If you’re on the lookout for a new TV, you might feel like you need a dictionary to navigate all the acronyms and techy terminology you’ll come across in your search.
The good news is that smart TVs are now better and smarter than ever, and answering a few quick questions will help ensure you get the television that’s right for you.
Smart TVs: What to consider – the smart stuff
Don’t underestimate the importance of a smart TV system in your TV buying decision. With smart home controls on the up and box set binging still one of our most popular pastimes, the streaming and smart stuff your TV is capable of may well tip the scales to which one you choose.
That goes for smart home control too. TVs are now a link in our smart home ecosystem like any other bit of smart tech, and can work as smart home control hubs, as well as interacting with smart light bulbs, universal remotes and IFTTT recipes. No longer an annoying feature that rarely works, it’s quickly become something we turn to regularly to pull up the content we’re looking for with minimal faff. You'll want to make sure the TV you pick has a good one.
Smart TVs: What to consider – the picture
If you’re shopping for your main telly, it certainly feels like now is the time to be choosing a 4K TV over HD, which offers four times the resolution of its predecessor. Another decision you’ll have to make after that is the choice between the two competing TV technologies – OLED or LCD (LED).
With OLED every single pixel within the picture is able to create its own light. This means a few things – your TV will be slimmer as there’s no need for a backlight, blacks will be blacker and colour will be more precise. It has been lauded as the future of TV, but it usually has the price tag to match too.
LCD, often now referred to as LED, still has plenty to love if your budget is a little smaller, often including bright screens for top-notch HDR (high dynamic range) footage, rich colour palettes and screens capable of just as much sharpness and detail. You’ll usually get more telly for your money here, meaning you might be able to go up a screen size for not much extra outlay.
Speaking of HDR, it is quickly becoming as much of a talking point as 4K is. Most 4K Blu-rays feature it and now even Netflix and Amazon support it, improving contrast, enhancing highlight detail and giving colours that bit more more punch.
Annoyingly, there’s not just one HDR format, so you’ll want to look out for a TV that supports both HDR10 and HLG (the main disc and broadcasting standards), with Dolby Vision a bonus where possible.
A note on reviewing and recommendations - we are currently testing the 2018 TVs so these recommendations are based on the best 2017 sets - we'll update this buying guide when we've reviewed all the new models.
Samsung has always been one to watch when it comes to smart TVs, and that’s no different now. Its Smart Hub is built on the manufacturer’s own Tizen OS and has seen some great usability improvements in the past year.
Instead of a grid, you’ll get a wholly customisable horizontal taskbar along the bottom of the screen, which is populated with all the important third-party apps, including Netflix, Amazon Video, the UK’s full roster of catch-up services, Google Play and Now TV. There’s also music available from Spotify and Deezer, as well as shortcuts for your sources (including any connected drives), settings and Samsung’s app store.
What makes it particularly nice to use is that when you have something selected, a sub-menu appears above the main one with a bunch of suggested content. That could be recommendations from your Netflix watch list, popular Spotify playlists or quick access settings, depending on what you have highlighted.
From a smart home perspective, QLED sets (and a handful of others) appear as a Thing within Samsung’s SmartThings app, and you can also get similar functionality via the Samsung Smart Connect app (iOS and Android). This acts as a hub for all the connected devices on your home network, including those from third parties.
Similar to SmartThings, Smart Connect gives you the option to set rules for your TV at a certain day and time – such as turn it off or change the source – as well as include it in a ‘mode’ or routine, which can trigger various actions at once with a single tap.
It also gives you a simple remote control function, and the ability (with the help of another app called Smart View) to share content from your phone on the big screen – even from an iPhone.
Of course, Samsung phones get greater functionality, with the option to send picture and sound – separately or together – the other way, from the TV to your phone. Great for late night viewing or taking the TV’s sound with you around the house.
Check out... Samsung Q7
While most of its competitors have dabbled with OLED for their flagship TV ranges, Samsung has led with its LCD-based QLED technology instead.
That’s no bad thing – the Q7 shows LCD has plenty of life left in it yet. In particular, colours are bold and vibrant, and the peak brightness this TV is capable of means HDR looks stunning. OLED screens will go darker in the shadows, but crisp highlights ensure contrast is still impressive here, as is the amount of detail the Q7 is capable of.
Samsung's QLED TV line-up for 2018 is very exciting with features like the always-on Ambient Mode and the new SmartThings smart home devices dashboard to get to grips with. Look out for a full review soon.
Also worth considering:
Sony (Android TV)
Sony leans on Android TV to deliver its smart platform, and it has come on a lot in the years since it embraced it. It still runs alongside some Sony customisation, which means it’s not always the smoothest in operation, but its functionality is top notch.
Unlike the overlays of most others, Sony’s smart TV system takes you to a full-screen hub of apps and suggested content. YouView joins all the big apps, including Netflix, Amazon Video, YouTube and Google Play, to serve as the set’s live TV EPG and catch-up service (though all the UK’s services are available separately too). Further down this homescreen you’ll find some suggested apps and games, with a link to the jam-packed Google Play Store for more, not to mention a carousel of the TV’s inputs and settings.
