What do we mean when we talk about a Smart TV? And how is that different from what a Roku streaming device offers?
When you think about it, HDTVs have been getting “smarter” for decades. Today’s remote control has become more sophisticated, while on-screen channel guides are more informative, and the number of channels available has exploded.
These days they’re calling it a Smart TV. It’s more than just an accumulation of all the advancements in television, and it’s distinct from TV sets that aren’t “smart,” like those tube TVs of old.
A modern Smart TV platform is different. It has a built-in computer that connects to the internet and lets you stream free content or paid content like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, and even live TV streaming channels.
If you don’t own a Smart TV, you can similarly stream video with the Roku streaming platform, which is a streaming stick or a streaming box that connects to a TV in your home via HDMI cable.
With a Roku app, a Roku streaming stick, or Roku box, you can connect an old tube TV to the internet and access subscription content such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instance Video, and other streaming media.
Read on to understand why that is, and why you might want to add a streaming device to your television set.
Are a Roku and Smart TV the Same?
At a glance, it looks like a Smart TV and a Roku do about the same thing: you need an internet connection for both to activate streaming functionality. They both come with voice search and can support 4K.
So if you have a Smart TV, then why would you need a Roku account?
After all, there are lots of things you can do with a Smart TV, whether you have Roku channels or not. You don’t need a Roku app to get basic TV services.
You can select TV shows and movies from video on demand (VoD) services, and you can subscribe to live television channels. You can play video content from the internet.
However, many Smart TV owners add Roku streaming sticks to their sets. As it turns out, there are some things a Smart TV simply doesn’t do as well as a TV with a Roku media player.
Streaming players such as Roku are faster, easier to use, more reliable, and offer more benefits than traditional Smart TVs.
What Can a Smart TV Do That a Regular TV Can’t?
Just what is a Smart TV? It’s a television set that can connect to the internet and gives you access to streaming channels. It’s a computer, a set top box, and a television set all rolled into one for a single price.
An example of a Smart TV is the Sony X950H shown below:
When Smart TVs first came out they were called “Connected TVs.”
Smart TVs can get over-the-top (OTT) content like Netflix , the History Channel, and HBO, as well as the IPTV subscription services that include streaming live TV.
They can also play internet music stations, run a web browser, and support some games.
This all may sound like just about everything you need to enjoy the streaming experience on the internet these days. Maybe even enough to cancel your cable TV contract and replace it with cheaper and more flexible services on your TV.
However, there are limitations to a Smart TV in terms of what features you can actually need or get, and how well it streams.
Most televisions sold today are Smart TVs rather than older models such as a tube type TV. Just about anything you pull off the shelf these days has a built-in computer for streaming and some level of smarts.
Exactly what you get depends on what brand you buy.
When you fire up your Smart TV you’ll typically find some channels already loaded and an app store where you can select both paid and free content.
Does a Smart TV Require WiFi?
Smart TVs require a broadband internet source for data connections. Typically that’s your home network WiFi router, although most will also work with a direct Ethernet connection (check for an Ethernet port on the back).
They also require speeds of around 10 megabits per second (Mbps) for HD and 25 Mbps to stream 4K Ultra HD.
What Else Can a Smart TV’s Computer Do?
While Smart TVs have built-in computers, they’re not exactly like your PC or Apple. Many a TV manufacturer even uses a proprietary operating system.
These have their own selection of apps, TV features, and lists of other gadgets (like game consoles), as well as which TV streaming box they’re compatible with.
Each TV operating system has its own user interface, which varies quite a bit one from another in different ways.
Built-in voice recognition with a voice remote is becoming common in Smart TVs. The easiest to use respond to Alexa and Google Assistant.
Some devices even offer recording capability with a DVR app. But these are still few and far between, and you’ll generally need a separate DVR for this.
Others are compatible with smart home devices, and may even become a kind of hub for controlling connected appliances and platforms in smart homes.
Smart TVs Are Primarily Designed To Be TVs
Here’s something worth remembering. Most Smart TV manufactures have the mindset they’re selling a television set that comes with a remote first, and smart connectivity features second.
Picture and audio clarity are more important than smarts.
When it comes to accessing all the selections of streaming channels, and the freedom to see what you want to watch, Smart TVs don’t measure up to regular TVs, smart or no, which use a Roku device.
What Can a Roku Do?
A Roku is an app or device that allows any TV to access programming from the internet.
Even if you aren’t using a Smart TV, with a Roku you can watch video on demand from OTT providers such as Netflix and Hulu, and you can subscribe to streaming live TV through services such as Sling TV and YouTube TV.
