The media comments about Windows 10 and the forthcoming Android M have been largely breathless. It’s not that there are so many new features for each, but I suppose something is better than nothing.
Consider Windows 10. One article I read the other day suggested the most important new feature was the Start menu. Of course, a Start menu has been a front and center feature of Windows for years, until Microsoft, in its infinite lack of wisdom, derailed it for Windows 8 and barely brought it back for 8.1.
Did it make sense to give up on a feature Windows users had be accustomed to using with reasonable success for years? I suppose it would be equivalent to Apple telling you there was no more Finder, or Apple menu, or Dock. Yes, you can find people who hate those features for various reasons, but it’s not that Apple is going to give any of them up without a reasonable alternative. Microsoft did not have a reasonable alternative.
Now on this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we featured the return of cutting-edge commentator and investigative journalist Daniel Eran Dilger, of Roughly Drafted Magazine and AppleInsider. This time, Daniel talked about the differences in Apple Maps in China and the dearth of compelling new features announced for the next version of Android — M — at the recent Google I/O conference, pointing out that some of the new features were similar to ones already available in Apple’s iOS.
You also heard from columnist John Martellaro, Senior Editor, Analysis & Reviews for The Mac Observer and a columnist for The Street, whose bill of fare included why Apple will be “forced” to add 4K (Ultra HD) to the next Apple TV, whether they will finally be set to “reinvigorate” the iPad,” the possibilities of the next version of OS X, which is being introduced at the WWDC, John’s experiences with his new Apple Watch, and how his new MacBook “speaks” to him.
Now I suppose I could address his expectations for the WWDC, but it’s also true that this column will go live not many hours before the keynote. That means that a fair amount is destined to be wrong, or just obsolete. It’s hardly worth the bother to write, since there are other things to report.
On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: He’s back for another go-round. Open Mind’s Alejandro Rojas. He’ll be talking about the latest developments in UFO research, including the Slidegate episode, the so-called Roswell Slides, along and the recent Contact in the Desert event. Alejandro is Director of Operations for Open Minds Production, the host for Open Minds UFO Radio, editor and contributing writer for OpenMinds.tv, and emcee for the International UFO Congress. He is also a blogger for the Huffington Post. In short, he’s one busy gentleman. Ahead of this episode, Alejandro told us: “I have a feeling you guys are going to get me in trouble.”
Now Shipping! The Official Paracast T-Shirt! We’ve got swag! We’re taking orders direct from our Official Paracast Store, where you can place your order and pay with a major credit card or PayPal. The shirts come in white, 100% cotton, and feature The Paracast logo on the front. The rear emblem states: “Separating Signal From Noise.” We’ve also added a huge selection of additional special custom-imprinted merchandise for fans of our show.
It’s fair to say that the TV makers are confronting a dilemma. Picture quality continues to improve, and prices for standard sets with 1080p screen resolutions are going down, so profits are slim. Although some models are still available with 3D, it’s yesterday’s news except for the multiplex. 3D in the home hasn’t done terribly well. Being forced to wear glasses for two hours in the theatre is one thing, and people still do that for some films. But having to do it in the home is just plain awkward.
Besides, what happens if you don’t have enough glasses on hand to accommodate family and friends? Do those left out just sit there and endure a distorted image so a few can enjoy the questionable benefits of 3D? I’m just asking the question, but the TV makers have already given their answer. They attempted to extend 3D into the home, and the venture failed. Maybe when there’s a successful technology that doesn’t require glasses, they’ll try again. But right now they’re busy with 4K.
4K is also referred to as Ultra HD, although there may be technical niceties that make them potentially different. Roughly speaking it means four times as many pixels, thus yielding a sharper image. That sounds promising on the surface, particularly if you recall the difference between a regular display and a Retina display on your computer or mobile device. Or standard definition and HD. It’s night and day, right?
Well, things aren’t quite that drastic on a TV set. To see the difference between 1080p and 4K, you need a large enough screen and/or have to be close enough to discern the improvement. A set with a 55-inch display or larger would probably yield the more significant benefits of higher resolution.
I know I’ve examined 4K sets at the local consumer electronics outlets. Sometimes they use still pictures in the demonstrations to enhance the resolution advantage. But it’s there with movies and sporting events if you have the right set, and, with improvements to color rendition, which is part of the standard, the resulting picture might be stunning.
Even better, TV makers have managed to bring the prices down to a point where they aren’t so much more than 1080p sets. Well, yes they might be a few hundred dollars more, but the benefits will be obvious with a large screen and some 4K source material.
