I’ve had kind of an odd relationship with television for some time now. Over the course of my lifetime I’ve gone from watching TV on a cheap TV with rabbit ears to digital streaming, which is kind of an amazing difference when you stop to think about it. I actually got into hooking my TV up to my computer before the technology was really there for it, when a video card with an S-video output was a possibility but an oddity, and watched a pretty enormous amount of anime fansubs with that and subsequent upgrades to component video. I used to be a total TV junkie too, and in high school I had plenty of time to watch new episodes of Star Trek (TNG and DS9) and Babylon 5 as they came out. 24 was something of a turning point because it was the first show that I tried to watch during its normal broadcast times and then gave up and binge-watched, then in the form of a DVD boxed set.
My habits made me an early adopter for what became a trend of “cord-cutting,” people who have shed traditional means of watching TV in favor of internet-based services. Now there’s also a growing trend of “cord-nevers,” people who not only don’t have cable, but never have. There were always people who didn’t go for TV, but we’ve been changing our relationship with television enormously over the past decade or so, and a person can now be a total TV junkie without ever watching live TV. Apple has actually been on the forefront of efforts to wrest TV content away from cable provider exclusivity, though of course the industry has been resistant for a variety of reasons. (ESPN especially has a lot to lose, because something like 2/3 of their subscriber base is people who would drop them if given the option.)
A few years ago I got a 42″ TV, a Sony with Google TV functionality. Google TV basically means that the TV doubles as an Android device, and can handle streaming video and such. (It’s since been supplanted by “Android TV,” and other kinds of TVs with app functionality built in are pretty common.) My TV has been having trouble connecting to the internet though (which would have been a pretty bizarre thing to be able to say not too long ago), and I decided to buy a set-top box. There are a good number of options, notably Amazon, Roku, and various Android TV devices, but I settled on the recently-released Apple TV, basically because it seemed interesting.
Apple TV has been around in various forms since 2007, but it was generally a relatively limited device, and a low priority for Apple that didn’t really stand out from the competition. Reading the history of Apple TV, it feels like Apple wasn’t entirely sure what they wanted to do with it, not to mention streaming content was much less developed compared to now. At one point it had a 160GB hard drive for storing content, and at another it had 8GB of flash storage for buffering. The new 4th-generation version represents Apple making a much more serious investment in Apple TV, now that they have a good handle on their cell phones, tablets, and computers. (Though whether the iPad Pro turns out to be a success or a misstep remains to be seen.) The new Apple TV hardware is considerably more powerful–it has the same A8 CPU chip as the iPhone 6–and it runs the new tvOS, which allows for apps. The remote has typical Apple simplicity, with a touchpad and a grand total of 6 buttons (or 7 if you count the click on the touchpad), but it makes Siri a key feature, allowing for intuitive voice commands. At the last Apple keynote Tim Cook declared that “the future of TV is apps,” and while I think a pretty substantial chunk of the present of TV is apps, Apple TV may represent an important further step in that direction.
Unboxing and setting it up was pretty painless, though it helped that I already had an extra HDMI cable (the one required thing not included). You take the box, plug in its power cord, run the HDMI cable, turn it on with the little remote, and you’re on your way. It even lets you copy settings over from an iOS device via Bluetooth, which is a great time-saver. (Though more than it should be because the current tvOS on-screen keyboard kinda sucks, and it doesn’t currently support Bluetooth keyboards.) The integration with other Apple devices and services is especially smooth and painless, and since I use Apple Music, my music library was all ready for me once I had signed in.
Netflix is still the video service I’m using the most, though I’ve been eyeing iTunes video purchases more (and actually using some of the codes that came with Blu-rays I bought in the past) and started using Hulu. Having video be persistent across different devices and locations is genuinely handy, and I certainly have more than enough physical media clutter already. Of late I’ve gotten into the habit of checking to see if a title I’m interested in is available through Netflix, Hulu, or iTunes first, rather than first seeing where I can get the Blu-ray at a reasonable price.
