With much-improved user interfaces and a growing arsenal of useful apps and services, today’s smart TVs are finally living up to their name. In addition to rating each TV, we also graded its software platform. — Bryan Gardiner
Why haven’t smart TVs caught on yet?
Every manufacturer offers a different mix of proprietary services, user interfaces, and apps, presumably in the hope of setting itself apart from the pack. But as a result, many customers have been waiting on the sidelines until the chaos subsides. In fact, about 20 percent of smart-TV owners don’t connect them to the Internet.
There are apps available for these TVs?
Yep. There are now TV versions of a lot of the same apps you use on your smartphone or tablet, available through the manufacturers’ own online stores. Not all of them are ready for prime time, though. While Flickr and Skype shine on the big screen, Facebook and other major social apps are much less compelling.
Should I wait a bit longer to buy?
Nope. Manufacturers have improved the user experience, with streamlined interfaces and apps that use your smartphone as a remote. And there’s already some convergence in features: Services like Netflix and Amazon Instant Video have become common centerpieces. Add wireless networking, and it’s easier than ever to ditch those cable subscriptions.
Nowadays, Ethernet ports and built-in Wi-Fi command little or no price premium (unlike 3-D gear), so there’s no reason your next set shouldn’t be a connected one. If you’re just looking to supplement a steady diet of cable or satellite content, the choice is simple: Buy the best HDTV you can afford. Almost all of them now come with great backup video services like Netflix, Blockbuster, and Amazon Instant Video. If you’re in a cable-cutting state of mind, make sure your broadband speed is up to snuff, then think about the services and apps you use most — the offerings vary widely between platforms. And don’t equate more apps with a better experience: On a 50-inch plasma, using Twitter or Google Talk is about as pleasant as staring at test patterns.
How We Tested
We optimized picture and audio settings using THX’s latest calibration disc, made the necessary firmware updates, and ran each set’s video processors through a gauntlet of HQV benchmark tests. Then we spent hours wading through platform interfaces, downloading apps, and sampling every web-connected feature we could find.
Sony Bravia KDL-55NX720 HD/3d Smart TV (Bravia internet video)
If you crave variety, this 3-D set will keep you busy for days. Sony’s platform fills all 55 inches of the edge-lit screen with a wide array of apps and stand-alone services — everything from podcasts to Pandora to Sony’s own on-demand service. There’s even a “channel” that streams free 3-D movie clips. Most important, this LCD aced every processing test we threw at it, smoothing out jaggies and deinterlacing film-based 24-fps HD sources like a pro.
1. Panasonic Viera TC-P50ST30 (Viera Connect)
Combine this 3-D plasma’s pinpoint color accuracy with its broad library of web apps and you have one convergent delight. The Viera Connect platform’s handsome 3-D layout keeps navigation simple yet still allows for plenty of customization. Unfortunately, despite its beefed-up app offerings — like MLBand Skype — there are notable omissions in the streaming department, like Rhapsody. And you’ll need to plug in a separate USB dongle (included) to enjoy the freedom of Wi-Fi.
get-gadget A steal for a 50-inch plasma. Web apps are easy to rearrange and shuffle for quick access.
TIRED Three HDMI ports don’t cut it for home-theater buffs. Viera Connect doesn’t have built-in video search.
2. LG LV5500 (LG Smart TV)
This 47-inch HDTV boasts a decent picture, but we were disappointed by the paucity of web offerings. You get the basics — including Netflix, Vudu, Amazon, and YouTube — but too many of the apps we wanted to try were unavailable for U.S. download. Plus, the main home screen gives access to only five at a time. As with the Panasonic, Wi-Fi requires a free wireless dongle.
get-gadget DNLA compatibility for streaming video and music from other devices. Fantastic viewing angle. Dynamic home screen image changes based on local weather and time.
TIRED Remote’s motion control is fairly pointless. Only non-3-D set in our roundup. Noticeable detail loss in dark scenes.
3. Samsung UN46D6500 (Samsung Smart TV)
This set’s platform is a videophile’s dream. With services like Netflix, Blockbuster, CinemaNow, Vudu, and Vimeo, along with more esoteric offerings like YuppTV, it’s easy to OD on all the stellar HD content. We were less enamored with the pedestrian social networking, gaming, and news apps. But Samsung’s grid-like layout was easily the best UI in our test.
get-gadget Narrow (0.5 inch) bezel showcases the 3-D-ready screen and nothing else. Built-in Wi-Fi. Room-shaking speakers for such a skinny set.
TIRED Backlight bleeding in dark rooms. Flunked film-resolution test and occasionally struggled to convert 24-fps film-based content to the display’s native 1080p resolution.