When buying a smart TV isn't so smart

Buying a smart TV may seem like a great idea, but there are some instances where it's better to save your cash instead.

Eduardo Munoz/Reuters/File
An Amazon Fire TV set is seen on a couch after a news conference in New York (April 2, 2014). Buying a smart set-top box for your TV can be a wiser investment than buying a smart TV.

Is a TV with WiFi a “must-have” feature on your TV shopping list? If it is, you might want to rethink that.

We post a lot of TV deals on Brad's Deals, and we get this question all the time: “Is this a Smart TV?” It never ceases to amaze us how important that is to people, because in our opinion, it shouldn’t be. While Smart TVs are theoretically an awesome idea, they often fail to live up to their name, and buying one sometimes means spending extra money on a sub-par product feature. Here’s why:

Like any electronic device, what truly matters isn't what the device manufacturers claim it can do, but how it actually works. Inside every TV are a number of electronics that process the video content that's displayed on your screen. How each TV does that makes a difference in terms of picture quality, even when the video panels have the same exact specs. This is why some 1080p TVs are much cheaper than other 1080p TVs. It’s no different for Smart TVs: whether the problem is second-rate WiFi hardware or hastily-created user interfaces, if the components come up short, the TV just isn't worth it, no matter how "smart" it claims to be.

This also plays into the longevity of the device. Most people buy TVs hoping to hold onto them for five to 10 years, and the vast majority of TVs will last that long and still look great the whole time. But five to 10 years is an eternity for the computer and networking components inside a Smart TV. Think of how quickly the technology inside your cell phones and laptops is rendered obsolete -- it's the same concept. The chipset that drives the "smart" features on your Smart TV will quickly become outdated, and the longer you hold onto it, the slower your internet and content delivery will become, as those features will require and more processing power.

Even worse, many TV manufacturers don’t make the "smart" part of the equation a priority, and keep costs down by NOT using the most advanced chips.

Just as important as the engine is the interface. The software inside a Smart TVs is the backbone of your user interface and overall experience, and it needs to be good. But, again, this is where Smart TVs just don’t pass muster. In general, if you compare a Smart TV’s user interface to that of a separate set-top box like an Amazon Fire TV or an Apple TV, you will see a world of difference.

Navigating movies and shows, and switching between services such as Netflix and Hulu are simpler and often faster on a set-top box than on a Smart TV. And with devices like the Apple TV and Amazon, you can add third party apps that feature other kinds of content, such as fitness videos or games (FYI: Crossy Road on Apple TV is wickedly addicting). Some apps cost extra, but there are many that are free. Both also feature voice recognition searches that are adapted from the industry's best platforms, Siri for Apple TV and Alexa for Amazon.

This is because Smart TV manufacturers treat this feature as secondary, and don't budget for much R&D and technical support, as these things cost money that they can't make back. Set-top box makers DO budget for these things, which is why those interfaces are more thoughtfully designed and tested. This is also why they often send out new releases of their software to improve that experience.

For example, the initial interface of the Apple TV I bought in 2011 looked and acted very differently than the one it had when I stopped using it in 2015, and I was very happy with those frequent upgrades, which always came with sensible changes and new features. Meanwhile, the Smart TV interface my parents have on their three-year-old Samsung Smart TV looks exactly the same as it did when they bought it, and is slow and clunky. The only updates I’ve seen for it deliver hidden “improvements” that are not at all apparent to the end user or their experience.

The TV companies can easily tack on an extra $100 or more just because a TV is “smart." When you actually break it down, you're probably spending more on a Smart TV than you would be if you'd just bought the same size TV with no built-in WiFi and a Google Nexus streaming player, which we have seen for as low as $50.

Even worse, for all the reasons we have mentioned above, not only are you paying extra for built-in streaming, but you are paying extra for a streaming media feature that is not as good or robust as a stand-alone device.

For example, at Best Buy you can get a Sharp 50” 1080p, 60Hz HDTV for $399.99, where as a comparable Samsung 50” 1080p, 60Hz Smart TV is $549.99. The price difference is the cost of the 32GB Apple TV. Combine the Sharp TV and the Amazon Fire TV and you’ll save money and have a better experience.

TV manufacturers don't get much money back on the "smart" part of the Smart TV, which is why many of them are trying new--often sneaky--things make an extra buck.

Last year, Samsung started inserting ads into movies and more on its Smart TVs. There was enough backlash that you can now opt out of this "feature" (although the opt-out is buried in preferences in the menu system), but that doesn’t mean they are going to stop pulling similar stunts in the future.

Also, some Smart TVs will serve you ads based on what you've watched, which many people don't like due to privacy concerns. Granted, this is not much different than what your web browser does every time you click “like” on Facebook or make a Google search, but it’s not an area that most set-top-box makers have ventured into (yet, anyway). They have focused more on making devices that allow you to buy apps as a way to make extra money. Sure, some of those apps may have ads in them (as does the basic version of Hulu), but it’s all very clear and you know that going in.

So, really, when looking for TVs, try looking at the non-smart TVs as a way to save some money. As long as the specs are up to par, this is a swap that can really pay off.

This article first appeared at Brad's Deals.

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