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Apple TV: keeping the score

A little over a year ago, I wrote a blog post about my hopes and dreams for Apple TV. Then, finally, at the last Apple event on september 9 2015, Apple unveiled their plans for the next iteration of their smart TV platform. And, it has been on sale since late last month. I ordered one on the very first day of pre-orders, so I've had it since a few weeks now. Which means, it's time to make up the score.

App Store

One of the first things I mention, more of an aside than anything else, is an App Store. This was one of the no-brainer, sure fire features of a new iteration of the platform, which was long overdue. And Apple, luckily, didn't fail to deliver. Tim Cook went as far as to say that the future of TV is apps. In fact, there is preciously little pre-installed on an out-of-the-box Apple TV 4, just Apple's movies and TV shows apps. Not even a step in the install process to suggest a few popular apps such as Netflix. But, that's a small gripe with a setup process that doesn't impress much anyway. Clearly, there's much to be improved there. Fortunately, we don't have to setup an Apple TV on a daily basis. But, there's an App Store for Apple TV, and it is here to stay. Which makes me very happy. And, not unimportantly to me personally, a Plex app was in it within a few days, so there is no longer a need to switch between ATV and the Plex client on the Mac Mini. 10 out of 10 points.

Improved, unified interface

But, the app store was the "obvious" problem in a section I titled "The less obvious problem". Which was making sense of all the various "channels". A unified interface, so that I don't need to bother knowing whether I was watching Breaking Bad on Netflix or iTunes, or Plex. The Apple TV 4 comes with a unified search function (which is Siri enabled, if you happen to live in one of the few supported regions), which is a step in the right direction and something I specifically asked for (yay!). Another step in the right direction is that it is now possible to place your own choice of apps in the top row of the interface, which, with the last generation of Apple TV, was reserved for Apple's own content. It is completely up to the app what they place in the "top shelf", though. Plex does exactly what I would hope, which is showing "current" content, either because you have been viewing it, or because it was added recently. Netflix seems to have picked up its act too since the first version, because it is now showing a few recommendations, albeit based on a single rating I entered recently (so the functionality might have been there from the start). I still would like it better if it showed "recently viewed". Other apps, like YouTube and Periscope, only show a big banner graphic. Much room for improvement there, guys. But, that's on the app vendors (not that that stops me from letting it influence the score; we are scoring the device and its experience, not Apple). Apple could still improve the interface overall by offering a system wide "on deck" feature, much like the unified search. I'd say, 7 out of 10 points, a solid "satisfactory".

Easy user switching

Netflix account switcher.
Netflix's profile switcher.

"Apple has sort of gotten away with not doing multiple users for iOS devices. For iPhones, that makes sense, mostly; a phone is a highly personal device. For iPads, though, it would be a most welcome feature. For the largest screen in the house, it’s a must-have." That's what I said back in October 2014. Apple, apparently, doesn't agree. Switching accounts involves going into the settings app, logging out, and logging back in with another account, using that cumbersome onscreen "keyboard" (for lack of a better term; this is even worse than the weird grid-o-letters in the previous generation). Apart from that, there is no acknowledgement whatsoever that a TV is typically a device used by multiple people. I was hoping for an easy way to add multiple users, and an even easier way to switch between them, and a "ProfileKit" framework allowing individual apps to easily keep track of recommendations, high scores, etc., for each individual in a household. There actually might be a pretty good ty-in with the Family Sharing functionality that was introduced recently. I also mentioned the option of a touch screen remote (which I actually now think is probably not such a great idea; remote controls need physical buttons), possibly with Touch ID. I still think that would be a stellar application of Apple's fingerprint technology (it would need some careful consideration, though; the system should not think I am the one who is watching just because I am helping my daughter find Peppa Pig on Netflix). But, alas, this is an area where Apple dropped the ball big time. If they ever figure this one out, it would be the primary reason for me to go with the Apple TV generation that has this. Sorry Apple, but logging out and logging back in is not multiple user support. 0 out of 10 points.

Live broadcasts

Something else I mentioned was live broadcasts. I was looking for a standardized way where you could switch between multiple live streams. That's not here, but I now wonder how much value something like that would have. It would probably take the form of a channel-like grid much like the main interface of the Apple TV. Of course, there is nothing stopping broadcasters from offering an app that shows their livestreams (in fact, there are multiple apps in the App Store doing just that). During the special event, a demo was showing an app for Major League Baseball, which has some advanced features for showing statistics during a live game. It is probably better to leave this sort of stuff up to individual app and content creators to find the best ways to amend their live broadcasts. I'm not assigning any score for this.

