SK Babu


Why ‘think small’ makes sense with TVs

Today’s huge, expensive 4K TVs will be dinosaurs in a year or two

In India, the TV has long been the main source of entertainment in most homes, with the cellphone still lagging far behind. Most families religiously follow the daily melodramatic soaps that rule the Indian TV landscape. This explains why Indians invest in expensive models. But having shelled out good money, they expect those TV to last for ten years or more. That’s bad for TV manufacturers but good for the environment as India is among the top five e-waste generating nations.

However the smart TV revolution is finally reaching India, and it’s ever so slowly beginning to change that mindset. I must confess I’m one of those FOMO-driven laggards who has just climbed aboard the smart TV bandwagon. The good thing is this means I have a whole new world to discover.

Ten years and still going strong

My old 32" Philips TV is over ten years old. It does have USB and HDMI ports. The former is only capable of displaying still photos, so basically unusable. The HDMI is more useful as it lets me connect to a set-top box and even a Chromecast. However using the internet on the TV was too complicated, erratic and limited on a Chromecast, so I avoid using it on a regular basis. Instead, I remained attached to my set-top box that’s connected to a DTH dish on my roof. The monthly subscription cost is just ₹250 ($3.6). In fact, you can get a cable TV subscriptions for even half that price.

How much is too much?

Paying around ₹50000 ($680) for a smart TV doesn’t make sense to me. As far as I’m concerned, a TV is another toy like my cell phone. Ideally, it shouldn’t cost more than the ₹13000 ($175) that my Android phone cost. I knew I wasn’t going to get a smart TV at that price point, so I mentally resigned myself to using my other devices to access the net.

Please note that India’s per capita income is just $1670 per year in 2016 according to Wikipedia. Indians with a professional education do earn a lot more, but it’s still nowhere close to the average income level of the West. So price is always a major factor in India.

Third World Issues

Having said that, price is not the only reason why I haven’t upgraded to a smart TV. Firstly, India’s historically slow broadband speeds coupled with high prices and low monthly download limits make smart TVs impractical. Secondly, I find typing on a TV (or via a Bluetooth keyboard) cumbersome as compared to the swift, swipe-and-type on my phone. Thirdly, most of my devices exist in the Apple universe (iPhone, iPad, Mac…). An Apple TV device does exist but it has its limitations. Fourthly, there isn’t much 4k content available. All this is why my umbilical cord to my TV remained blissfully uncut while all the world around me was cutting the cord.

India gets up to speed

But times are a-changing, and changing fast. India’s internet has been gradually improving, and my ISP recently upped its speed to 40Mbps at ₹884/month ($12). This is relatively fast by Indian standards. However, unlike the rest of the world, most of India still has download limits on home internet (wifi). Mine is 200GB/month, after which my speed is throttled to a miserable 512 kbps. But internet TV on 200GB/month is possible if you are careful to avoid unnecessary downloads. I do have an option to upgrade my plan, but my ISP’s next slab is ₹1100/month for 350GB at 100Mbps. Crossing the ₹1000 mark is a mental barrier, as mobile internet is cheap in India. I have a daily plan, which gives me 1.5GB at 4G speeds (speed gets throttled after the limit) for around ₹100/month ($1.4). If I exhaust the 200GB available on my WiFi, I could theoretically hook up a smart TV to my mobile’s hotspot (4G and wifi speeds are almost the same, as shown below). There would be no extra cost, as the unused data from my daily 1.5Gb quota expires every day.

The Price barrier breaks

The last of my obstacles was removed a while ago when Amazon had a sale. The Mi 4C Pro, a 32" LED smart TV (Android) from Xiaomi could be had for around ₹13000 ($177) with the help of the cashbacks and other offers. That was my magic number, the price I paid for my 5.5" Android phone. Though Xiaomi is an unknown brand in the West, it’s the largest selling cellphone brand in India with a reputation for good quality at reasonable prices.

Of course, there was a catch. Or rather two catches, to be precise. ₹13000 only gets me a TV with a 32" screen that’s so-called HD-ready (1366x768 pixels). This makes the TV a dinosaur in a world where the trend is huge 50" screens with 4K resolution. But I was willing to accept the compromise in TV size and screen resolution for that price. Let me illustrate why.

Planned Obsolescence hits TVS

The TV that I was eyeing was Xiaomi’s 32" Mi TV 4C Pro. But once I did my basic research, I was surprised to find that this TV is an update on an older 32" TV, the Mi TV 4A, which was launched less than a year ago. Xiaomi is India’s market leader in cellphones, and that older Mi TV 4A, along with two larger siblings marked Xiaomi’s entry into India’s TV market. The Mi TV 4A runs on the Patchwall OS, which is based on Android but does not have access to the Google PlayStore and its apps. The TV does not even have the YouTube app.

