Are Smart TVs a Dumb Idea?

In a recent article by Patrick Nelson on the Tech News World blog, he makes the case that Smart TVs are a dumb idea and that they will go the way of the LaserDisc. For anyone unfamiliar with the term, a "Smart TV" refers to a TV that connects to the Internet and your home network, using built-in apps for streaming video, music, photos, games, and more.

In the article, Nelson argues that tablets and smart phones will be the primary way we get content in the future. The TV will become a dumb monitor displaying content from our tablets and phones.

I can almost hear the roar from Home Theater readers. While the picture quality of a Vudu HDX movie streamed directly to your TV is actually pretty good, sending that same movie from a tablet to a compatible TV looks much worse because the data is more highly compressed. Now, I must sadly admit that quality has not always been the main factor in determining whether one technology wins out over another; consider the superiority of Betamax over VHS. Still, in the case of Smart TVs and tablets, there are more factors involved than simply quality.

I agree that many people want access to TV shows and movies on their portable devices, but I disagree that most will opt for picture quality that is inferior to what you get directly on a Smart TV. What is the benefit of using a tablet to stream at home? Isn't it easier to use one device (the TV) and one remote?

The fact is that Smart TV models are growing in popularity. As Eric Anderson, VP of Content and Product Solutions for Samsung TV, explains, "Smart TV is becoming an industry standard as consumers demand more access to content. We currently offer 1,500 apps, and consumers around the world access the Smart TV app store 2.7 million times a day. Research firm DisplaySearch also reported that the Smart TV growth rate globally in 2012 is estimated to be 1.5 times larger than 2011, further evidence that consumers are reacting positively. This is simply something a 'dumb TV' cannot offer."

As evidenced by Anderson's stats, when a Smart TV owner discovers that they can get Netflix and other services without having to buy another component, they use it. If accessing streaming Netflix movies is as simple as pressing a button on the remote control, why would someone want to stream it from their tablet? Why add another step when the same apps that are available on a tablet or smartphone are also available on the TV itself?

Let's compare this to the LaserDisc analogy as mentioned in Nelson's article. LaserDiscs were found in only 2 percent of US households. < A href="http://www.telecompetitor.com/abi-20-us-households-have-an-internet-connected-tv/">According to ABI research, around 16 percent of US households have a Smart TV. Whether or not those consumers bought the TV to be used as a Smart TV, it's nonetheless in their home. It is doubtful that a household would find a LaserDisc player in their home unless they had specifically purchased it for $500 or more. (Speaking of which, price was another factor in LaserDisc's demise.)

For the record, I doubt that the LaserDisc could be considered as short-lived as the 8-track tape player or the Divx DVD format of the 1990s (which is different from the DiVX video format of today). LaserDiscs were first released in 1978, and the last one was produced in 2000. That's 22 years. There was an estimated total of 16 million LaserDiscs sold, which is less than the number of times the Samsung app store is accessed in a week.

Nelson points to the failure of Google TV as evidence that Smart TVs will fail. I don't believe that Google TV is an indicator of whether people want Smart TVs or not. In fact, it is evidence that people insist that a Smart TV be smarter. Google TV failed because it couldn't deliver the amount of content that it had promised. Had Google put its ducks in a row and been able to connect to all the networks and other TV and movie content, it would have been a different ball game. Plus, the Google TV platform is not quite dead yet. It will be included on a number of 2012 TV models from LG, Sony, Vizio, and others.

There is no doubt that tablets will be an integral part of the home-theater experience as we move forward, acting as a second screen or media renderer that sends video to the TV. I just don't think that is a strong enough reason to dumb-down our TVs. The idea of a TV as a monitor has been predicted before, but with more people wanting to cut the cord of cable TV and choosing easy access to streaming services, that trend certainly changed directions.

Unlike a technology with a competing format, it is probable that streaming from tablets and Smart TVs will co-exist. It's going to be a while before non-techies will be sitting on the couch with a tablet in their lap. But I bet that same person will be happy to press a button and watch Netflix on their TV. It's much simpler. Still, I don't know the future either. Yes, Mr. Nelson, "we shall see."

