Could Apple clean up my living room?

Why Are TV Remotes So Terrible?

This short NPR piece is interesting and it overlaps nicely with the speculation that Apple is cooking up something in the TV area beyond the current Apple TV.

I don’t agree that the primary reason remotes suck is because there are now more channels, it’s easy enough to plug any channel number into a remote number pad. The reason remotes suck is because there are now more devices and each has it’s own operating system and remote, most of which have no clue about the others. The assumption in the NPR piece is that everything I want to watch is on cable or the internet but in fact, most of Netflix’ movies are still DVD-only and I own a lot of DVD/Blu-rays that I like to watch as well.

Also, I am watching at least some content via my computer although that’s less a matter of choosing the computer or the internet, more a matter of how I find out about it and where I’m sitting in my house when I do. However, even though I thought Apple might do this a while back, the last thing I want is a huge iMac in my living room. While there is no doubt that TV will get more interactive, I’d prefer to use my MacBook Pro or my iPad to get non-TV content while sitting in the living room. The idea of surfing the web on an HD TV while sitting on a couch, driving the entire thing with Siri (voice) or an iPhone remote app doesn’t appeal to me. I prefer to do that kind of stuff which involves a lot of reading in a more intimate setting.

Our TV/media process (in the year 2013)

Everyone has a different setup and a different process, this is what we have at the moment. We do not watch a lot of TV and when we do watch TV it’s usually a single channel. We don’t channel surf looking for content. But, we watch a lot of movies and so, we have a collection of remotes and interactions to make it all work.

We have a three year old 52″ (should have bought a 55″) Sony “Bravia” HD TV set that has a great picture and incredibly bad operating system software and a bad remote. Deciding on it over other models was very much like buying a camera these days: do you want image quality or do you want a decent user interface, because there is no one camera or TV set that has it all. Frankly, the user interface on almost all TVs sucks so the analogy isn’t all that good.

Connected to our TV we have an old Bose 3-2-1 DVD/stereo system with speakers, a cable box from our cable provider, a DVD/Blu-Ray player, and an Apple TV. Each of these things has a remote and while we don’t use all the remotes all the time, they have to interact with one another in small ways to make it all work. This is much like the old days when one had to switch the TV to channel 3 or 4 to get the VCR to show through, which my wife finally got just as things changed to what they are now.

The Sony TV set has four HDMI inputs and we use three of them:

HDMI 1: Cable box
HDMI 2: Sony DVD/Blu-ray player
HDMI 3: Apple TV

Watching cable TV

The cable box is powered on all the time and it has an awful remote which we use mostly to switch between two PBS stations: Connecticut Public Television (09) and New York Public Television or “13” (22). if there’s a big event we might watch CNN or MSNBC but that’s rare. I watch John Stewart and Rachel Maddow on my computer. If we lose power the cable box usually resets itself but it defaults to a channel we don’t watch so I’ve got to reset it to 09 using the awful remote. For the most part, the awful cable box remote is tucked away, out of sight. Thank god, it looks like a ray gun out of a Flash Gordon movie.

Since the cable box is on all the time all we have to do to watch TV is turn the TV on with its remote, wait for it to warm up (yes, it has to load its settings and if you jump the gun it gets cranky) and if it’s not already set to HDMI 1 (cable box/TV) cycle the inputs to HDMI 1. The Sony TV is so sluggish in responding to hitting the input button that it can be frustrating and even though I know it’s sluggishness well, I find myself going around the cycle numerous times to get what I want. We don’t (well, I don’t) like the sound that comes out of the TV speakers and so I mute them and turn on the Bose and make sure it’s set to “TV.” Usually I leave the Bose on and set to TV so this step isn’t always necessary but muting the Sony TV always is and I’ve not found a way to tell the Sony TV that we have other, primary speakers (this may be possible but I’ve not figured out how to do it). I also have never found a way to mute the TV’s startup sound, which is obnoxious. But, this means that once the TV is set to the right input the remote that gets used most is the Bose remote to control sound volume.