Bonus round and dishonourable mentions

What about the stuff that I did not ask for, but was delighted by nonetheless? Or, what I did not see coming, but hit me like a brick wall? The remote control deserves a mention, both because it is so good, and because it is so bad. Giving it a touch pad was a great idea (someone reminded me just today that this is in fact how the Apple Remote app on an iPhone would already control the old Apple TV). It is one of those things that seem obvious in hindsight, like a touchscreen phone without buttons. However, gaming is also one of the tent pole features for the new Apple TV, and for that the remote is sorely lacking (but Apple is making it mandatory for games to be playable with the standard remote). It is too small and fiddly to hold in your hand comfortably, especially - but not exclusively - when playing a game. If Apple were really serious about gaming, they either should have given priority to ergonomics (which would probably have resulted in a larger and weightier remote that is more pleasant to hold), or should have supplied a dedicated game controller (or at the very least offer a first party product), instead of the highly estatic, but not very usable small little rectangle that is the current remote.

Second, something I already mentioned, the new on-screen keyboard. The new "keyboard" consists of two rows of characters, instead of the old ATV's grid.

It's easy to swipe past the character you were going for an have to go back a few positions. It's not horrible, but it's just slightly worse, which is a shame. And it makes the next point that little bit more annoying.

Note: One neat trick I learned about when listening to an episode of The Talk Show, is that you can hold the touchpad button over a letter to get variations of that letter, like the upper case version, or accented versions. No need to go to the third row and switch the keyboard "type".

Because, another point where Apple deserve a stern talking-to is the Remote app. With the previous Apple TV, the on-screen keyboard was just convenient enough to just muddle through, at least for me. But if you could not stand it any longer, you could grab your iPhone with the Remote app, which would throw up a regular iOS keyboard whenever you'd need to enter some text. No such luck with the new Apple TV. Others have lumped in the inability to pair a Bluetooth keyboard in with this as well (another feature lost in comparison to the old model). I've never actually felt the need for that, although the remote app might be an important factor there too (it feels like a great compromise between convenience and ease of typing). Jason Snell hopes a new Apple TV iPhone app is in the works. Let's help him hope, because this is another no-brainer, of the magnitude of an Apple TV App Store. Let's hope it doesn't take Apple the same amount of time to get it done.

And then there's Photos. Yet another area where the ATV doesn't fare well, although at least it's not a regression from the previous version. Apple has introduced the iCloud Photo Library several months ago, now. It made some sense to me that the old Apple TV was not updated to make better use of it, but it is a mystery that the new Apple TV has the same rudimentary support. It's just Photostream and your shared albums, but not your full library. This might be one of those features that simply didn't make the 1.0 cut, where feature parity was good enough.

Lastly, I would like to mention gaming. A logical result of an app store is games. Some have gone as far as implying games are the most important reason for the app store existing, but I think those people have been spoiled with built-in apps/channels in the old Apple TV that catered to most, if not every content desire they might have. Allowing less mainstream and/or US-focused content providers onto the device is at least as important. But, games on the Apple TV have been a welcome and delightful extra. I had not expected to be very much into it (I also own a Playstation 4, so I am well equipped for the more "serious" gaming), but playing Crossy Road or Badland on a big screen is a surprisingly nice way to burn some time.

Bonus round score: 5 out of 10.

The score

So, how did the Apple TV do satisfying my hopes and dreams of late 2014? It's barely satisfactory, actually, when you look at the cold, hard numbers. Adding up the four scores I assigned, and dividing by four, it gets a 5.5. This does feel a bit harsh, though. I am actually really satisfied with my single device I can now use for both Netflix and Plex, the two media sources I use most often. So, the various scores should probably not weigh equally, at least for me. The lack of an iPhone app (or BT keyboard support) is felt mainly when entering passwords, which luckily does not happen that often. I do have the App Store configured to ask for passwords again after a while. Kids, you know...

Most of my gripes feel fixable. I think there might be the need to make up another score in a year's time. I'll add a few more hopes to the list, though:

  • A functioning iPhone Remote app. Bonus points for using Touch ID instead of a password in the app store or even other places where passwords need to be input regularly.
  • More Netherlands-focused apps in the App Store. I felt it is too early to take away points from the App Store section now, but one of the reasons the App Store is such a big deal is that content providers don't need to strike up a deal with Apple to get on the device. At the time of writing, no big Dutch content providers are on the App Store. The sentiments are all over the place (link is in Dutch, but it is an interesting read of you know the language). One important player (the Dutch national broadcaster NPO's "Uitzending Gemist") has even said they are not considering an app at this time. Others gave more promising statements, though. Let's see how that pans out in a year's time.

Would I recommend the new Apple TV? As usual, it depends. If you are interested in new technology, yes, yes I would. I expect the App Store will take off, and it's a matter of time before you can find anything you might want from a large video screen in your living room (yes, that might be a different way of saying "TV", but that has so many built-in assumptions associated with it; for example, would you have thought to search for a score board app, that allows you to keep score on games, like board games or Pictionary? It's already there).

If you are a casual media consumer, it depends on where you live. If you're in the US, than you should already mostly be covered. It seems like Apple at least made sure that the content offerings from the previous Apple TV have an app counterpart. If you're in the Netherlands, maybe the Apple TV as it stands is not as great as it might be, exactly because there are not many local app offerings yet. But, it does offer a lot of entertainment right now. If you have Netflix, it is one of the best ways to watch that. If you also are a Plex user, it starts to become yet more interesting and it basically depends on your confidence that the app situation will improve.

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