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There are lots of things to consider when buying a new TV. Theoretically, one of the most important decisions you’ll have to make is which smart operating system you want to run. Some manufacturers have created their own OS, while others use Roku or Android TV.
However, I’m going to argue the case for you rejecting smart TVs en masse in favor of a standalone device. Worrying about your TV’s operating system (or any of its smart features) is a waste of time. Instead, you should base your decision solely on TV-specific specs such as resolution, size, picture quality, and so on. Essentially everything other than its smart functions.
To gain access to those smart capabilities, it’s more sensible to buy an external streaming device like a Roku Express. Here are six reasons why.
1. TVs Are Built to Last
Devious television manufacturers consistently make the same claim: set-top boxes are on the way out because your smart TV can handle all your streaming needs by itself.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The reason? Update cycles.
Roku devices have an average update cycle of 30 months. On the other end of the scale, a typical consumer’s TV replacement cycle is about 10 years.
Whether you’re running a proprietary smart operating system or you have a Roku-based TV, you can be confident it will receive updates for a few years. But what happens beyond that?
One of two things will probably occur. Either the manufacturer will stop pushing updates to your set in a bid to make you buy a new TV, or your TV’s hardware will be unable to handle the increased requirements of newer smart operating systems and will slow to a crawl. The “smart” part of the TV will essentially become unusable.
At that point, you’re left with a choice. Abandon your otherwise perfectly functioning TV and upgrade to a newer model, or go out and buy a Roku box (or another streaming device) and forget your TV ever had smart capabilities.
2. TVs Are Expensive
Of course, the discrepancies in update cycles wouldn’t matter if televisions weren’t so expensive. If you could buy a new TV for the price of a Roku device, this entire argument would be moot.
But you can’t. It’s hard to find a large, high-quality smart TV for less than $650. The premium Roku model, the Roku Ultra, is only $99. You can pick up a Roku Express for $25.
And, contrary to popular belief, it is still quite easy to find non-smart TVs. You just need to do a bit of digging. Manufacturers don’t promote their non-smart TVs as heavily as their smart product lines. Why? Because they’re a lot cheaper.
The difference between the price of a smart TV and its similarly specced non-smart cousin can be several hundred dollars. Which is more than enough money to buy a top of the line Roku or another standalone streaming device.
3. TVs Aren’t Portable
One of the least discussed but most beneficial attributes of streaming dongles like the Roku Express, the Amazon Fire TV Stick, and the Chromecast is their portability. Even the slightly larger standalone set-top boxes can easily be thrown in a suitcase if you’re going to be away from home for a long time.
Given we live in a world which is increasingly “on the move,” portability is a plus. It means that whenever you check into a hotel or visit a friend, plug in your Roku Streaming Stick, and you can have all your content and streaming subscriptions on the screen in a matter of seconds.
If you’ve plowed all your money into a smart TV instead, you’ll be stuck watching rubbish local cable and endless Friends reruns. And as good as Friends is/was, there’s only so many times you can watch Ross and Rachel get together, split up, get together, split up, and get together again before getting bored.
4. Smart TVs Boast Fewer Apps
This issue might not be so pronounced on smart TVs that run Roku or Android. However, on proprietary systems like WebOS (LG) and Tizen (Samsung), it’s becoming a real problem.
In simple terms, there’s nowhere near the same amount of app availability on proprietary systems as there is on Roku, Android TV, or Apple TV.
Sure, most TVs will offer Netflix and a couple of the other top-tier streaming providers, but beyond those headline apps, content can be very thin on the ground. For example, many apps that cordcutters rely on every day, such as HBO GO, Sling TV, Crunchyroll, and PlayStation Vue, are not available on Tizen.
In contrast, Roku offers around 4,500 apps in the official app store and several thousand more private Roku channels and apps that are accessible using unique codes. It’s hard to find a popular app that’s not available. The same applies to Android TV and Apple TV.
5. Smart TVs Are Underpowered
For some unknown reason, smart TVs are usually massively underpowered.
Take RAM as an example. Today, many mid-range smart TVs ship with 2GB of RAM at most. The top-of-the-range $1,000+ models might come with 4GB. Rewind by a couple of years, and 512MB was commonplace.
Performance is a feature. I loathe how slow my Samsung "Smart" TV boots and runs, I'm also severely annoyed by the Xbox One dashboard.
— Jb Evain (@jbevain) September 3, 2017
Contrast that figure with some of the leading set-top boxes. The recently-announced 4K Apple TV will ship with 3GB of RAM. The Android TV-based Nvidia Shield also comes with 3GB.
And what about storage? On smart TVs, less than 16GB is commonplace, and much of that is used by the OS itself. In contrast, Apple TV offers up to 64GB, and the Nvidia Shield’s Pro model has 500GB.
6. Your TV Is Listening In
Let’s conclude with a word on privacy. If you follow the tech news, you’ll already be well aware of the Samsung’s PR disaster in 2015 when it emerged that the company’s smart TVs were listening to your background conversations.
But the potential problems run much deeper than that.
For instance, Vizio’s current smart TVs have a setting called Smart Interactivity enabled by default. It sounds innocent enough to ensure uninformed users never question whether it should be turned off.
However, in practice, the setting allows Vizio to track everything you watch, connect that information to your IP address, and then serve you ads on your other devices based on the data. It’s a savage breach of unsuspecting users’ privacy.
Samsung and LG have a similar setting, though it’s disabled by default. How much longer that remains the case is anyone’s guess.
Roku isn’t perfect. The company still shows you ads. But the ads are restricted to your Roku device, and if you disable Ad Tracking (Settings > System > Privacy > Limit Ad Tracking), Roku will not track any other metrics.
Be Smart and Stay Dumb
We’ve highlighted six key reasons why a dumb TV is the smart choice for most people. You can save money, improve your privacy, enjoy better specs, and enjoy a wider variety of content.
This is the bottom line: buying a cheap Roku device every couple of years can keep your television up-to-date with the latest smart technology without needing to splash out on a whole new TV set.
Still not convinced? Check out our Roku overview to learn more about the platform.