If you accept the conventional wisdom, Consumer Reports is the best product review publication in the U.S. The reason is that it’s run by a non-profit corporation that not only doesn’t accept advertising, but actually purchases the items it tests, most often from regular dealers. In other words, it’s incorruptible.
So how can you beat that?
Unfortunately, there’s also that old saying about being a jack of all trades and the master of none that applies very much to Consumer Reports.
Yes, they seem to do a credible job at auto reviews, and on such ordinary consumer products as dishwasher detergent, washing machines, and even digital cameras and flat screen TVs. But the situation becomes troublesome when they confront such sophisticated gear as personal computers and smartphones.
Even though they seem to have a more tech-savvy staff nowadays, their reviews remain useless when it comes to the promised intent, which is to guide you towards making the right purchasing decision.
Take the eternal Mac versus PC dilemma. You never see detailed descriptions of the differences between the Mac OS and Windows in the pages of CR. They may pay lip service to major upgrades, such as Snow Leopard and Windows 7. But when confronted with a choice between the two, which should you pick?
CR won’t tell you why one might be better than the other, or even, in their collective opinion, that there’s no practical difference. Of course, I’d dispute that heavily, as would most people who have had a fair amount of experience with the Mac and the PC, but the question isn’t even asked in their annual reader surveys.
You do see Apple getting high marks, because Macs contain premium hardware. But you might come away with the impression that the Mac is nothing more than a high-priced PC, so why even give it a second thought if you’re not prepared to pay extra for one?
To CR, it’s the same as choosing whether to buy a Toyota or a Lexus. In this case, it’s the same company, sometimes similar platforms, but it’s mostly about style, right?
CR does, however, have a knack for getting solid press. You’ll find their spokespeople on many TV shows, not to mention being quoted regularly in the mainstream press. But they are also given softball questions and never pressed to confront the serious lapses in their testing process.
That takes us to Antennagate, where CR became a major offender, along with the Web-based tabloid publication that is credited with (or blamed for) disclosing the notorious signal attenuation problems encountered on the iPhone 4. Now maybe the official offender, Gizmodo, has an ax to grind, having gotten themselves embroiled in that notorious missing or stolen iPhone prototype. It stands to reason that they are no longer included on Apple’s official invite list for media events, and good luck to them if they hope to get review products in the future.
Unfortunately, the Antennagate controversy quickly became a YouTube sensation, then got picked up by the major media, particularly after CR was able to duplicate the phenomenon in a specially-configured test that an independent antenna expert regarded as essentially junk science.
Although the iPhone 4 got the highest rating among all tested smartphones, by a small margin, CR won’t recommend it. It doesn’t matter that you can pretty much take any smartphone, as many people have done, and find an appropriate death grip to cause the signal to dip.
Apple has been busy exposing blatant offenders from rival companies on their site, as the executives from those smartphone makers continue to cry foul.
But you wonder how CR might have missed the obvious warnings in manuals and, on occasion, affixed to the smartphones themselves, which explained the potential for signal loss and perhaps lower battery life if you hold those gadgets the wrong way. You’d think a publication that prides itself on being thorough (not to mention fair) would actually read the manuals and make an effort to understand a product’s known limitations.
On the other hand, posting a blog about the iPhone generates far more attention, and hits of course, than if they identified a similar shortcoming with a gadget from HTC, Motorola, Nokia or Samsung. After all, we’re talking about Apple’s “Jesus phone” here, the one that’s magical, mystical and therefore cannot possibly obey the laws of physics.
What’s even more troubling is that CR refuses to admit the testing was not properly conducted. Rather, they imagine that Apple will have an unknown fix at some undefined moment in the future, and, while saying that the offer of free bumpers or third-party cases is a good first step, it’s not enough.
If CR wants to be fair and balanced, they should be demanding the same of every other smartphone maker; that is, free cases. That way, all the products will be on an equal footing, and not susceptible to signal variation under normal use and service.
But I’m not expecting that to happen anytime soon. As long as Apple continues to have difficulty meeting iPhone 4 demand, there’s little to be concerned about. But my respect for CR has gone down several more notches.
