The accessibility video at the start of Apple’s October 27th event was the best thing in the event. That demonstrates Apple at its very best, improving lives in ways that other technology companies are not always conscious of.
My feelings about the remainder of the presentation are less rosy, and I will highlight my feelings about the Apple TV, because I simply do not have the time to discuss the MacBook Pro right now.
I had suspected that the Apple TV would receive some kind of update at this event since Apple had done nothing for it so far this fall. However, it’s worth framing it with the expectations that I had.
- I don’t like UHD “4K” because it is generally more of a marketing buzzword than a strictly defined set of rules. Sure, there are specs on resolution, but a lot of movies that feature effects (which accounts for hundreds, if not thousands, of shots in most films) are created in a realm that’s around 2048 pixels wide with whatever crop is applied for a particular aspect ratio. More modern films have started mastering effects in higher resolutions, but there’s a lot of “legacy” effects shots that are not the size you might expect.
- HDR - High Dynamic Range - a virtually meaningless term to most consumers. This means brighter brights, darker darks, and better color. There isn’t a single standard for HDR. The two main ones are HDR10, and DolbyVision. HDR10 is based on Samsung’s early HDR efforts and adopted by the UHD Alliance (no, I did not make that up). DolbyVision was around first, but only recently started making it out to consumers. Both of these competing standards exist as metadata passed along with the image data. That metadata tells the device how to display the image data that is provided. HDR versions of movies are relatively easy for movie studios to generate because that data is available in the range of the original, cinema releases. It’s stuff they already had, that they were leaving behind for home video.
- Many new TV shows are being shot in UHD, and with HDR mastering in mind. This is especially true for internet-based providers like Netflix and Amazon Studios which want to fill out a library with that content so they can market that feature. Some shows, like Netflix’s House of Cards, are even mastered in “6K” in the event that they might need it in the future.
- TVs have been on the market with UHD support for several years, and HDR support has been rolling out through TV lines over the past year as Blu-Ray players that can play HDR content have become available.
- The market for plain HD TVs has shriveled up as the cost of UHD TVs has fallen, so more people are likely to buy a UHD TV just because they aren’t choosing between HD and UHD at some price points.
- Chromecast Ultra ships in November with a library of UHD HDR content available through the Google Play store, as well as YouTube.
This means that if my plasma HD TV were to die today, I would replace it with a UHD HDR TV of some description if it was the right price. In spite of all of my cynicism surrounding the marketing of UHD, I know that HDR would be worthwhile, and that there are some TVs that support both HDR standards. I know that as TVs die, and get replaced, all over the globe that the trend will be toward UHD HDR. This isn’t like the adoption of 3D TVs where even if you didn’t want a 3D TV, you would wind up with one and just never turn on the 3D. There are no special glasses, it’s just on when it’s available.
Last year I argued that Apple was in no rush, and it wasn’t logical to lambast them for not including the feature. This year, however, as devices push more toward UHD, and HDR, the lack of any model in their lineup that supports it is slightly less excusable at the price point they’re in.
- $30: Roku Express
- $35: Chromecast
- $40: Amazon Fire TV Stick 2nd Gen. (Alexa, universal search)
- $40: Roku Express+
- $50: Roku Streaming Stick
- $70: Chromecast Ultra (UHD)
- $80: Roku Premiere (UHD)
- $90: Amazon Fire TV 2nd Gen. (Alexa, universal search, UHD)
- $100: Roku Premiere+ (UHD, HDR)
- $130: Roku Ultra (UHD, HDR, Voice Search)
- $150: Apple TV 32 GB (Siri, universal search)
- $200: Apple TV 64 GB (Siri, universal search)
That lists the major players in the market, and demonstrates where Apple sits in the price list. The only company selling an HD-only streaming media device above $50 is Apple. The only company selling a steaming media device without HDR above $90 is Apple.
There is no way to justify spending $150 to enter Apple’s TV ecosystem in the fall of 2016 on hardware alone. When Google is making a streaming UHD HDR player that costs LESS than a replacement Siri Remote, there is a problem with the hardware Apple is selling.
Taking all of this into account, I had assumed that Apple would unveil a higher-priced UHD HDR box to occupy the current price point, and discount the previous model to compete against the far less expensive HD solutions available. Last year, Jason Snell had conjectured that Apple might even introduce a less expensive model to replace the $69 3rd-generation, that he jokingly referred to as an AirPlay Express. Instead, Apple quietly killed the 3rd generation Apple TV in September, and only sells the $150 and $200 4th generation Apple TV models from last year.
The storage situation is still incomprehensible to me because Apple never made a solid case for gaming on the device, having waffled on input methods, and having introduced strict requirements about the size of assets on the device. It would be newsworthy if anyone had ever filled up their 32 GB Apple TV under normal usage conditions.
Apple announced tvOS 10 this summer, at WWDC and Eddy Cue made a big deal out of Single Sign On. Single Sign On would do away with one of the biggest pain points for cable-subscribers using Apple TVs by providing a one-time authorization. It was billed as part of tvOS 10, and tvOS 10 was billed as coming in September. It never shipped, but it remained at the top of Apple’s product page for the Apple TV until yesterday with a “Coming soon” button under it. No timeline whatsoever.
Oh, do you know what bumped Single Sign On down to the number two position on the product page? TV. The app, called TV, not the device called TV. You can plug your TV into your TV and watch TV. If you can’t tell, I think the naming is ludicrous and I feel like I’m in some kind of sketch where the whole joke is that the words are the same.
