One of the key decisions to make when you’re considering cutting the cord, is how to best get content from streaming services, networked DVRs and other gear to your big screen TV.
Cord cutters have two main options for this today - connect a streaming set-top-box like Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV or Nvidia Shield to your existing television, or buy a new all-in-one Smart TV.
While the concept of a Smart TV sounds really cool (and it’s pretty difficult to buy a TV today without some sort of ‘smart’ features,) in practice, hardware innovation and app support for Smart TVs can lag behind more nimble streaming devices. And let’s be honest. How often do you plan to replace your TV?
We’ll look at what you need to consider before making a choice, as well the benefits and drawbacks of each.
Set-Top-Box vs. Smart TV Considerations
Making a decision about the technology you’re going to use to cut the cord requires a bit of research if you want to find an ecosystem of products that’s right for you.
Here are five things you should consider before going to the store or filling your Amazon cart.
1. Apps & Streaming Service Support
The first step to cutting the cord successfully is understanding what content you can’t live without and finding alternative ways to watch those same shows. The streaming device or Smart TV you choose will need to support the apps and subscriptions that carry the content you want. While you can watch Netflix on pretty much anything these days, other services and apps may be limited to particular platforms.
For example,you can’t watch Amazon Prime video content on Apple TV.
2. Operating Systems
Just like your smart phone, streaming devices have their own operating systems which can determine how they integrate with the rest of the tech you own and how quickly new apps get added.
If all of your gear is from Apple or Android, you might want to stick with a device built on the same technology. Devices that use their own proprietary operating system can come with compatibility and interface usability problems.
(For reference - Wikipedia has a handy list of current Smart TV operating systems.)
3. Power & Longevity
Technology moves really quickly these days. Newer hardware is faster, will support the latest and greatest apps and options and should receive more frequent software updates from the manufacturer. Keep in mind that set-top-boxes make it easy and more affordable to swap in new (or different) hardware than Smart TVs where it is built directly into the display.
4. Flexibility & Portability
Another consideration is flexibility. While it might be tempting to pick up a Smart TV and have an all-in-one device, its built-in nature means it’s impossible to upgrade or change the ‘smarts’. Folks who travel, have multiple TV sets in the home or a vacation home might also prefer to pop their set-top-box in their luggage instead of buying additional devices.
5. WiFi vs. Ethernet Connectivity
All Smart TVs offer the ability to connect via WiFi or Ethernet but some streaming set-top-boxes - in particular those with a ‘stick’ form-factor - often lack an Ethernet option. If you’re going to be streaming a lot of 4K or HD content, or live in an environment that can be tricky for WiFi, having a connectivity choice is crucial.
What Cord Cutters Need to Know About Smart TVs
Smart TVs became commercially available around 10 years ago. Until recently, TVs struggled with sub-par processors and fragmented operating systems which led to slow and often frustrating user experiences.
Lately, TV manufacturers are trying to redeem themselves and are seeing the benefits of building upon industry-standard operating systems or just leaving most of the software development to more knowledgeable partners. For example TCL significantly boosted their market share over a single year, simply by partnering with Roku.
Sony is firmly in the Android TV camp which allows its TV sets to leverage the wide variety of apps from the Google Play store.
Sharp, Hisense and Haier have joined TCL on the Roku bandwagon, which, given TCL’s success and Roku’s excellent user-interface, seems like a good choice. The experience when using a Roku-enabled TV is excellent and virtually identical to that of a TV using one of its set-top-boxes.
Westinghouse, Seiki and Element have partnered with Roku’s competitor Amazon Fire TV to develop lines of Smart TVs using Amazon’s interface and designs. Those TVs go on sale later this year are available now and like Roku-powered TVs offer an identical experience to using an Amazon Fire TV set-top-box or stick.
Today, the only manufacturers who are still developing and shipping TVs with their own operating systems are LG (webOS) and Samsung (Tizen). While the picture quality of these TVs is excellent, the interfaces, app compatibility and user experience suffer for this choice.
Despite making great strides in recent years, the primary downside of a Smart TV remains: its operating system and processing power cannot be changed or upgraded meaning its ‘smart’ features are likely to become crippled or even fail long before the screen does.
What Cord Cutters Need to Know About Set-Top-Boxes
We’ve already outlined the Tablo-compatible set-top-boxes and sticks on the market today, so we won’t rehash features and other details here.
Overall, the advantages of a set-top-box over a Smart TV are flexibility, hardware speed, app compatibility and user-friendly interfaces.
Set-top-box technology is evolving VERY quickly and new devices are coming on the market all the time. Keeping up with the latest and greatest can be a daunting and expensive task and choosing the wrong platform can limit your content viewing choices.
Whereas Smart TVs are self-contained, set-top-boxes can cause some device clutter especially if your TV is professionally mounted to the wall. A stick-style streamer can be hidden in behind the TV to avoid this, but that can also hinder its WiFi antenna.
Smart TV vs. Set-Top-Box – The Bottom Line for Cord Cutters
If you have an existing TV with at least one HDMI port and you’re happy with its current performance picture-wise, don’t rush out and get a new TV just because you want to start streaming. For as little as $30 you can get a streaming-set-top box that will let you access streaming services and apps.
Even those who have early-generation Smart TVs whose operating systems and app selection might be lacking, might want to consider an upgrade in the form of a set-top-box.
If you’re in the market for a brand new TV, you’ll be hard pressed to find one that doesn’t offer ‘smart’ features. Those using industry-standard operating systems or partnering with set-top-box partners are your best bets if you want to get the most mileage out of your Smart TV investment.
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