The 5 Best Smart TV Platforms of 2011
The year 2011 marked the coming of age of Internet-connected ("smart") HDTVs. Though your TV's ethernet cable probably won't replace your cable TV quite yet, many more apps and video services will find their way into your TV--a far cry from 2010's connected TV features, which typically amounted to Netflix, YouTube, and a rental service or two.
Today, you can expect your TV to come with several general video-streaming services (Hulu Plus, Netflix, YouTube), a few video-on-demand rental services (Amazon Instant Video, Vudu, CinemaNow), Internet radio from Pandora and Rhapsody, social networking through Twitter and Facebook, an array of special apps for sports and photos, and sometimes even a full Web browser.
Still, choosing a TV based solely on its Internet features doesn't make a lot of sense. They're nice extras, but we have yet to see a killer TV app. If you're hankering for particular Internet TV features, you can usually get them on your existing TV by buying a stand-alone set-top box or Blu-ray player. For example, LG sells a set-top box called Smart TV Upgrader (for about $100) that gives users access to the full LG Smart TV catalog of Internet apps and services. If you prefer the Samsung Apps platform, you can buy a Samsung Blu-ray player that includes Netflix, Hulu Plus, and all of the other features in Samsung Apps for $170.
LG Smart TV
The LG Smart TV platform (which we tried with three sets from LG Electronics--the Infinia 47LW6500, the 50PZ950, and the 47LW5600) offers the best overall Internet experience. The Magic Motion remote, which reminded us of a Nintendo Wiimote, lets you navigate by pointing and clicking. "Typing" with the Magic Motion is only marginally easier than with a standard TV remote, but you can download a free QWERTY keyboard app for your iOS or Android device, for easier delving into the Internet features.
Smart TV includes an array of high-quality apps--among them, Amazon Instant Video, CinemaNow, Netflix, Vudu, and YouTube for streaming video; Napster for music; and a few generally useful apps such as Accuweather, Facebook, Picasa, and Twitter. LG's Smart TV app store offers a selection of free and paid apps and games, though nothing looks particularly impressive. The Smart TV platform also includes a Web browser, but it doesn't support Flash or HTML 5, so you won't be able to use it to watch most streaming Web video.
In addition to the standard streaming-video apps (Blockbuster, CinemaNow, Hulu Plus, Netflix, Vudu, and YouTube), Samsung stocks a few niche video apps, like 3D Video on Demand via Explore 3D, and ESPN Next Level and MLB.tv for sports enthusiasts. Add some social networking apps (Facebook, Skype--camera not included--and Twitter) and streaming music through Napster or Pandora, and you have an above-average smart TV selection.
Included with certain models is a special remote with a full keyboard, which makes searching for Internet content much less arduous. Though it's a good idea, the keyboard on Samsung's remote isn't quite as elegant as the one offered with some Vizio TVs.
Vizio Internet Apps
In fact, the remote is the best thing about Vizio's Internet Apps platform (which we tried out in the XVT3D650SV model). About the size of a smartphone, the Bluetooth unit comes with a full QWERTY slide-out keyboard to make searching for videos easier, but it does not accompany every Vizio connected TV.
Getting used to Vizio's remote takes some time, but once you do, it helps you take advantage of Vizio's app selection, which includes Amazon Instant Video, Blockbuster on Demand, Hulu Plus, Netflix, and Vudu for streaming video and movie rentals; music via Pandora, Rhapsody, and Tune In Radio; and assorted apps such as eBay, Facebook, Fandango, Flickr, and Twitter.
The overall selection is smaller than that found in competitors, yet it includes most of the major players, and Vizio gets bonus points for using a remote that makes navigating these features less of a pain. Plus, you can configure different profiles for different TV users, and add shortcuts to each user's favorite Web apps.
Sony Bravia Internet Video
The Sony entry in the platform competition, Sony Bravia Internet Video has always offered a broad (albeit somewhat eccentric) library of Internet video, but with an indifferent remote it's hard to get at some of the Bravia's features (as we found when we tried using the service with the Bravia 46HX820 model).
Sony includes a collection of video-streaming staples (Amazon Video on Demand, CinemaNow, Hulu Plus, Netflix, Vudu, and YouTube); music via Pandora and Slacker Radio; photos through Photobucket, Picasa, and Shutterfly; and the company's own Sony Qriocity service for delivering music and video from Sony's catalog.
From there, things get a tad weird, or at least quirky, with apps from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Concierge.com, Livestrong.com, and Style.com, among others. Though Sony has a large catalog of Internet apps, you probably won't be interested in using most of them. And there are no special remote features to help you navigate your apps and menus--just a basic iOS/Android remote control app. Sony does include a full Web browser, but it's a bit clunky.
Panasonic Viera Connect
We viewed Panasonic's Viera Connect smart-TV platform in conjunction with the manufacturer's Viera TC-P50ST30 and Viera TC-L42D30 models. The platform has plenty of promise but a bit less substance than the others--at least for the moment. Viera Connect provides many solid online features--among them, Amazon Instant Video, CinemaNow, Hulu Plus, Netflix, and YouTube streaming video; Skype (camera not included) for big-screen video chatting; a solid complement of sports apps (Fox Sports, MLB, MLS, NBA, and NHL); and a third-party app store (the Viera Market) with a reasonable selection of items.
Included in the Viera Market's options are a racing game (Asphalt 5) and support for USB gamepads, but we don't expect to see the Viera Connect replacing your dedicated game console at this point. Overall, the interface is fairly well designed for use with a standard remote, and Panasonic offers iOS and Android remote apps, but Viera Connect is not quite as easy to use as the offerings from LG or Vizio.