Apple TV Review: A Giant iPhone for Your Living Room

29 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Apple TV Review: A Giant iPhone for Your Living Room.

New York: It turns out that Apple’s streaming-TV box — aptly named Apple TV — isn’t just for streaming anymore. With Siri running on a funky Wii-style remote, plus access to the App Store with games, the new Apple TV sees the gadget giant stake an ambitious new claim in the lounge room. The iPod looked like just another music player – not a product that could transform Apple’s fortunes, then a computer maker struggling with generating profit. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, once Apple had the fundamentals in place there was no reason to rush out new models – especially when it can’t ride a contract-driven upgrade cycle. Visually, it’s just a taller version of the current box, that is, a foreshortened cube with four-inch sides apart from its height which is 1.4 inches.

In the July-September period, sales of iPhones grew almost a quarter compared to the same period in 2014, even as rivals such as Samsung and LG saw slower sales. The world’s biggest company reported on Tuesday that it saw a year-over-year increase of 99% on iPhone sales in China on otherwise strong results, assuaging investor worries that the country’s economic turbulence in the past few months might have hurt demand in the country where Apple has been growing its business most. Apple has grown so far beyond the size of any other major corporation that its success can only be judged against the very high bar that the company has already set for itself.

It’s that plethora of innovations and apps that leads me to conclude that the upgraded $149 box is now the best TV streaming device you can get for your money. Fresh out of the box, the most striking feature of the revamped Apple TV is the new remote control featuring a clickable touchpad in place of the old five-way rocker.

Which brings us to the first operational improvement: the remote control doesn’t need line of sight to work it so you can hide it from view completely or at least not worry if the dog’s lying in front of it. The Apple TV, which plugs into an HDMI input on an existing set, replaces live TV with apps featuring a narrower range of programming, which you can array across your screen like orderly Chiclets. At least for now, the answer is no; the three months to December are always Apple’s best, and it is forecasting revenues of about $76.5bn, a slight rise on the year before, and profits could even outdo last year’s $18bn. At launch, Apple claims it will have hundreds of apps, ranging from standard video streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, to games, to TV adaptations of popular iPhone and iPad apps like Gilt, Zillow, and Airbnb.

The company also significantly beat analyst expectations on earnings with $1.96 per share to $1.88 averaged Wall Street predictions and posted revenue of $51.5 billion, above an analyst consensus of $51.1 billion. The remote works via Bluetooth, but both the stick and the box retain infrared ports – great news for owners of universal remotes like the Logitech Harmony. Down the road, it’s easy to imagine Apple TV leveraging iOS to offer far more choices than the current content leader, Roku, which boasts over 2,500 channels. The key challenge for a company looking for the next big thing is that “the smartphone is the most important consumer product ever,” according to Andy Hargreaves, a financial analyst at Pacific Crest.

The news isn’t so great if you own an older home theatre amplifier which doesn’t support HDMI switching, as the ATV4 features an HDMI 1.4 video port but scraps the optical digital output. It’s the most widely distributed consumer gadget in history, with about 2.4bn in use, viewed as essential by everyone from Wall Street bankers to refugees trying to navigate a foreign land. After selling a record number of iPhone 6S’s in the phone’s first weekend, Apple also reported a quarterly total of 48 million units sold, falling just shy of an average analyst prediction of 48.5 million. With the new device, Apple is aiming to push hard into consumers’ living rooms, where it faces competition from players including the Microsoft Xbox and Amazon’s Fire TV device. “This is the foundation of the future of TV,” Timothy D.

By making the box another vessel for its giant assortment of third-party apps and home-grown services, Apple is putting itself in a position to host programming the networks and studios are increasingly streaming, as well as new kinds of TV content. And about 400m of them are iPhones. “Apple will continue to be the victim of its own success,” says Geoff Blaber, vice-president of US research at industry analysts CCS Insight. “The iPhone sells for vastly more than its competitors, but it’s unlikely there will be another product that can match that for price and volume.” For now though the numbers around Apple are stunning. Second, Apple TV has a great new remote that includes a slick, accurate glass touchpad, much like the one on Mac laptops, and a version of Siri that, in my tests, worked surprisingly well almost every time to find TV shows and movies. But the company’s forecast of holiday season sales, which were expected to be slower than some analysts had predicted, stoked fears that the strong growth in iPhone sales — which account for the vast majority of the Cupertino company’s revenue — may eventually flag.

