There is a wonderful old "Saturday Night Live" sketch with Dan Aykroyd fighting with Gilda Radner over whether Shimmer floor wax is also a dessert topping. Smart TVs are like this, trying to be all things at once. They fail.

tv setupWe have not owned a television for years, and have not had cable for at least five years. I used to have a projector and screen that I needed for lectures that we would use for watching movies; I would take my computer up to a spare room where it was set up and hook in. However the bulb blew and cost hundreds to replace, and we downsized seriously and had no room to set it up anyway. So I finally broke down and bought a LED Samsung flat screen TV, spending a bit extra to get a "smart" TV that promised an easy connection to my computer and to Netflix, hooked up my lovely Joey Roth ceramic speakers and let the fun begin. Not.

Because it turns out that the smart TV is not so smart at all; the controls are obtuse, the mouse movements impossible, character entry slow, navigation ridiculous. It wouldn't run Netflix as promised. The other services that did work did not interest me. I went out and bought a cheap keyboard and mouse just to try and make navigation easier, but whatever computer chip and operating system they built into this thing makes my Raspberry Pi feel like Watson. 

I am not alone in this. From CES, Darren Orf writes in Gizmodo:

We’re back to TV 101: Make the picture better and make it affordable. This is good! But where LG, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, and others excel at all that quantum dot, pixel splitting, color gamut stuff, their “smart” TV software sucks. It’s so bad in fact, that we’re actually shocked when we see a new TV OS that isn’t terrible.
Darren notes that any dumb TV can become smart, and you can decide how. "It's called Chromecast, or Fire TV, or Fire Stick, or Nexus Player, or Apple TV."

Apple TV

Apple TV: Is that all there is? (Photo:Lloyd Alter)

That's what I found. I broke down and bought an Apple TV box for a hundred bucks, hoping that it was smarter than the so called smart TV. It's a tiny thing that plugs into the HDMI port on the television. The remote has three buttons, compared to the 50 on the Samsung. I am dubious.

I plug it in. It asks me for my network password. Then it comes alive.

screen of apple TV

Play it Sam. If she can take it, so can I. Play it. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

When I click on movies, everything I ever bought on iTunes is there, whether it is downloaded to my computer or not. Same with TV shows. When I click on computer, all the movies that I have uploaded to iTunes in my computer are there, from "Casablanca" to "Game of Thrones" to "Borgen." When I click on Netflix it runs perfectly, picking up where I last left off.

The little remote is intuitive, giving more than enough control. I wish there was volume and an on/off switch; then I could actually throw the Samsung remote against the wall and smash it to pieces like I wanted to.

There are also web-based news networks like Bloomberg that I can watch live, Youtube and Vimeo buttons and more. I have barely started exploring.

Interestingly, one reason I bought the Samsung smart TV is that I really like their products. For my house renovation I bought almost 100 percent Samsung: stove, dishwasher, washer and dryer. I am very happy with my little Samsung combo printer/scanner. They are known for making good computers. I think everything I own that isn't Apple is Samsung. But I suppose the people who design the TVs don't talk to the people who design the computers and neither of them understand operating systems. When it comes to user experience, they have a lot to learn from the master. And Gizmodo's Orf suggests another good reason for not mixing them up:

It’s especially important because software and hardware lifecycles, especially concerning televisions, don’t really sync. Software is an annual, or even semi-annual affair, but you might not buy a new TV for years, and years, and years. So what happens when all these separate televisions with all their walled gardens and different OSes fail to keep up, or get left behind entirely?
That's why I was so happy with the computer connected to the projector. Who needs a TV anyway, it's just a big cheap monitor for me. But I believed the pitch that the smart TV actually was a computer and I wouldn't have to keep moving mine from office to entertainment area. 

The Apple TV acts as that bridge and provides an easy and seamless connection to my library and to Netflix, which is what I use the TV for — basically as a giant monitor. I should have realized that in the first place; getting a smart TV was a dumb thing to do.

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TV with speakers photo: Lloyd Alter

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.