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  • 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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