Review: 4th-generation Apple TV promises revolution; delivers evolution 

The future of television is here.

That’s what Apple’s marketing team starts off with on the company’s web page about the new Apple TV, which is now a top-level section on the company’s website. No longer is the Apple TV tucked in with iPods; it’s got a seat at the table with the Mac, iPhone and Apple’s other products.

Clearly, Apple thinks its new TV puck is a winner, but it’s been a long road to get here.

First shown off in 2006, the then-named iTV was pitched as a simple box to show content from iTunes on your flatscreen television.

Right off the bat, Apple TV lived in the shadow of other products. Hell, it was introduced in the same keynote as the original iPhone.

Steve Jobs referring to it as a “hobby” in 2007 certainly didn’t help:

We’re in two businesses today, we’ll be very shortly in three business and a hobby. One is our Mac business, second is our music business, third business is the phone business, handsets. And the hobby is Apple TV. The reason I call it a hobby is a lot of people have tried and failed to make it a business. It’s a business that’s hundreds of thousands of units per year but it hasn’t crested to be millions of units per year, but I think if we improve things we can crack that.

The $299 box originally worked more or less like an iPod. It’d connect to iTunes over the local network, allowing users to sync whatever content they wanted. 2008’s “Take Two” software attempted to right some of the wrongs, but it wasn’t until September 2010 until Apple finally graduated the Apple TV from a weird, under-powered Intel Mac — running a stripped down version of OS X 10.4 and what was essentially Front Row — to a much smaller, sleeker product.

The new box was built around streaming — not syncing — and at $99, sold much better than before.

However, like with its first-generation product several years ago, Apple let the Apple TV sit too long, letting it grow stale. While the hardware had been revved to support 1080p, the outgoing Apple TV is basically a five year-old product.

With this new Apple TV, the company is making bolder claims than ever before. Gone is the hobby moniker. The hardware is powerful, it runs a new OS and ships with an SDK and a growing ecosystem of third-party apps. While time will tell if Apple will let it sit too long without an update again, today, this $149 (or $199) box is the new hotness from Cupertino.

So, let’s dive in.

Hardware

Outside, the 4th-generation Apple TV looks like a taller 3rd-generation unit. It’s still black and still attracts fingerprints. Around back, the Optical Out port is gone, to the chagrin of some users and the only-to-be-used-for-service Micro-USB port has been replaced by a USB C port. Oh, and that Ethernet port is still 10/100. No Gigabit in sight.

Inside, however, it’s an all-new game.

The Apple TV is powered by Apple’s 64-bit A8 processor. It comes with 2 GB of RAM, according to iFixIt.

The result of this chipset is that this thing is fast. The new UI is full of animations and transparency, and I have yet to see it stutter. Games are smooth and streaming content starts instantly.

There’s no 4K support, but I think that’s mostly okay for another couple of years.

In short, the platform responds like a modern device again, and I’m glad it does. The puck, however, isn’t nearly as interesting as what is used to control it.

Siri Remote

Let’s get this out of the way first: this thing is $79 to replace. As someone with three kids in the house, I’m just going to go ahead and set $80 aside when I inevitably have to replace it when its lost or shattered.

Yes, shattered.

Gone is the aluminum remote of yesteryear. The new Siri remote still has a metal back, but the front is made up of a family of buttons set into a half-plastic, half-glass front. The glass acts as a trackpad, allowing for gestures, taps and presses. It’s just as smooth and responsive as the Magic Trackpad 2, which is impressive in something so small.

I’m not much of a gamer, but even I can tell that some games just aren’t well-suited for this type of input. If you want the best experience playing games on this thing, you should pick up the $49 SteelSeries Nimbus Wireless Gaming Controller. It’s not the best controller in the world, but it sure beats tapping and clicking the trackpad while waving the Siri Remote around.

The remote communicates to the device over Bluetooth, but the Apple TV will respond to IR input, so those 17 older Apple TV remotes you have stashed around the house will work. (You can, apparently, pair a set of Bluetooth speakers or headphones to the Apple TV as well.)

My big problem with the Siri remote — besides the price is — is that it lacks the ease-of-use found on the old remote. Make no mistake, I think gestures are waaaaaay better than the old button layout, but it’s hard to work this remote by feel alone. Since the buttons are basically centered vertically, it’s hard to get the thing right-side-up most of the time if its dark. Backlit buttons would be kiler, but then the remote would be even more money to replace, I’m sure.

Maybe time will help ease this frustration, but right now, I have to think about the Siri Remote way too much. That’s not a good thing.

Software

tvOS is the name Apple’s given to the iOS variant running the Apple TV. This choice gave Apple — and developers — a lot of tools they needed to build apps for the device atop a stable foundation.

The UI is all-new, however, and frankly, it’s beautiful.

At the heart of the new UI is the Focus engine. I’ll leave the details to Guy English and John Gruber to explain, but here’s how Apple explains it in the new Apple TV Human Interface Guidelines:

On iOS devices, people interact with the user interface by tapping or swiping directly on the touchscreen. Apple TV doesn’t have a touchscreen. Instead, a remote is used to interact indirectly with elements onscreen from across the room. This interaction is based on a focus model. By pressing buttons and using gestures on the remote, people move focus from element to element, stop on a specific one, and click to access content or initiate action. As focus changes, subtle animations and the parallax effect produce a feeling of depth that clearly identifies the item that’s currently in focus.

