To this reviewer, the new Apple TV is a great and delightful product, except for a frustrating aspect that an upcoming software release is supposed to ease.
Our expectations for the living room have shifted since Apple introduced the original Apple TV as a hobby (right before the iPhone in 2007). Now, people see the television as yet another screen for entertainment; it’s often superseded by portable devices, or it’s just another component of our modern multitasked attention.
With the new, fourth-generation Apple TV, the company is staking a direction: Apps are the future.
We don’t know yet if that’s a bold new direction for the future of television or if it’s simply tunnel vision influenced by a company whose biggest success is the iPhone and the galaxy of apps it has spawned. And as much as I’m tempted to write a “what does it all mean” column, right now we have to look at the Apple TV as a stand-alone device.
And in many ways, it does stand alone.
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For an experience based on apps, the Apple TV is refreshingly devoid of them at first. Gone is the scrolling list of channels you never intend to explore, as with the previous two generations of the hardware. That list will grow, for sure, but at least it will be filled with apps you choose.
But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start with the absolute best part of the Apple TV, which is, literally, a fleeting moment. When you set it up for the first time, if you own an iPhone, you simply bring the phone near the Apple TV. The name and password of your home Wi-Fi network is passed to the Apple TV along with your Apple ID and password. It genuinely brought a smile to my face.
I would bet that a team of people at Apple put a lot of work into making that happen so gracefully. And then those people were probably reassigned to work on something else, because that flash of magic quickly dissipates when you need to enter other passwords.
For some reason that no user-experience experts can ascertain, the new operating system, tvOS, presents text as a single alphabetical line. In previous incarnations, letters appeared in a grid that made them easier to select using the included directional remote. It was still slow and sometimes frustrating, but nothing like having to swipe your thumb or finger several times to jump from A to Z.
Make a mistake? Swipe all the way to the right edge to backspace. Need to switch between upper and lower case to input secure passwords? Swipe down to the button that switches case, then back up again to the Row of Frustration.
There are no alternatives. The Remote app for iPhone, which enables you to use the keyboard on an iPhone or iPad remotely, is not being updated for compatibility with the new Apple TV. Bluetooth keyboards cannot be paired. You can’t even dictate letters via Siri (probably best, since Siri would have picked up the less-friendly words I was directing at the screen).
The good news is, this obstacle should be easy to overcome in an upcoming software release, which, given the other reviews of the box, I would hope Apple is fast-tracking to the top of its priorities.
I know I’m harping on this one small feature, but it’s because it stands out so starkly against an otherwise great product. Other aspects of the Apple TV experience are delightful: I like the soft sound effects when you move between apps or change screens; transitions are smooth and welcoming, and show Apple’s characteristic attention to detail.
The new Apple remote now incorporates a trackpad that works well, and the buttons that do appear — Menu, volume control, Sleep, Play/Pause, and Siri — are large and easy to hit. An internal accelerometer turns the remote into a wireless game controller:
And Siri: Press the Siri button and ask questions about the weather, sports scores, or, of course, assistance in finding movies or TV shows. While you’re watching a show, say, “What did she say?” and the Apple TV backs up 30 seconds and replays the scene with subtitles on. And Siri isn’t limited to just items in the iTunes Store. When you search for a movie, you’ll be able to see if it’s available to stream in the Netflix app, for example.
Siri is still limited in some ways. Although there’s an Apple Music app, it can’t yet find or play music you request by voice; Apple says that capability is coming in 2016.
These are all great features that make the Apple TV one of the most interesting contenders among other devices that want to pull your attention to the television.
It costs $150 for a model with 32 GB of capacity or $200 for a 64 GB model.
By this time next year, it will be interesting to see how, or if, the living room has changed due to Apple’s influence.