By Dan Moren
December 5, 2014 2:30 PM PT
The Apple TV needs to get back in the picture
I love my Apple TV. I use it every day. It’s my de facto streaming device. (And as we’ve established, I’ve got quite a few).
But it needs a transfusion. Badly. As Jason said on the most recent episode of Upgrade, now is not the time to buy an Apple TV.
Apple’s getting its lunch eaten by competitors, and the hits just keep on coming. The most recent numbers have Google’s Chromecast and Amazon’s Fire TV pulling ahead of Apple’s set-top box, and you know what? They should be. Right now, they’re better products: they have support for more services, they have more flexibility, and they’re cheaper.
The Apple TV, on the other hand, hasn’t gotten a meaningful upgrade since 2010. (The third-generation model, which appeared in 2012 and was revved slightly in 2013, added support for 1080p and some small, under the hood improvements.)
That older second-generation model, which I have, doesn’t even merit the latest software upgrade (which, thankfully, only brings the easier peer-to-peer AirPlay functionality and some more iOS 7-style icons). I was more than a little surprised to hear from multiple people, however, that it’s in demand on eBay and elsewhere, because you can apparently jailbreak them and add a bunch of other functionality.
The only thing the Apple TV has going for it right now—again, to agree with my illustrious colleague Mr. Snell—is the Apple ecosystem. If you want to watch iTunes content on a big screen, it’s your only option. If you want to use AirPlay, same deal. (Yes, you can use a Mac hooked up to an HDTV for both of these things, with some additional software. But it’s not nearly as elegant or couch-friendly.)
The good news is that getting back into the game shouldn’t be much of a problem for Apple—if it’s interested. And though the company’s always been a little bit cagey about its plans for the living room—the Apple TV was a “hobby” and then “an area of intense interest”—there’s little doubt in my mind that Apple wants a foothold there just as much as it does in your car or on your wrist.
So, at the risk of telling the company its business, here are a few areas where its competitors currently have a leg up.
Portability: When I first got my Apple TV, I marveled at the fact that it could fit in a small box, which itself could be tucked into my shoulder bag. But with the Chromecast, Roku Stick, and Fire TV Stick, the Apple TV looks positively gargantuan these days. The stick form factor has its limitations, to be sure, but the ability to unplug it and go is pretty great for traveling.1
Apps: Apple, of all companies, should be on top of this. It saw what happened when it didn’t offer a native SDK for the iPhone, and it’s being much clearer about its intent for developers on the Apple Watch. There’s a Plex app on my Fire TV, and it works great. But watching Plex content on my Apple TV requires falling back to AirPlay. Currently, there’s no infrastructure to allow Plex—or anyone else—to write an app for the Apple TV without Apple’s direct involvement.2 We’ve all been expecting apps for the Apple TV for years now, and they’ve yet to materialize—I hope they show up before interest wanes or moves on.
Games: We’ll call this distinct from apps, since they have separate needs. Gaming on the Fire TV isn’t awesome, but at least Amazon goes whole hog and sells a separate game controller. Some iOS games use AirPlay to extend their functionality, but I think that the iOS-device-as-controller only works for a limited number of games—in titles that require quick reaction, for example, you can’t be looking down at your smartphone or tablet to find a button. Games have been very successful for iOS; it’s surprising to me that Apple hasn’t tried to capitalize on that in the living room. Then again, Apple’s relationship with gaming has long been tenuous—perhaps it’s the popularity of iOS gaming that’s the fluke.
User interface: Yet another problem that Apple would seem ideally suited to. The Apple TV’s interface is a mess. It’s hard to find things. Organizing and managing content channels is a pain. The homescreen is a mess of samey icons. Entering text sucks. For a company that’s always touted how well it makes hardware and software work together, the Apple TV is an embarrassment. Someone’s going to come up with a better solution—it really ought to be Apple.
Remote: Apple’s remote is simple, and it’s small. And that’s about where its advantages end. It doesn’t, as my friend Lex Friedman pointed out, have a simple way to jump back to the home screen. (Apple’s way is that you have to hold down the menu button—not what I’d call simple, since I didn’t know it was an option until readers mentioned it!) Other companies have added improved features—the Fire TV’s voice search, for example, or the Roku remote’s built-in headphone jack. Yes, the Apple Remote’s reliance on IR means that you can replace it with a universal remote, unlike the Fire TV, but come on. That should not be the direction in which you’re pushing people.
Siri integration: I covered this previously.
Amazon: By my count, Amazon is the biggest streaming provider not available on the Apple TV. Shocking, right? But Amazon does let you stream videos on your iPad, which you can then AirPlay to your Apple TV, so really, what’s the big deal? Yes, Apple would probably rather you rent the movie from iTunes. And yes, Amazon would probably prefer you buy a Fire TV. But their approaches are complementary: Apple wants you to buy devices, Amazon wants you to buy things or subscribe to its content. Everybody wins! While you’re at it, here’s a radical idea: provide an iTunes app for the Fire TV. (Hey, look, flying pigs!)
Look, I have to believe Apple’s in the process of doing an extensive overhaul of the Apple TV. It may not be an iPhone-size market, but it’s still too big to simply cede to the competition without a fight. I’d be glad to see any number of these features in an update, but what I really, truly, secretly, selfishly hope is that whatever comes out of Cupertino will blow even my lofty hopes and expectations out of the water.
[Former Macworld Senior Editor Dan Moren writes for Six Colors weekly, and is also writing at popsci.com.]
Just don’t leave them in a hotel room.↩
I’ve heard through the grapevine that the current Apple TV interface is essentially a single app that contains all the different content channels. If true, that would sure make app development a lot harder—and also potentially explain why an Apple TV upgrade has been so long in the making, given the amount of rearchitecting necessary.↩
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[Get much more Apple TV-related stuff on our Apple TV page.]