/ Technology

Smart TVs: not half as smart as they think

In their quest to make their TVs more appealing, TV manufacturers have confused ‘smart’ for ‘useful’. CES 2012 has done little to dissuade my view that TV makers are still grasping for a smart answer.

At CES 2012 LG boasted that its Smart TV ecosystem (everything has an ecosystem these days) boasted 1,200 apps. It never bothered to explain why.

I’ll tell you why: it sounds impressive, but it’s not. In the quest for ‘smartness’ manufacturers have forgotten that we mainly want TVs to entertain us. That means video (in all its forms) and games (good ones).

I don’t need to check the weather, I don’t need to do my grocery shopping, I don’t need to read the news, update Facebook or Twitter – I don’t need these things because I already own umpteen devices that do them already, much better.

It’s easy to understand why TV manufactures have gone down this road – the appification (I just made that word up) of mobile phones has been a powerful example of utility in action. But TVs aren’t phones.

Apps work on phones because smartphones are the Swiss Army Knife of tech. They’re with you all day and every small thing they do makes them a little bit more useful. We don’t need Swiss Army knives tethered to the wall socket in our living rooms.

Microsoft is showing the way

For a contrast to this ‘more is more’ approach, one need only look at Microsoft and its Xbox. The Xbox 360 has done more to further the future of TV in the last three or four months than TV manufacturers have done in two years.

In its latest update Microsoft added much-needed depth to its video offering, with 4oD, Five FWD, LoveFilm, Netflix (as of this week) joining the already excellent Sky Player and Microsoft’s own (rather expensive) Zune video on-demand service. When BBC iPlayer joins that cast in the next couple of months, it’ll have among the most complete packages around.

Moreover, it’s all wrapped up in an interface that’s clean, clear and fast – three things not associated with Smart TVs thus far. Sony, too, has a strong offering on its PS3 console, albeit without the Sky Player option.

How Microsoft and Sony position their next generation consoles will be fascinating – I fully expect them to be far more affordable than in the past, driving people to buy them as the ‘one stop shop’ for living room entertainment.

Google to the rescue?

As is the case with mobiles and tablets, Google has been said to be the potential saviour for TV companies. However, LG announced a TV with both Google TV and its own Smart TV system at CES 2012 – a recipe for confusion if ever there was one.

Confidence in Google in this ‘smart’ project is shaky at best. Google TV version 1.0, which launched more than a year ago, was an unmitigated disaster and didn’t even make it outside the US. It’s hard to escape the feeling that Google TV is one distraction too many for a company that has its fingers in lots of pies.

Manufacturers may hit upon the right formula eventually, but by that point the horse will probably have bolted, only to be remembered as this simple pub quiz question:

How many apps did LG Smart TVs have in 2012? Answer: no one cares.


On a recent Which? podcast we were recommended to buy the most expensive TV we can afford. I don’t want all this junk and I doubt that many adults do.

Over Christmas I spent some time watching an expensive new Sony Bravia TV, fortunately not my own. The picture was OK but the sound was extremely poor. I honestly believe that my family’s first black & white TV (1957) with a screen the size of a laptop computer provided much better sound quality than Sony’s modern offering. I know that Which? has criticised the sound quality of many modern TVs, but surely it is more important to have reasonable sound quality (with the built-in speakers) rather than a lot of the features you mention.

I would not mind replacing my current TV and set-top box (which at least has reasonable sound quality for a flat-screen TV) but I don’t want any non-standard features other than a proper off-switch. 🙂

Plasmaowner says:
13 January 2012

My response to the comment from ‘wavechange’ is: No matter how much you pay, you will not get good sound from the built in loudspeakers in modern flat screen TVs. They are just too small and not powerful enough. The only way to get decent sound is to connect up a good sound system with ‘proper’ loudspeakers. When you buy a new TV, just concentrate on the picture quality and get the best you can afford. Don’t worry about any ‘smart’ features because you will most likely have these in your Blu-ray Player/Xbox/PS3.

