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.

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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.

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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.

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Recently bought a new TV. Love the size, picture, price. I hate the Vizio smart OS though. Switching inputs takes way longer than I want. The whole thing just feels slow. I just use my NVidia shield, much better experience! The only smart functionality I use is the smart home features so I can control it with my smart home speaker.

I think my perfect TV would be one where my shield or future entertainment hub can control the TV via it’s HDMI. Turn it on, switch inputs, ect. That way, when I cast something to the shield: TV turns on and switches input. I could then tell my smart speaker to turn off the TV, the shield would then relay that command to the TV.

Detach the smarts from the TV with a light weight interface that other devices can control it with! I don’t think other people will start to catch on until their TVs start getting unbearably slow and they have to throw away a perfectly good screen.

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+1 for dumb TVs. As long as it has a htmi port I can plug a computer or tablet in and have more functionality then a smartTV with none of the downside

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I question, however, can a dumb TV even be called a TV nowadays?
My understanding is that a TV is a self-contained piece of tech that can be used use to watch content which only depends on being provided a means to receive data to be decoded.

Unless you’re one of the two people who still watches primarily cable or over the air networks, I don’t think you can call a TV a TV if it isn’t a smart TV; it’s just a large monitor with speakers. For instance, 8-bit guy has an old TV he prefers to call a monitor as functionally that’s what’s it’s really good for nowadays.

@Jack_Mcslay Dumb TVs are certainly still TVs. I don’t get any of my content from built-in functionality of the TV. I get it for my Nvidia shield where I have my streaming services and Plex client. I get content for my consoles, for my PC.

The built-in TV functionality is just an annoying thing that makes my TV slower and sells my activity if I were to use it. I’m not entirely convinced that my TV won’t get slower with updates. It’s already slow.

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Dumb TVs are my preference too. I find it slowly getting harder to buy a good Dumb TV though.

I’m surprised there isn’t already some kind of open source, universal driver board for TV panels.
The people who care about privacy are also usually handy enough to make a nice trim around a panel.

I’ve always preferred a dumb TV over a smart one. “Smart” is only related to what it can do…and over time, that becomes outdated / unsupported. The modular approach is how I typically like my daily solutions to be built. e.g. Separate espresso machine from the grinder. Separate the network receiver from the DAC from the AMP…etc.

Thank you for sharing the Sceptre TVs with us.

Sceptre currently makes my favorite dumb TVs that still have pretty decent specs like 4k and HDR. If I’m not looking at the LG OLED or Samsung next to it that LITERALLY costs 4x-10x the price, I don’t have any reason to complain. 65" for <$400, heck yes, I’ll take that and get a backup for the other room too!

+11 for the Shield TV as a device that has been done right. Nvidia is STILL releasing updates for the 2015 model, which is unheard of for any other Android based device, or any other media player except maybe the Chromecast.

My in-laws bought a Samsung net TV and Blu-ray player a few years ago, and in the winter of 2019 they could no longer watch Netflix on either because the firmware wasn’t getting updates and Netflix didn’t want to support those old devices anymore, and they really weren’t that old… so I threw a Chromecast on the TV and now they can cast from their iPad from most apps, and once the CCGTV (Chromecast with Google TV) came out, I upgraded them to that since they aren’t addicted to their iPad like younger generations.

I haven’t been able to find a reference to malware checks on the linked Samsung page. Where does it talk about that?

It used to…:

It wasn’t good for marketing at all…and now wishes people would forget about it.

If you never get your Smart TV online, it’s basically a dumb TV, no?

As far as I know, most TVs on the market don’t require an internet connection in the initial setup

There are also dumb PC monitors which go up to 65" in size which might be worth mentioning. They are basicly a dumb TV.