Are consumers really asking for smart TVs?

Are consumers really asking for smart TVs?

Summary: Samsung, Toshiba, Sharp, Panasonic -- we've heard from several of the heavy hitters at CES already, and they say consumers want smart TV tech. Really?

TOPICS: CES, Consumerization


LAS VEGAS -- It's only 11:30 a.m. here at the Consumer Electronics Show, but I'm already jaded. 

I've heard from Toshiba and Samsung; Sharp and Panasonic. LG, too. Sony hasn't yet let the cat out of its proverbial bag -- its announcement isn't scheduled until this evening -- but that company has never been one to shock at the biggest trade show in the U.S.

This is the year of the smart TV. And like the best religious missionaries, the executives of technology's biggest companies insist that the way they see the world is the only view worth having: consumers want smart, connected televisions, goshdarnit, and we will give it to them.

The people want to be converted!

We shall save them!

Funny thing about that, though -- I haven't heard too many people asking for these features. Regular folks I've spoken with haven't a clue about the technologies, nor care. And when we write about them here on ZDNet, for our readership of admitted technology aficionados, many of you react in the opposite: you vehemently deny the services. "Give us your highest of definitions and largest of sizes," you say in the comments section of nearly every article on this website, "but take your paws off our broadband Internet connections."

I should be clear here: it's not that connected television technology is terrible. In fact, it's almost definitely the future, and a better one at that. A "dumb" -- that is, not Internet-connected -- electronic device has a frighteningly short shelf-life in the modern age. The various services you can push into the pipeline are too valuable to not have connectivity. (And so are the potential revenues.) And when they fit a distinct need -- maps on smartphones, for example -- we usually like them to the point of addiction.

But that's not the way tech execs are speaking here at CES. The people demand smart TVs, they say. We're only giving them what they want. (Incidentially, they said the same of 3D TV tech last year; automakers have said the same about telematics. Which have both gone over so smoothly!)

I don't mean to be critical; I think the connected television is great. I adore streaming movies on the tube. But like 3D, the message from above is getting muddled already, so early in its infancy. "How will this make TV watching better?" is the question most consumers have in their minds.

"Because 3D," they said last year.

"Because apps," they're saying this year.

I didn't know my TV needed apps. All I wanted was a remote control that didn't require a Ph.D to operate. (Still waiting.)

LG's presentation, held this morning, left a particular impression on me. "We want a consumer's life to be completely stress-free," chief executive Skott Ahn said from the stage. Which is funny, in a way.

Watching television used to be a two-step process: turn it on, find a channel. 

Today's process: turn on the TV with one remote, turn on the cable box with another, change the input (what? I was streaming Netflix from my Xbox last night), open the channel guide, pick the channel, select HD. (And that's without the apps.)

I'll concede: it is a bit unfair to compare TVs of the 1950s with the 2010s. Complexity breeds compexity. But I've never had to be so active to be so passive.

I think most consumers see "smart" TVs and think, "I watch TV to be dumb for a little while. Why can't you leave that alone?" They see electronics companies trying to turn the passive experience of watching television into the active experience of using a computer; turning the television into the modern monitor, which it of course is from a hardware standpoint. And those videos of chicletized, app-heavy menus aren't helping.

"TVs are getting smarter, but the way we're interacting with them is not," LG's Ahn said this morning. I couldn't agree with him more.

Photo: Toshiba's 84-inch 84L9300, one of three 4K TVs the company announced at CES this week. (Toshiba)

Topics: CES, Consumerization

Andrew Nusca

About Andrew Nusca

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. During his tenure, he was the editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation.

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  • I agree

    I have a Samsung "Smart" TV, and I can count on one hand the number of times I've used any of those features, and most of those times was simply to test them out. Netflix might be nice for some, but navigating through the menus of the TV to get to it was a pain.

    I have tried connecting my Android tablet to the Youtube app on the TV, and it worked OK for one video, but didn't want to connect the next time, and was just a hassle. Might have been the tablet, though.

    Similar issue with my Surface tablet - it found the TV on the network and recognized that it was a device I could stream media to, but the WiFi connection on the TV was too slow, and once I hard-wired it, it performed OK, but the tablet, unlike when it's playing video on its own screen, would time out and go to sleep if I didn't touch something on it every so often to keep it away.

    I have a Logitech Harmony remote, and it's not cheap, and is a little complicated to program, but once set up it works very well, allowing me to switch between cable box with TV audio to my Blu-Ray player or HD-DVD player connected through my receiver for audio. One touch turns on the appropriate devices and sets the inputs for that activity, and one button shuts everything off. So long as you don't use some other device to change settings in between, it generally works pretty well.
    • Hassle.

      There it is in one word, no? Thanks for commenting.
  • THE

    last thing I want in a TV, is for it to try and replace my PC. I've got a nice one, and I know what HDMI means.

    Next question.
    • It's more like replacing your DirecTV or cable box.

