Finding the smartest TV

Not long ago, buying a new TV simply boiled down to one question — plasma or LCD (and not long before that, Sony Trinitron or something else).

Back then, our viewing choices weren’t much chop, either. You chose to put up with free-to-air TV stations and their schedule-mangling, shifting your favourite shows to the dead of night, or you cut the antenna cable, pulled out your Buffy DVD box set or PS3 and enjoyed alternative entertainment instead.

But the advent of on-demand video streaming services such as Netflix and Stan, combined with new technology in OLED and 4K resolution over the last year or two, has left the TV market virtually standing on its head.

But potentially, even these changes may struggle to stack up against what could be one of the most significant changes to hit TVs in the last 15 years — the introduction of the TV operating system.

TVs by operating system?

appletvUp until around 2011, TVs were mostly what they’d always been — primarily display devices.

Sure, the tech and connectivity had changed enormously, but they were still dumb devices — you pressed buttons, whether on the TV or its remote, to achieve one of a fixed and limited number of built-in functions.

The advent of smart TVs brought internet connectivity along with the first green shoots of on-demand video streaming and local media playback.

But for the most part, you were still looking at custom, proprietary interfaces and software, with occasional and mostly forgettable attempts at web browsing and gaming.

Today, we’re seeing the arrival of Smart TV 2.0, thanks largely to new Linux-based platforms where the emphasis is on apps and the ecosystem.

In short, the smartphone/tablet app world has hit the TV, as these display devices aim to become the ultimate all-in-one home entertainment system.

Is ‘smart’ all that smart?

exyBut with this new frontier comes questions. For starters, three of the top TV brands (LG, Samsung and Sony) also happen to be three of the major phone makers, so it’s pertinent to ask how long can these new TVs expect to receive OS update support?

So far, only LG is up to its second-generation of OS-based TVs, which, this year, feature the new WebOS 2.0 operating system. But recently, the Korean brand announced this new OS would also be made available as a free update to last year’s first-gen WebOS TVs.

Beyond that, however, no TV-maker has made its long-term update intentions clear.

Smart TVs are evolving from display devices into all-in-one computers where the emphasis is at least as much on the app store ecosystem as it is on image quality. And that could have far-reaching consequences on the practical lifespan of these devices, particularly given the typical two-year device turnover in the smartphone market.

Along with OS updates comes the issue of CPU power — these new TVs variously feature dual, quad or eight-core CPUs, but how long will dual, quad or even eight-core CPUs provide sufficient performance?

Five years ago, we all wandered around with single-core smartphones. Today, you don’t buy a phone without a quad-core chip, so how will today’s TVs fare five years from now?

Throw in 4K resolution, OLED technology, on-demand streaming and TV has quickly entered a brave new world.

Different approaches

The idea of talking about operating systems for TVs sounds weird, but when you understand just how quickly TVs are becoming glorified loungeroom all-in-one computers, it quickly makes sense. The future of TV is, all of a sudden, being talked up as all about apps.

The ecosystems Google and Apple have created around smartphones and tablets are eyed off with envy by the TV makers, many of whom are struggling to turn a profit from their TV-building adventures, some of them for a number of years.

And the big names are all having a crack at it differently. Korean giants LG and Samsung are going for the full-on Apple-like ecosystem, where they control not only their own hardware, but the operating system and app store that go with it.

On the other side, Panasonic and Sony have chosen Mozilla Firefox and Google’s new Android TV, respectively, to run their smart shows. For Sony, the relationship is nothing new, as the two already collaborate over tablets and smartphones.

As usual, Apple has its own strategy, but one that could be the smartest of all. Apple’s main goal with Apple TV isn’t to sell TVs, but to sell yet another ecosystem. Smartly, it’s not in the business of selling TVs, but by making a relatively inexpensive external box, it cleverly sees every TV with an HDMI port as its potential market.

However, for consumers, the real question is can the TV market support five different OSs and ecosystems? Unlikely.

Nevertheless, we’ve tried out all five and here’s what we found.

Also be sure to check out our roundup of the best TVs to buy.


Apple tvOS

Available on: Apple TV

tvosOkay, so Apple’s new tvOS might not exist in an actual TV, but the latest fourth-generation Apple TV, which sports the new OS, still marks a significant shift in the way Apple does TV.

You don’t need to look far to see it, either — Apple’s advertising for Apple TV loudly and proudly proclaims “it’s all about the apps”. That’s hardly surprising, given its new iOS-style tvOS comes complete with an app store to one of the few remaining home entertainment frontiers it doesn’t completely own already.

But the one great bonus tvOS has here is that it’s external to your TV, it works with any HDMI-equipped TV — and although starting at $269, more than double the price of the previous-generation model, it’s still a lot cheaper than buying a new telly.

The new lean Siri Remote is easy to drive (except when buying apps and having to type in your password each time) and it’s surprisingly not as uncomfortable to hold as we had expected. It doubles as a Wii-like game controller with accelerometer and gyroscope, while holding the mic button down lets you talk Siri’s ear off.

The current tvOS version 9 feels and looks like a cleaner, leaner version of iOS — it’s smooth and responsive, but on the back of Apple’s fast A8 CPU (the chip powering the iPad mini 4), so it should be.

As for rumours of an actual Apple TV? We’ll put the kiss of death on it by saying Apple will never make one in a million years. Seriously, they’d be absolutely mad to do it.


Google Android TV

andosAvailable on: Sony W800C series and up, selected Sharp and Philips models

The obvious question here is what has Google got right this time with Android TV that it didn’t with Google TV?

