When buying a new TV, there are an increasing number of things you need to consider and a whole load of terminology you need to get to grips with.
But while youâre mulling over screen sizes and resolutions, HDMI ports and HDR formats, paying some attention to the smart TV platform youâre buying into is another thing that requires some consideration.
Thatâs because with smart home controls on the up and more boxsets to watch than ever, the streaming and smart stuff your TV is capable of may well tip the scales to which one you choose.
Weâve spent some time with all the major brands to help you to decide which one is the best smart TV platform and what TVs offer the most. But first, letâs just recap some of the basics.
What is a smart TV?
A smart TV is one that connects to the internet, usually via Wi-Fi, and offers up a whole world of streaming and catch-up services alongside your live TV offering. Different platforms will offer different services, so while Amazon Prime Video, Hulu and Netflix are largely available, itâs worth checking that the services you use most are included in the platform youâre looking at.
As well as added entertainment content, smart TVs now often pack some level of smart home controls - and voice assistants such as Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa- alongside web browsing, games and music streaming.
While just a few years ago, smart TVs only made up the pricier end of the market, youâd now be hard stretched to find a TV without smart capabilities. That means itâs even more important to make sure you buy one that suits your needs.
You can, of course, also just plug a smart streaming stick into a TVs HDMI port to make it smart as well.
What about picture quality?
Of course, the main consideration when buying a TV is always going to be picture quality, and now really feels like the time to be choosing a 4K TV over HD, offering four times the resolution of its predecessor.
Youâll also have to make a choice between the two competing TV technologies â OLED or LCD (sometimes also called LED).
With OLED, every single pixel within the picture is able to create its own light. This means a few things â your TV will be slimmer as thereâs no need for a backlight, blacks will be blacker and colour will be more precise. Itâs pricey though.
LCD, often now referred to as LED, meanwhile, costs a little less but still has loads to offer, including bright screens for top-notch HDR (high dynamic range) footage, rich colour palettes and pictures that are just as sharp and detailed.
HDMI explained: What you need to know and what is the best HDMI cable?
If youâve not heard of HDR, it works alongside all the added detail that a 4K resolution produces and makes it look even better, digging out enhanced highlight detail, improving contrast and creating even punchier colours.
Just be aware thereâs not just one format on offer. HDR10 and HLG are the formats you want your TV to support as a minimum, but these days, Dolby Vision and HDR10+ are really worth looking out for.
These are the newest, most advanced versions of HDR, which improve the picture on a frame-by-frame basis, rather than applying one setting to the whole film or TV show. It makes a big difference, and to futureproof your TV, youâd be wise to seek them out.
In terms of content available, Dolby Vision is the leading format of the two at the moment, with support from Netflix and the majority of 4K Blu-rays. HDR10+ is still playing catch up, with a handful of physical discs and a couple of shows on Amazon Prime Video.
Some TVs, like Philips and Panasonic, support both, whereas brands like Samsung have sided with HDR10+ only, and LG with Dolby Vision.
Now you know what to look out for in picture quality, read on for the lowdown on all the major smart TV platforms. Itâs worth mentioning that you may find some smaller, more proprietary offerings from lesser known brands, but for a good, solid smart experience, we would largely recommend sticking with one of the below.
The best smart TV platforms
Despite being derived from an OS originally designed for smartphones, the latest version of Samsungâs smart TV platform is now impressively honed for a living room TV audience.
For a start, itâs really easy to set up, using a smartphone and the companyâs SmartThings app to get the TV up and running.
Itâs also slick, fast and intuitive. Its latest home page only takes over the bottom quarter of the screen too, so it leaves you free to keep watching TV while you browse the masses of content its menus contain.
Taking a leaf out of the Apple TV playbook, Tizen adopts a two-tier menu approach. Along the bottom you get an easily customisable row of smallish icons showing the different content sources â like Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, for example â installed on your set. Highlight one of these and a second tier pops up directly above, showing featured or suggested content from the source youâve selected.
