Apple TV has never been a top priority for Apple. Though it has its fans, the Apple TV has been a very limited $100 investment that gives an experience comparable to other set-top boxes, with a pretty Apple interface. No more, no less. It could play some major apps, and a few games, but it hasn't pushed the TV space forward.
That ends with the latest Apple TV, announced Wednesday. It brings a bold new remote control with touch interface, more powerful specs, a bouncy new interface, an App Store, and Siri support. We got a chance to play around with the new model and came away impressed, even if it isn't likely to upend TV as we know it.
A touchable remote that likes to play
The first thing you'll notice about the new Apple TV is its black and aluminum remote control, now dubbed the Siri Remote. From behind, it looks like a squashed iPod Touch, but when you turn it around, things get familiar.
Adorning the front are buttons for volume control, play/pause, Menu, Home, and Siri. These are mostly self explanatory, except for the confusing difference between Menu and Home. It appears that Menu is really just a Back button.
But ignore the buttons: The best part of the whole controller is the space above them Apple has added a capacitive touch pad to the top of the remote, allowing you to swipe through the interface of your TV much like you would on a phone. The faster you swipe, the faster things will scroll. We found the new touch interface very intuitive, allowing us to perform normally horrid tasks, like hand-picking letters to type, with much greater speed. Is it as intuitive as a Nintendo Wii Remote? No, but it's a lot better than the normal direction pad that comes on boxes like Fire TV and Roku.
The new remote has a built-in accelerometer and gyroscope as well, making it rather ideal for simple video-game controls. Because it connects via Bluetooth, we didn't notice any lag when playing games, either. We tried it out on Asphalt 8, the default game for every new device, and steering felt natural. It lacked any button control, except for a click of the touch surface to initiate a drift. A Star Wars game showed that this idea can apply to full X-Wing flight, as well.
The remote control charges via a Lightning port, and should get several months of juice out of a single charge.
Finally, we had a go at Crossy Road, a demented little Frogger knockoff. In it, you moved around to avoid traffic by swiping up down, left, or right. It was natural, and as a bonus, anyone with an iPhone or iPad could join in for some multiplayer action.
There will be actual game controllers available, and an Apple representative pulled one out for us to see. Made by SteelSeries, it looked like a normal Xbox controller, but had a Lightning charging port. More third-party controllers will be available in the months after launch, we found out.
A fresh look, and some Siri
The interface on the new Apple TV is still a grid of rectangles, but they feel a lot more lifelike. As you swipe between different apps in the menu -- which is structured in rows of titles and apps like Netflix's app -- the boxes bounce and flex around, with an almost liquid animation to them. A new white background is also a fresh look for TV box interfaces, which typically rely on black backgrounds. When you enter a particular film or app, bright full-screen graphics pop up, which look rather gorgeous.
None of this is particularly notable, but the Siri integration is handy. Like Android TV, Apple has implemented universal search (almost), allowing you to use your voice to search for movies and TV shows within any of the launch apps: Hulu, Netflix, iTunes, HBO, MLB, NBA, and Showtime. Other apps have been confirmed, and since the new Apple TV will finally get an App Store, we can expect a lot more soon. We expect a good amount of support for Apple TV early on, since its tvOS is an offshoot of iOS. One noticeably absent streaming app is Amazon Instant.
We did several searches for specific movies using Siri, and it did a remarkably good job figuring out what we wanted. For example, if you say something like "Show me James Bond movies," Siri will pull up a list of all the Bond movies available on the various connected apps you have installed. But you can get more specific. "Just the Timothy Dalton ones," we joked with Siri. Even though this was an absurd request that no Bond fan would ever make, surprisingly, Siri opened up Dalton's two films. Entering a film shows which apps it's available on.
Siri can also perform some more familiar actions while you're watching TV or doing other things. We asked for the weather and for sports scores, and a gray slide-in window popped up from the bottom to show us what was going on, all without stopping the film that's playing.
Finally, Siri can act as a smart DVR as well. You can tell it to fast forward, or rewind X number of minutes, or do things like say "What did she say?" if you missed something. Siri will then rewind about 15 seconds and turn on closed captioning for a bit of time. All of this worked naturally for a number of journalists when we demoed the box.
An early demo with many limitations
Though the Apple TV will supposedly work with any kind of app, the demo unit only worked with movies. We tried and failed to search for music and TV shows. Siri also failed to answer questions that outstretched its current limitations.
And while Siri is pretty good at recognizing natural language, there are key words like "Show me" and "Just" that are needed to get it to perform precisely what you want. There will be a learning curve.
But then the lack of 4K playback could be a bigger issue. It won't affect many people yet, but this Apple TV can only output at 1080p. If you plan to buy a fancy new TV in the next couple years, you may want to hold off.
Finally, Apple would not let any journalists see the back of the Apple TV, and made everyone stay a good yard away, making us wonder if the demos were running on the boxes shown at all yet.
As an avid user of Roku, multiple consoles, Fire TV, Chromecast, and the like, I have skillfully avoided buying an Apple TV. It does a few things right, but it's always felt like a dated experience. This new Apple TV doesn't revolutionize TV in many ways, but it is Apple's first serious attempt at a TV box. Siri improves the experience, even though she will occasionally stutter, and the App Store will finally give Apple TV a competitive slice of apps.
Apple's competition gets steeper every day, but the new Apple TV looks like a step back on even ground for the Cupertino company. Apple isn't giving up on TV anytime soon.
The new Apple TV should hit shelves in "late October" starting at about $150.
- Intuitive new touch remote
- App Store support
- Universal app search
- Revamped, sexier interface
- Siri works well
- Remote gets months of battery life
- Limited demo
- No 4K video support
- Siri can hiccup