Apple TV - the revolution is coming, probably

Apple TV has been the ugly duckling of Apple’s device range for a while. Apple has updated every other device category in its range multiple times since the launch of the 3rd generation set-top box a little over 3 years ago. But ever since the release of Walt Isaacson’s biography on Apple’s former chief, in which Steve Jobs claimed to have “cracked” the interface, the tech media has been snapping at the company’s heels, eager for an update. And last month, they got one.

This is the Apple TV (fourth generation).

Your TV is broken

If you want to understand what Apple is selling here, it lies in one statement.

Your TV is broken. It’s still relying on paradigms of the analogue age.

Millions of you are still putting physical objects inside big black boxes under our TVs to watch a film. You probably still have to “tape” things to your Sky+ box; you’re still managing storage space and - more often than not, I’d wager - deciding what thing to delete next that you haven’t gotten round to watching yet.

The fact the TV didn’t keep up with the digital age is exactly why you probably watch Netflix and iPlayer on laptops, phones and tablets, not on your TV; that increasingly neglected, oversized oblong that we go to as a last resort.

That’s the promise of Apple TV: to make you love your TV again. An experience so good, you prefer to use your TV over your tablet, and to use Internet-native content over your Sky box. Apple wants to be the only set top box you need.

What do we want from a TV?

You could be forgiven for thinking all people want from a TV today is 4K and surround sound. Whilst manufacturers have been focusing on making TVs bigger, sharper and better sounding - changing the physical hardware - they’ve largely left the software experience alone.

The measure of a good TV experience today has to be quantified in content and software. Content needs to be king; software needs to make it available, easy to find, and frictionless to consume.

A modern TV experience needs to free you from hopping between different devices depending on what you want to watch. You shouldn’t have to remember which remote to use or which service has the thing you want.

Apple thinks the answer to that is apps.

Apps are the new channels

Like the iPhone, Apple TV relies on apps to serve you content. You need the Netflix app to watch House of Cards. You need the NowTV or Sky Go apps to access Sky Sports. Every piece of content you probably want to watch is in a different walled garden.

Apps are the new channels; the problem is, channels have always been a bad way of organising content, and so are apps. I don’t want to have to figure out which app has that film I want to watch - I just want to watch the film. Equally, I don’t want to have to learn how to navigate the different menu layouts of every content provider I use.

If the litmus test for a new and better TV experience is the primacy of content and good software, apps - as Apple have executed them - aren’t obviously the answer to that. I shouldn’t have to know the structure of the multimedia industry to know where to watch The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

Apple’s answer to this is universal and voice seach; both are poorly executed.

You’ll know Siri from your other Apple devices. Just like on iPhone, you hold a button (this one’s on the new Siri Remote), you ask for things and Siri tries to do what you asked.

Siri forms the backbone of search on Apple TV. There’s a search app, where you can spend a decade typing in a search query1, or you can do what Apple wants you to do, and talk to Siri.

You can ask Siri things like “show me films by Stephen Speilberg”, and up pops his back catalogue. When it works well, you can see the films and see which services can show you those films - iTunes, Netflix, and so on. It rarely works well.

Siri regularly doesn’t understand what you’re asking it. It rarely shows you what you’re expecting. Ask it to show you something like Alien, and more often than not, you’ll get something totally different.

Universal search doesn’t (yet) work across all content providers either. That means not all your content is searchable using Siri or the built in Search App. This makes discovery more difficult and defeats the point of having one box to rule them all. Apple claim they’re releasing an API to make this better - and no doubt it will - but right now, the experience is sub par.

Universal search only works on things like films and TV shows too. Despite apps being the thing Apple is putting front and centre, you can’t use Siri to search the App Store. Why universal search isn’t universal is truly mind boggling.

The Siri Remote enables more than just voice search though.

The Siri Remote

Ignore the voice search. Even if it worked well, it wouldn’t be innovative; Amazon and Roku have been doing it for a while. What’s new and interesting - for Apple at least - is the rest of the Siri remote.

Apple have brought the same touch capabilities you find on your iPhone to the TV and, in the process, have finally fixed the worst part about the previous generation Apple TVs; the remote.

The new Siri Remote features 6 buttons; a menu (read ‘back’) button, a home button, two volume buttons, a play/pause button and the Siri button. It also features a trackpad that can respond to both taps and clicks - just like a Macbook. An accelerometer is tucked away inside too, which enables a raft of new gaming opportunities à la the Nintendo Wii. The remote connects to the Apple TV via Bluetooth, and also features an IR blaster.

That’s all it takes to create the last remote you’ll ever need.

