The New Apple TV Invigorates the Set-Top Box

29 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Apple TV review: new set-top box’s slick, redesigned interface gets the details exactly right.

It turns out that Apple’s streaming-TV box — aptly named Apple TV — isn’t just for streaming anymore. 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.

The Siri remote is as cool as it sounds, with touchpad navigation and a truly impressive voice function. (“Show me dramas.” “Show me Wes Anderson movies.” “Skip ahead 15 minutes.”) The universal search is also a welcome change. 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. Tell Siri, and it will show you where it’s available — iTunes, Netflix, Hulu — and where, given your existing accounts and subscriptions, it’s easiest/cheapest for you to watch.

Yes, Apple TV’s new app store is where the biggest potential rests, and the offerings that are already available from various developers signal that much more is to come. (The ESPN app, for example, offers live viewing in addition to existing content.) It has the potential to turn your TV into one giant iPad: Search for homes on Zillow, book your vacation on Airbnb, use the remote as a controller to play the various video games that are starting to populate the store. (If anyone at Seamless is reading this, please create an app ASAP.) As our content-viewing options have multiplied in recent years, I’ve clung, however stupidly, to my cable subscription. And sometimes on a Saturday afternoon, I want to accidentally stumble upon a five-hour Say Yes to the Dress marathon or mindlessly watch three episodes of Property Brothers before my brain even processes that I’m awake. 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. The Apple TV remote doesn’t have a headphone jack, which other streaming devices like the Roku 3 and 4 and the Nvidia Shield offer to spare your family and roommates late at night. 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 asked Siri: “Find comedies.” Hundreds of choices — I needed to narrow it. “Just new comedies.” And there it was, a tidy selection of films to choose from, including Trainwreck and Spy. (I went with Trainwreck.) For fun, I tried a year. “Show me 1990 comedies.” That was a fantastic year for comedy, so again, time to narrow the search. “Just the ones with Julia Roberts.” Bam — Pretty Woman. (Yes, this was an absurd exercise, but the point is, it worked.) The point is, this brand new Apple TV perpetuates my laziness in the very way I want it to. 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. 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.

And some of the system’s coolest tricks — ask Siri “What did they say?” during a program and it jumps back 15 seconds and replays the scene with captions — only fully work with iTunes content. But these complaints are hardly deal breakers, and the user experience as a whole is easy, intuitive, and is the first thing that’s ever caused me to consider dumping my cable. — 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.

So if you’re a Netflix subscriber and the movie is there as well as on iTunes, it’ll show both options, prioritising Netflix on the basis that’s the one included in your subscription while the iTunes one will be to pay for. 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. 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. 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. 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.

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. 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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