This is the big debate that has been circling since the introduction of the Google Chromecast. Is it worth spending the hundreds or even thousands on buying a new smart TV, when you can get the same experience by plugging a media streamer into your existing TV?
If you were considering an upgrade but were indecisive on which to choose, I’m going to look at the winning and losing aspects of the smart TV vs the media-streaming device. Bear in mind that similar to the numerous TV brands (Samsung, LG, Toshiba, Hitachi etc.), there are also many media streamers ones to choose from (Chromecast, Roku, Apple TV and Amazon Fire). So what are some of the aspects that are likely to push customers one way or the other?
We're all familiar with what a TV is, but for those of you who don’t know how a smart TV differs, I will give you a brief description. A “smart” TV can connect to the Internet and has pre-installed media apps within, such as Netflix, Amazon Instant, Facebook etc. A media streamer is simply a device which plugs into your existing TV and allows your ‘dumb’ TV to access the Internet via the media streamer so that you can complete similar tasks to that of a smart TV.
How do they compare to each other though, and is there any point in getting a media streamer when you already own a smart TV? Also, if you’re thinking of upgrading form your ‘dumb’ TV, which should you choose?
Winner: Media Streamer
Loser: Smart TV
Netflix is the biggest player in the video streaming world and if you only want to access the Internet through your TV to watch Netflix, there are plenty of other devices that can stream it. I think I even saw a fridge streaming Netflix the other day. ;-)
The power of any streaming device (media streamer or smart TV) boils down to the operator’s ability to buy and rent current TV content. The two most popular services due to the amount of content they have globally are Chromecast and Apple. No TV has iTunes and this is one of the reasons Apple has the most content.
Media streamers with the most content such as Roku and Apple TV, both have Amazon Instant Video or iTunes. With regards to streaming music from your computer, Apple TV does this seamlessly whilst others can complete the task but the process has a few snags and lags.
#2 Picture Quality
Picture quality shouldn’t be an issue, but if your TV for example has a poor internal scaler then it can be. A scaler basically defines the sharpness of your content, so it’s worth checking this out before you buy. The majority of streaming content is currently in 720p, with a range of 1080p versions available and even 4K, but these are still very rare.
The process is that your smart TV or media streamer has to take this 720p content and upscale it to your 1080p TV screen. It's how well the scaler does this that determines your picture quality.
Also something else that I've figured out with Netflix's video quality, from my own experience in the past using an Android media streaming box, is that it actually limits the frame rate for its application on specific platforms. What this means is that you won't see as high levels of picture quality on most Android devices that you will when streaming using the Netflix app found natively on say Apple TV boxes or when using a laptop's / desktop's web browser. So while viewing Netflix on a smaller Android smartphone or tablet screen it looks fine, however, project that onto a larger TV screen and it'll appear quite grainy. Just something to be aware of.
Winner: Media Streamer
Loser: Smart TV
Without a doubt, the media streamers win this category. Roku, Chromecast and Apple TV over the past 2-3 years have undergone numerous software updates to improve their services and expand the apps available within.
Chromecast has developed the most since its launch, now mastering screen mirroring, app compatibility and most recently, turning your mobile phone into a games controller.
Amazon Fire still remains stubbornly a US only service, but it is certainly worth a mention because it’s a prime example of another competitor doing well. However, on the subject of being stubborn, if you bought a smart TV a couple of years ago, there is a very high probability that the interface, apps and capabilities have not changed at all. Its also a bit embarrassing when a $99 box that you plug in has a faster response time compared to a $2,000 smart TV that has aged, wouldn’t you say?
#4 Ease of Use
Due to the huge variety of TV’s and media streamers out there it’s difficult to compare them all to each other accurately. Media streamers like Chromecast, Apple TV and Roku have very simple layouts which make them very easy and quick to navigate.
While some TV’s have decent menus, others can be quite clunky and the general trend with the cheaper smart TV’s is that they pretty much suck - they’re slow, clunky and tedious to navigate.
Based on this fact, the better quality media streamers win against the cheaper TV’s, however the more expensive televisions are far more superior compared to the worst streamers on the market. So without doing a fully comprehensive comparison against all TV’s and media streamers in existence, it’s a safe average to say that they are a tie in this respect.
Basic smart TV’s generally will cost $50 to $200 more compared to a ‘Dumb TV’, so if you need a new TV, that extra cost can really make it worthwhile. Likewise with media streamers, the better quality ones will cost about the same compared to the more basic. So, cost wise they are equally matched when considering the value you're getting for access to these online streaming features.
These days though, if you opt for the top of the range, all singing all dancing TV, it's going to have smart features built in whether you like it or not. Therefore if you want to buy a media streamer on top of this, you will be paying twice for the same apps. It totally depends on your pocket and preference.
The cost part of this article is what makes all the difference. A customer looking to buy a new TV is less likely to save themselves $50 to $150 and buy a dumb TV just so they can buy a media streamer after. Additionally, they certainly will be less likely to buy a media streamer if they have just bought a new smart TV. Therefore if becomes a little more complex to simply tally up wins and losses here.
Those of you out there who haven’t taken the plunge to buy a new television but still have a TV with an HDMI port will certainly see the benefits of buying a media streamer. Why wouldn’t you get all the functionality of a smart TV for a fraction of the price? Not to mention the vast quantity of free viewing content out there that's just waiting to be tapped into.
If your decision is purely based on content, then save yourself the expense and buy Apple TV or Chromecast, because smart TV’s simply cant compete in this department.