Variety of Devices
Physically, the most popular Roku is a stick that’s easy to use, and that you plug into your set’s HDMI port on the back panel.
There are also Roku boxes available, as well as a Streambar with built-in speakers . If your television set is so old that it doesn’t have an HDMI port, the Roku Express 2018 comes with a cable that plugs into your set’s video jacks.
The Roku device, small though it is, has all the hardware and software to connect to the internet and bring the content to your TV screen.
A Roku comes with its own remote (typically). When you start it up, you’re prompted to connect to your Wi Fi network. Then it displays its menu on your TV home screen.
Access to Content
There you’ll see a list of content you can access. Some is Roku’s proprietary content, while others are the services you may be familiar with such as Hulu and Netflix, along with specialized channels.
Some programming offers free channels, but much of it is based on subscriptions. Many of subscription services offer free trials however.
Using Roku gives you around 4,500 channels of streaming content, as well as music (like Spotify), videos, and other entertainment options.
Sharing is Caring
A limitation is that you can’t view programs on every TV in your house from a single Roku. Each set requires its own box or stick.
But it is easy to move a Roku device from one TV to another, for instance, from the living room to the guest room.
However, if two family members want to use a Roku on two separate sets (or simply have different viewing habits), they’ll of course need two Roku devices.
There’s also Roku TV. Roku has partnered with a few manufacturers (like TCL Technology) to have Roku built right into the sets, as pictured below.
Alternatives to Roku
Roku isn’t the only streaming device available. The most similar competitor is the Amazon Fire TV Stick, which works much the same way Roku does.
Another choice is Apple TV, which, despite the misleading name, is not a television set but a small box that cables into an HDMI port.
Apple TV has some differences from the other two, is generally more expensive, and is best for people who already own Apple iOS devices and laptops.
It’s also possible to do screen mirroring by pairing a computer with your TV, thereby enabling the computer as a streaming device.
Reasons To Add a Roku To a Smart TV
So, a Roku and Smart TV both need an internet connection to use, and they both offer some prepackaged channels on their menus, with the opportunity to add more.
Based on that, you might think they’re identical.
They are similar, but one simply offers more than the other. A streaming player such as Roku will be faster, easier to use, perform better, and have more TV choices.
Advantages in Content
The biggest difference between the two is available content. Chances are you’ll get much more through a Roku than on a Smart TV.
What you’ll get with a Smart TV varies among device manufacturers (such as RCA, Sony, Philips, and Toshiba), and none of them have as complete a lineup as Roku.
One reason for this is that Smart TV companies have partnership agreements with content providers. A manufacturer will establish an agreement that’ll prevent other manufacturers from getting that same service.
Thus each manufacturer will have a list of streaming platforms or services it’s not allowed to provide to its users.
Roku however doesn’t have this problem.
There are also issues that stem from manufacturer’s support for their TVs. Typically manufacturers don’t provide upgrades after a few years.
This can lead to old TV models not working with the lastest version of one or more popular streaming apps.
To sum up, a Smart TV’s list of streaming services has gaps that can change over time. Your Smart TV menu might have an option that’s here today but gone tomorrow. On the other hand, Roku’s content selection is more consistent and complete.
The reason most people want a Roku or Smart TV is to view more content. For many customers, the larger number of available movies and TV shows is enough by itself to justify the cost of a Roku.
Compared with a Roku, streaming performance over a Smart TV can have the disadvantages of being slow and buggy.
One reason is that Smart TVs don’t have processors as powerful as those of Rokus.
Remember that Smart TVs are TVs first and streaming systems second. The manufacturer’s technology effort goes into the picture and audio, not into the little processor that controls streaming.
Also, the streaming services of the world have their priorities in application development. That priority is to ensure their apps work best with media players and apps such as Roku, Amazon Fire Stick and Apple TV, and not for the different brands of Smart TV.
So apps for Smart TV are never as polished and as free from bugs.
The complaint of poor viewer experience comes with every aspect of Smart TV streaming. Viewers gripe that Smart TVs are slow to connect to the internet.
That moving from one menu item to another takes way too long. That the initial setup of Smart TV is painfully slow.
Most Smart TVs have processors that aren’t built for the demands of streaming, and it shows.
Updates & Obsolescence
Every computer, tablet and smartphone gets frequent updates with the latest software fixes and enhancements. Roku devices are likewise updated regularly.
