Apple TV changes your Idiot Box

Last Updated 08 November 2015, 18:36 IST
Inever imagined I would get hooked on reading comic books on a TV screen. That changed last week after I picked up a new Apple TV.

The new device, which is similar to a set-top box and brings video and music from the Internet to a television, now has an app store. So I downloaded Madefire, one of the first apps available for the new device. Madefire adds a twist to digital comics with sound effects, music and motion, bringing the panels to life on the big screen. Within minutes, I was bingeing on a series about Superman turning into a corrupt dictator.

Playing with apps is just one new feature of the revamped Apple TV, which has just started shipping. It’s that plethora of innovations and apps that leads me to conclude that the upgraded $149 (Rs 9,813) box is now the best TV streaming device you can get for your money.

You can trust me because after testing hundreds of new devices for nearly a decade in this line of work, I’m usually blasé about products. My editor was concerned that body snatchers had taken me when I said I was positive about Apple TV. But I reserve excitement for products that I think will make a difference, this being one of them.

For Apple, this type of reaction to Apple TV is important. The box, which made its debut in 2007, was long labelled a “hobby” by the company, and it accounts for a single-digit percentage of its revenue. With the new device, Apple is aiming to push hard into consumers’ living rooms, where it faces competition from players including the Microsoft Xbox and Amazon’s Fire TV device.

“This is the foundation of the future of TV,” Timothy D Cook, Apple’s chief executive, said recently at a conference about Apple TV. “What has to happen in the TV land, it has to be brought up and modernised.”

All the extra features have now put Apple TV in a position to become a powerful apps and games console, not just a box for streaming movies and TV shows.

Even for those more basic elements, the device is better at streaming video content than less expensive products from Amazon, Roku and Google, all of which I tested over the last month. While the new Apple box has flaws, it also has a cleaner interface for finding things to watch and a niftier remote control — not to mention more compelling apps and games.

Redesigned Remote

One of the biggest changes is a redesigned remote control, which has a touch pad and a few physical buttons. It is also thicker, which is actually an improvement because the previous version was so thin that it had a tendency to vanish between couch cushions. More important, the remote includes a microphone and a button to summon Siri, Apple’s voice assistant, for finding content.

Siri for Apple TV can search for movies or TV shows across multiple streaming services, like Netflix, Hulu and HBO, along with Apple’s iTunes Store, and play them right away. Pressing the Siri button and speaking the command “Find ‘Fresh Off the Boat’” will find that the TV show can be streamed on Hulu and iTunes; selecting the streaming service will instantly show a list of episodes.

Siri has other tricks, too. If you’re watching something and missed what a character just said, you can ask Siri: “What did they just say?” and it will rewind the video about 15 seconds and replay that portion with subtitles turned on, before switching the subtitles off.

Apple still has some kinks to work out with Siri. When I asked it to look up Nicolas Cage movies, it failed to find any relevant titles because it misspelled his first name as Nicholas (and try as I might, I could not make a silent “h” even more silent). When I tried the “What did you just say?” command, Siri occasionally failed to display subtitles for content on Netflix and Hulu. Apple acknowledged both problems as known issues and said it was working to resolve them.

Gaming and Apps

Gaming on Apple TV is off to a promising start. The remote control includes motion sensors so it can double as a game controller. The game Beat Sports relied on the remote’s motion sensors — swinging the remote makes the on-screen character whack a ball with a bat; the object of the game is to swing and whack the ball to the beat of the music.

Some other games I tried, such as Rayman Adventures and Crossy Road, relied primarily on the touch pad to control the games. The game Transistor, a role-playing title, was awkward with the touch pad and would benefit from a physical game controller, which is a supported accessory.

Gaming graphics were also on par with Nintendo’s Wii U, and some of the casual games seemed to compete directly in Nintendo’s sweet spot: lightweight, family-friendly gaming. I still don’t see players of deep action games like Halo abandoning their PlayStation 4 or Xbox One to play on an Apple TV, at least not until we see some hard-core games on the Apple device.

Other than the Madefire comic book app, other early apps on the new device make clever use of an Internet-connected big screen. The Airbnb app offers immersive pictures of apartment rooms you can rent. The Periscope app is a fascinating glimpse into what people around the world are streaming live from their smartphones (beware: Many people like to point cameras at themselves and make comments about their uninteresting lives in front of an audience of strangers, but hey, that’s better than Chatroulette).

Screen Savers

The new device comes equipped with extremely customisable screen savers. Before you yawn from boredom, consider this: A screen saver can turn a TV into a living piece of art that is constantly changing, which is a great conversation starter at parties.

For my Apple TV, I set up an Internet recipe with the site If This Then That, so that whenever I upload a photo to Instagram or “Like” a photo that my friend took on Instagram, it shows up on my Apple TV screen saver. That way, rather than relentlessly bombarding guests with selfies of my partner and me on vacation in Hawaii, my wallpaper is a window into moments captured by all the interesting people I know, not just snapshots from my life.

If that setup is too complicated, Apple offers some neat screen savers, including high-definition videos of different locations shot from the sky, including the Great Wall of China.

Buying Advice

While the Apple TV is my favourite all-around streaming device, there are some weaknesses.

Setting it up can be tedious. When you install streaming apps like Hulu and Netflix from the App Store, you type in your login credentials by swiping left and right with the remote to select letters of the alphabet one at a time — you have no option to do this by speaking into the microphone or using a keyboard on a smartphone.

The Apple TV may also not be the best streaming device for everyone because of one missing feature: the ability to stream content available in Ultra HD 4K TV, the latest high-definition resolution supported by some of the newest TV sets.

For early adopters of 4K television sets, the Roku 4, priced at $130 (Rs 8,561), is a better bet. The Roku is versatile, has a nice selection of apps and has a comfortable remote control. Amazon’s $100 (Rs 6,586) Fire TV also supports 4K, but I recommend against it because of its cheap-feeling remote control and less polished user interface.

Another competing device is Google’s $35 (Rs 2,305) Chromecast, a miniature dongle that pulls streaming content from a smartphone. It’s a good option for people on a tight budget, but I found it unreliable — sometimes videos failed to stream from my smartphone to the device.

There are two storage models for the Apple TV. For $149 (Rs 9,813), you get 32 gigabytes; $199 (rs 13,106) buys 64 gigs. In my tests, apps and games were pretty slim in terms of data size, so 32 gigs should be enough for most people. Those who plan to do a lot of gaming will probably be safer with 64 gigs.

Apple TV is on the path to turning the television set into a smarter connected screen. And though it’s the most expensive of the bunch, it will accrue more value over time as software developers expand its capabilities with more apps and games.

(Published 08 November 2015, 17:08 IST)

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