Yes, that title is a shameless grab for your attention, but now that you’re here I want to talk about something that affects a lot of new TV shoppers without their knowledge: the OS behind your Smart TV. When most people shop for a new TV, they think about things like screen size, price, and resolution. What most people don’t realize is that different TV brands have different operating systems, and while they might offer similar features, they may not be organized the same or behave in the same ways. If I tell you that buying a Smart TV is a lot like buying a Smartphone, those differences start to make sense, right? The brains behind your TV can have a massive impact on your TV-watching experience and I always encourage would-be Smart TV owners to play around with the user interfaces and remote controls when they’re choosing their new model. After all, according to a 2016 study by Nielsen, American adults watch an average of five hours of television a day. Don’t you want that time to be enjoyable?
Let’s pretend that you have your options narrowed down to two or three different models. Same screen size, same resolution, and more or less the same price. How do you choose? I recommend going with the option that feels right for you, and that means taking the OS for a test drive in the store. For many people it all comes down to personal preference, but I encourage TV shoppers to dig a little deeper into some of the details. To make it easier on you, I did some of the legwork for you and contacted the TV manufacturers directly to find out what features they focus on in their Smart TVs.
First, a handy-dandy little comparison chart showing many of the most common features of a Smart TV OS:
Element / Westinghouse Amazon Fire TV
Element and Westinghouse recently launched their upcoming Amazon Fire TVs. The new models feature the same interface that Amazon provides in its Fire TV box and Fire TV Stick baked into the TV itself. One of the benefits of the Fire TV operating system is its compatibility with Alexa, Amazon’s voice-enabled search engine, as well as the interface’s ability to gather live broadcast TV and streaming content into one navigation view for easy searching. The included voice remote allows users to give commands such as “Switch to Xbox” or “Tune to NBC” without having to navigate through several menus to change content. The remote also features quick-access buttons for Prime Video (of course), Netflix, and Prime Music. The Amazon TV interface will be familiar to users who already watch Prime videos or who own a standalone Fire TV device.
Insignia, Hisense, Hitachi, Sharp, TCL Roku TV
Several brands began incorporating the Roku TV OS into their models in 2014, and the trend continues into 2017. The Roku OS offers several benefits to users, not least of which is the fact that it was the original streaming device and has had nine years to perfect its interface. The viewer interface is indeed simple and easy to use, with menu tiles for each app and a search function that will find content across all apps. The Roku TV remotes offer voice search, the ability to pause live TV, and a headphone jack to listen to TV audio without disturbing others. As an added benefit, users can also select movies, TV series, actors, or directors to watch via My Feed, which will send updates when new content is available to watch.
In my conversation with LG, they repeatedly stressed the desire to keep the user’s experience focused more on the content and less on navigating the interface. Who wants to spend their time clicking through various apps and menus to find what they want to watch? LG made it simple by focusing on three strengths:
a) Simple to Switch takes all your content from all your inputs (live TV, Netflix, Blu-ray player, etc.) and places it in one menu to instantaneously switch between what you’re watching, regardless of source.
b) Simple to Connect lets the TV do the work for you by recognizing when a new device is connected and helping to set it up so that the TV remote will control it. webOS even lets you rename the input so you no longer have to remember what’s in HDMI 2 or HDMI 3.
c) Simple to Discover lets you search in one place and find listings for multiple apps, eliminating the need to jump in and out of different apps to find the content you want. The menu is displayed on top of what you’re currently watching so you can transition seamlessly from one show to another.
Other ease-of-use features for LG’s webOS include the Magic Remote with voice and gesture control, which allows users to operate the remote much like a mouse on a computer screen. And through it all, webOS has a little cartoon bird they call “Bean Bird”, which is available to provide help at any time.
The Tizen OS has been in use for a few years as Samsung’s proprietary operating system. The central focus of Samsung’s Smart TVs is the Smart Hub, which is undergoing a facelift for 2017. The Smart Hub aggregates content across multiple sources for easy search and discovery. New this year, Samsung is adding Sport search, which will allow users to enter their favorite teams and be told where and when they are available to watch. Samsung’s new Music page adds content from eight different partners (Spotify, iHeartRadio, Sirius XM, and others) and also features Shazam, which will identify songs currently being played and make suggestions of other music the user might like. Samsung also offers users the ability to customize on-screen icons as well as keep regularly-used apps easily accessible in a Recent Apps box.
Sony Android TV
Sony sets itself apart from the competition by using the Google Android TV OS on its models. Users who are familiar with the Android mobile platform will be comfortable using the TV version as well. Android TV gives users access to apps available on the Google Play store, as well as compatibility with Google Assistant and Google Home. Sony keeps its OS up to date, too: the company recently updated all 2015/2016 models to Android M, and 2016/2017 models to Android N.
Sony Android TVs organize content onto a Home screen as well as a content bar, which can be customized with user favorites. The system allows users to place current viewing in the background while scrolling content menus, which keeps the user connected to the viewing experience. The navigation is streamlined and intuitive, and the voice remote adds an extra layer of convenience to the process.
Vizio has perhaps the most interesting approach to its Smart TV OS with the use of Google Cast as the preferred platform. Vizio’s high-end models, called “Home Theater Displays”, do not have a TV tuner installed and all of the available content must be streamed directly to the TV via the Vizio SmartCast app on a mobile device. Some of Vizio’s other models offer both a TV tuner and SmartCast functions, giving users options that match their viewing preferences.
Regardless of which option is chosen, the Vizio SmartCast OS will work the same way by placing control of the interface into the user’s mobile device. Users can access content from multiple apps in one menu, making search and discovery easier without the necessity of sifting through each app one at a time. Vizio also provides voice search within the app for an added benefit. In addition, because each user will have their own individual preferences on their mobile devices, the interface is infinitely customizable. Another benefit includes compatibility with Google Home products for a larger smart home experience.
What Does It All Mean For You?
These are just some of the benefits and choices available in your new Smart TVs. In the end, I encourage shoppers to play around with the interface while they’re in stores to find one that works the way you want to watch TV. A good OS will be fast, intuitive to use, and help make the process easier, not more difficult. Fortunately, there are a lot of very good options out there: the hardest part will be narrowing them down to the one you like the best.