Apple unveiled the new Apple TV 4, featuring Siri integration, tvOS, a new remote and an App Store. This article examines the new features and how the set-top box compares to other streaming TV devices.
Remember when Apple used to innovate? As the company grows, they are becoming a large, latent organization. The new Apple is now only part of the evolution of technology. They are no longer leading disruptive technological revolutions, like the iPhone.
This isn’t because Steve Jobs passed away. This isn’t because Apple can’t hire talented people. They hire the cream of the crop. As organizations grow, they become more latent. There are too many layers of organization. Coordination and communication become problematic and passing the buck is easier.
Apple was much smaller when they created the first iPhone, iPad and Apple TV. Now they only seem capable of copying others and putting a cherry on top. I still like Apple products for their durability, performance and stability. I find their products to be more refined. They put together amazing content deals with key players like HBO and Showtime. They just don’t blow me away with innovation anymore.
Apple TV 4 is not revolutionary. It is evolutionary. It borrows features from Amazon Fire TV and Android TV, only to offer minor improvements. I bought my first Apple TV four years ago, and have been anticipating a new Apple TV for years. I am underwhelmed with Apple TV 4. I expected more. I will upgrade to the new model, but it is another “me too” product from Cupertino. I remember when they used to innovate and disrupt. Corporations like Amazon and Google deserve a lot of credit for shaping Apple TV 4. Apple TV 4 offers minor improvements on competitors’ products, but also lacks some functionality.
The New Apple TV 4 Remote
The remote is the most exciting Apple TV 4 feature. It borrows ideas from Amazon Fire TV and Android TV remotes. Most notably, users can press the microphone button to launch Siri. Other streaming devices have offered this functionality for years. Apple’s implementation is more open than Amazon’s, allowing Siri to search non-Apple content providers such as Netflix, Hulu and HBO.
Apple TV’s new remote innovates by introducing a track pad and motion sensors. This makes for an excellent gaming controller. Other set-top boxes offer remotes with gaming capabilities. These can only play simple games. For the most part, you really need to buy gaming controllers. The Nvidia Shield is a notable exception. It comes with a gaming controller, however, the smaller remote is not included.
I still admire that Apple provides decent value in their products. If you get an Apple TV 4, you probably won’t need to buy a third-party game controller. You can also use an iPhone, iPad or iPod touch as a game controller. This is great for customers and game developers. Everyone who buys the new Apple TV 4 will be able to play sophisticated games without buying more gear.
The new remote is rechargeable (lightning connector) and can control your TV and audio system’s power and volume using HDMI CEC. The remote communicates with Apple TV using Bluetooth 4.0. This means you will no longer have to point the remote at your Apple TV box. Bluetooth 4.0 offers a range of up to 300 feet.
You can place your Apple TV out of sight or operate it from another room. I wouldn’t recommend putting it in a tight enclosure, as it may hamper WiFi connectivity. The device also needs circulating air to keep it cool.
Some tech writers were hoping for Touch ID with the new remote. This feature would require a much more sophisticated and costly remote. Touch ID is authenticated within the iPhone as an embedded system, using 64-bit processing. Bringing Touch ID to the Apple TV remote would involve much more than a fingerprint scanner. It’s more likely that your iPhone will be able to provide Touch ID authentication for your Apple TV in a future update.
Unlike Roku and the Nvidia Shield, the new Apple remote doesn’t offer a headphone jack for private listening. tvOS may support Bluetooth headphones, however, these are more expensive than the ear buds everyone has lying around the house.
Apple TV 4 Hardware
When I purchased my first Apple TV, the second generation model featured an A4 processor. This was the same processor used in the iPhone 4. It is capable of displaying 720p resolution on a flat screen TV. This device is still useful for streaming video. I still use it every day.
Apple continues the tradition of using iPhone components in its set-top box. The new Apple TV features the same 64-bit A8 processor used in the iPhone 6. This processor is a powerful beast that uses very little energy. In fact, Apple TV uses a fraction of the energy when compared to cable TV boxes.
The new, more powerful processor can do much more than stream video. Apple TV 4 owners will be able to use fully functional apps for the first time. Previous Apple TV channels offered minimal app capabilities. One could browse video collections, check sports scores and view the weather forecast. Now, Apple TV 4 users can play games, shop and use a variety of rich and powerful apps.
An IR receiver enables it to work with a broader range of controllers and devices. Apple TV 4 also features Bluetooth 4.0, providing a range of up to 300 feet. It features state of the art 802.11ac WiFi with MIMO. That’s great, but the bottleneck will likely be your Internet service provider.
