If you’re a console manufacturer, you’ve had a pretty good run. Millions of users around the world with plenty of appetite for new content, games, and DLC. On top of that, consoles have always had a wonderful secondary market: people picking up cheap bundles or standalone consoles to serve as media players and low-cost entertainment options for the family.
That principle of the console as a media device is a handy part of the market. It’s been a huge success for the Xbox One S, being pitched as the cheapest 4K Blu-Ray player locally. But with the next generation of TVs finally offering stiff competition on the usability front, the value of owning a separate media device (or gifting a hand-me-down console) is starting to shrink.
In case you’re in any doubt about how serious a problem this is for the console manufacturers, consider this. The most used application for both Microsoft and Sony in Australia isn’t a game or some first-party creation. It’s Netflix. Gaming might be the reason they bought the console in the first place, and maybe why they might buy another console in the future, but it’s not the console’s most popular function.
So what happens when we live in a world where iView, Stan and Netflix are loaded faster than the time it takes for your console to boot up?
I had the opportunity, along with Tegan from Gizmodo, to check out the next generation of Samsung TVs that are available from today. There was plenty of future TV tech on show at CES this year – that rollable LG OLED being one – but this was a chance to trial the Q90 QLED 75″ TV, and the accompanying Q70 soundbar. The new QLED TV range also includes the Q900 8K TV, although press isn’t expected to get hands on with that until later this year.
A lot of the improvements in TV tech year-on-year tends to be largely iterative. The 2019 range supports the new HDMI standard, adding support for variable refresh rate and high frame rate content. The higher frame rate does add a little bit of extra latency (just over 15ms in game mode, compared to just over 11ms at bog-standard 60Hz), although they’re nowhere near the response time of any gaming monitor.
But if your current TV still has a 25ms or higher input lag, not to mention the other peculiarities of earlier game mode implementations (like vastly reduced brightness), then that’s still a solid improvement. Even more valuable, particularly to the legions of Australians who no longer view free-to-air TV at all, is an interface that actually, finally, works the way it should.
I’m not saying for a heartbeat that the in-built experience of a TV is going to make a difference for everyone. Your smart TV isn’t going to be as versatile as a Kodi box, and it probably won’t have the same upgradability or portability.
But that’s not how most people use their TVs. Most people don’t even use the game mode on their TVs, as John Carmack quipped recently.
Being able to jump into a video faster than the time it takes the sound to kick in? That will eliminate the need to think of an Xbox or a PlayStation as a media device for most Australians. It’ll take about three or four years for the hardware in this generation of TVs to become commonplace for most Australian consumers, but that also fits the timeframe when most people think about upgrading their TVs anyway. Plenty of Australians will have also only just upgraded in the last couple of years; brand new 4K HDR TVs cost less than $1000 these days.
The snappiness of that experience is what made the Nvidia Shield one of my favourite devices last year. Being based on Android TV also meant apps – outside of the largest streaming services – were often better designed, and updated, than their smart TV equivalents. It was most evident with the free-to-air networks and public broadcasters, whose apps are ordinary at best.
Unless you’re on console, where they’re worse.
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All of this isn’t irrelevant for gaming, either. Most of the major TVs this year will ship with Apple Airplay, allowing them to cast any Apple Arcade games from their iOS device to the TV. Samsung TVs already come equipped with Steam Link, and while it won’t make as big a difference as the connection of the host PC, eliminating any processing lag from the TV’s end certainly helps.
Google Stadia is on the horizon, and there’s whatever Amazon decides to do in the cloud gaming space. The kicker with all of this is that, previously, a console or some other form of set-top box would have been necessary for any part of it. Smart TVs simply weren’t powerful enough. The apps were slow, the performance dodgy, the content out of date.
Consoles filled that void. But in a few years, that void won’t be there.
This doesn’t affect seasoned gamers and the early adopters who will buy a console just to have the next generation. But it will hit the bottom line of console manufacturers eventually. Why bother spending $299 or $399 on an 8K console bundle if you can just stream the experience straight through your TV? Why would you bother gifting a hand-me-down console to your parents if they don’t need it anyway?
This is all a few years out, of course. Plenty of households have just upgraded to 4K and HDR, and it’ll be years before there’s any FOMO around 8K content, especially since there is no 8K content right now. And with the average amount of TVs per Australian household declining steadily from 2010 to 2017, people aren’t upgrading their TVs any faster.
The most popular use of a console in Australia is for Netflix. The TV experience has already reached a point that surpasses what consoles do today.
What happens when you’re not turning your console on for movies and TV shows anymore? What impact does that have on your exposure to the games on those platforms, and everything else those consoles want to sell?
A war is afoot. Google are pledging to kill off the console with their promise of cloud gaming. They won’t, certainly not in Australia. But an attack from Google can’t be ignored. And that’s not the only front console manufacturers have to fight on.