There's a bit of debate right now about whether you should buy a smart TV, or simply buy a TV with a good panel at a lesser cost, and then add in the missing functionality with a smart set-top-box. Although there are arguments to be made for the former, the fact is that hardware and software are all accelerating at such a pace that you know a smart TV will be left behind pretty quickly, since you won't be updating your television every year.
Over the years, we've reviewed a number of smart TV add-ons, ranging from the very first Chromecast, the Teewe sticks, to multiple iterations of the Amkette Evo TV, the ReTV X1, and we've had long talks about the Apple TV as well.
The problem is that most of the options in the market right now - particularly in India - leave a lot to be desired. Among the major players, Apple TV and Chromecast are the only streaming boxes to be officially sold and supported in India, while others such as Roku, and Amazon's Fire TV and Fire TV stick, have stayed out of the country. Even if you import one of Amazon's devices, and register with your Indian Amazon Prime ID, it will still show you the content from the US market, and won't play anything, though there are some workarounds for this.
The problem with most of these devices is that they all come with a set of caveats. The Amkette Evo TV is pretty great, but many of the apps aren't really designed to work using this interface. The ReTV X1 is decent as well, but it hangs every so often and the UI isn't particularly intuitive. The 'big boys', Amazon and Apple on the other hand have much sleeker devices that work fluidly, but since they're not tapping into the Android phone app market unlike the Indian sets we talked about, the number of apps you'll get are limited, although of course, the apps that are there do work a whole lot better.
So you can either get a system that doesn't work too well, with an interface that's slow or laggy; or you can miss out on some content because local developers are typically making their apps for Android phones, and maybe the iPhone, if you're lucky, instead of targeting set top boxes.
The problem for many local companies is that of costs - most of the devices are significantly cheaper than an Apple TV. They're competing with the dirt-cheap Chromecast, which is actually a pretty amazing device when you factor in how inexpensive and how reliable it is. It also doesn't have the same problem of apps, and it's easy to set up. The problem with the Chromecast is, of course, that you can't just sit down in front of your TV and press a couple of buttons on a remote to watch something. You have to unlock your phone, launch the appropriate app, and then choose to stream your content. It's not a huge problem but it makes watching TV a 'conscious decision', instead of letting you passively sit back and relax.
One way to get around this would be if some of the big television companies, such as Tata Sky, DishTV, or Airtel, were to launch a 'smarter' set-top box. People are already willing to pay a premium for DTH STBs with DVR features - would those same people be willing to pay a little more for a STB that also includes smart features so that you can stream content and watch live TV using the same device?
It's a great idea in theory, but most people we've spoken to say that the demand does not exist. In fact, the DTH companies themselves want to bring the costs of hardware as low as possible - even less than what companies like Amkette and ReTV are spending. According to one source, Airtel was experimenting with the idea of a smart TV companion device that would have filled the gap, but as the costs went up, it backed away from the concept.
Another source who works in the telecom industry told us that their company had been interested in working with a major DTH player, but once they saw the price requirements, they backed away. "At that time, they were trying to get things done for under Rs. 50," our source says. It's unclear how much your STB costs the DTH provider today, but most STBs are priced around Rs. 1,500. "Obviously at that price, all kinds of compromises have to be made," our source added. "That's why you don't even have a halfway decent EPG, they're not even searchable."
All-in-all, the picture looks bleak, although there have been rumours of an Nvidia-powered STB by Reliance Jio to work alongside its long-rumoured cable TV service. As of now, we don't really know what's going to happen. Another source tells us that although there are indeed plans in the works, it's pretty much impossible to say how long it will take to implement things.
"Reliance [Jio] has kind of figured out that there are two kinds of customers, and it's already gone after the mass market with the 4G launch," our source said. "My understanding is that with this, they're going to target people who are much more comfortable opening up their wallets. But honestly, it could still take a long time before they [Reliance Jio] get there."
It's an interesting notion, and at CES 2017, Nvidia launched the Nvidia Shield Android TV. It comes with Google Assistant integration and supports 4K HDR, and is priced at $199 (roughly Rs. 13,200), but the company has not announced the availability of the device yet.
If a television provider can release a high-end STB based around this kind of hardware, it would solve many of the problems we're talking about. And Reliance Jio could actually be a good fit, since it also has a broadband service, and a number of online streaming applications its promoting heavily. Until something like that happens though, you're probably better off saving your money and just getting a Chromecast.
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