- The iMac SSD Transplant Report It's quite certain that the designers of recent iMacs didn't consider what might be required if you wanted to change anything more than RAM. And on the 21.5-inch version, you can't even do that. So this forces you to load up such Macs on Apple's build-to-order page when you place your order, so you don't have to concern yourself about lost upgrade opportunities. Now I bought my late 2009 iMac towards the end of that year, a few weeks after release. I did customize some, with an Intel 2.8GHz i7 processor, and the upgraded graphics card. I kept the standard 8GB RAM, since I could always flesh it out later if I wanted; that was the one thing that could be upgraded easily. Indeed, when the time came to move to 16GB RAM, I did the deed in about five minutes from the time it took to lift the iMac from my desk, place the screen on a large towel, open the tiny cover at the bottom of the unit, and replace the RAM. Although that RAM upgrade should not have made a substantial performance change, or at least I didn't expect one, I found that some apps seem to be less apt to clog system resources. A particular example was Parallels Desktop, where I was able to launch into a Windows virtual machine somewhat more quickly, with fewer slowdowns impacting other apps. Understand that I seldom gave Windows more than 1GB of RAM, so the slowdowns shouldn't have been as drastic as they were. In any case, I appreciated the modest performance boost, but still suffered from long startup times, amounting to several minutes because I launch half a dozen apps at startup, and opening one of those large productivity apps, such as Adobe Photoshop and QuarkXPress, took 20 seconds or more. Anything that involved copying large numbers of files seemed glacial, and the 1TB Western Digital Caviar "Black" drive that shipped with the iMac was regarded as reasonably swift for its time. So I enlisted the expertise of Other World Computing, who specializes in Mac upgrades, to suggest a suitable drive upgrade for review. We settled on the closest match to the stock drive, OWC's 1TB Mercury Electra 6G SSD. If you want to buy one, it retails for $478, a fairly normal price for such a device. If you can don't need that much storage, or can rely some on an external drive, you can get a 480GB SSD for $259. OWC also includes some useful features that make it suitable for use on Macs. So what OWC calls "global wear leveling algorithms" and "StaticDataRefresh" are said to eliminate the need for one of those TRIM hacks, not officially supported with OS X Yosemite, which are often necessary for third-party SSDs. The major claim to fame with SSD is a performance level several times higher than a traditional hard drive without the wear and tear. OWC advertises "sustained reads up to 535MB/s and writes up to 443MB/s," although I made no effort to verify that claim. Alas, you can't just pop the hard drive out of an iMac and put a new one in. Installation involves a laborious process that you shouldn't try without some careful instructions. You'll also need to buy a special kit that contains some special tools and a pair of suction cups. OWC sells such a kit for $59. They have also posted an instruction video that makes the process seem less intimidating. It's still not a cakewalk, but if you pay close attention, and you're comfortable with a tiny Torx screwdriver and fiddling with slim, delicate wiring harnesses, you'll probably do all right. In addition to the SSD and the drive installation kit, OWC also sent along a 3.5-inch drive adaptor — the SSD is a 2.5-inch device — although you actually can get by without it. Oh, and by the way, next-generation of ultra-thin iMacs are even more difficult to upgrade. In place of magnets to hold the glass in place, Apple has moved to a special adhesive tape. In any case, I received the kit on a Saturday, and steeled myself for the installation the following Monday. I watched the video several times, and kept it available on another Mac, the review iMac 5K that has since been returned to Apple, just in case I needed a refresher. And I did. I won't detail all the steps here. But it starts with using the two suction cups to pry the glass from the iMac's chassis. After that, you have to unscrew a bunch of tiny Torx (six-point) screws to remove the LCD display. All this has to be done real carefully, and it's best to have some clean, soft surfaces on which to place the delicate components you're removing. Disconnecting the LCD involves unplugging some real slim wiring harnesses, and you have to be extremely careful. It's not that replacement cables are necessarily expensive, but getting them from a local Apple dealer or even an Apple Store will not be easy. They are not regarded as user serviceable parts. To prepare myself for the process, I ran a full clone backup to the external FireWire 800 drive with Carbon Copy Cloner. From beginning to end, it took over an hour to install the SSD. The photo at the left shows the iMac at the point where the LCD panel was being removed. The only fly in the