I haven’t touched my actual TV remote in weeks. I’ve been able to do everything I’ve wanted just with the Siri Remote. The Siri Remote really is the best part of the new Apple TV; so much so that I’ve stopped using the rest of the features my TV has2. Thanks to built-in HDMI CEC capability, I can use the Siri Remote to turn off the Apple TV and my actual TV at the same time. This isn’t something that Apple’s created - but it’s the first time I even knew my TV could do it. Now, I’m using it all the time. It also means I haven’t needed to even look at a built in TV menu for weeks HDMI CEC means my devices switch the TV’s HDMI inputs automatically when they’re being used.

The Siri Remote is wonderful; but it is just a remote. What’s important is what you can do with it.

Siri makes watching TV better

Most of what you’ll do with the Siri Remote is flicking between TV shows and films. The Siri remote makes watching the tele better in small ways, but that’s exactly what it should be doing - doing what you need well, and then getting out of the way so you can enjoy what you’re watching. Once you’ve gotten past the (frankly) awful menu designs3 and are watching a show, the Siri capabilities of the new Apple TV shine.

Have you ever been watching a film and missed what a character said for some reason? Just ask Siri “what did she say?” and it’ll rewind what you’re watching by 15 seconds and put sub-titles up.

Maybe you’re watching a film late at night. Just ask Siri to “reduce loud sounds” and it will lower the bass output so the explosion of the Death Star doesn’t make your flatmate go thermo-nuclear.

It’s these little conveniences that make Apple TV a great experience when you actually find what you want to watch. Apple has aspirations for Apple TV beyond just watching TV and films though; it wants to be an entertainment centre for everything.

Everything else - because they can

The future of TV is apps, apparently. That’s why Apple TV isn’t just a collection of content providers, but a whole new platform for developers. A whole new platform means now you can play games on your Apple TV, you can shop from your TV, and much more. Because the Apple TV hardware is basically an iPhone for your TV, the same kinds of things you can do on your other i-devices can now happen on your TV.

I’m not sure its worth it.

The new Apple TV can do a lot more than the old one, and apps might be the new channels, but I’m not convinced on the value of apps on my TV.

I immediately downloaded my favourite iOS apps to the Apple TV when I unboxed it. Alto’s Adventure, Jetpack Joyride, and half a dozen others; I’ve barely used them. They feel like a sultana in a salad; wrong. When we’re surrounded with genuinely excellent gaming devices like PS4, and Xbox One, and well, iPhones and iPads, the Apple TV fails to inspire anything other than a shoulder shrug. Blowing up apps I can get on my iPhone and iPad isn’t exciting - especially with games, when progress is rarely synced across platforms4.

Opening up the Apple TV to film and TV providers makes sense; it was one of the things holding back the third generation Apple TV. Opening the platform up to everyone feels like it’s been done because Apple could - not because it’s fulfilling a need anyone really has. I don’t need a 50-inch version of Jetpack Joyride.

The future is coming, at some point, maybe

It should be pretty clear by now that the Apple TV is a mixed bag. It’s the best Apple TV ever made. It’s probably the best set-top box ever made. You should definitely buy one if you want the best way to watch all your content in one place (though you should only buy the 32GB version, and only when the price drops a bit).

Amongst all the things Apple TV does though, it feels like it’s missing the point. The measure of a good TV experience in 2015 is about content. Apple TV fails to do anything revolutionary in this respect. It still relies on analogue paradigms; it’s just giving them digital definitions. Effectively rebranding ‘channels’ as ‘apps’ isn’t the game-changer you would expect from Apple, given the fanfare with which Apple TV was introduced.

So yes, buy one. Yes, it will be brilliant, and significantly improve whatever you currently have for a TV experience. But no, don’t expect it to be the panacea; that future is still a while away.

  1. You’re forced to ‘hunt and peck’ on the 4th Gen Apple TV - you can no longer use the Apple Remote app to type using your iPhone or iPad. This was the best way to use Apple TV previously; why Apple removed this functionality, I cannot fathom. ↩︎

  2. I’ve got a Panasonic Viera Smart TV. The smarts are pretty terrible actually; it’s been easy to forget it even has them. I also don’t have access to normal TV right now (I don’t have a standard TV arial in the flat I’m renting). ↩︎

  3. The navigation menus in some apps are an exercise in frustration. When you own 9 series of Doctor Who on iTunes, you don’t want to have to scroll through all 100 or so episodes. The previous interface was far more efficient at handling this. ↩︎

  4. This is something that’s increasingly driving me crazy with iOS games. Instead of enjoying playing games again on Apple TV, it feels like another uphill struggle. Most games only get really fun when you have lots of the unlockables - starting from scratch in a game is not fun when you’ve already invested hours of tube time on them. ↩︎