Thanksgiving has become synonymous with two things: overeating and buying cheap TVs. And like clockwork, all my friends ask me if it’s possible to save more money by buying a TV without smart apps built in—after all, if you already have a Roku, why pay for extra features you don’t need? Unfortunately, it isn’t quite that simple.
Almost All TVs Are Smart Now
If you’re buying a TV in 2020, it’s probably going to have smart features. “Dumb” TVs aren’t completely extinct, but they’re pretty close—the few that exist tend to come in small sizes with low resolutions, designed more for watching news in the kitchen than watching movies in the living room. The picture quality on those is nowhere near what you’d get from even a midrange smart TV with features like 4K, HDR, and local dimming—you could get decent quality from a computer monitor, if you can find one big enough, but again, many high-quality TVs offer features that monitors don’t have.
Just as in the world of phones, smart features are pretty much a given in today’s TVs. But it’s unlikely you’re paying extra for smart features, even on low-end TVs. If anything, it’s likely those TVs are subsidized by the smart features included, since they hook you into an ecosystem. If you buy one of Amazon’s Fire-capable TVs, for example, Amazon is banking on you subscribing to Prime and buying more Alexa devices to make everything work together nicely.
Not only that, but smart TVs are data-collecting gold mines, which only encourages manufacturers to include those features on as many TVs as possible. Data collection lines pockets long after a gadget is bought and paid for.
Your Best Option: Keep Your TV Disconnected
If you’re interested in a TV but aren’t interested in its smart features—maybe you already stream using your game console, or you prefer to watch movies on Blu-ray—you don’t need to hunt far and wide for a dumb TV. Just buy the smart model and keep it disconnected from the internet. Don’t set up Wi-Fi when you turn it on, don’t plug in an Ethernet cable. Just hook up your HDMI devices and go to town—you never have to see the smart features if you don’t want to. (Apart from a rare visit to the settings menu, I never even see what smart apps my Samsung TV has available, because I stream through my Roku Ultra.)
This has another added benefit: If you keep your TV disconnected, it won’t automatically update its firmware. Firmware updates can improve the experience, but I’ve heard (and experienced) more than enough horror stories of firmware updates reducing picture quality, introducing new bugs, and slowing down the overall experience. You’re better off manually updating the firmware after you’ve given other people a chance to try it out, and keeping your TV disconnected allows you to do that.
That said, there are a few TVs out there with good smart platforms built in. Many of TCL’s TVs come with Roku built in, which is like getting a $100 Roku box for free with the purchase of your TV. That’s definitely a value add. Sony, Hisense, and other manufacturers often bundle Android TV, which is a decent platform as well. You don’t have to use either, but if you’re going to stream Netflix anyway, you might as well.
Streaming Comes With Privacy Trade-Offs
If you’re concerned about privacy—remember that data collection I mentioned earlier?—keep in mind that streaming boxes aren’t always better. Sure, some smart TVs tend to invade privacy a bit more with their Automatic Content Recognition features (which, thankfully, you can turn off), but if you still plan on streaming your shows, don’t think that gets you off the grid. Many dedicated streaming boxes collect their own data as well—as can individual apps. That’s just the sad reality of today’s internet-connected world. Unless you restrict yourself to DVDs and over-the-air broadcasts, someone’s probably phoning home a little.