Are You Smarter Than a Smart TV?

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The new digital divide is between smart TVs and not-so-smart TVs. That’s because top-of-the-class television sets today function more like computers than the passive monitors of even a few years ago. The newest TVs are Wi-Fi-capable, embed dual processors and sport USB and Ethernet jacks. They can stream photos, music and video as readily from the Internet as from a computer or storage device in another room or a USB device plugged directly into a side port on the TV. They have built-in browsers, let you use Twitter to write and view comments about what you’re watching along with friends watching simultaneously in their own homes.

Smart TVs can run their own apps and be controlled by apps on mobile devices. Some smart TVs can mirror exactly what’s being displayed on your notebook without attaching wires. Some TVs are equipped with cameras and microphones so you can make video phone calls to friends down the street or share a birthday with relatives across the ocean. Smart TVs have sensors that adjust the picture brightness automatically to the lighting in the room. Many have stereo speakers controlled by embedded software that can as easily create the illusion of surround sound and transport you to the center of a stadium or put the kibosh on the loudness of a commercial. If you like using the 3D picture option available on many TVs, some sets enhance the effect with matching audio that appears to reach out to you, too. Some new 3D TVs use the same type of glasses as those in movie theaters, meaning no batteries and no flicker.

On top of their high IQs, members of the Class of 2012 are really good-looking. Their pictures display the sharpest resolution (1920 x 1080p), also called Full HD, which some folks mistake for looking through a window. The screens have never been as big (55 , 60 , 65 inches and larger) or as thin (an inch packs a lot of electronics). The bezel around the screen has become extremely thin as well, leading onlookers to believing the picture is floating. Hanging a TV on the wall has never been easier. TVs have also become more energy efficient thanks to LED illumination. Faster refresh rates have virtually eliminated unclear images from action scenes. Some TVs offer a 24p setting that matches the 24 frame-per-second rate used by cinematographers. Movie lovers appreciate the smoother, more faithful scenes. Colors are truer and contrast has improved, too. If you’re looking for great value, today’s smart TVs cost less than what you would have spent on a similar-sized but much less smart model even 18 months ago.

The most significant difference between an above-average TV and a smart TV is the latter’s ability to aggregate content from a variety of sources including other digital devices but especially from entertainment sites on the Internet. While the first generation of smart TVs was perhaps limited to streaming movies from Netflix, videos from YouTube and music from Pandora, the newest sets let you access hundreds of sites. They may include a variety of photo-sharing sites like Flickr, social-networking sites like Facebook, music sites like Slacker, TV-show sites like Hulu Plus, and information sites like NBC News. It’s all on demand, no waiting and much of it free. The list of TV-accessible websites grows daily as TV manufacturers add destinations even after you bring the sets home. That’s the convenience of a TV connected to the Internet.

If the TV has an Ethernet jack, it’s almost certainly a smart TV. Some TVs have been described as Wi-Fi ready, which means you can avoid the hassle of stringing a long Ethernet cable to your TV when the set is placed in a room not wired to your home network. Once “Wi-Fi-ready” was simply code for an optional USB adapter that turned the TV into a Wi-Fi capable one. But the latest smart TVs mostly build the Wi-Fi transceiver and antenna into the set itself. So, assuming you have a functioning Wi-Fi network, all you have to do is follow the onscreen prompts for the TV to discover your network and attach itself to the broadband ramp to the Internet.

Owners of dumb TVs with aspirations of a better life for their sets have been able to educate them by adding a media receiver or connected Blu-ray Disc player. The downside of accessorizing like this is that external equipment requires a separate power outlet, occupies an AV input, consumes shelf space and adds yet another controller to your roster of remotes. And you have to teach yourself another menu-driven interface. TV manufacturers now have learned to integrate media receiver functions along with the TV’s other functions so you need one less component.

TV remotes aren’t standing still either. Some feature curvaceous designs, keyboards for use with the TV’s browser, touch screens for gesture control or microphones to accept voice commands. In decade two of the new millennium, saying “channel up” or “volume down” gets results—not odd glances.

Super-sizing your viewing experience is another reason to take a look at the Class of 2012, even if you have no interest in streaming entertainment from the Internet. The average 40-inch TV—relatively small by today’s standards—doesn’t cost much more than a 9.7-inch iPad, yet you and your family get to enjoy big-screen entertainment from the couch. Wouldn’t you rather watch a sports event or a movie on a generously-sized HDTV screen with ample speakers? When it comes to buying a new HDTV set, living large has never been more economical.

In the long run, the way new TVs are illuminated will save you money, too. Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) consume less electricity than other TV technologies. More intelligent dimming is being deployed so that LCDs blocking the light to create darker parts of the picture aren’t the only things standing between gray and black. Meanwhile, plasma technology—in which colored phosphors are excited by electrically-charged gas—still leads the way in flat-screen technology for achieving pixel-specific blackness, the fastest refresh rates and the widest viewing angles. Plasma manufacturers haven’t stood still either as subsequent panel generations refine proven technology.

So, to answer the question: Are you smarter than a smart TV? Of course you are! But you’d be especially smart if your next TV is a smart TV.