I think these drawbacks were affecting the Mi TV’s success, and may explain why Xiaomi launched updated versions of their TV in less than a year. The new Mi TV Pro versions gives an option of two OSes, Patchwall or Android TV. It also comes with Google Playstore, and includes a YouTube app. Having the Playstore means the Mi TV 4C Pro can access the Android TV PlayStore, and install apps from other app stores like Aptoide. In short, lots of goodies.

Now, this particular issue is a software one and can be fixed. In fact, Xiaomi will be updating the older TVs by early next year to match the Mi TV Pro series. But the Mi TV 4C Pro also has hardware upgrades. Like a built-in mic in the remote which allows you to use Google Assistant on the TV. It’s not as good as the voice control on Amazon’s Fire TV, but it’s getting there. Besides the remote works on Bluetooth so you don’t have to point it at the TV, like an IR remote. Bluetooth also means you can connect your wireless headset to the TV if there’s too much external noise or if you want to avoid disturbing your neighbours. Of course, you could use a Bluetooth dongle on the older Mi TV, but it’s a workaround.

White Elephants

To sum up, if I had bought the 32" Mi TV 4A barely six months ago as planned, I would be cursing Xiaomi for selling me a TV that became outdated in no time. With the rapid improvement in tech, I’m sure the same will happen with the Mi TV 4C Pro too, but hopefully after a longer time span.

What I’m saying is that the smart TV revolution has brought our cell phones’ rapid technology obsolescence to TVs. So spending less on a TV now means being able to afford to upgrade your TV every 2-3 years, instead of being stuck with an expensive but obsolete TV for many more years.

In fact, my decision-making process on buying TVs has now become very similar to that of buying a cellphone. That shouldn’t be a surprise considering the basic operating system of the smart TV and my secondary phone is the same Android OS. So let me take a short detour from TVs to cellphones. Or to be more specific, how I go about buying cellphones.

Adapting my cellphone upgrade plans to TVs

My primary phone, an iPhone 6S+, is now four generations old. However, it runs the latest iOS 12 so it’s perfectly functional. It does miss some features like dual cameras, faster chips, etc, but the major drawback was its battery no longer lasts as long. Fortunately, Apple is offering a subsidized battery change program till December, and my phone was eligible for it. So I forked out the required ₹2000 ($29) and got the battery changed. It now easily goes all day. This means I can easily use my iPhone 6S+ for another year, at least.

I do this because new iPhones are ridiculously expensive in India. A 64GB iPhone XS Max costs an exorbitant ₹110,000 ($1578) here (India has the dubious honor of having the highest priced iPhones in the world due to the high taxes on imported phones). In comparison, my mid-range Android phone, the Redmi Note 4, cost just a tenth of that price. The Redmi is my secondary phone and quite a capable one. I am still using an iPhone only because I’m heavily invested in the iOS platform in terms of years, multiple devices, apps, and generally being more used to iOS and Mac OS.

My current cellphone buying plan is to get a one-generation-old iPhone during a sale for maximum discounts. Even so, it will be pricey. So I will encase that iPhone in an armor case, and use it for 3–4 years to justify the price.

Waiting a year or two to upgrade my phone could also help in other ways. There’s a good possibility Apple will reduce prices by assembling iPhones in India to get the tax breaks it badly needs. In fact, Apple already assembles the smaller iPhone SE in India, and you can get one on Amazon for less than ₹19000 ($272). Apple was forced to do this as Indians have pushed back at the iPhone’s high prices, and caused Apple ’s market share in the Indian cellphone market to drop below 1%. And no, 1% is not a typo.

It’s not just India that’s pushing back at Apple’s high prices. It seems the Japanese too, seem to prefer the older iPhone 8 to the more expensive iPhone XR. So for the first time in Apple’s history, it has reduced iPhone XR’s price by $100 within a month of its launch.

Is this a sign of the times?

Thinking Small

Coming back to TVs, my buying plan is going to be similar to my cellphone formula. Basically, get the best bang for my buck. In short, I will be buying a same size TV as my current TV (32"), avoiding expensive 4K and maybe HD resolution, using it for 3–4 years, and then upgrading to a new model instead of waiting for ten years to upgrade. The ₹13000 price tag for the Mi TV is what makes this plan workable.

I must add that a 32" TV will not work for someone who is used to a larger TV. In fact, the stats say 32" TV sales are dropping in India, while the 43"–55" market is taking off. However that fact does not invalidate the essence of my argument in this article. All it means is you look for a same size, newer version of your current TV, and increase your budget accordingly.