But what about upscaling, making regular TV content look better? Well, upscaling is of marginal value when you watch standard definition TV on most HD sets. Sometimes the interpolation process on cheaper sets makes the picture seem worse, although that might just be the result of the resolution difference.
I will grant that regular HD does look slightly better on a well-designed 4K set. Unfortunately, that’s what you’ll see most of the time. It’s not as if there’s a ton of 4K content. Cable and satellite providers have yet to support the technology, which would require redesigned set-top boxes. Even then, the higher bit-rate means fewer channels, although the combination of the new H.265 protocol with 4K offers superior compression, and thus reduces the amount of bandwidth required to generate a signal. That will help.
For now, you can get a smattering of 4K from such streaming services as Amazon Instant Video and Netflix. What I’ve seen didn’t even represent most current programming, but I expect that will be added over time, particularly if customers show interest. Some TV makers also offer add-on gear, usually a hard drive of some sort, with preloaded 4K movies. That scheme, as long as it lasts, will probably offer the best possible quality.
Well, until Ultra HD Blu-ray players and discs are available. Some current players list Ultra HD in the specs, but it’s about upscaling content to 4K; the players I’ve seen don’t play native 4K media. But that’s going to lead to plenty of confusion. Customers may buy an Ultra HD Blu-ray player not knowing the limitation. I trust there will be proper labeling when the true 4K gear is out.
The next question is whether the next Apple TV will offer 4K out of the box or whether, as some suggest, there will be a later update. But it hardly makes sense to offer an all-new product, with enhanced or extra features, and put a resolution limit on it. As I write this article, however, we may or may not know what’s to come from Apple TV at the WWDC, and whether the new model will be demonstrated or missing in action.
Of course, whatever Apple devises would be designed to deal with people who are abandoning cable and satellite fare due to costs, convenience, or just being sick and tired of poor customer service with rapidly rising prices.
Right now, cord cutting schemes have been hit or miss. You have such services as Amazon Instant Video and Netflix that offer a collection of older movies, TV shows and some original content. Due to confusing contracts, some content may be here one day and gone the next, and I would not presume to explain the logic behind the decisions of the entertainment companies in making such deals with finite limits of this sort.
As to the original content, it’s good, sometimes it’s great. And there may be enough there to justify the monthly fee. For Netflix and Hulu Plus, I suppose you could just binge watch a show, and when it’s over suspend your membership for a few months until the next great series is available. But I’m not suggesting people do that. Still I can’t imagine depending on any one of these services for your entire TV diet.
A cord cutter might look to several services, supplemented with pay-per-view rentals or even local TV. You remember local TV, right? Well, if you live in a large city, close enough to several stations, you might find plenty of free stuff to watch. In addition to the regular channels, HD affords the ability to piggyback extra channels to a signal, some usually offered by basic cable, such as ION.
But if you live in a difficult reception area, you may be forced to buy a better antenna or, perish forbid, get basic cable. Isn’t that how cable TV started in the first place, to provide a way to watch TV in places too distant from transmission towers?
I remember my first cable TV setup when I was living in a small town in Minnesota, where I was the morning DJ at the one and only local radio station. I was roughly 150 miles from Minneapolis, home of several large TV stations, and thus received nothing without hooking up the cable TV coax. This was before digital, and reception was still hit or miss. Remember that cable TV providers in those days only used large centralized antennas to receive distant stations. Today, satellites are added at the head end even for cable.
The satellite TV answer to cord cutting is Dish Network’s Sling TV, which offers a small number of channels for a low price. You want more, you pay more, and I gather they are planning on adding local TV fare as an optional extra. But when you put it all together, it’s little more than offering satellite TV without the satellite, using your Internet bandwidth instead of a dish.
What can Apple bring to the table? Well, that the CEO of CBS has admitted talking to the company about a subscription package pretty much makes it a lock, although it’s not at all certain when it’s coming and what form it’ll take. Apple clearly isn’t going to want to repeat what other companies do. There are existing problems that range from the user interface, the channel/service selection, and how to deal with an ISP’s bandwidth caps.
Now I’m not sure if this is a trend, but it appears that Cox Communications is upping bandwidth caps substantially in many service areas, including Phoenix. So binge watchers may be able rejoice if they are willing to order up a faster tier. Perhaps Cox is preparing for the arrival of 4K streaming, which is only a trickle now.
For me, however, the most difficult problem is not the choice of content. It’s about the ease of managing multiple devices without having to tap Help when one device fails to turn on, or the wrong device is shut off. That’s a problem nobody has solved. Universal remotes try but often fail. It’s an issue that’s crying for a solution. Is Apple working on one? I hope so.
THE FINAL WORD
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