With some apps, the second deck even delivers personalised links, such as access to the next episodes of shows youâve been watching on Netflix. Or there may be links to the most popular and/or most recent shows. Samsung has also provided a content aggregation system called TV Plus, which tries to combine TV listings with on-demand content in one fairly straightforward menu.
Samsungâs smart platform is strong on content, and offers pretty much every video platform of note â including the new Apple TV app, for watching Apple TV+.
Itâs also brilliant for sharing content from your other devices â both Android and Apple â with support for screen mirroring as well as Apple Airplay 2.
Where a video platform supports 4K and HDR video, thatâs how it will play in 4K and HDR on Samsungâs TVs. Unless, that is, it has been made in the Dolby Vision HDR format. This adds scene-by-scene picture information to help TVs produce a more dynamic picture, and is supported by Apple TV, Netflix, Amazon and Rakuten among others. It is not, however, supported by any Samsung TVs â Samsung supports HDR10+ instead, which has a more limited amount of content at the moment.
Other features include Bixby, Samsungâs AI assistant, which is getting even smarter in 2020. This means a wider selection of voice commands, more personalised results from content recommendations and improved smart home control, plus the ability to integrate Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant instead, should you prefer.
Finally, Samsung Health is launching in 2020 on some sets, offering a central hub for fitness and mindfulness. This will include exclusive content from the likes of Calm, Jillian Michaels and Barre3, plus the ability to view their activities, track their progress and set fitness goals for the entire family.
Overall, Samsung is a really solid choice with very little to complain about.
Check outâŚ Samsung Q80R/Q85R
Samsungâs Q80R (in the US) and Q85R (in Europe) TVs sit one step from the top of Samsungâs latest 4K TV range. So they give you much of the quality of the Q90R flagship TVs at a cheaper price.
The Q80/Q85 sets use Samsungâs QLED technology, where metal-clad Quantum Dots are able to output much more brightness and colour than typical LCD colour systems. This helps them deliver spectacular results with HDR content.
Samsung has also equipped the Q80/Q85 with a sophisticated direct backlight system with local dimming. This means its LEDs are placed behind the screen rather than around its edges, and can have different zones of lights outputting different amounts of light at any given moment to boost contrast.
Samsung has even developed a new technology that lets you watch the Q80/Q85s from a wide angle without pictures losing contrast and colour like they usually do on LCD TVs.
If you really want to experience what HDRâs brightness and colour enhancements can bring to your viewing experience, these Samsung sets wonât let you down.
LGâs webOS platform was the first smart platform to be truly and exhaustively designed for use on TVs rather than other smart devices. And while some systems have played catch in recent years, many of them have taken a lot of inspiration from LGâs efforts.
The key to its success is its sheer simplicity and economy. It was the first smart system, for instance, to overlay a scrolling row of content icons along the bottom of the screen, rather than taking over the whole screen with its smart menus â something Samsung has arguably taken inspiration from with its current Tizen approach.
It also pioneered the use of graphically rich icons and folders to help you easily find content, and was the first to use subtle animations to help you track your progress through the menus â the icons move slightly as you track over them, which is a nice touch.
WebOS was also the first smart TV system to understand the importance of being able to customise the running order of icons in its home screen menu âbarâ, meaning you get to your favourite apps faster. A simple thing, but one that really puts the user first in the experience â something previous smart TV systems had not.
Last yearâs LG smart TVs took this a big step further by introducing an intelligent automatic ordering system, which can arrange content icons in the home bar according to how often you use them.
Thatâs just the first of a series of recent improvements to LGâs already-excellent webOS platform. Also good to see is the arrival of the same sort of two-tier system seen on Samsungâs Tizen, where a second layer appears above the main home bar showing content suggestions from the app youâve highlighted on the bottom deck. LG handily lets you scroll the bottom layer on the bottom of the screen, too, to help you keep the presentation as uncluttered as possible.
Essential guide: Everything you need to know about Amazon Fire TV
WebOS has always been good at accessing content on external devices, but this is improved more recently too, with the addition of Apple Airplay 2.
