Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Sony, Samsung, Roku, and plenty of other successful companies have at least one thing in common: They have all failed to make the living room multimedia experience better than simply connecting a computer to your television.
Today, a generic computer with an HDMI port is the easiest all-in-one media machine to have in your living room. A computer can play console-quality video games. A computer can record television. A computer can do almost anything apps can do, and it can probably do it better and through a web browser. When someone innovates how we consume our entertainment, whether that's Spotify, Twitch, or a new streaming service, it happens first on a computer.
But what's most appealing about a computer is it's easier to use than any of its competitors.
A computer is easy to use
The current crop of living-room media devices pride themselves on simplicity, but they only deliver pseudo-solutions. Who hasn't tried to type some lengthy title into a television menu, scrolling and selecting one letter at a time, only to realize they'd made a typo and had to start the process over. Using remote controls to navigate a Smart TV, Roku, or just my cable box is the Sisyphean punishment of the millennial generation.
Microsoft spent millions developing and promoting Kinect's motion and voice controls, which it believes simplifies the living room media experience and resolves the problems of the limited remote control. In my home, Kinect has been a steady supplier of headaches. The Xbox One's menus are a mess to explore with hand gestures, and Kinect's voice recognition too often gets confused, loading up the wrong app, raising the volume, or changing the television channel.
Apple TV and Chromecast allow me to display my computer on my television. Screen sharing is unreliable and marred by lag. You can have the desktop experience in the slowest, most maddening way possible.
It took a few years to realize I could connect a computer directly to the screen, then use a wireless mouse and keyboard, which are as reliable as they are familiar. When friends visit they have no problem grabbing the wireless keyboard and touchpad combo, and taking control of the television. They already know how to download movies, load Spotify, or search for some oddball YouTube video. Billion-dollar companies want to make living-room hardware more accessible and seem to ignore the fact that billions of people know how to navigate a computer desktop.
So many of us use PCs every day. And yet, when it's time to use the computer attached to our television, we're forced to learn some half-baked, maddeningly limited interface. I get that computers are large, and so are wireless keyboards. But they work.
We already know how to navigate a computer desktop
I understand that computers won't be the best living-room machine forever. A computer desktop can look small from a few feet away, and so a little effort is required to increase the system's default font size or magnify the entire desktop. PCs are also more expensive and take up more real estate than say the diminutive $35 Chromecast. You could use a single laptop, but do you really want to be plugging and unplugging the system?
I recognize that the intention of these companies is to find some exceptionally easy solution that will make their hardware "the iPhone" of living room media solutions, which, ugh, has anything ever sounded more like the confluence of a marketing meeting. I get that the entire point of these devices is to solve the aforementioned problems of a living-room PC. And there will be a time when that magical machine exists.
That time is not now, though. Right now, the best way to play video games, watch streaming video, listen to music, surf the internet, look at personal photos, or do anything, really, is to buy an older, cheap computer — or better, salvage an abandoned laptop or family PC — and move it to the living room. Sure, it's not pretty, but it's what's on the inside that counts.