Smartass Seeks Dumb TV

Mon 27 December 2021

I've never been that great about figuring out what gifts to give people, so when my mother said she wanted a new TV it made my Christmas shopping significantly easier - the only problem being I knew I couldn't buy her a smart TV. To my surprise, gifting what should be a common variant of the most common piece of home electronics required more effort and research than when I bought my last computer.

Why look for a dumb TV?

For starters, my mother refuses to comprehend any marginally-advanced piece of electronics (the only reason she finally switched from her eight-year-old phone to the first-gen iPhone SE she bought two years ago is that the carrier was sunsetting 3G support) so a TV with built-in WiFi and Netflix would be seen as unnecessarily complex at best or incomprehensible at worst.

But giving my mother's technological comprehension abilities the benefit of the doubt, I still believe separation of duties allows for higher-quality products - software is not a core competency of television manufacturers and I don't believe they will expend the effort to keep the firmware on all of their products up to date (and from all the comments I've read over the years about brand-new TVs running three-year-old versions of Android or becoming laggy and unstable after 2-3 years, I'd say my belief is well-founded). A Chromecast-class device is cheap and lets the average user access all the platforms they want, but buying a new Chromecast when it becomes outdated creates much less e-waste than buying an entire TV. Nerds like me can push things even farther - a Raspberry Pi 4 can push 4k video at 60fps, enough to outlast the next three generations of TVs at least, and can be updated to fix bugs and support new platforms for as long as you can write to an SD card.

TV watches you

That said, my biggest problem with smart TVs is practical, not philosophical. The consumer electronics market has always been a race to the bottom - Vizio's 2015 IPO claimed they only made a gross margin of 6% on its TVs - but it costs money to make the newer and shinier thing for people to buy, so where is that money going to come from? Why, the same place all tech money comes from since 2010: surveillance capitalism! Vizio's 2015 IPO also discussed future plans to get into ads and viewing data, which they have executed to great success - this past quarter Vizio made more than double from data collection than all their hardware combined.

Perhaps this is the last gasp of my late-90s hacker/cyberpunk sensibilities, perhaps it's simply the rejection to the introduction of unnecessary and exploitative technology for the purpose of extracting value, perhaps I'm just being a crank, but I don't like this future where my TV watches me and will do all I can to avoid it.

The standard objections

"The ads make the TV cheaper"

It would make sense that taking the smarts out of TVs would make them cheaper, but the CEO of Vizio admitted in 2019 that revenue generated through data collection allows for a lower retail price. Nevertheless, I would argue the lower price is subsidized with your privacy, and in this scenario I would prefer to pay full price.

"You don't have to connect your TV to the internet"

I've heard (but not been able to find) there are some TVs that won't even let you set them up without an internet connection, but I will agree that aside from some TVs missing OTA channel guide support, most smart TVs will function as dumb TVs if they aren't connected to the internet.

"You don't have to use the smart functionality"/"You can turn the tracking off"

The CEO of Vizio did crow in 2019 about how they're leading the industry in letting people turn off data collection (conveniently forgetting to mention this is largely due to a 2017 FTC lawsuit) and it does seem that most other manufacturers follow suit, but in lieu of me wanking for two paragraphs about virtue signalling through purchases and late-stage capitalism I'll just say I want there to be no confusion that I may in any form support the concept of smart TVs.

Finding a TV

I knew when I set out that dumb TVs would be massively outnumbered by smart ones, but I figured every major manufacturer would have one dumb TV in their lineup. After coming up empty-handed searching all the premium and budget manufacturers, I knew my work was going to be cut out for me. I started by searching Twitter for people talking about their dumb TVs so I could find brands to look into, which really only brought up Sceptre; searching the web for dumb TV reviews was just as sparse, with review lists composed almost entirely of Sceptre TVs or mainstream-brand TVs that were too old or small for me.

With not much in terms of alternatives I took a look at Sceptre TVs and while they seemed to have decent specs the lack of in-depth third-party reviews was slightly concerning. I don't remember how I found them, but I also looked at Supersonic TVs which seemed to have slightly better stats but the inability to find detailed spec sheets and the lack of third-party reviews meant buying one would be flying even more blindly in terms of real-world quality. I thought I'd managed to find a hidden gem with a business-focused Samsung TV, but the small number of HDMI ports, reduced bit depth and built-in WiFi/Bluetooth convinced me to keep searching. I found a company called Proscan who could not fit the mold of "generic electronics rebadger" more completely if they tried.

By now it was getting close to Christmas so I figured I should stop looking for more brands and pick from the ones I found, at which point I discovered the biggest flaw in my plan - since these weren't mainstream manufacturers thery didn't have much production volume or distribution, so I couldn't find the sets I wanted to buy. I checked the official sites for approved retailers, then Amazon, then eBay, to no success. By the end I had to disregard most of the features I was looking for to find a TV in stock somewhere, ultimately settling for a Best Buy house brand TV that should hopefully last for a while.

After all this, I wonder if worth all the hassle to buy a worse-quality, more expensive product because of my principles - which I guess is the point of principles? If they're not a pain in your ass that makes you tilt at windmills then they're not really something you believe in? I don't know, I just wish Vizio would let me pay more for a TV that didn't spy on me.