New last year was the Home Dashboard, which shows all the smart devices you have connected on the same network as the TV. This includes Internet Of Things devices such as smart fridges and washing machines, or even heating systems, so you can monitor what theyâre doing and even issue basic control commands.
Having all your connected devices visible on one simple screen is not only convenient, but underlines the potential smart TVs have for becoming the control hubs of our connected home. Itâs one of the more extensive built-in offerings that you can get at the moment.
LGâs latest webOS TVs are also uniquely strong when it comes to voice recognition, in that they carry built-in support (meaning no external listening devices are necessary) for three different voice platforms: LGâs own (excellent) ThinQ AI system, Amazonâs Alexa, and Google Assistant.
A move that might unsettle some, however, is that active microphones will actually come built into LGâs most premium TVs in 2020, meaning you can use the command âHi LGâ to wake a voice assistant. Previously built into the remote and activated by a button press, this will still allow users to control the TV or search for content â but can be turned off entirely if a user prefers.
Also worthy of note is the AI learning system, which tracks your viewing habits and makes intelligent recommendations accordingly, and an impressive contextual help system that can be called up at any point to help you figure out where to go next from the menu youâre in.
The latest webOS TVs continue to use LGâs innovative âMagicâ remote controls. These can simply be pointed directly at the screen to select menu options rather than using regular D-pad navigation.
LGâs webOS system is very good when it comes to supporting the main video apps youâre looking for on a TV â including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Google Play and Disney+. In 2020, the Apple TV app will also be available for all LG TVs from 2018 onwards, so you will no longer have to use Airplay 2 for this.
LGâs TV always support 4K and HDR content where available too, with the exception that LG doesnât support the HDR10+ dynamic HDR format supplied by some Amazon Video streams. It does, however, support the Dolby Vision format carried by Netflix and Amazon (plus Apple TV once that goes live).
There are some minor issues. While the Magic Remoteâs point-and-click approach is mostly very intuitive, for instance, it can be a little over-sensitive at times. The scrolling bar of content service icons along the bottom of the screen can become a bit unwieldy over time too, and the graphics used for some source icons are a little obscure.
Finally in the negative column, while webOS works brilliantly for finding and accessing content, it doesnât really integrate well with the TVâs rather cumbersome setting and control menus. A closer working partnership would be appreciated here.
Most users wonât regularly have to use those setup menus, though. So for most of the time theyâll only be spending time with the main webOS interface, which retains its reputation as arguably the most user-friendly smart TV engine in town.
As for whatâs to come this year, some of the additions in 2020 include the ability to use Bluetooth speakers as surround sound and a new feature called Sports Alert, which will allow you to register details of favourite sports teams and have notifications delivered to the TV when a match begins, when a team scores and when it ends.
Check out... LG OLEDC9
LGâs OLED TVs have long been one of the best ways to experience the technology, combining their clever, user-friendly smarts with gorgeous picture quality.
The C9 has been the sweet spot of the range for several years, offering the same picture quality as the top of the range, but without the fancier stands and expensive added sound system. That remains the case here.
As usual with with OLED TVs, the LG C9âs dark scenes look incredibly rich and black thanks to the way each pixel in an OLED screen produces its own light. This time round though, LG has managed to combine this traditional OLED strength with a more dynamic picture capable of making the brightest part of HDR pictures look more intense.
This also helps colour reproduction in bright scenes, while the pixel level of light control helps 4K pictures look exceptionally detailed. You can watch the C9 from any angle with no picture degradation too.
Sony (Android TV)
Sony turned to Googleâs Android TV platform for its smart features in 2015 â and itâs been on what might kindly be called a "journey" ever since.
The first couple of generations of Android TV, at least, were pretty poor. Theyâre much improved now, thankfully, though some issues are yet to be completely resolved.
One of the biggest issues with Android TV on Sony TVs has been the platformâs stability. Bugs and crashes have been commonplace over the years â not the sort of thing you expect with a TV. The apparently heavy processing demands associated with running Android TV also led to sluggish menu response times, especially on Sonyâs more affordable TVs.
