The best smart TV platforms

HDR? Tizen? We unpack the world of smart TVs and offer our top picks

The best smart TV platforms
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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: Consider the platform and picture

We'll come onto the hardware below, but don't underestimate the actual smart TV platform itself when buying. 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, this has 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.

And, naturally, another key factor is what kind of picture quality you should be plumping for. 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. LCD, often now referred to as LED, meanwhile, 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.

With HDR, just be aware that there's not simply one format on offer. If this is important to you, and you want the improved contrast, enhanced highlight detail and punchier colours it brings, make sure you get a TV that supports both HDR10 and HLG. Most 4K Blu-rays do, and Dolby Vision is a bonus where you can find it.

The picks below are based on the best sets from 2019.


The best smart TV platforms

Samsung (Tizen)

Despite being derived from an OS originally designed for smartphones, the latest version of Samsung’s smart TV platform is now impressively honed for a living room TV audience.

Its latest home page, for starters, only takes over the bottom quarter of the screen, leaving 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 – Netflix, Amazon, Youtube etc – installed on your set. Highlight one of these, though, and a second tier pops up showing direct links to specific content (films and TV shows) from the source you’ve selected on the bottom deck. Or at least that’s the case if the selected content provider has worked with Samsung on enabling this handy content short-cut feature.

With some apps, the second deck even delivers personalised links, such as access to the next episodes of shows you’ve 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.

Samsung’s smart platform is strong on content; it offers pretty much every video platform of note – including the new Apple TV app. Exclusively available at the time of writing on most 2019 and some 2018 Samsung smart TVs, this is about as close to a ‘killer app’ as the smart TV world has right now. Especially as it will support Apple’s TV+ channel when that launches.

Where a video platform supports 4K and HDR video, that’s how it will play in 4K and HDR on Samsung’s TVs. Unless, that is, its 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.

Amazon also supports the HDR10+ dynamic HDR system though, which works in a similar but slightly less proscriptive way to Dolby Vision. And Samsung’s Smart TVs do support that, while most rival brands do not.

Another smaller issue in the UK is that Samsung doesn’t support the Freeview Play or YouView apps, which bring together all the UK’s key catch up TV platforms into a simple electronic program guide interface. But Samsung’s smart TVs are excellent options for sharing content from your other smart devices – both Android and Apple. Especially now they support Apple TV and Apple Airplay 2.

Finally, Samsung’s smart TVs now support strong voice recognition features. Samsung’s Bixby engine is built in, and does a good job of recognising your words for content searches and changing your TV settings.

The latest Tizen engine also supports Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, but only via external listening devices.

The best smart TV platforms

Check out… Samsung Q80R/Q85R

From $1,599, Amazon | samsung.com

Samsung’s Q80R (in the US) and Q85 (in Europe) TVs sit one step from the top of Samsung’s 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 Samsung’s 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 also 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 HDR’s brightness and colour enhancements can bring to your viewing experience, these Samsung sets won’t let you down.


The best smart TV platforms

LG (webOS)

LG’s webOS platform was the first smart platform to be truly and exhaustively designed for use on TVs rather than other smart devices. And thanks to some key new innovations for 2019, it’s arguably still the classiest smart TV game in town.

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 source icons along the bottom of the screen, rather than taking over the whole screen with its smart menus. 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.

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 ‘bar’, meaning you get to your favourite apps faster. This year’s LG smart TVs take 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.

That’s just the first of a series of great improvements to LG’s already-excellent webOS platform. Also good to see is the arrival of the same sort of two-tier system seen on Samsung’s Tizen TVs, where a second layer appears above the main home bar showing direct show/movie links from the app you’ve 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.

WebOS has always been good at accessing content on external devices, but this is improved this year with the addition of Apple Airplay 2. The Apple TV app is due at some point this year too, but wasn’t available at the time of writing.

Also new this year is a Home Dashboard, which shows on a single screen 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 they’re 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 rooms’ of tomorrow’s connected homes.