One thing that’s notably absent from Apple TV is Amazon Prime Video. Although between Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, and a few others the selection of media available on the platform isn’t exactly lacking, Amazon Prime Video has an excellent selection, including original content. But currently Apple TV isn’t actually listed on Amazon for sale at all, even though they certainly sell their share of Apple products. Although it comes off as a move to promote Amazon’s own streaming devices (with some excuses given about avoiding confusion), an Amazon Prime Video app supposedly is coming, though if Amazon stays true to form you won’t be able to make purchases through it, in order to sidestep paying a cut to Apple.
On the other hand there are a number of apps for various TV stations and such that still require a cable provider login. While it makes sense in a lot of ways for the industry to be resistant to the shift towards streaming, it also just makes content from those sources just more annoying to access. Apple has reportedly been pushing to set up a streaming service with what is currently network and cable content, but running into quite a fight to make it happen.
One of the more interesting things about the Apple TV is in how it handles storage. Although you can pay an extra $50 to go from 32 to 64 gigs of internal storage, the fundamental paradigm of tvOS is such that local storage isn’t much of an issue. Apple requires each app’s initial download to be no more than 200mb, which is a stark contrast to how on iOS there are games that can take up more than 5 times that. Apple TV development allows for loading data beyond the 200 megs, but it has to be stuff that the app can pull from servers as needed to temporarily put in internal storage, and which the device can slough off and re-load as needed.
I’m a little ambivalent about the overall trend away from owning a physical product and towards subscribing to streaming services. While instances of purchased digital content truly vanishing are so far very rare exceptions, losing access to most of my entertainment when the cable modem has a hiccup is still pretty annoying. The advantage is that these things are often cheaper (though outright digitally purchasing a movie too often costs about the same or a little more than the same content on physical media), and don’t take up any physical space. With Apple TV even content that I ostensibly “own” is only available insofar as I have a functioning broadband internet connection, and I can’t so much as put it on a hard drive.
The addition of app functionality has already made Apple TV into something of a gaming platform. It’s definitely not a serious one for hardcore gamers, but with Apple behind it, it’s looking to be a more viable “microconsole” than most any of the others that have come before. Of course, the Ouya was something of a fiasco even if you were on board for playing Android games on your TV, and Apple TV has the advantage of having substantial uses outside of its gaming capabilities.
The Siri Remote has an accelerometer, allowing for something like a Wii remote’s motion control, but it’s still a limited source of input. It’s possible to get a Bluetooth game controller for it (for $50) with the same range of controls as an Xbox or PlayStation controller, but Apple is requiring all tvOS apps to be usable without any additional hardware. I haven’t tried playing any games on it myself, mainly because the ones I might actually want to play (like Transistor) would be best with a controller, and I don’t really want to invest the $50 unless there’s a controller I can at least use with other platforms. (What I really want is a well-designed controller I could use with my PS3 and Apple TV, but that doesn’t seem likely.)
My experience so far is that the Apple TV is an odd mix of super-polished and a work in progress. It provides an excellent video streaming experience, and plays Netflix, iTunes content, and other streaming services seamlessly, but there’s the aforementioned thing about the keyboard sucking, plus this version of Siri has a number of limitations, including the simple lack of an ability to do dictation. On the plus side, the first tvOS update lets it work with the Remote app for iOS, so you can control an Apple TV and more comfortably type things with an iPhone. There are also just a ton of different functions that they could easily add via apps. Some are things that are technically possible but make a certain amount of sense to leave out of a streaming box (like a web browser), while others would legitimately be nice to have (like FaceTime).
Right now I think we’re still seeing streaming video working itself out. While we aren’t dependent on cable companies and what they decide to offer in packages, we do have multiple competing streaming services with different content and different niches. Some are better than others about getting onto different hardware platforms, and it’s going to be tricky to sift through so many different sources to find the content you want. On Apple TV, Siri can search the iTunes store and Netflix, but can’t search most other apps for movies. (Also, Siri doesn’t appear to adjust for your tastes. Any time I ask for movies of a certain type, I find myself wishing I could say something like, “No Siri, I meant good science fiction movies.”)