Turning to the interface itself, itâs a shame that even in its latest iteration, Android TVâs home page takes over the whole of your TV screen. Its long vertical list of themed icon 'shelvesâ feels rather clunky by todayâs standards too. Especially as you can only fit three shelves on screen at once (despite there being lots of dead space), reducing to two when you actually move across to start exploring a particular shelfâs content. The Android TV platform isnât as clever about learning the sort of stuff you like to watch as many rival platforms either.
That said, the latest Pie (version 9) implementation of Android does much better than previous versions at prioritising video sources and customisation options. You can now easily shift the running order of the content âshelvesâ, and thereâs a much more appropriate focus on prioritising video services (rather than games and information apps) such as Netflix, YouTube and â inevitably â the Google Play store.
See also: How to watch 4K on Xbox
The latest version of the system is less prone to crashes and bugs, and runs reasonably speedily but itâs still far from perfect. Weâve always found the menu system a bit confusing and long-winded too, but streamlined menu options and redesigned quick settings rolling out shortly should go some way to helping solve that.
Android TV carries a huge number of apps, though itâs questionable how many of them are really useful in a TV environment. In the UK it still doesnât support all of the main terrestrial broadcaster catch-up TV apps, meaning that Sony has had to separately add the YouView app alongside Android TV to cover the gaps. Still, it does the job.
Thereâs pretty good support for sharing content on Sony's Smart TV platform from external smart devices. In fact, Chromecast is built into the TV, and Apple HomeKit/Airplay 2 support is rolling out imminently to some 2018/2019 TVs and all 2020 sets announced so far.
Sonyâs latest Android TVs support Google Assistant voice control system, and can work with Alexa too â but only in Alexaâs case via an external Alexa device.
Note, finally, that Sonyâs Android TVs only support the Dolby Vision active HDR system. Thereâs no support for the HDR10+ rival system used by Amazon for much of its HDR content.
Check outâŚ Sony XG9505
From ÂŁ1,199, Amazon
Thanks to its brightness, direct lighting engine and local dimming, this LCD TV offers impressive picture quality for its money.
Pictures get bright enough to really sparkle with HDR sources, while the backlight controls are able to combine this brightness with deep but still detailed black colours.
Colours are rich and beautifully managed thanks to Sonyâs X1 Ultimate processor, which also does a great job with upscaling sub-4K sources and handling motion.
The Android interface can still crash from time to time, and sometimes you can be distracted by backlight clouds creeping into the black bars above and below wide aspect ratio films. Otherwise, though, the XG9505 is a solid bet for its money.
Hisense (Roku/Vidaa/Android TV)
Hisenseâs smart TV story isâŚ complicated. In the US, its range includes a mixture of sets that use Android TV (complete with Google Assistant voice control) and Roku TV. In other territories, such as the UK, the proprietary Vidaa U is now the main platform.
Despite being a key player in the US, the first Hisense Roku TV only launched in the UK last year. It provides a polished, if slightly dated, looking interface thatâs essentially identical to the one you'll find on an external Roku TV box or stick. The home screen takes over the whole display, which is a pity, but it runs smoothly and stably, is easy to customise and makes sensible of use of at-a-glance text menus alongside the main content icons to help you streamline your searches.
The Roku platform is extremely rich in apps and content, and good at prioritising the most popular ones on its default home screen. Pretty much every app you could want is available, including Apple TV.
The Roku system also provides handy connectivity with external smart devices, including the ability to use the Roku app on your smartphone to search for content using your voice or listen to your TV audio via Bluetooth headphones.
There are some performance considerations though, as the only current Roku model in the UK doesnât support Dolby Vision or HDR10+ - just HDR10 and HLG only.
Hisenseâs Vidaa U system, meanwhile, does a passable job of impersonating Samsungâs Tizen and LGâs webOS platforms â albeit more stripped down. Itâs featured on the companyâs OLED TV and other more premium options
A single horizontal bar of icons runs along the bottom of the screen, providing access by default to the key video streaming services in your region. You can add more apps via an easy to find app store, and itâs no trouble at all to rearrange the app running order to prioritise your favourites.
