Wouldn’t it be great to have a smart TV? Well, not really. Smart TVs have a lot of problems. If you do have a smart TV, you’d be better off combining it with a cheap set-top box rather than actually using its smart features.

Smart TVs are actually a decent idea, in theory. The problem isn’t that the idea of a smart TV is stupid, the problem is that the smart TVs themselves are stupid — or, at least, not very smart.

There are other problems too — always on voice controls mean that your TV is listening to everything you say, and sending it back to unknown third parties. And the companies that make them are trying to find a way to squeeze extra money from you by embedding advertising or getting paid to recommend things.

Smart TVs in Theory

A smart TV may also be referred to as a “connected TV.” Essentially, it’s a TV that’s connected to the Internet. It has built-in apps to take advantage of this — for example, a smart TV would likely have apps for playing videos from Netflix and YouTube. Smart TVs generally also have other built-in apps — a web browser, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Angry Birds, and so on.

In theory, having a smart TV would be great. The TV would have a network connection and be able to connect to the Internet to play videos from sources like Netflix and YouTube without needing a separate box. You get a web browser and everything else you’d want to use. It’s all integrated into the TV, saving you money and eliminating the clutter of additional boxes and cables.

The Problem With Smart TVs

In practice, smart TVs just aren’t that great. Smart TVs have software made by TV manufacturers like Samsung, Sony, LG. Their software is generally not very good. Smart TVs usually have confusing, often baffling interfaces. Controlling the smart TV’s features will generally involve using a remote, probably using on-screen buttons on the the TV. The menu interfaces usually feel old.

But don’t take our word for it. A report from NPD last year indicated that only 10 percent of smart TV owners has used the web browser on their smart TV and about 15 percent had listened to music from online services. The majority of them had used video apps, however — for example, to watch Netflix on their TV without plugging in additional boxes.

Smart TVs will become dumber over time as they don’t receive updates. New video services won’t work on old TVs, and their operating systems may never receive updates from the manufacturer. Some smart TVs may already lack services you’d want to use. For example, Amazon notes that “Amazon Instant Video is available on select 2012 and 2013 LG Smart TVs.” Not all of them, in other words — just some of them. You’d have to do your research before buying a smart TV to get the services you want.

Even if you choose a smart TV with all the services you want, you’ll likely have a bad interface for them and may never get updates for existing services or new services.

Smart TVs Are Spying On What You Watch and Sharing with Advertisers

Vizio’s Smart TVs are spying on what you are watching, tracking all of that information, and then using that to sell ads to advertisers based on your IP address — since everything on your home network is behind the same router, you might be watching a particular program on TV and then start seeing ads on your smartphone, tablet, or PC, for something related to that program.

They do give you an option to turn it off — press Menu to go into your Settings and find “Smart Interactivity” and turn it off.

But this setting shouldn’t be enabled by default! Nobody wants it, and giving it a name like “Smart Interactivity” is ridiculous and insulting. The only reason it’s enabled by default is because nobody would ever enable it otherwise.

Samsung and LG are doing the same thing… but their option isn’t enabled by default (at the time of writing). That’s definitely better, but the fact that they can do it is troubling, and since one TV maker is doing it, eventually they probably all will be.

Smart TV Makers Are Trying to Make Money by Embedding MORE Ads

If you think Smart TV companies just want to make a great product that you want to buy, we’d like to tell you about our exclusive real estate agency selling plots of land on Mars. You should act now, because it’s a limited time offer!

Samsung’s Smart TVs are now embedding Extra ads into local media — every 20-30 minutes of watching movies or other video through your local Plex or other system, you’ll have to stop and watch an ad. Didn’t we buy a Smart TV so we don’t have to watch all those commercials on regular TV?

Image by siliconaddict on Arstechnica

This feature is opt-out, meaning that you are opted into it by default, and you have to go and uncheck the box that says you agree to their privacy policy to opt out of the ads. This is the kind of awful, terrible nonsense that has invaded the Windows PC ecosystem for years, and is now happening on your TV as well. Big companies are using trickery to screw you over and make money from you.

We’ll take a dumb TV, thanks.

