Smart TV: Six big features that matter

Summary:Smart TVs offer a range of functionality, but which of their features actually make a difference?

By now you are probably aware of the "Smart TV", a term used, generally, to describe televisions that are able to connect to the Internet. The idea itself isn't entirely new, but at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, the devices saw a resurgence. Samsung, LG, Sony, Lenovo and especially Google are all pushing the concept in a major way, which is probably a clear indication that there is going to be some major movement in the area over the next year.

But, as with most other device designations, the definition of a Smart TV is a bit amorphous. Features vary, with some devices, for example, touting voice controls while others more prominently featuring the ability to sync with social networks like Facebook and Twitter. There's simply a lot going on, which is why it's helpful to take a look at six of the key features that are likely to separate the Smart TV winners from their less fortunate counterparts.

A smart interface

One of the biggest problems with televisions and the cable boxes attached to them are their interfaces. Much of it is ugly, and the rest clunky and outdated. It needs a big change. A lot of the Smart TV platforms haven't fared much better. Google TV was shunned in 2010 for having an awful and unintuitive interface. Google eventually took the criticism to heart, updating and improving Google TV's interface with its upgrade to 2.0. It was a welcome change.

A robust recommendation engine
The term "Smart TV" is a bit misleading. Many televisions given the branding aren't particularly "smart"-- at least not in the sense that they exude any intelligence via features like recommendation engines. They can, of course, connect to the Internet and run apps, but a true "smart" platform would be one that would take your watching habits and use them to find you new things to watch. Google TV and Samsung's Smart TV currently feature a less sophisticated version of this, but there is clearly a lot of room for development.
Over-the-top content

Sadly, the most important feature desired in Smart TVs is the most difficult to obtain: Internet-based television programming. The grip networks and cable companies have on television content is a strong one. As much as cable customers want to see changes in the way cable packages are structured, the balance of power is shifted unequivocally against them. Cable companies and networks have a good thing going on and see no real reason to change their business models.

Microsoft knows this first hand. The company was recently forced to scrap plans for an Xbox TV subscription service after realizing, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the networks wanted a bit more money than Microsoft was willing to pay. So things are more or less stuck, at least for the time being.

But there's some hope. MySpace is planning a web-based subscription service that it says will offer the same content cable and satellite companies provide. It's a bit of a pipe dream, obviously, but there's a lot of money in it if Myspace and its parent company Specific Media can make it work.

Vizio, too, has hinted at similar service. In an interview with The Verge, Vizio CTO Matt McRae said that a full Internet television provider would arrive within the next 12-18 months. McRae didn't reveal too much, but he did say that the service would offer a much more robust search and discovery experience than what is currently offered.

Cloud-based gaming

The rise of cloud computing has had a profound affect on gaming. Services like OnLive and Gakai shift the processer burden from the console to the cloud, allowing otherwise underpowered devices to run console-quality games with few hitches. This extends to televisions as well. Google recently inked a deal with OnLive to offer the cloud gaming service on the Google TV platform. Offered via the OnLive Viewer app, the service will eventually be a default part of Vizio displays. LG is planning something similar with its implementation of Gakai in its own Smart TV line.

The ecosystem

Like the smartphone, apps play a big role in the feature set of the Smart TV. Manufacturers of Smart TV platforms are going to make a big deal over how their own app ecosystems measure up compared to competitors' own. That may be a bit of a problem for consumers, who may find time and time again that their favorite app isn't available on a particular platform. That's the strength in Google's approach, which is marked by the goal to be standard for a variety of television models. But until a clear frontrunner emerges, the battle of ecosystems won't get any easier to navigate.

Second screen compatibility

Tablets and smartphones have given rise to a new classification dubbed "the second screen." The term describes any device that a user interacts with while watching television, and includes tablets, smartphones, and laptops. Leveraging the second screen is going to be a increasingly significant component of Smart TV ecosystems. From acting as a remote control to providing supplementary programming information, the smartphone and tablet are greatly expanding the TV-viewing experience.

Topics: Hardware

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Ricardo Bilton writes for ZDNet's The ToyBox.

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