What is a smart TV?
Smart TVs use your internet connection to let you watch what you want, when you want, using built-in apps such as BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All4 and My 5. Some content streaming services are free, but you can also access paid subscription services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney+. Smart TVs also allow you to browse the internet; some let you control other smart technology in your home, such as smart thermostats and light bulbs.
How do Smart TVs work?
Smart TVs connect to the internet via your home broadband, usually using wifi, but you can plug the TV into your router using an ethernet cable if they're close to each other. You need good broadband speeds to stream films and TV programmes. For streaming content in standard definition, you generally need an internet speed of 3Mbps; for high definition streaming, you'll want speeds of at least 5Mbps; for ultra HD (4k), you'll need 25 Mbps.
Smart TVs come with a menu called a smart hub which displays built-in apps and recommendations, often based on your previous viewing habits. You can download any apps you want that aren't preinstalled via the app store in the smart hub. Different brands use different smart TV platforms and don't all support the same apps and features. So if you want to use a particular app, check it's available on the brand of TV you're looking to buy.
Like regular TVs, smart TVs have remote controls to navigate the menu options and programme guides. Some now also include voice control, letting you press a button and speak commands into the remote's microphone.
What can you do on a smart TV?
There are so many clever features on smart TVs you might wonder whether simply watching normal TV shows is an option! Fortunately, as well as the benefits below, you can also watch regular live free-to-view channels. Remember you'll still need a TV licence if you watch live TV or use BBC iPlayer.
- You can watch free and paid catchup and on-demand streaming services on your smart TV. Streaming apps either come preinstalled or are available to download. Many popular apps like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney + come preinstalled.
- Smart TVs let you browse the internet and use social media apps, though the experience may not always be as intuitive as when using a smartphone or laptop.
- You can cast media such as music, videos and photos from other devices, like your phone, to your television using a proprietary TV app or third-party software such as Google Chromecast.
- Some smart TVs have built-in voice assistants like Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. This means they can act as a hub letting you control other smart devices in your home, like smart bulbs, thermostats, security cameras and doorbells. Smart TVs with built-in voice assistants typically come with a microphone on the remote control, and you press a button to activate voice control.
There are things to bear in mind when you have a smart TV:
- The built-in microphones that enable voice control will always be listening to hear your commands. You can disable this feature if you prefer.
- The software on your smart TV will be updated occasionally. Manufacturers of connected devices do this to add features or patch security issues. Even so, you shouldn't assume your smart TV is as secure as a computer with the latest antivirus software, so you might want to be cautious about online banking and shopping via your TV.
- Companies can collect data about your viewing habits from your smart TV. This can be useful and help you get personalised recommendations, but you might not know how they use this data.
How can Smart TVs help people with sight loss?
Many modern smart TVs have great built-in accessibility features for people with sight loss. Features vary from brand to brand and model to model, so it's worth researching to find a TV with the features that matter most to you.
- Smart TVs often come with a screen reader which reads out on-screen information like menus, programme guides, and settings. Some include the ability to change the volume and speed of the screen reader.
- Remote controls for smart TVs can have helpful features such as an accessibility shortcut button. This lets you open an accessible feature quickly, and in some cases, you can assign the shortcut to your preferred accessible feature. Some remotes have a button you can press for instant voice control. Sony remotes have tactile buttons for key functions, making it easier to find the right button using touch. It's worth trying out remote controls in-store to see if you're comfortable with the size and layout of buttons, as each manufacturer's is different.
- Major broadcasters must provide audio description for at least 10% of their programming, but the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky are committed to providing it for 20% of content on their channels. Audio description isn't exclusive to smart TVs, of course, but different brands offer different ways to turn AD on, for example, having it on by default or having a shortcut button on the remote.
- Many manufacturers offer options to personalise the display in a way that helps make the most of your useful vision. Examples include being able to increase text size, change the text font, and choose alternative colour ways for menu information (such as high-contrast, greyscale, or even a specific spectrum of colours for those with colour blindness).
- Many smart TVs give the option to magnify text on the screen. Samsung even lets you choose a specific area of the screen to magnify.
- It's common for smart TVs to come with built-in voice assistants, which makes it quicker and easier to navigate to the content you want using voice commands.
The Global Accessibility Reporting Initiative lets you do a detailed search of smart TV makes and models for a wide range of smart features specifically for people with vision impairment.
Accessible features aren't the only thing to consider when choosing a new TV. Other aspects will be important to your viewing experience, too, including:
- Screen size – you may find choosing a large screen size helpful.
- Screen resolution – a higher resolution screen such as 4K provides outstanding picture quality and may be worth considering.
- Low-glare screens – these are designed to reduce the glare when watching TV in a sunlit room.
- Menu layout and navigation – manufacturers use different operating systems with their own menu design; it's worth trying these out in-store to get a feel for what suits you.
There are some practical ways to make watching telly a more comfortable experience. Experiment to find what works for you:
- If buying a larger-screen TV isn't an option, you can try sitting closer to the TV.
- If your vision is better from an angle than straight on, or if you have better vision in one eye than the other, experiment with sitting at different angles to the television.
- Reduce glare while watching TV, for example, by positioning the TV in your living room away from windows and angling light bulbs away from the TV.
You can also ask your low vision or habilitation specialist or low vision clinic for advice on finding a television that meets your needs.
Smart TV brands for people with sight loss
Different smart TV brands have different accessibility features, so we've described the key features of leading brands below. Although it's possible to spend several thousand pounds on the latest high-end smart TV, most brands sell models with accessible features for well under £500. Just be careful to check the specification of any TV you're considering; the cheapest models don't always include all the accessible features you might need.
Frequently asked questions
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