Even for those more basic elements, the device is better at streaming video content than less expensive products from Amazon, Roku and Google, all of which I tested over the last month. Notably, about 30% of iPhone sales came from customers lured away from Apple’s chief rival Google Android — a new record for switchovers, CEO Tim Cook said in an earnings call on Tuesday. And with an obscure setting on some newer TVs, it can even turn them on and off and change to the right input. (This latter benefit worked for me for a day or two, then stopped working.) The remote now also has a home button, but no physical controls for fast-forward or rewind. It is also thicker, which is actually an improvement because the previous version was so thin that it had a tendency to vanish between couch cushions.

Its app selection is nascent, and it’s the only streaming box in its price range that doesn’t support the 4K Ultra HD resolution on the latest TVs. Siri works to search not only in Apple’s own iTunes service, but in Netflix, Hulu, HBO and Showtime, and displays results across multiple networks — er, apps. Apple can be viewed as two companies: one selling iPhones, and one selling everything else – iPads, iPods, Apple Watch, iTunes downloads, apps, accessories and so on. Video enthusiasts may complain that it doesn’t support a higher-quality video standard called ultra-high definition or 4K, as several other streaming boxes do.

Daniel Tello, who follows Apple’s financials closely, points out that over the past 12 months the iPhone business grew by 52% – but everything else, rolled together, shrank by 3%. Revenues from watch sales were once again lumped in with those of Beats headphones, iPods and Apple TV in Apple’s “other products” category, which notched $3.05 billion total.

Pressing the Siri button and speaking the command “Find ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ ” will find that the TV show can be streamed on Hulu and iTunes; selecting the streaming service will instantly show a list of episodes. If you can’t recall the name of the classic movie When Harry Met Sally, but can remember its stars, you can say “show me movies with Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan.” Siri can also do follow-up questions. The fretting was enough to prompt Cook to take the unusual step of reassuring investors in a message that nothing had changed the company’s “fundamental view” on China. If you’re watching something and missed what a character just said, you can ask Siri: “What did they just say?” and it will rewind the video about 15 seconds and replay that portion with subtitles turned on, before switching the subtitles off.

It improves voice recognition, eliminates the need to shout and also stops people triggering voice commands by accident (or on purpose if you’ve got jerks shouting from the next room). But there’s much less tapping to be done than before because searching for a film title, for instance, is now done by Siri, Apple’s voice-recognition system. I’ve seen remotes with 51 buttons, magic wands you end up waving around in the air like you just don’t care, even coffee table mouse-and-keyboard rigs. When I asked it to look up Nicolas Cage movies, it failed to find any relevant titles because it misspelled his first name as Nicholas (and try as I might, I could not make a silent “h” even more silent).

It also correctly dug up TV shows based on questions like “Show me the finale of Breaking Bad.” You can also ask a narrow set of non-TV questions that Siri answers on Apple’s other devices, like the weather, or sports scores, or stock prices. And Siri can control playback, responding instantly to spoken commands like “skip ahead three minutes” or “pause.” My very favorite Siri feature is how it helps when you’ve missed a few words in a show, or didn’t understand some of the dialogue. The remote has two microphones, one to pick up your voice and the other on the back to listen to, and nullify, other noises in the room so you don’t have to hold the remote right up to your face. Allowing for inflation, Microsoft was worth even more than Apple in 1999-2000; now its dominance of the PC industry counts for little because smartphones outnumber them.

Similarly, the mobile business of Finland’s Nokia ruled before the arrival of the iPhone and Google’s Android; now it is a lossmaking rump inside Microsoft. The game Beat Sports relied on the remote’s motion sensors — swinging the remote makes the on-screen character whack a ball with a bat; the object of the game is to swing and whack the ball to the beat of the music.

