Television is in a state of transition at the moment. The 3D revolution that manufacturers embraced so fervently, hasn’t gone quite the way they’d planned. Sales of TVs with 3D capabilities has remained respectable, but few people seem to actually use the feature. This isn’t a complete surprise when you consider that it requires you wear special, often expensive, glasses in your living room, and can induce painful migraines in some viewers. Not exactly what you’re looking for when you sit down to watch Despicable Me with the kids.
The next real evolution in display technology set to become a regular feature in the mainstream is 4K. This ‘Ultra-HD’ contains four times the level of detail that the current 1080p HD displays can offer, meaning you can have larger screen sizes without sacrificing pin-sharp focus. All the major TV manufacturers, such as Sharp, Panasonic and LG, have their own models available, but the cost of entry is currently beyond most normal pockets, with starting prices being around £5000. It won’t be long though until this new technology is widely adopted, and with that will come the inevitable drop in price.
Apple seems to be aligning itself with 4K, an evidence of which is when Phil Schiller emphasised during the recent Mac Pro release that the new machine could run three 4K screens simultaneously. This of course led to the question of why there were no new Apple Thunderbolt 4K displays? The old Thunderbolt models were released back in 2011, and only run at a resolution of 2560 x 1440, way short of the 4096 x 2160 capabilities of Ultra HD units. Could the delay be due to Apple preparing something far more special than a simple monitor?
[Read our round up of 4K monitors for the new Mac Pro]
Rumours of an Apple television set - often dubbed the iTV, much to the bemusement of UK residents - has been rife in the past year or so. Industry analyst Gene Munster has repeatedly declared that it would be released, with his contacts in the supply chain reporting that Apple is actively testing components for large screen displays. Conversely, Ming-Chi Kuo, another highly respected analyst, has gone on record recently saying that Apple will not release a TV until 2016 at the earliest, due to difficulties with content deals, and its desire to focus on wearable technology.
Others wonder whether a TV is actually a good idea at all. Traditionally the television market has a slow turnover, with customers upgrading their sets on average every seven years. There has been a boost recently as people have upgraded to HD devices, but whether they can be convinced to move up again to Ultra HD, so soon after their last investment, is very doubtful. Many of the aforementioned sales have also come as a result of the dropping prices of HD units, and therefore lower profit margins for manufacturers, which is never a market that Apple occupies. All this would point to the iTV being just a media fantasy, but there is a definite fly in this ointment of logic - Steve Jobs.
Before the Apple founder sadly passed away he spoke with Steve Jobs' biographer Walter Isaacson about a desire to fix the problems he saw in the typical viewing experience. Isaacson recorded the conversation in this extract from the biography ‘Steve Jobs’.
"I'd like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use,’ he told me. ‘It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud.’ No longer would users have to fiddle with complex remotes for DVD players and cable channels. ‘It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.’"
Although the integrated device that Jobs spoke of is still yet to appear, there is one part of his vision, namely the simple interface and syncing, that is slowly becoming a reality. Apple TV, the little hockey puck that connects your TV to the internet, has quietly been growing up in the background. Unusually for an Apple product, the device has been openly described as a ‘hobby’ for the company, removing the usual pressure of expectation that goes with something bearing the Cupertino brand. This has allowed Apple to tinker with its design and glean valuable insights into what it takes to deliver digital content to customers.
When the first Apple TV arrived in 2007 it needed iTunes to do anything useful, but now the little black box has become a significant part of the Apple eco-system. It offers access to any purchases you’ve made on iTunes and the opportunity to hire movies and TV shows directly from the store. It also has apps for Netflix, Youtube, Vimeo, Flickr, Photostream, and can mirror the display on your Mac or iOS device. Then there’s the added attraction of it being one of the cheapest Apple products you can buy, costing only £99. As the popularity of on-demand services continues to grow, there are only a few areas that really need attention on the Apple TV to turn it into a heavyweight contender in the fight for the living room.
In 2014 we hope to see the addition of iPlayer to the list of Apple TV channels, along with premium pay channels such as HBO, ESPN, and Disney - all of whom have content deals with Apple in the US. This could transform the sparse selection of programming currently available and bring consumers closer to the ideal of only paying for what you actually want to watch. Safari should appear, opening up the humble TV to the full power of the internet, and we think the gaming potential of fusing iOS style apps with a large screen display, all controlled from your iPad, could prove a hugely tempting proposition.