In Defense of Dumb TVs

Smart TV was once a term reserved for high end televisions with built-in streaming capabilities. The combination of massive reductions in panel costs, decreasing costs for embedded compute, and the ready availability of content platforms from Google, Roku, and others has made the term irrelevant. Almost every TV you can buy today has smarts built-in. There have been some fantastic outcomes of that, like breaking up the traditional channel bundle and increasing access to more personalized and niche content.

There have been some serious negatives too. Decreasing prices and decreasing margins on TVs combined with long replacement cycles have driven companies to take advantage of built-in smarts to enable a new revenue source: user data and advertising. As of Q2 2020, Vizio and HiSense are the only major brands making TVs that ship without advertising enabled in their UIs. Sony, Samsung, LG, and others have ads enabled by default, most of which can’t be disabled. All of the above brands have built capability to aggregate data on what content is being viewed, and again, not all of them have the option to disable that. TVs smart enough to help you are also smart enough to harm you. Incredibly, Samsung even recommends that you run virus and malware checking on your TV regularly.

An obvious way out of this as a consumer is to buy a TV without smarts built in (a “dumb TV”) and then add your own content source that is privacy focused like Apple TV or that you have full control over like Kodi. This is something we personally looked for when we were buying a display for the conference room at Framework’s headquarters. Amazingly enough though, we found that none of the major consumer TV brands make basic “dumb” displays anymore. There are options in the commercial space like NEC’s commercial displays, but they cost substantially more than the consumer-focused alternatives.

We nearly gave in and bought a typical smart TV, and then we stumbled on Sceptre’s TV lineup. You’ll notice that they have a range of extremely similar looking sets that have minor specification and weight differences. Our best guess is that they source LCDs from panel manufacturers that are either excess stock or fail the quality specifications set by other brands and build extremely minimal TVs around them. We haven’t noticed any quality issues on our Sceptre set, but for our use case of showing slides and spreadsheets, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. The product was perfect for us: a dumb TV that as an added bonus reduces e-waste by using panels that would otherwise be scrapped.

It’s an interesting business model, and one that is consumer friendly, environmentally considerate, and economically sound. That is a powerful combination that we need to see across all of consumer electronics.

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@NRP Good idea. A few years back we had to replace our very-old TV and bought a Samsung “dumb” TV. Used it for a while with a Chinese “Android TV” box and when that aged out, replaced it with a tiny little Chromecast with Google TV unit. The TV itself is still going strong, just like new. Seems the more functionality you put into one (non-repairable) unit, the greater the waste is created when it dies.

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Simplicity is still the best way. That way you add the functionality that you want not what the manufacturers want. we should still have control over what we do not what they force us to do.

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Next Project: Framework 32" TV with its own replaceable Screen and of course Ram/CPU, WebCam integrated (with manual lid for privacy) , external modules for HDMi, Audio Jack 3.5mm, Pure Android Os or.whatever system.you want to run on it…etc…

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@Felix That sounds amazing. That would allow a smart tv without the spyware watching what we are watching. I can’t wait to see that and the ability to replace the screen as technology moves forward would be awesome. No more replacing whole to tv to get new technology.

Eh… Make it a 43" 4K screen with one HDMI and Optical Audio out by default, then create expansion cards for RCA Audio, Component Video, and Composite Video on top of USB, Thunderbolt, etc. Now here’s something that will definitely seem bizarre for the brain of the ‘smart’ part this device… install a dumb UI that will allow for basic use (HDMI and Optical only) but work with the Raspberry Pi Foundation to integrate a Compute Module Expansion board compartment so a CM4 board (or future compute module) can be installed. You control the hardware and the software for the ‘smart’ part of the device-- no one else.

I believe it is dumb to use a smart TV in smart mode. As others have pointed out it is difficult to find a dumb TV; fortunately I have found that a smart TV usually becomes dumb when you don’t connect it to your LAN. Modern TVs usually have enough additional ports that it is easy to connect additional inputs. One drawback seems to be a growing array of remotes.