Which is the best smart TV – and what does the ‘smart’ label even mean? If you want a new smart TV to upgrade your movie and TV viewing when you’re at home and you’re not sure where to begin, this guide is for you.
Smart TVs are everywhere these days. In fact, it would be difficult to find a TV without some smart functionality for accessing apps and online catchup services. But that functionality can vary greatly in how the interface is laid out, which apps are supported and generally how intuitive everything is to navigate. Not to mention there’s a big difference in the HDR format support – including HDR10+ or Dolby Vision – with some TV brands only supporting one over the other.
As of 2021, new Sony TVs will make use of a new Google TV platform rather than the usual Android TV interface – while existing Android televisions have been getting facelifts to update and improve the UI.
LG's webOS and Samsung's Tizen are often considered to be the best smart TV platforms – they're fast and fully stocked with the latest apps – though there's still plenty of reason to give plenty of other operating systems a look in.
Some, like Hisense, use a variety of smart platforms depending on the region and price point of their television, meaning a new Hisense TV could make use of Android TV (also used by Sony), Roku TV (developed for Roku streaming sticks), or its own VIDAA U platform.
Each smart TV platform has their own pros and cons, which is why we put together this guide: to help you to navigate the glut of smart TVs out there, and decide which of the best smart TVs are really going to be right for you.
- Not fussed about the best software? Head to our best TV guide instead
Best smart TVs
LG rewrote the rulebook for smart TV platforms with its webOS, starting the trend for minimal, simplified user interfaces back in 2014. Fast forward to 2020, and webOS is still an exceptional smart TV platform that truly leads the pack – with its latest iteration featuring on the CX OLED (and its GX OLED, WX OLED, and soon-to-come BX OLED siblings).
The UI, which is still built around a Launch Bar for apps, inputs and features, remains tidy and customizable, and you can change the running order to best suit how you use the set. If you like to Miracast images from your smartphone, grab the Screen Share app with LG's cursor-based Magic Remote and move up further up the pecking order.
LG also leads the way when it comes to voice recognition, with the CX OLED supporting LG’s own ThinQ AI platform, Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. Support for all these is built in, too, which means there’s no need for an external listening device.
For 2020 there's also a new Sports feature that helps you keep track of broadcasts featuring your favorite team – a minor addition, but a personal one nonetheless.
App support is also surprisingly good: Netflix streams in 4K with both HDR and Dolby Vision, as well as Dolby Atmos audio when available. There's also Amazon with UHD HDR and YouTube in 4K, with Disney Plus naturally in the mix too. Other options include Now TV, Sky Store, Wuaki.TV, plus all the main channel catch-up services.
You won't find Freeview Play on 2020 LG TVs – for some reason – which will be something of a loss for UK viewers. We're hoping this gets amended at a later date, though.
Best smart TV with webOS: LG CX OLED
Samsung is another brand keen to keep things simple – its Tizen OS clearly owes much to LG's webOS interface, in so much as it consists of icons, apps and shortcuts all accessible via icons held a horizontal strip across the bottom of the screen. A dynamically changing ‘Recent’ box in the far-left corner cycles between recently used apps and TV channels.
But it’s not overly intelligent as it stands right now, but that could change in the future when Samsung integrates its TV AI into Tizen.
For now, we like the fact that on-screen icons can be changed: a sense of identity is welcome when it comes to some AV inputs and key apps you use everyday. The OS cuts down on clutter, although this sometimes works against navigation – there are plenty of occasions when it's necessary to go hunting for a specific app. Thankfully that's made easier by a Smart Hub multimedia page that divvies up content from apps and from your own USB sticks/home network.
On 2020 TVs like the Q80T QLED, you'll find that the launcher bar is smaller than before, meaning more apps can fit onscreen at one time – while a new Mobile Multi View feature enables you to watch on both your TV and smartphone simultaneously while casting.
You'll find Tizen on all QLED TVs, and most Samsung 4K TVs. Higher-end models will get Bixby built-in too. But all Samsung sets come with Samsung SmartThings – which allows your TV to act as the center of your connected home.
Best smart TV with Tizen OS: Samsung Q80T QLED TV
Announced back in 2014 for TCL TVs, Roku TV has found support with low-cost US TV suppliers. Today, you can find Roku TV on quite a few Haier, Hisense, Insignia, Sharp and TCL TV models – as well as a dedicated Hisense Roku TV model in the UK.
As a platform, Roku TV borrows the interface and feature set from the company's popular media streamers, like the Roku Streaming Stick.
