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Apple TV 4: Missing Features

Apple TV 4: Missing Features


Apple TV 4, the long-awaited refresh of Apple’s TV platform, doesn’t leapfrog the competition. This article looks at features that are missing in Apple TV 4.

Apple TV 4: Too Little, Too Late

Apple TV has been desperately in need of a refresh. The third generation model launched in March 2012. Almost three-and-a-half years later, Apple is finally launching a new model.

The new Apple TV 4 is impressive only when compared to the previous model. Other TV platforms have been evolving, and Apple has been unable to leapfrog the competition. At best, Apple may be able to offer better quality. They are known to offer more robust and stable products, but this isn’t always the case. As Apple has grown over the years, their ability to innovate and offer high-quality products seems to have diminished.

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Apple TV 4 is a “me too” product, taking cues from Android TV devices and Amazon Fire TV. In some respects, the latter platforms are better than Apple TV 4.

Don’t get me wrong. I am going to buy the new Apple TV. I have the second generation model. It gets the job done, but it also has some serious flaws, due to neglect. My current Apple TV will reboot itself a few times a night, often in the middle of video playback. The software hasn’t been updated in a few years. But since I own a Mac, two iPhones and an iPad, Apple TV is a better option.

Apple TV integrates with the Apple ecosystem, offering features such as AirPlay. I also hope that the new Apple TV will offer better quality than the competition (and my existing Apple TV 2).

Apple is also great at cementing content deals. They delivered both HBO NOW and Showtime to Apple customers months before any other streaming platform. Apple TV might not have the thousands of built-in channels that Roku offers, but it featured HBO NOW and Showtime before any other media player. With AirPlay, it’s possible to beam content to Apple TV from thousands of apps. Virtually anything that can play audio or video on an iOS device or computer (Mac, Windows, Linux, ChromeOS) can be displayed on Apple TV. There are thousands of options. They’re just not all on the Apple TV home screen.

After the product demo at the keynote, my excitement quickly dissipated. I follow TV set-top box technology. I cancelled cable over four years ago and rely on Apple TV for my evening entertainment. I was hoping for much more. Let’s take a look at what features are missing in Apple TV 4.

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Apple TV 4 Does Not Support 4K Video

4K is the new high-definition video format. This new standard is already supported by flat screen televisions, video game consoles, smartphones, computers and set-top boxes. It offers a stunning 4096 x 2160 pixel image.

If you haven’t seen a 4K television, I encourage you to do so. Every electronics store has them on display. The image quality is stunning. It’s so real — like looking out a window instead of watching TV. Streaming providers like Netflix and YouTube already offer 4K video streams. You can watch Breaking Bad in 4K on Netflix right now. Unfortunately, when Apple TV 4 launches 4K will not be supported.

Digital TV Resolution Chart

The good news is that Apple can implement 4K video in an upcoming software update. The A8 processor is powerful enough to render 4K video. Apple TV 4 supports HDMI 1.4, which can display 4096 x 2160 resolution.

I am personally not that excited about 4K. I’m lucky if my Internet connection can download at 5 Mbps. You need a really fast Internet connection for 4K video — at least 16 Mbps. With better data compression, some experts claim that 4K will only require 10 Mbps.

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Most people don’t have this kind of bandwidth, at least not during peak hours. You can download 4K video and stream it over your local area network, but your options for content are limited. 4K is still a little bleeding edge, even though the televisions exist and are reasonably priced. Internet bandwidth is the bottleneck.

Roku 4 and Nvidia SHIELD Support 4K Video

Other streaming video devices have hit the ground running. The Nvidia SHIELD and Roku 4 already offer 4K video. Those who have a 4K UHD television and the right bandwidth might not prefer Apple TV 4. In time, Apple TV 4 will likely support 4K video.

Apple TV 4 Music Doesn’t Have a Visualizer

One of my favorite features of iTunes is the visualizer. Visualizers provide an interactive, graphical “light show” for music. Most computer-based media players offer this feature. iOS and Apple TV don’t have a visualizer. Instead, both media players display the album cover art. Could you imagine going to a concert only to see a projection of the album cover behind the band for their entire set?

Apple TV 4 Does Not Have a Visualizer

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The demo of Apple TV 4 didn’t show a visualizer. Instead, users are presented with the same view of album art. With iTunes and other media players, people have a choice. They can view the album art, or view the visualizer. With an A8 processor, Apple TV 4 should be able to offer a visualizer.

It is possible to view the visualizer on Apple TV. If your Mac supports AirPlay screen mirroring, you can display iTune’s visualizer on Apple TV. You can also use AirParrot, if your computer doesn’t support AirPlay directly. You need a fairly powerful computer to do this. Even my quad-core Mac Pro was stuttering at this task. Just make sure every app is closed and adjust the screen resolution, quality and frame rate (in AirParrot) accordingly. For more AirParrot tuning tips, check out this article.