It’s hard to describe, but the result of all of this is that tvOS feels fluid in ways far beyond what iOS and OS X can deliver.

Siri is fast and accurate. My guess is that because the number of things Siri has to be able to do here is smaller than on iOS proper, Apple can parse text faster than ever. I’ve yet to have it misunderstand me.

Sadly, as beautiful as it is, tvOS is punched full of holes.

There’s no iCloud Photo Library support on the Apple TV. The old-style Photo Stream support is there, but I guess no one revisited that after Photos.app launched in April.

Like podcasts? The Apple TV’s got nothing for you right now.

Siri is limited in really weird ways. Want to search for an episode of Arrested Development? No problem. Want to use Siri to play an album from Apple Music?

Meeehhhhhhhhhhh.

As of this writing, iOS’ Remote.app can’t be used with the new Apple TV. That means you can’t use your iPhone, iPad or Apple Watch to control the device, or even enter text. Coupled with the lack of Bluetooth keyboard support, entering password is a major pain in the ass.

While an iPhone can be used to set up the Apple TV, password entry is still required in many third-party apps, as well as the App Store itself.

As Dan Moren points out, there’s no support for iCloud Keychain in tvOS, which could help alleviate some of this back and forth.

tvOS is gorgeous and runs smoothly, no matter how many games or apps may be open at a given time, but it feels half-baked in many areas. The lack of some of Apple’s own services on the box is a head-scratcher, as are some of the seemingly-arbitrary limitations of Siri.

I hope someone in Cupertino is working on these issues. History shows we may be in for a wait.

Apps

Apps are the biggest software story on the new Apple TV. For the first time, third-party developers can build and sell apps for the platform.

Well, “sell” may be an overstatement.

The race to the bottom argument aside, the Apple TV’s App Store has some problems. While categories were added several days after launch, they are basic at best; as of this writing, there are just two: Games and Entertainment. Top Charts are present too, which is helpful, but all of this feels unfinished. I suspect it may have to do with the low number of apps in the Apple TV App Store, so hopefully this will solve itself over time.

A big problem is that there’s no way to link to an Apple TV app. If you hear or read about app, you have to remember to go the App Store on the television and find it later. As of this writing, the iTunes Search API isn’t even aware that the Apple TV exists. All you get is some empty JSON, according to one developer I spoke to on November 4.

In my head, the Apple TV App Store would be right at home inside a revised Remote.app. Users could buy apps there and the Apple TV could install them automatically. Just picture this: Read a review of a new game and decide to check it out? Tap the link, be sent to the TV App Store, tap buy and boom. It would be waiting for you when you got home from work.

Sigh.

(While I recognize that this may lead to another app to stuff into your “WTF APPLE STAAAAAAHP” folder of apps, I think that the Apple TV would benefit from the model used for the Apple Watch.)

Like the Watch, there’s no killer app from Apple here. No stellar example of how to build a great TV app. The built-in stuff is fine, but the fact that Apple’s isn’t shipping a first-party game (and is making the controller optional) means there’s not a lighthouse to draw developers in yet. That’s not a deal-breaker, but when I think about how hard Apple pushed iWork and iLife in the first couple of years of the iPad’s life, this feels a little … hollow.

Like I said, I’m not a big gamer, but I’m enjoying some fun causal games on the device. They are all fine, but some benefit from having that game controller hooked up. Content apps like Netflix, PBS Kids and Hulu are all nice and fast, as you’d expect.

All that aside, it’s the early days of this platform. Just like Apple has stuff to sort out, it’s clear that developers are still learning about this device. The fact that tvOS is basically iOS with several major frameworks stripped out should allow developers to work quickly, and I think that as time goes on, we’ll see some good stuff here.

I’ve tried apps that are really great, and others that are clearly lazy ports from iOS. While I’m not sure how many apps or games I’ll use in the future, it’s fun to explore now.

The Future

So, is the future of television is here? I’m not sure it is, and while some of that is Apple’s fault, a lot of it isn’t.

There are some glaring omissions when it comes to what tvOS can do and what it offers, but assuming Apple is working on those things, they won’t be problems in the long-run.

Things like universal support and voice commands feel like the future, at least for Apple TV owners. Having apps and games alongside streaming content is great too, but there’s a fundamental problem with this product that Apple hasn’t been able to fix yet: TV itself.

The reality is that while services like iTunes, Netflix and Hulu are fine, there’s a wealth of content out there locked away in cable bundles. Until Apple can break those deals up, this fancy new Apple TV is too much like the old one in areas. That’s not to mention the NBA, NFL and other sports overlords that have apps, but still follow blackout policies.

I’d love to turn on my Apple TV and be able to watch what I want, when I want. If content creators like Discovery Channel or Disney were to launch apps with subscription options for those of us without cable logins, the Apple TV would feel more like the future when it comes to on-demand entertainment.

Until then, and until Apple works some of the kinks, the future is still mostly a marketing line. The new Apple TV is good, but I’d love for it to be great.