Buying a set-top box changed the way I watched everything through my TV. I’ve tried many stream machines but avoided the Apple TV since its walled garden undermined that “everything” detail, but I was sure that the much buzzed upgrade would change my mind. After using it for a week, I’m not as confident.
Of course the new Apple TV is a beautiful, impressive gadget, like most hardware that comes out of Cupertino. It’s fast. The design is elegant. The App Store feels full of promise. But it also feels like the foundation to a good idea, not a great product. Or at least not yet.
What Is It?
Starting at $150, the new Apple TV is a feature-rich set-top box with a new, tricked out remote. It’s also more than twice the price of its predecessor, which you can still buy for $70, but you can talk to it!
Those extra bucks get you extra features like Siri functionality, the App Store, a faster A8 processor, support for third party controllers, a handful of other spec bumps, and—again—that fancy new remote. Almost everything you’d want, except maybe 4K video support.
Why Does It Matter?
Before he died, Steve Jobs famously said of TV, “I finally cracked it.” He was apparently talking about the long rumored Apple television set, but it seems increasingly apparent that Apple cares more about being the brains of every TV with its little black box. When it was announced, Tim Cook referred to the new Apple TV’s app-powered approach as “the future of television.”
But it remains unclear if Apple has actually, finally cracked it.
The new Apple TV looks like an old Apple TV ate too much pizza. It’s twice the size and, aside from missing an optical audio port, the hardware is basically identical.
The new remote, on the other hand, is completely different. Shaped like an original iPod Nano, this sliver of aluminum and glass is gorgeous. The upper section is a clicking touchpad and there are five buttons below it—menu, home, Siri, play/pause, and a terrifically handy volume button that works directly with your TV.
The remote also includes an accelerometer and gyroscope that turn it into a nifty little game controller.
Now that I’ve said all of these nice things about how pretty the new Apple TV is, it’s time for some real talk. Having spent a lot of time recently with competing devices like the Amazon Fire TV and the Roku 4, I felt immediately frustrated with how iTunes-centric the new Apple TV feels. As soon as you turn it on, you’re directed to content you’ve purchased on iTunes and then led to purchase more content on iTunes. Siri will direct you to buy even more things on iTunes, and the display mirroring is limited to proprietary apps like Safari and Quicktime.
None of this comes as a surprise. I’ve never liked the extent to which Apple TV is a well designed but walled off garden of content. If I were a devoted iTunes customer, I’d love it. But I actually hate iTunes.
It took me most of the week, but I did kind of fall in love with the new Siri Remote. I hated it at first. However, I tweaked the settings so that the touchpad wasn’t as sensitive and got a bit better about navigating the interface. But the weirdest thing is that it’s awkward enough to do some things with the touchpad that I found myself actually using Siri—albeit with mixed results.
Generally speaking, the new Siri Remote is better than the old remote. While I did prefer pushing arrows to navigate through menus, the addition of the volume control means you can sort of forget about your TV remote. Just like the whole new Apple TV experience, it’s a give-and-take scenario.
Here’s the thing: I actually believe Tim Cook when he says that apps are the future of television. When he announced the new Apple TV, the chief executive also announced tvOS, a new platform for developers to build a new kind of app for the larger and newly interactive canvas that is television. Right out of the gate, all of the usual suspects—Netflix, HBO, YouTube, Hulu, PBS, etc.—built apps for the Apple TV. Gaming companies also jumped on board, and you can play an upgraded version of Crossy Road and use the new Siri Remote to steer cars in racing games, among other things.
There’s clearly so much opportunity for tvOS to change the way we interact with our television sets. You can already do weird new things with Apple TV apps, like a book a room through Airbnb or buy a pair of loafers on Gilt. Do I want to shop on my TV? Not really. But some people might love it, and I’m sure more interesting apps are on the way.
For now, however, I remain a little miffed about Apple’s future of television. Although I love the remote and am intrigued by the prospect of talking to it, using the new Apple TV to watch streaming content isn’t all that much different than using a cheaper set-top box. The interface is elegant, I’ll admit, but not much better than what’s already out there.
This is the point in the review where I get annoyed. Maybe it’s from being annoyingly disappointed by Siri for so many years, and maybe it’s because Apple executives made it seem like their voice assistant was going to transform your living room. But I’m definitely not impressed by Siri on Apple TV. In fact, I feel quite the opposite.
Let start with the things that work ok. If you say, for example, “Siri show me some scifi movies,” Siri will pull up a list of scifi movies on the bottom of the screen. You can select one you like, and then see links to Netflix or whichever app that might offer it. That’s handy when it’s on Netflix, but most of the results will point you back to the iTunes Store, where you can buy or rent the movie. The ability to see links to Netflix and other apps in search results is great—especially with widely available shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia—but it’s a far cry from the very convenient Roku approach that offers a host of ways to pay for content and even steers you toward the best deal.
What annoys me is that this is more or less the extent of Siri’s utility. You can ask about the weather or sports scores—which is cool but sort of useless, in my opinion. I was also disappointed by how little Siri did in other apps. Asking Siri to play music is a joke, but who wants to listen to music on their TV? You can, however, open YouTube and say, “Play Ariana Grande.” If there’s an Ariana Grande video already displayed on the home screen, it will play. If not, Siri’s basically like: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Let’s wait and see on the gaming front. So far, the selection of games is very limited, so much so that there’s not even a dedicated games section in the App Store. The few games I tried to play were a little boring, but I’m a weirdly discerning gamer. When I can play Monument Valley or SimCity on my Apple TV, I’ll be impressed. In the meantime, I’m stuck with Minesweeper.
The new remote is great. The swiping takes a little getting used to. (I suggest slowing down the sensitivity in settings.) Otherwise, it looks great, and it feels great in your hand. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best set-top box remote I’ve used and I’ve used them all. I’m similarly in love with the overall design of the interface. And I’m weirdly obsessed with the gorgeous new screensavers.
The walled garden sucks, but I wouldn’t expect anything different from Apple. There is hope, since the new Apple TV will get new apps and new ways to explore content. For now, it kind of feels like that first generation of iOS where you could use any app as long as it was an Apple app.
Should You Buy It?
If you buy a lot of stuff on iTunes, Apple TV is a great choice. But the real question is whether you should just buy the old and rather terrific Apple TV instead of shelling out an extra $80 for the new one. The remote alone doesn’t justify the price difference, and Siri certainly doesn’t. It’d be wise to wait and see what happens with tvOS and the App Store, though.
So far, the new Apple TV feels overpriced and underwhelming. All that could change with a blossoming app ecosystem, though. This gadget is not the future of television as it is now, but one day it very well could be.
Images by Michael Hession.