The new Apple TV started shipping yesterday, so mine was waiting for me when I got home from Las Vegas. As you may recall, I have high hopes for this set-top box. But my first impressions are a bit mixed, as this device is still incomplete.
That can—and will—change. But for now, it seems that the new Apple TV is just a small step up from the previous unit, which was admittedly overdue for a refresh.
The issues are minor, but they add up.
First, Apple intended to deliver a television subscription service alongside the new Apple TV, enabling a new generation of cord cutters to skip expensive and low-quality cable packages. That is still happening, but we won’t see the first version until sometime next year.
Second, the new Apple TV doesn’t support 4K (Ultra HD) video out of the box, as do its key competitors, the new Amazon Fire TV and the new Roku 4. It’s not clear to me whether a software upgrade can fix this, but knowing Apple a 2016/2017 hardware refresh will likely be required.
Third, while Apple has finally and belatedly provided an app store for Apple TV, the pickings are slim today, and unlike with the previous version of the device, no third-party apps are installed by default. So you’ll need to visit the store and pick out what you want. As noted, I’m really hoping to see both Microsoft (Groove, Movies & TV, OneDrive for photos) and Google (Play Music, Play Movies & TV, Photos) show up on this device. (YouTube is available in the app store now, however.)
And finally, while some of the changes are indeed welcome, Apple still doesn’t get everything right. The new swipe-based remote, while an improvement over the easily-lost previous remote, makes it very hard to enter text (for user name/password combos, for example) when signing in to services, and there’s often no other way to do it. (Some apps let you sign-in via the web from other device, which is much better.)
Looking over that list, all of it can be fixed. The TV service is coming. 4K will clearly arrived one way or the other, and I don’t even have a 4K set, so this doesn’t even impact me. Apps will come. And Apple can support keyboards and other peripherals (and it already supports game controllers). And the basics are all there: This is still a very nice set-top box.
Physically, the new Apple TV occupies the same footprint as its predecessor, though it’s almost twice as tall. Most people will be able to swap out the old one and get on with things, and if you’re new to Apple TV, no worries: It’s big and heavy for this kind of device, but it’s still tiny compared to whatever else you may have next to the TV.
Connectivity has taken a small step backwards. You will find power, HDMI, and Ethernet ports on the back of the unit, plus a micro-USB port for diagnostic purposes only. But optical audio out port from the previous rendition is gone. It of course supports Wi-Fi (AC) as well, and the remote is thankfully Bluetooth now so you don’t have to point it directly at the box any more, a key complaint with the previous version.
On the bad side, that remote features rechargeable rather than replaceable batteries, and the only way to charge it is via a proprietary Apple Lightning cable. That is dumb, and while the necessary cable is bundled with the box (nice), a power supply is not (stupid). Speaking of, Apple doesn’t even toss in an HDMI cable, so you’ll need one of those before you can use this box. That’s inexcusable in such an expensive device.
Aside from the charging nonsense, and the previously-mentioned swiping weirdness for text entry, the new remote is mostly very much appreciated. The previous Apple TV remote, while applauded by Apple’s overly-compliant fans, was a crime against humanity, with few buttons, terrible feature discoverability, and too-thin design that guaranteed you would continually lose it in the seat cushions of your couch. This one is much better.
On the top of the new remote is a touch surface swiping area that doubles as an Enter/Select button (when pushed). You can swipe left and right, and up and down, to scrub video or highlight items and then press on the surface to select them. It works OK, but it’s a bit too easy to overshoot items, especially when scrubbing, and I’m curious if this gets better with use.
The Menu and Play/Pause buttons are there as before, and a new Apple TV button that brings you directly out to the main menu (previously, this was often a multi-press afair, using Menu). There’s also a set of volume buttons, which immediately worked with my TV.
The big deal on the remote, of course, is Siri. I haven’t used this too much yet, but as with the Fire TV, you hold down the button and speak commands. I tried “Play,” “Pause,” and “Turn on closed captions” in Netflix for a quick test, and it worked exactly as expected.
Setting up Apple TV couldn’t be easier. After making the cable connections, Apple TV boots up and will play attractive animated (e.g. video) wallpapers if you don’t use it for a few minutes. You can set up the device manually, as before, but if you have an iOS device, it can connect to that via Bluetooth and just snag your network and Apple account settings. I chose the latter and was up and running with all my Apple content in just a minute.
The new Apple TV user interface works exactly as before—yep, it’s a grid of icons—but it features an attractive new color scheme and design.
What surprised me is how barren it is. On my previous Apple TV, I had multiple screenfulls of icons, but the new version barely filled two rows with icons. Movies (iTunes), TV Shows (iTunes), App Store, Apple Photos and Music (iTunes) make up the top row, and there are a few more apps below that. But that’s about it. Thankfully, you can move any of these icons and position your favorite apps (even third party apps like Netflix) right at the top.
The app store is just getting started, so only the basics are there at the moment (Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO GO and so on), plus a handful of Apple TV exclusives (AirBnB) and of course games. I’ve not tried any games yet, but I know you can play some with the remote and can get a game controller (curiously, not an Apple one though) if you want.
So far I’ve just checked out the Apple apps and installed Netflix, but I’ve instructed my kids to skip the Roku for now and use this box over the next week, and we’ll see how that goes. My daughter was very excited by voice and touch surface capabilities of the remote, but she’ll sour quickly if they don’t work well, so that itself will be a good test.
Overall, it’s not clear that the new Apple TV is crucial per se. But if the firm can fix the issues I raised, this device really could replace the other set-top boxes that currently clutter together near the HDTV. We shall see.
Tagged with Apple TV