There’s no two ways about it: the television is having a bit of a mid-life crisis. With screens reaching a deep-black perfection, everyone’s favourite big screens have turned to 3D gimmicks and buggy Smart TV interfaces to hide the slightly-thinning comb-over that comes with old age. But at the same time, there’s a new kid on the block. Set-top boxes and add-on dongles, cheap and with a singular purpose, are challenging the ‘Smart’ bit of Smart TV.
Leviathan manufacturers, from Intel to Apple and the Goog, are fighting for a slice of the big-screen pie; the question is, who’s going to succeed? TVs are probably the last thing left "un-disrupted" by the big electronics manufacturers. While Microsoft and Google have stomped into smartphones and tablets with unfettered enthusiasm, relatively titchy corporations like Pioneer have been left undisturbed. Sure, the likes of Samsung, LG and Panasonic have been scrapping over so-called Smart TVs; even the big boys have made moves, but only ever half-arsed.
The Apple TV was only ever a ‘hobby’; Google TV and the Nexus Q are peculiarities that have bitten the dust pretty unceremoniously. The key, seemingly, lies in content.
In the smartphone world, it's obvious apps are ruling, and are the very reason Google burns the R&D cash making Android, the operating system it gives away for free. In TV-land, things are even simpler. Sure, apps are useful – a Smart TV isn’t so clever if you can’t watch Netflix or Lovefilm on it – but the key lies in content. You buy a TV because you like watching movies and TV shows on it – not because you like stalking Facebook accounts in glorious 4K. The system that puts the most content on your screen -- and crucially, does in a way that’s simple and without thirteen remote controls and using a bloody T9 touchpad – will win. That’s where the systems digress. Whereas the smartphone world has a pretty simple ecosystem – app developers design the apps, Apple et al get a cut, and the consumer’s none-the-wiser – there’s no such consensus with the telly-box.
The Smart TV model is probably the simplest, and most familiar. The most clever systems nowadays combine a TV recorder, a bunch of on-demand apps (like iPlayer and LoveFilm), and the good ‘ol broadcast TV into one simple package. At least, that’s the theory. Sadly, even the best Smart TVs nowadays kinda suck. The UIs are generally navigated with a remote – great, for flicking between channels, but worse than a giant novelty hieroglyph keyboard when it comes to searching for The Apprentice. Even worse, the plethora of Smart TV platforms makes writing apps for them damn hard. Different generations of Samsung Smart TVs need different apps; when you add the mass of individual manufacturers and their quirks to the mix, well, you’ve got the definition of fragmentation. Still, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that one big innovation could shake up the whole field. If Apple’s oft-rumoured but never-sighted Apple HDTV ever comes to light – and it’s any good – then Tim Cook could have his very own iPhone moment.
So Smart TVs kinda suck. This is where it gets interesting – different manufacturers have different set-top box solutions, each with its own set of advantages and problems. The Apple TV is into its fourth generation, but still a bit of a peculiarity. Using the fairly extensive iTunes content library, the cheap (£99) Apple TV puts digital-download content on your TV. The pros? Simplicity, and an ecosystem that anyone who’s ever used an iPhone is familiar with. Sadly, you pay for that – shows are pricey, and there’s no all-you-can eat subscription package.
If you want to use the Apple TV as the centre of your entertainment system, you’d better be pretty loaded. More common as a direct-content solution is a streaming solution: Sky TV boxes are ubiquitous in British households -- pay a (fairly steep) monthly fee, and you get an all-you-can-eat of drama, sports, BidUp TV and others.
Unsurprisingly, internet equivalents exist. The Now TV box, recently launched for just a tenner (see our review here), promises lots of streaming TV (though no Netflix or Lovefilm), plus the likes of iPlayer, Spotify and Demand 5. The Now TV box – and even Apple TV -- can be sold for chump change because the money isn’t in the hardware. Just like loss-makers like the original PS3 and the Kindle Fire tablet, the money comes by convincing people to buy into the ecosystem – be that Amazon films, iTunes movies or Now TV subscriptions. For that reason, you can expect the big players in Internet movies – Netflix and Amazon (owners of Lovefilm) to develop set-top boxes of their own, or at the very least partner with other companies to do so.
As a result, prices will probably plummet, with the trade-off that no set-top box will ever combine all the services. That’s both a bummer and a mega win for the consumer – how much so, really depends on how much you hate having three remotes.
On-demand TV services are pretty big business in the UK right now. iPlayer, Demand 5 or 4oD – almost every TV channel has a half-decent catch-up website. Consolidating those different services into one is big business, though – act as an effective middle man, and you can have all the content, without having to negotiate irritating contracts with content providers. That’s the route Google has chosen to take with the Chromecast. A dongle that plugs into your TV’s HDMI port and connects to the ‘smart’ object via Wi-Fi offers something that pretty much everyone can use (cough, Intel Wireless Display). There are other, more complicated approaches to being the middleman. Microsoft and the Xbox One want to sit in the middle, as some kind of King of the Set-Top Boxes, into which you will plug all your other set-top boxes.
This leaves us in a quandary: Direct content is a problem because it relies on negotiating deals with dozens of TV channels and film studios. Given that there are still thousands of films that you can’t get on any digital service at the moment, the chance of all films that you want to see coming to one single box is incredibly remote. That leaves us with two other models: Smart TVs, and the middle-man solutions.
Although Smart TVs are elegant on the surface, they’ve got lots of problems. There’s no common software platform, so the likes of Netflix are reluctant to write apps for them. Navigation is buggy, but most importantly, having a ‘Smart’ TV drives the cost of the TV up needlessly.
Why should you buy a device that streams iPlayer badly, when you have a smartphone that does the same thing (only better and with less hassle) in your pocket? The conclusion, then, is that the future of TVs lies in a middle-man approach. Forget Smart TVs: the telly should, fundamentally, just be a big screen. Find a good way of hooking that big screen up to any smart device – and the Chromecast’s a pretty good stab at doing just that – and you’ve got yourself a winner. Image via Shutterstock/Nomad Soul