Apple TV 4 Lacks Support for Custom Game Controllers

Apple requires that any game sold in the App Store must be fully compatible with the included remote. Apple TV does support third-party game controllers. They even sell them in the Apple Store. The fact that games must work with the included remote, however, is very limiting.

Developers cannot create complicated games that use an external Bluetooth keyboard. This means you’ll probably never see games like Blizzard’s World of Warcraft on the new Apple TV. World of Warcraft is so popular, it even has its own major motion picture. If you want to play it, you’ll need a Mac or PC. At best, you will see simpler games, similar to what is offered on the iPhone and iPad. In a few years, you will be able to watch Warcraft The Beginning on your Apple TV, but it’s unlikely that you will play the actual game.

Apple TV 4 Can’t Play Music While Gaming

If you play video games, you may notice that many of them have very obnoxious sound tracks. I love Angry Birds Go. Even though it is a kid’s game, the cart-racing simulation boasts extremely accurate physics and buttery smooth game play. The music is just plain obnoxious. There is one song that plays over and over. I turn the volume off and listen to music on my stereo.

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Angry Birds Go!

This setup requires using my iPhone 6 to play the game. I task my iPad 2 or iPhone 4 with beaming Spotify music over AirPlay to my Apple TV. It works, but it involves a lot of devices.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could listen to music on Apple TV while playing a video game? With an A8 processor, it should be possible. The problem is that Apple’s multitasking has never allowed a music app and a video game to run at the same time. They make the assumption that users want to listen to the video game sound track. I don’t doubt that Apple will keep it simple and continue to make this assumption.

Beat Sports on Apple TV 4

Apple TV 4 does offer games that integrate with music, such as Beat Sports. Perhaps game developers will find a clever workaround. If they team up with music services like Spotify or Apple Music, they could integrate playlists into their games. Games such as Grand Theft Auto actually let the players choose music from a variety of playlists. I am impressed at the diverse styles of music this game offers. They even offer songs from Pierre Moerlen’s Gong!

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When I get my Apple TV 4, I may have to find a new workaround. Instead of playing music with AirPlay, I may just plug my iPhone 4’s headphone jack into my stereo. It’s a low tech solution, but I will do anything to avoid listening to the Angry Birds Go music. The game will likely be offered on Apple TV 4. I can’t wait to play it on the big screen with a motion sensing remote!

Apple TV 4 Doesn’t Have a Home Screen Shortcut to Recent Videos

I often like to binge-watch TV shows. I find it much easier to follow the plot of a TV series when I can watch every episode within a few months. Apple TV doesn’t make this easy. If you buy an iTunes TV show, they will feature it on the top scrolling marquee, but even then, it isn’t very intelligent. It won’t always play the next episode. If you are binge-watching Netflix or HBO, forget about it. Apple TV doesn’t allow any third-party user interface elements on their home screen, beyond an icon. At best, you can see the album cover from a third-party music service on the top marquee.

It doesn’t take a UI expert to realize that a resume feature is desperately needed. Regardless of the service, Apple TV should present the show or movie you are currently watching on the home screen. Users should be able to click an icon on the top marquee and quickly launch the Netflix or HBO show or movie they have been enjoying.

As it stands now, even going into an Apple TV Channel doesn’t always offer this convenience. I love HBO NOW, but their Apple TV user interface leaves much to be desired. Their Watchlist functionality is a bit buggy. I find myself going to the search page, finding the show, and trying to remember where I left off. I sometimes even take screenshots of my television so I can remember which episode I watched last.

At best, you can pause your show and let Apple TV go to sleep. When you wake it, it should be paused at your current program. Unfortunately, this means you can’t play music or do anything else on Apple TV.

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The ability to resume a series on the home screen is urgently needed, but I didn’t see it demoed at all. You can ask Siri to play an episode, if you remember what it is. If Siri could resume a series, they would have demoed that. Binge-watching is so ubiquitous, the compound word has been added to the Oxford dictionary. Apple could offer better support for this consumer behavior.

Apple TV 4 Doesn’t Support Touch ID

Apple TV 4 won’t support Touch ID when it launches. Some tech pundits expected the remote to offer a Touch ID sensor. If you are aware of how Touch ID works, this doesn’t make sense. Touch ID is an embedded system. It is all contained in hardware, and the software only gets an affirmative or negative response to authentication. Obviously, transmitting your fingerprint data wirelessly to Apple TV isn’t secure. For the remote to offer Touch ID, it would need a 64-bit embedded system to store and verify the fingerprint data. That would significantly increase the price of the remote.

It would be possible to authenticate Touch ID using an iOS device. This seems like a missed opportunity. It would be a much better way to buy iTunes content. As it stands now, by default, anyone in your household can make purchases on Apple TV. It only asks for confirmation, but not authentication. It is possible to restrict purchases and require authentication on Apple TV. All of this complexity could be avoided if they enable Touch ID support using an iOS device. This is a missed opportunity that I expect to be addressed with software updates.

