Is Apple TV a Worthy Upgrade? Sort Of

For Apple TV fans, the new Apple TV is the long-awaited upgrade we’ve been pining for, and while it’s a welcome addition to my living room, I’m only half as impressed as I thought I would be. After spending some quality time — and some not-so-quality time — I’ll share my experience, which, it turns out, all comes down to this:

The new Apple TV is an excellent set-top box, and it provides a foundation for the app-centric living room TV experience of the future… but damn, Apple, you spent how many years not getting this thing polished?

All of the issues with the new Apple TV are relatively minor, and most could be adjusted or fixed with software updates — but the overall notion that I have, after using the Apple TV for just a couple of days, is that Apple’s quest for secrecy must be getting in the way of its ability to test things in real-world environments. For example, it’s as if Apple didn’t test the new Apple TV in a darkened living room environment.

The white background of the menu systems is terrible for dark rooms, noted ZDNet’s David Gewirtz, who railed over all sorts of little details. Depending on your HDTV setup and environment, it can be a bit much on the eyes, but it also comes down to a choice — for instance, the light background might be far better for a wider variety of lit environments, and it may be much better for using apps and games.

So maybe Apple studied this and made a tough choice. I can give Apple the benefit of the doubt on something like this.

Hey Siri, Which End Is Up?

However, dark living room testing doesn’t explain the nearly symmetrical Siri Remote. The Siri Remote is so symmetrical that it’s like USB plugs — you’re going to pick it up and try to use it in the wrong orientation at least 50 percent of the time, which will feel like 80 percent of the time. In fact, as I just now went to pick it up again to look at it more closely while writing this section of this review, I picked it up so that the bottom pointed out and the new touchscreen pointed toward my belly. In full light.

As a piece of art, the Siri Remote looks cool. As a tool? I’m blown away that Apple missed this. Sure, a super enthusiast who puts in a lot of time can learn pretty much anything, no matter how complicated or nuanced. But a remote should be intuitive every freaking time you pick it up, in the dark, while holding a bowl of popcorn — even after digging it out from between the couch cushions.

So how do you tell its orientation? The touchscreen top portion is a slightly lighter shade of black (it’s a flat dark gray) while the bottom portion is shiny black. The bottom portion is slightly longer on the face of the remote, too, and it surrounds more buttons. If you’re holding it in the dark, you have to remember the basic orientation of the buttons. If you feel the elongated volume button, that’s a clue. It goes on the right. Slightly better is finding the slightly concave Siri mic button, which goes on the left.

This is fine for someone who spends a lot of time with the Siri Remote but, say, for a spouse? Maddening. For a guest staying over during the holiday season? Maddening.

It’s truly hard to understand why Apple could not produce a remote that has some sort of shape that makes it both visually obvious as well as tactilely obvious to use. We are talking about Apple, after all, and I expect higher standards from Apple, plain and simple.

So at the outset, the Siri Remote starts off as a disappointment.

Once you start using its new touchscreen, though, it’s sort of cool… but a little hard to handle. It seems like I am often overshooting my intended navigation point. Why is that? A Bluetooth connectivity issue? A sensitivity issue? Am I just doing it wrong? Or am I mostly a half-dead zombie who doesn’t really have good electrical conductivity coming out of my right thumb?

I’ve gotten better at using the Siri Remote, but in no way is it as intuitive to touch and use as an iPad or iPhone.

Worst Software Keyboard Ever?

Other reviewers have complained about the new Apple TV on-screen “keyboard.” Combined with the Siri Remote, you have to move your selection along an A-to-Z horizontal line, and if you want to use a capital, you have to separately select that, too. This is a tedious keyboard. It seems like it ought to work out well, but all it does is remind you how annoying it is. Even if you could use voice dictation with Siri, do you really want to be dictating a long Apple ID password with special characters?

Which brings up another point, if you want a halfway secure experience in your living room — because you have younger kids, for example, as well as neighbor kids hanging out, as well as teenager kids and friends of their friends — why must all the renting and App Store buying information be connected to your Apple ID account in such an obvious way? After the brouhaha over Jennifer Lawrence’s stolen naked photos, we all learned that having a strong Apple ID/iCloud password is a good idea, but the Apple TV is a social experience.

So, for relative security, my password is a long mess of a thing to use on the Apple TV. Making it dirt-simple is a bad idea. Either way, kids are smart, so now if I want to rent some movie, does Apple expect its customers to ask everyone in the room to look away while they labor away at entering their passwords? Or just give up and go create some new family-focused Apple ID/iCloud account that’s not connected to anything important — like, say, their email, calendars and apps?