How much picture quality do you need?

I generally like to buy the latest and greatest to future-proof my purchase. But the huge price differential and the pace of tech change made me hesitate in the case of TVs. Firstly, my ten-year-old Phillips TV was the same 32." So it’s not like I’m switching to a smaller TV if I opt for new TV in the same size. In any case, my living room is small so 32" is just right. As for full HD resolution, I would have to double my budget at ₹31000 as I have to opt for the 49" TV (Full HD isn’t available in 32" models in the Mi brand that I settled for).

But, forget the numbers. Picture quality on the Mi TV is pretty good. Going for 4K isn’t really going to make much difference as we don’t have too much 4K content in India. On the other hand, HD channels are now available but the difference on an HD-ready screen isn’t really that huge to justify doubling the price. Besides, I’m coming from a ten-year-old, standard definition TV, so the picture quality will anyway be a huge jump because the Mi TV is an LED one as against the LCD screen on my old Philips TV.

The last question was the brand. Could I trust a newcomer like Xiaomi in TVs? Well, my current Android and the previous one were both from Xiaomi. So I know the brand delivers decent quality. Besides, the reviews of the Mi TV were generally good on online sites.

Getting off the fence

That is how after years of indecision on smart TVs, I finally ventured into Android TV land. I knew the Amazon sale offer wasn’t going to last forever and prices would go up. So I selected the Mi TV on my Amazon app, tapped the buy button, and the deed was done!

Two days later, Amazon had the smart Android TV installed at home.

Discovering casting

Initial impressions were good. The LED screen definitely was an improvement on the old LCD screen. The smart TV aspect also opened up a whole new world of possibilities. For instance, I follow the NBA league, but my cable operator keeps switching channels. Like it switched the NBA games telecast from Sony Six to Sony Ten 1, which was a channel I didn’t subscribe to. It costs ₹75/month ($1) to subscribe to the Sony Ten 1 HD, and every now and then the NBA games are substituted by WWE. I’m sure WWE has many fans in India but I have no interest whatsoever in underwear-clad, musclebound hulks exercising their negligible acting chops ad nauseam. Anyway, I recalled that Jio TV, one of the apps bundled with my Jio mobile network plan, included a free telecast of NBA games on the same Sony Ten 1 channel. So I picked up my Android mobile and fired up the Jio TV app.

That’s when the magic happened.

I noticed that the Chromecast icon in the Jio Tv app on my phone was highlighted. It seems my new TV has Chromecast built in. One tap on the icon and the game was playing on my TV screen. What I like was how easily it all happened.

After the initial euphoria of seeing Steph Curry go off for 20+ points in a quarter dissipated, I realized the screencast resolution during casting was not too good, and there was an occasional picture lag. I needed a better option.

Sideloading Adventures

I figured an Android TV app that directly played the channels would work better than casting from my phone. It was time to explore the Android side of the TV. A quick visit to YouTube and I found a solution. It involved sideloading an app that offers a vast collection of online channels showing live sports broadcasts. The picture quality was much better than casting, and I was thrilled out of my head with my new TV.

I came down to earth with a crash pretty soon though.

Fragmentation in Android

This thing is a work in progress. For instance, the Mi TV has a companion Mi remote app on my phone. Theoretically, I can connect my phone to my TV and use it as a ‘remote control,’ as long as both devices are on the same wifi. The remote app was supposed to offer options of IR, Bluetooth, and wifi to connect to the TV. As the wifi option offered a lot more extra features, I tried to get it working. But once the app started, it only offered an IR mode to connect.

Now I’m not the type who gives up easily in this sort of situation. If an app has worked for someone somewhere (and I’ve seen YouTube videos of the remote app working on wifi mode), I will scour the net, and usually, figure out how to make it work. Sometimes it’s just having to download a previous version of the app that contained the feature. Other times, it works with a few tweaks in the phone’s settings that other users share on the app/TV forums. But after a couple of hours of trawling the net and trying out different approaches, I was forced to concede defeat. This was not like my iPhone where I could find some workaround on some forum.

One reason for this is the fragmentation of Android. Apple software is designed to work on Apple hardware only, which is limited to a handful of devices. This makes it easier for Apple to update all its models. Besides, if there’s an issue like the remote app one, it will affect a lot more users, and I will be more likely to find an answer on some Apple forums.

Whereas Android OS is supposed to work on a whole lot of hardware created by different manufacturers. So Android, or rather Google, needs to tweak each version of Android to match the hardware of the particular device it runs on. This is a herculean task and explains why unlike iPhones, many Android phones take a long time to get the latest Android OS updates. I suspect the Android TV OS has the same issues, and that may explain why the Mi Remote app wasn’t working properly.