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COMMENTS
Mark Fleischmann's picture
Smart TV is a good idea. I don't think it's a bad investment as long as the platform is updated enough to provide the functionality people want. Regrettably, my last TV purchase was not a smart TV (they were more expensive then) but I've filled the gap with an app-enabled Blu-ray player.
Bruce in CO's picture

I think both approaches have a place depending on priorities. Personally, I would rather have my SmartTV feed my iPad, but that's me. I would like my SmartTV to have a 2TB+ solid state hard drive with Tivo loaded so that I can get rid of another box.

The killer app will be when an instance of Netflix (or Hulu or whatever) on a TV recognizes an instance of the same app on a Blu-Ray or Tivo or iPad, so that they sync up and there is a seemless interface for all capabilities to allow back and forth between all devices. At that point it won't be an issue of an iPad feeding a TV or vice versa.

Realizing that there are licensing agreements in place, there shouldn't be a technical hurdle to make this happen.

msardo's picture

I actually prefer to use the TV only as a monitor. I come from the thinking that sources (Blu*Ray players, separate streaming devices, etc.) should do all of the "input" work, while the AVR powers the sound and directs video to the monitor (TV or Projector).

For example (and I'll use simple round numbers), I would rather pay $2000.00 for a TV that has excellent build quality and produces a great image over paying the same $2000.00 for all of the above, but then have to budget in the cost of adding the Smart TV features - thus taking away some of the money/quality from the build quality and great image.

It's funny, but I had a projector in the past and am thinking about a projector again and have never felt like I would miss the "Smart TV" features since so much is duplicated in Blu*Ray players, dedicated streaming devices like Roku, and even in Cable and Satellite boxes.

Jarod's picture

I completly agree with you msardo. I use my plasma like a monitor and I too would rather pay for pic and build quality as opposed to extras for smart tv functions. Its cool that my HDTV has streaming capabilities but I didn't buy it for that reason as I watch Blu-ray and DVDs exclusively in my home theater. Im a purist.

MatthewWeflen's picture

Put me in the "Not a dumb idea" camp.

My household gets a lot of use out of our smart tv features (Sony 52EX700). We use Picasa all the time to show people baby pictures, we use Netflix frequently, and even use Youtube and Pandora now and again.

I would never argue that streaming should replace a dedicated Blu-Ray disc player - at least not for the next 10 years, given US broadband speeds. But I for one really like having the extra features built right into the TV. It's one fewer device to power up and fiddle with a remote for.

The simple fact is, many people just buy a TV and that's it. I think the average consumer is attracted by the all-in-one concept, unlike a tech head or home theater enthusiast. So whether you like it or not, it's not going away - especially if Apple gets into the market.

K.Reid's picture

Jarod and I agree here. I prefer the manufacturers to focus efforts to improve build and picture quality first and foremost. Many manufacturers cannot get this right since many don't get the full 5 stars in HT Reviews (e.g. blacks are dark grey, lack of shadow detail, variation from REC. 709, color temperature, etc.). I can use my PS3 for streaming, video games, blu ray moving watch, etc.

akak's picture

TV manufacturers include internet connectivity in their sets because it doesn't cost too much to add, the competition offers it and because it's a selling point (also, it's the easiest way for users to access firmware updates). I don't see manufacturers giving up on it any time soon, especially when many of them are developing new apps or partnering with content providers.

The true test of Google TV will come when it is integrated into TVs --one reason the first iteration of Google TV failed is because it was only offered as a set-top box at a price point that could not compete with Roku or Apple.

As for the argument that manufacturers should focus on picture quality, I too want good quality, but I understand that such performance-enhancing features as full local dimming (on LED-lit LCDs) and the type of filters used on the Pioneer Elite Kuro plasma sets are very expensive and cannot be offered in $2,000 or cheaper sets. And when reasonably priced performance-oriented TVs as the Panasonic ST50 line of plasmas (indeed, all plasmas) command only a small percentage of the market, it's not hard to see why manufacturers don't put more effort into picture quality -- unfortunately, most folks don't consult HT (or S&V or CNET) before they buy, so who knows what criteria they use in selecting a TV?