LG’s 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: LG’s own (excellent) ThinQ AI system, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google Assistant.

Also worthy of note this year are a new 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 you’re in.

The latest webOS TVs also continue to use LG’s innovative ‘Magic’ remote controls. These can simply be pointed directly at the screen to select menu options. LG’s webOS system is very good when it comes to supporting the main video apps you’re looking for on a TV. They always support 4K and HDR where available, too.

The only exception to this is that LG doesn’t support the HDR10+ dynamic HDR format supplied by many 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 Remote’s 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 doesn’t really integrate well with the TV’s rather cumbersome setting and control menus.

Most users won’t regularly have to use those setup menus, though. So for most of the time they’ll only be spending time with the main webOS interface – which retains its reputation as arguably the most user-friendly smart TV engine in town.

The best smart TV platforms

Check out... LG OLEDC9

From $2,499, Amazon | lg.com

LG’s latest generation of OLED TVs combine their clever, user-friendly smarts with gorgeous picture quality.

As usual with OLED TVs, dark scenes look incredibly rich and black thanks to the way each pixel in an OLED screen produces its own light. This year, 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 latest OLED TVs from any angle with no picture degradation too, and the C9 is the cheapest model in LG’s new OLED TV range to carry the brand’s latest and greatest picture processing engine.


The best smart TV platforms

Sony (Android TV)

Sony turned to Google’s Android TV platform for its smart features in 2015 – and it’s been on what might kindly be called a "journey" ever since.

The first couple of generations of Android TV, at least, were pretty poor. They’re 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 platform’s stability. Bugs and crashes have been commonplace over the years – 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 Sony’s relatively affordable TVs.

Turning to the interface itself, it’s a shame that even in its latest iteration, Android TV’s home page takes over the whole of your TV screen. Its long vertical list of themed icon 'shelves’ feels rather clunky by today’s 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 shelf’s content. The Android TV platform isn’t as clever about learning the sort of stuff you like to watch as many rival platforms either.

That said, the latest Oreo (version 8) 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 ‘shelves’, and there’s a much more appropriate focus on prioritising video services (rather than games and information apps) such as Netflix, YouTube and – inevitably – the Google Play store.

The latest version of the system is less prone to crashes and bugs, and runs reasonably speedily – at least on the relatively high-end 2019 Sony sets seen so far – but it’s still far from perfect.

Android TV carries a huge number of apps, though it’s questionable how many of them are really useful in a TV environment. In the UK it still doesn’t 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.

There’s 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 TV+ and Airplay 2 support are scheduled to arrive later this year.

Sony’s latest Android TVs support Google Assistant voice control system, and can work with Alexa too – but only in Alexa’s case via an external Alexa device.

Note, finally, that Sony’s Android TVs only support the Dolby Vision active HDR system. There’s no support for the HDR10+ rival system used by Amazon for much of its HDR content.

The best smart TV platforms

Check out… Sony XG9505

From $1,399, Amazon | sony.com

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 Sony’s 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.


The best smart TV platforms

Hisense (Roku/Vidaa/Android TV)

Hisense’s smart TV story is… 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, Vidaa is now the main platform.

Roku TV provides a polished if slightly dated looking interface that’s 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, yet also good at prioritising key video apps on its default home screen. It’s also scheduled to be getting Apple TV at some point in the future, though it’s not yet clear if that means the app will arrive on Roku TVs as well as external Roku streaming devices.

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. Hisense’s Vidaa system, meanwhile, does a passable job of impersonating Samsung’s Tizen and LG’s webOS platforms – albeit more stripped down.

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 it’s no trouble at all to rearrange the app running order to prioritise your favorites.

The icons are larger than they need to be, meaning you can’t 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 direct film and TV show content links pops up when you highlight a content source on the main deck. There is a second tier of smaller icons below the main content bar providing access to system notifications, TV settings, and ‘pushed’ app suggestions, however.