The game Transistor, a role-playing title, was awkward with the touch pad and would benefit from a physical game controller, which is a supported accessory. And you can still use AirPlay to stream content from your phone or computer.(Beware of too much wireless, however: My Apple TV remote got confused by other Bluetooth gadgets.) There’s one more button on the remote: a microphone that pages Siri, the virtual assistant.

Apple has for months been poaching employees from companies such as electric carmaker Tesla, motorbike maker Mission Motors, and battery maker 123 Systems. Sir Jony Ive, the design wizard who has put his imprint on the product’s hardware and software, implied as much in a New Yorker interview in February: “There are some shocking cars on the road,” he said. “One person’s car is another person’s scenery.” The car business is commoditised. This feature isn’t unique to Apple TV, but unlike the competition, Apple TV feeds you info without interrupting your video by sliding up results from the bottom of the screen.

In fact, look closely and you’ll see that a movie image looks almost 3D – as it moves it appears layered, like one of those special edition DVDs with a moulded 3D cover, or the parallax view on the iPhone. You can log into your US iTunes account, change your region and then tap into the US movie library and App Store without needing to mask your location. Siri can search inside Netflix, NFLX 2.65 % Hulu, HBO, Showtime and the iTunes store—but this selection trails rivals like Roku, and expanding it should be Apple’s top priority.

Couldn’t Apple do that? “There would be a significant risk,” saidBlaber. “The auto space isn’t one that Apple knows.” Blaber’s words ring true and echo those of Ed Colligan, then head of the smartphone maker Palm, in November 2006. Apple counters that this is because it’s the first Apple TV with iOS, so there’s no backup from which to restore, and hints that it’s working on this for the future. That way, rather than relentlessly bombarding guests with selfies of my partner and me on vacation in Hawaii, my wallpaper is a window into moments captured by all the interesting people I know, not just snapshots from my life. If that setup is too complicated, Apple offers some neat screen savers, including high-definition videos of different locations shot from the sky, including the Great Wall of China.

Even worse, the keyboard you need to use to search for apps (or for content in services not enabled for Siri, or for signing into services) is awful, actually worse than the old one. Once you’re watching a movie – even via Home Sharing – you can use Siri to navigate, such as “play from the beginning”, “skip ahead 10 minutes” or “what did she say?” for an instant replay.

The keyboard remembers the email addresses you’ve entered as user IDs and lists them for you to spare you some typing. (Apple does help you with setting up the box, if not its apps. You can’t even use her to dictate words into the search bar, you have to peck away at the onscreen keyboard even through you know Siri would be able to recognise the words. If you only use the old Apple TV to hire movies and watch Netflix then there’s no pressing need to upgrade unless you’re desperate to use Siri from the couch. The real benefit comes from access to new apps, and tomorrow I’ll wrap up with a closer look at the new App Store and games which take advantage of the Wii-style remote. This is the one where you navigate a chicken across roads, rail tracks and rivers (though the question of why it’s crossing is never fully answered).

Does Not Commute, the game where you must steer vehicles through increasingly complicated urban landscapes so they never crash into each other, works very well. If you’re worried the remote might fly out of your hand, there’s a separately-sold wrist loop which connects to the Lightning charger socket with special teeth to hold it tightly in place. What’s more, many people don’t have a consistent 15Mbps internet speed available to their TV, needed for 4K playback, either because the regular connection is slower or because the TV is connected by wi-fi for the last stretch, which diminishes the available speed.

It’s not like Apple to include capabilities that can’t readily be used – an earlier Apple TV delivered HD content only because that was suddenly plentiful. Price drops in 4K TVs means they’re likely to become commonplace in the near future and the imminent arrival of UHD Blu-ray discs will promote 4K further. Mind you, the HD content looks pristine, not least thanks to the excellent upscaling capabilities of the TV I’m testing it on (the Samsung UE55JS8500). Both are substantially more than Amazon’s 4K-capable Fire TV box which is £79.99, though to make the most of that you need the £79 Prime annual subscription.

Still, I absolutely get why it’s not here, after all, for most people this won’t be an issue, so why charge us for building in technology we won’t use?

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