If the software improves, you get the improvements. If the apps are updated, you get the latest version.
Smart TVs feature their own operating system, which usually requires periodic software updates.
These devices are updated infrequently. Even worse, after a few years they’re not updated at all. The priority of Smart TV manufacturers is to develop and build new sets, not to keep old ones up to date.
If your set is several years old, the apps, interfaces and capabilities are likely to be antiquated. The performance almost certainly will have deteriorated. Over time, even software may not keep up with what’s expected of it.
There’s more, though. When Smart TVs download apps, they don’t always get the latest version with the latest features.
The SmartTV version of services such as Netflix or Hulu may be a couple generations behind what you get through a stick.
An Increasing Total Cost of Ownership
A Smart TV costs a lot of money. On most of them the picture quality is excellent and will continue to be excellent. But the smart capabilities are going to deteriorate when the set still has a lot of useful life.
After a few years, while the TV reception will be as good as ever on your cable or satellite channels, it will tend to go downhill on streamed content. Your Smart TV’s streaming processor will have become obsolete.
Of course obsolescence is a fact of life with any device. Your laptop grows obsolete. Smartphones get out of date.
However, none of the devices becomes obsolete as quickly as a Smart TV processor. After several years, your phone and tablet and still getting system updates. Your Smart TV may not.
A Roku becomes outdated more slowly than other devices, however. Today, Roku obsolescence isn’t a problem (which helps explain its popularity).
Even if your Roku eventually comes to the end of its useful life, it’s easy and inexpensive to replace. That may not be the case with your Smart TV, which is a bigger commitment.
User Interface & Usability
While some Smart TVs are easy to use, with friendly, intuitive user interfaces for their streaming content, many aren’t. Some users have used expressions such as “awful” to describe the navigation process.
Rokus have a main screen with the content choices clearly laid out that makes it easy to stream. It doesn’t take long to understand how to find your way around.
Many Smart TVs have no central menu but rather a row on the bottom part of the screen. Sometimes I find unnecessary features and settings that I don’t particularly care about.
In the case of many Smart TV functions and interfaces (like searches), it’s difficult to understand why they did what they did and how you should use it.
Setup time is a particular usability beef. There been reports of taking an hour or more to update various apps and populate the app store when you first connect your Smart TV.
There is one usability advantage to mention about Smart TVs though. On a TV you can change your regular channels and navigate streaming apps from the same remote.
Add a Roku to the mix however, and you need to use two remotes when switching between Roku apps and those on your TV.
There’s a good chance that your Smart TV is tracking your activity, which may of course result in you receiving ads targeted to your interests.
You should avoid doing anything sensitive on a Smart TV, such as accessing your bank’s app over the internet, or buying something with a credit card. They’re less safe than your laptop or even your phone.
When you launch your Smart TV, you’re likely to find features and apps you don’t care about. Smart TV companies such as Samsung and LG have proprietary apps on their Smart TV rows or menus. They’re not particularly desirable and it’s hard to get rid of them.
Roku also has proprietary content (like the Roku channel) but it’s less obtrusive and easier to ignore.
You can’t easily pick up your Smart TV and take it on vacation with you. A Roku, on the other hand, tucks easily into a suitcase. You can even watch a streaming service in a hotel room (imagine not going through pay-per-view!).
A Smart TV Advantage?
But there’s one thing you can do on a Smart TV that you can’t do on a Roku: surf the internet.
However, you might not find this easy using the TVs remote control. You may have to use voice commands or jump through hoops to enter alphanumeric and special characters with the remote’s buttons.
You may even need to add a wireless keyboard to make the experience palatable.
Which Roku Should I Choose?
Others support Dolby Atmos and support high dynamic range (HDR).
There’s even a model that will make a locator noise if you lose it.
There are models for regular HDTV and others for 4K. It’s fine to use a 4K remote with a non-4K TV but you wouldn’t want to do it the other way around.
Don’t forget that Amazon Fire TV Stick is an alternative worth considering, and that Apple TV is available for Apple aficionados.
What about Roku TV?
There are a few television sets with Rokus built right into them. Roku has entered partnerships with manufacturers such as TCL, Sharp, and Hisense to build a product where Roku is directly integrated.
The Roku menu on the screen looks the same as the one you see when you use a Roku stick. Roku software is regularly updated.
If you’re thinking of getting a new TV, you might look at one of these. I’d say however it’s more important to get the TV that’s the right size and has good picture and audio quality.
Choose the set you want, and if you have to add a Roku, it’ll be a small additional outlay.