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  • Missing the Apple TV

    February 15th, 2017

    I have a third-generation Apple TV. Released in 2012, it was mostly identical to the 2010 second-generation model, except for support for 1080p HD. As a practical matter, the difference between 720p and 1080p two is slight unless you look real close, especially if you don’t have a large screen TV. Besides, streaming video is heavily compressed, so quality is far removed from that of a Blu-ray.

    So it went until the fourth-generation model arrived in the fall of 2015. At the time, it was rumored that Apple was working on its own TV subscription service, sort of in the mold of Sling TV, a streaming service that features channels culled from the regular Dish Network satellite system. The rumors sort of died off after it was reported that Apple and the TV networks just couldn’t get together on an agreement. Maybe Apple’s contract demands were too onerous, although that’s may just be a cliche.

    In the end, though, do we need yet another TV subscription service? I’m not at all convinced that Sling TV and DirecTV NOW represent so much of an advantage over traditional cable and satellite fare. They do not, for example, offer you the ability to time shift your favorite shows. And what about local stations? They’re only available in limited areas on DirecTV NOW and Sling TV. Otherwise you have to reside in an area that qualifies for on-demand national service, or set up your own antenna. Awkward!

    I’m sure Apple would have addressed such limitations, but I’m not at all convinced of the need for such services. If you want a cheap package, there are plenty offered by the existing cable and satellite systems in the U.S. Quite often you can get a big discount on a 12-month or 24-month discount deal. When the deal expires, you can split or try to cut a similar or better deal.

    It’s not the same as cord-cutting, where you can subscribe to a few services to get a selection of shows that meet your tastes. In passing, I think traditional broadcast TV stations are fighting for their lives against cable and Netflix. The quality of broadcast scripted shows these days is far better too, and I have been able to survive for years on the cheap. Basic cable or satellite, Netflix and an occasional movie rental from iTunes.

    In any case, the 4th-generation Apple TV seems out of sync with the rest of the market. The competition from Amazon, Google and Roku have already adopted 4K — and the higher resolution TV sets are starting to take over the market — so Apple’s solution seems old fashioned. Why didn’t the Apple TV offer 4K support? Did Apple hold off the new model pending the launch of the subscription TV service and, when it failed to gel, rushed out a new Apple TV as a fallback?

    I thought it might be updated in 2016 to include 4K and HDR, but no. Is Apple waiting to upgrade iTunes to offer 4K content? Are we waiting for the December 2017 quarter for a product refresh? It’s not as if the media appears to be asking Apple about the lack of 4K. Clearly Apple supports it, since recent iPhones can record Ultra HD video, and don’t forget the 27-inch iMac with 5K Retina display and the troubled LG UltraFine 5K display.

    With Siri support and regular tvOS updates, it does seem that Apple is showing some level of commitment to Apple TV. But from what I’ve read and seen about the fourth-generation model, it appears to be an interim solution. It has potential, but Apple needs to do more. But adding 4K and HDR aren’t likely to be simple firmware updates with the existing model — or maybe I’m wrong on this — so it means a full product refresh is called for.

    As for my old Apple TV: I haven’t felt any need to consider setting aside money for a new one. It works fine, and manages the two basic tasks I’ve applied to it with reasonable efficiency. To me, it’s all about Netflix, and that rare movie rental. I might consider subscribing to CBS All Access when “Star Trek: Discovery” debuts later this year. But I also suspect that, if customers aren’t flocking to the service once the new exclusives, which also include a spinoff to “The Good Wife,” debut, they may just end up on free TV. So I don’t plan to rush.

    As it stands, Apple’s plans to conquer the living room aren’t really jelling. Apple TV isn’t quite ready. Apple is probably not going to do subscription TV now or ever. Even though there may be some original content, it won’t be near as extensive as Netflix. That doesn’t seem a direction the company wants to take. So we’re just going to see some level of baby steps for a while.

    But I’m not altogether convinced cord cutting will succeed except at the edges. While it’s possible to save lots of money if you are careful about how many services you order, if you are at all interested in a wide range of content, a bunch of monthly fees adds up real fast. Maybe the cable and satellite companies need to find ways to keep prices down, improve services, and offer a wider range of low-cost packages to better meet the needs customers who don’t want to be stuck with 300 channels and nothing to watch.



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