A few days with the Apple TV (2015)
Last week saw the release of the 4th Generation Apple TV. Being the first Apple TV featuring the new tvOS, it was the first device in the model’s 8 year history to have user-installable apps. Just like on most modern platforms, having the ability to install your own applications is incredibly useful and powerful. There are some interesting applications which I think will show up down the line relating to business use, but we’ll talk about that later. For now, how does it work in real life? For real people? I’ve spent a few days of quality time testing out my Apple TV and I can safely say I need a new couch.
Before I share my view on the Apple TV, let’s talk about my setup. My TV is a VIZIO P502ui-B1 50-Inch 4K HDTV which happens to be a “smart TV” with several built in apps, however the only one I have ever used is Netflix. The sound is bolstered by a VIZIO S3851w-D4B 38-Inch 5.1 Sound Bar which is hooked up to the TV’s audio-out. Prior to the Apple TV, I was using a Gigabyte Brix Gaming (GB-BXi7G3-760) which is an ultra-compact PC with an Intel i7, 16GB of RAM and discrete NVIDIA GeForce GTX 760. In short, I had an insanely powerful machine serving as my HTPC.
Most of my video media consumption comes from Netflix, Plex, YouTube, and Xfinity (stream). I do not have cable (or dish or antenna) so all of my media is downloaded/streamed. Most importantly, I don’t buy movies/TV from Apple nor do I buy music on iTunes any more. In fact I don’t even have iTunes activated on any computers. So while I have lots of Apple hardware, I’m not such a fanboy that I’ve fallen into their locked-down media trap. My desire for the Apple TV was to use it with the aforementioned apps, not iTunes.
While its unlikely that the setup process will need to be repeated very often (hopefully ever), it was quite smooth. One of my favorite features was the option of using a iOS device to assist in the setup. Rather than having to punch in all your iTunes account information, the TV will sync (over bluetooth) from your iPhone/iPad (Note: it does ask for your password). After that you have to answer a few “Do you want to enable…” questions for tools such as location services, Siri and “Ariel screensaver” (which is very pretty). After that you’re up and running, done!
The App Store
tvOS being a brand new platform, doesn’t have a huge amount of apps available yet. The highlights right now are launch title games (like Crossy Road) and the major players in streaming video: YouTube, HBO, Showtime, Netflix, Hulu and all the sports. Fortunately for me, the day before the Apple TV arrived Plex released their official app. In addition to the expected TV/Movie/Games there was an interesting collection of alternative apps. Those included titles such as “Plane Finder”, “Fantastic Fireplace” (turn your TV into a fireplace, who hasn’t done this with a yule log video on youtube?), and “Real Aquariums HD”.
Of course, for all the good an interesting apps available, there are a ton of junky apps on the store. Quality takes time, especially for a new (and fairly different) platform. There are also a number of dupes already (for example for Twit.tv and Twitch.tv) all similar in the “speed over quality” school of development. For those who remember, it heralds back to the days when iOS first got native apps. A few were good and the rest … just avoid for now.
- Plex – Works well. It’s very attractive and I actually like the browsing interface more than the regular Plex Home Theater interface. However during the video playback you have slightly less control, partially because you don’t need an on screen “pause” button when you have the controller. I’ve had a few issues with scrubbing speed (laggy) on higher quality 720 and 1080 streams; I’m not sure if it’s my QNAP or the app. For being the first version of an app on a new platform, it’s excellent. Yes, it can use some work but I’ve watched a number of TV episodes in on the Apple TV Plex app without much angst.
- Netflix – It should be no shock to anyone that the Netflix app works very well on the Apple TV. It looked identical to the app that runs directly on my Vizio, or the Netflix website for that matter. The only annoyance is that you need to enter your username/password in the app rather than using netflix.com/activate (which is how most SmartTVs register).
- YouTube – Works well, however I haven’t figured out yet how to control the video quality – so a lot of the video don’t look great. Might be PEBRAC. Otherwise, like with Plex, I really like the interface. It has a similar feel to the YouTube homepage (with your recommended, different subscriptions, etc) while fitting in perfectly for your couch. One gotcha? No adblock on Apple TV, so you get commercials.
I haven’t used any of the other major players in streaming (as I don’t have HBO/SHO subscriptions, etc), but I’d expect they all would be similarly well polished. The thing that caught my attention was the Apple TV has a “Top Shelf” which is the first row of apps, basically your favorites. All of the apps I tested, including Plex, supported the “Featured Content” area of the home screen. That’s a Really Good Thing™ because the “Featured Content” section takes up about the first half of your tvOS homescreen. It also means that you’ll see what TV shows you have on deck, or might be in the middle of from your Plex app – instead of the latest movie trailer from iTunes (boring).
Per previous, there aren’t a ton of games available yetm but I’ve given a few a shot that are worth commenting on. Since tvOS is centered around non-game-controller gameplay (though there is a gamepad available), some game developers have made some interesting changes.
- 2048 – Yes, this is exactly the same as on your (insert every platform here), just 50″ in size. Amusing way to waste a few minutes. However you have to swipe on the Apple TV Controller over and over and over. After two rounds I got bored of swiping so much.
- Crossy Road – Again, very similar to what you’re used to on the smaller screens, though it looks great on the big screen. In order to jump different directions you have to swipe side-to-side, but you can “click” (or swipe) to jump forward. It’s an amusing way to waste a few minutes. Haven’t tried the mutliplayer yet though.
- Rayman Adventures – RA is a lovely platformer/runner which is a great deal of fun to play, especially for free. Since there is no button to push to move right, Ubi opted to have Rayman just constantly run. You use the touchpad swipes to change direction/punch/kick/jump/etc. I found it was a great way to spend a few minutes while waiting for someone else to come sit down for the nights Netflix marathon.
- Spaceteam – This is a game where you have to play in a multiplayer environment. Interestingly, rather than playing on the TV, you connect your iPhone/iPad (maybe Android, haven’t tried) over Bluetooth/wifi to the Apple TV. Each personal device then becomes a controller with the TV providing you an overall view. Personally, I think Spaceteam sucks as a game but the concept has merit. I’d love to see something like Quiplash instead.
The controller/remote does have an accelerator and gyroscope built-in, but I haven’t played any games that use those features (yet). Combine that with the “Remote Loop” accessory and you can see how Apple is trying to take on the Wii-style motion gaming. Unfortunately the Apple TV can only pair one remote at this current time (that could change) so there will be, sadly, no competitive Apple TV bowling.
If you love Apple devices, you’ll probably love the Apple TV. If you hate Apple devices, you might like the Apple TV. It is a slick device and certainly more functional than all of its competitors (Sorry Roku). The 32GB unit is only $149, so it’s very approachable. Yes, it’s missing 4K. No, it doesn’t have an app for every streaming site out there (Yet. See also: No Comcast/Xfinity app). Yes, it is much more restrictive than using a full HTPC. However it is cheap, it’s easy to use, and it works. Even though I’m a techy, when I want to sit down and watch TV, I just want to sit down and watch TV. I don’t want to deal with Windows Updates or Chrome Updates or whatever stupid issue of the day is. Apple TV turns on and works – there isn’t much more I could ask. Oh, and you can talk to it!