There Are Possible Privacy Issues with Voice Features

Some smart TVs come with features like voice commands, but if you dig into their terms and conditions, you might find some really scary  language. For instance, the Samsung SmartTV has this very scary text in their privacy policy:

Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party through your use of Voice Recognition.

If you can’t talk about personal information in your house, where can you talk about it?

Every TV Is a Smart TV, But…

You may want to keep a TV for 5-10 years, but there’s a good chance the smart TV’s software won’t be working too well by then. You may need to upgrade the smart bits in 2-3 years. This is good for manufacturers, but bad for TV buyers.

Manufacturers want every TV to be a smart TV. In an ideal world, smart TVs wouldn’t really exist — or, at least, they’d have much better interfaces and be more easily upgradable.

Rather than getting a smart TV, you should buy a dumb TV or buy a smart TV and ignore the smart parts — don’t even hook the TV to your network. Once you have, you should connect a separate set-top-box to it. This set-top box will supply better “smarts.”

Dedicated boxes have a variety of advantages: They’re made by companies who actually care about the software user experience, they’ll receive updates, and they’re cheap at $99 or less. If you’re not happy with your smart TV software in two years, you can buy inexpensive box and swap it out instead of replacing your entire smart TV.

Note: These days it might be hard to find a TV that isn’t a “smart” TV, so our advice is to just find the best TV for the money and don’t worry so much about the smart part of it. And definitely don’t pay a lot more money for a TV because of the “smart” features.

Set-Top Box Options

There are a variety of set-top box options. They’ll have more polished interfaces and good mobile apps so you can control them from your smartphone or tablet.  They’ll also generally have more streaming services available and will receive updates for much longer.

  • Roku: Roku’s boxes are probably the most complete solution for typical TV users, starting at $50 and offering over 450 “channels” of video and music services you can stream directly to your TV. Roku includes a remote and offers a remote app for iPhone and Android so you can control your TV from your phone. You’ll be much happier with a Roku than you will be fighting with your smart TV’s clunky, old interface.
  • Apple TV: Apple offers its new Apple TV box for $149 or $199 depending on the storage that you choose. It allows you to play content from iTunes as well as from other popular services like Netflix, HBO Go, and Hulu Plus on your TV. It’s most compelling feature is AirPlay — if you already have a Mac, iPhone, or iPad, you can use AirPlay to stream content from your device’s screen to your TV wirelessly. This is the ideal device for people who already own Apple devices or want access to iTunes content on their TV.
  • Amazon Fire TV / Fire TV Stick: Amazon has their own solutions for streaming content to your TV, and they support the usual Netflix / Hulu / Amazon Prime Videos that the others do. Their interface is easy to use, and the hardware is faster than the competition. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best choice, but it’s not a bad one.

RELATED: HTG Reviews the Google Chromecast: Stream Video to Your TV

  • Chromecast: Google’s Chromecast is relatively new,  but it’s very cheap and has a lot of potential. For just $35, you get a little stick you can plug into your TV’s HDMI port. You can then stream content from Netflix, YouTube, Hulu Plus, HBO Go, Google Play Movies and Music, Pandora, and any Chrome browser tab directly to your TV. More services are being added over time. You control the Chromecast with an app on your existing Android smartphone or tablet, iPhone, or iPad. Available services are currently a bit limited here, but the experience will be nicer than using smart TV software.

Game consoles can also offer you access to video-streaming services and built-in web browsers. If you already have a game console you use, you’re better off using your game console rather than the software integrated into your smart TV.

In summary, forget all your fantasies about smart TVs. They’re just not very good — even if you have a smart TV, you’re better off picking up a cheap streaming box and using it instead of your smart TV’s software. You’ll also be way better off in a few years when that box is still getting updates while your old TV is forgotten by its manufacturer. Even if the box becomes outdated as fast as the TV, it’s much cheaper to replace the box than the entire TV set.

This article was originally written on November 23rd, 2013, but has been updated since then.

Image Credit: Sinchen Lin on Flickr, ETC@USC on Flickr, Joe C on Flickr, Keith Williamson on Flickr, Michael Sheehan on Flickr

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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