Being so tied in with Google has more benefits than the well-stocked app store though – the Sony XE90 also features built-in Chromecast capabilities and Google Assistant voice commands. Go into any cast-able app on your smartphone or tablet, click the cast logo, and the Sony XE90 will automatically appear as an option – no Chromecast required.
The Google Assistant voice control works really well too. You can ask it for information on things like weather and sports matches, plus search for content by genre or actor. It doesn’t just bring up Google Play options either – search for something like Better Call Saul and it will flag its availability on Netflix ahead of the option to rent it from Google.
Then there’s the small things that just make the experience smoother, such as Google Smart Lock. This means the XE90 can log you directly into any services that Google has your passwords saved for, such as Netflix and Amazon. The less remote control typing we have to do, the better, if you ask us.
There’s no deeper Google Home functionality just yet, but for more advanced smart home control, the Logitech Harmony app is available on the Google Play store. Along with a Harmony hub-based remote, this allows the control of compatible lights, blinds, plugs and thermostats directly from your TV.
A recent firmware update also introduced Alexa support to the fold, meaning you can now ask any Amazon Echo, Echo Plus, Echo Show or Echo Dot to switch on your Sony TV and choose the channel with your voice.
Check out... Sony XE90
Sony’s first OLED, the Bravia A1, made some pretty impressive moves in the TV world in 2017, but its high-end LCD screens shouldn’t be overlooked. They still offer superb picture quality but at a more reasonable price, plus there’s a larger choice of screen sizes too.
The XE90 is the pick of the bunch, and is a direct lit panel – something that’s rather unusual at this price. It means that it can deliver more precise backlighting than its edge-lit brethren, which in turn means better contrast and punchier colours.
Sony's 2018 Bravia TV line-up will stick with Google Assistant built in, with the six strong series headed up by the flagship AF8 OLED TV. All the tellies come with Android N and YouView in the UK too.
Also worth considering:
LG’s webOS smart TV platform, now in its fourth iteration as webOS 3.5, is fast, slickly designed and well stocked in terms of smart apps. You can count Netflix, Amazon Video and all the UK catch-up services via Freeview Play, plus welcome additions from Now TV and Sky Store for enjoying Sky content.
WebOS 3.5 is centred around a colourful taskbar that appears along the bottom of the screen. It’s stacked with all your third-party apps, but also contains icons for all your connected inputs plus LG’s own areas for easily locating music, photos and videos on your home network.
Android devices and Windows PCs can share their screen using Miracast, while the Device Connector screen will neatly walk you through hooking up games consoles, headphones, soundbars and external storage.
New on webOS 3.5 is the ability to use your LG TV to view VR. Connect a smart TV like the B7 to a VR-capable computer or mobile via USB and you’ll be able to watch and navigate 360-degree footage using LG’s Magic Remote, which has point-and-click functionality like a mouse and a scrollwheel that allows you to zoom. There’s no YouTube 360 support at the moment, but Google has said it’s in the works and coming soon.
Check out... LG B7
LG has been king of the OLED for a few years now, sticking with the technology when other manufacturers dismissed it as too expensive. That experience is clear in the B7, which is the company’s entry-level OLED of five models.
What makes the B7 the pick of the bunch is the fact it uses the same panel as the flagship W7 at over $7k, just ditching the fancy soundbar and with a slightly less flashy design. The picture is every bit as excellent though – sharp, subtle and vibrant with the inky deep blacks OLED is lauded for. It’s also fully stocked as far as HDR is concerned, supporting the full trio of HDR10, HLG and Dolby Vision.
As for what's coming up, LG's 4K OLED and Super UHD TVs for 2018 will add both Alexa and Google Assistant voice controls built in along with lower starting prices and advanced HDR tricks.
Also worth considering:
Hisense (Roku TV)
One of the first things that'll surprise you about Hisense, before we even get to its affordable 4K TVs, is just how good its smart TV offering is. It's simple but well stocked with good content and includes apps for BBC iPlayer, Netflix and Amazon Video (though the latter didn’t appear to have been updated to the 4K app just yet), and uses Freeview Play for its programme guide. This allows you to access both live TV and seven days-worth of catch up programming for all the UK’s major channels.
The system is quick and smooth in use. It might not look as flashy as some of the competition, but it clean, clear and easy to navigate. When you press the home button, you’ll get a horizontal row of square, colourful icons to scroll across, overlaying whatever it is you’re watching. Each one will take you into a sub-menu for things such as settings, media (for viewing photos and videos from connected USB drives or your phone or tablet), inputs and apps.
That latter option goes to your app homescreen for the full selection, including more options to download from the cloud. You can also pin your favourite apps and channels directly into the home navigation bar and move them around as you see fit, plus there are shortcut buttons from the remote for launching Netflix, YouTube and Wuaki.tv.
As it stands, there are very few smart features outside of the basic offering, but Android devices can take advantage of Hisense’s Anyview Cast, which allows you to screen mirror content from your phone or tablet on to the TV.
