Review: Apple TV Brings iPhone-Like Apps to the Big Screen

29 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

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

It turns out that Apple’s streaming-TV box — aptly named Apple TV — isn’t just for streaming anymore. I’m testing Siri on the new Apple TV that arrives this week at a starting price of $149, the first major revamp since March 2012 of the set-top box Steve Jobs famously referred to as a hobby. The Seinfeld episode in question was available through the Hulu app on Apple TV. 2001 A Space Odyssey was available to rent or buy through iTunes, or watch free as a Netflix subscriber. 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. Oh, and I had no intention of actually viewing those lousy films from 1993, though Apple TV drummed up a list that included Sliver, RoboCop 3 and Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. It never made a ton of sense to me why Apple would ever want to bring out a branded television, despite persistent rumors that the gang in Cupertino has been working on something. The new $150 Apple TV streaming box opens the largest screen in your house to an app store with the best that movie makers, game developers, retailers and even personal trainers can dream up.

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. It is obvious, however, that Apple has designs on the living room, and that a substantial makeover of the companion box that plugs into your existing TV was long overdue. 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. 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.

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. And where’s 4K, with resolution that is four times better than high definition ? ​Apple faces fierce competition across the streaming (and pricing) spectrum, from the likes of Amazon Fire TV, Google Chromecast, Roku, Nvidia Shield, Microsoft’s Xbox, Sony Playstation, and TiVo Bolt. *The user experience. You can move your thumb along the touch surface on the upper face of the remote to navigate what’s on the screen, or click the touch area to select an action.

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. 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. 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.

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. But I’m also presuming that a lot more people will be buying such TVs in the near future, possibly as soon as Black Friday when plummeting prices presumably fall further.

Siri understands commands like “Jump forward 20 minutes” as well, though you can also use the touch-surface to scroll ahead with a picture-in-picture view of where you’ll end up. — You can control playback by asking Siri to rewind 45 seconds or jump ahead five minutes, though some services won’t let you forward past commercials. 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.

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. You can ask, “Show ’80s romantic comedies” and follow up with, “Just the ones with Tom Hanks.” She’s great at Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, and can also tell you the weather. I sampled a variety of apps during my tests, some free, some fee-based: QVC and Gilt for shopping from the TV, Zillow, Airbnb, Crossy Road, Rayman, Transistor, HBO Now and more. 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. People looking to cut cable entirely still have to make compromises, but there are six streaming apps that have become essential: Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, YouTube, Amazon Video and Sling TV (which streams some live cable TV networks for $20 a month).

Or, and this is my favourite detail of all, if you miss a line of dialogue in a movie, you can press the microphone button and ask “What did they say?”. 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. You’ll find Apple Music support for streaming music from the internet, plus access to the App Store opens the box up to competitors like Spotify and Rdio – we’ll have to wait and see which make the leap. 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). While the puffery back in 2010 might have said the tablet computer was poised to destroy the home PC in a whirl of swipes and mobile productivity, Apple’s recent earnings call would indicate that hasn’t exactly been the case.

While the company’s computers and laptops are still far from outselling its tablets, Apple said it had sold a record 5.7 million Macs in a single quarter while iPad sales slumped to their lowest point since June 2011. 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. Expect wholly new games to arrive in numbers and in the future developers will doubtless build their game to run on iPhone, iPad and Apple TV so that you only have to buy it once. It isn’t all as simple as that, of course, and looking at the long-term figures the results possibly aren’t all that surprising. iPads have traditionally seen a massive spike in sales each holiday quarter after a period of decline, with that period growing longer with each new iPad introduced (presumably because most people interested in an iPad now have one and don’t need to upgrade). It stands to reason a similar spike will occur next month and in November and December this year, although it’s possible the tablets have truly reached their saturation point.

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. Meanwhile, Mac sales have been more consistent, with blunter, wider spikes corresponding to the release of new MacBooks (for example the MacBook Air in late 2011 or the Retina MacBook Pros in mid to late 2013). Non-gaming apps such as Airbnb exploit the extended viewing space to show rentable properties in great detail You need to book via an iOS device or Mac but choosing and saving favourites can be done on the big screen.

Still, with the only new iPads introduced this year being the Mini 4 and the business-focused iPad Pro, the advent of super-light laptops and with the popularity of the large screened iPhone Plus, it could be that there’s not as much room for the iPad as there was just two years ago at its sales peak. 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.

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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