I was sceptical at first.
About two months ago, I was in the theatre in San Francisco where Apple CEO Tim Cook declared the company had cracked the future of TV.
It was the same concept as the iPhone: Apple would invent the hardware and then open the platform up to creative developers who would hopefully untap its true potential with innovative apps.
I wasn’t really blown away by what I saw that day. A lot of it was obvious: Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, and some basic games. Nothing we haven’t seen before from rival devices like the Roku or Amazon’s Fire TV. My biggest fear was that developers would start pumping out jumbo-sized versions of their iPhone apps to the TV and call it a day.
But that’s not what happened. After spending over a week with the new Apple TV, which is on sale now starting at $US149, I see the potential. It’s clear that we’re early in the app-centric world of TV watching, but the first crop of apps to hit the Apple TV App Store hint that we’re not far off from the reality that we won’t have to pay for pricey cable packages stuffed with content we don’t want to watch.
Even better, the TV apps I’ve used so far show that TV doesn’t have to be a passive experience. It can also be interactive.
This is going to sound absurd coming from a 30-year-old male, but I think the best app on Apple TV right now is the QVC app. I don’t say that because I love buying junk from infomercials, but because the app is the clearest look at the future of interactive TV.
The QVC app lets you log into your account and then watch a live stream of the channel. There’s no need to authenticate the login using your cable or satellite subscription. It looks exactly the same as the QVC you’re used to, but there’s a handy “buy” button hovering over the video so you can purchase what you see straight from the TV app. There’s no booting up your computer. No launching an app on your phone. Just a simple click of the remote.
Now imagine that concept stretching to other forms of interactive television. Voting for your favourite singer on “The Voice.” Engaging in real-time polls during presidential debates. Viewing Instagram photos from celebrities at awards shows.
There’s been a bunch of talk in recent years about engaging users on their “second screen” devices (phones and tablets) during live television, but TV apps take the second screen out of the equation. There’s massive potential to bring everyone back to the most important screen in the living room.
There’s more coming. Next year, Apple is expected to launch a live TV service that will let you stream select channels over the internet. When that happens, Apple TV will be the perfect package: You’ll be able to stream the most popular channels live whenever you want and use apps for everything else. And all you’ll need is an internet connection. No more wrestling with your cable company.
That’s not to say all apps are winners. I’m not a big fan of the casual games like “Crossy Road” or “Alto’s Adventure,” but I do realise there probably is an audience for those. I’m more interested in seeing big-name game publishers take a crack at the Apple TV.
Besides the new App Store, the new Apple TV is pretty similar to the last version. The home screen layout has been cleaned up with a fresher look, but the overall concept is the same — a grid of apps. Nothing special.
There are two major changes to the hardware though.
The first is the remote, which includes a touchpad for navigating through menus and volume controls for your TV.
The second, and most important, is Siri, which lets you search for any actor, TV show, or movie across iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, and a few select other services. (More will be added.) It makes finding what you want to watch incredibly easy. Instead of launching an app like Netflix and poking around for the title you’re looking for, you just speak into the microphone on the Apple TV remote and ask for it. If the video you want is on multiple services, you’ll get the options for where to watch too.
Navigating iPhone-like menus on a TV with just a remote can be a pain, and Siri is able to bring you what you want no matter where you are in an app or Apple TV’s menus.
Unfortunately, Siri is limited to just a few select video services right now. And you can’t use it to search through the Apple Music catalogue like you can on the iPhone. (Apple says Apple Music support is coming.) It also doesn’t work with the App Store.
Finally, I was really disappointed that you can’t use Siri to type, so you’re stuck entering login information and search queries one letter at a time on a virtual on-screen keyboard. I’ve been an Apple TV user for almost five years, and I’ve always enjoyed using the Remote app on iPhone to type on the TV. But the new model doesn’t support the Remote app, and it’s unclear if it ever will. For now, typing is a pain. It’s the single most disappointing thing about the Apple TV.
If the future of TV truly is apps, then Apple is in the best position to make it happen. Yes, Roku and Amazon’s boxes both offer third-party apps, but developers these days still tend to make the best stuff for Apple devices before anything else. It’s the platform the most innovative apps will appear on first.
For that reason alone, the Apple TV is the best streaming box. But if you’re not interested in apps and just want to stream from standard services like Netflix and Hulu, there are plenty of cheaper options like the Roku 3 ($US100) or Chromecast ($US35) that will get the job done.
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