Unfortunately, the answer is a little less obvious. On the plus side, Android TV is a fork of Android 5.0/Lollipop — that means it essentially has the same nuts and bolts as your Android phone or tablet. That gives it access to Google Play and its content ecosystem, although you won’t find too many Android TV apps at the moment.

The good news is that software developers can create Android TV apps with the same Android Studio tools used for phone and tablet apps.

The downside is that it’s a fork of Android 5.0/Lollipop. What do we mean? Well, for those looking for a lean TV system, this more or less runs like a smartphone or tablet OS.

For example, you need a Google account to sign in to features and owners have reported the initial update on first boot can take a serious amount of time.

Using the OS is fairly straightforward if you’re a confident Android user, with the category selections similar to Google Play’s category bars.

We tested it on Sony’s new 55-inch X8500C model and it was smooth and responsive enough using the traditional remote, but you can’t help thinking this feels a lot like using a tablet, rather than a telly and, personally, that’s not really what I want when I sit down in front of the box.

So far, OS updates seem to be flowing, but we wonder whether there’ll be more than the two years of OS updates that phones and tablets typically rate at the moment.


LG WebOS

webos2Available on: LF5900 (1.0), LF6300 (2.0) and up, UF680T series and up

WebOS has a pedigree that reaches back to the Palm Pilot PDAs of the early 2000s, before being sold to Hewlett-Packard in 2010.

The US tech giant later licensed it to LG, who reworked it and introduced its first WebOS TVs last year. Its 2015 class of smart TVs currently available run WebOS 2.0.

For general operation, WebOS is easy to use — you use the remote to select from a series of slanted tile icons to choose your desired service. Streaming support includes Netflix and, just at time of testing, a new Stan app was announced.

As you move through, the current tile is raised, similar to Mac OS X’s Dock. WebOS also controls the TV settings, but thankfully, LG has rethought its remote control from last year’s models and now provides a larger, better featured unit that combines more direct-access function buttons, along with the Wii-mote style control in the one unit.

WebOS is actually nicely done — the remote/cursor movement link speed is good, even though LG only does dual-core CPUs in its 1080p models. But the OS theme, animations and general styling are smooth and look great.

We especially give LG props for making this new WebOS 2.0 release available as a free update for first-gen WebOS TV owners. Again, we can only wonder how long this update support will continue, but it’s an excellent start we hope other brands will follow.

If you know HTML, CSS and JavaScript, you can start building your own WebOS TV apps using free, open-source tools.


Panasonic Firefox OS

firefoxosAvailable on: CX700A series and later

Of all the various options, Firefox OS — at least as a TV operating system — is the one we fear for most.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s Adam Turner, while reviewing a Panasonic Firefox-equipped TV, aptly described it in phone parlance as more a “feature TV than a smart TV”.

We tested it on a 55-inch CX700A and it does have a very minimalistic feel. First, the interface is definitely lean with just three screen buttons greeting you when you press the remote’s Home button. Second, the My Home Screen apps cupboard isn’t exactly bursting at the seams with options.

We think it’s doubtful the TV market can sustain five different OS ecosystems and, to us, Firefox is the weakest of the five in that regard.

Panasonic’s TV market share was variously quoted at the beginning of 2015 as around 4%. That will make it less enticing for developers to create more apps and it’s difficult to see Firefox excelling as a TV OS on a market share of just 4%.

The CX700A has a four-core CPU inside, which does make the OS responsive, but we couldn’t say more so than LG’s Web OS 2.0. Personally, the circle theme grated on me, but I’m happy for that to be a more personal taste thing.

At time of writing, Firefox OS didn’t have an app for on-demand streaming service Stan — something Samsung, Sony and LG enjoy. Throw in the perennial question over OS updates, available apps and this one is hard to back.

Still, if you want to code Firefox OS TV apps yourself, see Mozilla’s website.


Samsung Tizen

tizenosAvailable on: Series-5 J5500 and up

Tizen is the Linux-based operating system that now powers Samsung’s Smart Hub. Officially, it’s backed by a host of brand-names from Intel to Samsung, NEC to Panasonic, but for now, it’s only Samsung putting it into its 2015-era TVs.

While it gives you the usual streaming suspects such as Netflix, Stan and iView, like the other OSs, it permeates right through the TV, handling access to settings and aiming for a whole-of-TV experience.

And it’s pretty decent — fast, with minimal delay between you requesting and it doing. We tested Tizen on a 55-inch Series 8 model, but we’re not sure the spartan Smart Hub remote will suit everyone.

For feature-finding, it works, but if you’re used to the more traditional button-for-everything remote, it may begin to grate. The whole screen-typing thing is something all OSs struggle with and we think Tizen is no exception.

We found the app store also gets a little cluttered with too much detail (not sure you really need to know the file size of each store app, for example).

But a key factor that helps responsiveness is Samsung’s choice of incorporating quad-core CPUs into its full HD and lower-end UltraHD models, going as far as eight-core in its flagship Series 9 screens. LG, by comparison, only uses dual-core CPUs in its full HD TVs and keeps quad-core chips for UHD models.

Tizen might seem to be yet another arguably perilous one-brand OS, but when that brand has nearly a quarter of the global TV market, it’s better off than most. Start making your own Tizen apps by heading here.

  • Grumpigeek

    I have zero confidence any of the Smart TV manufacturers have paid any attention to system security. All simply present a huge attack surface for malware to get onto your home network.

    I’d prefer a dumb “Ultra HD Premium” Screen with 2 tuners and the best possible upscaling processor.

    All the rest I’d prefer to do via a HTPC over which I have control and can keep secure via any number of Internet Security Suites and browser addons such as Disconnect or Ghostery, HTTPS Everywhere, Adblock Plus etc.