Apple gave a preview of their TV almost a decade ago, back in 2006 when it was code named iTV. Since then, partly due to a lack of streaming services, Apple TV remained on the back burner.
Today the market dynamics have changed. People are cutting cords and online streaming is becoming mainstream. Traditional cable companies like Time Warner and CBS have launched standalone streaming services. Something else is changing with this shift from cable to internet: Companies like Google and Amazon have transformed TV from an appliance into a platform.
It has been almost three years since the company upgraded the Apple TV hardware. The new Apple TV is here. But is it good enough to take on competitors like Nvidia Shield TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV and Google Chromecast?
The fourth generation Apple TV looks nearly identical to its predecessor. The squarish device has the same width and length but it gained some height. It comes with a 10/100 Ethernet port so that if you don’t have wireless near your TV you can hook it up with a LAN cable.
Apple is known for dropping old technologies and Apple TV 4 has gotten rid of optical audio output. But you can now pair it with Bluetooth enabled speakers and music systems. The device has, thankfully, switched to USB Type C port, which can be used to connect it to a computer. You can use iTunes running on the connected computer to restore the OS on Apple TV.
The last port on the black box is an HDMI 1.4 port. Yes. 1.4 and not HDMI 2.0, which also means no 4K videos. Is that a deal breaker? Not for me. Not for many people. In Apple’s defense, I would argue that there isn’t enough 4K content. And good quality 4K Tvs are expensive. It’s also safe to assume that 4K may very well be a marketing gimmick to boost the sale of TV sets, just like 3D TVs.
Nevermind 4K, even 1080p is still not the norm. Many networks, including Hulu still stream at 720p ; Netflix started 1080 just two years ago. 4K may or may not be a fad; The fact is content will continue to add more pixels. So in few years we will have something more than 1080p. It could be 4K, 5k or 10K. But it’s not here.
By the time 4K becomes mainstream, Apple TV would be due for another hardware upgrade. So if you are holding back on Apple TV due to 4K, don’t. 4K is the last thing that should play any part in your purchase decision. Unless, that is, all the content that you consume is already in 4K and you already own a 4K TV.
Setting up the device is much easier if you already have a supported iOS device. It pairs with the iOS device over bluetooth and then transfers settings (such as WiFi settings and iTunes account info) from your iOS device to the Apple TV, which makes it easier to get started. If you don’t have an iOS device then you can choose the manual route.
Apple is using its own 64 bit A8 chip to power the device. It’s the same chip that was used in iPhone 6 and iPad Mini 4. With 2GB of RAM the device should be powerful enough to drive CPU and graphics intensive content such as games. But I noticed significant jitters while playing games like Asphalt 8. I hope that software updates will iron out such wrinkles.
Apple TV is now using a modified version of iOS, which they call tvOS, running on the device. tvOS is a game changer for Apple as it has opened the platform to third party developers. It also brought killer features like Siri and integration with the App Store to the platform. Apple released the tvOS SDK (software development kit) a while back, giving developers enough time to port their apps to tvOS. Since it’s a derivative of iOS, porting apps is fairly easy.
As a result there are already tons of apps and games available for Apple TV. The good news for users is that once you buy an app on any iOS device you will be able to install it on Apple TV too, and vice verse; you won’t have to pay again.
This being the first iteration of tvOS, there are chinks and weaknesses that I assume will be ironed out with software updates.
Apple remote is at the center of the Apple TV universe. It has a trackpad and 5 keys. The body is made out of three different materials: aluminum, glossy front and matte trackpad. It certainly a feels lot lighter and sleeker than the Amazon Fire TV remote.
The Apple remote doesn’t have replaceable batteries. It comes with a lightning port to charge it by connecting it to a PC or USB charger that comes with iDevices. It can take up to 9 hours to fully charge the remote, so get into the habit of leaving it plugged in overnight. You can check the battery status from the settings menu on Apple TV (more about that later.)