Apple TV 4 Doesn’t Support Apple Pay

Apple TV 4 and tvOS bring shopping to Apple TV, but this feature is missing Apple Pay. Authentication may be part of the problem. Since Apple TV 4 doesn’t support Touch ID, Apple Pay can’t be implemented securely. Anyone in your household would be able to buy anything. At best, one could enable password-based restrictions to prevent unauthorized purchases. I expect Apple Pay to be offered, by way of an iOS device, in a future update.

Apple TV 4 Doesn’t Support HomeKit

Not so long ago, tech pundits were buzzing that Apple TV would be the required hub for HomeKit. This didn’t make sense to me at all. Why have a hardware middle-man? Sure enough, Apple is using iCloud for long-distance HomeKit support. If you are away from home, iCloud facilitates HomeKit interaction.

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Tech writers couldn’t have been more wrong about this. Not only is Apple TV not a HomeKit hub — it doesn’t support HomeKit at all. This is a huge missed opportunity. People would love to have the shades drawn and lights dimmed before watching a movie. This feature will likely come to Apple TV 4 soon.

Apple TV 4 Doesn’t Integrate with Core iOS Apps

Your Mac, iPhone, iPad, iPod touch and even Apple Watch can do things Apple TV 4 can’t do. All of these devices integrate with core Apple apps, such as Phone, Calendar, Reminders, Messages, Notes, Mail and Safari.

When you’re watching Apple TV 4 and get a phone call, you won’t see the caller ID on the screen. Digital cable boxes have offered this feature for years. It’s a great convenience. How many times have you thought of something you need to do while watching TV? If you could schedule a Reminder or view Notifications on Apple TV, it would make life easier.

I also think it would be amazing to surf the web on a flatscreen TV. You can do this with AirWeb, but it requires an iOS device. Now that Apple TV 4 has Siri, surfing the web should be possible, but there is no Safari for tvOS. If Apple doesn’t implement these features, some third-party developer will do it. Not everyone will want calls or notifications to pop-up on TV, but I think there is a healthy demand for these features.

Some tech pundits are claiming Apple TV 4 is the new Mac Mini, and people will use it for productivity. I doubt Apple will debut iWork for tvOS. I think this is wishful thinking. The new Apple TV and tvOS will never be replacements for a Mac Mini or OS X. It would be nice to have some integration with core apps, but I don’t see people doing office work on an Apple TV. Apple’s rules for tvOS app submissions require that apps are fully functional with the included remote. This stymies most productivity apps. The notion that Apple TV 4 is a Mac Mini replacement seems a bit delusional.

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Why Are There So Many Missed Opportunities in Apple TV 4?

Apple had a long time to develop Apple TV 4. It’s been almost four years since the third generation Apple TV was released. Apple TV 3 only offered modest improvements on its predecessor. Given the time it took and the competitive landscape, Apple TV 4 is underwhelming. I will still buy one. I believe it will be more robust than other set-top streaming boxes. I know it will integrate with the Apple ecosystem better than any competing unit. But why so little, so late?

The problem is that Apple is too big. The corporation has grown so huge in the past few years, they are experiencing growing pains. As companies grow, they become more latent. They can’t really innovate anymore. Their last innovative product was the Mac Pro. Everything they have released over the past few years pales in comparison to the competition. Apple consumers are driven by aggressive marketing, brand loyalty, ecosystem integration, and the notion that their products offer better quality.

Given the product releases over the last few years, I have to wonder if Apple’s days of innovation are over. That might not be a bad thing, as long as they can deliver quality and ecosystem integration. It does draw the ire of Apple-haters who accuse Apple of patent abuse and lawsuits over IP infringement.

As an Apple consumer, I find it ironic. Samsung slavishly copied Apple with one of their smartphones. Apple slavishly ripped off Spotify with Apple Music, yet delivered a poor-quality product. Apple copies a lot of features and designs from other competing products. They have lost the moral high ground when it comes to intellectual property abuse. They may also be losing the ability to deliver high-quality products. They still charge a premium price, however.

Apple TV 4 might not achieve the quality consumers expect. My current 2nd generation Apple TV has turned into a nightmare of neglect. The operating system hasn’t been updated in two years. It reboots itself at least twice a night, often in the middle of a video. The Apple TV 4 demo was underwhelming. There are some neat Siri parlor tricks, but Apple TV 4 actually offers less than competing set-top streaming devices. I expected more and I don’t think this is unreasonable, given the lengthy road to release.

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I am definitely buying the new Apple TV 4. Having read reviews of competing devices, they are either unstable or lock users in to their ecosystem. Apple has been accused of locking customers in to iTunes. This is simply untrue. tvOS is the only television platform where users can find third-party content using their voice. That’s the bright, shiny beacon of Apple TV 4. Apple opened up Siri, as their competitors have used voice recognition to drive vertical consumption. I am anticipating that these missed opportunities can be addressed in future software updates. I hope Apple TV 4 will offer more stability and quality than my current 2nd generation Apple TV.


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