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Smart TVs 101: Everything you need to know

The ins and outs of internet-connected televisions

modern TV on a stand Shutterstock

Smart TVs, unlike conventional television sets, let users do a number of things—such as stream content from services like Netflix or Hulu, browse the internet, and check social media—directly from the TV set without additional hardware.

And they’re gaining steam with consumers: In 2011, 52 million smart TVs were sold worldwide. By 2015, that number rose to 141 million and was projected to hit 173 million by 2016.

Of course, there are several ways you can set up a “smart” TV. You can buy an actual Smart TV with integrated Wi-Fi, one that can handle apps and the like. Or, you can buy something like the Google Chromecast, Apple TV, or Roku Stick to turn your “dumb” TV into a “smart” one.

In some cases, it’s more beneficial to keep your old TV and pick up a third-party device with smart features, which can help you save money—and the environment—by recycling your perfectly fine television.

This is an ideal solution if you want to take additional TVs, like the one in your bedroom or office, and make them smart. But your living room television? You probably want to keep that one on the cutting edge. Here’s how—and why.

What is a smart TV?

A smart TV is just like a regular one, but with two exceptions: Smart TVs can access the internet via Wi-Fi and they can be boosted with apps—just like a smartphone or tablet.

Like regular TVs, smart TVs come in all shapes, sizes, and forms. You can get an LCD, Plasma, or even projection TV.

Traditionally, you would need to connect a computer or laptop to your TV to access internet-based content. Thanks to modern technology, that’s no longer necessary. Now, the TVs themselves include Wi-Fi receivers and can access your home network without any additional hardware. And you can always turn a dumb TV smart with one of the third-party devices we mentioned about earlier (Google Chromecast, Apple TV, and Roku are popular picks).

What can you do with a smart TV?

The most useful thing you can do with a smart TV is access streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video, and YouTube.

While some of these services require an active subscription, it’s an ideal setup for cord-cutters or people who don’t want to pay for cable. Almost all the content you have access to is considered “on-demand,” which means you can start or stop it at your leisure, and you can watch pretty much whatever you want with few, if any, commercials.

This is especially convenient if you’re not in the mood to surf through hundreds or thousands of channels (and who is, really?).

In addition, apps available for smart TVs can provide access to other services, like social networks, online shopping, internet browsers, music and media playback, and more.

What are the downsides?

There are just two things to consider if you’re thinking of buying a smart TV: The first is that you may need to subscribe to additional streaming services, like Netflix or Hulu, if you want to access streaming content. This is especially true if you don’t have a home computer with a digital media library that you can use as a makeshift video and music library. (You can do this with a free service like Plex.).

The second thing to consider is that this is another piece of technology you have to maintain. Wi-Fi isn’t always the most reliable wireless connection. It’s possible, at times, that your TV will drop a connection or suffer from poor speeds, hindering your experience. In other words, they’re just like other technology: imperfect.

What kind of TV should I buy?

Once you’ve made the decision to get a smart TV, next comes the more difficult part: choosing which type of TV and what brand you want.

The first thing you’ll need to figure out is what size TV you’re in the market for. It’s all too easy to buy a TV that’s too big or too small for the space you’re going to put it in. You’ll want to measure the space where you’re going to place or mount your TV and be sure what size is right for you. Smart TVs range in size from 15 inches all the way up to 90 inches and more.

As a general rule, anything 70 inches or more is going to be projection-type—otherwise, the price is going to be high. As in $1,000 to as much as $8,000. That said, if you want a super-large screen, you might be better off getting a projector-type setup.

Next, you’ll need to choose the type of TV you want. Would you like a flat-screen LCD (liquid crystal display) or plasma that you can mount directly to the wall? Do you prefer the older-style projection TVs that need to be placed on an entertainment stand? Would you like to buck the status quo completely and get a projector and screen like they use at movie theaters?

Each has advantages and disadvantages that makes it different from its peers. LCDs, for example, tend to be much brighter than any of the other types because they include a backlight. Rear-projection TVs will never be as bright as an LCD or plasma, because of the way they’re designed.

So, if you want a super bright, super-vivid picture, an LCD or plasma is the best way to go.

Finally, you’ll need to choose the brand: You’ll need to pony up more cash for a name brand like Sony, LG, Philips, or Samsung unless you pick up a set during a good sale. But the TV space is littered with lesser-known brands that are just as good, like Vizio, Sharp, Insignia, Sanyo, and others.

As a final note, make sure you’re actually selecting a “smart” TV with Wi-Fi access and app support when you’re shopping. It’s easy to buy a TV without this support, because stores still carry a good mix of the two.