The new WiFi implementation will help with range. It will also speed up connections between your local devices, if you still happen to use AirPlay. I only use AirPlay for Apple Music, out of necessity. The new Apple TV will include Apple Music, so AirPlay won’t be very useful, other than for screen sharing and Mac OS X multiple monitor configurations.
With 32 and 64 GBs of storage space, you probably won’t be downloading movies on an iPhone or Mac and streaming them via AirPlay.
Unlike other set-top boxes, Apple TV 4 offers no options for external storage. You will have to pay $50 more for the 64 GB model. Amazon Fire TV offers a USB port and supports inexpensive external storage.
Given that Apple TV 4 does not support 4K video, it may be wise to go for the cheaper model. When 4K becomes the norm, Apple TV 4 will be obsolete.
Apple TV 4 runs a new operating system — tvOS. Much like previous Apple TV operating systems, tvOS is based on iOS. tvOS goes far beyond the previous Apple TV operating system, offering full access to many iOS APIs. Developers will be able to use Metal, Game Center, CloudKit and several other APIs. Unfortunately, HomeKit is not available in the initial release.
I never believed the rumors that Apple TV would be a required hub for HomeKit, but I expected it to at least support it. I imagine the Internet of Things will come to Apple TV in a future release. Wouldn’t it be great to close the shades, dim the lights and start a movie, all from your Apple TV? I could even envision a smart popcorn machine controlled by Apple TV.
tvOS enables custom experiences for content apps. If you already own an Apple TV, you are aware that all channels look alike. They have the same basic functionality. There were only a few tools developers could employ when creating an Apple TV channel. Content channels like HBO and Netflix look and function completely different on tvOS. This may cause some cognitive dissonance, but I expect Apple to enforce their Human Interface Guidelines for App Store submissions. The new Netflix design doesn’t look all that different from the existing Apple TV Netflix channel. The top marquee backgrounds were introduced to Apple TV a few years ago. HBO NOW does offer a different look. Their new tvOS app resembles their iOS app. It’s a smart way to unify the user experience across devices.
tvOS is missing many features one would expect. Apple has an advantage in that they control all of the products in their ecosystem. They are usually great at system integration, but this seems to be missing in Apple TV 4 and tvOS. For example, when you get a call on your iPhone, it won’t show up on your Apple TV. Most digital cable boxes can do this, as long as the subscriber uses cable phone service. This feature is available on both the iPad and Macintosh.
It would also be nice to see Reminders, Notifications, Calendar and other stock apps integrated into the Apple TV experience. For example, you could schedule a Calendar event or Reminder for a TV show or sporting event, and Apple TV could prompt you to start watching. Some cable TV boxes have offered this feature for years.
Being able to browse the web with Safari would be another great addition. Users could play web-based videos without reaching for their iPhone. Third party developers will likely offer apps that accomplish many of these tasks. You can browse the web on Apple TV right now, using the AirWeb app for iOS. In theory, one could even use a word processor app to create documents with a Bluetooth keyboard. Unfortunately, Apple would have to offer AirPrint APIs to enable printing. I doubt they will see Apple TV as platform for document editing or office tasks.
I expect some of these features and apps to be added in later releases. It’s hard to cut Apple some slack when these useful pieces are missing. They had years to work on Apple TV 4 and tvOS, while their competitors released most of this same functionality years ago. I expected something more, given all the time they had. Apple usually leapfrogs the competition. Apple TV 4 is actually deficient in some respects when compared to the Nvidia Shield.
Tim Cook stated that the future of television is apps. Actually, it is the present of television, as Amazon Fire TV and the Android TV ecosystem have offered apps for a few years. Apple TV is not a revolution, but an evolution. Given that the Apple customer is lucrative for developers, I expect Apple TV to offer industry-leading apps. But let’s not get delusional and claim this is revolutionary, when others have offered these features for years. Don’t drink the keynote Kool-Aid.
Apple TV is not just for watching videos. It is now a fully functional gaming platform. The games demoed at the keynote were quite impressive, with stunning and smooth graphics. Apple does have unique capabilities in this area, offering Metal and other APIs that enable superior graphics performance. Apple TV 4 should offer smoother gaming with better graphics than competing units.
High end games will be developed in Objective C and use Metal, instead of using managed code like Java. Java is getting better, but developers still have no control over memory allocation. That’s important when performance is critical. Also, Apple designs the hardware to work specifically with the operating system. This tight integration provides better performance on comparable hardware.
Sports fans may prefer Apple TV over the cable television experience. Games are interactive and broadcast in high-definition video at up to 60 frames per second (FPS). Keep in mind, your TV might not support 60 FPS. With Apple TV, sports fans can view stats and game play on the same screen.
It’s even possible to watch two games at the same time.
