Here I was shouting back at the TV and immediately thought how it used to be frowned upon, now, with the fourth-generation Apple TV, Apple is positively encouraging it. The Cupertino firm’s take on the future of the living room has released Siri from its iPhone and iPad prison, while a new remote, access to the App Store, and beefier specifications promise a slicker and more flexible experience.
I’ve been living with the revamped set-top box for the past five weeks, to see just how much of an upgrade this is.
Physically, the fourth-gen Apple TV takes the squat, black box of before and leaves it out to proof. Risen loaf-like, the end result has the same squircle footprint but stands roughly twice as tall. On the back, there’s an ethernet port, HDMI output, and power connector, along with a new USB-C port that’s used for service. Sadly, gone is the optical digital audio output.
Storage has taken a leap, too, with a choice of either 32GB or 64GB versions. It’ll be app data rather than content taking up that space, mind, since Apple still intends the set-top box to be a streaming device.
Then there’s the remote, which does away with the sliver of brushed silver aluminum of the old version and replaces it with a bigger, glass-fronted slab with an aluminum back and more controls.
As well as menu, play/pause, and volume buttons – the latter of which will control your TV, as long as it supports the HDMI-CEC standard or you teach the remote’s IR blaster the right settings – there’s now a home button and a Siri trigger. A trackpad is integrated invisibly, rather than the old remote’s D-pad, and there’s Bluetooth inside so that you don’t need to worry about line-of-sight.
Apple has dubbed it the Siri Remote, and sure enough Siri takes pride of place in navigating through the Apple TV’s interface. It also means the controller – which includes an accelerometer and gyroscope to track movement, like a Wii controller – is a little more power-hungry, so there’s now an internal battery that recharges via a Lightning port on the bottom edge. Mind you, I only noticed this when photographing the device when it was ready to leave me. Nor have I had to charge it during the 5 week period.
Alternatively, you can use the new Remote app for iOS devices that Apple offers as a free download. That has the benefit of offering an onscreen keyboard for swifter text entry, something which can streamline punching in login credentials for all your various media services.
That said, tvOS – the offshoot of iOS tailored for the fourth-gen Apple TV and for being used from across the living room – makes fewer demands for usernames and passwords, assuming you’re already set up on your iPhone and iPad (and they’re running iOS 9.1 or later).
Pair that device with your new Apple TV over Bluetooth – which you can do by simply putting the iPhone nearby – and the set-top box can extract your WiFi and iTunes account settings. Unfortunately, from that point on you’re on your own: even if you have the Netflix, Hulu, or other accounts set up in their respective apps on your phone, the Apple TV can’t grab those details.
Instead you’re left with the onscreen keyboard, which is now a long strip of letters rather than a grid. Frankly neither the old nor the new layouts are especially swift to use (I don’t have a touch enabled TV), though tvOS does have a new “Recent” option which shows the last few email addresses and account names you entered. Assuming your various on-demand services all use the same username, you might only have to plug in the password each time.
When you’re finally set up, then it’s Siri’s turn. Rumors of a voice-led interface for an Apple TV set began years ago, but Amazon beat Apple to the market with the Fire TV. Still, Apple claims that Siri is a little more intelligent than Amazon’s system. Still, finding Amazon’s Fire TV here will prove near impossible.
You can ask for movies or shows by name, or by theme – “kids movies” perhaps, or “action movies” – and Siri supports qualifiers too. “Kids movies from the 80s” will include both criteria, which sounds like it should be easy but requires a whole lot of metadata on the back-end.
Beyond that, Siri has some other uses, though she falls frustratingly short of the experience on an iPhone or iPad. You can navigate playback by voice – “Skip forward ten minutes” or “Go back an hour” for instance – and ask “Who’s in this movie?” to get a rundown of the actors. “What did she say?” will automatically skip back fifteen seconds and temporarily turn on closed-captions.
More broadly, weather reports and sports results are on offer, and there’s that integration with Apple Music. You also can’t search the App Store by voice, which highlights one of the fourth-gen Apple TV’s biggest headaches: content discovery.
Apps on the Apple TV were the obvious path for the Cupertino company to take, but sifting through them can be laborious. The most obvious solution would be the ability to browse the store on an iPad or iPhone and then remotely install apps to your Apple TV, but that’s not currently supported.
Apple hides some of tvOS’ niceties from first glance. Double-tapping the Home button summons an app switcher, just as it does on an iPhone, which avoids the need to jump back to the home screen. You can adjust the Siri Remote’s trackpad sensitivity, too, which I’d recommend as it can be a little frenetic at its default, or mimic a D-pad by tapping the four edges to navigate a step at a time.
For audio, there’s 5.1 surround sound if you have the right speaker system, or you can pair Bluetooth headphones; I’ve made frequent use of the latter during late-night Netflix binges. If there are a few of you watching, but you still don’t want to wake up the rest of the house, the “Reduce Loud Sounds” option irons out the more bombastic audio while still ensuring speech can be heard.
A lot of the potential is still to come, however. We’ve had a taste of how Siri can improve content discovery, and how tvOS can further blur the lines between phone, tablet, and TV, but while this might be Apple’s fourth generation of box, it’s only the first generation of those features and in many ways they’re untested, lacking in abilities, or both.
The Apple TV is still the best way to consume iTunes content in your living room, and one of the better ways to deliver streaming media from third-party services like Netflix, Hulu and ShowMax to your TV. Whether the remainder of the bets Apple has made on its new box pay off, we won’t know until this glorious console becomes a resident in our living room.