TVs

Even Cheap TVs in 2017 Will Be Smart TVs

Remember when smart TV capability was a step-up feature you had to pay extra for? Based on the announcements we've seen from a number of value-oriented brands here in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show this week, only the very cheapest—and smallest—TVs will be lacking that feature in 2017.

Smart TVs bring the streaming media box right inside the set—they connect to WiFi to let you easily watch shows from Netflix and similar services. A growing number of Roku TVs feature that company's streaming platform, and just before CES started, Amazon announced that several lower-priced brands would offer sets with its Amazon Fire TV platform baked in.

Amazon Fire TV Comes to 3 Brands

The Amazon platform is launching in Element, Seiki, and Westinghouse TVs, which are all brands owned by Chinese TV manufacturer Tongfang Global. The new sets will include many of the features found in Amazon's Fire TV streaming players, including voice prompts for some features, and the use of Amazon's Alexa voice assistant for search. All the Amazon-powered smart TVs will come with an Alexa-enabled voice remote control.

For example, you can use voice commands to launch apps and control playback in Amazon Video and Amazon Channels.

The Amazon Fire TV Edition TVs can auto-detect devices connected to the TV, and you can easily switch between inputs by using either the remote control or your voice. You can rename the inputs, then simply say things such as "go to Blu-ray," "go to Xbox," or "go to cable TV."

In addition, if you get live programming via an antenna, the Amazon interface will integrate the live TV choices with other viewing options on the main screen, along with a live TV program guide. And you can use voice commands to tune in to certain channels or networks just by saying the name or channel number.

All of the new Amazon Fire TV Edition TVs are 4K sets, and they will all support the HDR10 standard for high dynamic range, which can markedly improve the contrast between the darker and brighter parts of a scene and add specular highlights (imagine metal glinting in the sunlight), provided the TV can produce sufficient brightness.

Up to now, none of the Tongfang brands have done especially well in our TV ratings, and some have been among our lowest-scoring models. We'll be testing more of these models this year.

4K Roku TVs get HDR

As for Roku TVs, the big news at CES is that in 2017 these sets will be able to support both HDR10 and Dolby Vision high dynamic range technologies. HDR capability was one feature notably lacking in 4K Roku models in 2016.

At CES, both Hisense and TCL announced new TVs that would use the new Roku TV platform. We've been big fans of Roku's platform thanks to its wide assortment of streaming content, easy-to-use interface, and agnostic approach to streaming services, since it doesn't offer one of its own.

In addition to Hisense and TCL, we expect other brands that use the Roku TV platform—including Haier, Insignia, and Sharp—to introduce HDR-capable Roku TVs later this year. While sets from these brands have typically not done as well as sets from major brands, such as LG, Samsung, and Sony, in our TV ratings, they have been markedly better than the Tongfang brands utilizing the Amazon Fire TV platform.

Both Roku TVs and Amazon Fire TV Edition sets offer an easy way for secondary brands to offer a smart TV without having to develop, or license, their own system. LG and Samsung have their own proprietary systems, and Sony and Vizio use the Google Android TV or Google Cast platforms, so it will be interesting to see whether any major brands adopt these alternatives.

We'll be testing a number of these sets this year to see how they perform. We'll be at CES 2017 all week, so keep checking back for all our updates from the show.

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