It’s hard not to see an ad these days for the new breed of TVs called “Smart TV.” It used to be that a TV had a few inputs for video sources and some built in speakers. The most important things were how big the picture was and how good it looked.  In the race to get you to replace your TV sooner than you may need to, TV vendors have jumped on the “Smart” bandwagon.  So just what is a Smart TV, and does it know how to do your taxes?

Simply, a Smart TV has a suite of apps that give you access to various streaming services (and more).  Some have a built in camera for Skype calls and it’s now becoming popular to include a few basic video games.

I think there are basically two types of use cases for a TV in a home in America. First, there is a TV with no additional speakers of any type. Secondly, there’s a TV with some sort of speaker system connected either through a sound bar or surround system. This distinction will help you decide if a Smart TV is really important or if you should get your apps a different way.

First of all: if using Skype is important to you, that feature is pretty cool. You also don't need surround sound for Skype (more on that later).

I want a really good user experience as I try to navigate my way through the apps. With more people cutting the subscription TV cord, the number of apps has exploded. If you want to go beyond Netflix basics, navigating apps can be daunting. So let's think about that for a minute. There are other ways to use these apps besides having them embedded in your TV. Apple TV and Roku immediately come to mind. Do Apple or Roku get you to buy their app because they also make a TV? No, the only reason they exist to enable app access through great user interfaces. If you try to navigate apps from a Smart TV compared to navigating Apple TV or Roku, the Smart TV gets crushed. They are all terrible in comparison! Apple and Roku have huge design interface teams focused on the user experience, where a TV vendor is throwing app access in as another feature.

Roku-vs-Apple-TV-e1401896904780 There is another curve ball in navigation. When you connect an Apple TV, Roku, Blu-ray, cable or satellite box to your TV, it’s either switched through a surround sound receiver/processor or through various TV inputs. Smart TV apps are slightly different animals. Once you get to the TV app section, getting out of it is not as simple as choosing another input. It typically requires several presses of the exit button which, to me, is not as convenient as choosing a different source.

If you cut the cord and want the largest variety of streaming content available, there is no question who the winner is: Roku. I just tried out their latest unit (which sells for a mere $99) and it has an unbelieveable 1475 different streaming apps embedded, and is growing every day! Their search features for finding different apps are fantastic as well. No one else is even close.

Now let’s talk about sound.  Let’s say you have a pretty good surround sound system and really enjoy how it improves your viewing experience. If you use Smart TV apps, you have to get the audio back to your system somehow. There are two choices: using the digital out from the TV or (if you have a fairly new surround system and TV) using what’s called the audio return channel via HDMI. Did you know that most TVs only send out stereo from their digital output and not surround sound? Well, that's not great! Using the audio return channel (ARC is the term you will see) can work pretty well, but is somewhat like the early days of HDMI. The idea is when you use the TV as the source, the HDMI cable normally feeding a picture to your TV from the receiver is used in reverse to send audio from the TV back down the cable. When this works, it works well. However, we've seen many instances where there is some kind of incompatibility issue and there is intermittent or no sound.

So what's the bottom line? If you have only a TV and are using built in speakers, a Smart TV is not a bad idea. Even in this case, though, spending a few extra bucks for an Apple TV or Roku and an HDMI cable will be worth it just from a user interface and app variety experience. If you have a surround system, I think it’s a no brainer. Use a Roku, Apple TV or both (more on that in another blog post). Frankly, I wish the TV vendors would take a hint from high performance audio companies and instead of spending money developing smart apps make it easier to adjust TVs for the best picture.  And speaking of best picture: I tested the video quality of streaming services and got results not even close to what I was expecting. You can read about it in my next post about my streaming video test.