The App Store will also offer shopping apps. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to pay with Apple Pay or Touch ID yet. I expect these features to come soon, but you will need an iPhone or iPad.
Universal apps allow consumers to buy one app that runs on many devices. You can run the same app on your iPhone, iPad, iPod touch and Apple TV. This brings greater value and savings to the App Store.
Apple TV channels are now apps. Apps offer more functionality and sophistication for services like Netflix, Hulu, HBO NOW and Showtime. For example, you can view profiles of actors in a movie or tv show, displayed as a translucent overlay.
Siri for Apple TV 4
Apple TV 4 brings Siri into your livingroom. This is another “me too” aspect of Apple TV 4. Amazon Fire TV and Android TV have had this feature for some time. Even Xfinity offered voice control features a few years ago. Siri does have more functionality than any other set-top box personal assistant. For starters, Siri can search through different content providers, in addition to iTunes. Apple is more interested in selling devices than creating a content monopoly.
Apple’s Siri implementation may be late, but it seems to leapfrog the competition. Siri boasts an extremely low error rate. The remote uses two microphones for Siri, possibly for noise cancellation. Siri for Apple TV 4 should be able to understand you, even with music blaring in the background.
Siri for Apple TV comes with many useful commands. It can do the basics, such as find content across multiple providers. The personal digital assistant is also quite useful when playing a TV show or movie. For example, you can ask “what did she say?” and Siri will skip back 15 seconds and turn on subtitles. That’s both amazing and useful.
Siri can also skip ahead or back at a specified interval.
One can look up sports scores or the weather forecast using Siri.
It’s also easy to switch between apps by uttering commands like “open Music”.
As it stands now, there are better ways to search across different content providers. Yidio for iOS can search for a show or movie across just about every content provider. I highly recommend this free app. For more information, please read “Yidio for iPhone“.
Apple TV 4 Has a New Look
tvOS brings a new face to Apple TV. It isn’t radically different from older Apple TV user interfaces. If you have the third generation Apple TV, the flattened UI was introduced a few years ago. tvOS improves on this, with a subtle, pastel color scheme.
The screen savers are impressive and gorgeous. They feature moving, HD scenes of cities, bridges, nature and other motifs.
The new Apple TV 4 also provides previews when scrubbing through a video. This is reminiscent of Flash based web video players. It’s a bit ironic that Apple is copying a feature found in Flash players, but it is probably more secure and stable.
Some of the new UI features seem superfluous. There is a new parallax effect for graphics, such as movie “box covers”. When a movie or TV show is selected, you can use the trackpad to slightly rotate the graphic in three dimensions. It features amazing lighting effects and smooth animation, but it is surprisingly frivolous and gimmicky. Apple usually avoids these kinds of features. It is also at odds with a flat, minimalistic design. Skeuomorphism has snuck into another Apple product. It doesn’t offend me, but I think they could have spent the time on other, more important features like HomeKit integration.
No HomeKit Integration (Yet)
My jaw dropped when the Apple TV 4 keynote presentation ended, without a single mention of HomeKit. In fact, they show a list of APIs for tvOS, and HomeKit is not included. After some research, I found that HomeKit is not yet supported on tvOS. Perhaps instead of the gimmicky parallax graphics, they could have added HomeKit support. There’s no UI face to it, and tvOS is based on iOS and runs on the same A8 processor. It would not take a tremendous amount of effort to include HomeKit in tvOS. It’s surprising and one of the major reasons why Apple TV 4 is underwhelming. Keep in mind, Apple TV 4 is the first refresh of Apple TV in over 3 years.
It would be amazing if Apple TV could turn off the lights and close the shades when you start a movie. I expect HomeKit to come to tvOS soon, but I am shocked at its absence. A lot of developers are astonished.
Apple TV 4 Audio Quality; Digital Audio Port Removed
No mention was made of improvements in audio quality. Existing Apple TV units offer average audio quality. Like the iPod, iTunes, iPhone and stock Apple headphones, Apple TV is not an audiophile product. Audio for music is acceptable, but not audiophile quality. None of the tech specs seem to indicate any improvement in audio quality. If anything, Apple TV 4 offers fewer audio options. Audio for TV shows and movies is much better, and can sound as good as a movie theater with the right setup.
Apple TV 4 doesn’t offer an optical audio output. A S/PDIF optical audio output provides a direct digital connection to home theater systems (Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound) and wireless headphones. Apple TV 4 owners will have to connect to their television using HDMI and then connect their TV to a home theater system. This is actually the most common configuration. You will still be able to enjoy surround sound. Both Apple TV 2 and Apple TV 3 featured optical audio ports. I’m disappointed that they removed this feature, but there is a reason.
