What the Apple TV is Missing

January 19th, 2018

As regular readers know, I haven’t used my third-generation Apple TV for several weeks. It was hooked up to my VIZIO 4K TV during the installation process. I checked the input to make sure it was fully operational, and seeing that it was, I never used it again.

I’m even thinking about selling it on eBay.

This all comes as a pretty new development to me. I’ve had so-called “smart” TVs for a number of years. The first, a 50-inch Panasonic plasma from the last decade, had an interface that was dead slow and almost unusable. Similar to car makers, the TV industry was slow to recognize the need to perfect embedded software beyond the basic setup screens.

The 55-inch VIZIO E-Series, acquired at a professional discount in 2012, had a more up-to-date smart TV feature, with dedicated buttons on the remote for different services. Only it barely worked, even though all of the settings were correct. The firmware was up to date and all, and I had the option of having the set repaired under warranty, but I didn’t bother. The interface just wasn’t ready for prime time, and I had that Apple TV on which to rely for iTunes and Netflix content.

Beginning in 2016, VIZIO evidently realized it wasn’t worth crafting its own smart TV features and thus switched to Google Chromecast. For that year, a small Android tablet was offered as an alternative to the standard remote. This year, it’s just the remote, no doubt to keep costs down.

The remote has six embedded buttons for different services, including the three that may be essential: VUDO, Netflix and Amazon. Several others, including Hulu, are featured when you access the SmartCast input. Additional apps can be “cast” via the SmartCast app on iOS and Android gear, which can also double as replacements for the remote.

A recent article in TechHive explains how smart TV has improved greatly in recent years as TV makers rely on the companies making streaming set-top boxes to deliver apps and interfaces. So you can buy sets powered by Android TV, Roku and even Amazon’s Fire TV.

This way, the set maker doesn’t have to concern itself with developing its own software, which is usually inferior. While most TVs above the very cheapest now feature 4K, and HDR is spreading, they have largely become commodity products. You probably won’t find a picture that’s less than acceptable. There are very affordable models from VIZIO and TCL that offer picture quality very close to models costing hundreds or thousands more.

Regardless of which ecosystem you prefer, you’ll find user interfaces that are relatively easy to use, and performance has become far better as TV makers use faster CPUs for their smart TV apps.

So where does that leave separate streaming set-top boxes?

Well, if you have an older set, or the one you bought recently doesn’t have the interface you prefer — maybe you’d rather have Apple TV instead of Roku, Google or Amazon — you’ll still want to buy a separate box. But if you’re willing to be a little open minded, it may well be that the set you have will deliver just about all the streaming content you want with decent performance. Even though there are thousands of streaming services, most people stick with Netflix and Amazon, and possibly a smattering of Hulu and YouTube.

No, that’s not a survey, but clear from the current state of the streaming industry.

It goes back to my original comments about my Apple TV. If you are at all involved in Apple’s ecosystem, particularly iTunes, you may still prefer Apple’s streamer. The same holds true for exclusive Apple TV apps, although I doubt that many have taken off beyond the old standbys.

The advance of smart TV only reduces Apple’s prospects, but what does it do to get back in the game? Can Apple conquer the living room, or is that a failed dream?

Well how about making deals with some TV makers to embed Apple TV in some premium models?

It may seem against Apple’s DNA to want to control the whole widget, but what about CarPlay? Hundreds of motor vehicle models are set up to allow you to cast iPhone apps in the infotainment system. Apple is obviously limited by the quality of the audio and the flexibility of the auto maker’s interface, but that hasn’t prevented them from integrating the iPhone experience.

To be fair, many of these vehicles also include Android Auto.

It appears to work all right, though I don’t like the fact that only a few models, so far, allow you to do it wirelessly, and they tend to be luxury vehicles priced out of the range of most of you.

To my way of thinking, such as it is, it makes perfect sense to embed Apple TV hardware and software into a TV set. Apple ought to consider the possibilities before the remaining TV makers adopt other platforms. Ir would not only provide a familiar interface for TV viewers, keep customers from exiting Apple’s ecosystem and perhaps acquaint new customers with the company’s gear.

I don’t really see a downside. Do you?

