What makes a smart TV smart? Integrated internet, of course! A smart TV, also called a connected TV or CTV, is a television with interactive, web-enabled features. A smart TV combines the powerful computer system of a mobile device with the large-format screen of a modern television.

This powerful information appliance allows you to browse the internet, view photos, stream music, and of course watch your favorite entertainment media, either through traditional broadcast or by streaming over-the-top and on-demand video. There are many smart TV platforms to choose from, with the highest rated ones including Sony, Panasonic, Samsung, LG, and Roku TV.

Smart TVs come with their own preloaded operating system along with a selection of built-in programs or apps, usually including popular favorites such as Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, YouTube, Amazon, and more. From there, you can also add or remove apps via a built-in app store, just as you do on a smartphone.

The possibilities are endless, so you can customize your own collection of sources for viewing sports and news, movies and TV series, kids programming, weather, listening to music, video chatting with loved ones and checking social media channels.

A young man laughs while video chatting on his smart TV

Much of the same functionality is often found in separate video streaming devices, as well as some Blu-ray players and game consoles. The smart TV differs because it provides all the web-connected features in one standalone unit.

With a smart TV, you can also access your own photos, music, and movies. A popular way to do this is through a cloud-based web platform like Windows Media Player or iTunes, but you can also hook up directly to a computer or removable storage device, such as an external hard drive or USB stick drive.

Add-on services can even notify you when your favorite show or sports team is playing. Innovative payment platforms on some smart TVs are also providing easier checkout options, so you can easily purchase and access apps, movies, games, and more, using your remote control or a smartphone, laptop, or tablet.

How does a smart TV work?

Smart TVs connect to your home internet service, either through a wired Ethernet connection (for the most consistent speeds) or through your personal WiFi network. When you first set it up, you will be prompted to enter network login information, as provided by your internet service provider.

Once you’re connected, you’ll be able to access a huge number of “channels” (apps) to view different media. Many of these are subscription-based, however, so you will need to explore various streaming services and pick the ones you want to sign up for, some for free and most for a monthly cost.

In some cases, your WiFi signal may not be strong enough to adequately power a smart TV. In that case, you may need to consider some options for upgrading your home wireless network. If you have an older modem/router, it’s worth looking into getting a newer one made in the last three years to get optimal performance and compatibility with the latest wireless technology.

If that doesn’t do the trick, you may consider adding a WiFi extender to get expanded coverage in your home. Your TV may simply be located too far away from your wireless router.

The standard remote control for a smart TV will be familiar for those who have operated a streaming video device. In many cases, you can use arrow keys and an Enter or Select key, along with a Home or Menu button, to accomplish much of the required navigation.

Some smart TVs now feature additional navigation options that make it easier to interact with content through more natural means. These can include a second screen companion device that allow you to use a touchscreen, or motion-sensitive controls that allow gestural input like pointing at the screen, or voice commands.

These innovative methods allow you to avoid the somewhat cumbersome text input of using an on-screen keyboard and remote to enter search queries. For instance, some remotes (like Roku, among others) have built-in voice capability, which allow you to use spoken commands like “Show local weather” or “Mute TV volume.”

A young teen takes a virtual guitar lesson on a smart TV

What are the benefits of a smart TV?

A lot of people opt for the smart TV because it removes the step of having to connect a separate connected streaming device, such as a Roku or Amazon Fire. You get a huge selection of “channels” to view without having to hook up a TV antenna or pay for a costly cable or satellite plan.

However, most smart TVs are also compatible with a broadcast antenna or satellite/cable, so you can get the best of all worlds. If you watch a lot of local sports over an antenna, for instance, you can still do so with most models, as well as getting the high-tech internet TV and over-the-top options.

Another growing trend is that smart TVs are compatible with smart home devices such as Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa. So not only can you use them to change channels by voice command, but you can even link your smart TV to your connected home system to view smart lights, doorbells, locks, thermostats and more.

Is there anything a smart TV can’t do?

Yes, there are always some limitations to any technology. Firstly, while most smart TVs include many of the same popular apps/channels, there may be some niche offerings that only come with particular brands. So it’s worth doing some research if there’s a specific viewing option you want. You can do a web search to easily find consumer reviews on any model of smart TV.

You should also know that some websites choose to block access by various devices or customize the way content appears on different platforms, including smart TVs.

A remote points at a smart TV

What about security?

It is important to be aware that many smart TVs come equipped with their own webcams and microphones, which could increase the chances of outside parties hacking these components to eavesdrop, or for companies to use always-on monitoring for marketing purposes.

Meanwhile, malware attacks, such as viruses or worms, are also possible. This can allow hackers to access private information or financial details if you use your smart TV for online shopping.

For these reasons, it’s important to secure your home WiFi and use parental controls if you have children at home. There is also a growing market for smart TV-specific security and antivirus software, so you can check with the TV manufacturer to find out which program would be compatible with the platform.

If you are extremely worried about security risks, you can opt for a streaming media device instead, as these typically carry most of the same features and functionality as a smart TV, but without a built-in microphone or webcam.

The big picture

There are endless ways to enjoy online media these days — and smart TVs are just one of the many great options you can choose from. If you’re not quite ready to get a new TV, go for a set-top streaming device or a media stick instead. And if you are ready to upgrade to a smarter TV, take your time, do some research, read reviews, and check the details to get one that has the features you want. For a smart shopper, there’s an ideal smart TV out there waiting.

Find a streaming service for your Smart TV with the CenturyLink TV Recommendation Tool.