In the world of living room entertainment, options abound. It didn’t used to be this way. Up until the rise of internet-based video streaming, living room experiences were largely uniform with basic TV and cable channels, perhaps sometimes with on-demand DVR recording and playback. Those who wanted a computer or media-center type experience were enthusiasts only, ready to tinker with TV Tuner cards and various software packages just to get something other than cable television streaming in their living room.
A new landscape
Today, There exist smart televisions, various set top boxes, and game consoles which are no longer used purely for gaming. Out of these, the “ultimate” experience comes from the xBox or PS 4, as they can provide multiple immersive ways of interaction with what they are capable of. The problem, of course, is that not every person can afford to put $300-600 on a dedicated gaming device, nor is it truly a good idea to use an xBox without any gaming purposes. With the recent addition of Narrator in a software update and hopefully Sony joining a similar path down the line, those with speech needs will have another option. On the low- end of the spectrum, you have Chromecast-type devices – which act as dummy receivers, providing a way for televisions to display content sent to it from other devices. This has brought the experience of living room streaming from being an enthusiast-type niche to becoming available and accessible to everyone.
It should be noted that these distinctions do not make one product less valuable or “worse” than the other. Some prefer the straightforward nature of a Chromecast, where you plug it in and with very little setup, can stream high-quality videos to your TV without having to worry about managing individual apps and logins. Others enjoy the all-in-one nature of a gaming system, where browsing the web or creating content is even possible.
Dedicated set top boxes such as the Apple TV or Google’s own “TV” offer a middle-of-the-road option. Although the Apple TV has more of a gaming focus than some of the other products on the market, it still cannot rival the complex multi-player games of an Xbox, but can certainly provide good entertainment especially with game controller upgrades. There are thousands of apps, and these have various appeal. Want to order food to your door from your couch or bed, without having to lift a finger? You can now do so, as apps like GrubHub provide food delivery in many cities. There are apps for working out, yoga, and even looking at home decoration photos with Houzz. And many people’s ears will now be saved, as various Karaoke apps allow you to sing without the uncomfortable bar crowd judging. What’s there not to like?
The disadvantages to the Apple TV
There could be potential dislikable gripes about Apple’s living room offering, and some of these can no doubt be fixed in the future. For one, creating content itself is nearly impossible. Most apps provide options for content consumption, but not creation. I can’t write up this post from my TV just yet, although the remote app and bluetooth keyboard support in the latest Apple TV OS betas will certainly open this door.
Apple could benefit a lot if they integrated FaceTime or iMessaging into the TV, perhaps as an optional toggle that could turn the features on and off depending on who is with you at the time. On that line, multi-user support (with profiles) could make it more appealing for families. For now, watched content is shared under one single account, which could make sharing an Apple TV a bit of a challenge for families where multiple people enjoy the same show and want to watch it independently of one another. For those who think that Facetime use would be difficult, the remote does have a built-in microphone which could make the option viable for short periods of time. Sure, if you wanted to speak for 2 hours, the battery might not last — but for those quick dictations of an iMessage or a 5 minute Facetime call from your family to make a shopping list, it’s a convenient solution which could use already-existing handoff features to become seamless.
Speaking of Apple’s Siri Remote, it also is not a precision device, and throughout my use of the product I have found that I had to turn the sensitivity down to the lowest option so as not to over-scroll within lists. On the bright side, a sensitive Siri remote can at times make keyboard typing easier to do, especially when entering in text which has letters spaced far apart. You don’t have to swipe 20 times to move from letter to letter, either. By using the VoiceOver rotor gesture of two fingers turning on the touch pad, there’s a “direct touch” option which will allow you to reach keys which are close together. This turns the remote into a mini touch device, one which allows for easier keyboard input. I find using this method a lot more efficient for quicker typing.
Advantages to the Apple TV, and where it’s growing
There’s a good reason for why I did not make this a full product review. With each TVOS update, Apple has introduced significant changes to the platform that make it more capable and similar to the competition. The Nexus Player from Google has supported external keyboards for a while, and this is finally making it to Apple TV as well. The lack of folders in the first releases meant that rows of apps just kept growing, as the home screen contains a scrolling page of 5 columns. With the latest beta, folders can now be created just like in iOS, thus organizing apps is possible and intuitive. If I were to have written about this a month ago, my opinion would be substantially different.
While many Apple TV apps face accessibility challenges (especially in the gaming department), channels and streaming apps at least work well. That’s quite opposite of the Nexus Player, where, in late 2015, almost no third-party apps had accessibility. Similar to prior mentioned changes, a month ago Netflix did not support audio description without the assistance of a representative to enable it, and Hulu had a completely inaccessible app. Today? Both are fixed and work as expected.
The Apple TV is Apple’s newest product focus
Steve Jobs once refered to the Apple TV as a hobby, something that his company was not willing to take up full time. When the Apple Watch came out a year ago, there was a noticeable silence on updates that added significant features or placed it in the spotlight. The Apple TV is an upcoming evolution of living room experiences, one that has been brewing for almost a decade now. Just after 3 months of market release, it has changed enough that any reviews you read from even November will be inaccurate to an extent. Many of the complaints, such as the lack of a remote app on the iPhone, folders, keyboard support, or the podcasts app have now been solved by Apple in either the current public release or the upcoming 9.2 version. While it’s not perfect in many areas, the $149 USD price-tag (for the 32 GB model) make it a worthwhile investment for anyone who enjoys a wide variety of content and has good internet to back it up with. And from current trends, the future definitely looks bright and crystal clear for something even Jobs thought would only be a minor sideline investment.