as you do a $1,000 top-of-the-line smart TV set, so the streaming media player route is a more affordable one. In addition, it’s a lot easier to upgrade (re: throw out and buy a new one) a $50 set-top box than it is to replace a $500 or more TV when things change. And things always change.
Whether you’re looking at a TV or a set-top box, you want to make sure that the device includes access to those streaming media services you use the most. While virtually all such devices include access to Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube, only a few let you connect to Amazon Instant Video. Most include access to Pandora and Spotify, but less-popular streaming music services aren’t always included. Check the available apps or channels to make sure you’re happy with the selection.
Next, consider whether or not you want to access media stored on your own home network. If all you do is stream movies and TV shows from the web, this functionality isn’t a big deal. But if you have a large library of digital music, recorded TV shows, or DVD rips, you want to make sure your new smart device can access and play everything you own. Check to see if the device offers streaming over a local network (typically via DNLA), and that it can play back media in the file formats you use. This is particularly important if you have a lot of DVD rips, but can also trip you up with some less-popular digital music format—especially high-resolution formats, such as Flac and Windows Media Audio (WMA) Lossless.
Almost all of these TVs and devices offer Wi-Fi connectivity, which is fine for most households. If you prefer the reliability and speed of a wired connection, however, look for a device that includes Ethernet connectivity.
You should probably look at any additional features offered by a given device. Some smart TVs (but no current set-top boxes) come with built-in cameras and microphones for live video chatting and gesture- or voice-based operation. If this sort of thing is important to you, take it into account.
Now it’s time to consider how the thing works—the interface and basic operation. Make sure the device’s onscreen menu system makes sense to you, and that you can easily get to where you want to get. Make sure you like how the remote works, or that there’s a smartphone app available if you prefer using that. Also, if you have a universal remote for your larger home theater system, make sure it’s compatible with the device you’re considering.
Finally, there’s the price. A streaming stick like Chromecast is the most affordable option, and set-top boxes aren’t much more expensive. If you’re in the market for a true smart TV, however, be prepared to spend a little more for the “smart” features than you would for a non-connectible model.
And don’t forget the cost of the streaming services themselves. You’ll pay around $10 a month for Netflix, Hulu Plus, Spotify, and the like. While ten bucks doesn’t sound like a lot, it starts adding up when you subscribe to multiple services. Go with a half-dozen services and pretty soon you’re spending as much for your online entertainment as you would on a traditional cable bill.