Apple TV 4 supports a new and improved version of Dolby Digital surround sound — 7.1. Apple TV 3 only supports 5.1. This doesn’t necessarily mean the overall sound quality is better for music and stereo audio. Surround sound for TV shows and movies will be better, if you have the right setup — speakers and amplifier. Dolby Digital 7.1 is an 8-channel system, so you need 8 speakers to experience it.
This is also why there is no optical audio output. Dolby Digital 7.1 cannot be transmitted over optical audio cables. Only HDMI can be used for Dolby Digital 7.1. The lack of an optical audio output makes sense, but if you have invested in an audio setup that uses this connector, you may want to stick with Apple TV 3.
If you really want to hear music in hi-fidelity, connect a high-end 24-bit/96 kHz audio transmitter between your computer and stereo. I have one. When I listen to the same iTunes track with both setups on the same stereo, the audio transmitter is better. The low end isn’t mushy and the high end isn’t “swirly” and “swishy”. The difference isn’t overwhelming, and I often just play music on my Apple TV because it is convenient. It’s good enough. A true audiophile would listen to vinyl on a different type of McIntosh anyway.
Apple TV 4 Does Not Offer 4K Video
Those of you hoping for 4K video may be disappointed. I am amazed that anyone has the bandwidth to support this resolution. I can barely get 720p video streaming on my current Apple TV, due to my Internet service provider.
You will never know how bad your ISP is until you cut the cord. Once you rely solely on Apple TV, your data usage goes up. You will start to notice your ISP has a lot of outages. It’s not a coincidence. Most Internet service is provided by cable (Comcast Xfinity) or telecom companies (AT&T U-verse). They don’t want you to stream video or cut the cord. They see streaming video as a supplement to cable. Once you cut the cord and your data usage goes up, you start to hit the wall. These “unlimited” plans always have limits. They will throttle your bandwidth. You still have Internet access, so it is legally “unlimited”, but it will be dial-up speed. You can’t stream video or even music at these speeds. You are reduced to a 1990s CompuServe or AOL user!
After cutting the cord, I switched ISPs four times in a year. I finally found one that didn’t throttle users only because they were sued and lost. They never had the proper legal agreement to allow throttling. After being purchased by Sprint, they announced termination of services.
The Internet service industry is a racket run by TV providers. Expect to experience frustrating evenings if you decide to cut the cord and rely solely on Apple TV. Watching one hour of Netflix an evening may subject you to bandwidth throttling.
Given the realities of Internet connection speeds, 4K video is still bleeding edge. Most content is not offered in 4K resolution. Other set-top boxes, such as the Nvidia Shield, already offer 4K. This does, in theory, give the device more longevity. When 4K is the norm, you will need to buy a new Apple TV. Eventually, the battle between streaming video and cable will play out, and bandwidth will no longer be held hostage.
Is Apple TV 3 Still Worth Buying?
Despite the lack of innovation and absence of critical features such as 4K video, optical audio output, HomeKit, Touch ID and ApplePay, I still think Apple TV 4 is worth buying. It is true that Amazon Fire TV and Android TV devices have offered most of these features for years. There are things I believe Apple TV will do better than their competitors, and they are important features. Many of the missing features, such as HomeKit and ApplePay, will likely come to tvOS in upcoming releases.
Gaming and apps are a huge part of tvOS. With an A8 processor and all of the gaming APIs, including Metal, I expect Apple TV to offer gaming that rivals most dedicated gaming consoles. Tech pundit “coroners” are already proclaiming the death of Xbox and Playstation.
Voice control with Siri is implemented better than the competition. Amazon hobbled their personal digital assistant in order to sell Amazon content. Siri can do some amazing things. The “what did she say” feature will be very useful. The fact that this is integrated with apps such as Apple Music make Apple TV’s Siri integration quite powerful. The new remote is impressive and one of the few aspects of Apple TV 4 that leapfrogs the competition.
The new Apple TV will be available in late October. It is one of the few Apple products that I will buy the day it is released. Despite my criticisms, I am a fan of Apple TV. I have used the product for four years and have been eagerly awaiting an update worth buying. The third generation model didn’t compel me to upgrade. This one does.
I do think it is a valid criticism that Apple isn’t as innovative as they used to be. I expected a lot more. I hope that Apple TV 4 users will enjoy a quality experience. Apple’s quality also seems to have waned over the past year. iOS 8 is the buggiest version to date. My Apple TV 2 reboots itself five times a night. If Apple TV 4 is a poor experience, it may be one of the last Apple products I buy. Still, I prefer to deal with the devil I know. Apple has been able to let their quality slip because their competitors are even worse. Perhaps the lack of innovation is a trade off. If less innovation means better quality, I will be satisfied with Apple TV 4.