The sad state of not-so-smart TVs

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The sad state of not-so-smart TVs

Think Android is fragmented? Try Smart TVs on for size.

Have a sit and think about what you want when you turn on your TV, car or hell, even your washing machine. I’m sure the first thing you want to do is spend five minutes waiting for the thing to boot into its slow, outdated and obsolete proprietary operating system? No, me either. But even now, in 2018, that’s what most of us still do. To cement themselves and their brand into your life, almost every manufacturer wants to stuff some perpetually beta software in your face, never or rarely update it, and make it excessively difficult to connect to other devices and services that you actually want to use.

TV ECOSYSTEMS
Ecosystems are one of the core methods that software companies use to make recurring money, and even though this tends to be pointless outside of things like PCs, Smartphones and Tablets, most of them still feel like you want to suffer through them. This year at CES, it’s all about smart assistants and voice activation – but what is the point when most TVs still don’t run uniform environments? Take LG and Samsung – two of the largest TV makers by volume – both with proprietary TV operating systems. They have both come along way since the advent of the Smart TV, especially when it comes to speed and usability, but they still suffer from the same issue as all other single use OS’s.

Every year, TV ranges are introduced, and with them new chipsets to drive both the displays and the software behind them. At the same time, LG and Samsung will reintroduce new versions of their TV OS’s – many with new features and improved usability over the others – but generally won’t push these new versions to the previous years’ models. This is a problem because unlike phones, which tend to have legacy app support for older versions and generally end up getting updates in most cases, older TVs do not. As soon as a new OS variant launches, app developers will obviously move their attentions to it, in many cases quietly dropping support for the older models or jerry rigging older apps to run in a perpetual “basic mode” for the remainder of their lifespan.

DO YOU NEED THE SMARTS?
My in-laws have a Samsung TV from 2013 – the interface has not been updated since they bought it. Most of the stores still work, but the content is old. Apps haven’t been updated in ages and in many cases are sitting in the “Legacy” mode that allows them to stream new content but in a slightly older box. There is really no need for this – most TVs run on the same SoC (System On A Chip) architecture that modern smartphones and tablets do. Although they are driving much larger screens, they also have a significantly wider space to store hardware on the back and as such, should be able to easily pack a mid-range chipset in there that could easily run most tablet applications.

The reason why is because this is what most modern smart TVs have in the boot – in most cases the same equipment that goes into set top boxes. So, the problem isn’t hardware – it’s software. In most cases your Smart TV is completely wasted, outside of Netflix, Stan, YouTube and Spotify – there isn’t anything else. These things require better options to be tacked on for a premium, like an Apple TV, Roku or Fetch TV, which are regularly updated to keep up with new experiences.

ABANDONWARE
So when new features are added, such as the introduction of a Steam Link app for 2016/2017 TVs, you’re out of luck if you have a 2015 model, which would have only been two years old by that point (or less if you bought it later in its life). Imagine if I told you that you couldn’t play a basic game on your iPhone 6 because it came out in 2017? LG isn’t much better, also chopping and changing its WebOS based OS every year, with zero feature updates for previous year models.  Both companies continue to pour salt into the wounds, announcing new revisions of the OS that now include Smart Assistants but only for 2018 models.

LOCKED IN
This is likely due to the lack of decent open alternatives. Android TV is the obvious outlier here – used in Sharp, Sony, (new) HiSense and HCL TVs – includes access to standard Android apps and services. It works seamlessly with both major phone manufacturers and offers a wide range of apps, games and, most importantly, regular updates via the manufacturer. The fact that it uses the Google Play store and services, being Android, means that applications can be standardised across all models and only ONE app needs to be created, rather than half a dozen. On top of this, Android allows application updates for older versions of its OS – so if a 2015 Sony doesn’t get Android TV Oreo, it will still get updated applications.

Additionally, software doesn’t need to be built for a TV OS, just adapted for the specifications. As a result, more apps and games are available on Android TV, and for a non-built in example, Apple TV, and the experiences are much better across both because of that standardised framework for development. Who is going to make a game for a Samsung 2017 TV? No one. That’s why all you see are the bigger players – Amazon, Google, Facebook, Netflix – because their enormous teams CAN afford to develop dozens of apps across all platforms. But if you want to make a cool game that works well on a phone, tablet or TV, you’re not going to ask Samsung or LG for a TV dev kit.

It’s a shame because we’ve finally hit that point where computers are so small, so powerful and so versatile that they fit inside the frame of your TV, use almost no power, and have direct access to unlimited information. Modern TVs now INCLUDE and SURPASS the hardware that ran Ouya – which was basically an Android TV games store before it existed, and people dropped millions on it before it hopelessly failed due to mismanagement, and a very poor library. Yet most of us are stuck inside very small, walled gardens, year after year.

Android TV isn’t perfect, and Apple could stand to license their software to a couple of TV makers, but at the very least, those wide markets are there. But smart TVs are universally hated because they don’t offer people what they want – the same reason why they gravitated towards Apple and Android over their competitors – evolving experiences. 

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