Watching television used to be a pretty straightforward experience. At one time, there were roughly seven channels and you got them by fiddling with an antenna. But the proliferation of programming platforms and the advance of technology has made interacting with your television a much more complex experience. Enter so-called “smart” televisions (sometimes referred to as connected TVs), which offer an all-in-one convenience: All the major streaming platforms pre-loaded, Internet connectivity is built-in (usually including the world’s worst web browsing experience), and they even have app stores that let you install other useful utilities, just as you do on your phone.
That’s a lot of reasons to want a smart TV in today’s hyper-connected age but there are actually a lot of reasons why you don’t want a smart TV — and why you should strongly consider buying a “dumb” TV that offers an incredible viewing experience, and leave all the smarts to a separate device. In fact, here’s why you should buy the dumbest TV you can find.
Consider ads and privacy when buying a TV
Smart TVs are marketed to you as the ultimate entertainment experience, but you’re actually not the only customer — or, often, even the most important customer. Many smart TV makers are aggressively selling your viewing data and populating their user interfaces (UI) with advertising. Televisions that cost thousands of dollars come out of the box absolutely riddled with preinstalled apps and huge, ugly, persistent ads everywhere you look.
Worse, they often bury the settings you need to change in order to eliminate most (but not all — never imagine you’d be allowed to actually own the television you just spent a mortgage payment on) of those ads.
And the privacy issue isn’t small. These days, when you power up a smart TV you probably have to click through a legal agreement — and somewhere in there you agree to let the TV’s manufacturer monitor everything you do with the device and sell that information. The companies that buy that information? They will use it to target ads, which will be served up on your TV. So not only will some faceless corporation know that you binge-watch Is It Cake?, they’ll also weaponize that information against you.
Even worse, some TV makers are experimenting with shoving ads at you while you’re watching live television. To be clear: This is in addition to the ads that a broadcast or cable channel might be serving up to you while you watch. And these live ads are calibrated using your own viewing data the TV has been gathering since you powered it up. And other TV manufacturers are rolling out ad models that are increasingly difficult to avoid, like Samsung’s “takeover” ads that pop up every time you turn on the TV.
Want to avoid this advertising hellscape? Buy a dumb TV. With a dumb TV you can hook up any streaming box you want — Roku, Apple, Chromecast — and if that platform starts to mimic a smart TV in terms of advertising and other concerns, you can leverage those free market forces and switch to another.
Security is a concern with smart TVs
When I bought my first “smart” TV a few years ago, having Netflix and other streamers pre-loaded was great. And then, not so great, because the TV’s manufacturer allowed the device’s operating system to decay, and never updated the built-in Netflix app. Eventually, I was basically forced to buy a Roku just to get the current version of the app.
And that’s not unusual. Television manufacturers are typically not software developers, and there is a strong tendency to orphan their platforms almost as soon as they release them. Aside from the inconvenience of having outdated apps, this is also a huge security concern. Your smart TV is an Internet-connected device, after all, loaded with your personal information and attached to your home’s wi-fi or wired Internet. Microsoft issues security updates for Windows on a weekly basis, so how do you think your TV is doing after two years of zero software patches? With a dumb TV you don’t have these concerns — granted, in theory your smart TV can be updated with new features, but no software is going to make a 4K TV into an 8K TV, so the benefits are minimal.
Flexibility is key
Finally, going with a dumb TV gives you the most flexibility and control when it comes to your entertainment experience. With a dumb TV, you can choose whatever streaming device you want. But an Amazon Fire stick or an Apple TV box will offer you all the same options and features, with the bonus of being able to switch any time you want. When you buy a smart TV, you’re locked into that company’s interface and platform whether you like it or not — and those platforms tend to be poorly-designed and frustrating to interact with.
Buying a dumb TV
The big caveat when it comes to dumb TVs is that they are absolutely not the priority in the market, and so it can be difficult to find a dumb TV that has the screen size, resolution, and other features of a smart TV. Still, it’s not impossible. Samsung makes a 65-inch 4K dumb TV, for example, as does Sceptre, but identifying and finding dumb TVs can be challenging. Here are a few tips if you’ve decided to go dumb:
- Business displays. You know when you walk into an office or store and a bunch of big TVs are blaring advertising and store content? Those are almost always dumb TVs. They’re usually called commercial TVs or commercial monitors — the word “commercial” is the giveaway. These are fully-functioning TVs that typically don’t have smart features because businesses don’t need them.
- Outdoor TVs. Most outdoor televisions lack smart features. They’re not ideal for indoor use, it’s true, because they’re designed to be super-bright to be visible in sunlit areas and often lack built-in speakers, but they’re an option if you run into a wall finding other sources of dumbness.
- 4K monitors. The difference between a TV and a monitor is getting mighty thin in the streaming age. You can hook your streaming device to a computer monitor, instantly making it into a TV. Monitors tend to be smaller than TVs, however, so finding one bigger than 50 inches or so can be a challenge. Still, it’s an option if those smaller sizes work for you.
In the end, buying and setting up a TV is all about entertainment and relaxation — it should be easy. While you’ll definitely give up some features if you go dumb, you’ll also gain back your privacy and full control over your couch-surfing, which is priceless. But if you decide that the trade-offs for a smart TV are worth it, that’s obviously fine as long as that decision is an educated one.