IPad, IPhone Tackle ‘What-to-Watch’ Dilemma: Rich Jaroslovsky

The Peel
The Peel, is a $100 "apcessory," a gadget-plus-app combination that turns your iPhone or iPod touch into a super-smart television remote control. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

With flat-screen televisions, smart phones and tablets, there have never been more ways to watch movies and TV shows. And with Netflix, Hulu and their ilk, there have never been more sources.

The missing piece is figuring out easily what content is actually available and getting it to the screen you want to watch it on.

I’ve been trying out a pair of very different approaches to tackling that problem from two Silicon Valley startups, both making use of Apple Inc.’s iPad, iPhone and iPod touch.

One, Fanhattan, is a free app that acts as the ultimate TV Guide, helping you locate movies and shows for viewing on, or via, your iPad. The other, Peel, is a $100 “appcessory,” a gadget-plus-app combination that turns your iPhone or iPod touch into a super-smart remote control for the stuff coming to your television via cable, satellite or Internet connection.

While neither represents a complete solution, both are useful, depending on your viewing habits.

Fanhattan’s view of the world is content-centric, aiming to bring together in one place not only every option you have for viewing a movie or show, but also reviews, trailers, and even links to buy tchotchkes.

From the main screen, you choose either movies or TV shows, and are then presented with options to search for a specific title or browse a variety of categories and criteria, from genre to critics’ picks. Select one, and Fanhattan aggregates information from online sources and displays it in a visually rich environment.

Appropriate Apps

If you choose a viewing option the iPad and Fanhattan support -- Netflix’s instant-view service, for instance, or Hulu Plus -- Fanhattan will launch the appropriate app if you already have it, or prompt you to install it if you don’t.

This being the season for big, noisy action movies, I entered “Transformers” and chose the 2009 installment, “Revenge of the Fallen.” Under “Watch Now,” I was given options to view the trailer and to rent or buy the video from Apple’s iTunes store for immediate download.

Also listed were a variety of other options for acquiring the film, including pricing information for buying the DVD or Blu-ray from Amazon.com Inc., or for renting or buying it from the video-on-demand services of Amazon, Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s Vudu and Microsoft Corp.’s Zune.

Action Figure

But there was also much more: a summary of the plot, to the extent there is one; critics’ reviews from Rotten Tomatoes; information on the cast and crew (sadly, the YouTube selection for “Megan Fox Sexy Movie Scenes” was disabled); and even a link to purchase the Transformers 2 Revenge of the Fallen Movie Scout Class Action Figure Breakdown ($9.99 from Amazon).

I had some issues with Fanhattan. The navigation, handled by a variety of taps and up-and-down and side-to-side swipes, was overly complicated. And when I searched for an episode of Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” my only viewing options were to buy it from iTunes or rent it from Amazon -- even though it was also available through Time Warner Inc.’s HBO Go app, already installed and active on the same iPad. (Fanhattan says it hasn’t yet established a relationship with HBO, so its results don’t show up in the app.)

While Fanhattan has to get more comprehensive, its looks and general approach make it an appealing starting point. That brings me to Peel, which attacks the what-to-watch issue through the device you’re still most likely to be watching on: your television set.

Colorful Tiles

The Peel app, which is free, learns your viewing tastes based on information you provide, as well as its analysis of what you tend to watch and even what time of day you like certain kinds of programming. Having told the app what cable system I’m in, it found and displayed appropriate programs as colorful tiles on my iPhone, refining its suggestions the more it learned about me.

Its real value, though, comes when it’s paired with the $100 palm-size gadget that looks vaguely like a pear. It allows the app to control your TV and the devices hooked up to it without the need to plug anything into either them or your iPhone.

Instead, you plug a special cable into a port on your home router, then position the battery-powered pear near your video gear. A one-time set-up routine introduces the app to your television, cable or satellite box, home theater, Blu-ray player and whatever else you’ve got. No more figuring out which TV input which device is plugged into; you simply choose the device you want to control, and you’re presented with an appropriate remote on your mobile device’s screen.

Ordered by Interests

Now, when the app locates programs for you, just poke one of those colored tiles -- ordered by your interests, not to the arbitrary channel numbers of a grid -- and you’ll flip straight to the program.

I found the Peel generally worked pretty well, though once or twice I lost the virtual controls on my iPhone and just faced a blank gray screen. In addition, Peel recommends locating its router cable within 25 feet of the pear, which may not work in your particular layout.

For the moment, Fanhattan, with its online orientation, and the TV-centric Peel don’t directly compete. But the lines are rapidly blurring. Fanhattan is working on a version for Internet-connected TVs, while the Peel already can control devices that hook you into the Net, like Apple TV. And both are working on versions of their apps to run on mobile devices using Google Inc.’s Android operating system.

The struggle to control how you’ll access entertainment in the future has barely begun. Fanhattan and Peel, each in its own way, have successfully staked out a piece of the turf.

(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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