The Apple TV has been considered Apple’s next potential great thing for quite a while. First a hobby, it’s now a supposedly full-fledged product that seems strangely unfinished. To many, it’s just another streamer, a way to deliver TV shows and movies to your TV set, and content from your Mac or iOS device courtesy of AirPlay. But where does Apple expect to take it?
In the wake of the best-selling authorized biography of Steve Jobs from Walter Isaacson, I’m sure many of you expected something amazing was about to happen. Jobs said Apple had devised the best TV interface anywhere, but where is it? Knowing his time was short, was Jobs merely trying to spook the competition into wasting money to compete with a product that was never to be?
Just what is Apple’s final solution to take the living room into the 21st century?
Certainly there are plenty of hints. We know from Apple CEO Tim Cook that TV remains an area of intense interest. We know that millions own an Apple TV, but enhancements in recent years have been minor since the 2010 redesign. In 2012, support for 1080p video was added, and there was a minor processor upgrade the following year that did nothing to change performance.
Since then, the Apple TV has gained new channels, but also gained complexities because each channel just gives you yet another app and interface to navigate. Here Roku might offer the better alternative since you can search content across services.
Indeed, according to published reports, Roku outsells Apple TV nowadays, and offers over 1,800 channels on its streamers compared to a few dozen with Apple. All right, you have to manually add most of them via Roku’s web-based interface, so it’s not what you’d call an easy process, not even close.
Still Roku appears to be king of the hill. There’s a decent product lineup starting with the $39.99 Roku LT stick, topped with the $99.99 Roku 3. I’ve had the latter for a while, and it is razor fast, with a decent interface that allows for fairly quick navigation. Roku specializes in offering loads of third-party services, which means you have to go directly to each site to set up new accounts and send your payment information. Nothing just works.
So Apple TV is second or third best nowadays in both sales and content offerings, depending on which estimates you read. The easy integration with Apple services and your Apple gear is a huge plus, and if you stick with iTunes for content, you don’t even have to establish a new account. You merely have to enter your WI-Fi login info and your Apple ID and you’re good to go.
But Apple TV’s interface doesn’t break any new ground. It’s flatter these days, closer in concept to iOS conventions. Aside from having more channels, there’s not a lot new there, and it seems Apple just ignored its streamer for the holiday season. All the attention is on the iPhone 6 series and the hot-selling 27-inch iMac 5K.
Well, there is 4K, or UHD, the higher definition TV sets that are supposed to be the big stars for the holiday season. When a 4K TV was several thousand dollars, sales were low. Now that you can get a pretty good 4K set for less than $1,000 from mainstream makers such as VIZIO, TV makers are hoping it’s the magic bullet to jump start the flagging industry.
Certainly, 3D did nothing. VIZIO, in fact, has killed the feature on new sets, and I haven’t heard much in the way of complaints. You can still buy 3D sets from other companies, but most 3D viewing is confined to the local multiplex. Being forced to put on a pair of glasses and sit in a confined space in your home when you want to watch TV is a non-starter for most, even though prices are only slightly higher than regular TVs.
But even 4K may be a hard sell. Don’t forget that you really can’t see the improved picture quality unless you sit real close or have a really large set. I expect that over 60 inches is a sweet spot, though I’ve seen 55-inch 4K TVs that, when viewed from a decent distance, seem to offer a superior picture.
Unfortunately bringing a 4K set into your home is only part of the problem. What about content? The demonstrations I usually see at the local Best Buy are largely confined to still pictures, which help exploit the resolution advantage. But there are few movies, and few ways to deliver them. We don’t have 4K Blu-ray players in stores this year, and TV services are just beginning to work at deploying content. DirecTV is offering a 4K promotion with Samsung sets, but you wonder why other brands aren’t involved yet. Netflix is also supposed to deliver limited 4K, but how many of you have broadband connections that offer enough speed to accommodate the higher bit rates?
It’s another chicken and egg problem, though I suppose there will be enough 4K content if sales are decent. But who will buy until there’s content, unless they just want to future proof? In any case, 4K sets scale up regular HD content with varying degrees of success.
Meantime, I suppose the next Apple TV — which appears overdue at this point — will support 4K. That will give Apple one temporary advantage. The other would be an interface that makes it easier to grab content across channels, and perhaps simpler integration if you have several devices hooked up to your set.
I know Apple prefers to live in its own ecosystem, but people do buy game consoles, soundbars, Blu-rays and other accessories. Integrating all that hardware is not always easy, even with the best universal remote.
If Apple wants to bring TV viewing into the 21st century, why not start with the issues discussed in the previous two paragraphs? I’m sure you can add to that list, and I haven’t even considered the possibility of a 4K set from Apple.