A Dumb TV Is a Smart TV

Vizio M55-D0

Over the weekend I bought a new television, a Vizio M55-D0. It sports a beautiful 4K display with vibrant colors and deep blacks, and it’s sold for a surprisingly reasonable price. Actually, the official product name is the “VIZIO SmartCast M-Series 55″ Class Ultra HD HDR Home Theater Display.” Despite the use of the word “smart” in its branding, I would call it a “dumb” TV—in the very best sense of the word.

If you’re tech savvy in any respect, you’ve no doubt been bewildered and frustrated—if not downright offended—by the truly terrible user interfaces that television manufacturers have foisted on consumers over the past decade or so. Even as TVs have gotten more and more technologically capable, these interfaces have gotten only incrementally more sophisticated, at best. Almost without exception, they’re too elaborate for no good reason, throwing poor if not incompetent aesthetics in your way when all you want to do is accomplish simple tasks, e.g., switching inputs, or making the picture brighter. What’s worse, in order to navigate these screens, they ship with horrifying remote controls like this one which, in case it’s not clear from the picture, is a two-sided device, with a full-sized keyboard on the backside.

Vizio Remote Control 2015

That remote shipped with last year’s M-line of TVs from Vizio, and the embarrassment must have cut deep, as they have seemingly learned their lesson well. The company’s 2016 televisions finally do away with the misguided conceit that that kind of interface is a good idea. Instead, the on-screen controls for their 2016 line are emphatically bare bones. I wasn’t able to get a screenshot, but the shockingly simple remote that the M55 ships with is a very telling indicator of how minimal the television’s interface is.

Remote Control for Vizio M55-D0

To do this, Vizio made a relatively daring but very simple calculation: their customers have smartphones, and they like controlling things from those smartphones—so why not let smartphones be the principal way that they control their TVs too? Rather than forcing users to cope with the misery of the company’s bespoke operating system, Vizio has offloaded nearly all of the controls you normally find on the television to what has become everybody’s unofficial but nevertheless reliably present second screen.

Once downloaded for your iPhone or Android, you pair Vizio’s SmartCast app with your TV and off you go. The software allows you to do everything the physical remote does and more, including assigning a custom name to the TV, setting up favorite channels, adjusting picture and sound, joining your wifi network, and more. It makes perfect sense. The app also happens to be very competently designed; it won’t blow anyone’s mind, but it’s still leagues better than anything I’ve used from a TV manufacturer in the past. (This is a reminder that the stack you design and develop on really matters; building the app on a widely used operating system obviously freed the company’s design team to do a caliber of work that building on top of their proprietary TV-based systems never allowed.)

Vizio SmartCast App

All of this is actually made possible by Google’s Google Cast technology, which allows a phone or tablet to power an auxiliary screen. That means that you can send video and sound from any Google Cast-compatible app, either on iOS or Android, to the TV in essentially the same way that iOS users are accustomed to using AirPlay to do the same. I’m a devoted AppleTV user, so this feature doesn’t do a lot for me, but it’s worth noting that while all of Vizio’s 2016 TVs use this app-to-TV approach, some models actually come bundled with a 6-in. Android tablet for those who want a remote control that always stays in the living room. I had assumed that it would sport a stripped down flavor of Android tailored especially for Vizio usage, but in fact it’s basically a full-fledged Android tablet that comes pre-bundled with Vizio’s SmartCast app.

In the future, I tend to doubt that Vizio will continue shipping these tablets unless they can find a way to make them truly worthwhile for customers. For now, the tablet is basically superfluous; I would have been just as happy without it. But I’m still very enthusiastic about the basic value proposition that Vizio is proposing here: TV manufacturers should focus their energies on making great displays—and the “smart” part of their devices should be powered by the technologies that consumers are already familiar and comfortable with, like Android. It’s a model that I hope a lot of other tech manufacturers will follow.