Smart Platform Overview
When shopping for a new TV, you're probably more concerned about the TV's capabilities than the Smart OS, but you should think about what you want to do with your TV before choosing a new TV. Unlike cell phones or computers, there are a wide array of smart interfaces available, and each brand has their own system.
Ever since its introduction in 2014, LG's WebOS has been a dominant force compared to competing smart TVs. It is fast, easy to use, and powerful, and has a well-polished interface. Version 4.0, released in 2018, adds powerful new voice control and a dedicated smart assistant. The smart assistant is very powerful, and can also interact with thousands of other devices, even home appliances and other smart devices like Google Home and Amazon Alexa. There is a wide range of apps available for the platform, including Plex, Netflix, Hulu, etc... LG TVs are not ad-free, but the ads are not very intrusive although they cannot be disabled.
The remote's design hasn't changed much over the years, and still closely resembles previous models. The best feature of the remote is that it can be used as a virtual mouse pointer, allowing you to very quickly navigate around menus or in apps. LG is the only company with a remote like this. Their remote app is a little more basic but can be used to stream files from your device or control the on-screen pointer.
Most 2018 LG TVs have the same smart interface, but some of the more basic models have a simpler remote control and lack voice control. Despite this, the interface is the same and the apps are the same, which is great.
SAMSUNG TIZEN SMART HUB
Samsung had one of the first dedicated smart platforms. The current layout is modern and polished, and most people find it easy to use. The animations on some TVs are quite choppy, and there are frequent dropped frames. The built-in content store has one of the widest selection of apps, as well as movies and TV shows that can be rented and streamed directly from the interface. The interface isn't ad-free, but the ads are intermittent and not very invasive.
Like LG, the Samsung interface is very similar across most of the lineup. Entry-level TVs don't have Samsung's Bixby Personal Assistant, and the interface is a little simpler. There aren't as many animations when moving through the menus, and this is actually a good thing as the whole experience is smoother, with less lag and less dropped frames.
There are multiple remotes available for Samsung TVs, that range from very basic plastic remotes with tons of buttons, to sleek metal remotes with very few buttons. The high-end remotes don't require line-of-sight with the TV, so you can walk around with the remote, but you'll find that you have to change the batteries quite a bit more often.
TCL ROKU TV
When streaming services started gaining in popularity, the main way to access them was through streaming smart TV add-ons. One of the most popular of these was the Roku line of devices. Roku was unique in that anyone could create a "channel", and list that channel on the Roku store for anybody to access. The TCL line of TVs integrated this smart platform into their TVs. Beyond the streaming channels, most of the popular apps are available, including YouTube, Netflix, and Prime Video. Unfortunately, all TCL TVs have ads throughout the menus, including invitations to buy physical Roku products.
TCL TVs in 2018 still have the same great features of previous models, even if the Roku platform isn't as popular as it used to be. The remote has a simpler design and is very compact compared to other brands. It doesn't have the private listening feature that older models like the TCL P607 had, but this removes a lot of weight from the remote and makes it more comfortable to hold for longer periods.
TCL has the best remote app of any brand. It covers all of the basics and works as a replacement remote, but can also stream audio from native apps to your phone, so you can listen to Netflix in peace at night without disturbing anyone, and without buying wireless headphones. Many of the advanced TV settings, including the calibration, are only accessible through the Roku Remote App.
TCL TVs in Europe use the Android TV interface which is vastly different.
Currently found on Sony and LeEco TVs, as well as TCL TVs in Europe, Android is a well-featured smart platform. Despite the name, the platform does not look or function like the popular Android OS found on smart phones. The design is quite a bit simpler, and lacks the fancier menus and animations found on LG and Samsung's platforms. The included Google Play Store has thousands of apps available, but it is only a subset of what is available on the full Play Store. The search function and voice controls are very advanced, and most Android TVs are able to understand more complex voice requests, in some cases even supporting the ability to change basic TV settings and answer unrelated questions, like checking the weather in a certain location.
The interface hasn't changed much over the years, and there is very little difference in platforms between TV models. Some very basic Sony TVs don't use Android at all, but there are only a few models like this. The ones that use Android all have pretty much the same smart features. The interface is designed around a central home screen. The home screen uses rows to display the available apps and the different inputs, as well as having a large section of suggested content.
The remote included in all Sony TVs is very similar. Higher end models use better materials and have voice recognition, but they are all very similar. Sony remotes haven't changed very much in recent years, and the design looks a bit dated, especially when compared with the sleek metallic remotes in high-end Samsung TVs.
Vizio's updated their SmartCast platform slightly last year by adding an on-screen menu to access a limited set of web-based apps like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video without the use of a mobile device like a tablet or phone. Even with that, it's one of the most barebones options currently available since most of it is still centered around Google's Chromecast.
The same feature is available on Android, but it's also significantly more powerful when used as a standalone device, making Vizio's solution seem quite limited in comparison.
Is a Smart TV better than a standalone box?
Game consoles like the Xbox One and PS4, if you consider them in the same realm, obviously offer the advantage of giving you access to a wide library of high-quality games in addition to smart features. Devices like Roku, Apple TV or Nvidia's Shield TV don't offer as big of an advantage. Their feature set is either very similar or exactly the same as modern TVs, but their main advantage tends to be stability and speed. It's less of a factor for the various Roku boxes, but Android on the Shield TV gets updates more frequently, is more stable and is, in general, more responsive and less prone to slowdowns.
This isn't too big of a deal though. If most of your usage is going to consist of starting the TV and launching apps such as Netflix and Youtube, then investing in a standalone device is unnecessary.
Not only does almost every TV include smart features today, most of them are pretty good. LG's WebOS and TCL's Roku definitely stand out for their quality, but most shoppers should be pleased by the features of any of them. If you're shopping for a TV, don't fret too much on their smart features since little of your time is going to be spent using them. Instead, focus on the picture quality or other features that complement your usage. You'll get much closer to finding your perfect TV that way.
Check our recommendations for the best smart TVs.