What that means is that you'll find a universal search function able to scan over 30 different apps like Netflix, Google Play TV and Movies, Amazon, VUDU and more to find you the lowest price on the TV show or movie you want to watch, as well as around 4,500 channels of content to watch.
Once you get a Roku TV up and running, you’ll find an egalitarian operating system that handily retains its top spot as the best second-division operating system year after year. It’s intuitive to use, if a bit boring, and its lack of ties to a particular streaming platform allow it to point you to all the places content can be found without bias.
That last bit is important, especially if you’ve ever used an Apple TV or Amazon Fire TV, both of which would much rather have you stream from their ancillary streaming services over any of the third-party ones. Because Roku doesn’t have ties to a major streaming service – other than a vague deal to include FandangoNow on the home screen of the OS – it doesn’t push you any direction you don’t want to go and happily supports everything from Netflix, Hulu, Sling TV and Amazon, to lesser-known channels like Pluto.tv, tubi, Crackle and others.
Add to that some neat features like a dedicated app that helps you keep track of upcoming movies and TV shows via the My Feed section, a free TV streaming service built into the platform, and a private listening mode (via headphones that plug into the remote) when you want to watch TV without disturbing the whole house.
Best smart TV with Roku TV: TCL 6-Series
Android TV is the nearest the smart TV universe has to a standardized operating system, but there are still variations between brand executions. Supporters of Android TV are Philips (via maker TP Vision) and in the US, Sharp and Hisense. It’s also available on the Nvidia Shield streaming device.
Sony, however, has the most comprehensive Google solution. For UK viewers, it has rather cleverly layered a YouView program guide platform on top, deftly addressing one of Android TV’s big weaknesses – catch-up TV provision. This YouView app ensures that all the main catch-up services are provided, and accessible via a roll-back 7-day EPG.
The latest Android version 9.0 (Pie) also features a few Sony-specific improvements. Highlighting an option in the Settings menus, for instance, now brings up a cool ‘exploded’ explanation of what that feature does. There are also new voice control onscreen ‘tips’, and enhanced external device detection and information.
While other TV platforms make a virtue of their minimalism, Android stacks the screen with various layers of content: there’s also a row of specific Sony selected content, followed by apps for Netflix, Amazon Video, links to the Google Play Store, Google Play Music, Google Play Movies and TV, YouTube and so on. You will get Disney Plus, but Apple TV Plus still isn't included on Sony TVs.
Owners of Android phones/tablets can use their device to control Android TVs via Sony’s TV SideView app, and Google Assistant continues to get more and more useful with its own Android TV integration. Android TV devices also have Chromecast built-in, which simplifies streaming from mobile Android devices (iOS users can download the AirBuddy app to Google Cast). Controllers from Logitech and Razer also promise gaming without needing a console.
In our experience, Android is the least stable of the various smart platforms, with Sony TVs exhibiting more than their fair share of failures, usually with inscrutable error messages. This is becoming less of an issue, though, as Android TV updates improve the platform.
Best smart TV with Android TV: Sony A8H/A8 OLED
SmartCast, on paper, is a great idea. It's all the fun extras of the Android TV platform – including the ability to Cast content to your screen - with a more logical layout.
When you turn on a SmartCast TV be prepared to see three rows – one featured row that has huge marquee images to point you to specific shows or movies; one row for recommended content and one row for all your apps.
If you want to drill down into specific content categories or settings, you can move to one of the other tabs (there's a tab for movies, TV shows, Support and Extras) or go to the top right of the screen to perform a search.
Unfortunately, while SmartCast provides a lot of versatility in what you can stream, it's also one of the slower smart platforms and can misbehave on occasion.
That said, we can't knock the Vizio OLED – it's one of this year's best TVs, despite the middling nature of its OS.
Best smart TV with SmartCast: Vizio OLED
Panasonic’s My Home Screen smart platform is decidedly simple compared to much of the competition – meaning it isn't as fleshed out as the likes of webOS or Tizen, but does offer a relatively unobtrusive interface for those simply wanting to get on with watching some TV.
As of 2020, My Home Screen on its fifth generation, and it remains largely the same as the Firefox OS on which it was originally based.
When you press the Home button on the remote, you get a choice of three options: Live TV, Apps, and Devices. This simplicity is the platform’s greatest strength, making it easy to navigate and find things by helpfully storing all the apps in single location; you can also pin your favorite apps to the home page for quicker access.
You'll find this latest iteration on all 2020 Panasonic TVs, though it will run fastest – and display its apps and content in the best light – through the TV maker's high-end OLED sets, like the HZ1500 featured here.
