Every aspect of the modern home is getting smartened up with new intelligence. Thermostats are now adjusting themselves, vacuum cleaners are doing their own navigation, and fridges are recommending diet plans. Before companies like Nest and Roomba even existed, however, the TV was already serving as the nexus of smart technology in the home. The first personal computers in the 1980s were, like the gaming consoles that would follow them, just machines that plugged into TVs. Unsatisfied with merely connecting high-tech devices to the television, tech companies quickly moved on to trying to integrate everything smart and good into a single, all-in-one Smart TV.
Nowadays, the smart TV is the default and only option in the store. I can tack on 3D and curved screen gimmicks and choose between a range of sizes and suppliers, but my TV will be "smart" whether I like it or not. That means it’ll be able to connect to the internet, browse photos and videos, and offer a few basic apps like a YouTube player. All of this extra functionality will then sit idle and disused thanks to the consistently slow and frustratingly illogical software that it’s couched in. As Apple CEO Tim Cook puts it, "you go into your living room and you step back in time." For the next generation of users — brought up on the iPhone’s responsiveness and Android’s versatility — the experience of using smart TVs will feel positively prehistoric. So why can’t I have a dumb TV instead?
The smart TV is being outpaced by smarter sticks and stones
The big secret that neither Samsung nor LG (who between the two of them control over a third of the global TV market) is willing to admit is that the best TV experiences come from outside the TV itself. Game consoles have evolved into formidable entertainment hubs and, according to data from Strategy Analytics, are now the primary devices for streaming content from the web. They offer smoother and more familiar interactions, a wider range of entertainment sources, and the convenience of a digital library that can be accessed on more than one screen. Even the traditionally slow-moving cable companies are improving their offerings and now provide set-top boxes that not only manage, but also record programming. The ability to time-shift live television was revolutionary when the first TiVo boxes emerged 15 years ago, but it’s grown into a cheap and ordinary feature today.
Whether I choose a stone-sized streaming box like the Apple TV or an HDMI dongle the size of a USB stick like the Chromecast, I can easily obtain the smart TV experience on the most basic of TV sets. As with other connectivity options like Intel’s WiDi, these devices hook the TV up to a legitimately smart modern computer, whether it be a PC, smartphone, or tablet, and bring that intelligence to bear. Outsourcing user interactions in this way also provides choice, freeing me from the shackles of my particular TV’s software and app limitations. If the $35 Chromecast doesn’t serve my needs, I can switch to the $39 Fire TV Stick. Or Microsoft’s recent alternative. Or even Walmart’s. Smart TV manufacturers are trying to convince me to spend just as much — Strategy Analytics estimates the price premium relative to a dumb TV to be between $30 and $75, depending on the model — without any of the inherent advantages of external devices.
To compete with faster smartphone interfaces, TV makers have chosen to build the smartphone right into the TV. The most literal example of this (and current state of the smart TV art) is LG’s webOS-powered Smart+ TV. It adapts a phone operating system to the big screen and comes with a multi-core processor. From LG’s perspective, this is a synergistic move that exploits its established supply chain of mobile processors to raise the perceived value of new TVs, but it sets up a classic scenario of built-in obsolescence for the user.
Mobile technology moves at a much faster pace than anything integrated into a TV, and most new software only supports devices built in the preceding couple of years. LG says that its webOS TVs "will support version upgrades as all smart devices should," but if those TVs keep to the same cadence as most other smart devices, that means they’ll be out of date and sluggish before the next World Cup rolls around.
The only way to overcome the asynchronicity of some internal components becoming outdated faster than the overall TV is to take those components out. That’s exactly what Samsung does with its $249 Smart Evolution Kit, which adds a quad-core processor and the 2014 version of the company’s Smart Hub software to select 2012 HDTV models. In adopting this approach, Samsung is putting a two-year expiry date on the best user experience it can provide for its TVs. Compare that to the decade-long expected lifespan of a good TV set or the regular and free updates that game consoles enjoy for many years after their initial release.
The smart TV is an abortive attempt at technological convergence that generates more compromise than convenience. There’s no doubt that Samsung, LG, and everyone else in the TV business will continue adding (rather than taking away) features in an effort to buff up spec sheets and keep prices artificially high. But so long as the TV remains an expensive and rarely upgraded monolith trying to catch up to cheap and commodified smart accessories, the battle will be a losing one. Instead of duplicating things I already have, the best TV of the future will be the one that gives me the things I actually need: lots of inputs, high picture quality, and long-life reliability. Better to be good at being dumb than bad at being smart.