TV buying advice for dinosaurs. Non-US dinosaurs.
December 27, 2016 8:06 AM   Subscribe

We're Americans living abroad in Europe. We've lived an essentially TV-free life for the last several years but watch a lot of DVDs, and some internet stuff. We have a ˜15 year old CRT tv, but we really want to upscale to a big flat-screen. I'm tech savvy, but feel like a total dinosaur on this. Need some really basic guidance.

We've got a basic (not blu-ray) DVD player that plays all regions, and a big collection of Region 1 and 2 DVDs. We don't download torrents, but sometimes friends give us stuff that we watch on our laptops. We have a Netflix subscription and a Comcast account at our US permanent address that we access on our laptops/ipads/iphones via VPN (lets us time-shift our US shows and sports). We'd like to be able to watch all of that on a big ol' TV while actually sitting on the couch, rather than looking at our little screens at the kitchen table.

I've tried doing some research online and here (this is one helpful post, but a bit dated) but I'm still feeling a bit over my head. I feel like a dunce because I don't get the whole streaming stick thing, but I'm thinking it also might be irrelevant for me because I don't know if I'll be able to get around geoblocking.

- Does anyone know if any of these streaming services work outside the US?
- There are lots of Smart TV's here, but should I bother? I'm thinking the content is probably localized (again, because of geoblocking).
- Is it really just as simple as getting a decent TV and an HDMI cable, and just using the big TV as an external monitor for the laptop?

Sorry for the scattershot nature of the question, but I'm just so confused. Any advice would be helpful!
posted by leticia to Technology (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I love my smart TV. I went many many years without a TV, but about five years ago I happened to be in Target after the New Year and there was this 2,000 Smart TV marked down to 800 to make room for the new models or something.

Its great, it runs on android so anything I can do with my phone I can pretty easily interface with the TV. If I bought another TV the essentials would be:

1. Smart TV. Definitely. 100%. Very useful and fun, lots of apps, fun slideshows from your phones. Can run Plex, Hulu, etc, etc.
2. More than a 2 HDMI outlets.
3. Light enough that I could safely move it around without help.

Edited to add: The stick helps branch the monitor and TV. Its like a little wireless dongle so you can basically use it as an external monitor, though I don't find its the best use of it.

That's it. Having a good TV for the times you actually want to watch something on the screen is a lot of fun and definitely worth it.
posted by stormygrey at 8:13 AM on December 27, 2016

No need for a smart TV. You're already hooking something smart to it. If you have iPads and or iPhones, then you might think about getting Apple TV. The sweet part about that is using AirPlay, which is a pretty slick way to stream content from the device to the Apple TV box. HDMI *should* work - my Mac Mini actually uses a HDMI port instead of a VGA/DVI port. Also, if your laptop is a Mac and you have an Apple TV, you can mirror the display on the TV.
posted by azpenguin at 8:14 AM on December 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Is it really just as simple as getting a decent TV and an HDMI cable, and just using the big TV as an external monitor for the laptop?

Pretty much! The only issue with this approach is that depending on your computer you might not be able to transmit sound via your HDMI cable, so you might want to also hook up the laptop to an external speaker in addition to the TV, or you might want to use something like a Chromecast that lets you stream from the laptop to the TV.

Don't get a Smart TV, or at least don't pay extra for one; I've had the same TV for six years and have updated my streaming devices a couple of times. Also the dedicated streaming devices (Roku, AppleTV, etc.) get software updates much more often than the TVs, generally speaking.
posted by mskyle at 8:14 AM on December 27, 2016

I'm anti-smart TV for the same reasons mentioned upthread: there's no way that you're going to get system upgrades for the "smart" bit over the entire lifespan of the hardware, or even at the frequency needed to deal with security stuff, whereas the boxes you plug into it will improve over time. I'd agree that you should look for something with more than a couple of HDMI inputs, and something like a Mac Mini would be an easyish way to negotiate the VPN stuff for US-based services while pushing out HDMI to the TV. (You can also set up VPN client connections on some routers, but that's more of a challenge.)
posted by holgate at 8:30 AM on December 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Smart TVs just incorporate the function of a streaming stick or other device, except the software is (normally) developed by some random electronics manufacturer rather than a dedicated company. As such, it's never quite as functional, and it's often not maintained at all. And those manufacturers all have their own ideas about what's OK, up to and including making you agree that it's OK to eavesdrop on your private conversations.

