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Smart Home

Smart TVs should be so much smarter

We've been dreaming of better, smarter entertainment that integrates seamlessly with the connected home for years. So why isn't it further along by now?

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Plenty of TVs call themselves "smart," but most of them use that cloud connectivity solely for pushing firmware updates and streaming content from sources like Netflix. That's fine if you're hoping to catch up on the latest season of House of Cards, but it doesn't do you much good if you're looking for a TV that can serve as a smart home centerpiece.

And I think TVs should serve as smart home centerpieces. For many of us -- apartment-dwellers in particular -- our TV is one of the fanciest things we own, and something that we use just about every day. With a full-size display, remote controls and built-in Wi-Fi, what's to stop a smart TV from commanding the connected home, or syncing up seamlessly with things like smart lighting and voice control platforms for next-level in-home entertainment?

That's not to say that there aren't nifty ways for smart TVs to interact with your smart home setup, but none of today's integrations feel all that compelling or well-executed, and a couple of obvious ones get left out entirely. Let me show you what I mean.

The smart hubs that weren't

Interaction between smart TVs and connected home gadgetry is a two-way street. In some cases, it's the smart home gadgets that try to make the TV-watching experience better -- in others, it's your TV trying to help you monitor, control, or interact with your smart home.

The Smarthings Extend TV dongle is yet to see the light of day.

Sarah Tew/CNET

We've seen a lot of potential in that second category, but much of it has fallen short.

Take Samsung. The Korean conglomerate acquired the SmartThings connected home platform back in 2014, and sure enough, you can now put select Samsung smart TV models under control of your SmartThings hub. But, at CES 2016, Samsung also promised to start selling a "SmartThings Extend" USB dongle with that same hub hardware packed inside. The idea was that you'd plug the thing into your TV and eliminate the need for a hub altogether. The expected ship date? June 2016.

Now, almost a year later, SmartThings Extend is still nowhere to be found, and a SmartThings spokesperson couldn't offer a timetable for its release, telling us only that the dongle's been "delayed." A Samsung spokesperson told me the same thing.

Apple TV is great for streaming video, but it misses the mark as a smart home controller.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Samsung isn't the only big name that's late to its own party. Just look at where Apple is at with Apple TV, and with HomeKit, its iOS-based smart home platform. Apple TV plays a key role in HomeKit, essentially serving as the platform's gatekeeper and allowing you to access your gadgets remotely when you're away from home. There are also a couple of third-party smart-home apps available for it, including ones from camera-makers like Canary and Nest that'll let you view your security feeds right on your TV.

But compare that with the D-Link Omna, the first Wi-Fi camera that works with HomeKit. You can view its footage alongside other HomeKit-compatible gadgets in Apple's Home app on your iOS device, but there's currently no way to view that same footage using Apple TV -- a huge and head-scratching missed opportunity given where the competition is at. That's partly on D-Link for not developing its own third-party monitoring app yet, but save some blame for Apple -- the company has yet to introduce its own, first-party version of the Home app for Apple TV, and wouldn't tell us whether or not one was in the works. Again, head-scratching.

Color us unimpressed

On the flipside of TV-oriented smart home control is smart-home-oriented TV entertainment. It's something I've been waiting for and writing about for years now, and while some progress has been made, there's still relatively little to get excited about.

Some of the earliest integrations were centered around color-changing lighting, including an app that would let you sync Philips Hue bulbs up with SyFy programming like "Sharknado" and the show "12 Monkeys." It's a simple pitch: when something happens in the show you're watching (a giant shark taking a big bite out of a doomed bit character's torso, perhaps) your lights change color in kind (say, a nice, sudden blood red hue splashed across your walls).

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You can add smart lights to your entertainment center and then sync them up with a voice assistant if you feel like showing off your TV.

Chris Monroe/CNET

We tested that integration out back in 2015, and for the most part we enjoyed it, but none of us came away compelled to rush out and buy fancy new color-changing lights because of it. "Wake me when it works with the Super Bowl," I remember one colleague saying.

Two years later, there's been no need. Philips has done little, if anything, to expand that color connection with Syfy, or any other network for that matter. Also missing: any sort of significant integration with Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo or anyone else from the world of gaming. That's potentially an even bigger missed opportunity.

Is voice control the answer?

The newest stab at smart-home-powered TV entertainment has come in the form of voice control, and it at least looks to have a little bit more traction than color coordination ever did. If you use Apple TV, you can talk right into the voice remote and ask Siri to search for a specific program or run a specific app, similar to the voice search that's available via Alexa on Amazon Fire TV.

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You can also sync Alexa up with your smart lights, then ask her to dim things down as you're starting a movie -- but if you want to tie those automated lighting changes in with automated input switching and media control, you'll need a smart-home-friendly universal remote system like Control4 or Logitech Harmony. But integrations like those get expensive fast, and from my experience, they're often too clunky to get excited about.

The Google Home smart speaker has a bit of a lead in the home entertainment voice control race.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

More exciting: the Google Assistant. Thanks to its compatibility with the Chromecast media streamer, you can add a Google Home smart speaker to your Chromecast-equipped home entertainment setup, then launch YouTube videos and Netflix shows using simple voice commands. It's an especially nice fit with Vizio's latest smart TVs, since they come with Google Cast functionality built right in.

Still, there are limitations. Since Google Cast is all about streaming, you can't use it to control core TV functions like changing HDMI inputs or powering the thing on and off. And as of now, YouTube and Netflix are the only supported video streaming services of note, so for the time being, you're out of luck if you prefer to watch Hulu, Amazon, or HBO.

And that's kind of where we're at when it comes to smart home entertainment: the hardware is solid, but the software needs to catch up. It's similar to the early days of Amazon Alexa's controls for things like locks, lights and thermostats. The Echo smart speaker was a hit from the get-go, but the smart home integrations were too clunky at first, often requiring users to tack on extra "invocation words" to their command in order to get it to work. Then, Amazon rolled out dedicated software frameworks for each of those categories. Almost immediately, the commands became easier and more natural -- and a flood of new devices were able to hop on board.

Whether it's Amazon, Google, Apple or some other name that does it, I think (or at least hope) that we'll see something similar happen for home entertainment. Once it does, smart TVs will stand to get a lot smarter. But for now at least, keep your smart home entertainment expectations in check.