Apple TV's 4th Generation Is a Mixture of Good, Bad and Ugly

Is Apple TV Really the Future of Television?

The 4th generation Apple TV
Apple, Inc.

Is the fourth time the charm for Apple TV? Apple has captured the imagination of mobile and they are making inroads into the enterprise with the iPad Pro, but in order to win the living room, they'll need to take on Roku and fend off both Google's Chromecast and Amazon's Fire TV.

But while it is the "Apple" in Apple TV that makes us wonder if this is the next big step in television, it is also the "Apple" in Apple TV that may be its biggest obstacle.

Apple has a simplicity-above-all-else philosophy, and while this worked well in mobile, it can end up a detractor as they strive for new markets.  The overly simple remote that can cause as many headaches as it relieves is a good example of how this philosophy can go wrong.

The future of television? Perhaps not. But the fourth generation of Apple TV is definitely a step in the right direction, and more importantly, Apple TV has a bright future that could very well take us into that future. For now, Apple TV has the good, the bad and more ugly than Apple is generally known for in a new release.

Apple TV4 Stars
Apple TV as an iPad/iPhone Accessory: 5 Stars

Apple TV: The Good

The remote. The new remote may not be perfect, and in fact, it has some serious drawbacks, but the remote for the previous version of Apple TV was awful. The new remote replaces the standard up-down-right-left-select buttons with a large button that also serves as a touchpad.

This allows you to use the same swiping motion you use on your phone to navigate Apple TV. The end result is an experience that is much easier to use than a normal remote, though I did find myself tapping the touchpad portion rather than clicking, a gesture that works on a MacBook but for some silly reason doesn't register as a click on Apple TV.

Games. OK, yeah, we all know about Netflix and Hulu Plus and YouTube and all of your standard streaming services that you will get with any of these boxes. But what may really set Apple TV apart from the pack are the games. Apple TV isn't the first streaming box with games. In fact, they are actually quite late to the party in this respect. But in this respect, Apple happens to be the guest the party waits for in order to get started.

Apple TV isn't just some piece of cheap hardware that can run a graphically-challenged version of Candy Crush Saga. Apple TV uses the same A8 processor that runs the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. It also includes 2 GB of RAM memory for running apps. This means it can run any app or game that can run on your smartphone, and the capabilities of the latest smartphones are actually pretty good.  

Apple TV isn't going to compete with the PlayStation 4 or Xbox ONE, but it has one huge advantage over the competition. The games on Apple TV tend to cost between $1 and $5 rather than the $30-$60 charged for premium games on the major consoles. And with the remote becoming an almost-Wii-like controller, Apple TV could take over as the casual game console.

Siri. The Siri included with Apple TV is a subset devoted to services that fall in line with a streaming device, and while it would be great if you could ask your TV to remind you to do something, the Siri functionality on Apple TV is actually very good -- when it works.

(More on that later!) Siri on Apple TV has many uses, including searching for what to watch and controlling playback when you do find something to watch. You can tell it to skip forward or back for a specific timeframe, and if you couldn't quite understand what was just said, a "what did he say?" request will jump back ten seconds and temporarily turn on the closed caption setting. 17 Ways Siri Can Help You Be More Productive

One feature I thought was really cool was the ability to ask Siri who was in an episode I was watching. Apple TV brought up an IMDB-type interface that let me browse through the actors and click through to see their filmography.

The great part about this was that using the menu button to back up put me right back in my streaming video at the exact point I left, so I'm not exiting out of the experience to get more information. This combined with the ability to quickly switch between apps and resume where we left off may be two of the best "future of television" features.

The App Store. I've mentioned games, but let's not forget there is a full app store available for Apple TV. At release, there are slightly more than 1,000 apps on Apple TV's app store. By way of comparison, Amazon's Fire TV has been out for almost a year-and-a-half and has 1600 "channels" and Roku 3 has been out for over two years and has 2,000 apps. It's not hard to imagine Apple TV surpassing Roku's selection within a couple of months.

The Apps. I didn't get a chance to download every single app, and mainly, I concentrated on core apps like HBO Now and Hulu Plus. But what I did see were some good, solid apps running on top rate hardware. This created a very seamless experience where I could quickly scroll through HBO's huge movie database to find something I might like to watch, an experience that is sometimes painful on other devices -- including the previous version of Apple TV! 