ointment was the dust that accumulated inside after five years in dusty Arizona, and it required a few moments to blow it out. No doubt I improved the long-term reliability of this computer in the process. After the iMac was closed up, I carefully reconnected all the peripheral cables and the power cord. Since I had to install a new OS onto an empty drive, I pressed Option during the startup process to allow me to select the Yosemite restore partition from the backup drive. The relative speed of the installation signaled what I'd expect once the iMac had its own OS. The migration process required some four hours to restore 500GB of data to the new drive, about the same as the same migration procedure took on the iMac 5K. Once restored, I was able to give the SSD the acid test, and I was amazed. Normally it takes up to three minutes for my Mac to boot and all startup apps to load. This time the process took little more than 30 seconds to complete, and I hit the desktop in 15 seconds flat. Most apps launched instantaneously, and Adobe Photoshop took maybe three seconds. QuarkXPress 10.5 loaded in about 10 seconds. As any of you who has used an SSD can testify, just about everything runs amazing fast, and the dream of almost instant response is realized. Indeed, it is now hard to detect much of a difference between my old iMac, and the iMac 5K — the latter came with a 1TB Fusion Drive, which gives you most of the performance of a true SSD — which goes to show how much of what you do on a Mac is drive related. Based on the system tools I put into action, the iMac is also running a lot cooler now, since the drive generates little or no heat, usually not much higher than 100 degrees Fahrenheit after some intense action. It's hard to complain about that. The sole downside, and it's minor, is the fact that a 1TB SSD generally formats to around 960GB capacity, short of the 999GB used by the previous drive. But that's really a minor trade off to gain those amazing speed advantages. True, an SSD, and the accompanying installation kit, aren't exactly cheap. But it's a lot less expensive than buying a new Mac. If you would rather not engage in such extensive transplant surgery yourself, and I understand why, see if a local Mac dealer would do it for you; an Apple Store would refuse for obvious reasons. You can also ship your iMac to OWC's own plant, of course, but first see if you find a nearby dealer to handle the chores, because it will cost less, particularly when you include the cost of shipping. A nearby authorized Apple dealer, MacMedia of Scottsdale AZ, considers iMac drive upgrades a Tier 2 process for which it charges $95. It's definitely worth the peace of mind if you choose to take this step. Now OWC normally sends out review hardware for 30-day evaluations. But since reviewing this drive involved a complicated installation process, they aren't exactly rushing me to return it.
- Apple, the WWDC and the Wacky Run-up After quite a run, and ahead of a 7-to-1 stock split, Apple's stock price had declined slightly before the WWDC keynote on Monday. I suppose this was to be expected. The event was presaged with optimism, skepticism and silly claims about what the company must do to survive. Some weeks back, for example, one online pundit who doesn't deserve to be named or linked suggested that the company would be toast if the iWatch wasn't released in 60 days. When that date passed, and Apple was still here, it merely represented yet another example of commentators lying through their teeth or making downright foolish claims to generate online traffic. Having a respect for facts and logic played second fiddle. There was also the "Apple must" meme, that the WWDC keynote must be filled with new hardware and new product categories, even though it was ostensibly for developers. Thus, we know there would be news about iOS 8 and OS 10.10 because Apple said as much. But expectations that there would be new hardware weren't met. There was no Apple TV or iWatch demonstration for developers, but the people who build apps for Apple gear still got plenty to consider, including a new simplified programming language known as Swift. But OS 10 Yosemite? What about that Looney Toons cartoon character? Clearly Apple isn't taking that into consideration with OS 10.10, which will sport the rumored flatter look and feel, reminiscent of iOS. The improved transparency effects and cleaner text and windows seem interesting enough if a new OS X skin appeals to you. While Mavericks was heavily laden with hardware improvements to use RAM and power more efficiently, Yosemite is heavily disposed towards improvements for Mac users. Front and center is Continuity, which greatly simplifies the passage from Mac to iPhone to iPad, and back again. Email and messages can begin on one, and be completed on another. You can also use your Mac or, with iOS 8, your iPad to make and receive phone calls on your iPhone. Of course your iPhone has to be active on the same Wi-Fi network for this Handoff process to work. SMS messaging is also supported; again with a