Check out... Hisense N6800
It wasn’t that long ago that we would have told you that spending anything less than a grand on a 4K TV would’ve been money wasted. But Hisense has been making moves in this more affordable sector for a while, and it feels like it’s finally getting somewhere.
The N6800 is Hisense’s “step-up” 4K TV, and the most affordable option for people taking the jump up from full HD. It’s not perfect – particularly struggling to get the same impact with HDR material as pricier sets – but it delivers a surprisingly good 4K picture that’s sharp, balanced and detailed. Starting at $469.99, that’s amazing value, particularly with screen sizes of 50 inches+ making Hisense our budget smart TV pick.
Panasonic (Firefox OS)
Panasonic’s smart TV system has had something of an overhaul in recent years, and now it’s one of the cleanest and easiest to use.
Based on Firefox OS and now called My Home Screen 2.0, pressing the Home button on your remote brings up a horizontal carousel with circular icons for live TV, apps and devices. You can pin other things here for quicker access too, such as favourite apps or TV channels for example.
Click into apps, and you’ll find shortcuts to all the major services – Netflix, Amazon Video and YouTube are present and correct in 4K HDR, plus all the UK catch up services are available alongside live TV via Freeview Play.
The devices menu clearly displays all the kit connected to any of the TV’s inputs, plus any devices available on the network, thanks to DLNA functionality. You’ll also find the option here to mirror the screen of a compatible Android smartphone or tablet on your TV.
Panasonic also has a companion app called Media Center. It’s a little clunky but does offer some good functionality, such as the ability to beam shows you have recorded on the TV to a portable device. Some countries will even allow you to do this while you’re out of the home, though UK restrictions mean you’ll have to be on the same Wi-Fi network for it to work. Still, it’s handy for being able to watch two things at once when the remote is being hogged.
Overall, Panasonic’s smart TVs offer a smooth, clutter-free experience, which is easily customisable as you see fit. It might be one of the simplest smart TV platforms out there, but it is also arguably one of the best.
Check out... Panasonic EZ952
Panasonic dabbled with OLED to huge success in 2016, and this year sees it doubling its efforts in this department to two models – the flagship EZ1002 and the more affordable EZ952.
Available in 55-inch or 65-inch, the EZ952 offers an outstanding picture with an extensive range of calibration options for really tailoring the performance for your viewing pleasure. That said, it’s out-of-the-box settings are actually pretty accurate, so it’s equally easy going if you need something more plug and play.
Like LG, Panasonic will add both Alexa and Google Assistant to its TVs for 2018 playing no favourites. However, the voice assistants will not be directly built in - you'll need a compatible smart speaker to control what you're watching via voice, the remote won't do.
Philips (Android TV)
Philips’ premium range of 4K TVs, including the PUS7502 below, follows Sony’s lead by featuring Android TV as the operating system.
Despite looking alike at first glance, there are some differences. For a start, it doesn’t have quite the same app line-up as its competition, and lacks YouView for the full roster of catch-up services. There’s no Amazon Prime Video as yet either, nor is there the Harmony Control app for including the PUS7502 as part of a wider smart home setup.
BBC iPlayer and Netflix are here for the taking though, as are the likes of Google Play Movies and Spotify, and it goes some way to making up for its shortfall in apps by being speedier in use than Sony’s effort.
The PUS7502 gets Google Cast capabilities from its Android TV hook up, meaning you can cast music and video direct to the screen, without the need for a Chromecast. It works without hiccup, and the set picked up immediately in our casting menu.
There’s also Google Assistant voice control built in too, but as the PUS7502’s remote doesn’t come with a microphone, you’ll need the Android TV remote app to use the feature. It kept crashing on us (using the iOS version) during testing though, so it’s not currently something to rely on.
Check out... Philips PUS7502
Philips has spread its net wide with its 2017 TV range, touching on OLED, Quantum Dot (the same tech that Samsung’s QLED range is built on) and regular LCD. As part of its lower-mid range, the PUS7502 is representing the latter, with plenty to love once it’s all set up.
It does take a bit of picture tweaking to get it to look its best, but once it’s there, the picture is generally very good. UHD and full HD images looks sharp and detailed, motion is smooth and stable and colours well-judged, even off axis.
Blacks could be a touch deeper though, and HDR content doesn’t look quite as dynamic as you’ll find higher up the range, in part due to its more restricted peak brightness. The set’s three-sided Ambilight helps to keep it looking immersive though, and you can tweak these settings to suit in the menu.
We particularly like its effects when gaming, and it can add a little something extra to movie watching too. This TV can even be hooked up to any Philip Hue bulbs you have, so they follow whatever Ambilight is doing – you can set it to follow the beat of some music, the colours in a picture, or have it static on one colour.
Of course, you can turn it off entirely if you prefer, but the bias lighting does create an effect that we’re pretty keen on. As for the 2018 line-up, Philips' new TVs will come with Google Assistant voice controls on TVs running Android N or later and HDR10+ (the latest high dynamic range tech).