• Newsletter Issue #834

    November 23rd, 2015

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    For many, the Tesla electric car represents the pinnacle of automotive technology. The company’s first product, the Model S, has received glowing reviews, such as scoring a 103 out of 100 at Consumer Reports. In other words, it managed to exceed the maximums of their test protocols.

    But there are downsides to all that joy. The first is the price of admission. It’s $72,500 for the cheapest version, the 70D, although you supposedly can qualify for a $7,500 Federal tax credit. There are also incentives in some states that may drive down the retail price even further, and Tesla also cites estimated gas savings to further emphasize real cost of ownership. A 36 month lease is $799 per month for 12,000 miles per year, but you have to put down $6,494 in upfront costs with approved credit to take one home.

    That’s for the base model, with an estimated 240 mile range on a single charge. The top-of-the-line P85D, with all-wheel drive and an estimated range of 253 miles, starts at $105,000 before you add the goodies, and it also qualifies for a tax credit.

    Clearly this is a luxury car that competes with the best from Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. For those who are shell shocked, a mid-sized Model III is forthcoming. It’s a closer match to the BMW 3 series, and will reportedly cost $35,000. That’s somewhat above the average transaction price of a new car, though I can see where it’ll venture north into the mid-$40,000 range when well equipped. I suppose the tax credit will help, if that’s not already factored into the price.

    Orders will be taken next year, with promised delivery some time in 2017. We’ll see.

    Now the Tesla, with its state-of-the-art technology, is often compared to Apple. In the last year or so, the chatter has grown about a possible Apple Car, and you might see it as a potential Tesla alternative. But I’d hope in not every way. You see the Tesla is evidently a buggy beast. CR won’t recommend Tesla anymore because of its unreliability, although the company says the problems, which they claim mostly impacted early production units, are being addressed. But Tesla also just recalled all the cars sold so far, about 90,000, due to a potential seat belt problem. That’s nothing Apple should aspire to.

    But at least you don’t have to worry about faked emissions test results.

    In any case, on this weekend’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we presented outspoken commentator Peter Cohen, whose writings are found at iMoreMacworld and Tom’s Guide, who covered a wide range of topics. He offered his expectations of the iPad Pro as compared with supposed convergence devices, which provide the functions of a tablet and a PC note-book. Apple has said it wouldn’t produce such a device. Peter also talked about the ongoing reports of serious problems with recent Apple OS releases, such as iOS 9 and OS X El Capitan. Has public beta testing helped? Gene expressed his skepticism that Apple will actually build a car, something long rumored, rather than focus on user interfaces in motor vehicles. And what about Apple TV?

    You’ll also heard from columnist Kirk McElhearn, also known as Macworld’s “iTunes Guy,” who also talked about the usability of the iPad Pro as a note-book replacement. He discussed the Apple Watch and the possible security problem he discovered when he first set up two-factor authentication with Amazon. The discussion turned to the car buying experience, and Gene’s concerns about the obstacles buyers confront in trying to finalize a deal. On the pop culture front, the discussion turned to Bob Dylan, and Kirk’s history in becoming a fan of the folk rock legend.

    On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present Chris Aubeck, co-author (with Martin Shough) of “Return to Magonia: Investigating UFOs in History.” To understand the real nature of the UFO phenomenon, it’s important to evaluate UFO sightings across the centuries. Are cases from hundreds of years ago similar to modern cases? If UFOs are an age-old phenomenon, how does that fact provide clues as to what’s really going on? All in all, this will be a truly fascinating session that will move the discussion about UFOs into fascinating areas.

    APPLE TV — WHAT’S THE END GAME?

    Before the fourth generation Apple TV arrived last month, there were huge expectations. While the previous versions of the Apple TV were about testing the waters, the reason the product was referred to as a “hobby,” the 2015 version was supposed to be daringly different. This was the one that Apple was expected to use as the basis for conquering the living room.

    Certainly Tim Cook’s statements fueled expectations. He would regularly denigrate the current living room entertainment experience, although he wasn’t terribly specific as to what was wrong. So leave it to Apple to devise a solution that would overhaul the TV industry, or at least that’s what you might have expected.

    When Steve Jobs said, as quoted in Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography, that Apple had cracked the secret of the best TV interface ever, it was widely believed that a brand new smart TV was on the horizon. The tech industry was clearly spooked, and one of the larger PC makers even announced a TV, presumably in response. It’s not as if this Lenovo TV concept over made it to market, however.