The icons are larger than they need to be, meaning you canât see many on screen at once. But you can scroll through them pretty crisply, and in truth most households only regularly use a handful of video streaming apps anyway.
Note, though, that unlike the LG and Samsung interfaces, no second tier of recommended content pops up when you highlight a content source on the main deck. The most recent Vidaa U 3.0 update does add a list of suggested Netflix shows that shows up permanently below your apps, but itâs not personalised and is the only app to offer this.
Thereâs also a list of smaller icons called the Smartsense Hub that appear below that still, providing access to weather updates, system notifications, TV settings, and âpushedâ app suggestions.
Overall these three bars take up the whole screen, and could arguably be organised better to take up less space. They are overlaid onto live TV though, so you can at least keep up with the gist of your show while scrolling.
Vidaa U doesnât have as many apps as most rival platforms (or the Hisense Roku TVs for that matter). Save for Now TV, it does cover the key ones, and even includes direct access buttons on its remote for Rakuten TV, Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, YouTube and (in the UK) Freeview Play. HDR (including Dolby Vision, but not HDR10+) is supported on all Vidaa U TVs where a streaming service carries it â Rakuten TV doesnât.
Voice recognition was finally added to Vidaa U last year when the 3.0 update rolled out. We are yet to test it out but itâs good to see it supported after being teased as an upcoming feature on the companyâs remotes for a while.
Check outâŚ Hisense H55O8BUK
When Hisenseâs O8 offers up a seriously tempting price point for OLED technology, itâs hard not to give it some consideration. Although price cuts have brought it and the better LG C9 closer together in cost, itâs still well worth a look if youâre looking for OLED under ÂŁ1000.
Itâs nicely designed, with the slim profile that youâd expect from OLED and a central stand. Picture settings require some pretty extensive tweaking to get a good picture, and even then, colours probably sit on the rich side of neutral. Itâs not too distracting but you might notice skin tones donât seem quite right.
While blacks go as deep as youâd expect on an OLED, they arenât the most insightful weâve seen either, and motion processing leaves a few things to be desired too. Itâs not class-leading then, but overall at this price point, itâs a solid picture performance for those on a budget.
Vidaa U 3.0, the latest iteration of Hisenseâs OS, is featured here and includes support for Dolby Vision HDR and, in Europe, Dolby Atmos sound.
Panasonic (My Home Screen)
Panasonicâs clumsily-named smart TV system is much more straightforward to use than it sounds, and much improved from its early days.
As with all the best smart TV platforms these days, itâs built around a simple row of content platform icons overlaid (in a shaded box) over the bottom section of the picture. So you can keep watching TV as you browse.
You can scroll down from the âHomeâ apps row to reveal three other shelves of content providing direct access (in the UK) to recommended shows and videos on the Freeview Play catch up service, Netflix and YouTube. Thereâs one further scroll down shelf that lets you adjust the running order of the screen rows, but nothing else â the shelves are fixed, so you canât decide to swap out YouTube content for Amazon Prime Video, for example.
Out of the box the only three icons that appear on the top row of the home page are Devices, Apps and Live TV. Devices opens up a straightforward interface for sharing content from your external smart devices; Apps opens up a full-screen shop of apps you can download and add to the home screen; and Live TV takes you to the TV tuner and channel listings. Itâs easy to populate this with other apps to add to your home screen, and shuffle them around to suit.
Once you get behind this strikingly simple and attractive home page arrangement, the system notably lacks the sophistication and depth of Samsung and LGâs rival platforms. The Apps market feels pretty old-school in its presentation, for instance; in fact it doesnât seem to have changed significantly from the days of Panasonicâs earliest smart TVs.
No second tier of direct links appears when you highlight content providers on the bottom row either; press select on an app on Panasonicâs home page and all that happens is that the full app boots up. There's no voice control built into Panasonicâs 2019 TVs, nor smart home control, but you can use Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa via external listening devices to carry out some basic commands.
Panasonic also doesnât offer as many apps as most of its big-name rivals. In particular, thereâs been no mention so far of Panasonic TVs getting the Apple TV app, plus thereâs no Now TV, no BT Sport and now Google Play Movies.
