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The Apple Spooking the Media Report

Even though Apple CEO Tim Cook didn’t actually say anything new about whether there’s going to be an Apple smart TV in our future, he said enough in recent interviews to restart speculation. Since there was obviously nothing new this year in Apple’s TV initiatives, other than a new version of Apple TV with 1080p resolution, and some software updates, maybe it’s all been pushed off until 2013.

Or maybe not.

Now it’s certainly true that Apple has spooked not just the media but the rest of the tech industry. Earlier this year, no less than Lenovo, one of the top-tier PC makers, was demonstrating a smart TV at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The Lenovo K-series consists of four models in 42-inch and 55-inch sizes, running Google’s Android OS. But don’t rush to your TV store to try one out, since they are only available in China. At least so far.

How they’d fare in the U.S., assuming Lenovo decided to expand distribution, is anyone’s guess, since there’s already a surfeit of TV sets here. And it’s not as if Google has done well with TV interfaces, particularly when you consider the huge failure of Google TV.

At the same time, TV makers continue to drop prices to compete, and that doesn’t necessarily mean the sets are bad. In fact, I recently had a look at a 50-inch VIZIO E-Series LED TV, which lists for $699.99, and is sold by some of the mass market discounters, such as Walmart, Sam’s Club and Costco. It’s not 3D, but offers a reasonable set of online apps, such as Netflix and Hulu Plus, par for the course with smart TVs these days. Despite the cheap price, the in-store demonstration unit was impressive, with a bright, crisp picture that displayed decent uniformity with a reasonably wide viewing angle. I might even get one from VIZIO to test, but the point is that this is the mainstream TV set nowadays. Where does Apple fit in?

One industry analyst, Katy Huberty of Morgan Stanley, suggests that Apple could sell 13 million smart TVs next year in the U.S., at an average price of $1,060 each. I would presume that Apple would offer some of the common sizes, such as 42-inch, 50-inch, possibly 60-inch. But that price of admission would seem pretty cheap, since it’s no more expensive than a mid-line Panasonic plasma these days.

Isn’t Apple supposed to be the provider of premium-priced gear?

More to the point, other than an iOS-inspired interface, based on the Apple TV or perhaps more inclusive, what would Apple offer to tempt you to pay a little bit more for something with their logo on it? A Web cam?

Would it have a better picture than existing sets, some sort of improved technology to render deep blacks, smooth action scenes, and a very wide viewing angle? And how does Apple differentiate such features from the pack? These days, only a small number of really cheap sets offer a less-than-good picture.

Now, except for a handful of really expensive models, TV sets these days come in a variation of LCD or plasma. LCD is the technology used on Apple’s existing displays, as you know. But the original flat panel sets relied on plasma. Rather than discuss the technology, let me just say that the best plasmas offer beautiful pictures, with deep blacks and a virtually unlimited viewing angle. The latter is important for families that crowd around the “tube,” and don’t want to keep their heads in a vice.

At the same time, plasmas are prone to reflections, and may not play as bright as LCD. You’ll also find that power consumption can be a lot higher, and they surely run hotter. I have a 2008 Panasonic 50-inch plasma, one of the entry-level models, and it can warm the master bedroom all by itself. Really.

Over the years, LCD, with LED backlighting and other enhancements, has come really close to plasma in many ways, such as improved black levels and wider viewing angles, while offering much lower power consumption. So I suspect that, if Apple plays the smart TV game, it’ll be some variation of LCD, particularly if they want to remain environmentally friendly and keep power consumption down.

The other element is sound. The audio on most sets, even with faux surround sound, is passable, but seldom compelling. Many of you buy separate sound systems, and that makes sense. Perhaps the most interesting answer to mediocre TV audio is the Bose VideoWave II, which offers a built-in tricked out speaker system in 46-inch and 55-inch versions. But the cheapest model is $4,999, and it’s very doubtful Apple would want to play that game.

In saying that, however, it would be nice to see Apple find a better answer to TV sound, even modestly better. But this is hardly where Apple hopes to make a difference in the TV business. Indeed, other than the interface, which doesn’t require a full-blown TV to implement, where does Apple strut its stuff? Would the Apple logo and the iOS-inspired look and feel be sufficient to get 13 million people in the U.S. to buy one the very first year? And is that sufficient reason to build one?

I can see where Apple can make a bundle in the TV business. But I still wonder what they would contribute to the industry beyond what an Apple TV set top box can offer.