With my Amazon Fire TV — as a countering example — instead of having to enter in my long Amazon password, I can set up a 4-digit PIN. This is secure enough to use in a living room environment, with kids and visitors both.

If Apple has something this easy — and smart — I sure couldn’t find it.

All of which raises the question: Did Apple have anybody real try using this thing before shipping it out?

Like I said, these minor annoyances can be fixed via software updates. The workaround for movies is simple enough — find and rent or buy a movie on your iPhone or Mac or in iTunes on a PC… but don’t download it. Your Apple TV will notice the new rental or purchase, and you can start watching it in your living room. (So yes, Apple got this seamless connectivity right, which makes for an ironic workaround for a poor UI account system.)

As for Apple TV apps? When you have a little kid standing next to you begging you to buy a cool new game, have fun entering in your password — because you’re not going to find Apple TV apps anywhere else but within the tvOS world itself.

Of course, you can set up your Apple TV so that you don’t have to enter your password more than during your initial setup, but that means your kids will be able to purposely (or accidentally) buy whatever they want when you happen to leave their side and, say, cook dinner.

Come On, Are These Rants Justified?

All right, so I’ve had a couple of minor rants here myself… but these issues are worthy of rants because we’re talking about Apple, the most powerful and profitable consumer electronics and software company in the history of the world, which also happens to take pride in its overall design acumen. It is mind-blowing that after spending years of not producing an updated Apple TV, Apple ships a new Apple TV with so many annoyances that limit its ease of use and even its competitive positioning.

There are lots of little examples out there from other Apple fans, too.

For example, it’s frustrating that you can’t log into more than one Game Center account at a time, commented Daring Fireball’s John Gruber, who also noted that it “seems downright wrong for a shared family device.”

Microsoft has gamer profiles nailed down with its Xbox world, but Apple is starting out of the gate with a limited family gaming experience. None of these profile ideas are new, yet gaming gets even more limiting. You can only pair one Siri Remote with your Apple TV, so you can’t play a game with two kids with two Siri Remotes. You could do this with the super old Nintendo Wii, but not with Apple? As if you would want to drop another $79 for an extra Siri Remote anyway. And the safety Remote Loop so your kids don’t throw the remote into your HDTV? That’s a $12.99 extra add-on item.

At least you can buy a third-party console-style remote, right? Yup. Or use an iPhone, too. Now have fun trying to figure out what multiplayer gaming experiences are even available on the Apple TV, much less figuring out which are worth investing in, as well as knowing for sure which games will function with which types of remotes.

No 4K Support?

I don’t have a super-high resolution 4K HDTV, and I’m not buying one any time in the next 12 months. Some people are, though, and I would imagine that those people would appreciate the best living room experience. Apple had to know that 4K TVs are here already, but it shipped a new Apple TV that doesn’t even support it. So viewing your new 4K videos that you shot with your new iPhone 6s in all their 4K glory on your 4K TV?


In case you’re wondering, Roku supports next-generation 4K video streaming with its Roku 4 device.

Apparently the new Apple TV is the device that Apple employees themselves wanted. Isn’t that what Apple says all the time? That they set out to produce the very best device that they themselves want to use?


Buy the Pesky Apple TV Anyway

Ultimately, Apple will fix many of these software issues. We will probably get a new iPhone or iPad remote app that works, maybe even with Siri integration. Navigation and app discovery will improve, and account management eventually will get better.

More to the point, there is a lot to like about the new Apple TV. While sometimes hard to navigate, the refreshed interface looks good and is often fun to use. Once I have the remote oriented correctly, using Siri to search for movies and video works pretty well. I could ask Siri to, say, “find me the latest episode of The Walking Dead.” Siri would make sure I didn’t want Fear the Walking Dead, while directing me to the latest episodes in Season 6.

That’s cool and quick.

Better yet, I expect that cross-app, cross-service Siri voice search will improve dramatically over time. Why? Apple’s ecosystem-building skills are still second to none, and I firmly believe the voice search will leap past competitors. That’s in part because I also believe that Apple knows that expanding access to all content — even competitive content — is the key to winning in the living room.

All in all, it’s important to remember that while the new Apple TV isn’t particularly impressive when held to Apple’s high standards, it’s still a very good set-top box that also includes a new app-focused ecosystem. If you’re an Apple household that uses iPhones, iPads and Macs, it’s an easy recommendation. Similarly, if you want a foundational set-top box that will improve and change at a rapid rate, the new Apple TV is still easy to recommend.

Chris Maxcer

TechNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at or check out @WickedCoolBite on Twitter.

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