A smart TV is a TV set with some sort of built in computer that can handle direct connectivity with the internet as well as run applications. These apps mostly enable the user to get content from an internet based provider and interact with the provider directly from the TV via the remote.
Roughly fifteen years ago, the technology world was filled with buzz regarding the technological integration of TVs and computers. It has taken much longer than anyone thought back then but we seem to be close. However, technology changed a lot and solutions are not exactly what engineers had in mind back then either.
There are many different approaches still. You can stream content on your computer, tablet or smart phone. You can connect your TV to your computer, game console (PlayStation, Xbox, Wii) media streaming device (Apple TV, Roku), or with the smart TV you can connect directly to the internet via your modem.
Usually you receive a modem from your internet provider (do not try this with a dial up connection). The modem connects the World Wide Web to this modem via the phone line (DSL), cable (cable modem by cable TV provider), fiber optics cable (Gigahertz connection by specialty provider), T1 line or some other solution. The output of the modem goes into some sort of router (wired, wireless) that provides the home network. A lot of times the modem and the router reside in the same box. The network connections could be done by CAT5 or CAT6 cable for faster and more secure connection or via Wi-Fi for a less expensive and more convenient connection. Most smart TV has a built in Wi-Fi connection. So if the wireless router is close enough to the television set the connection is stable and fast enough to stream the video signal for even HD quality picture.
Most apps on a smart TV can be placed into one of the following categories:
- Online video streaming (Netflix, Hulu, …)
- Video-on demand (Vudu, Cinema Now, …)
- Games (Angry Birds, …)
- Social networking (Facebook, Twitter, …)
- Others (Photo Sharing, Weather, …)
Many of the most popular applications come preloaded on the TV but the user can add others as well as update the old ones as they become available. The manufacturers offer app stores where the software can be downloaded from. In this regard it is very similar to any smart phone or tablet. Some of these applications are free (e.g. Facebook) but others only work if the user pays a monthly subscription fee (e.g. Netflix).
The “computer” part of a smart TV is similar to any other so called smart device. The main parts are processor that executes all the processes and some sort of data storage that stores any data you need like your setup information, etc. Smart TVs are a little more expensive than their not so smart counterparts but the difference is minimal so they are built in to most modern high end TV sets. These are televisions that typically have a big flat screen with high definition (HD, 1080p), surround sound, may be set up for 3D (with the proper goggles the viewer sees a three dimensional picture if the original signal carries the necessary information), wireless connection.
Most smart TVs have similar collection of apps downloaded, usually Netflix, Hulu Plus, Pandora, Facebook, Twitter, news, sports, photo sharing, sports and weather apps.
Netflix is the 800 lb. gorilla. Although recently they had some gaffs and lost a lot of their customers but they are still the biggest streaming video service out there. Netflix started out as a DVD rental business via mail. Later they added the streaming component to their service for their existing customers for free. That is how they were able to become so big so quickly for streaming. After a few iterations they are back to offering the streaming for free to their customers who use the DVD rental service and they offer a streaming only account for $8 a month. Netflix has a large selection of TV shows and movies that are not so recent. Some movies never make it to the streaming library some make it very quickly. It probably goes on an individual bases. For example you can stream Toy Story 3 but not the previous two. The foreign film library is excellent though. Netflix also offers apps for mobile devices. The viewer can start a movie on the TV and continue where it stopped on a mobile phone or tablet.
Hulu is another option that provides on-demand streaming video of TV shows, movies, webisodes and other new media, trailers, clips, and behind-the-scenes footage from NBC, Fox, ABC, CBS, Nickelodeon, and many other networks and studios. Hulu also provides web syndication services for other websites including AOL, MSN, MySpace, Facebook, Yahoo!, and Comcast’s xfinityTV. Hulu is a joint effort between several big players of the traditional media Fox Entertainment Group (News Corp), NBCUniversal (Comcast/GE), and Disney-ABC Television Group (The Walt Disney Company), with funding by Providence Equity Partners.
Hulu Plus is a subscription version of Hulu for $8 a month. It does offer a bigger variety of content than the free version; however, there is content that can be found in the free version but not Hulu Plus. Hulu Plus removes most of the episode and content limits and lets the user watch a full season or series worth of episodes for some shows up to 720P resolution. Hulu Plus doesn’t offer sport and news and has virtually no premium cable content like HBO and Showtime. Hulu Plus gives customers the same amount of ads, and doesn’t make episodes available earlier than the free service. Netflix offers much of the same deep catalogue of content as Hulu Plus, but from more providers, including premium cable providers such as HBO and Showtime. Hulu Plus is easier to navigate and has better video quality, but with Netflix consumers can see a wider variety popular shows and movies without dealing with ads. However, Hulu has is the ability to watch full seasons of currently running shows that is not available on Netflix.
Video-on-demand apps are usually Vudu, Blockbuster and Cinema Now. In this case a one-time rental fee is paid to watch the selected movies. The fee allows the user to view the content typically for 24-hours.
There may be a difference between the apps that are available on one or another manufacturer’s models. However, many times these differences can change as the app is written for a bigger variety of platforms. There are also possible alliances between TV manufacturers and content providers. So some of the apps and the content may only be available for a certain manufacturer. One of such partnerships is between Sony and Google called Google TV. But some other providers blocked the access to their content from Google TV.
Consumers complain that some of the user interfaces are not very intuitive. There may be a better chance for differentiation in this area. Apple is of course, the master of user friendly interfaces. They have done the same for MP3 players, smart phones, tablets and now possibly for television. The last thing that Steve Jobs worked on before he passed away was TV. He supposedly said that they finally got it. Rumors exist that Apple is already starting production in the near future for the new product possibly called iTV. The expectation is that Apple would make deals with the companies generating the content similarly how it was done with the record labels. Some TV shows and movies are already available from iTunes, but the selection is not as good as what cable companies offer. If Apple is successful changing the landscape ones more, that could spell trouble for the cable companies.