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The Apple Smart TV: Meeting the Needs of — What?

Just as soon as I thought that discussions about Apple building a TV set had begun to die down, the rumors are back in full force. An AP report this week quotes Brian White, an analyst from Topeka Capital markets, as suggesting that the set, which he calls the “iTV,” will go on sale in the latter part of the year at estimated prices of between $1,500 and $2,500. White envisions a 60-inch version, but suggests that there would be 50-inch and 55-inch models as well.

I’m not going to bother explaining the problems using the iTV name, other than that it’s already used for a broadcasting network in the UK.

One new wrinkle in the Apple smart TV speculation is an iRing. That makes me think back to a DC comics character, Green Lantern. In the comics, and that failed movie, test pilot Hal Jordan is given a magic ring by an extraterrestrial who crashes to earth. He uses it as a focal point for his super powers.

Not to be outdone, White is speaking of using an iRing to control the TV by pointing at it and gesturing. Possible, I suppose, but I started thinking about potential family conflicts, as children and parents fought over who would be allowed to wear the “magic ring.” Or would they have several rings, and fight over who had the right to direct the TV. But I also wondered about the interface. Wouldn’t Siri voice recognition be better: “TV: Switch to channel 244.” (In case you’re wondering, on DirecTV that number takes you to the SyFy channel).

It would seem that voice recognition would work better, assuming that the internal audio system can pick up a distinct voice from, say, ten feet away. And that may be the most difficult task of all.

Now it’s not that I wouldn’t seriously consider acquiring such a beast, assuming there’s enough cash on hand, or available credit. But I also wonder whether such silly fluff as an iRing would be sufficient to set the TV market on its head. Just exactly what need would Apple hope to fill?

Let’s for example, take a look what’s involved in setting up a typical smart TV. Last week, VIZIO sent me a review sample of one of their newest budget 3D models, the $899 E551D-A0, which should be available from Amazon and the usual consumer electronics outlets shortly. As the model number implies, it’s a 55-inch set, with all the bells and whistles, including edge-lit LED, loads of picture adjustment settings, and a bunch of apps.

When you turn on the set for the first time, you’re taken to a serviceable setup assistant that you manage with the scrolling buttons on the remote. Unlike some other VIZIO sets, there is no keyboard at the rear of the remote, so you are forced to click OK in a text field to bring up an onscreen keyboard. In case your wondering, even an Apple TV uses on onscreen keyboard.

After about five minutes or so, I had completed the basic setup routine, which includes logging into my Wi-Fi router, so I could use the bundled apps and receive firmware updates as needed from VIZIO. There’s nothing about this interface scheme that should confuse even the novice user if you just pay attention to each step. The back button on the remote lets you return to a setting if you think it was messed up.

One way to use the smart features is to press the app button on the remote (resembling the VIZIO logo), which loads an app display at the bottom of the screen. You almost think of the dock on OS X, except that these app icons are rectangles. Use the right and left arrows on the remote to scroll through the list. Press OK to launch an app. The rest of the functions depend on the app’s interface. There are also dedicated buttons for Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, and M-Go. Making changes in picture and audio settings is done with an interfaces similar to what you find on other affordable TVs.

So far so good.

But the real problem occurs when you want to integrate a set with your other connected devices. Say you have a typical home theater setup that includes your smart TV, cable/satellite box, Apple TV, maybe a game console or two, plus a surround sound audio system. Now there are universal remotes that promise to sort through this mess, only they can be difficult to program. Consider the problem I faced getting a Logitech Harmony 900 remote to support the VIZIO’s input changing scheme. No, there’s nothing strange about the layout, but it still confounds all efforts I’ve made to program the Harmony.

I don’t expect Apple to replace all those devices. But Apple may be the only company to figure out how to sort through this mess, perhaps with an enhanced auto learn routine that will figure out all the proper commands and integration techniques without forcing you to be a programmer. And not make constant mistakes, which is the other issue you might confront even after your universal remote is properly programmed.

I don’t assume managing multiple devices is the only serious problem with the current TV setup and connection routine. But it’s a start.