Apple’s new set-top box, the Apple TV, arrived in stores Friday, with big expectations for what it can do to simplify the complicated world of streaming video.
So, ahead of the consumer launch, I spent one long night with the fourth-generation Apple TV provided by the company for review — simulating the many nights I’ve spent staying up late and bingeing on videos until my eyelids slam shut on their own accord. It was, in some ways, the ultimate stress test: I learned how to use Apple TV when I was at my fuzziest and least forgiving.
Apple TV passed with flying colors. Apple is hawking the device with the tagline “the future of television is apps.” Whether Apple can revolutionize “television” — meaning the entertainment industry — is still up for debate. But Apple is offering a new vision for how consumers can interact with their television sets.
In some ways, in fact, video apps such as Netflix and Hulu were the least-exciting part of the device. I was far more intrigued by the other apps in the new Apple TV store.
When Apple was going over the non-video apps in its presentation in September, I admit that I wasn’t that excited about the idea. In theory, I didn’t understand why you would shop from your television. But in practice? Well, the upgrade to the quality of window-shopping alone, by way of apps such as Gilt or even Zillow, explains why Apple and its partners thinks this is a good idea.
Maybe I’m just very susceptible to the polish and presentation of these apps. But all I have to say is this: Impulse buyers, beware.
Similarly, I’ve never thought of my television as a screen for reading anything. Yet the clever, lightly animated app from digital comics company Madefire has me excited about the possibilities for television-size graphic novels or children’s books down the line. It will also be interesting to see how gaming evolves on the TV, as developers play around more with the capabilities of the new remote, which has a touchpad, gyroscope and accelerometer. The TV can pair with a more serious game controller, but it seems as if Apple’s niche, for now, will be casual games that work with the iPhone.
Of course, video is still the centerpiece of the device. Apple has built in clever features that make this more than just a catch-up device for the company. One way it stands out is in the consistency of design across apps. That sounds like a boring perk, but it’s so much simpler for users to know that the way the remote works for iTunes is the way it works across every other app. Video playback was crisp, solid and very fast — basically everything you would want from a playback device. And while the lack of an app for Amazon Video left a noticeable hole in the content lineup, there’s still plenty to choose from.
One thing that may turn off users is the fact that the TV does not yet support 4K video. Also, while Apple’s touch-enabled remote is leaps and bounds ahead of its old design, it’s still a pain to have to use its touchpad to type letters.
And then there’s the Siri-powered voice search. When it works, it is excellent. It’s great to be able to tell your television to “skip to the next chapter” or “jump ahead 10 minutes” and have it do that seamlessly — although the search function is currently limited to a handful of prominent apps — iTunes, of course, and Netflix, Hulu and a few others.
Yet, it does have shortcomings. For example, you can look up videos from certain apps by cast member, so asking for “that ‘Friends’ episode with Brad Pitt” immediately pulls up the right one. But that’s not necessarily how you remember episodes. But asking for “the ‘Friends’ episode where Monica and Chandler get married” gets you nothing.
That’s not the fault of Apple or any video-app developer — making a database of plot points would be incredibly complicated, after all — but this limitation does highlight how the Apple TV has to train you as much as you have to train it.
Overall, the Apple TV is still probably the most appealing to Apple fans who have a lot of content on iTunes and want to pull their video subscriptions together onto one device. Even at its starting price tag of $150, it may be a bit too much for those who aren’t that plugged in to the Apple ecosystem, especially when rival devices such as Google’s Chromecast ($35) and Amazon.com’s Fire TV box ($100) and stick ($40) are easier on the wallet.
But the latest version of the Apple TV does show that this product has officially graduated from the “hobby” designation it held within Apple for many years — and lays out an exciting vision for the largest screen in your home.