At its Worldwide Developers Conference last month, Apple made much of the interconnected, easy-to-use nature of its devices, made possible through tight integration between its hardware, software and services.
But that tight integration comes at a literal cost: the so-called Apple Tax, the premium of 30 percent or more you can expect to pay for those iPhones, iPads and Macs compared to rough equivalents from other makers. Not everyone can or wants to pay that premium, just to watch TV or make a call.
And going full Apple brings more subtle costs too, in innovation and features, as is made plain to those perusing Epic Games’ 365-page “findings” document that sums up its recently concluded antitrust suit over Apple’s App Store.
Apple has been slow to adopt many technologies, blocked easy access to competitors’ offerings, and sometimes has opted for expensive non-industry standards on cables or other components. Just look at high-end Samsung Galaxy and Google Pixel phones that have had 5G network connectivity and many camera enhancements long before they came to iPhones.
Fortunately, other companies are figuring out ways to provide big parts of the Integrated Apple Experience, without the Apple Tax.
U.S.-based TV maker Vizio provides a great example of what’s possible with tight integration between its large-screen TVs and highly regarded sound bars. Importantly, the paired devices nicely leverage Vizio’s SmartCast streaming platform, which gives app-based access on screen to most of the major subscription streaming services and dozens of other free channels and services.
I tested a combination of one of Vizio’s lower-end TVs, a 40-inch D-Series set, and its V-Series 5.1-channel sound bar, and found a surprising amount of power, integration, and functionality for a price far below an Apple-based alternative. And it even integrates nicely with some of Apple’s key connectivity solutions, including AirPlay and HomeKit.
There are indeed some compromises, but lots to like in the way that Vizio has seamlessly tied together video, audio and software platform. For many users, especially those with a smaller home or wallet, the combination could be near irresistible.
Watching The Screen
I tested a D-Series 40-inch HD screen, but for $40 more, you can get the slightly larger 4K V-Series alternative. The industry has been shifting to 4K UHD screens in recent years, but 4K programming has been slower to arrive. That means for many purposes, especially if you’re not a gamer or live sports fan, you’ll be quite happy with HD screen quality most of the time.
The TV features a remote with dedicated buttons for several major services, including subscription services Netflix, Amazon and Disney+, hybrid service Peacock, and ad-supported Tubi and Crackle.
The remote also has a dedicated Watch Free+ button for quick access to its seemingly bottomless collection of free, ad-supported channels. Watch Free+ is created in concert with Comcast-owned Pluto, one of the biggest aggregators (along with Tubi and Crackle) of free-to-watch services.
You can tweak the screen’s attributions in multiple ways through the report, but most people likely won’t need to do more than an initial optimization for their own purposes.
You can also tie the TV into your smart-home setup, whether that setup is built on devices from Amazon, Google or, yes, Apple’s HomeKit, allowing you to remotely turn your screen on and off, set timers, or other possible uses.
Leveraging The SmartCast Platform
The key part of experiencing Vizio’s TV is its built-in streaming platform, SmartCast. It’s Vizio’s take on the platform approach pioneered a decade ago by Roku, and now on offer as separate devices or built-in interfaces from Apple, Samsung, LG, Google, Amazon, and others.
Vizio’s largely tile-based interface is attractive and fairly conventional, showcasing some of the highest-profile shows from several providers across the upper half of the screen, and a small group of categories at the very top for “kids & family,” “movies,” and similar areas.
Apps for individual services are grouped in the lower half, imposing some order on the chaos of modern streaming. A quick dive into the menus allows you to reorder the app tiles for the services you use most.
For those apps, getting on the streaming platforms is this era’s version of the carriage wars that networks and cable providers fought in the 1990s and 2000s. There are huge implications for individual services, as Roku’s sustained conflicts with NBCUniversal and WarnerMedia over carriage of Peacock and HBO Max showed this past year.
Accordingly, it’s not completely surprising to find a couple of apps still aren’t on SmartCast, most notably HBO Max and future merger partner Discovery+. A company spokesperson said those services can be streamed from a smartphone or tablet, using either ChromeCast or Apple’s AirPlay conventions. I had no problems streaming those services as well as a browser feed from cable provider Spectrum of live channels such as MSNBC .
Most of the other big subscription services are directly available as apps on SmartCast, including Apple’s own improving subscription service TV+.
There are a couple of caveats about SmartCast worth noting. One is that its interface feels a little less snappy than competitors Apple TV and, to a lesser extent, Roku, with actions taking a second or two to manifest on screen.
The other caveat is that SmartCast gathers viewership data (with user permission) and uses that anonymized information in concert with a separate Vizio division, Inscape, to target ads across its interface and many free channels. Not everyone will be comfortable with their data being used to target ads to them, though the practice is common across much of the streaming world.
Sounding Off With The Sound Bar
The V-Series sound bar 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 about 7.5 inches per side) that can be placed anywhere in a room, and two tiny satellite speakers with long cables that attach to and are powered by the subwoofer. In a nice touch, the satellite speakers even come with wall-mount brackets.
The most complicated part of setup may be disassembling the L-shaped box the sound bar comes in. After that, setup is remarkably simple. If you’re using the sound bar in a smaller or oddly shaped room where you can’t easily place the rear speakers, you can opt for a setting that puts all speakers in front of you.
The rear speakers connect wirelessly with the main system, and all are controlled through a remote control that handles more advanced settings, including equalizer presets for basic programming types such as movies, music or games, and for bass versus treble, dialogue, and individual speakers.
The resulting audio is excellent, particularly for the price, though you’ll probably need to spend a little time tweaking the location of the rear speakers to truly get the 5.1 surround experience. Several nice functions are tucked away in the instructions, such as TruVolume, which smooths out the volume changes that often happen when transitioning between a show and an ad.
Because of the integration between Vizio’s TVs and sound bars, you normally don’t need to mess with the sound bar remote. You can control volume and mute from the TV remote.
But having the separate remote is handy if you want to put the sound bar to other uses, like streaming music without turning on the TV screen.
The remote includes a Bluetooth button to make it easy to pair the sound bar with a phone or tablet to stream music, podcasts, or other audio. I found that worked nicely, though audiophiles remain irked at some of Bluetooth’s technical limitations. For the rest of us, surround-sound Grizzly Bear is pretty excellent.
And if you want to add some voice-activated smarts to the soundbar, it includes a plug to attach smart devices from Google and Amazon that use their respective virtual assistants to control your devices.
Subtracting The Apple Tax
Of course, one of the best reasons to go with an approach such as Vizio’s is price.
For about $130 more than the cost of an Apple TV 4K streaming box and two of its HomePod mini smart speakers (they can be paired to provide a stereo experience), you could get a smaller V-Series 4K TV and 5.1-channel sound bar. And unlike with the Apple gear, you don’t need to buy a separate TV.
At typical prices, a 43-inch V-Series TV costs around $340, the HD-only 40-inch D-Series just $299, and the V-Series sound bar another $250. For smart shoppers looking to get most of the benefits (and flexible access to) the Apple ecosystem, as well as those of Amazon and Google, Vizio’s video/audio/platform approach makes for a tasty bite indeed.