    So there were rumors that Apple was building prototypes, and suggested shipping dates came and went. Eventually it was claimed that Apple looked into the possibilities and decided not to get involved in what was, for other companies, a low-margin business. Of course most of the industries Apple plays in, such as smartphones, tablets and PCs, are low-margin businesses for almost everyone but Apple.

    There were practical limitations to Apple selling TV sets. While a 27-inch iMac with 5K Retina display is easily displayed at any Apple Store, a 65-inch TV is a more difficult reach. Assuming there would be several display sizes offered, the proper presentation would require almost a living room environment, similar to what you find in high-end audio/video stores. Look at the Magnolia Home Theater departments at a Best Buy as an example. An Apple Store isn’t large enough, and Apple would have had to enlarge the stores, set up a separate outlet for TV sets and accessories, or rely on third party dealers to provide a proper sales environment.

    In other words, it would have worked against Apple’s approach, which is to use its store chain, and the special sections at Best Buy and elsewhere, as the centerpieces for direct retail sales.

    In short, there will probably never be an Apple TV set unless the company’s retail strategy is seriously overhauled.

    As to those rumors about an Apple Car, I remain skeptical. Even though it does appear that Apple is investing in some sort of automotive venture, it may be more about interfaces and vehicle infotainment systems. In other words, the next generation of CarPlay that would take over more of the functions of a vehicle’s interface. That the interfaces of most vehicles are pretty awful, aside from the basic speedometer, tachometer and temperature gauges, means that Apple has plenty to contribute without having to build the whole widget. But that assumes the auto makers want to cede that much control to Apple, or even Google for that matter.

    This doesn’t mean Apple wouldn’t get involved. Tesla appears to present a possibly viable scheme, although its long-term success is not yet certain. With rampant defects to fix, Tesla also has its work cut out for it even before the second model is delivered in quantity.

    That returns us to the Apple TV. The fourth generation version, ahead of my review, appears to be mostly better than the previous version. With Siri, search, apps and gameplay, it certainly does more than just stream video content. The presence of an App Store presents extra possibilities for entertainment and even shopping in front of the family TV. The experience of buying or renting new home would likely be far more immersive if you can see the listings in high definition or 4K TV, but you can already use AirPlay to stream content from an iPhone or iPad or even a Mac from a real estate site. And wait, the Apple TV doesn’t even support 4K! So scratch that possibility.

    But does this represent a sea change for set-top boxes? Hardly. The latest offerings from Amazon, the Fire TV, and the Roku 4, offer 4K support. Sure, that doesn’t mean much unless you have a large set and you’re not sitting too far away. There’s also a dearth of 4K content, and it may well be that support for a higher dynamic range and superior color rendition will provide the real advantage. But only the more expensive sets offer much beyond high definition, and this is no support for these features in the Amazon and Roku gadgets.

    So perhaps we should forgive Apple for failing or choosing not to add 4K right now. Or maybe not. Why not future proof the device? It’s not the sort of thing you want to replace every year or two, although I suppose there’s a possibility that the existing hardware can be upgraded via software and firmware for both 4K and the newer HDMI interface standards. I suggest that option without any real knowledge of the possibility, however, and it’s not that the media is using their limited opportunities with Apple executives to pose that question.

    A fancier streaming video device, with some gaming pretensions, doesn’t overhaul the living room experience. Except for the tiny percentage of cord cutters, it’s merely another option to connect to your TV set, along with your cable or satellite set-top box. It’s also another device to which to switch. Indeed, the Apple TV may sport a somewhat improved interface, but it’s hardly revolutionary compared to the competition.

    Now maybe the Apple TV is meant as a harbinger of the future. Perhaps there will be new features and new apps that will better realize its potential. Despite the higher price, it may be true that the Apple TV will garnet a good share of the market. But it hardly alters your experience all that much, unless some forthcoming apps really perform miracles.

    Or maybe the current living room experience really isn’t so bad after all.

    Yes, there are things I’d like to see improved. I’d like to see a real solution to the dilemma of having 300 channels and nothing to watch. There ought to be a way to order only the channels you want, and not have to deal with unwanted content from different and costlier tiers in order to put together a workable package. The dream of a la carte remains unfulfilled.

    The other day, I looked over the number of channels I watch regularly, including the local broadcast outlets. It came to maybe a dozen give or take a couple. While the cable people would prefer you buy big bundles at ever-increasing prices, flat growth has changed expectations. Although not very successful so far, Dish Network’s streaming service, Sling TV, is a potential low-cost alternative. Apple has long been rumored to be getting into this area. Some suggest it’ll happen next year, others suggest it probably won’t happen, which will just make the Apple TV less usable.