Well, one, perhaps. As streamers become more powerful, the one in your TV set will be stuck with the original hardware. But regular software upgrades might keep it current for at least a few years.

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7 Responses to “What the Apple TV is Missing”

  1. dfs says:

    There are some reasons why I’m still convinced that Apple TV (and probably some other similar devices) is the better way to go. First and foremost, I’ve put up a posting here about the difficulties I have watching steaming content on my Sony Bravia set: I am convinced that these are due to the fact that the set shipped with inadequate memory. But what exactly is adequate memory for a smart TV? Here one faces three obstacles. First, there is very little information on his subject out there with which he can familiarize himself in order to become an adequately informed purchaser in what is a rather bewildering market place. Second, in publishing their specs t. v. manufacturers rarely supply any meaningful information about memory capacity or processing speed. So, although a smart t. v. is a specialized form of computer, the kind of information that can easily found and can be meaningfully evaluated and compared before opting to buy a particular make and model of desktop or laptop computer simply isn’t available. And this is a subject that reviewers rarely address. Third, most often if you buy a smart t. v. and then, like me, discover that its memory and/or processing power is inadequate, there isn’t anything you can do about it other than regret having made the purchase. At least if you didn’t buy a Samsung. Samsung is the one mfr. I have come across who far which offers memory upgrade kits. On the other hand, with the Apple t. v. you have the advantage of knowing precisely what you’re getting before buying it. To me, anyway, this is a whale of an advantage.

    And while we’re on the subject, I’d also add that since a smart t. v. is in essence a specialized form of computer, it is liable to some of the same problems as any other one. There is, for example, the question of security issues. A smart t. v. is eminently hackable. Here, too, there is a significant dearth of information available to potential purchasers, and security is an issue about which smart t. v. mfrs. seem to have little concern.

    So to me the smart t. v. marketplace looks like a wild and wooly place in which it is all too easy for a purchaser to make bad decisions he will soon have cause to regret. And, given the dearth of available information (supplied either by mfrs. or reviewers) concerning some very important issue, it is difficult if not downright impossible to avoid making such bad choices. So from where I sit teaming up an Apple TV, or maybe some similar device (I don’t know enough about the competition to have anything to say) with a non-smart 4k set is a much safer way to go.

    • gene says:

      My article focused on the addition of smart TV interfaces from Amazon, Google and Roku, all of which are at the very least acceptable.

      Obviously if you have a set with a miserable interface, there are options.


  2. dfs says:

    My point is that a purchaser should be able to AVOID buying a set with
    a miserable interface. In the current state of the marketplace, regarding both how sets are typically advertised and how they are typically reviewed, this is, unfortunately, not possible

    • gene says:

      CNET and other review sources, such as PCMag, definitely evaluate the interface of a TV set. You can certainly check it at the dealer, asking to see the remote and maybe accessing the Settings menus.

      The interfaces of VIZIO’s current sets, aside from Chromecast, are pretty clear and reasonably snappy. I had no difficulty going through them.

      I wouldn’t buy a set unless I can see and touch it first.

      Certainly, I’d recommend you look for a set that has support for Amazon, Google or Roku, particularly the latter. That will insure at least an acceptable interface for smart TV features. The basic settings for the TV are seldom revisited after the initial setup.


  3. dfs says:

    I looked at a couple of CNET t. v. reviews. They form a great contrast with the kind of reviews available for other kinds of computing equipment: there are no numbers! And normally we regard numbers as all-important. Would you buy a laptop if the spec sheet didn’t indicate how much RAM came with it? Especially a laptop with no means of increasing its installed RAM?

    • gene says:

      They give you numbers for the picture test results, along with recommended settings. You will also get specs for such things as the number of HDMI ports.

      During my evaluation of the VIZIO, I used their numbers and the ones from Consumer Reports to see the differences and to compare them to my own settings in terms of getting the best picture when set up in my bedroom.

      What specs were you looking for?


  4. dfs says:

    I mean the kind of numbers that would determine my choice of any other computer. I am primarily thinking of memory capacity (which, as I have said, on the basis of my personal experience I suspect is vital for handling streaming content without choking, and perhaps also determines the nr. of apps a set can handle). And perhaps also processor speed.

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