Two great articles on TVs just showed up on Wired's site, both by my friend Mat Honan. In the first, Mat nails the problem with new TVs, and why you don't really need one since video technology is outpacing the user interfaces of finding anything worth watching. Sure 4K video sounds impressive but there's no content out there for it, and even more important, no good content. The kind of interface Mat envisions sounds like a nice evolution of a Harmony-style remote. Give me an app tied to my TV that lets me say "Play the last episode of Mad Men" and have the app not only figure out what components in my cabinet to power on, but also where to search/download/rent/buy the program.
I was thinking about interfaces the other day at a Christmas party when I spent a bit of time trying to get Spotify songs to play on my home theater system (which features GoogleTV, Boxee, a Mac mini, TiVo Premiere, and an AppleTV). It took some fussing and finagling to get it right and I wondered how on earth a normal non-geek could venture through these waters. I would guess half my friends (mostly technology geeks themselves) don't regularly send internet video to their TV screen due to the interface difficulties.
That brings us to the second article at Wired, concering Smart TVs. Their user interfaces are mostly terrible and are such a chore to use that most people don't use them. The article is based on this recent study of Smart TV owners, showing that very few of them regularly use any of the internet features.
Last Spring I bought the newest latest, greatest Samsung Plasma for my home theater and it featured tons of SmartTV features. What I quickly found was that setup was difficult (I had to change the plug the main HDMI cable when into, to return sound to my A/V unit) and the experience was much like buying a Windows PC in the late 90s. My "desktop" home screen on the samsung featured half a dozen apps I don't use or need and couldn't delete, presumably put there by advertising partner deals that ensured their visibility. The apps were also slow to load, buggy to use, and added several minutes to the time you put down a computer and say "boy, I want to watch this on the couch instead, let me just go bring it up there."
Marc Andreesen has famously said a TV from Apple is coming possibly next year or the year after that should re-invent interfaces and how we interact with shows, but given the complexities of movie studios and cable company deals, I'm not entirely optimistic that they can solve it.
The Prolost blog's post Your New TV Ruins Movies is over a year old but still packed with relevant information on why shopping for a new TV is difficult in a busy store as well as the settings that environment requires and how it affects your experience when you take it home:
Maybe you got a new TV for Christmas. Or maybe you just got one recently. Maybe you are thinking of buying one. Whichever is the case, take heed: your TV will try very, very hard to make whatever movies you watch on it look not just bad, but aggressively, satanically, puppy-drowningly bad.
It features a handy guide to turning down the brightness and moving your TV into at least a general "movie mode" as well as how to turn off the motion smoothing that can ruin lots of TV and almost all movies.
I always do two things when buying a new TV: one is going through the options to make sure automatic stuff like motion smoothing is turned off, and the other thing I do is Google search the phrase "cnet reviews calibration tv [model number]". Cnet reviews consistently has the newest reviews and part of every TV review is how to calibrate your TV to match their optimal settings. They include every single option screen's settings and it frequently takes me about 20 minutes to complete but it is worth the effort and I'm always rewarded with a really high quality picture.
The biggest problem with integrating today's newest TVs into your home is finding a competent home theater installer (or having enough DIY knowhow) to properly mount your TV, hide your components, and then hide the wires, which is no small task.
IKEA, probably tired of seeing their clean lined modern home theater units and stands covered in wires set out to solve the problem of mounting, hiding, and even getting things down to a single remote controller. They're calling this system UPPLEVA.
IKEA is going to start selling TVs with integrated home theater setups including a 1080p LED TV, DivX playback, Blu-ray/DVD/CD player, WiFi, as well as speakers including a wireless subwoofer. It looks pretty good and will solve a lot of problems for a large audience. I look forward to seeing what the pricing is like and what the capabilities are.
I'm going to go out on a not-so-far limb and say the scheduled Digital TV switchover away from analog scheduled to take place next month on February 17 is going to be delayed again. Originally planned to take place several years ago but pushed to 2009, the early tests in various markets sounded problematic and I can't imagine what will happen on a national scale.
Obama's transition team has already recommended a delay, I bet one of his first actions as president will be to push it back to 2010-2012. The only weird bit is that Hawaii is scheduled to change over in two days, so if Obama does move it back another year or two, will Hawaii stay digital-only?