In Defense of Dumb TVs

Oct 28 2020
by Nirav Patel
An empty TV screen in front of a creek

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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