Integrators on Apple TV 4: Bluetooth ‘Headache’, 4K Questions, Hush on HomeKit, TOSLink Snub
Home technology integrators respond to Apple TV new. Control via Bluetooth, IR and HDMI CEC gets mixed reviews; no word on HomeKit, home automation, 4K.
Julie Jacobson · September 10, 2015
Apple made some major announcements yesterday, introducing the super-big iPad Pro, next-gen iPhone 6s and Apple TV 4. Its HomeKit home automation platform was conspicuously omitted at the Apple event, but there was other news on the home systems control and integration front, none of it particularly good if you ask integrators. And we did!
The single biggest deal, they say, is the fact that Apple TV has some rich new control options through a Bluetooth remote they’ll be tough to hack/emulate for third-party integration. In addition, the industry is wondering about prospects for 4K.
Here’s the low-down on Apple TV 4, along with feedback from integrators.
Apple TV 4 Features
Compared to Apple TV 3, the new model adds (or omits):
- Dolby Digital 7.1 (vs. 5.1)
- HDMI 1.4
- HDMI CEC control
- No optical audio
- Improved tvOS interface and navigation tools
- Third-party apps!
- Gaming (apps and control via Apple TV remote and third-party MFi controllers)
- Universal search across platforms including iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, HBO and Showtime
- 4K potential … maybe (HDMI 1.4, 802.11ac)
- A remote control with Bluetooth, enabling screen navigation via touch surface, Siri voice (dual mics) and gesture (accelerometer and gyroscope). Like the original, the new remote has an IR transmitter, as well as dedicated volume up/down buttons.
- Shipping late October for $149 (32GB) and $199 (64GB)
An Integrator’s Overview
Mosey Levy, owner of the NYC-based integration firm Backstage AV, and promoter of the Apple TV 3 as “the best $69 you can spend,” had plenty to say about the new Apple products, especially Apple TV.
He believes his clients currently use Apple TV for about 20 percent to 30 percent of their TV viewing.
The new device, he says, “looks like it will be the foundation of a new way to watch TV,” with a few new features that are “going to drive the usage up.”
- Universal search: “While TiVo already has this, it takes Apple to do something to drive popularity. Searching across multiple services to find the show or movie you want will make life easier, and will make the Apple TV more useable.”
- App store: “This means we’ll finally get an Apple TV device that is almost limitless in potential, as long as they don’t restrict the apps too much.”
- Siri: “The benefits are obvious, but will it be annoying talking to your TV? The interface is beautiful, that’s for sure.”
- Gaming: “This might be huge. The Apple TV remote acts like a Nintendo Wii remote, letting you swing it around to interact with games. Nintendo should be worried, and might be wise to drop the hardware portion of their business. Roku and others have had games on their streaming devices, but, like I said earlier, sometimes it takes Apple to do something to drive adoption.”
- Control: “Control is probably the biggest sticking point for integrators. For the average user, using an Apple TV will be brainless—connect to your TV or A/V receiver and be done. But for large control systems, with centralized racks, this now adds a level of complexity we’ve been trying to avoid forever.
“There will be additional remotes on the table, but not only that – since it’s a Bluetooth remote, the Apple TV might have to be localized in the viewer’s area. Luckily the Apple TV itself still has an IR receiver on the front of it, so we can still use our own control systems for basic control of the Apple TV. But to use all of the features of the Apple remote (Siri voice, motion, touchpad) we will either have to have the Apple TV local in the room, routing audio back to the rack (via HDMI ARC?) or have it live in the rack and figure out a way to extend the Bluetooth to each room. [Ed. note: The new Bluetooth mesh networking spec might make this possible.]
“On the other hand, for simpler systems that utilize Sonos sound bars, for example, the Apple TV now has the ability to control the volume of a TV, making it easier for the end user.”
Levy reiterates that the new box is just a foundation, “and I expect bigger things to come later, like an Apple TV streaming TV service or something similar.”
On the other hand, he says, “maybe the apps will be so good we won’t need one.”
In any case, Levy says the new product creates a fresh opportunity to revisit existing customers.
“Our clients will be interested in upgrading,” he says, “and we will get to have conversations with old clients we haven’t spoken to in a while.”
Other Integrators React to Controls
(edited for grammar and clarity)
“The new Apple TV is going to be a complete headache for those of us who like to hide equipment in remote locations,” says integrator Easton Altree, principal of e Cubed Home Automation & A/V in Portland, Ore. “The new remote is Bluetooth, and is very much not able to be replicated by any current control system.”
While some folks have managed to hack Apple TV 2 and 3 for two-way IP control via Control4, RTI and Roomie Remote, the 4th-gen products would encounter fresh challenges to mimic the Bluetooth remote’s support for voice, touch gestures and motion.