This is the best remote I've ever used. The trackpad is super sensitive. You scroll to navigate and click to take an action. And that’s a physical click and not 3D or forced touch. There is a menu button that also works as the back button. Home button, as the name implies, brings you back to the home screen of Apple TV. There are dedicated keys for volume control and play/pause. The last key on the remote is for Siri.
Trackpad on Apple TV is a mix of pain and pleasure. One swipe means one move. So if you have to go to the 9th app on the list you have to swipe 9 times. You can’t swipe and hold and it will keep going in that direction. It felt nice to use when there were no apps installed on the TV, but as the number of apps grew navigation became a painful process.
That’s not the worst part. The part that’s really bad is when you have to enter text. And since it’s an app centric device you need to log into different services; you need to enter a password when you make a purchase. Entering username and password using the trackpad on a very poorly done interface is pure torture.
Instead of a qwerty like key arrangement there is a long row for the 26 letters of the alphabet, then there is second long row of 21 numbers and special characters and then a third row for upper and lower case selection and addition special keys.
If you believe in strong passwords then you are going to hate this horrendous interface. If your password is 10 letters long with a mix of upper-lower case letters and a mix of numbers and special characters, then you are going to swipe your thumb at least 100 times as you make a linear, one step at a time, journey between letters to enter your password. Good luck with that.
It’s a big issue. It actually discouraged me from logging in to many services. I would rather watch them on my iPad Pro and avoid going through this ordeal. What is needed is an app, similar to Amazon Fire TV app or Chromecast app, so users can use their iOS devices to perform herculean tasks like entering username and password… or use it as a second remote.
Once you are through entering text, the trackpad can be a pleasure to use. It does an excellent job when fast forwarding or rewinding videos. Trust me, it’s much better than those forward and backward buttons found on traditional remotes. In fact, it’s far more precise than using your finger to rewind or forward videos on your iPad and iPhone.
Another neat trick that I learned while watching videos is that you can swipe down on the trackpad and it will show you info about the running video along with audio settings. Here you can change the output device for the audio. You can also choose between full dynamic range of audio vs reduced loud noise. It’s quite useful if you are watching an action movie with sporadic sound bursts. Keep it quiet for neighbors.
Since Apple TV remote uses Bluetooth instead of IR, you can operate the device without maintaining a line of sight. The device does come with IR support so you can use a universal IR (infrared) remote with Apple TV.
If your TV or AV system supports HDMI CEC then you can manage the volume and other functions on these devices through the Apple TV remote..
This is my first Apple TV so I can’t compare it with the previous one. However coming from Amazon TV, Chromecast and Nexus Player, you will not find anything new in the UI other than the fluid animation. Oftentimes I inadvertently skipped past the app I was targeting due to extra animation and an over-sensitive trackpad.
Apple TV doesn’t come preloaded with any third party apps. You get a blank slate. The home screen is basically divided in three sections: top shelf, top row and everything else. The top shelf shows featured content from the highlighted app. When no app is highlighted it shows posters of purchased content and top Movies.
The second row, which is also called ‘top row’ has five spots. Here you see rectangular icons of apps. By default it shows iTunes Movies, TV Shows, App Store, Photos and Music. The third section has everything else: search, settings, an option to access the iTunes content from a shared computer and all the apps you installed on your Apple TV.
The five premium spots on the top row are configurable; you can pin your favorite apps there. To put any app on the top shelf, click on it and hold the trackpad; when it starts to jiggle drag and drop it on the shelf. Quite easy.
You can also rearrange rest of the apps by moving them around. The Apple TV HIG requires that each app must provide a single top shelf image that can be displayed when the app is placed in the top row. Developers can also provide dynamic content for the top shelf. Apps are also using layered layout, which creates a parallax experience when a user brings the app into focus and scrolls on the trackpad. It’s neat. Try it. If the parallax and animation is too much you can reduce it from Settings > General > Accessibility option.
