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  • How About an Apple TV Digital Hub?

    December 28th, 2012

    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.



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    2 Responses to “How About an Apple TV Digital Hub?”

    1. Carl Laughnan says:

      Gene,
      Another reason for an Apple smart TV that I have not seen discussed is the sorry state of current smart TV interfaces.
      I came across this article yesterday which makes a compelling case as to why internet-enabled smart TVs are often underused by their owners:
      http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2012/12/internet-tv-sucks/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+wired%2Findex+%28Wired%3A+Top+Stories%29
      This may dovetail into the TV interface argument you make, but it goes well beyond just the initial setup. I am sure Apple can do a much better job in integrating the apps on the TV, making them much easier to use and navigate and using the Apple TV box and your iPhone / iPad as the input device.
      Making it easier to search for and play video content on the TV is where Apple can excel in this space.

      Gene Steinberg Reply:

      @Carl Laughnan, Beyond the initial setup of a new TV, you don't need to visit the interface again, unless you need to, for example, change the output from internal speakers to an external audio system. The apps, such as Netflix and such, can all be accessed via the Apple TV box.

      Peace,
      Gene

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