Thanks for confirming my fears, Plasmaowner. It must be 25 years since I first connected a TV to my hi-fi system but that involved running wires round the room and having something else to switch on and off. Flat screen TVs don’t need to be very thin and have little room for speakers. Why should I have to buy a separate sound unit for below the TV to get reasonable sound. I know that Which? has highlighted the problem, but will the manufacturers listen? I don’t have a Blu-ray Player/Xbox/PS3 or want one, just a TV with reasonable sound quality. I am not expecting hi-fi, just what we had in most CRT TVs before they were phased out.

I have a smart Samsung which connects to the Internet. It allows me to play content from streaming sites like BBC’s iPlayer, but I don’t do it because my broadband provider limits my free included usage allowance and this would quickly be eaten up if I started watching movies or listening to streamed music.

It’s all very well to provide all these bells and whistles on TVs, but if like me you want cheap broadband, it’s a luxury a lot of people can’t afford to use.

Anon the mouse says:
14 January 2012

If you have the samsung software (Samsung Allshare) on your PC you can stream the pictures/videos/music you have stored directly to the TV.

This lets you save on your broadband costs and have some of the benefits of a smarttv

Bankie says:
14 January 2012

I also purchased a 40″ Samsung Smart TV late last year (2011) and find it most useful (sound is poor as always with flatscreens), it allows me to access the four pC’s I have at home and show both films/family videos and pictures on it plus any music I wish to play. I do intend to purchase another one as soon as I am sure I have the latest Smart TV available (they change so quickly going out of date is a problem) to be able to watch all of these things in my bedroom.

Smart TV is the way to go, my only concern is that I believe that the use of a keyboard with TV’s must be in the offing and this would allow me to access the net wherever I am watching TV, I do not want to buy one and then find that the k/b TV (which I believe is available to a fashion with some TV’s) becomes available after I make the major purchase.

I can see the need for a keyboard, but it seems to me that a decent laptop is the ideal companion for a TV, allowing viewing on a large screen. I am happy to buy a new laptop every two or three years to keep up-to-date, but I really don’t want to replace a TV more than once every ten years. I don’t want to buy a smart TV and be stuck with features that are very out of date when the TV is still working perfectly.

I feel the same about sat-navs. I would rather spend my money on stand-alone sat-navs that I can update when needed rather than have to put up with ancient technology built into a car.

Shugg says:
19 January 2012

The trouble with Samsung tv apps is that nearly all of them are rubbish. Most are pointless games or things like Flags of the World, why would you want to look at that on a tv? What we really need are more On Demand apps like the glorious BBC iPlayer. On the other hand, I do use the browser but it is very slow.

Richard says:
5 October 2012

I bought a 42″ Panasonic plasma freesat TV last year. The app. bundle is not impressive and not consequently not used. One software update so far.
The one thing I like to use is BBC I Player but it is so unstable the screen goes grey and announces a connection fault. However the picture, though barely visible in its greyness carries on and the audio is excellent. The fault has now made me very weary. Last night during a one hour play it conked out 5 times. No problem with my WiFi because another Sony set operates perfectly. Router is new N type and the signal check shows five bars in the Panasonic set-up. My remedy so far has been to go to set up. Switch from wireless to wired in the network section and back again after sufficient pause for the software to catch up. Service resumes. Today I contacted my very helpful supplier who said there was a know fault on certain models but Panasonic have not felt the need to produce a software fix! After spending £1000 I am not best pleased. I previously preferred Panasonic TVs because of picture and sound quality. But my allegiance is now tested.
Especially after a 32″ LCD model was replaced twice because it failed after days of use. What has happened to this once great company?

Bankie says:
6 October 2012

On the sound off flatscreen TV’s, can I say that on my Smart Samsung 40″ on finding the sound so poor I resolved to do something…anything to improve it, I finally tried a set of cheap Trust twin speakers that I had connected to my PC, I connected them to the headphone socket on the Smart TV, and now although I do have to power the speakers I now find that I do not use the TV speakers at all, as I am now getting great volume with bass control, and it would put you out of the house if it was turned up full.

Bankie says:
6 October 2012

Sorry, I did mean to say that the sound is still controlled by the Samsung TV remote so two remotes are not required.