The Case for Dumb TVs

How much are we paying for those smart features anyway?


Recently a New York area audio and video dealer conducted an HDTV shootout to determine what model would take the crown of King of HDTV. Home theater professionals, industry experts (even the inventor of plasma TV technology) and enthusiastic consumers all showed up, some to participate and some to just observe.

(check out the HDTV Shootout here)

Overall, the crew was focused on picture quality based on things like black level, color accuracy, motion resolution and other performance standards. Nowhere in the evaluation process was consideration given to how well the TVs responded to voice command, how many game or music apps were included or whether the TV could connect to a local network for digital media sharing. How “smart” the TV was didn’t matter.

And the truth is, for a lot of consumers, smarts count a lot less than looks. Maybe this sounds a little like an Abercrombie & Fitch campaign, but what really counts in a good TV is how good it looks when turned on and how thin it is.

After 3D in the home pretty much bombed with the general public (though I’ve become a convert for 3D in big projection systems), TV manufacturers turned to smart TV as the next big thing. Now every manufacturer tries to outdo the others with their music and video apps, onboard games, gesture and voice control and social media integration.

A little while ago I asked some professional installers, whose reputations are made in part by the quality of the systems they put into their clients’ homes, what features they look for in a TV. Not one mentioned so-called smart features. What did rank high? Picture adjustments, processing power, control compatibility. Their position was that the smart services TV companies are rushing to add can be easily added with inexpensive devices like Roku, Apple TV, game consoles and other similar boxes. And they frequently do the job better.

It’s quite fascinating now to watch how TVs have moved from being dumb displays to fully-integrated media systems, but the public (and the pros) don’t seem to be clamoring for that. Instead they’re using their external devices to achieve the same goals. Under our current paradigm it’s not difficult to have 4 to 6 devices in an entertainment system that all play the same services. For instance, in my theater system, I have both Netflix and Pandora on my receiver, Blu-ray player, Roku and game console. Unnecessarily redundant?

So where are the dumb TVs? Currently, only a few TV makers offer TVs without all the frills. At the high-end is Runco, which has been known for picture quality for many years. Panasonic’s professional line of displays also have a good reputation among some integrators. A few other companies that don’t generally make it into Top 10 lists in shootouts are also opting to dumb down their TVs smart features and instead suggest users can add something like a Roku stick via an MHL link.

Projector companies have always thought that way—their focus is on the picture first. There’s no reason they can’t build Netflix or Vudu into systems, but there are good reasons they don’t.

I’d like to see the major TVs makers offer purist lines based on their best TV models. The purist lines would be made up of TVs with the best image processing, black levels and control features. They’d also leave the sources decisions up to the consumer.

More Good Reads:
Understanding Home Theater Receivers
THX Releases Home Theater Tune-up App
3 Tips for New TV Buyers
The Best New TVs for 2013


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