Smart TVs are such a good idea.
No, really! They can make it easier for us to find the gems within the Amazons and Netflixes and M-Gos of the world, consolidating not only what we watch but the devices we use to watch all of it. They can stream music and movies from our phones, tablets, and PCs onto the biggest screen in our house. The cleverest of them can even tell us our remote batteries are low, hear us when we yell “I want to watchScandal,” or show our fantasy team right next to the football game.
There’s no reason smart TVs can’t be great. But they’re not great right now. You shouldn’t buy one.
It’s all because TV manufacturers looked at that screen in the center of your house, where you spend hours a day, and saw only dollar signs. So they cynically turned “Smart TV” into a platform for unwelcome data collection and intrusive, inappropriate advertising. Somewhere in there, they also forgot to actually make something we’d want to use. They’re not giving users a reason to upgrade. They’re actually making me miss the 32-inch Polaroid TV my family bought for $1,000 a decade ago—sure, sometimes it makes a screeching noise and I have to restart it, but at least it’s not interrupting my movie to show a Pepsi ad.
Exhibit B: Samsung has taken advantage of its pole position in home entertainment to cram extra ads into the TV experience. A Reddit post went viral this week after user beans90 complained that Pepsi ads were being inserted into a movie streamed via a Plex server—the TV was interrupting the connection to beans’ own movies stored on a PC in his home, showing a commercial, then going back to the movie.Samsung apologized, saying it was an error and the ads should have been opt-in (because apparently there are people who want Pepsi ads in their movies?), but it’s not like this is Samsung’s first go-round with inserted ads. Last year, writer David Chartier complained after seeing a pop-up ad on his television, as Samsung tapped the revenue stream another way. It’s not just Samsung: Ask anyone who owns a premium Panasonic TV how they feel about the default setting that causes banner ads to pop up at the bottom of the screen, or the fact that the first thing you see when turning on your TV is an advertisement.
This is why people root for the return of the “dumb TV,” a big screen that doesn’t try to do anything special. But that’s a mistake: We should be rooting for smart TVs that don’t suck. We could ditch our Rokus and Fire TVs and do everything on our TVs themselves. It would mean fewer boxes, cables, and remotes to worry about. It’s just that smart TVs right now exist only on the spectrum between irritating and dangerous. It’s time for someone to do better.
Someday, if and when manufacturers figure it out, smart TVs will have lots of uses. One will be as a hub for our entire home—imagine a universal remote that doesn’t just control your programming, but light switches, the microwave, and the margarita machine. The other will be as a launching pad into a massively segmented world of content: your TV could make it easy to search for what you want to watch, no matter where it is, and could help you find something great even when you don’t know what you’re looking for.
In a small way, things are already improving. Whether it’s LG and webOS, Sony and Android TV, or TCL and Roku, television manufacturers are starting to turn to optimized software rather than just building their own. Since your TV is online, updates will happen with one click, and would only increase your TV’s capabilities over its multi-year lifespan.
There’s even a win-win option, where TV makers make more money by providing a better user experience. “One of the reasons Roku is seeing more success,” says Avi Greengart, research director at Current Analysis, “is that it built out a whole platform, including billing.” Basically, when you buy a movie on your Roku, from any of a number of services on the device, Roku gets a cut. (It’s essentially the iTunes model.) It’s not just movies, either: “any other content being sent to the television is great,” Greengart says. “If gaming on TVs amounted to anything, they could sell you games. Emoji, stickers, wallpapers, whatever.” By making it easy to find and buy the things you want, Roku makes more money. There’s really no reason any other manufacturer can’t do this, except that it’s hard. And it’s much easier to just slap ads everywhere.
That’s why for every step forward, there are forty back. If you walk into Best Buy today, the story is bleak. Hardly anything has changed about smart TV tech since we wrote about it more than two years ago. Most interfaces are ugly and slow, and are becoming more cluttered with pointless apps over time. And now we live in fear that our every giggle is being collecting while we watch The Real Housewives of Atlanta, or that we’ll be shown a commercial while we try to watch the movies we already own.
TV display technology is improving at an incredible rate—the 4K, 8K, and Quantum Dot sets we saw last month at CES were hard to tear your eyes away from. TV picture quality is incredible, and it’s getting better very quickly. But I’m sure as hell not upgrading now—not until there’s something better to see than a pop-up ad.