It can be difficult, I think, to get a TV over about 32" that is not a "smart" TV, but either way, I think it's best to leave the streaming to a dedicated device, and not let the TV connect directly to the internet.

I don't know what's available where, but you should be able to find out what each service offers in each country. And as far as streaming your own media, I rip mine on my desktop computer, and then serve it using Plex, which I have on my Roku and mobile devices, but there are plenty of other ways to do it too.
posted by ernielundquist at 8:35 AM on December 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's beginning to sound much simpler than I feared. If I can connect my Mac laptop to the TV via cable, then I should be fine. I think, as ernielundquist suggested, there's a good chance I'm going to wind up with a smart tv whether I like it or not, as I'm aiming for a 50" tv, but it sounds like I could start off with just my laptop setup, and sort out the streaming-stick question separately. The big stumbling block is going to be what content I can access from outside the US. I've resisted running the VPN at the router level, because there are times when we *don't* want it connected, plus, that just seems to be an extra level of fiddliness that I don't want to deal with.

holgate: Can you say more about the point you made about viewing US stuff via VPN? This is a must for us, and I definitely want to get clear on what I'll need. I've got a MacBook Air (early 2015 generation), and from what I understand, I can get an adapter to connect an HDMI cable. I shouldn't need to get a MacMini to make that happen, right?
posted by leticia at 8:49 AM on December 27, 2016

A Mac Mini would just make it convenient in terms of a) less plugging and unplugging; b) having the VPN preconfigured when you want it. A Mini DisplayPort to HDMI adapter will do the job for your laptop. At some point, you might get annoyed at having to plug in your laptop and leave it by the TV, or if notifications show up while you're watching something, and if that happens, you can seek out a box that does the streaming, but try it with a laptop and cable for now.

(Kodi/OpenELEC boxes are becoming more of a thing in the UK, and they can be fixed up to support Netflix et al over VPN, but they also tend to require some tech shepherding.)
posted by holgate at 9:08 AM on December 27, 2016

An Android TV box like the Mi Box or the Shield TV is the way to go for streaming, IMO, unless you have a specific need for Amazon Prime Video. Most everything else has an Android TV app at this point, and for the ones that don't have a TV-specific app, you can cast to the box as if it were a Chromecast, including screen mirroring, if necessary.

I got a Vizio TV earlier this year whose smarts consist entirely of being a Chromecast as well, but I never use it because I just cast to the Shield instead. Le Eco recently bought Vizio. Their sets run Android TV natively.
posted by wierdo at 9:16 AM on December 27, 2016

Nthing a non-smart TV (or at least ignoring the smart capabilities, which are dire on all TVs) and getting some form of external device. Since you're a mac user then the Apple TV is the box of choice certainly. It'll do all the common stuff and for things slightly more unusual you can simply do them on your laptop and cast them to the TV. I do this all the time, playing videos from the phone or computer, playing all music, and the Apple TV will even switch inputs and turn the TV on for you so there is no fiddling with remotes. The only time I need my old-school remotes is if I want to watch broadcast tv.
posted by tillsbury at 10:56 AM on December 27, 2016

FWIW, I do recommend getting as dumb a TV as you can find, but it isn't true that they are all terrible. Sony Bravias with Android TV are pretty nice, actually. Reasonably quick and lots of apps available. The older Vizios that had integrated Roku software were also pretty good.