networked iPhone. You can also use your iPhone to set up an Instant Hotspot, though that would appear to require support from your wireless carrier, as Apple indicates on their site. Clearly Apple's critics will complain that Continuity is yet another way for Apple to rope you in to depending on their ecosystem. But there's nothing wrong with that. Other companies and their sycophants in the tech media are probably jealous. So iCloud becomes iCloud Drive, since you can now use it as an online repository for all your files, and even set up a traditional file/folder hierarchy that can be accessed on all your Apple gear, including your iPhone and iPad, along with a Windows PC. In a sense, Apple is going after Dropbox and the cloud storage systems from Microsoft and Google to set up seamless ways for you to store and easily transfer larger files. Mail for Yosemite, with the promise of greater speed and efficiency, has a new feature, dubbed Mail Drop, which lets you use your iCloud Drive as an intermediary for file attachments of up to 5GB. This will help you avoid the usual problem of sending large files to a recipient. Email services traditionally limit attachments to less than 20MB. Windows users will simply receive a link in their email to retrieve the file, which definitely rains on Hightail's parade. Since iCloud now plays a larger role in storing your stuff, new storage plans are coming. You'll still get 5GB free, but 20GB is just 99 cents per month, and 200GB is $3.99 per month. For small businesses, or families with loads of photos and other files to store and back up, the latter plan is the sweet spot. You'll be able to get up to 1TB of storage once all the options are in place. Spotlight has been enhanced to include both online and local searches, which is something you can already do under Windows. I suppose Apple is hoping you'll move away from Safari searches and rely on Spotlight to find everything. Here's why: While Google search is still supported and remains the default on Safari, Spotlight uses Microsoft Bing. I wonder how Google will react when they get the memo. As with Mavericks, OS X Yosemite will be available this fall, probably between late September and late October, as a free download and is reportedly compatible with the very same Macs that can run OS 10.9. While developers are already downloading the first Yosemite preview, up to one million Mac users will receive access to Yosemite betas this summer. So be prepared to sign up as soon as possible. I expect they will want to get a few releases out before letting non-developers gain access to the seeds. While iOS 8 also comes across as a compelling release, Apple has yet to say anything about side-by-side multitasking for iPads. I suppose that could come later. Meantime, in addition to the Swift development language, Apple is moving towards giving developers more flexility in building and selling iOS apps. There is, for example, support for Touch ID and third-party keyboards. So, although the new QuickType predictive keyboard scheme may appeal to most users, those who want a Swype or another third-party keyboard to replace Apple's will get full system support. Would that were true with other apps, and it would be nice to be able to pick something else as the default for such tasks as email and browsing. As predicted, HealthKit will be designed to allow developers of health and fitness apps to seamlessly communicate with your iOS device and the new Health app. Such major medical institutions as Mayo Clinic have announced full support, which means you'll be a tap away from monitoring your physical condition, and your doctor can receive immediate updates should test results require their attention. Apple, by the way, promises what appears to be bulletproof security for Health and also for HomeKit, a tool for developers to build apps to better integrate your connected home. The HomeKit feature is called Secure Pairing, which supposedly means that only a registered iOS device can unlock your home, adjust the lights, turn on the microwave, or perform many other functions in your home. Developers will be able to bundle apps at a special discount and offer beta testing functions via the App Store. A new "Explore" feature will make it easier for you to discover the more than 1.2 billion apps now available for iOS users. While iOS 8 won't look altogether different from iOS 7, and thus isn't apt to be quite as polarizing, that can't be said for Yosemite. Right after the initial announcement appeared in the tech media, one of my friends, who has already had a love/hate relationship with Mavericks, responded with just one word, "YUK!" Her concern is that it looks more like iOS, but I reminded her that it's still OS X and her Mac will still run like a Mac despite the changes. Oh, and by the way, the iPhone 4 is not on the iOS 8 compatibility list. It was hit or miss with iOS 7, so it makes sense it has been retired from future iOS updates. In any case, Apple's stock price resumed its upward climb Tuesday morning. Evidently Wall Street was impressed.
