OTHER than the very cheapest supermarket models, most television sets tend now to have smart apps built in. But however much you pay, you might find your model isn’t smart enough to let you watch what you want.
Netflix, Amazon Prime and Sky are the principal sources for programmes delivered over the internet, instead of through the air. Google Play is also in the market, and there’s the BBC iPlayer and its equivalents delivering ITV, Channel Four and a few others.
Of course, Sky is also available via satellite, but its online version, Now TV, is a compelling alternative if you only want some of the content, some of the time.
However, because of commercial tie-ins with one provider over another, many TV manufacturers offer only a selection of these. It’s entirely possible to carry home a gleaming new screen only to find it gets Netflix but not Amazon Prime.
Even if your set receives the service you want now, there is no guarantee it will do so in the future - hardly any manufacturer will guarantee to maintain its smart apps for more than a couple of years.
But none of this is a problem, because you can update any TV - smart or dumb - with the latest apps for the price of a few trips to the cinema.
Streaming sticks and boxes from the likes of Roku, Google and Amazon sit discreetly behind or underneath your set and connect it to internet channels almost as seamlessly as they pick up BBC1. They are available online or in the shops, but before you pick one, it’s helpful to have an idea of which services you want to watch. The iPlayer is on all of them, but Amazon Prime and Google Play are sometimes mutually exclusive, and Sky’s own Now TV boxes don’t support Netflix.
It’s a minefield, because you don’t know what programmes you’re going to want to watch in the future, or what channels they will be on, but a streaming device with the widest choice of services will at least maximise your options.
In this respect, the £40 Roku Streaming Stick is a good choice. It has all the main bases covered - Netflix, Amazon, Google and Now TV, and also picks up YouTube and Spotify.
The Roku stick plugs directly into the back of your TV and can take its power from a spare USB socket, if there’s one available, which means no extra cables trailing from the back. It supports 1080p high definition but not Ultra HD.
Unlike Google’s rival £30 device, the Chromecast, which doesn’t officially support Amazon Prime and is controlled from an app on your phone, the Roku stick comes with a proper remote with dedicated buttons for Netflix and YouTube. This makes it a good choice for even the technophobes in the family. There is an app, too, which allows the beaming of music and pictures from your phone to the TV.
Amazon’s £40 Fire TV Stick is also available and has the added gimmick of voice control, but does not work with Google Play. And if you want to watch the next series of The Crown on Netflix in Ultra HD, Google’s £69 Chromecast Ultra is currently your cheapest option - but again, there’s no Amazon Prime.
Not since the 1960s has it been possible to buy a set with some channels but not others. But since there were only three back then, we can chalk up the current arrangement as progress.