April 20, 2021

Apple's "Better" Problem

The "Apple Tax" is real where home entertainment is concerned and I don't see many people paying it.

Apple's "Better" Problem

This site is dedicated to the finer things in life and, among those finer things, you'd most likely find products made by a certain fruit company. Apple's latest product announcement saw the introduction of some brand new goodies, such as AirTags, an M1-powered iPad Pro and an M1-powered iMac. These additions were welcomed, mostly, with open arms. The new iMac comes in six colors and features a sleek new 4.5k display reminiscent of the iPad Pro.

The iPad Pro, on the other hand, got a boost in the form of a new mini-LED "Liquid Retina XDR" display and Apple's M1 chip, the latter of which had previously been found in only in its MacBook and Mac Mini lineups.

But these products have always been considered "premium" when compared to the competition. In spending a little more, you're getting a superior build quality, better customer support, arguably better apps, and a longer product life than the average $500 laptop or $300 tablet.

Yet, one product announcement today left me with a bad taste in my mouth. It embodies Apple's "we'll tell you what you want and you'll like it" attitude in the worst way: the Apple TV 4K.

Apple's little black box has always been a strange bird. Updates are infrequent, the design decisions around the remote have been questionable, and it has consistently been one of the most expensive products in its category.

Which is what frustrates me the most about today's update. Yes, the new Apple TV 4K boasts an A12 Bionic chip, a MUCH improved remote, and a really neat way to use your iPhone to calibrate your television's color balance.

All of that is nice, but it doesn't address the $179 gorilla in the room: the Apple TV is too expensive.

An Amazon Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote costs $40--$139 less than the Apple TV 4K. The upcoming Roku Express 4K+ is the same price.

A Google Chromecast costs just $30.

All of these devices do the same thing: they give you access to channels and content via downloadable apps. Do they allow you to calibrate your TV settings with your phone? No. Do they need to? Also no.

This is where Apple loses the plot outside of its core competencies. The iPhone is a premium phone. Macs are premium computers. iPads are premium tablets. We use them daily to get work done, connect with friends and coworkers, and occasionally have some fun. They are workhorses and so we spend more to get more.

The Apple TV 4K is for pure consumption. An A12 chip is fine for gaming, but are many people gaming on their Apple TVs? Is that where game developers are even focusing their time?

And color calibration is great, but I'd argue the average person watching the latest "murder porn" documentary doesn't care about how red the blood looks onscreen.

Apple has always argued "if you build it, they will come, and they will pay through the nose for it" and I'm sorry to say that just isn't the case where home entertainment is concerned.

We recently saw that when they announced they were discontinuing the HomePod, a $299 barrel that sure sounded great, but was hobbled by Siri, lacked a touchscreen, and only worked with Apple Music.

Say what you want about Amazon (please--do), but their mantra of "good enough for the price" is what's catapulted their Echo devices to near ubiquity. I have about five Echo Dots around the house and an Echo Show in the kitchen.

Is the Show's speaker great? Nope. But it's loud enough and clear enough to listen to podcasts or wash dishes to a James Taylor playlist. The new Echo Show is $249, only $50 less than the HomePod, but it has a 10" HD screen that follows you around the room and a whole catalog of apps it can connect with--including Apple Music and Spotify.

If that's too much, the Echo Show 8 is still available for about $100 and if you wait long enough, you'll probably score a great deal on both around Black Friday.

Apple wants to play in the audiophile and cinephile spaces at a time when everyone is just trying to get by. Sure, an Apple TV 4K is nice, but try buying any television set nowadays that doesn't have "smart" capabilities or Amazon Fire TV already built in. For most people (yours truly included), that bare-bones functionality is good enough for the price. Not to mention, they all have access to AppleTV+ and your personal Apple media libraries, so it's not like Apple has a monopoly on where you watch its content anymore either.

Which brings me to the biggest question of all: who is the Apple TV 4K for? Is it for film lovers to watch Shrek the way Scorsese intended? Or is it for the average TV consumer who wants to come home after a long day in the spare bedroom and settle in with an episode of Moody Norwegian Drama Everyone Told Me To Watch But I Hate Subtitles?

I don't know. And I don't think Apple knows either, because as much as it wants to push itself as a "lifestyle" brand, the fact is it's not much of a lifestyle if only a few people can buy into it--or want to.

We're in the middle of a pandemic. People are out of work, businesses have closed, and money is tight. When all we want to do is unwind with an $8-a-month streaming service, is now the time to unveil a prohibitively expensive toy that doesn't do any one particular thing well?

I was hoping to see a $50 Apple stick that plugged into the side of the TV and streamed movies, television shows, and games to compete with the Amazons and Rokus of the world.

Instead, we got more of Apple's hubris, a line in the sand on a private beach where only the rich get to play.

At least they'll sell a ton of new remotes.