Let’s get a few things out of the way first thing. This is not the be-all and end-all of set top boxes. Not even close. In fact, right now the Roku 4 bests the 2015 Apple TV in a whole bunch of ways. Steve Jobs once called the Apple TV a hobby and at no point in its history has it seemed more like a hobby than right now.
The third generation Apple TV felt like a finished product. A limited product, to be sure, but finished and polished. This new fourth generation Apple TV feels like the beginning of something, probably something very big… but almost too early, almost still-in-the-garage early.
Before I go further, I’d also like to establish my Apple TV bona fides. I have owned all three previous generations of Apple TV. There’s even a hacked old Gen2 Apple TV in the gym currently running XBMC and Boxee (remember Boxee?). I have two generation three Apple TVs, one I just replaced with this new one, and another hooked up to my iMac and providing me with a fourth screen using AirPlay.
I’ve been doing set top boxes since they first came out. I go all the way back to VideoGuide. We have a Roku 3 in the garage and a Roku stick in the bedroom. I dropped a Chromecast on my Dad’s TV so I can show him puppy pictures and videos when I go over to visit him. So, yeah, been there. Done video add-on boxes.
So, I know what a good set top box is like, and here’s the thing: right now, the new 2015 Apple TV is not a good set top box.
Everything I’m about to tell you is fixable, either through software revisions or through growth in the ecosystem. But right now, the new Apple TV is disappointing — enough so that I’m considering returning mine.
There’s a lot to discuss, so we’ll proceed physical setup to hardware to apps, and more.
The new Apple TV adds a USB-C port, but drops the optical audio port. Even so, I was able to remove the three cables from my third generation Apple TV (Ethernet, HDMI, and power), and plug them right into the new device. I didn’t have to route any new wires, so that was easy and simple.
The new Apple TV comes with an automated setup mode, which allows you to use your iOS 9 device to tell it how to connect to your network and your Apple ID. I chose to do manual setup because we use my wife’s Apple ID for iTunes movies, and I was setting it up while she was out.
I also did manual setup without once touching the new remote. I did the setup entirely using my already-programmed Harmony remote, which worked out of the box. Basically, your old IR Apple TV remote will still work.
THE NEW REMOTE
The new remote is called a Siri remote, and if you want an extra, it’s $79 on the Apple Store. Don’t buy an extra just because your partner also wants a remote, though. Only one will pair with the new Apple TV.
Here’s the thing about the new remote: It’s got a mix of buttons and touch-sensitive interface. The top of the remote is touch sensitive, the bottom is not. To select something, you can’t just tap the remote, though. You have to press it until you get a physical click (like a mouse click).
To be blunt, the new remote is terrible. Swiping isn’t nearly as accurate at lean-back distances and as a game controller, it’s mediocre at best. I found it very frustrating attempting to select items. Rubbing a finger (usually a thumb) across the trackpad surface invariably selected the wrong item or overshot what I was aiming for.
It’s very difficult to tell top from bottom on the remote. It’s almost entirely symmetrical, and the only difference is the top is less shiny, the surface you’re supposed to use as a touch surface. In the dark, I expect people will be pushing the wrong buttons and talking into the wrong end. I’ll come back to the buttons later.
The remote is Bluetooth, so one interesting hackerish question is whether or not the remote could be used with other machines as some sort of hand-held mini-trackpad.
SIRI ON THE APPLE TV
One of the keystone features of this new Apple TV is Siri. You can push the microphone button on the remote, and talk to Siri on the new Apple TV.
This isn’t your iPhone’s Siri. This is like a Siri that’s still in the lab, a Siri you might have expected to come out in 2007. There’s no helpfulness in Siri. You can’t ask it any of the questions you’d expect to ask Siri. Siri on the Apple TV is really more of a search interface. You can ask for “crime shows on Netflix” and it will pull up a list.
But ask Siri for “cop shows” and it shows just a few. Ask Siri for “time travel movies” and it responds with a snarky reference to the Time Travel feature on the Apple Watch — a reference only a very small number of Apple Watch users would even understand.
Siri also doesn’t work in some apps — including, oddly, the app store itself. Voice search is far from complete, even for premium content like CBS All Access. For example Madam Secretary shows Season 2 on iTunes, but not on CBS All Access.
This will obviously change over time, but this is definitely an early offering.
Also, you’d think you could use the iPhone Apple TV Remote app to control Siri on the Apple TV, but you can’t. In fact, the Apple TV Remote app doesn’t connect at all to the new Apple TV.
GETTING STARTED WITH APPS
Speaking of early offerings, the apps are so very early. When you get this Apple TV, the main screen is pretty empty when you start. The only icons shown are Movies, TV, Apps, Photos, Music, Search, Settings, and Computer.
To get the other services (like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, CBS All Access, and so forth), you have to go into the app store and download them. One at a time. Annoyingly, even though I already did a sign-in for iTunes as part of setup, as soon as I tried to download my first app, I had to once again type in my password. Not fun.
In fact, I got very, very practiced at typing in passwords. I had to individually log into all of my video services. And no, if I used automatic setup, that wouldn’t have helped. That only logged in once to iTunes. No matter whether you use your iPhone to start or not, you’re logging into. Each. Individual. Service.
