I want my dumb TV

Cheap and often necessary external boxes render smart TV suites redundant and of little value. So why don't TV makers get rid of them and charge a bit less?

David Katzmaier Editorial Director -- Personal Tech
David reviews TVs and leads the Personal Tech team at CNET, covering mobile, software, computing, streaming and home entertainment. We provide helpful, expert reviews, advice and videos on what gadget or service to buy and how to get the most out of it.
Expertise A 20-year CNET veteran, David has been reviewing TVs since the days of CRT, rear-projection and plasma. Prior to CNET he worked at Sound & Vision magazine and eTown.com. He is known to two people on Twitter as the Cormac McCarthy of consumer electronics. Credentials
  • Although still awaiting his Oscar for Best Picture Reviewer, David does hold certifications from the Imaging Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology on display calibration and evaluation.
David Katzmaier
4 min read

The Panasonic TH-PHD8UK, cerca 2005, was dumb as a bag of hammers.

When it comes to smart TVs, manufacturers are basically charging money for nuthin.'

Or to put it in less dire terms, the smart TV suites included in today's TVs offer little value. That's not to say I don't enjoy Netflix, Amazon Instant, and HBO Go as much as the next broadband Internet subscriber, it's just that I can get the same great apps and content on devices as cheap as the $50 Roku LT. So why would I want to spend $100 extra or more on a TV that has these features?

It's the picture, stupid
I'll tell you why: because step-up TVs, the ones with smart TV, 3D, tricked-out remotes, and even more esoteric doodads, are often the ones that also have the best picture quality. In my review of the Samsung PNE8000 with Smart Interaction, for example, I said "The Kitchen Sink award for 2012 goes to Samsung PNE8000 plasma and UNES8000 LED TVs. I doubt any more feature-festooned TVs will appear this year." It also scored a 9 out of 10 in picture quality.

Samsung also makes a step-down PNE6500 that, from what I was told by a Samsung engineer, should offer picture quality that's basically identical to this one. If it does, I'll consider it a much better value than the E8000, and more recommendable.

But even the TVs that occupy the sweet spot--best picture quality for the buck--have too many features. The PNE6500 and the Panasonic TC-P50ST50 I recently reviewed are good examples. The ST50 has an outstanding picture and I expect good things from the 6500, but both still have two features I'm betting most smart consumers don't care about: smart TV and 3D.

External boxes rule
So-called "integrated" TVs--those with the built-in ability to receive broadcast programming beyond over-the-air antennas--don't really exist in America. We're wedded to the cable box/DVR for our TV fix. Steve Jobs himself famously remarked in 2010 that innovation in the TV industry is quashed by the fact that everybody gets "a set-top box for free, or $10 a month." Cable boxes aren't going away anytime soon.

All but the most ascetic of cable cutters need to connect a box of some kind to get their programming. Rokus, Apple TVs, game consoles, Blu-ray/DVD players and yes, external audio systems fill up entertainment centers nationwide.

A single TV, no matter how smart, can't adequately replace all of those boxes in today's market. Google TV for example, in the form of the LG G2, tries its darndest, incorporating cable box control, scads of apps and plenty of streaming video. But it's still kludgy and difficult to use.

All of those boxes simply make smart TV redundant. I have three ways to stream Netflix in my living room: PS3, Roku and, yes, via my TVs internal app. With a good universal remote they're all equally easy to control, so I usually choose the PS3 because it's simply faster. I almost never use the apps on my TV, and from reader feedback I've seen, I'm not the only one.

TVs last for years, but smart TV suites can seem obsolete long before that. You can always replace a $50 box, a $130 connected Blu-ray player or even invest in something like TiVo, and all cost significantly less than a new TV.

The case for a dumb monitor
In my perfect world, TV makers would create versions of their sweet spot, great-picture-quality TVs that don't have smart TV, and cost $100 less. I'd also like to see these "dumb monitors" available in 2D-only and 3D versions, again with a $100 cost differential.

They'd be a pure picture quality/value play, and appeal to people who feel the same way I do. I want a TV to do one thing and one thing well: produce beautiful pictures. I can connect whatever I want to them, and swap out those connected devices whenever I please, but built-in extras that I never use simply wouldn't be there.

No TV maker offers its best picture quality in a stripped-down TV, but I think the time is ripe to do so. The TV business faces declining sales and shipments for the first time in years, and some makers have resorted to newfangled pricing ploys to try to preserve profits. What about a new kind of product, one with a thin spec sheet and features list, that appeals to a new generation of buyers fed up with tacked-on extras?

I'm not (that) naive. I know it's all about protecting margins, and maybe asking for a $100 discount in this tight market is untenable. But it must cost something for manufacturers to put these features into their TVs, let alone support and market them. Take them out and pass along the savings to us. Build in some good will instead of useless extras.