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Do you need a streaming device if you have a smart TV? Absolutely, here's why.
Smart TVs are de facto in 2021. These days it’s almost difficult to find one with a barebones interface. Even if a product doesn’t use a shared platform like Roku or Google TV, it probably has a proprietary one, like LG’s webOS.
It can even be tempting to choose a TV based on its smart UI. Theoretically, you’re spending less than you would by adding a separate streaming device, while simplifying the installation process to boot — no need for extra power, audio, network, or HDMI cables. You might also get instant integration with your phone or smart home platform of choice, and a good fallback if you do end up buying a stick or set-top.
All these points are valid, but in reality, they often hold true for just a few years. The wiser move is to hunt for a separate streaming device from the get-go.
Do you use a streaming device or your smart TV apps?
Obsolescence looms large for smart TVs
Raw power isn’t as important for media streaming devices as it is for, say, smartphones, but you still don’t want to be suffering through lagging UI animations or long-load times when jumping between apps and shows. Of course, the processors in smart TVs can’t be upgraded, whereas a dedicated streamer can be swapped out at will for a fraction of a TV’s price tag, often while sporting newer and faster chips.
A TV’s native hardware will gradually become slower over time, whether because new features are added to the UI or because it’s forced to handle more demanding audio and video. Roku, for example, has introduced more visual flair to its UI over the years, including themes and animated screensavers. Older TVs can handle that with occasional hitching. More significantly, however, the same TVs can stutter during previews and buffering for apps like Netflix, and if they can handle 4K, it’s not necessarily a smooth experience. This is all also true for media streaming devices as they age, though the price delta means the cost of upgrading is far less painful than replacing your entire TV set.
On a long enough timeline, it’s virtually guaranteed that a TV will lose smart features outright.
On a long enough timeline, it’s virtually guaranteed that a TV will lose smart features outright. In 2011, I bought a relatively state-of-the-art Sharp model with custom apps for services like Netflix. While the TV still works — and actually looks pretty damn good, even if it’s limited to 1080p without HDR — that Netflix app has been out of commission for years, and never ran well in the first place.
Related: What is 4K HDR?
By relying solely on your TV, you’re not only locking processor power inside an expensive cage, but doing the same with wireless tech. A set with 802.11ac Wi-Fi may be alright for now, but as tech like 4K and cloud gaming becomes universal, you’re probably going to want Wi-Fi 6. Audio standards have been evolving too, enabling things like integrated voice assistants and higher fidelity over Bluetooth.
Once again, long-term app compatibility and evolving features aren’t guaranteed with a basic streaming stick or box either, but your wallet won’t feel the damage buying a new Fire TV or Roku stick over a four-figure TV.
Software is important, and TVs can’t keep up
Software is equally as important as hardware in avoiding obsolescence. Standalone streamers are more liable to get feature and security updates for the simple reason that TV makers don’t have the software focus you see at companies like Roku or Google. For the latter group, platforms are often a core component of their business, generating ad revenue and/or sales from media rentals and downloads. TV makers are naturally focused on selling hardware, so they tend not to have the resources for frequent updates or much to gain from them.
Software is equally as important as hardware in avoiding obsolescence.
Choosing a separate streamer also gives you more freedom in switching between app and smart home ecosystems. You might enjoy Google TV, for example, but find yourself tempted by the games on the Apple TV 4K. Moving in a different direction, an Apple fan might find the company’s smart home tech limited and decide to go all-in on Alexa, including a Fire TV Cube.
See also: Android TV vs webOS
Any TV with an exclusive OS is going to severely cap your app experience in general. While you can usually access major audio and video services like Netflix and Spotify, niche services may be missing, and you’ll likely miss out on most games and other non-media apps. Even when TV has the same app as other platforms, it may not be up to feature parity. Services concentrate development on where their biggest user bases are.
Then there’s the issue of format support. While there are limits imposed by your TV’s specs, sticks and set-tops can still sometimes introduce support for newer standards. TVs that could only handle the x264 codec could, for instance, suddenly be able to stream HEVC/H.265, which offers superior bandwidth efficiency, especially when it comes to watching in 4K.
Smart TV vs streaming devices: What should I do when buying a new TV?
When you’re shopping, focus on size, image quality, and available ports. Ignore a TV’s native UI if it can win you a better deal. It’s probably too early to worry about 8K compatibility, but cinephiles should at least insist on a TV with 4K, four HDMI ports, and Dolby Atmos and Vision. These are all relatively common — yet you can sometimes be faced with a subpar native OS if you’re hunting for the best specs.
Ultimately, though, a superior screen will always hold value far longer than most built-in smart functions, since a TV is really just a window into your media and games. Accordingly, the best streaming device can sometimes be your phone — if your TV has Chromecast support built in, it means you’ve got the freshest possible app updates and easy access to tons of services with a few quick taps.