Since the smart platform is relatively simple, it doesn’t require a vast amount of processing power to operate, which makes it responsive, robust, and free from crashes. My Home Screen isn’t fragmented like some platforms, nor does it bombard you with recommendations – it simply delivers all the streaming and catch-up services you need.
Thanks to Freeview Play, a comprehensive list of catch-up services are included, covering BBC iPlayer, ITVhub, All4, My5, BBC News & Sport and UK Play. The iPlayer app supports 4K and HLG (Hybrid Log-Gamma – the broadcast version of HDR), both of which the BBC trialled during the World Cup.
While the app support is generally good, you are missing out on both NOW TV and Disney Plus – the latter of which feeling especially odd, as the biggest TV streaming service to launch in the past year.
Best smart TV with MyHomeScreen: Panasonic HZ1500 TV review
Hisense makes use of quite a few different smart TV platforms – Roku TV and Android TV among them – but a number of mid-range Hisense sets instead use an in-house operating system called Vidaa U.
Why is it called that? We're never quite sure. But Vidaa U has been a consistently stable smart platform throughout our various tests. It's not the flashiest OS, but is well laid-out, and largely copes well with the demands of a modern smart TV – though there is the occasionally frustrating quirk, such as the O8B OLED's persistent (and unwelcome) screensaver.
It doesn't boast as many apps and services as some other platforms, but you will find the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Rakuten, YouTube, and Disney Plus, complete with 4K and HDR playback where a platform offers them. UK viewers will get FreeView Play for catch-up streaming from UK broadcasters too.
You might see Netflix given pride of place, too – likely in a lucrative deal with Hisense – it's impossible to move or delete the app from your home screen on Vidaa U sets in the UK.
New for 2020, Vidaa Art takes inspiration from Samsung's Art Mode, but is barely fleshed out and is filled with some basic landscape photos and a lot of fantasy drawings from the DeviantArt website – not exactly professional TV maker stuff.
Vidaa Free, too, apes free TV platforms like Samsung TV Plus, but with zero content aside from YouTube videos – technically free to watch, but misleadingly packaged. Both services are easy to ignore, but we're hoping they're either improved or quietly taken down in next year's iteration.
Best smart TV with Vidaa U: Hisense U7QF ULED (UK only)
We can't talk about the best smart TV platforms without mentioning Amazon Fire TV – the proprietary OS used in the Amazon Fire TV streaming stick, and an increasing number of televisions too.
It's a bit lesser-known compared to others in this list, largely because its limited to installation in a handful of TVs from Toshiba, Insignia, and JVC.
The big problem here actually isn't the operating system – which, by all logical measurements, is totally fine. It's that the TV manufacturers Amazon has partnered with – Toshiba and Insignia – aren't great, and usually put out the cheapest TVs in the American market. Some of these TVs are OK, but many (including the ones that use the Amazon Fire TV platform) aren't. You can read more about this in our Should I buy a Toshiba Fire TV guide.
That's something Toshiba is hoping to fix with it's upcoming Amazon Fire TV Edition with Dolby Vision TV that was announced in June of 2019, but we'll need to wait for review samples to know for sure how the latest software stacks up.
If you're interested in the speed and versatility of Amazon's smart TV platform, we recommend buying an Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K instead – which you can plug into any dumb or smart TV anyway if you aren't happy with your current interface.
- What can smart TVs do? Smart TVs are internet-connected televisions that stream shows, films, and programmes over the internet, alongside (or instead of) terrestrial broadcasts.
- What's a 'dumb' TV? A dumb TV is a set without smart capabilities or internet connection, though set-top boxes or streaming sticks can add those things in.
- What channels are on smart TVs? This varies between country, and also your TV manufacturer. On Samsung smart TVs you'll get the Samsung TV Plus app that has over 100 channels, while Vizio TVs come stocked with the Pluto TV-powered WatchFree app that has some 200 channels. Most smart TVs come stocked with at least a few services that offer some free content, however; UK viewers will get 12 HD channels and 60 standard channels through Freeview, with more available through paid-for entertainment packages like Sky Q.
- Do smart TVs have built-in Wi-Fi? No: you'll need a home internet connection, either over ethernet (wired) or Wi-Fi (wireless).
- Do smart TVs have Netflix? All major smart platforms will support Netflix, even those with Amazon's Fire TV interface – while some remotes these days even come with a dedicated Netflix button. You will need to subscribe to Netflix to access the content within the app, though.
- Do you need Wi-Fi for smart TVs? You'll need internet of some description to use internet services on the TV, whether through Ethernet or Wi-Fi. Casting from your phone to the TV, though, is one way around this.
Steve May contributed original reporting to this article.