Many of Panasonicâs 2019 TVs do offer one big advantage over rivals in supporting both the HDR10+ and Dolby Vision premium HDR formats. So they will get the best out of whatever streaming platform youâre watching.
In the end, Panasonicâs My Home Screen platform lacks the depth and sophistication to make it a smart TV A-lister. For relatively casual users, though, thereâs actually a lot to be said for its core simplicity.
Check outâŚ Panasonic GX800
Sadly Panasonic doesnât currently sell TVs in the US. You can get them in many other territories, though. And if you live in one of those, the brand has two exciting models to look out for. One is the GZ2000 OLED range, which uses exclusive Panasonic panel technology to run pictures as much as 30% brighter than other OLED TVs.
The GZ2000, though, is pretty expensive. So maybe the more all-round attractive Panasonic option is the GX800 LCD range. This uses an edge LED lighting system rather than the usually preferable direct lighting system. But a combination of Panasonicâs latest Hollywood-tuned processing and excellent light controls deliver pictures of impressive brightness, colour and contrast by mid-range LCD standards.
The built-in audio system can decode Dolby Atmos sound too, and the dual HDR10+/Dolby Vision picture combination is a brilliantly consumer-friendly feature that we can only hope other brands will follow.
Philips (Android TV/Roku TV/Saphi)
As with Hisense, Philips has a complicated smart TV story, with the system you get depending on where you are in the world and whether youâre buying a high-end or budget set.
Both the US and UK carry Philips TVs with the latest Android TV platform built in â Android Pie 9.0 â complete with Google Assistant voice control and Chromecast support. Thereâs no need to cover this again in detail here, as itâs explained in the Sony section above, but the updates coming in 2020 are subtle to say the least.
However, most notably, the Philips version does tend to run more stably and many higher end Philips TVs support both HDR10+ and Dolby Vision for ultimate futureproofing. This does drop off as you move down the ranges though, so itâs always worth double checking.
The Roku system found on some US Philips models also doesnât need covering again given that itâs covered in the Hisense section â but Saphi does warrant more attention. Itâs a Linux-based platform Philips in Europe uses on its relatively affordable TVs. It looks pretty cute, taking the increasingly common approach of presenting rows of content service icons on a shaded backdrop along the bottom of the screen.
Thereâs also a second tier of icons, though unlike the similarly presented Samsung and LG approaches, this is not contextually based on what youâve selected in the row above. Itâs essentially just a list of links to pushed content.
A handy row of simple text options above the main content icon row lets you access other non-streamed content, such as your AV sources, TV channels, the App store, a search tool and your TV settings.
Some of Philipsâ remote controls in Europe â those you get with relatively premium sets â carry handy full QWERTY keyboards on their rears to help you type in passwords and email addresses, or search terms. Though you can, of course, try using your voice for searching too.
Saphi doesnât carry as many apps as the best rival platforms (or Android TV), and experiences of it so far have found it a bit sluggish. Not only is it more than acceptable as a budget TV smart interface, though, but in some ways itâs actually preferable to the Android TV system used on more premium sets, particularly when it comes to navigation and stability.
Check outâŚ Philips OLED804
This OLED TV from Philipsâ European range is a great choice for demonstrating OLED at its best. Naturally it delivers the stunning black level response and local contrast that OLED is renowned for, with a picture that remains insightful and stable no matter the source.
Colours are beautifully nuanced, shadow detail is exceptional and somehow the Philips picture engine manages to make fine detail levels look above and beyond the limits of 4K. A big shout out for the motion processing improvements too, plus the extra sparkle that HDR brings to highlights is subtle yet impactful â a very mature picture indeed.
On top of all this picture excellence, Philips is the only brand around that combines OLED pictures with Ambilight â a technology that uses LEDs tucked behind the TVâs edges to produce an aura of coloured light around the TV that makes the viewing experience more immersive.
It comes with support for HDR10+ and Dolby Vision, plus supports Dolby Atmos decoding with 50W of total audio output.