The settings menu gives you complete control over your Apple TV. If you are an iOS or Android user, you know what to expect here.
By default the Apple TV remote was not controlling the volume on my Yamaha AV receiver. I dug into the settings options and discovered a ‘Remotes and Devices’ setting. There is an option to manage Volume Control. I changed it from Auto to ‘Receiver via IR’ and the volume control of my AV systems moved to Apple Remote. Neat.
Alas, mute didn’t work with Siri. And that brings us to Siri.
Hey Siri, can I talk about you?
“Yes. Tell me your hopes, your dreams, your dinner plans…” That’s the answer I got when I asked Siri if I could talk about her. She is funny. But is she useful?
Siri aspires to be the killer feature of Apple TV, and to a great degree it is. You can say things like ‘go back five minutes’ and video will rewind. You can pause the video, you can stop the video. You can even enable subtitles if you missed what a character said. Siri also takes advantage of meta tags and show you information about actors without stopping the video.
Siri can also help in finding content. You can say ‘I want to watch The Walking Dead’ and Siri will show you the matched content from different providers. You can also tell her ‘I want to see movies with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Stallone’ and it will pull the movies that features both the actors. Siri can do more than that: you can check weather, sports scores, etc.
However, unlike on iPhone and iPad, Siri is not always listening. You have to press and hold the button on the remote.
Is TV about apps?
I stayed away from Apple TV for so long because it was more or less like an appliance with no support for 3rd party apps. With tvOS, Apple TV is now a platform. There are already many of apps and games for the device.
Apple TV doesn’t come preloaded with apps, which is nice because no one gets preferential treatment. All the apps that you purchased on your iOS device will appear under the ‘Purchased Apps’ category on Apple TV, as long as the developer ported it to tvOS. Which means you won’t have to purchase the same app twice.
Plex was the first app that I installed on the device. The absence of this app was one of the reasons I never took an interest in Apple TV. I refrained from buying the Apple TV 4 when it was launched as the Plex developers were still working on it.
There are still many apps late to the party, including Sling TV, Amazon Prime, Google Play Movies and Music. Sling TV CEO has showed interest in tvOS and it is possible that Google movies and music will arrive on Apple TV. But Amazon Prime may never come to Apple TV. Amazon has made it abundantly clear that they are more interested in selling their Amazon Fire TV devices than content. It’s a loss for Amazon. I have two Amazon Fire TV devices, but I have stopped buying movies and TV shows from them because I can’t watch those shows on non-Amazon devices.
Once an app is installed on your Apple TV it is configured to receive updates automatically, so unlike on iOS devices you won’t have to install them manually. You can change this behavior from in the settings, but I don’t see why you should do that.
What about gaming?
I was surprised to find the long list of games available for Apple TV. Looking at the powerful chip, RAM and 64GB of storage, it should make it a great gaming device. And it is... once you buy a third party Apple licenced game controller.
If you don’t want to spend around $49 on a game controller you can always use the Apple TV remote as a game controller. It’s not the best gaming experience, but thanks to the built in Accelerometer and gyroscope you will get a Nintendo Wii like experience. But if you really want to play games, go ahead and get a game controller.
Apple TV has been Apple’s side project for a very long time. tvOS tells us that Apple is now invested in the platform. I have been using my Apple TV for two days now and I will pick it over Chromecast or Amazon Fire TV any given day. The trackpad has its strengths and weaknesses, and dealing with text is only thing that would discourage me from using it.
Should you buy one?
True, there is no 4K, but there isn’t much 4K content either. And although Amazon Prime and Google Play movies are missing, you can always use the AirPlay mirroring to play content from those services.
The device holds great potential, especially since Apple has opened it to third party developers. If you are planning to buy one I would say go ahead. It’s a powerful device.
If you already own one or if you have reasons not to buy one, share your thoughts in the comments below.
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