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Another Part of the Apple Integrated TV Equation

All right, you know that I’m quite skeptical about whether Apple is really going to get into the TV game. It’s not that they wouldn’t do a great job developing such a product. It’s not that it wouldn’t be super easy to use and deliver a great picture. The issue is whether enough people would buy such a product, even if the price is highly competitive, and that’s a numbers game that Apple knows very well.

You see, today’s TV sets are reasonably easy to use, although the initial setup process might prove a tad daunting. This came to the forefront in a reader’s comments the other day, pointing out that, after setting an external home theater audio system, the set’s internal speakers were still audible. It doesn’t seem that TV makers are aware of the fact that, except maybe for highly overpriced the Bose VideoWave, the internal audio system is nowhere a match to the quality of the picture. Lots of users are going to connect the set to an external audio system, and the act of establishing such a connection ought to automatically disable the internal speakers. But that rarely, if ever, occurs, or at least I’ve never found a set where connecting something to an external audio output mutes the speakers. Yes, it happens on a personal computer, so you’d think TV makers would have read the memos.

Perhaps the TV makers could ask that question during the setup process: Do you plan to use a separate audio system with your new TV? Press Yes, and the internal speakers are disabled (though they can be switched on later if change your mind).

But that may be just the tip of the iceberg when it comes with the new TV setup process, or what you might encounter when you add something new to your system. Now when it comes to a cable or satellite set top box, unless you opt for the do-it-yourself installation — in which cause I hope and trust the instructions are clear enough to properly guide someone who isn’t a power user — an installer is going to do it all for you. If you want to integrate your remotes with the one provided with your set top box — and that probably applies to many users — they will handle it for you, or should. Most TV sets, home audio systems, Blu-ray players and so forth should integrate nicely. Well, except for an Apple TV, which as its own unique remote control layout.

Regardless of how well the remote is integrated with your various components, that’s where matters get the most confusing. The volume control of the audio source, whether the TV or an external audio system, should reflect the volume control selection on your remote. This isn’t a given, and not all remotes manage this chore. You also want to find a way to turn everything off at once, rather than have to choose one device, press Off, choose another device, etc. Cable and satellite remotes will often manage this chore for the TV set and the proprietary set top box, but probably not the sound system, the Blu-ray player and the other gear.

When it comes to a reasonable degree of integration, the Logitech Harmony remotes are fairly good. The ones I’ve used are programmed via an app on your Mac or Windows PC. You pick the make and model of your TV, set top box, and other gear, and a preset configuration will be loaded. I was able to make this setup function reasonably well with a Panasonic TV, Bose sound system, and Samsung Blu-ray player, with a singular exception noted below. Since the Apple TV doesn’t have a physical on/off switch, I only needed to switch to that output, but it doesn’t seem as if the Harmony can replace the functions of Apple’s minimalist remote, which isn’t a favorite of mine anyway.

Logitech offers a visual display of the inputs to which you want to switch. A monolithic on/off switch will only turn on the components you’re using, but not the others. This sort of works, although, when switching from the Blu-ray player back to the satellite box, the player isn’t always turned off. It’s set to work that way, but maybe Samsung’s internal configuration is too stubborn for a Logitech.

Understand that the task of input switching, turning your gear on and off, and the other functions, are fairly basic. Once you get accustomed to the routine, it’s not so bad. Issues arise when you add more gadgetry, and the overall approach could be a lot better. Here’s where Apple might make a difference. If Steve Jobs truly “cracked the code” of simplifying the setup and use of multiple TV-related gear, that could be a major improvement.

But the job of simplification wouldn’t work if it meant that the Apple integrated TV did everything. Sure, Apple may prefer that you stream content from iTunes or one of their partners, such as Netflix, but the fact of the matter is that tens of millions of you have Blu-ray players, gaming consoles, external sound systems and other gear that needs to be properly configured and integrated. Is Apple preparing a whole living room solution that will encompass all these products, and simplify their use? Would you just tell Siri, “switch to the Blu-ray,” and have it do everything in the background, including turning off your cable box if you have one? Would you then say, “Siri, open the tray” to insert a disc?

Using your TV set with a standard cable or satellite hookup can be done without much complication. As you add gadgets to the mix, setup and regular use may present obstacles. If Apple can solve that with a TV set or Apple TV on steroids, it would be a boon to a saturated industry. But whether enough people would appreciate Apple’s high level of simplicity and elegance enough to spend a bundle on a new TV set remains an open question.