Vidaa doesn’t have as many apps as most rival platforms (or the Hisense Roku TVs in the US). It does cover the key ones, though, 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 where a streaming service carries it.

At the time of writing voice recognition is not supported on Vidaa. But there is a button for it on the remote, and the message that comes up when you press it suggests that voice recognition is expected to arrive at some point.

The best smart TV platforms

Check out… Hisense 8 Series

From $Varies, Amazon | hisense.com

Although Hisense’s 8 series TVs differ in specification depending on whether you’re buying one in the US or elsewhere, you're always getting a remarkably great value TV.

As usual for Hisense, the 8 series models are big on specs. They boast unusually strong backlight systems for their aggressive price points, allowing them to combine impressively high brightness with better contrast than we’re accustomed to seeing for so little money.

The result is pictures which, while not up there with the best TVs around, are much better than you could expect for the price. Even more surprisingly, the latest Hisense 8 series TVs support Dolby Vision HDR and, in Europe, Dolby Atmos sound.


The best smart TV platforms

Panasonic (My Home Screen)

Panasonic’s clumsily-named smart TV system is much more straightforward to use than it sounds. As with all the best smart TV platforms these days, it’s built around a home page that consists of a simple row of content platform icon links 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 ‘Home’ 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. There’s one further scroll down shelf that lets you adjust the running order of the screen rows.

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 opt to add to the home screen; and Live TV takes you to the TV tuner and channel listings.

Once you get behind this strikingly simple and attractive home page arrangement, the system notably lacks the sophistication and depth of Samsung and LG’s rival platforms. The Apps market feels pretty old-school in its presentation, for instance; in fact it doesn’t seem to have changed significantly from the days of Panasonic’s 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 Panasonic’s home page and all that happens is that the full app boots up. There's no voice control built into Panasonic’s 2019 TVs, but you can use Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa with them via external listening devices.

Panasonic also doesn’t offer as many apps as most of its big-name rivals. In particular, there’s been no mention so far of Panasonic TVs getting the Apple TV app that’s already available on Samsung TVs.

Many of Panasonic’s 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 you’re watching.

In the end, Panasonic’s My Home Screen platform lacks the depth and sophistication to make it a smart TV A-lister. For relatively casual users, though, there’s actually a lot to be said for its core simplicity.

The best smart TV platforms

Check out… Panasonic GX800

From £820, Amazon | panasonic.com

Sadly Panasonic doesn’t currently sell TVs in the US. You can get them in many other territories, though. And if you live in one of those, this year 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 Panasonic’s 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.


The best smart TV platforms

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 you’re buying a high-end or budget set.

Both the US and UK carry Philips TVs with the latest Android TV platform built in – complete with Google Assistant voice control and Chromecast support. There’s no need to cover this again in detail here, as it’s explained in the Sony section above. However, the Philips version does tend to run more stably.

The Roku system found on some US Philips models also doesn’t need covering again given that it’s covered in the Hisense section – but Saphi does warrant more attention. It’s 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.

There’s also a second tier of icons, though unlike the similarly presented Samsung and LG approaches, this is not contextually based on what you’ve selected in the row above. It’s 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 Philips’ remote controls in Europe – those you get with relatively premium sets – 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 doesn’t 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 it’s actually preferable to the Android TV system used on more premium sets.

The best smart TV platforms

Check out… Philips OLED803

From £1,299, Amazon | philips.com

This OLED TV from Philips’ European range is a truly unique proposition. Naturally it delivers the stunning black level response and local contrast that OLED is renowned for. Thanks to Philips’ powerful P5 processor, though, it also delivers some of the most consistent brightness and punchiest light highlights ever seen on an OLED TV.

Colours are extremely intense too, and somehow the Philips picture engine manages to make fine detail levels look 6K even when the screen is only 4K.

On top of all this picture excellence, Philips is the only brand around that combines OLED pictures with Ambilight – a technology that uses LEDs tucked behind the TV’s edges to produce an aura of coloured light around the TV that makes the viewing experience more immersive.

TAGGED    televisions

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