Internet TV: the future, or just a flash in the pan?

Do you really need to own a 'smart' television?

We already have broadband on computers and phones , so is there really a need for internet access on yet another screen in the home? Why would you buy a 'smart' TV?

Technology in our homes has evolved. Just as stereos and CDs were replaced by iPods and MP3s, the dusty old box in our living room's being ousted by the "smart" TVs of tomorrow, or so we are being told.

On the surface, statistics from Ofcom support this view. In a report published last week, it revealed that smart TVs - television sets with inbuilt internet functionality - are growing in popularity. 5% of UK households already own a connected TV, and smart TVs now represent one-fifth of all televisions sold.

But are smart TVs really the way of the future?

Why buy a 'smart' TV?

Once connected up to your broadband connection, a smart TV promises a digital world of 24/7 entertainment, but this only deserves bragging rights if we actually make full use of them.

Ofcom's latest study found that just 65% of households with a smart TV have ever bothered to connect it to the web. While over half have been used to watch catch-up TV online, social networking (25%) and internet shopping (13%) have so far proved less popular.

If that's true, smart TV users with a Virgin Media's TiVo or a Sky+ box wouldn't be getting much extra from the features on a connected telly. But according to one expert, James Rivington, reviews editor at gadget website TechRadar, smart TVs aren't exactly what consumers are looking for.

The expert's view

"The key reasons for buying a smart TV are that you get more functionality without really paying any more money.

"All new TVs from the big brands now have 'smart' features, which is why the statistics say that lots are being sold - but the truth is that smart TV features slot in some way down the list of consumer priorities," explains Rivington.

"Research suggests the number of people who actually use the smart TV features is very low. It was the same when 3D first hit consumer products.

"The stats said '10% of all TVs sold are now 3D' but that was only really because more new TVs were 3D-ready as standard. It had not much to do with people specifically seeking out 3D products."

According to Rivington, it's still just the tech junkies who are really making the most of what smart TVs can do. "If you know what you're doing, smart TV features really are fantastic. But people will start to get used to using smart TVs, and as the interface continues to improve, it'll become more common to see your average family using them."

Changes in behaviour

However, just as our broadband migrated from the family PC to phones, tablets and laptops around the home - our online and TV viewing habits will continue to evolve.

Ofcom statistics show that 71% of smart TV owners much prefer watching programmes and films streamed from the internet on a larger screen. And yet when we're watching on the TV it seems we rarely give it our full attention.

Popular apps like Zeebox use a second screen, such as a tablet or smartphone, to let us engage deeper with our favourite shows without the need to disrupt what's on the telly.

Anthony Rose, co-founder of Zeebox, said: "Television is changing. People no longer watch passively, slumped on the couch, alone. Stats show that 80% of people routinely watch TV with a smartphone or tablet, connecting with the show they're watching, looking up actor bios, chatting with friends."

With Zeebox, a free application available for Apple iOS and Android devices, users can find out what's on across hundreds of channels, get programme recommendations based on what their friends are watching, buy things they see on TV and bring up information - such as recipes and biographies - all while they watch on the main screen.

Connected TV is still developing, but it's easy to imagine how smart TVs will bring more of this in years to come.

Trends with benefits

There are wider benefits to smart TV than enabling a little online shopping too. The UK government's digital champion Martha Lane Fox told us she "definitely" believes the familiar set-up of smart TVs can help get more of the country's technophobes using the web for the first time.

While there are still millions of people who have never been online and almost a fifth of UK homes still with no broadband connection, 96% of households have at least one television. So bringing the internet to our TV's could help us close the gap.

Future of broadband

While it is undeniably convenient, not to mention comfortable, conducting our online lives from our sofas via the biggest screen in the house, are smart TVs really the future of how we surf?

Rivington believes it'll be a slow evolution., saying: "Every year we see more smart TV features, lighter panels and so on - but big changes are very rare.

"Only a small percentage of people who have smart TVs make use of the functionality, and even then most people only venture so far as the BBC iPlayer or YouTube apps."

But surely there comes a point when your TV is no longer living up to its name.

How smart can a TV really be?

If you're checking Facebook, tweeting and browsing ASOS, all the while with last night's EastEnders bleating away, then surely it would be more convenient to do your web-based multitasking on more than one screen.There's no denying the potential of smart TV, but it hasn't yet come far enough to tear us from our beloved laptops, tablets and phones.

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