Watching a DVD

If I want to watch a Netflix DVD I turn on the TV with its remote, cycle to HDMI input 2, mute the TV’s sound, open the DVD drawer of the Sony DVD/Blu-ray player, drop in the DVD, and close the drawer, turn on the Bose (sound) if it’s not on and make sure it’s on TV. One of the reasons we stopped using the Bose DVD player, besides wanting to watch an occasional Blu-ray which it can’t play, is that the HDMI port on it was very finicky and if you didn’t get the TV cycled to HDMI 4 (it’s input) before putting in the DVD, the handshake sometimes didn’t happen. The Sony Blu-ray player doesn’t suffer from that, thank god. But, it has the same Sony user interface as our TV (called Bravia). Most of the time putting in a disc pushes through the Sony operating system and it simply starts playing. I attempt to end-run previews when I can with a single button on the Sony DVD/Blu-ray remote or, if the DVD locks me out of that I fast forward through them (again, using the Sony DVD/Blu-ray remote) if we don’t get caught up in them.

Hitting a single “play” button on the Sony DVD remote will start things and unless we want to pause or get to a particular scene, I don’t need that remote anymore. I pick up the Bose remote to control sound.

Watching streaming content using Apple TV

If I want to use Apple TV to watch a Netflix streaming video or some other piece of Apple TV content the process is similar: Turn on TV with its remote and cycle to HDMI 3 and mute its sound, turn on Apple TV with its (too small) remote, find the content I want and start playing it, controlling sound with the Bose remote and pausing with the Apple remote.

I have the Apple TV remote app on both my iPhone and iPad and while it’s novel and sometimes useful I don’t use it all that much. I don’t like the size of the Apple TV remote (too small in my hand) but I find using it’s physical buttons easier than the virtual buttons on it’s iOS counterpart.

But, that could easily change and it’s a heck of a lot easier to change a software interface than to put out a new physical remote every time someone comes up with a better idea.

In short, I have a pile of five remotes lying around, all of which are necessary, all of which are hard to use and using them in conjunction with one another is akin to having to have a TV tuned to channel 3 to watch a videotape plus layers of other conditions. It’s all rather stupid.

And, that leads me back to speculation about what Apple might be doing to clean this up.

Apple TV in the big sense

Now that Apple is a big company, has millions of customers who are hooked into iOS, and is known for its design chops, there is an opportunity here and I think they’ve got their foot in its door with Apple TV and the (for now) crude iOS Remote app.

I’ve never been one to think that Apple is building a new, self-contained television set (and yes, I’ve been reading the recent speculation about Apple and LG doing just that), Sony, Samsung, and others and others have that covered and there are too many variables in the TV set market to have the kind of small, tighter offering there that Apple would typically present. Best to let people buy their own screens and treat them like computer monitors, going after the experience of building a platform for the control of what gets presented on the screen.

By connecting the current Apple TV to a television set and allowing it to end-run much of the television set’s operating system, Apple is at least some of the way there. In order for the grand scheme to work both the current Apple TV box (or some future one) and the iOS Remote app would simply need to learn about more things connected to Apple TV, and/or, the HDMI interface would need to be able to do things that it currently can’t do.

Or, maybe the reason people think Apple is working on an all in one solution here is because it’s not possible to control all of this disparate stuff with a single box and software.

I’m wondering how successful Bose has been with their VideoWave offering. This certainly solves at least some of the remote and speaker problems but one still needs a cable box, a DVD/Blu-ray player, and an Apple TV and/or Roku to get streaming.

If, in some future world, all movie and TV content was streaming over the internet then Apple could easily build control of it into a box like Apple TV and have a single remote control it all, be it a physical remote or an iOS app. If one wanted better sound than a TV has then somehow that sound would need to be controlled by whatever controls the TV. No doubt this is doable now.

But, as Netflix subscribers know, there is a large offset between its content available on DVD and the amount of that stuff you can get via streaming with a lot more content available in physical form. No doubt one reason for this is that if everything was streamed the internet would melt under the weight of it all. We haven’t had a streaming “choke” in over a year now and no doubt there would be plenty of choking if Netflix put it all out via streaming. But, the other reason they can’t is akin to why Apple can’t get control of the cable box: content providers have rules about distribution that Apple and others can’t get around.

So it remains a big mess.

Grand Unification

On the one hand, we absolutely love our big TV and sound system and watching a movie like Avatar on a smaller screen with TV set sound is just not the same experience. But, as it is, the process of making that happen is currently a kludge and there is an opportunity for Apple and/or others to make it better. I think it’s just a matter of time before they do.

For me there is a tension between having a company like Apple build a TV set/media center that does it all and putting together my own system of pieces that do each piece better. The liability of separate pieces is five different operating systems, five different remotes, etc. The liability of one company building a TV that does it all is that no doubt some of the all won’t be what I want. Apple is pretty good at figuring out what I want so if there’s a company to do this kind of thing it would be Apple, but as both a user and a stockholder it makes me both hopeful and uneasy.

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