So what is TV the app? It’s a row of what you were watching, called Up Next, and then a series of recommendations based on the apps you have installed on your device. If that sounds familiar to you, it’s because you might have used an Amazon Fire TV in the last few months when Amazon rolled out the ability to see content from Netflix and HBO listed in recommendations. So Apple made the Fire TV home screen, as an app, except they couldn’t get Netflix onboard, while Amazon could. I’ve seen a lot of handwringing about the absence of Netflix and guesses as to why that might be, but you need to ask yourself how Amazon was able to broker a deal to display Netflix recommendations and while Apple wasn’t.
Apple knows that the largest video subscription service in the US is Netflix, and they shrugged them off.
Going back to the mechanics of this app: It also reproduces the TV Show and Movie storefronts inside of TV the app. It doesn’t move them in here, it just makes another place to access the store. If that wasn’t confusing enough, I’m not sure if it will show you the same recommendations in both places or not because no one mentioned how they work, or work differently.
Apps that require subscriptions, like Starz, can also be added based on recommendations — again, why is this duplicating functionality of the App Store on the TV’s home screen.
The function of the Home button, which confusingly had the icon of a 16:9 flatscreen TV, has been remapped to take you back to the TV app, since hitting the Menu button will take you into the app you’re currently streaming from, and not TV the app that sent you there. There was no mention of what would happen if you pushed the Home button if you had not launched something to stream from TV the app.
Why is TV the app an app and not the Home screen on the device? It’s obviously modeled after the same ideas that go into other streaming devices that expose content rather than app icons, so why is this a siloed launcher I have to navigate into and out of? Why is this bolted on to the bizarre springboard-like interface of tvOS when it reproduces so much of it?
You could argue that people want to have access to apps that are not for movies or TV shows, but I would suggest that that probably occurs less often and would be satisfied by a button in the TV app that showed you the inane grid of application tiles if you wanted to get at something else.
TV the app is also available on iOS. Given the way Apple’s other cloud services sync, or don’t sync in the case of Apple Music, I would be interested to see how well this experience works if you’re going between devices, and WiFi networks. Also the underlying apps TV the app kicks you to on tvOS and iOS are different, so there’s also another complicated area that will be interesting to watch for. Some services only work on your “home” WiFi network to combat password-sharing. Would you still see those recommendations in TV the app on your iPhone if you step off your property, or would the app know to hide those recommendations it had previously surfaced? What if you deleted an app on your iPhone, but had it on your iPad and your Apple TV? How will these things stay in sync?
We’re not going to know until “before the end of the year” and only in the US. Just in time for the holiday shopping seas— oh wait.
Single Sign On was also mentioned in this presentation on TV the app, even though it hasn’t materialized. Tunneling through the press releases after the event reveals it will be available, coinciding with the release of TV the app, presumably, but the only providers that signed on were DirecTV and Dish Networks, the two satellite providers in the US. They also say, “and more” in the press release, but if they had more they would have written them out. It’s not like the list was so long they had to omit them!
So that means that the top two reasons on Apple’s product page for tvOS are features that are listed as “Coming soon”, and when they do materialize they will only be for the United States, and one of them will only be for people that have TV programming packages from DirecTV or Dish.
There was no mention of gaming, or improvements for people who would be interested in gaming. That’s probably for the best since they still don’t make a first-party remote, and even though they rolled out the ability for games to require a third-party remote, no game that I’m aware of requires it. The only things they feature for games are things that launched for the Apple TV a year ago, or iOS-type games which are all much better to play on iOS.
Apple was in dire need of some ability to surface live broadcasts, because it was completely opaque. You could open the Twitter app to watch football, if you knew that was something you could do, but you’d have no idea when something was on, and there’s no time shifting for live TV. I hate the Twitter app, I don’t want to see any of the commentary on my television that Twitter thinks I want to see, so prolonged demos of this do not stir up good feelings in me, but I understand that Watching The Game matters to a lot of people. Even putting that aside…
There’s still no timeshifting for live TV, but I don’t expect it at this point. At least including the ability to pause and fast forward cached material when an app is in the foreground would be a welcome thing.
There’s no “channel surfing” still. Not something I expect on streaming either because the streams have to cache. There are ways to mitigate that if Picture-in-Picture were a TV concept that Apple could include on their TV platform. I do however expect a guide to compensate for the lack of speed when switching between live broadcasts.
Instead Siri can be queried about sports events, or asked to turn on the news. I’m somewhat underwhelmed by this because it doesn’t satisfy channel surfers who want to browse a guide and see if something being broadcast appeals to them. I had put this on my wishlist for tvOS 10 before WWDC and that wishlist item remains. Not all television can be consumed on demand, and not everyone wants to figure out what words to say to Siri to conjure television browsing.
Apple’s incoherent strategy on the Apple TV, and tvOS as a platform, needs a dire revamp. Even the revamping they are trying to graft on to the products in the form of TV the app is so poorly integrated, and partnered, that it raises questions about why people would even open the software feature that they bill as a primary reason to get an Apple TV in their very own marketing materials.
There’s a total lack of understanding about TV in homes, which has plagued the product since it shipped last year, and seems guaranteed to persist another year. Filling homes with $150-$200 black boxes that can’t integrate with the most popular on-demand streaming service in the market TV the app is available in? That can’t integrate with cable providers, only satellite (not for any technical, terrestrial reason)? Still making $80 glass sticks? No model that can meet the picture specs of devices that cost a third, or half the price?
Who is this product for?