I particularly grew to hate the onscreen keyboard. Its design is particularly annoying, especially when you have to switch between caps and non-caps. Again, if you try to enter letters or numbers using the touch Siri remote, you’re likely to go insane. I used my Harmony remote with actually arrows, and it was painful.
It was particularly painful because…
BLUETOOTH BARELY WORKS
I’ll come back to apps in a second, but this is a good time to mention that the Bluetooth implementation in the Apple TV is terrible. My Logitech K810 keyboard (which connects to everything and has three bluetooth connections) would not connect to the Apple TV. In fact, none of my Bluetooth keyboards would connect, which is why I was stuck using the onscreen keyboard.
One of the reasons I was particularly excited about the new Apple TV was so that we could use a pair of Bluetooth headphones with it. While we have a wired headphone that can connect to the amp, the wire is annoying and a tripping hazard.
Bluetooth would be great, because sometimes my wife watches TV while I’m writing, and this way it would be easy for her to watch her gritty cop shows and I wouldn’t have to hear them.
I was able to pair two of the five different Bluetooth headphones I have to the Apple TV. But on one of them, volume was too low to hear, and even though I ratcheted up volume on the headphones (and even tried on the Apple TV remote), it was still too low to hear. A second pair was at least usable, but I know they can be much louder.
The thing is, it’s impossible to control the volume of the Apple TV. Apple includes volume controls on the remote, but they’re meant to provide IR signals to your amp or TV. They don’t control volume for a Bluetooth headphone.
VERY LIMITED APP SELECTION
I feel terribly bad for the Apple TV app developers who pushed really hard to get an app out for launch. The odds are, their offering will never be seen. That’s because discoverability on the new Apple TV app store is as bad as the remote.
When you launch the app store, there are three tabs: Featured, Purchased, and Search. There are a bunch of apps on the Featured tab, but far from all. For example, there’s an IP scanner app (I know, most people won’t care, but we’re geeks, so IP scanners are cool). But it’s not on the Featured section. The only way you’d know it was there would be to go to search, hit I, and scroll down.
As for the apps themselves, beyond Netflix, HBO Now, Hulu, CBS All Access, and a few other media content apps, there is nothing of interest. There are a few bad Frogger clones, but that’s about as good as it gets.
Yes, there are also a few space battle games, but because every game is required to work with the Siri remote, they suffer from control limitations. Requiring the Siri remote for all games is a limiting factor and it will squelch some game designers. Gaming this way is uncomfortable and limits the quality of games.
Some of the showcase apps are quite odd, as well. For example, there’s an AirBNB app and a Zillow app. So if you want to sit in front of your Apple TV and look for a bed and breakfast or a property to buy, you’re all set. But these are the sort of things you’d easily fling onto the Apple TV via AirPlay. There’s no real reason for them to be on the Apple TV.
Now, clearly over time, there will be some good apps. This is an Apple app ecosystem, after all. But today? Nada. Zip. Zero. Boring. Dull. Uninspiring.
Two last thoughts about apps. Where is Safari? We have a touch screen remote, why not a browser? After all, even the Wii had a browser.
Second, just in case you haven’t done enough signing in, the first time you try a game on the Apple TV, you’ll be required to sign into Game Center. So yet another sign-in.
Apple has promoted its visual screen saver, which is basically a set of scenes that are supposed to be pleasant and attractive. But it’s annoying. Right now, I have a right-scrolling image of the San Francisco sunset, which means there’s a bright light right in the middle of the screen as the thing scrolls to the right. There was a nice view of a bridge the other day, but I haven’t seen it for the last two days.
There is also no longer the ability to use a Flickr account as a screen saver. One of our favorite things was using a collection of amazing Alaskan bear images from a Flickr account as our screen saver. That’s not possible anymore, unless we download all those images and put them on a Mac and set up computer sharing or use iCloud.
Old Apple TV users will also notice that there is no longer a podcast app. At all. Old Apple TV users will note that there’s no longer the “boing” sound when you reach the end of a row or column. It’s a nit, I know. Even so, I miss it.
Finally, the new white background is terrible for dark rooms. What were they thinking? Was anyone who actually used the Apple TV in a dark living room actually involved in the design or testing?
SHOULD YOU BUY ONE?
If you currently have an Apple TV, I’d say “no.” At least not until there are some killer apps. The setup process for all the video services is a royal pain, the interface is clunky, the remote is terrible, and there are no killer apps — heck, there are no compelling apps.
If you don’t have an Apple TV, you might want to simply because the selection of movies and TV shows from the iTunes store is quite comprehensive. Otherwise, I’d recommend a Roku. The new Roku 4 has support for 4K, it has Amazon video support, and the remote allows you to plug in a pair of headphones. Plus, the Roku 4 is $20 cheaper than the $149 Apple TV model.
Here’s the thing: most of the problems with the new Apple TV can be fixed. Whether or not Apple fixes the Bluetooth is questionable, because that’s supporting non-Apple products. But they might.
And while the remote is terrible, Siri is bound to improve. More to the point, apps will undoubted improve. While there will be tons and tons of pop quiz garbage apps, it’s reasonable to expect some outstanding offerings as well.
But not right away. Good stuff will take a while, probably six months or more. I’ll check back in six months and at that time, I’m sure many of my complaints will go away. Now, however, I’m just trying to figure out how to break the news to my wife that the bears are gone from our screen saver.