The problem is that, while they can be nice today, a few of years from now there will be no more OS updates and the hardware will be outdated. It's at that point they become dire.

Problem was that until this year, they were literally the only option to get 4k and HDR content other than the meager UHD Blu-Ray releases both because of the lack of boxes and because most sets didn't have HDCP 2.2 HDMI ports. This year, however, there are Roku, Amazon, and Android TV 4k boxes out that can stream 4k from Netflix and friends. And there are quite a few good 4k sets available at good prices. You can even get sets with 4k, HDR, and local dimming for under $1000. It's gotten to the point where buying a 1080p set makes no sense whatsoever unless you are under such a big budget restriction you should be looking for a used set on Craigslist. Just make sure that it has an HDCP 2.2 compatible HDMI port or you'll be SOL on 4k content except from YouTube.

I hate to repeat myself, but an Android TV box is probably your best bet since you are out of the US. You can run VPN software on the box itself and get the US content. Plus you can install Kodi (or the Android TV specific fork called SPMC) right from the play store. Not an Android box that plugs into the TV, mind you, a box running "Android TV." The Mi Box is only $69. The Shield TV is faster, but the extra grunt is mainly useful for gaming or using it as a Plex server to transcode content for mobile streaming.

An Apple TV is fine, but you'll have to run the VPN on your router if you go that route.
posted by wierdo at 12:57 PM on December 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Do not get a smart TV. Do not compromise on this. Get those functions externally, the investment will be useful longer.
posted by jbenben at 4:16 PM on December 27, 2016

OP follow-up: We ended up getting a 55" LG Smart Ultra HDTV - basically can't get away from the "smart" or the "ultra" at that size. So far the "smart" part is working for us. We watch Netflix via the TV app (Netflix is too wise to VPNs/proxy/unblocker software to be able to be able to access the US version, so might as well watch it straight on the the TV rather than connect the laptop). We also connect our laptops via HDMI cable to watch the US-based stuff we get on our VPN-connected laptops.

Still haven't fully resolved the TV box question. Almost all of the external streaming box/dongle suggestions in the thread above ignored the fact that we are out of the US and geoblocked from most of their content. I don't want to run the VPN on the router, because there are times we *don't* want our traffic going through the VPN (Netflix and the international NFL package, for example, won't work on VPN). So far my best options sounds like the Mi Box or possibly other TV boxes where I can actually run the VPN on the box, but I still need to learn more about those.
posted by leticia at 9:37 AM on March 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'll re-recommend the Shield TV. Unlike the Mi Box, Nvidia seems intent on supporting it with updates, so it should remain useful longer term. It runs Kodi pretty much as well as a computer, so it's good for every type of media streaming, licit and illicit (I have zero qualms about downloading media that the companies involved refuse to allow me to pay for, though I pay for most everything I care to see if there is a legit option), and being Android works well with many different types of VPN.

The only downside relative to a non-TV Android box is that you have to download special software to launch apps that aren't built for Android TV. Well, that and that it's expensive. Some of that is offset by its decent gaming capability if you are into Android games, are willing to pay for GeForce Now, or have an NVidia video card in your PC so it can natively stream games from your PC.

It does now have native Amazon (and iPlayer, I believe) support, by the way. It's geoblocked to a few countries at this point, but turning off location services and using a VPN will make it show up. It is preinstalled on the box, but the icon won't appear if the box thinks you aren't in a supported country.

Android boxes in general also have apps for a lot of different IPTV providers, some of which are, as always, perfectly legit, and some which are not. The IPTV subreddit is handy for learning about that sort of thing. There are some very good options for live sports that way.

Oh, and USTV Now is totally legit if you aren't in the US and works very well if they have channels you are interested in. A fairly limited set of SD channels were free, last I checked, or you can pay them a fairly reasonable rate for more. I've only ever used the Kodi plugin for it, but I believe they have a native Android app also.
posted by wierdo at 5:11 AM on March 19, 2017

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