The Apple TV

Just over four weeks ago, I purchased a 32GB Apple TV from RadioShack. They were available at a pretty hefty discount — about $120. I knew I was going to be buying the device eventually and it was unlikely that I’d ever find one for a better price elsewhere. So, I placed my order and received it a few days later.

Set-Top-Box

The Apple TV itself is an unassuming little black rectangular cuboid. It’s about one-and-a-half times as tall as the previous model, but every other dimension remains the same. I’ve always found the first three iterations of the Apple TV to be quite attractive when compared to the competition. And while I still believe that to be true of the latest model, I think it has taken a step back due to its taller form factor.

The appearance of the new Apple TV isn’t as important as previous models, though. Now that it features a Bluetooth remote, you no longer need line of sight to control it. This means you can tuck the device inside of a cabinet or even mount it on the back of your television with a third-party mounting bracket.

As for the rear of the Apple TV, it features HDMI, ethernet, USB-C, and power. Absent from this model is the optical audio output that had been in every previous iteration. This was a major concern for me initially as my current home theater setup includes a receiver that doesn’t have any HDMI inputs. Luckily, the television we purchased in late 2014 offers audio pass-through which let us continue using our current receiver without having to buy an adapter that split the audio signal from the HDMI cable.

Remote

The Siri Remote took a little bit of time to get used to. At first I found the trackpad to be a tad fiddly — I was regularly skipping past the item I was trying to select. But after a few days it became second nature. Now I’m swiping through long lists of videos, scrubbing to specific time codes, and typing on the device’s horizontal keyboard with ease.

The remote even has a few tricks up its sleeve that aren’t immediately apparent. The most handy of which is the ability to tap on the outer edges of the trackpad while navigating menus to move a single space. You can also press on the left and right edges while playing back video to skip forward or back ten seconds — I find this particularly useful in dialog-heavy scenes where it’s easy to miss what characters are saying. Also, pressing and holding on the right or left edge will perform a standard rewind or fast-forward, if that’s what you’d prefer.

The Siri Remote’s design has taken a lot of heat since its release. There’s been plenty of complaints about its symmetrical form which often leads to users inadvertently picking up the remote upside down. Jared Sinclair even went so far as to wrap a rubber band around his remote to prevent this from happening.

This hasn’t been much of a problem for me, though. In the month or so that I’ve owned the set-top-box, I’ve only picked up the remote upside down a handful of times and it never resulted in playback disruption. But I fully understand the complaint. I wish Apple would have spaced the six buttons such that they filled out the area below the trackpad more evenly. And I wouldn’t mind a small home-row-style nubbin on the menu or home button to further give users a sense of place without having to look at the remote.

The Siri Remote is an incredible piece of tech, but what really pushed it over the top for me is its ability to function as your only remote. The device’s use of HDMI-CEC to control connected components paired with the remote’s IR blaster is an absolute dream. I’ve long been a proponent of Logitech Harmony remotes, but mine has spent about 98% of its time inside of a drawer since I plugged in the Apple TV. When I want to watch a movie or TV show, I just hit a button on the Siri Remote — my television turns on, switches to the correct input, and I can even control the volume of my receiver. When I’m done watching, I simply hold the home button, choose sleep, and my television and Apple TV turn off. In my opinion, this alone is worth the price of admission.

tvOS and Siri

The new Apple TV’s interface is very similar, visually, to the previous generation’s. The most notable difference is the move towards a brighter background for the home screen. At first glance, I thought it looked beautiful, but was worried that it would be too bright when viewing in a dim room.

My concerns quickly subsided after just a few days of use. As it turns out, I don’t usually watch television with the lights off. But even if I did, you spend most of your time on the Apple TV within applications. And they typically have darker backgrounds which are more amenable to dim settings. I still wish Apple would bring back darker home screen backgrounds, but I’m not going to complain if they don’t.

Apple has built application switching into the interface as well, just double click the home button and you can swipe through a list of your apps in order of most recently used. This let’s you bypass the home screen when switching between applications and gives users the ability to force quit apps by swiping up when the problematic one is front and center.

Force quitting applications doesn’t come up too often, but I’ve found it to be an interesting workaround in YouTube. The YouTube app for tvOS doesn’t currently offer a way to refresh the Home tab to see a fresh batch of recommendations, but force quitting and reopening the app does the trick. It’s not the most elegant solution, but it works until an update adds this functionality.

I don’t have much experience using Siri on the device. To be truthful, it isn’t something that’s really grabbed my interest in the way it has for others. The only command I consistently use is “hey Siri, show me the latest episode of Top Chef.” I would rather drill down into the TV Shows app to find the episode, but I don’t want to swipe past nearly 200 items to get to the most recent. I’m hoping Apple will change the way longer running shows’ episodes are listed to surface the most recent one more quickly, but until then Siri is the best path to take.