- About Terminating iTunes with Extreme Prejudice So iTunes hasn't exactly received the love in recent years. Some say it's bloated, although technically that's not quite true. Others are just overwhelmed by all the features that are regularly added, without taking steps to simplify the interface so the power of the app is at your beck and call. Others fret over stability and reliability issues, and reports that music databases may be borked with iTunes 12.2 and Apple Music only make matters worse. Now my history with iTunes goes back to its origins as SoundJam and later SoundJam MP Plus from a now-defunct publisher known as Casady & Greene. In 2000, Apple made the smart decision to buy the product, and bring along its developers, including Jeffrey Robbin, now a VP of consumer applications at Apple. In addition to being lead developer of iTunes, Robbin is credited with helping to create the software for the iPod, and was, several years ago, reported to be a part of the development project to create an Apple TV set. Of course, that project appears to have been discontinued, but it's notable how Apple has put Robbin in charge of significant projects. I've known him for years, and he's a real talented guy and deserving of his success. But something's gone real wrong with iTunes, and it's in need of serious repair, or Apple needs to start over and rethink the app. Before I go on, don't assume that starting over is anything new with Apple. Ask users of Final Cut Pro, for example. Although the new and far cheaper version, Final Cut Pro X, got a whole lot better over time, some loyal users chafed at the changed interface and lost features, and went elsewhere. Still, Apple is not shy about changing thingsy, and it's high time that iTunes go under the knife. The latest version, 12.2, was released to introduce Apple Music. It's otherwise substantially the same as the previous cluttered version, only it's more cluttered. It only adds new layers of inconsistency and unpredictable behavior to an app that was already breaking at the seams. A major change of version 12 was the use of a context-sensitive navigation bar that totally confounds muscle memory. So when you move from Music to Podcasts or to Movies, the options and the width of the nav bar labels changes. This may make sense from a logical point of view, but it means that you have to stop and think before you click. Apple Music merely adds extra labels for the Music section. There's no Apple Music icon, since the feature integrates with existing music features. All right, that's part of it, and I suppose most of you have gotten used to the poor implementation of this feature. There's more, however. With Apple Music, context menus usually don't work, and the ellipses that are usually placed next to the titles of albums and tracks don't deliver consistent context results. Select an album in the For You page and the ellipse will only allow you to share the album. When you click on the album to open its playlist, you have additional options to share an album, but none to tell Apple Music you want that thing off your list post haste. To make matters worse — and more confusing — if you tap and hold an album title in the For You list in Music for iOS 8.4 (and now the 9.0 beta), you not only have extra choices, but one entitled "I Don't Like This Suggestion." Why isn't that readily available with iTunes? Tell us Mr. Robbin! I realize that iTunes is very much a browser, meaning that the content you access can be instantly altered. I suppose that adding more context options is something that could be done on-the-fly without updating the app, and maybe it'll be fleshed out over time as the service is refined. For now, however, the interface and the layout are poorly designed, as if it was perhaps thrown together to meet a deadline with the hope it'll be fixed later. Kirk McElhearn, Macworld's "iTunes Guy," and my go-to expert on such matters, suggests that Apple's marketing people are being given too much power to drive the look and feel of iTunes. It's more about turning visitors into paying customers, but it doesn't even succeed on that level. If they hope you'll buy a track you're enjoying in Apple Music, the process is definitely not easy. Or perhaps Apple really does believe that we are all destined to rent music, and this is only guiding you into that direction. Remember, when you rent music, you own nothing other than the tracks you've previously purchased. Anything you've downloaded from Apple Music stops playing when you stop paying. If you decide one month you have other priorities, and you've spent days fine-tuning your custom playlists, will Apple allow you to suspend your membership for a while, and allow you to pick up where you left off a month or two later? Just asking. The reason I suggest Apple should kill iTunes and try over is that the app has moved in the wrong direction. It doesn't mean it should be split up into separate media apps, as is done in iOS. Having a single place to get play and acquire content on a Mac or PC is probably the more efficient idea. But that shouldn't keep Apple from starting over and devising a better way. It's not that there is better competition out there, particularly if you are accustomed to the Apple ecosystem. But how long will Apple allow this messy situation to continue before taking action?
