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Bright Lights

Smart TVs are quickly moving from novelty to ubiquity — but when will they become the wise choice for consumers?

Author TOM SAMILJAN

ILLUSTRATION BY IAN KELTIE

THE AGE OF REAL-TIME TV channel surfing is coming to an end, given the high cost of cable and the widespread availability of most shows and movies on iTunes and Netflix. In its place: app-stocked, Internet-connected TVs with built-in streaming services like YouTube and sports sites like MLB.TV, as well as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and other social media hubs. Are these couch-potato counterparts to the smartphone ready for prime time? Not quite, but have a little patience — they’re well on their way, thanks to a few recent innovations.

The biggest obstacle to the smart-TV revolution has been the software updates required to upgrade these dedicated, all-in-one units. If any significant additional processing power is needed, then last year’s model is instantly outdated. But that’s changing. Besides such snazzy features as voice and gesture recognition, the Samsung 8000 Series LED has a removable hardware module that you can simply swap out for the latest and greatest processor. The company plans to introduce new modules annually, starting next year. With the 8000 Series offering everything from Netflix and Hulu to HBO Go and 3-D movie rentals — not to mention a built-in webcam for Skype calls — the problem, for now, is its price: $3,500 for a 55-inch. That’s a pretty penny to pay for something that could be rendered obsolete at the same pace as your laptop, even with hardware upgrades.

If you’re willing to put up with extra wiring and external component clutter, a savvy alternative is to raise the IQ of your existing TV with the help of some nifty after-market solutions. Because the smart-TV industry is still in its infancy, though, these products are vastly different from one another, making your job less a matter of comparison than of finding the gadget that does what you need it to do.

Most gamers already own one of the best external components out there, the Xbox 360. With the optional Kinect camera ($120) attached, the Xbox Live service offers voice and gesture recognition for waving and shouting your way through TV, movie and music content — which is especially handy when you’re doing a universal search, since you don’t have to type anything into a remote. Still, I prefer using the optional Xbox 360 media remote ($20) because of its smooth toggling between Netflix, Vudu, HBO Go, Twitter and Facebook (all of which you’ll need a $60 annual Xbox Gold subscription to use). Regardless of how you interact with it, the Xbox 360 is a well-engineered option that is constantly being upgraded with new apps and can be had for as little as $200.

For social media junkies, the Boxee Box ($180) is the way to go. What I like about this strangely shaped little guy is its dedicated “Friends” playlist, which automatically updates with the latest videos posted by your Facebook and Twitter friends and will save you from a ”Like”-induced video marathon in the middle of the work day. If they’re paying attention, manufacturers will incorporate something resembling this feature into their next-gen smart TVs.

If space and wiring are an issue, there’s Apple TV, which for only $99 boasts full 1080p HD quality — impressive, considering the device isn’t much bigger than a lemon square. I just wish it had more built-in streaming apps. (That said, the Netflix implementation is smooth and offers more HD movies than on other devices.) As a workaround, Airplay compatibility lets you wirelessly stream videos from your iPhone or iPad onto your TV. This works with videos from sites like Hulu and HBO Go, and if you already own a lot of iTunes shows, movies and music, it’s an easy and inexpensive way to get that content up on your big-screen.

It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering to realize that the smart money is on external set-top box solutions versus all-in-one TVs, mainly because it’s a lot easier to replace last year’s $99 set-top box with this year’s. But once manufacturers figure out how to combine the best of what’s already available for an affordable price, the era of the smart TV will truly arrive — and the phrase “boob tube” will be, at long last, obsolete.

Hemispheres tech columnist TOM SAMILJAN considers public-television documentaries the original smart TV.

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