There’s plenty that you can do with Siri on Apple TV and I’ve tried most of it. But old habits are hard to break. I imagine I’ll use the feature much more frequently when dictation is added with tvOS 9.2. I don’t find typing on the horizontal keyboard to be as annoying as most, but dictation will speed things up by such an enormous degree that I can’t imagine not using it.

Third-Party Applications

I haven’t found the third-party applications to be as compelling as I expected. It’s still very early days for tvOS, but beyond the obvious media apps like Hulu, Netflix, and YouTube, I haven’t found much that’s managed to stick. And those “big three” apps are by far the most used on my Apple TV.

The YouTube app is the most well designed of the bunch, it makes good use of tabs along the top which can be used to switch between Search, Home, Subscriptions, My YouTube, and Settings. This keeps the app easy to navigate and prevents users from getting lost in the menu structure. The interface is almost identical to the previous Apple TV’s YouTube app and that’s a good thing. I do wish it made better use of the home screen’s preview area when the app is moved to the dock, but that’s something that could be added later and is more of a “nice to have” feature rather than a necessity.

As for Hulu and Netflix, they’re a bit of a mess. Don’t get me wrong, they’re usable, but you’ll have to get used to their quirks. Neither of them use tabs along the top of the screen which makes moving between different categories a little cumbersome. And neither of them put the categories you want front and center — Netflix’s “My List” is all the way at the bottom of the main menu and Hulu’s queue is about eight ticks to the right. Both of these should be easier to access. But don’t even get me started on Netflix’s asinine decision to only display thumbnails on the bottom-third of the screen in the main menu. Who thought that was a good idea?

I also have Crackle, WWE, and PBS installed. They’re all fine applications, but they don’t see the daily use that the aforementioned “big three” do. I have found myself watching shows on PBS more often with the new Apple TV, though. Only about one or two a week, but that was an application that I had previously hidden on the third-generation set-top-box. I decided to install it on a lark when I first setup the device and was impressed by how much interesting content was available. I’ve mostly been watching locally produced documentaries, cooking shows, and science programs. And the best part is you don’t need a cable subscription, PBS allows you to sign up for a free account that grants you full access to their video library.

I’ve tried a few games on the platform, many of which were older titles that that the developer made available as a universal app. Canabalt, Alto’s Adventure, and PAC-MAN 256 are all great games, but I’ve already played them to death on my iPhone and iPad. I’ve played a few new games as well — Beat Sports, Beach Buggy Racing, and Asphalt 8: Airborne — they’re good, but not great.

I suppose what’s holding the platform back, from a gaming standpoint, is the Siri Remote and the Wii U understand my television. The Siri Remote, while fantastic for media applications, isn’t well suited for gaming. The limited number of buttons prevents developers from building anything other than rudimentary control schemes. I also found myself accidentally pressing the menu or home buttons while playing Beat Sports — there’s so many inputs packed onto the front of the remote that, while playing games with motion controls, it’s difficult to get a good grip without inadvertently hitting a button or two during play.

And then there’s the Wii U. How can I be motivated to play iOS games on my television when I have Super Mario Maker available to me? I’ve had the game, and been playing it, for over two months and I still can’t get enough of it. The complicated mazes, the precision platforming, the infinite possibilities of level creation — this is the best game I’ve ever played and I haven’t seen a single tvOS game that can even come close to competing with it.

Overall

I’ve used the Apple TV as my primary means of entertainment since I received the original model as a Christmas present the year it was released. Since then I’ve purchased every Apple TV iteration and it’s always been plugged in to HDMI 1 on my television. I’ve become accustomed to the device’s simplicity and clean user interface. And unless something drastically changes in the living room entertainment landscape, I don’t think I’ll be moving to another platform anytime soon.

Other reviewers have complained about its lack of 4K support and the dearth of impressive third-party applications, but neither of those bother me. I don’t own a 4K television and don’t know anyone who actually does. And I’m fully aware that this is only the beginning for tvOS. Innovative third-party applications will come eventually — more users will purchase the device and more developers will have an opportunity to tinker with it.

It’s only a matter of time before the Apple TV — and tvOS in any future form it takes — becomes more commonplace in the living room of mainstream users. My older sister and her husband have cut the cord and use the Apple TV as their primary media source in their living room. And I’ve also been asked by my younger sister, my future sister-in-law, and one of her close friends about whether or not they should purchase one for themselves. It’s already starting to happen.

People are getting sick and tired of spending hundreds of dollars every month on a cable subscription and are beginning to look for an alternative. I think the Apple TV is a great place for these users to start. It offers an incredible user interface and is built upon one of the most successful platforms in computing history — iOS. The platform will only get stronger with time as more innovative applications are released for it. And when the Apple TV is paired with a Netflix or Hulu subscription, it becomes the perfect catalyst for moving mainstream users into a lifestyle free from traditional cable television.