The days when all you did was sit back and gawk at your TV are long gone. Now all but the most basic TVs carry enough brainpower to support some sort of smart operating system featuring a range of apps bringing you everything from games and infotainment to, most usefully, video streaming services.
After a shaky - OK, at times downright rubbish - start, the best smart TVs have now evolved into seriously useful hearts of most household entertainment systems.
The more they’ve evolved, though, the more differences have crept in between each brand of smart TV platform. Not every TV system is the same - or equal. So here we look at all the best smart TV systems to help you figure out which one is the smartest, and which smart TVs should be top of your shopping list.
Samsung’s smart TV system has frankly been playing catch up against its great rival LG for the past few years. However, with its latest Tizen system, Samsung is finally able to take on LG’s renowned WebOS system. Especially now that it’s had a leg up from Apple…
Tizen’s interface is slick. As with most smart platforms now, its home screen only comprises a strip at the bottom of the screen, so that you can keep watching telly while you explore the smart stuff. It also streamlines the content-finding process by bringing up a second layer of icons linking directly to recommended shows or features based on the service you’ve highlighted in the bottom layer.
All this happens quickly and slickly on all but Samsung’s cheapest smart TVs, and the amount of content Tizen TV offers is huge - especially when it comes to the most important area of video streaming platforms.
The regulars of Netflix, Amazon and YouTube are all there, along with the catch-up TV services for all the UK’s key terrestrial broadcasters. There’s also, though, Google Play Movies and TV, Rakuten TV, Now TV, BT Sport and, most eye-catchingly of all, Apple TV (removing the need for a £100 plus Apple TV box). All available in 4K and HDR where a platform supports it.
It’s a pity even the best Samsung TVs can’t play the Dolby Vision feeds supported by some of the streaming platforms it carries, and don’t present their UK terrestrial catch up services within the handy Freeview Play app. Still, all things (especially the currently unique Apple TV app) considered, Tizen TV is, for now at least, the cream of the smart TV crop.
Samsung’s flagship 4K TVs for 2019 rewrite the LCD TV rulebook. Innovative new panel technology completely overcomes LCD’s traditional viewing angle limitations. Direct backlighting from nearly 500 separately controlled dimming zones delivers OLED-rivalling black levels with LCD brightness levels. QLED technology delivers phenomenally rich HDR-friendly colours. And Tizen is on hand to ensure that almost every source imaginable can take advantage of the TV’s picture quality.
Read the full review: Samsung QE65Q90R
When LG first introduced WebOS, it felt like the missing link in the Smart TV experience. Suddenly we had an interface that looked cute, ran slickly, and was so intuitive even the most technophobic TV user could handle it.
It was so good from the off, in fact, that it spawned copies galore - and hasn’t felt the need to change that much.
It’s still built along the concept it introduced of putting colourful icon links to apps in a narrow bar along the bottom of the screen, only this year it’s started introducing a second tier of contextual direct content links.
The system still looks gorgeous in the way all the icons just sit directly over the picture, while nifty animations help you track your position in the menus. There’s also a great new screen this year that monitors all your connected devices, including IoT fridges, washing machines and so on, while LG is the only brand currently offering built in (as in, no external listening devices required) support for LG’s own ThinQ AI, Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant voice control services.
WebOS is rich in content, too. Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Google, Now TV, Rakuten and all the terrestrial TV catch up services are present and correct, with HDR and 4K support (including, in this case, Dolby Vision) on offer where a service supports them. The terrestrial TV services are provided within Freeview Play, too.
Just as we were compiling this feature, LG also started adding Apple Homekit and Airplay 2 support to its 2019 TVs. Though for now at least, there’s no Apple TV support.
WebOS is only found on most LG and a few B&O OLED TVs. And the clear all-round winner from the current webOS TV crop is LG’s C9 OLED series. These sets combine the stunning, contrast-rich pictures you get from OLED screens with the gorgeous punch and accuracy provided by LG’s latest Alpha 9 Generation 2 processing - all at a fraction of the price of LG's other Alpha 9 sets.
Read the full review: LG OLED55C9PLA
Sported initially on Sony TVs but now also used on some Philips (Europe) and TCL (Europe) TVs, Google’s Android TV platform hasn’t historically fared well.
Fortunately, its latest iteration - v8.0 - delivers some pretty big improvements. But it’s still far from perfect.
Let’s start with the problems. First, its interface feels overbearing and clumsy - not least because its homescreen is the only one of the four covered here that takes over the whole screen. It’s also less easy to customise than the other three platforms, and isn’t as clever at tracking your viewing habits and refining its recommendations accordingly.
While it’s extremely content-rich, much of that content seems misplaced in a TV (rather than a phone) environment. Yet at the same time, Android TV doesn’t support some pretty basic stuff - including some key UK catch-up TV platforms.
On top of all this, it’s still more buggy and sluggish than its rivals.
Fortunately the latest v8.0 interface does improve the running speed and stability of the Android TV platform, as well as doing a better job of prioritising video services in its menus. Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube, GooglePlay Movies and TV are there, and all support 4K and HDR where available. But brands that want to add full support for the UK’s catch up TV services have to add them via an external app - such as YouView, in Sony’s case. Philips at the time of writing does not provide a way of accessing all of the key UK catch up services on its Android TV sets.
Sony’s XG95s use direct LED lighting with local dimming to deliver strong contrast and brightness, while the two largest (75 and 85-inch) models also provide ground-breaking wide viewing angle support - albeit at the expense of some of the contrast found on the smaller screens.
The star of the show, though, is Sony’s brilliant X1 Ultimate video processing, which delivers stunning detail, upscaling of non-4K sources, colour finesse and motion reproduction.
Read the full review: Sony KD-65XG9505
Panasonic My Home Screen 4.0
While it has its limitations, Panasonic’s proprietary smart platform does have one big thing going for it: it’s really easy to use.
Its out-of-the-box home screen comprises just three clean, colourful icons superimposed over the bottom of the screen providing access to your apps, connected devices and Live TV services. It’s child play, though, to add link icons for other apps to the home screen, and adjust their running order.
Panasonic now provides five vertically scrollable decks of link icons from the home page, too, covering Netflix, Freeview Play and YouTube. You can adjust the running order of these decks, but not what apps appear on each deck. For instance, you can’t swap YouTube for Amazon Prime.
My Home Screen’s problem is that it’s a bit superficial. No second tier of direct content links pops up when you highlight an app on the main deck. There’s no built-in voice recognition/control (though you can use Alexa or Google Assistant if you add an external smart speaker).
There’s no screen for monitoring/controlling IoT devices, and beyond the cool home screen, the presentation becomes dated. You don’t have to add many icons to the home screen, either, before it starts to look cluttered.
Panasonic’s platform also carries fewer apps than its rivals. There’s no Now TV, no BT Sport, no Google Play Movies, and currently no promised Apple TV app support, leaving only Rakuten and Chili as potentially interesting video services beyond the ones listed earlier.
While Panasonic has just started launching a typically excellent set of OLED TVs, it’s also delivered a startlingly affordable return to LCD form in 2019 with the GX800 series. These sets deliver vibrant, clean and contrast-rich pictures thanks to Panasonic’s Hollywood-tuned HCX picture processing, a cleverly managed LED backlight system, and support for both HDR10+ and Dolby Vision, meaning you’ll always get the great results from any HDR source you watch.
Read the full review: Panasonic TX-50GX800B