The Search Functionality. One other key feature of Apple TV is the ability for apps to hook into the global search feature. Right now, that means you can request Siri to "play [a movie] on Netflix" and skip the process of opening the Netflix app and searching for the video.

Apple TV also knows to jump into Netflix without the directive if it is the only streaming app that offers that movie or video. As more apps support this core functionality, finding what to watch and actually watching it will be a much more seamless experience than the current process of opening up each individual streaming app searching for a specific show.

Apple TV: The Bad

Unfortunately, there is plenty of bad to go along with the good. Let's forget the bugs here. In many ways, Apple TV is a 1.0 release, so a few bugs are to be forgiven. But there are also some puzzling omissions, such as support for shared iCloud photo streams but no support for the full iCloud Photo Library. Isn't the entire point of the iCloud Photo Library to view photos on all of my devices?

No Amazon Instant Video. This one isn't Apple's fault. In fact, the fault lies squarely with Amazon, who has banned the sale of Apple TV on Amazon.com because it doesn't support Amazon Instant Video even though the only reason Apple TV doesn't support Amazon Instant Video is because Amazon didn't submit the app. Still, it detracts from Apple TV. Luckily, AirPlay works quite well with Amazon Instant Video, so you can still actually watch your Amazon Prime movies on your television set through Apple TV, Amazon has just made the process a bit more painful. (Thanks, Amazon!)

A Disappointing Music App. Apple TV isn't just for streaming videos and playing games. It also makes a rather good radio. Or it would if the Music app wasn't a little disappointing.

The app does support Apple Music, including the streaming radio station. But it doesn't really do a great job of supporting your own music. For example, you can play one of your playlists, but you can't shuffle the playlist. And if you ask Apple TV to play you a song via Siri all you will receive in return is a curt message about how Apple TV can't do that.

Siri. Speaking of Siri, while she may end up being a real game-changer in the future, she's a little toothless right now. First, she's not the same Siri as on your iPad. Not only does she lack many of the features, she also does a poor job of recognizing your words. For example, she had a very hard time recognizing my voice request to "reverse 10 seconds", sometimes thinking I said "the first" and sometimes thinking I said "verse 10 seconds". My iPad had no problem hearing understanding me. 

And not all apps support Siri's abilities. In fact, Apple TV doesn't seem to do a good job of supporting Siri as a whole. For example, you can search your Apple TV through the search app, but ask Siri to "Search for Asphalt 6" and you'll quickly find out she's only good at looking for videos.  

Apple TV: The Ugly

The Onscreen Keyboard.  Siri's limitations are compounded by the truly awful onscreen keyboard. In what may be the most un-Apple-like decision, Apple TV arranges the letters of the alphabet across the screen in a line rather than the grid used by most user interfaces that lack keyboard or touch capabilities. This leads to a lot of work inputting passwords and spelling out words. And it might be bearable if Siri could come to the rescue, but in another odd choice, you can't use Siri for voice dictation. So when you enter the Search app, you'll be stuck with that horrible keyboard. It would be much simpler to simply speak your search into Siri. 

And when are tech companies going to realize that -- most of the time -- my username is my email address and -- crazy enough! -- it is usually the exact same email address. Rather than repeatedly inputting this email address on a crazy-bad on-screen keyboard, why can't Apple TV give me the option of auto filling this request with the email address I use to sign into Apple services or, better, save a list of usernames/email address to use in these instances. 

The App Store. Can the App Store be both good and ugly? Yes. The existence of the App Store is absolutely great. Unfortunately, the current implementation isn't altogether great. Apple has done a great job of telling you what apps you should download straight away, but if you want to go looking for some less-well-known gems in that list of 1,000 apps available, you'll find yourself wondering if Apple fell asleep the day app categories were presented in App Store Building School. The lack of categories means you will be scrolling down a "top free apps" list just to see what all is available. 

Apple TV: The Verdict

So how does a device that has plenty of bad and ugly aspects rate a rather good 4 stars? Mostly, it is the potential of the device rather than the 1.0 version. And how well Apple TV plays with other iOS devices like the iPad and the iPhone. And, finally, the lack of great competition.

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