Apple says the future of TV is apps. That may or may not prove true, but after a couple days with the new Apple TV, it's a compelling argument. Turns out custom-building a TV from a broad palette of apps that includes everything from pay TV channels and games to travel accommodation services and Periscope is a great way to get exactly the TV experience you want — or close to it, anyway. The new Apple TV isn’t just an upgraded set-top box, it’s the first “true” Apple TV, one that articulates Apple’s vision of what the TV viewing experience should be. It’s an appealing vision.
With the exception of Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV offers all the stuff I want to watch — Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, Showtime, and YouTube. It also has a bunch of stuff I don’t want to watch — AOL On and Yahoo Screen. Maybe you will. But since Apple has forgone its practice of forcibly installing garbage like that on Apple TVs via software update, I’ll never have to deal with it.
Incidentally, that Amazon Prime Video is the exception to the conga line of content offerings above is entirely Amazon’s doing. A ~magnanimous~ Apple tells BuzzFeed News that “all are welcome” on its new Apple TV platform. But Amazon — which recently purged Apple TV from its store — doesn’t have a Prime Video app in the Apple TV App Store. And as of a few days ago, it hadn't submitted one. (An Amazon spokesperson told BuzzFeed News the company “doesn’t have anything to share” on the topic.) Which means presumably I’ll be streaming Season 2 of Transparent from my phone to my TV come December — a bummer because Prime Video is my second-favorite feature of Amazon’s membership service, right after two-day shipping 30-pound bags of dog food to my front door.
Games on Apple TV are amusing distractions from the important business of binge-watching Netflix originals, and with new innards, Apple’s powerful A8 chip, and a remote control with an internal accelerometer and gyroscope (which means when you tilt and move it around in your hands things happen onscreen), gameplay is snappy and responsive. But I haven’t yet found a game that’s held my attention for more than 15 minutes. The new Apple TV feels like a real opportunity for game developers to more fully realize the games they've built for iPhone and iPad. What happens to Modern Combat or Infinity Blade or Vainglory when you enhance them with an array of controls broader than the virtual buttons you find on an iOS device? The new Apple TV’s Siri Remote has a touchpad and six buttons, and there are third-party gamepad controllers in the works. This diminutive set-top box is begging for a killer game, and sooner or later someone’s going to make it.
If the new Siri Remote isn't everything Apple claims it is, it's close. Certainly, it’s a dramatic improvement over its predecessor in function and usability (it’s worth noting that Apple charges $79 for a spare, which is more than half the cost of the base model Apple TV). Siri is a TV remote that actually makes sense. It does what you want it to do with a minimum of fuss and clutter. There’s a touchpad on one side of the remote, and you can use it to navigate in all sorts of ways. Swiping across a film's timeline to pinpoint a particular moment, for example, is surprisingly accurate and easy. Universal search — which not only enables searches across multiple streaming video services, but prioritizes the results based on the services you subscribe to — is fantastic. After using it for a few hours, I found myself resenting Apple for not enabling it sooner and leaving longtime Apple TV users like me to suffer with the lousy search function that preceded it.
The Siri voice control Apple’s built into the new Apple TV is useful and clever without being precious. “Rewind 30 seconds,” “Show me Anchorman,” and “Who directed this?” all work well. And thanks to “What did he say?” — which skips back to replay a character’s comment with closed captioning, I finally know what Benicio Del Toro’s character was mumbling in The Usual Suspects. (“I said he'll flip you. ...Flip you. Flip ya for real.” Kind of a letdown. Don’t even get me started on Lost in Translation.) Also: For a few glorious moments last night I was able to taunt my wife by repeatedly what-did-he-saying a favorite moment in Blue Velvet.
Siri is even well-calibrated enough to change an intended search for "Poltergeist" to a search for "Simpsons Halloween" when my daughters completed my "Show me..." command by shouting just that from across the couch. Siri does stumble on occasion, but as an interface for Apple TV, it's so much easier to use than the onerous and god-awful manually-click-on-letters-to-spell-words search that preceded it that those stumbles are easily forgiven. And the targeted contextual searches are killer: The device was able to pull up Snoop Dogg freestyling in an episode of Weeds, find Jack Black’s cameo in The Office, AND respond correctly to the command "Show me movies with Bobcat Goldthwait and Dabney Coleman” (Trick question! There is only one: Hot to Trot). Caveat: Siri search is not quite all the way there yet. It doesn't yet extend to the App Store or YouTube, but I'm told it will eventually. Calibrating Siri to effectively search those vast libraries in a way that makes sense of all the varied stuff within them and delivers the results you want is going to take some time. One thing to look forward to: Siri search is coming to Apple Music on Apple TV at the beginning of next year.