- Apple and Customer Good Will As a business, when you have a loyal base of customers, you usually can be assured that they will tolerate failures or defects from time to time, usually if you level with them about what went wrong. Corporate spin control is a fine art, but quite often it's all about honestly admitting a problem and explaining to the customer in clear language what's being done to set things right. Unfortunately, corporate communications departments do not always understand the concept of being simple and direct. You get half-baked apologies, usually signed by a corporate executive, which might as well have been written for a race of robotic creatures. Within the morass of corporate speak, there's often very little of substance to be found. An apology is far less than an apology. When the issue at hand can impact the health and safety of a customer, getting the truth out becomes paramount. Lives may be at stake. This is true whether the defective product is a drug or a car. But when it comes to recalls to fix a defect in an auto or other consumer product, quite often the message is lost in legalese, and the consequences of not fixing what needs to be fixed aren't always clearly explained. It may even take months to realize there's even a problem, and that trouble reports aren't just random isolated cases that may not have any real connection to a defective product. With Apple, you have reason to expect a higher standard and prompt fixes when stuff goes wrong. While customers of the iPhone, iPad, iPod and Mac usually register higher satisfaction rates than customers of most any other tech company, it's up to Apple to keep them happy. Some believe the Apple mystique or halo is sufficient to keep customers pleased as punch even regardless. But there are limits to how much abuse a customer will take before they go elsewhere. Now I'm now saying Apple has abused customers, but sometimes they have treated them with less respect than they deserve. Take the original iPhone, which went on sale in 2007 at $499 for the 4GB version and $599 for the 8GB version. The price may have seemed awfully high, but it was unsubsidized, so you weren't saddled with a wireless service contract if you bought one. Within just a few months, the 4GB version was discontinued, and the 8GB version was repriced at $399. As you might imagine, loads of iPhone users were upset. Price protections would apply for people who bought their iPhones 14 or 30 days earlier, but that wasn't enough. In a questionable corporate move, Steve Jobs made one of his typically snarky offhand remarks that it was the price of being an early adopter. But it didn't take long for him to walk back that comment, and agree to give those affected iPhone customers a $100 credit when buying new Apple gear. Maybe it wasn't all they could do, but the furor quickly died down. Segue to the summer of 2010, when the iPhone 4 was saddled with complaints about poor reception if you held the unit the "wrong" way. So hold it differently said Jobs, and you wonder if he didn't come up with such an insult in the wee hours of the morning while his mind was otherwise occupied. Regardless, the excuse didn't last long. While it was perfectly true that all mobile handsets could be made to suffer from poor reception if your hands covered the antennas in some fashion, Apple got the brunt of the complaints. After all, the iPhone supposedly had a superior antenna system. It didn't take long for Apple to come up with a new excuse for Antennagate. It was a problem of perception, because the signal strength display algorithm was off. Apple released the update, but having a more accurate indicator didn't change the fact that poor signals would result in unacceptable call quality, slow Internet access and disconnects. So Steve Jobs finally held a press conference, where some members of the press were invited to a guided tour of Apple's $100 antenna testing facility. This time, Jobs said it was all about the laws of physics, as he revealed that other popular smartphones had similar problems when a so-called Death Grip was applied. Without admitting any fault with the iPhone 4's design, Apple nonetheless offered free bumpers and third-party cases to shield the phone, and prevent possible signal loss. In retrospect, Consumer Reports magazine, never a fan of Apple, refused to recommend the phone because of perceived antenna defects, and even refused to admit the other phones experienced the same symptoms if held "appropriately." This year, Apple has another big customer relations problem, but it was resolved differently. When the new Maps app debuted in iOS 6, customers quickly realized something was wrong. Landmarks might be misplaced, 3D views revealed melting or missing bridges, directions might be off, and if you wanted information on public transportation, you had to install someone else's app. At first, Apple PR merely promised things would get better as customers reported problems to Apple. A few days later, CEO Tim Cook issued a textbook apology that seemed at once heartfelt and descriptive. Apple was sorry, Apple was working hard to do better and, by the way, if you can't wait, feel free to go online and or download someone else's mapping app. He even offered a short list that included apps from Google and Microsoft. I won't blame Apple for making a home-brewed mapping app. Clearly they weren't getting the love from Google to deliver a turn-by-turn directions and vector graphics. But if Apple had simply put a Beta label on Maps, you'd understand that it was a work in progress and might have bugs. Yes, the marketing message is more subdued than it used to be; maybe Apple believes things will get better in a few weeks. Will that be enough? I expect that it will, but I still think Apple should have anticipated the fallout, and presented a more honest expression of the limitations of Maps before the complaints became viral. Meanwhile, it has been reported in several places that there are already improvements to the rendering of images, particularly 3D views, in Maps, including the Statue of Liberty. I checked out a few places in Brooklyn, NY where I lived as a child, and, yes, they look a whole lot more realistic.