And as far as build quality goes, as long as customers show a clear preference for ever-thinner and -lighter sets, that's what manufacturers will provide.

msardo's picture

Great points and I appreciate everything that you have stated.

Please note, that when I originally posted the example and I said I was "using round numbers", I pulled $2000.00 out of thin air. Please, allow that number to change for whatever price range you or any reader may be in. In other words, my comments were intended (and remain so) for anyone spending $2000.00, $5000.00, or who knows how much. Either way, I prefer all of that money invested in build and picture quality.

Make sense?

dnoonie's picture

Smart TVs are likely a very good thing for the mass market but I wouldn't use them since my TV and computer are connected and I have an OPPO I'd rather use them.

I only use streaming if I find a TV show I like mid season and I want to catch up. If I find a TV show I like end of season I'll wait for the Blu-ray release and bank the next season on my DVR.

For slide shows I use my computer connected to my "TV"

I'd be happy with a great quality monitor with no "smart" tech.

notabadname's picture

Bedrooms and dens, or any place with a smaller screen that you may not have the desire, or room, to put in Cable Boxes, Blu-rays etc, benefit nicely from Smart features. Now, with just an ethernet port, you could stream your HBO or Netflix to a room easily without even adding a cable outlet and box.

But on a large, home theater-oriented screen, does anyone NOT have a blu-ray, XBox, PS3 or some other "Smart" device already connected? I don't need to waste money on software for a screen that has numerous other sources for the same content, and I bet most people are similarly equipped for their Primary movie screen. Instead, give me 240Hz instead of 120Hz for a refresh rate, or far more robust calibration menus with that finite memory you store on board the TV. I just want my screen to be a monitor. I don't need it to talk to me (really - is anyone going to sit in their home theater, shout and wave their arms around to manipulate the screen?). I want every cent of cost spent on Contrast, viewing angle, refresh rate, menus, etc. I want it to do its job - DISPLAY, and do it well. Enough with the gimmicks.

Stosh's picture

I have no problem with Smart TVs, though my Samsung BD player has many of the same internet streaming and connectivity features that my Panasonic plasma does. The cost of adding these features to a TV is minimal - the content providers want them on the devices, so the cost to the manufacturer is minimal. Plain monitors are not a better value, or priced appreciably less, than Smart TVs. These days the best TVs are packed with features people may or may not use (3D, for example?) anyway.

Instead of worrying whether Smart TVs are worthwhile or not, we should be concerned with the quality of streaming video. None of the streaming providers, regardless of the claims made, match the video quality of a good dual-layer DVD or any BD disk. And they certainly don't come close to the audio quality of BD's lossless multichannel options. I do stream video to my TV, but I also still watch DVD and BD disks, because of the superior video and audio quality they provide.

I do wonder about the latest fad, TVs that react to voice or motion commands. I wonder what happens when you have a room full of people over to watch the Super Bowl, or whatever. Will those TVs be able to distinguish actual commands from background conversation and movement? Even if so, do I want to wave my arms around, where lazily pushing a button or two is so easy? I guess we'll see, but I have my doubts about these new features catching on in a big way.

Fairfieldwizard's picture

I can appreciate the display manufacturers wanting to come up with some kind of user-friendly unifying front end for all the various streaming/broadcast sources but they just don't seem to have the right mindset. It's still too hard.

It's too hard to figure out where to find the best deal on "X-MEN" in Hi-def. Do I go to Apple's store where I can watch it via my Apple TV box? Or do I check out Netflix? Or might Vudu have it? Or perhaps Amazon VOD might be the best deal. I have no idea.

Try searching for a title on Netflix using Sony's BDP-S590. It's much worse than trying to type a text message on a vintage 2004 cell phone.

Try to find Amazon Video On Demand in LG's LM6200 series display implementation of their so-called SmartTV. You won't find it because it's not there. You'll need a Roku box or some other streaming video for that particular VOD source.

Manufacturer's I hope you're listening. Apple is going to eat your lunch exactly as they ate Sony's Walkman (and most of the MP3 player) business.

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