New is not always better

Xiaomi has an updated version of Android TV running on my Mi TV 4C Pro as compared to the Mi Tv 4A. In the process, they seem to have been unable to enable features that worked on the older version of Android TV.

For instance, the older TV has a feature whereby you can set the TV to open the set-top box interface by default, basically skip the Patchwall interface. That’s quite useful if you have technophobic or older family members who are used to the set-top box interface and get totally lost when confronted with a new user interface. However, this feature seems to have disappeared from the new Mi 4C Pro.

The misfiring Mi remote app also seems to also be a victim of this OS update. Fortunately, there was a workaround for the remote app. Google has launched its own Android TV remote app which allowed me to use my phone to type on the TV screen. That solved one of my major issues.

One month of smart TV

I’m finishing off this post a month after I began it. This break was to make sure the Mi TV 4C Pro didn’t have any unpleasant surprises. I’m glad to say it didn’t, and is definitely a good buy for the money I spent on it.

However, I’m not much into TV so I must admit this is more an overview than a review. As for gaming and stuff, forget it. If you really want to know, you can check out this guy I came across on YouTube. He has done several videos on Mi TVs, including an in-depth review of the Mi TV 4A Pro, which is an FHD, 49" version of my 32" Mi TV 4C Pro.

Anyway, here’s my overview of the TV for what it’s worth.

Entertainment Unlimited As a new user of smart TVs, I was surprised me with the variety of content that is available on a smart TV. I must confess I was a bit intimidated by how much stuff there was. The TV interface is not as sophisticated or as slick as a cell phone's. So you just have to pick your poison and figure out how to use that particular app. Like I watch NBA on the Sony Ten 1 channel on my Jio TV app, and I’ve figured out how to quickly navigate to Sony Ten 1 through the masses of shows in the Jio TV app. It’s perfectly legal by the way, as the Jio TV app is bundled along with my Jio mobile network plan. In that sense, there’s been a huge change in my viewing habits with most of my content now coming via the internet.

There’s an app for that The Android TV store is a currently disappointing, as it doesn’t have too many apps, and you end up sideloading mobile phone apps which often does not make for a good experience. However, there are other app stores like Aptoide which offer a lot more apps. For instance, Amazon Prime Video is not yet supposed to work on my TV, but I was able to download an Amazon Prime Video app version from the Aptoid Store that worked just fine. Some of the apps also give access to the latest movies so I’m not sure if it’s all legal. I haven’t really explored all the channels as my interests lie more towards sports (NBA at the moment, and the clash yesterday between the Golden State Warriors and the Toronto Raptors was a thriller).

Voice Blues The TV’s Voice Assistant seems to throw up YouTube videos for most searches. I suppose that’s because it’s actually the Google Assistant. There may be some way to change this to search the TV by default but I haven’t figured that out. I also realized I wasn’t using the voice remote too much, and I decided to start doing that. Like this morning, I learnt that I could turn off the TV screen by using the voice assistant. This is useful as the only other way to currently turn off the screen is to switch off the TV, which means the usual lengthy start up time the next time I need to turn the screen back on.

Musical surprise I was pleasantly surprised by the TV’s ability to access and play music from my Google Music online collection of music. It makes all my songs so accessible as I can use the Voice Assistant within the Google Music app to pull out any song from my collection. The speakers are quite good, considering how thin the TV is. However, it’s not as good as, say my Echo Plus, which is not surprising as the primary function of the Echo is music.

Space Issues One limitation is the 32" Mi TV 4C Pro only has 8GB storage so you can’t load too many apps like you would on your phone. Whereas the 49" Mi TV 4A Pro has 16GB. But this isn’t really a serious issue as you just have to delete the apps you don’t use.

Format compatibility The TV often says it can’t play some video format or the other (I noticed this in on my News360 app). I haven’t really tried to find a solution. It’s a lot easier to just watch the problematic video on some other device. The TV does play recorded stuff from a pen drive, but you have to jump through some hoops to make it play the recorded format, and find it on the pen drive (hint: apps like ES File Explorer & VLC player). I haven’t noticed any YouTube videos about recording stuff that plays on a smart TV. So I’m not too sure if that works or if it’s just too complicated to set up. Again, this isn’t really an issue for me as my set top box has a ‘record to pen drive’ function and that’s enough for me as of now.

Come to think of it, that is what I like the most about Android. Users want easy ways to record TV shows. So sooner or later, there will be an app that can do exactly that.

To sum up, this is a great TV but it’s constantly evolving. So I’m glad I didn’t invest too much on it, as I will definitely need a TV upgrade in a few years.

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