At its global developer conference last month, Apple made much of the interconnected and easy-to-use nature of its devices, made possible by tight integration between its hardware, software and services.
But this tight integration comes at a literal cost: the so-called Apple Tax, the 30% or more premium you can expect to pay for these iPhones, iPads, and Macs compared to rough equivalents from other manufacturers. Not everyone can or wants to pay this premium, just to watch TV or make a call.
And going all-out with Apple also comes with more subtle costs, in terms of innovation and functionality, as is made clear to those browsing Epic Games’ 365-page “results” document that sums up its recent lawsuit. antitrust against the Apple App Store.
Apple has been slow to embrace many technologies, blocked easy access to competitor offerings, and sometimes opted for expensive non-industry standards on cables or other components. Just look at the high-end Samsung Galaxy and Google Pixel phones with 5G network connectivity and plenty of camera upgrades long before they hit iPhones.
Fortunately, other companies are finding ways to deliver large parts of the built-in Apple experience, without the Apple tax.
American TV maker Vizio provides a prime example of what is possible with tight integration between its big screen TVs and popular soundbars. Importantly, paired devices make good use of Vizio’s SmartCast streaming platform, which gives onscreen app-based access to most major subscription streaming services and dozens more. free channels and services.
I tested a combination of one of Vizio’s low-end TVs, a 40-inch D-Series set, and its 5.1-channel V-Series soundbar, and found a surprising amount of power, integration and functionality for a much lower price than an Apple-based alternative. And it even integrates seamlessly with some of Apple’s key connectivity solutions, including AirPlay and HomeKit.
There are indeed a few tradeoffs, but a lot to like about the way Vizio has seamlessly tied the video, audio, and software platform together. For many users, especially those with a smaller home or wallet, the combination could be almost irresistible.
Watch the screen
I tested a 40-inch D-series HD display, but for an additional $ 40 you can get the slightly larger V-series 4K alternative. The industry has shifted to 4K UHD displays in recent years, but 4K programming has been slower to arrive. This means that for many reasons, especially if you are not a gamer or a fan of live sports, you will be very happy with the quality of the HD screen most of the time.
The TV has a remote control with dedicated buttons for several major services, including Netflix, Amazon and Disney + subscription services, the Peacock and Tubi hybrid service, and ad-supported Crackle.
The remote also has a dedicated Watch Free + button for quick access to its seemingly limitless collection of ad-supported free channels. Watch Free + is created in concert with Pluto, owned by Comcast, one of the largest aggregators (along with Tubi and Crackle) of free services to watch.
There are several ways you can change screen assignments in the report, but most people probably won’t need to do more than an initial optimization for their own purposes.
You can also link the TV to your smart home setup, whether that setup is built on devices from Amazon, Google or, yes, Apple’s HomeKit, allowing you to turn your screen on and off remotely, from set timers or other possible uses.
Leverage the SmartCast Platform
The key element of Vizio’s TV experience is its integrated streaming platform, SmartCast. This is Vizio’s take on the platform approach launched a decade ago by Roku, and now offered as separate devices or integrated interfaces from Apple, Samsung, LG, Google, Amazon. and others.
Vizio’s largely tile-based interface is attractive and fairly conventional, showcasing some of the hottest shows from multiple vendors across the top half of the screen, and a small group of categories at the top for “kids and family.” “,” Films “and similar fields.
Apps for individual services are grouped together in the lower half, putting some order into the chaos of modern streaming. A quick dive into the menus allows you to rearrange the app’s tiles for the services you use the most.
For these applications, accessing streaming platforms is the current version of the cart war that networks and cable companies waged in the 1990s and 2000s. There are huge implications for individual services, as has been shown. Roku’s continued conflicts with NBCUniversal and WarnerMedia over the transport of Peacock and HBO Max last year.
As a result, it’s not entirely surprising to find a few apps that still aren’t on SmartCast, including HBO Max and upcoming fusion partner Discovery +. A spokesperson for the company said these services can be streamed from a smartphone or tablet, using Apple’s ChromeCast or AirPlay conventions. I had no problem streaming these services as well as a browser feed from the Spectrum cable provider of live channels such as MSNBC.
Most of the other major subscription services are directly available as apps on SmartCast, including the enhanced subscription service from Apple TV +.
There are a few caveats about SmartCast that are worth noting. The first is that its interface is a bit less lively than competitors Apple TV and, to a lesser extent, Roku, with actions taking a second or two to manifest onscreen.
The other downside is that SmartCast collects audience data (with user permission) and uses this anonymized information in conjunction with a separate Vizio division, Inscape, to target ads on its interface and many free channels. . Not everyone will be comfortable with using their data to target ads, although the practice is common across much of the streaming world.
Ring with the sound bar
The V-Series soundbar consists of four components: a 36-inch-long, three-speaker main bar that sits in front of the TV screen, a separately powered subwoofer (it’s a cube of about 7.5 inches aside) that can be placed anywhere in a room, and two tiny satellite speakers with long cables that attach and are powered by the subwoofer. In a nice touch, the satellite speakers even come with wall mount brackets.
The most complicated part of the setup may be disassembling the L-shaped case that the soundbar comes in. After that, the setup is remarkably straightforward. If you’re using the soundbar in a smaller or oddly shaped room where you can’t easily place the rear speakers, you can opt for a setting that places all of the speakers in front of you.
The rear speakers connect wirelessly with the main system, and all are controlled via a remote that manages more advanced settings, including equalizer presets for basic programming types such as movies, music or games, and for bass vs. treble, dialogue, and individual speakers.
The sound you get is great, especially for the price, although you’ll probably have to spend some time tweaking the placement of the rear speakers to really get the 5.1 surround experience. There are several cool features hidden within the instructions, such as TruVolume, which smooths out the volume changes that often occur when transitioning from a show to a commercial.
Due to the integration between TVs and Vizio’s soundbars, you normally don’t need to play with the soundbar’s remote. You can control the volume and mute the sound from the TV remote control.
But having the separate remote is handy if you want to use the soundbar for other purposes, like playing music without turning on the TV screen.
The remote includes a Bluetooth button to make it easy to pair the soundbar with a phone or tablet to stream music, podcasts, or other audio files. I have found it to work well, although audiophiles remain upset with some of the technical limitations of Bluetooth. For the rest of us, Grizzly Bear surround sound is pretty good.
And if you want to add smart voice-activated functions to the soundbar, it includes a socket for connecting smart devices from Google and Amazon that use their respective virtual assistants to control your devices.
Subtract the tax on apples
Of course, one of the best reasons to go with an approach like Vizio’s is the price.
For about $ 130 more than the cost of an Apple TV 4K streaming box and two of its HomePod smart mini speakers (they can be paired for a stereo experience), you could get a 4K TV from the smaller V-series and a 5.1-channel soundbar. And unlike Apple equipment, you don’t need to buy a separate TV.
At typical prices, a 43-inch V-Series TV costs around $ 340, the 40-inch HD-only D-Series only $ 299, and the V-Series soundbar an additional $ 250. For smart shoppers looking to reap most of the benefits (and flexible access to) the Apple ecosystem, as well as those from Amazon and Google, Vizio’s video / audio / platform approach in makes a tasty bite.