The TV Experience: Living in the 1980s?

May 14th, 2015

So when Tim Cook complains about the shortcomings of the TV/living room experience, just what is he talking about? Unfortunately, when he’s interviewed, there are seldom follow-up questions. They just move on to other subjects, grateful they got to talk to him in the first place.

But rather than guess what he meant, I’d rather focus on my personal experience as a too-frequent TV watcher of broadcast, cable and streaming content. I am quite happy to cut costs, but there are shows I watch regularly, and I’m sure many of you agree with me on this approach.

Now our one-and-only family TV set is in the master bedroom. It is connected to a standard Blu-ray player, an Apple TV, a Cox set-top box, and a sound box. The latter is the equivalent of a sound bar that is essentially a long thin stand for the TV. Supposedly it offers better quality sound than traditional sound bars. Aside from an overpriced Bose TV, audio quality on most sets is barely passable.

In any case, just turning on the TV and activating the appropriate input can be an involved process. Rather than confront multiple remotes, I use a universal type, a Logitech Harmony. Configuring the unit can be a tad of a chore, even though the setup routine includes profiles for different devices. Once set up, it usually works, but since the IR remote sensors are at different locations for each device, I have to aim it just right to make all the components work and not to have to go through a Help process. I can’t tell you how many times Barbara has complained that the TV or the cable box never turned on.

Now some universal remote schemes include separate IR receivers that you attach to various devices so you don’t have to aim and shoot so accurately. Without the separate receivers, the Apple TV’s sensor has a serious shortcoming, a very narrow range of sensitivity, which makes it more difficult to control.

What you see here merely involves turning on the TV, or switching inputs. That’s all. In any case, just finding a workable solution that doesn’t require you to tilt or stretch your arm in an uncomfortable way, or getting out of bed in an awkward fashion to make a change, means that what should be a simple process can be complicated.

So if you just have the TV and the cable/satellite box, and are willing to put up with subpar audio, you might actually be lucky.

If Tim Cook confronts a similar mess in his living room, I can see where he’s unhappy, and I haven’t even considered the interfaces for the TV and other products.

Of course, once your TV is set up, you may see some onscreen messages when switching inputs, but it’s otherwise uninvolved when it comes to the interface. You are, however, confronting the interface of whatever device you’re using to hook up to that TV. The cable/satellite box, and even the mostly superior TiVO, are usually offering you a list of channels, with the option to browse, switch, search, and if a DVR, record, schedule a recording or use a season pass. The latter setting allows you to record entire seasons of a show, and sometimes the box is smart enough to recognize day and time changes. You may also have to configure the device to start a show a minute early and have it end a minute later because networks, particularly broadcast, pull stunts to have them start at slightly odd times to keep you from switching to another channel if your cable/satellite box can’t handle more than one or two signals at a time. These days, some of those boxes can manage up to six.

In any case, the fundamentals of those TV interfaces haven’t changed much in 20 years. They are a little prettier, more colorful and flexible, but there aren’t any significant differences in usability.

Now when you switch to your streaming box, such as the Apple TV or Roku, you confront yet another interface. Apple’s is simple, mostly, but the Apple Remote requires multiple clicks to navigate through menus. Worse, each content channel may have a somewhat different interface and setup process, so suddenly managing various sources may be somewhat confusing. If you have lots of channels from which to choose, the clutter can become unwieldy.

Cutting the cord, having to switch from several different sources of TV content to fill your needs, is therefore a chore. Saving money isn’t simple unless you just set up an antenna and live with whatever broadcast stations you can receive.

Notice I haven’t gotten to the Blu-ray player or the gaming console.

In short this is a mess, and I wonder what Apple can bring to the table to simplify your life. Obviously, they’d like to keep you using one box, theirs, and give up the others. At least that would eliminate the input switching glitches. But it would require offering enough variety to allow you to dump cable/satellite, Blu-ray and the gaming console.

Understand that I am accustomed to the situation and have managed to cope with this setup for several years, since the Logitech remote and the Apple TV were added to the mix. But I am not satisfied, and I look forward to something that just works without the complications. Can Apple deliver that solution? I would hope so, but I’m not about to make any guesses.

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