“Looks like it’s time to learn about Bluetooth repeaters and get used to the concept of two remotes on the table,” Altree writes on Facebook with an “SMH.” (“Shaking my head.” Yeah, I had to look it up, too.)
He adds, “The ‘Remote’ App from Apple will likely be updated to have this functionality. Fingers crossed. It is a great app.”
We could imagine an iOS app that enables control via voice, swipe and gesture—much like the Apple TV remote, but better—and also lets users scroll through content options on their smart device without disrupting the on-screen action.
Overlooked in most online discussions about the new Apple TV is its HDMI CEC support, allowing the device to control certain functions—power and volume control, primarily—of compatible displays and A/V components out of the box.
Presumably the volume up/down buttons on the new Apple TV remote could work either via IR or HDMI CEC.
Unquestionably, the new TV GUI for Apple TV 4 (tvOS) is a vast improvement over previous versions, allowing users to customize pages, easily bounce across apps, and multitask on the screen while watching a show.
“I really like the ability to get more info on the lower screens [beneath the main show],” says George Tucker, A/V integrator and producer of the AV Nation podcast. “It is reminiscent of the original HD off-air specifications for ‘Side Channels’. It can be a little annoying if you’re watching as a group but beats looking down at a mobile device to see the same info.”
Will Apple TV expedite the pace of cord-cutting? Matthew Bute, VP sales and marketing at A/V switcher manufacturer KanexPro, thinks so.
“Someone should quickly come out with an app consolidator to view all available programs based on [users’] current accounts,” he suggests. “This will evolve the cord-cutting quite a bit over the next year.”
David Pedigo, Sr. director of learning & emerging technology for the trade organization CEDIA, isn’t so sure.
“Lack of streaming deals seems to be a bit of a drag on Apple stock,” he says. “They need more RMR [recurring monthly revenue] and being a truly viable OTT service has to be in place.”
Even so, Pedigo thinks Apple’s plans to offer full-season subscriptions to NBA, NHL and MLB “looks amazing.”
View the full list of Apple’s current content partners here.
On a final note, Apple TV 4 omits the TOSlink connector that made the product such an obvious tool for whole-house audio distribution. While at least one integrator thinks the omission “greatly reduces its relevance in my company’s world,” others don’t seem so bothered. Pedigo says the missing optical audio output is little more than “curious.”
In a story at MacWorld, contributor Glenn Fleishman says the TOSlink snub “is a pain for folks used to using an Apple TV as an AirPlay destination from audio or using Apple TV apps to play back podcasts and stream music.”
He, “You can shunt an existing Apple TV for this purpose, of course, or get an AirPort Express ($99), which still includes an optical-digital audio output port and is an AirPlay destination. Otherwise, you’ll have to route audio via HDMI video. Some receivers can accept HDMI, and when you want to play back audio, you leave your HDTV turned off. But it’s an awkward solution.”
Notable Silence on 4K and HomeKit
The biggest omissions at the Apple event concerned HomeKit and 4K, neither of which were mentioned.
The next-gen Apple TV was rumored to be a smart-home hub for HomeKit, lending Siri voice control for automation, and offering some local functionality for the otherwise cloud-based platform. We suspect Apple might announce that functionality down the line, but not this week.
The apparent HomeKit slight “isn’t a deal breaker,” says integrator Seth Johnson of BrightSky Home Theater in Sarasota, Fla. “HomeKit works over the Internet in iOS 9 without a hub like the Apple TV. iCloud is the hub now.”
Kim-Anthony Parker of Control4 begs to differ: “I think it is safe to say that Apple is going to stay away from automation for a while as a platform.”
Also missing from discussions of Apple TV was 4K support. Will it or won’t it?
The box does support HDMI 1.4, which facilities 4K content and might be upgradeable to HDMI 2.0 for richer 4K features; however, the Apple TV 4 specs only note 1080p resolution. More importantly, so far nothing has been said by Apple about HDCP 2.2, the copyright-protection scheme that is required for copy-protected 4K content.
“I think 4K is buried in there,” Pedigo suggests, noting that Apple would be “crazy” to offer 802.11ac wireless if 4K weren’t on the roadmap.
Heck, the new iPhone 6s lets users record 4K content, which of course would not be subject to HDCP 2.2 constraints.
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Julie Jacobson is founding editor of CE Pro, the leading media brand for the home-technology channel. She has covered the smart-home industry since 1994, long before there was much of an Internet, let alone an Internet of things. Currently she studies, speaks, writes and rabble-rouses in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V, wellness-related technology, biophilic design, and the business of home technology. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, and earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin. She is a recipient of the annual CTA TechHome Leadership Award, and a CEDIA Fellows honoree. A washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player, Julie currently resides in San Antonio, Texas and sometimes St. Paul, Minn. Follow on Twitter: @juliejacobson Email Julie at email@example.com
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