Perhaps the most considered new feature of the remote is an optional one: the wrist loop. Apple's intent in offering it is clearly to save exuberant Apple TV gamers from accidentally flinging their remotes into TV screens during gameplay (Nintendo's Wii bracelets did the same thing). I'm sure that's helpful. But frankly, the loop is better used as a means of locating and rescuing the diminutive remote after it’s gone missing between couch cushions. I've used it for this purpose at least three times so far, and given the loop's utility for this sort of thing, it's puzzling that Apple doesn't view it as a crucial part of the remote, instead selling it as a silly $13 accessory.
What else? A few things, actually:
• Because Apple TV is a platform that's new to developers, the current selection of apps is limited and some first efforts seem...not as well-conceived as they might have been. But's that going to change — and quickly. As developers get their hands on this thing and spend some real time coming to understand it, I suspect we're going to see some great stuff coming down the pipeline — a killer news app, a great multiplayer game. There's a lot of possibility here and, for developers, a lot of promise. Recall how quickly the iPhone App Store evolved.
• For those who care about such things, the design of the new Apple TV is nearly identical to that of its predecessor, albeit with a larger chassis. Why mess with the external appearance of something that lives hidden under or behind a TV anyway?
• As BuzzFeed News first reported, the new Apple TV does not support the streaming of high-definition 4K video. But, as I noted back in April, this isn’t that glaring an omission. There simply isn’t that much stuff to watch in 4K yet, and the cost of encoding and delivering it is far greater than that of HD.
• Apps that are not games or video streaming services are...decent, but not blow-your-head-off fantastic. That said, I’m not big on shopping apps like Gilt and QVC, and my kids are too old to be wowed by PlayKids or Star Walk Kids. Caveat: Madefire, which brings motion comics and graphic novels to the TV screen, was impressive enough to make me say “oh, cool” out loud.
• Apple TV actually supports Bluetooth headphones for those times when you need to watch River Monsters in the same room with a family member who's working on a school paper and is also unpleasantly vocal in her hatred of River Monsters. It’s a nice feature, though I’m not sure it’s worth Apple upselling you into a pair of wireless Beats headphones.
• Sadly, Apple TV doesn't offer single sign-on for video streaming and cable subscription apps. Too bad; that would have been a nice touch.
• The Apple TV's aerial screensavers are handsome and cool and undoubtedly look great on high-end TVs. That said, I use my Apple TV to watch TV, not flyovers of the Great Wall of China, so who cares.
• Setup is a breeze thanks to tap-to-configure, which quickly transfers basic information like Wi-Fi network and password and iTunes Store account to an Apple TV from an iPhone. My parents could probably set this thing up and the only phone call I’d get from them would be a triumphant one touting their success.
I have no idea really whether Apple’s new Apple TV is better or worse than rivals like the Roku 4 and the Amazon Fire TV, but I think I can definitively say that it is far superior to the old Apple TV. It’s intuitive, uncomplicated, and — crucially — thoughtful. Is that a ridiculous thing to say about a set-top box? Probably. But it’s also true. Over the weekend, I told my loaner Apple TV to “show me horror movies from the '80s,” and it did. And then I told it to show me “only the good ones,” and it did that too, filtering for films that were critically acclaimed. That’s thoughtful. “What did they say?” That’s thoughtful too. Should you spend $149/$199 on it? I don’t know. Is this a best-in-class set-top box? Who am I to say? But I will tell you this: As someone who’s been using the same second-generation Apple TV since its September 2010 debut, I’m buying the new one.
For another perspective on the new Apple TV, check out Nicole Nguyen's review in BuzzFeed Life.
John Paczkowski is the managing editor for BuzzFeed San Francisco. Formerly deputy managing editor for Re/code and AllThingsD, he's been covering the intersection of technology and culture since 1997.
Contact John Paczkowski at John.Paczkowski@buzzfeed.com.
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