Buying a Smart TV? Get One That’s Actually Smart

Rear view of a smart TV with a Google Chromecast device attached.
Options for minimizing smart TV software are limited these days. Google

If you long for the days when a TV was just a TV, you’re out of luck. Every major TV manufacturer has switched exclusively to “smart” TVs, filled with onboard streaming software you may or may not want.

These flashy interfaces are, all too often, coming between you and the stuff you want to do on your TV. There’s also the problem of privacy and security. If you have to log into a television with yet another personal account (possibly connected to all of your streaming media services, to boot), it’s inherently less secure than an old-fashioned screen. That’s before you even throw in the different streaming accounts, payment systems, software updates, or built-in cameras and microphones. At present, there hasn’t been a wide-scale attack on smart TV software, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t vulnerable.

Unfortunately, if this is upsetting to you, your options are limited. But it might be worth it to go through the best of the few options you do have for security, convenience, or just making your television simple again.

Smart TVs Ain’t That Smart

There are many reasons why you might want to avoid the current crop of smart televisions. One of the most common is that, well, they’re “smart,” i.e., far more complex than the old screen-and-tuner variety. All you had to mess with on those were the inputs and picture settings.

The reason almost every TV sold now has smart streaming features is it’s cheap and easy to implement. With a few low-cost parts (often shared with budget smartphones sans the screen and battery), TV manufacturers can turn a “dumb” screen into something that streams video over Wi-Fi from dozens of sources. It’s so cheap and easy to do this that it seems like the entire industry has ticked over to smart TVs in just a few short years.

But cheap and easy isn’t the same as good. A lot of these manufacturers aren’t necessarily that great at software or interfaces, and slapping some ARM-powered guts into a decent screen won’t change that. So, you can find yourself using a now-unavoidable interface that looks like a stripped-down game console, without the benefit of the speed or input consoles have.

Samsung's smart TV security details, covering the platform, application, and hardware stages.
Remember when “TV security” meant locking your front door? Samsung hopes you don’t. Samsung

There’s also the problem of security. Most TVs want you to log into a new system with a username and password even before you connect the accounts of your streaming services. That creates yet another point of failure for personal security, which doubles if your TV or remote includes a microphone. Smart TVs use local internet connections to update their software, theoretically patching security vulnerabilities.

However, there’s no evidence that TV manufacturers are taking security seriously, so this is yet another thing to consider that you didn’t have to worry about with older designs. It’s been shown that some brands are vulnerable to hacking, so Samsung now includes encryption and anti-malware software on its platform.

It’s all quite removed from plugging a rabbit ear antenna into your old RCA. The options for simplifying a smart TV’s usage and minimizing its security risks are somewhat limited.

Option One: Go with Roku or Fire TV Designs

When giving recommendations for smart TVs—especially for novice users—we tend to default to those running the Roku TV software. Amazon’s Fire TV platform gets a close second. There are several reasons for this.

The Roku menu on a TCL smart TV.
TVs with Roku software are simple and feature the widest app compatibility. TCL

As makers of stand-alone set-top boxes and the software that runs on them, Roku and Amazon know how to make good streaming TV interfaces. They also update all of their gadgets regularly, including the software on TVs that bear their badges.

Since the Roku and Fire TV platforms are popular in their own right, you won’t have any problem finding compatible apps for these TVs—they’re all pulling from the same broad pool. They have all the basic streaming apps (most installed by default), like Netflix, Hulu, HBO, and ESPN. Roku has just about everything because it’s not a publisher of its own video content. It also has access to videos from Amazon and Google, despite being their quasi-competitor. And soon, Roku will have access to Apple TV, too.

These interfaces are available on dozens of televisions from different manufacturers, ranging from a $200, 32-inch bargain set to a 70-inch Super Bowl mega screen. Whatever your budget or space requirements, you can find a fit. Here’s a list of manufacturers that use Roku or Fire TV interfaces rather than their own systems:

Roku:

  • TCL
  • Insignia
  • Sharp
  • Hisense
  • Hitachi
  • RCA
  • Philips
  • Element
  • JVC

Fire TV:

  • Toshiba
  • Insignia
  • Westinghouse

Of course, none of this affects the security and privacy issues we mentioned previously. Both Roku and Amazon insist that you log in with your account before using the TV. To solve this problem, read on.

Option Two: Ignore Your TV’s Smart Interface

The Smart menu on a Vizio smart TV.
Smart TVs from Vizio, Samsung, and LG don’t require a login. Vizio

The other option is to bypass your TV’s smart interface altogether, which is about as close as you can get these days to an old-fashioned, “dumb” TV. Televisions from LG, Samsung, and Vizio (and there might be others) allow you to go through the setup process without connecting to Wi-Fi or logging in to any services. If you’re not connected and haven’t given up any info, there’s no conventional issue with security.

You’ll still need to use the smart interface to change inputs (such as Blu-ray player, game console, cable TV box, and so on), but that’s about it. But what if you want to use streaming services? We recommend going with a dedicated streaming gadget, like a Roku or the excellent NVIDIA Shield. These give you a better, less frustrating streaming experience, and you won’t have to manage your TV like a low-powered computer.

A man's hand holding a phone operating Netflix on a big screen smart TV.
With Chromecast or Chromecast Ultra, you control all streaming media from your phone. Google

Alternately, you can use a Chromecast as a low-cost way to manage all of your streaming services from your phone. This $35 HDMI gadget ($70 for the 4K “Ultra” upgrade) lets you stream video or music from most apps on an iPhone or Android phone —no remote required. Just set your TV to open Chromecast by default (most new smart TVs have an option to default to a specific HDMI input or the last one used), and you’ll never have to see that clunky interface again.

Michael Crider Michael Crider
Michael Crider has been writing about computers, phones, video games, and general nerdy things on the internet for ten years. He’s never happier than when he’s tinkering with his home-built desktop or soldering a new keyboard. Read Full Bio »

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