The new Apple TV is a very good streaming video player, but it is not the revolution in how we consumer media as a people. Because Apple is Apple and they feel like they have to pitch everything as "the next big thing", their tagline for the Apple TV is "The future of television is here." This pitch seems aimed at the version of the Apple TV they wanted to launch with a subscription streaming model from Apple.
But what we have instead is a very nice evolution of the Apple TV that we've had for years. The new Apple TV improves on the previous models in every way, and in many other ways is the best streaming box on the market, but don't buy it expecting a revolution.
After spending almost a month with the Apple TV, I have 3 big takeaways1.
Siri is really good most of the time
Siri is new for the Apple TV and it's easily the best way to get to most content. It's fast, smart, and generally wonderful when it does exactly what you want. The great thing about this is that Siri shows you tv shows/movies and then breaks them lets you choose what service you want to use to watch it on.
For example, searching for "season 2 episode 8 of The Goldbergs" brings up a nice screen showing the episode, complete with art and description. This page has buttons to play on each service it's available on. In this case, it's iTunes and Hulu. As of right now this only works with iTunes, Hulu, Netflix, HBO, and Showtime. Apple is opening the API to all apps, and PBS seems to be the first app that has used it to get their shows into this system. Once more do, the better Siri on the Apple TV will get.
Additionally, the multi-part queries are pretty darn good. I don't use them all the time, but they're great to have when they make sense.
Finally, using Siri to scrub through your video is pretty great. Yes, you can swipe through the video with the remote, but telling Siri "back up 25 seconds" or using the much-hyped "what did he/she say?" work brilliantly.
All in all, Siri is my absolute favorite thing about the new Apple TV. Eliminating the traditional navigation between apps to watch what I want, a simple request spoken into the mic is all I need to do to get to most things. It's awesome.
The remote is good, but takes some getting used to
The remote isn't quite as magical out of the box as I was expecting. I found it surprisingly hard to select the right item from a list and typing out my passwords with it was something out of one of the more mild circles of Hell.
But I came to appreciate the remote after the first couple days as I got more comfortable with it. The best tip I can share is to set the sensitivity to "fast." This setting made everything feel much more natural, and counterintuitively made it easer to select the right things. I now find myself zipping around the interface with ease.
You can use the Remote app for the iPhone/iPad or the old Apple TV remote, but I found both of those to be inferior to the standard remote. The old remote works but really puts into perspective how slow it is to navigate the interface one square at a time. And the Remote app still doesn't feel as natural at the regular remotes. Swiping just feels "off," although typing on the thing is quicker than using the silly horizontal on screen keyboard.
One thing that is frustrating is that since the trackpad on the front is always looking for your fingers to interact with it, you can accidentally scrub a few seconds in the video when trying to pick it up in the dark. While there is no way to stop this entirely, you can hit the Menu button after accidentally scrubbing and your video won't be interrupted. It's a usability thing that I'm surprised Apple let though testing, but at least there is a way to not have it impact your experience much.
Gaming is pretty abysmal
There was some big talk about the Apple TV being a disrupter to Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo in the home gaming market, but in this first iteration, those fears have proven to be way, way, waaaaay overblown. The Apple TV is too underpowered, too limited in control methods, and lackluster in game selection.
We get excited about the power in our iPhones and iPads, and gush over how beautiful games have become on them. And we should, the types of games that I can play on my phone are worlds better than anything we've ever seen before on handheld devices. However, the the Apple TV2 is woefully underpowered compared to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. When I play games on it, the games feel older and less advanced than even PS3 and Xbox 360 games, and those consoles launched in 2004 and 2005!
Power isn't everything, but the simplistic games on the Apple TV don't come close to what people expect from their games in 2016.
Another problem for gaming on the Apple TV is it's controller limitations. All games must be playable with just the standard remote, which essentially means all games must be able to be controlled by sliding your finger, tilting the remote, and pressing one button. It's woefully insufficient and makes most games very little fun.
Now, games that support a full controller as well do get better when you use one of them, but there's only so much they can add to games that have been simplified to the point of being basically no fun.
And that gets us to the last problem with gaming: there simply aren't that many good games available for the platform. A few games like Guitar Hero Live and Disney Infinity are solid games, but the vast majority of games I played were either bland original games like Beat Sports or pale imitations of their iPhone counterparts like Alto's Adventure. The platform is young, and the great games may need some time to get going, but they're not ready today.
Should You Buy?
Despite my disappointment in the game selection, I really love my Apple TV. People had some very specific problems with the past Apple TV:
- Too slow
- Not enough apps/no App Store
- Dated interface
- Needs universal search
Check, check, check, and check. Apple checked all the boxes with this release, so if you are a fan of the old Apple TV and are just looking for some of its flaws to be addressed, this is a great buy for you.
Alternatively, if you have never owned an Apple TV before and are just looking into getting a streaming box, I still think this is a great buy. It's a little more expensive than the competition, but I think you get what you pay for, as the Apple TV has an interface that is much nicer than either Roku, Android TV, or Amazon have on offer right now.
There are a few caveats, though. There are not yet apps for Amazon or Google Play movies, music, or television. If you are heavily invested in either of those ecosystems, this player isn't going to do you much good right now. Word on the street is that Amazon and Google are both working on apps for the Apple TV, but they may still be a ways off for all we know. Also, such like their current iOS offerings, you likely won't be able to buy thing though their apps, which makes them less useful than just using Apple's services.
Another alternative is the Chromecast, which doesn't offer an on screen interface or physical remote, but it's $35 and does a pretty darn good job of getting video from your phone to your TV. This is a whole different category of media player, but it's definitely something to look into if you're goal is to spend as little money as possible.
So that's what it boils down to, the Apple TV is the best streaming box you can buy, as long as you don't use Google Play or Amazing video services. But with access to iTunes, Apple Music, Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go/Now, Showtime, Plex, NBC, ABC, CBS All Access, HGTV, Comedy Central, AMC, and hundreds more channels, you likely can get what you want.
I'm vert impressed with what Apple has delivered, and I think they're laid a very nice foundation to put their (hopefully) upcoming streaming service on top of. Until Apple delivers their true "future of television" hopefully in 2016, I'll continue to use my Apple TV as the best traditional streaming media box.
- And as a side note, the setup process that a bunch of tech reviewers were freaking out about is fairly painless. Yes, you have to enter your iCloud password a few times, which is a bit aggravating, but outside of that the setup was quick and easy. ↩
- Which runs on a version of the A8 chip which was found in Apple's iPhone 6 and iPad Air 2. ↩