      It will be the entertainment hub of the future. We won't even call it a TV by then anymore. It's similar to what the cell phone has gone through.
      • If someone comes up with a strickly

        streaming service to replace my cable box then I'm all in. Even basic cable is ridiculously overpriced where I live.
        Sam Wagner
  • Are consumers really asking for smart TVs?

    No they aren't. I can see a few streaming apps on a smart tv but that's about it. Not what I'd really call smart. Its just a way for the companies to charge you more for the ever lower cost of a television set. That said I would like a 3D TV over a smart TV but they are still too expensive.
    • Not Really

      You can get a 3DTV for $600 right now... The Vizio 47" Model.

      I have a Vizio 47LW5300 That I've listed on Craigslist for $475 and I replaced that with a Panasonic Plasma that I bought Open box for $575 (Both are 3D and the Panasonic is also a Smart TV).

      Anyway, the point is that they're not too expensive!
  • Also agree

    When my 7 year old ED-TV finally gave out, I was on the hunt for it's replacement. Right away, I aimed for a Smart TV but after getting it home I was surprised how useless these features were. I ended up taking the TV back and buying one for half the price. So now I have a good Panasonic HDTV with no Smart features and I couldn't be happier.

    I've even heard podcasts and read reports of companies using their Smart TV features to place ads directly to your television. Just what we need, more advertisements!!

    These companies "say" the demand is there but it's not, they're just trying to push it.
  • Let TV do what it does best, just do the display

    Let TV do what it does best, just do the display. It should be able to network thru Ethernet and must also support Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and NFC and Wi-Fi Direct. Let the devices connected to the TV do the smart business.
  • Too many trade-offs

    If you try to build an amphibious flying car, you just end up making so many trade-offs that the result doesn't perform any role particularly well. There is a reason why a TV is a TV, a PC is a PC, and a tablet is a tablet.

    I don't have a Smart TV but have a 3D TV and a 'smart' Blu-ray player. Like others here, I could count the number of times I have used these fancy features on the fingers of one hand.

    If I am buying and I see two TVs with an identical picture quality, I will choose the cheapest regardless of Smart features. If I have two TVs at an identical price, I will choose the one with the better picture. 'Smart' features have no value in my decision.
  • Leave the apps off the TV

    and let it just be a monitor. You seem to have it backwards. They are making TVs into computers (or big non-touch tablets). I don't need another computing devices, I just need a simple monitor. In fact a monitor without speakers works better with my surround sound system. Why complicate something when we still have to have cable boxes, set-top boxes, consoles, PCs.
  • My sister in law wanted one

    She's the first person I know who was determined to get a Smart TV. She's not a tech buff but she wouldn't spend the extra money if it wasn't something she actually wanted. I asked her why and she pointed out that they no longer bother with cable or satellite. They use Netflix and Hulu+ instead. And since the TV is wall-mounted it makes more sense to have that built into the TV. The one they had prior to the Smart TV purchase didn't have that so they had to deal with a PS3 for that functionality. All the external devices went with the "old" TV and the Smart TV is now hanging on the wall, without a single wire attached. It's more of a formal living room anyway.
    • Out of curiosity .... what brand/model has Hulu???

      All I seen is Netfix and a few other crappy apps.
      • Nearly all of them...

        Most Smart TVs come with app "stores." They usually have Netflix, Amazon Video and Hulu+ (all free apps since you pay a subscription to watch anyway).
      • Vizio does...

        My Vizio has installable apps including Hulu, Netflix, Pandora, iHeartRadio... There aren't a lot of apps in their app store but there are games, calculators, video/audio streamers, news, weather, financials and I believe it even has Skype if I buy the add-on camera.
        Adam Wood
  • I want smart content

    Smart TVs are fine in my opinion. Just so long as there's content for it! I don't want some second rate twitter client on my TV. I want the ability to watch TV on demand, films on demand, HD content as soon as it's available (ie on Bittorrent).

    Right now we get nothing. It's all about "Netflix" and "Hulu" which are utterly useless for the majority of the world. Actually give us timely content, in an affordable package, delivered seamlessly. Go on, do it already!
  • I would venture to say

    that the number of CONSUMERS asking for smart TVs is smaller than the number asking for 3D TV. So, the number approaches zero.
  • Smart TVs aren't smart enough

    And that's the problem. You get a handful of apps that the manufacturer throws in, and if they don't meet your needs, tough luck. To me a Smart TV should be able to do anything any other computer can do, up to and including BD/DVD playback, recording TV shows, and high end gaming.
    Michael Kelly
    • Great point.

      Thanks for commenting. I'm not sure I agree with your last sentence, but the "not smart enough" point is a good reason why people don't want them.
    • You have point

      The other part is ... you buy a "smart tv" with buggy apps and the manufacturer will not update the software. You are stuck with whatever buggy software was installed at the factory.

      And yes ... that is pretty much every "smart tv" in the market.