- How About an Apple TV Digital Hub? As more and more tech pundits continue to rant about a possible Apple smart TV set maybe next year, maybe the year after, I wonder once again if they're really on the wrong track. However, this is a subject that just won't die, as you hear speculation about Apple sampling prototype TVs, ordering parts, and, in general, preparing for a product that you wonder if we really need. After all, even the people I know who don't watch TV have one lying around. You go to any consumer electronics store, and you'll find dozens and dozens of models, more, even, than PCs. So what could Apple possibly do to turn the market on its head and deliver the product you never thought you'd need? What can Apple possibly do with a TV set that would start a revolution? I do not pretend to have all the answers, or even some of them, but it's fair to look at the TV itself, and then how Apple might provide for a better user experience. When it comes to the screen, sure Apple uses the latest technologies that can be put into mass production and are reasonably affordable. So we have the Retina display on some Macs, the iPhone and the iPad. But does a higher resolution screen serve any purpose on a TV set, where the best content you can get these days is 1080p from some cable/satellite providers and Blu-ray? Yes, there are those super-expensive 4K sets, fulfilling a need that doesn't yet exist, and costing a bundle. Maybe some day, but that's not a critical issue now. Another issue on the TV set is the audio. But there are loads of low-cost home theater in-a-box setups, soundbars and other equipment that will deliver far better sound without costing you a bundle. Indeed, I plan to evaluate some of these products in the near future, so stay tuned. Yes, I suppose Apple could offer some tricked out speakers and more sophisticated electronics in the TV itself, but there's the question of cost. The Bose VideoWave II boasts of wonderful sound, but the price of admission begins just shy of $5,000 for a 46-inch set. I can't imagine too many buyers, and this is not a direction Apple would be likely to pursue. One area where help is needed is the initial setup, where you can make some adjustments for the best picture, along with built-in audio enhancements, such as faux surround sound. For the most part, these interfaces are perfectly awful, and most customers never bother. So they aren't getting the best picture their new set can deliver. Apple could make this setup process simple, and even do some automatic tune-ups, though this isn't the sole reason to build a TV set. There is, of course, content, but it would be a stretch to believe that Apple could replace your cable or satellite provider anytime soon, though I realize some of you may do rely on iTunes and Netflix, plus local stations, to get all of your programming. One real need in TV land is the integration among your various accessories. Maybe you can rely on what you get on an Apple TV and, perhaps, the antenna, but what about the Blu-ray player and the gaming console? Perhaps the most confusing part of using your TV is integrating these devices with your set, and switching back and forth. In my setup, I have just the Panasonic flat panel and a Samsung Blu-ray. I use a Logitech Harmony universal remote to simplify the process of turning things on and off, and switching inputs, but it still requires pressing a button or tapping a display to go from one source to the next. Sometimes it misses, and I have to use Help or repeat the process. On occasion, the sound from the Blu-ray, piped via HDMI to the TV set, disappears, and I can only fix the problem by switching back to the DirecTV set top box and return to the Blu-ray. All just to watch that movie. So what about a new generation Apple TV that can be used as a dock, your digital hub, to connect all your equipment, from a cable/satellite box to gaming console? The rear will contain the usual assortment of HDMI ports and audio ports. But Apple's marvelous software, no doubt using the iOS, can be used to make setups and switching among devices easy as pie. You can announce to Siri you want to play a game, or watch a DVD, or connect to channel 242 on your DirecTV box (it's USA Network, in case you're wondering). Apple might even offer to provide front-ends to the cable and satellite people, so all you have to do is run one of their apps, login to your account, and access all of your programming, schedule pay-per-view and time-shifting without need of another appliance. This sort of integration might be the most sensible way for Apple to make a difference in TV land, without, of course, somehow providing all of the services. But that would require cooperation and licensing from the cable/satellite people. I suppose an Apple smart TV would sell pretty well, particularly if the price premium isn't high. But Apple would have to be able to change a lot of things besides the interface to make it worthwhile. A souped up Apple TV box would be the best bet, as far as I'm concerned.
This article was posted on Friday, July 23rd, 2010 at 12:00 AM and is filed under News and tagged with: antennagate, Consumer Reports, CR, Digital Cameras, dishwasher, HTC, Iphone, iPhone 4, Jesus phone, Mac, Mac Os, Mac versus PC, media events, Microsoft Windows, Motorola, Nokia, review products, Samsung, smartphones, snow leopard, Toyota, Windows 7, Youtube.