The best Smart TV is just a shitty computer, so I built one
We have a TV but we’re a millennial, Internet family. I’ve tried every way to make the twain meet. First we got a Chromecast, but you need some other device to access it, and there’s things you just can’t do. Then we got a Roku, which has a nice remote, but which is even more limiting. It just basically locks our TV to Netflix, and reduces us to typing show names on the equivalent of a rotary phone.
I kept adding devices that actually limited what I could do on the screen, when what I really wanted was the limitless potential of a PC. So, when the pandemic hit, I just did that. I got a Mac Mini and plugged it in, creating a family computer with a giant monitor, and this thing does everything.
It does Netflix and all media consumption, not just whatever services the dongle understands. We can download files and subtitles don’t break like they do on Chromecast. We can also search for media without going through the whole damn alphabet. It’s a computer. We just use a wireless keyboard and mouse.
Perhaps most importantly, it lets us do media production. We can do Zoom calls. I hooked up a webcam and microphone and we use this for both the kids classes as well as what my daughter calls ‘Appa’s Zoom class’, which are video meetings and even the rare TV appearance. It’s a computer, so we’re not limited as we are by a purely consumer device.
It’s incredibly liberating and this feels like what a TV was meant to be. What is a TV really? It’s just another monitor. A really big monitor that you sit far away from. Why are we carrying the metaphors of the TV era into a future where everything from watches to phones to tablets have become PCs?
Personally, I think that if Steve Jobs had lived he would’ve made an actual Apple TV. It makes no sense to turn every surface into a computer, except the screen we stare at most. For millennials this is especially jarring because we don’t use TVs in the same way at all anymore. I’ve never had a personal TV connection outside of my parent’s home, and yet we’re expected to stay wedded to this idea of a TV remote and channels forever. Why? My entire adult life has been media consumption on computers. Why shouldn’t the TV adapt to me?
Smart TVs Are Dumb
To mangle Tolstoy, every happy UI is alike, each unhappy UI is unhappy in its own way. Every manufacturer has its own Smart TV interface, and they’re all unhappy in their own way. You can then override this with countless dongles, which are each limited in their own way. Worst of all, there are countless software experiences, and the jumble is uniquely unhappy making.
We think we are adding features like Netflix or YouTube, but these are all things that a computer does normally. Each dongle is actually a different set of limitations you impose on what is just a giant computer monitor. Each new input method (voice, gesture) is just reducing the number of ways you interact with a PC. With a Smart TV you always have ask stuff like
- Will subtitles work? (not on Chromecast)
- Can I play this file? (not on Roku)
- Can I use a VPN? (not really, only through a router)
- Can I use this software? (no)
- Can I use this hardware? (no)
- Can I? (no)
On a normal computer these things all just work and if they don’t, you can fix them. You don’t have to submit some feature request on a forum and wait for five years. Hence a Smart TV is a stupid category. The best Smart TV will still be a shitty computer. So just make them all PCs. I guess call them TVCs. TV Computers.
Creating The Product I Want
I would love to just buy an Apple or Samsung TV that came with a wireless keyboard and just works, but such a thing doesn’t exist. So here’s how I built one.
We have a generic 4K TV which is huge but not the greatest quality. The thing is branded JVC but that’s a dead company with some factory wearing its corpse. The only thing that matters here is that it has HDMI input, which is all you need.
You can literally plug in any old computer with an HDMI output, but I bought a new Mac Mini because we’re all comfortable with Mac. You could also use a much cheaper Raspberry Pi, and they make full HDMI stick PCs.
I also bought a LogiTech C922, which sucks as all webcams suck, but it’s still the simplest way to get video into a computer.
The audio goes thru the TV to the soundbar, but I also connected a RODE Wireless Go to the Mac to get better audio. This is what I use for video production, but we use it every day for the kids Zoom classes as well.
And that’s it. This was quite expensive, over $1,500 all in, so 30X more than a Chromecast, but it does 1000X more things. This is the kids classroom, my TV-quality recording studio (with lights), our home theatre, etc. This is the power of a computer, and what I paid is a normal price for a PC.
What I Actually Want
Our TVC is also a rats nest of wires and connections and settings that only I fully understand. If the audio goes out, for example, there are multiple points of failure which all end up with someone screaming for me. Basically no one should be building their own TVC. If you want to you can do it cheaper with Raspberry Pi 4 and so on, but it’s still a hideous level of customization for something which you want to just work.
In my ideal world you would just buy the whole TV and it would come with a wireless keyboard and mic. I don’t know how the webcam would work, maybe some snake that pops up from the keyboard? It’s actually difficult having the camera on the TV because the top is too high and the bottom is too low, and both are really far away.
But basically this is not my problem. I created the product I want but this is a pain in the ass. I want someone to create the product I don’t know I want, and remove the ass pain from me. I just want to watch TV, and not in a 20th century sense. I want to watch TVC.
The Fifth Screen
This is, I think, a very important product category. Right now we have screen sizes that go from watches to phones to tablets to laptops, but the biggest screen where we spend lots of time is the most shit. The TV is really the fifth screen, and should be given far more attention than it gets right now.
Right now we’re thrown into a world of different software, interfaces, devices, and dongles and told that this is Smart TV. If they mean that you have to be smart to use it then sure, but it is not Smart TV. The only smart thing to do with a TV is to make it a computer. This makes it an excellent consumption and production device, the latter experience being vital for children. My kids, for example, have learned to type by age four and could presumably learn to program, things they could never do on a smartphone or ‘Smart’ TV.
But personally, just as an adult, once you set it up this feels like the only way to use a TV. You never find yourself saying ‘oh I can’t do that’, because it’s a computer. Web pages 100% work, apps 100% work, you can add new hardware or software as you please. You’re not in some janky, gated part of the Internet where you’re supposed to just shut up and watch what you get. That’s not smart at all. The only Smart TV is a TV computer. A TVC.