Smart TV: impressions of a cheapskate

I don’t understand how you can be so cheap about some things, yet you don’t mind spending all that money for a little television!
-Common refrain I’ve heard in the past week.

Hey look, I understand your confusion.
I’m constantly writing anti-consumerist dirges on this blog and I “boast” of eschewing the materialistic culture. So yes, my motives are confusing.
See, I’m a gadget freak and this tendency trumps all my other lifestyle traits. If there is a product that remotely captures my fancy, chances are I will fixate on it, winding myself up into a state of childish frenzy until I can no longer resist and run to the nearest store (or website) and fork out hard-earned dollars in order to buy the new toy. This despite the fact that I refuse to eat out, and fast once a week for economic reasons, and lug a coupon case to the supermarket where I scour the aisles for sales and fill my basket with store brands and and reams of groceries which will supply me for months to come because the sale dictates that you must buy three.

Yes, I am miserly. Cheap.
But when it comes to technological toys, I can’t contain myself. Price is not a reasonable issue.

Just this year I’ve bought a new computer and all its associated accessories, an Amazon Kindle, and now…my latest venture into overpriced cutting edge technological babble. On Tuesday, after a few days of fixating on Sony’s new Smart TV and weighing the pros and cons in my little skull while attempting to lead a purportedly productive existence, I visited a local Best Buy, somewhat conclusive research fresh in mind, and purchased the 32″ version of the television.

I brought it home and in the darkness of my dimly lit apartment (one more symptom of my cheapness is that I use light bulbs right until the moment they fry themselves in a flash of exhausted glory) somehow managed to rig it up. I purchased an additional “Monster Solutions” kit the cute salesgirl talked me into buying. It included a “green” surge protector, a screen cleaning fluid (designed for my screen!), and an HDMI cable which I resigned myself to buying for the sake of attaching the Xbox to my new treasure. HDMI cables are the scam of the century. To not purchase these golden wires is akin to turning your back on the mesmerizing wonders of glittery hi-def and the ostensible message you’re sending yourself is that you are willing to pay a shitload of money for a device but you can’t enjoy its pomp and circumstance unless you fork out a little more money (which pales in comparison to what you spent on the big item) so what the hell, you do it, and if you do it at the same time you buy the big item, it doesn’t seem like so much money. It’s all psychological and once you start spending money, it’s like a drug and you spend a little more to complete the experience just right. Being that this is a new product, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to purchase an extended warranty through Best Buy. Two years seems adequate…I figure any kinks which might surface in a new product should do so within that time frame. And a visit from a surly Geek Squad geek should be worth the price.

When all was said and done, the same man who uses soap bars until they are small dime-sized chunks of non-lather walked out of Best Buy that night having spent $1,162.57 for a 32″ LCD Smart TV, a “Solutions Plus” kit and a Best Buy 2-year warranty. Packed the shit in my car and off I went, technological dazzle in my eye.

Firstly, I don’t watch much television. But the lure of streaming video channeled from the net directly into my television was an irresistible beacon since it presented me with the possibility of cancelling my cable television service as a way of offsetting the money I spent on the damned television. Understandably very much an “in the long run” type of transaction, but nevertheless. The television in my life is used primarily for Xbox duty, the occasional news program, and quite often, to watch streaming movies through the Netflix/Xbox collaborative effort. Admittedly, this was a lot to spend on a television for someone the likes of me, but I viewed the Smart TV as more than “just” a television. It is also an “internet machine” of sorts which further offers the promise of viewing all my entertainment items streamed through my cable line as computer data.

Upon sliding the Smart TV out of its box, I was amazed at its slenderness which I suppose is the norm nowadays. But when you consider that my previous television was a 100-pound bulky elephant I bought in 2004, it may put my amazement into a clearer context for you.

Fastening the stand which the not-so-heavy television rests on is relatively simple even for the non-mechanically inclined such as I. You will need a Phillips screwdriver to fasten the 3 screws tightly for the sake of peace of mind. I don’t own a Phillips screwdriver and due to forgetfulness infiltrated with equal amounts of laziness, I haven’t borrowed one from anyone yet. Essentially, my Smart TV is sitting in the correct bracket slots but unfastened. If we happen to be rocked by the much-hyped “Big One” here in L.A. during this period of time I keep procrastinating screwing the screws in correctly, the television will most likely fly out of the fasteners and tumble in a free fall to the carpet below. Although if a quake of such magnitude invades Southern California, a fractured Smart TV will be the least of my troubles.

The wired hook-up is straightforward. There is a lone cable/antenna jack in back of the unit for connecting the cable line, an ethernet jack for the modem or router connection (although the Smart TV is capable of a wireless connection which I generally dislike in any form) and 4 HDMI slots for connecting media players, game consoles, etc. The television’s menu and guide through initial set up is self-explanatory. Seriously, anyone who bothers investing money is this contraption is quite capable of maneuvering through the menu and setting up the connection and option values. It’s not rocket science in the least. I had my television up and running within half an hour. You control the television through an overpopulated remote keypad. It is only battery-powered, so prepare yourself for some regular battery expenses. If you’re cheap as I am, this is irritating, but it’s the price you pay to play. I’m crossing my fingers that eventually Sony or a third-party firm will develop a wired keypad.