    My other complaint, and I’m not alone, is the inconvenience of switching inputs on a TV. With a universal remote, such as my Logitech Harmony, you have to hold the device just so to activate or turn off several gadgets at once. A slight movement one way or the other might prevent the TV, or the sound system, or the set-top box, or whatever, from turning on. With the Harmony, there’s a Help function that attempts to  resend some of the commands. If that fails, you have to endure a silly process where it asks you if a device is on before going to the next one.

    As for me, I just turn the things on manually if the remote fails. Apple may offer integrated volume control functions with the new Apple TV, but it will never support input switching among non-Apple devices — other than your TV and possibly the audio system.

    Apple may want to dominate the living room, but it doesn’t appear as if the latest Apple TV represents more than a tiny step or two towards that goal.

    THE FINAL WORD

    The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

    Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
    Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
    Marketing and Public Relations: Barbara Kaplan
    Sales and Marketing: Andy Schopick
    Worldwide Licensing: Sharon Jarvis



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    3 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #834”

    1. dfs says:

      I really have no idea what Apple thinks the Apple TV is actually for. Probably the best answer is that, especially if you stick to the 3rd gen. model, it’s a poor man’s substitute for a smart t. v. Then too, if you have a reasonably large video collection (home movies, for inst.) on your Mac it provides a way of throwing items onto your presumably bigger t. v., and watch it in a more comfortable environment such as your den. What it is definitely not is a facilitator for cord-cutters, since it lacks DVR capacity, which prevents it from being a serious rival to TiVo I couldn’t imagine losing my current cable box if I had to live without DVR, it’s very central to the way I watch t. v.

      Actually, Apple has another possible strategy for marketing an Apple TV. Computers are getting more like t. v’s all the time and t. v’s are simultaneously getting more like computers. Someday the two might actually converge into a single device. Apple has the capacity to achieve this, making a kind of Apple TV by giving the 27″ iMac an HDMI port and including the circuitry from the Apple TV. Too small to be worthwhile, you say? The many viewers who live in small quarters such as studio apartments or dorm rooms would suffice to create a pretty impressive market. And anyway, when I sit as close to my Mac as I am while writing this, or even leaning back a couple of feet, that 27″ display seems as big as a IMAX.

    2. john p says:

      We’ve had the 3rd gen Apple TV for a few years and felt it was a worthwhile addition to our cord-cutting household. Our most-used app was MLB.com, but we used Airplay Mirroring and Netflix quite a bit as well. Although both MLB & Netflix are available on the TIVO I prefer the Apple TV’s user interface.

      I went ahead and bought the 64GB version of the 4th Gen the first weekend it was available, believing Apple’s claims that the new apps & games would make a significant addition to our living room experience. So far that’s been a wasted $200.

      Yes, text input is inelegant and time-consuming, but that’s typically a rare hassle once an app has been installed.

      The most frustrating issue is that Apple has crippled gameplay on the unit by: 1) requiring that ALL games utilize the included remote (whether they can also use a controller or not) and 2) severely constraining the memory available on the device to each app.

      So gameplay is like having an iPhone with a big screen. If I wrote STUPID in big letters would that convey my frustration level over those decisions? The hardware is fully capable of supporting complex, storyline-driven games that utilize multiple controls and feature high-quality graphics and fast-frame gameplay if it weren’t for Apple’s unnecessary restrictions. Think Skyrim-quality entertainment instead of Crossy Road.

      Typically, I tire of one of the simplistic games available to this point within a few minutes. Like iPhone apps, they’re good for a few minute’s distraction only and utilize cartoonish graphics. They do not provide engaging entertainment for a couple of hours, which is what I was hoping to gain from the new Apple TV.

      We’ve installed and played a half-dozen of the top-rated games available thus far. But we haven’t even turned it on in the last week, because our Antenna & TIVO connected TV is more entertaining without it. If things don’t change, we will get no more use out of this $200 Apple TV than we did from the $69 one that preceded it. So far, this is the first Apple product I’ve purchased in the last 28 years (a 512k Mac) that I regret buying.

    3. dfs says:

      “text input is inelegant and time-consuming”. Since the new Apple TV has Bluetooth circuitry why can’t you use a wireless keyboard to enter text? This at least should be a feature.

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