The initial set up involves running the television through a “detection” process whereby it detects all available channels and tallies them for you, analog versus digital. I don’t subscribe to full cable service. I pay the minimal charge in order to receive a digital signal which I needed for my old analog television set. Which I don’t believe I need any longer… I’m a television ignoramus and I have no idea what I should do. I’ll probably need to do some research in order to make sure it’s safe for me to totally get rid of my cable TV service. Once the detection process was completed, I began “surfing” through the vast array of digital channels which have strange number demarcations like 133.1 or 7.1. The picture is indeed clearer and I’m not sure if it would be considered acceptable by those in the know. The picture seems crisp to me, but I’m not an expert in the aesthetics of television screen quality by any means. I’m not one of those television geeks whose standards of television quality surpass anything I might remotely imagine. It’s a picture, I’m happy with it. Most televised crap is not worth much, who cares what it looks like?

My ideal television-watching experience is best defined as that which occurs when I feel like it and on my time schedule. Which is shorthand for when I’m in the mood, which is rarely, and when it happens, is usually at odd hours. DVR is too expensive and I can’t reconcile spending that much money to watch recorded garbage, so streaming television was a great option. For instance, I’ve used Hulu often to watch various television offerings and I thought it was another possibility to explore with the new Smart TV.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

The Smart TV boasts that it can access the internet via the Chrome browser which is actually a wonderful tool as opposed to the limited “app” option available on most internet-ready televisions. The first thing you notice when you open up the Smart TV’s home screen is that the Chrome browser is itself an “application” as well, so while you may reach the internet at large through your television, it is nevertheless going to be limited by the self-contained infrastructure of a proprietary “app” so essentially your surfing is restricted within the boundaries of the box’s design. Nevertheless, while surfing with the Chrome browser, you are able to access all websites, and my first attempt to download video was on Hulu. Oops, not happening. Hulu is currently not encoded to run on the Smart TV platform. Evidently, the plan is there. Perhaps. The message leaves that opening.

OK, fine. I thought surely I would be able to stream video from the 3 major commercial networks. Unfortunately, ABC, CBS & NBC proved equally uncooperative with the Smart TV.

I realize this Google/Sony television is a virgin confluence of technology and the seamless interaction between various data providers is not quite ironed out, but still I was disappointed. The only videos I was able to stream from the internet through the Google app were Youtube videos which unquestionably is a site that has a pre-established working relationship with Smart TV. Other applications available which pertain to normally computer-accessed websites are Pandora, Netflix, Napster, CNBC…but be warned this is not a raw internet experience in case that’s what you are expecting. In fact, the Netflix application must be used to stream movies. If you try to access the Netflix website via the Chrome app and stream a movie directly, you’ll merely receive an error message telling you that you cannot view a streaming movie because it is not “supported on your [Chrome app] browser.” What you must do is use the browser to add a movie to your instant play cue, switch over to the Netflix app and play the movie from the cue. In fact, the Netflix app is basically only your cue. You don’t have the ability to browse movies or categories from the Netflix app.

The Pandora app is somewhat limited but a little more user-friendly as you don’t need to combine different online sign-ins in order to initiate music playback. Most of the internet options available to Pandora users are also available in the app.

I’ll wait patiently for Hulu and network television apps (if and when)…that will truly make the Smart TV worth the effort.

Smart TV is in its infancy and as happens to fresh technological innovations, disparate players in equally disparate playing fields must find a common language, a common mode of data exchange, and I forsee that in a short while, the major networks and Hulu (if not another online video service) will easily interchange with the Smart TV and others of its ilk. The Smart TV as it exists now is a slight media wasteland. It has some interesting options and snazzy tools, but it has a ways to go before reaching its theoretical potential. One short-term fix I’ll give a shot is to look at Google-hosted streaming sites which I’m positive will easily click into place with the Smart TV.

However, if you’re a technogeek like me who finds the lure of being first on the block difficult to refute, and you have too much money to burn because you horde it due to your lack of life, run out and buy one now. The software platform is constantly being updated and I envision we will be seeing many more apps and add-ons in the future which will hopefully make the Smart TV a little more friendly.

And if you still have doubts, consider this. You will be convinced, one way or the other, with this in mind.

Edit 11/13/10: I’m a little bitter that Hulu Plus is still not available on the Sony internet television despite the fact it is apparently available on a similar Samsung television and on the Sony Bravia, and soon, on the VIZIO and Tivo Premiere. I would gladly dish out a ridiculous $9.99/month for Hulu Plus and rid myself once and for all of cable TV. Strike one!

***Special note: I make some claims and assertions in this post which are admittedly semi-educated and possibly ignorant. My aim is not to trash the Smart TV. If in the course of learning further about this product, or if I am corrected by readers, as to the inaccuracy of points I’ve made, I will gladly add clarifications as they roll in!