Apple TV 4K Review
TV isn’t something that I watch in the traditional sense. I much prefer the choice and convenience of streaming services such as Netflix and YouTube compared to regularly scheduled broadcasting from the BBC et al. Pairing that with my interest in technology has resulted in a search for the ultimate delivery platform that satisfies my preference for streamed content.
Having used a variety of devices from the PS4 to WebOS apps on my LG TV, to Google Chromecast, it's fair to say I've tried out different ways of getting that content from the distributors to my eyeballs. None have been perfect and some are more passable than others. Here's a quick rundown:
I find the PS4 surprisingly good for streaming apps as the platform developers seems to be able to take ownership over their own design language. That said, the convenience of quickly being able to drop in and out of TV and streaming box interfaces by far outweighs waiting around for the PS4 console to spin into life. This element of friction is a step too far, especially when accompanied by a sucking fan noise. Not only that, but using a gaming controller as a remote control is less than ideal and highlights the importance of having an input method that matches the media.
There’s a lot to like about the Chromecast. It’s lightweight and easy to use, and cheap enough to deck your home out with one in each room, if one was inclined. The problems arise in having to fire up either individual apps or the Google Home app to control the device remotely. Our smartphones are often pledged as one device to rule them all but in reality, waking the device, launching an app, waiting for it to connect and then interacting with the UI doesn't replace a dedicated always-on remote.
I was pleasantly surprised with WebOS; it’s actually pretty good. It's just a shame the experience is ruined by shoddy apps that have inconsistent "dynamic" colour rendering and intermittently force close themselves due to memory problems. Traditionally TV interfaces have been sluggish, poorly designed and featureless, but it seems they’ve come on a lot in the 5 years between TV purchases (for me).
Life in 4K
Having been a fan of the Apple TV (2nd gen) and also owning a variety of iTunes films, it seemed like a no brainer to opt for the 4K iteration of the set-top device, even if it had some criticism over the technicals. Personally, I think it looks great and I haven’t come across any picture issues described in that Verge article. TV is one area where the technicals don’t blow my skirt up but each to their own. I’m more about the user experience and will focus on that.
Speaking of user experience, let’s start with the remote control and its relationship to the interface. The touch input on the remote is far from perfect, but the general navigation is good. There are familiar touch mechanics that translate well from its touchscreen device cousins, and I’ve always appreciated the drive for simplicity that Apple has towards the remotes. This has been evident as far back as 2009 when they shipped them with iMacs and pushed Front Row as an entertainment experience. Everyone knows that TV remotes can be an absolute sh*t show when it comes to overzealous button inclusion and being restrained in their approach is necessary and welcomed.
The top of the remote features a clickable touchpad that merges actions into one area. You can swipe your thumb in any direction, navigating grids of app icons or other UI elements and pressing down to take action on that element all in one movement. In general, this feels like a natural way of interacting if not for the difference in sensitivity of the swipe action; I don't know whether I'm imagining it but some actions feel inconsistent as the pace against the sensitivity of the trackpad feels different depending on the current view. For instance, app navigation on the home view feels more cumbersome than navigating subscriptions in YouTube. One is stirring toffee while the other is whisking egg whites.
Where the touchpad really comes into its own is scrubbing through video. Using a swipe to navigate through video makes absolute sense to me and the sensitivity of the action feels just right.
It’s hard to get any concrete up-to-date figures on how many apps currently sit in the Apple TV App Store, however going by this source we are probably close to, if not over 10,000 by now. How many of these are actually useful is another question. When it comes to the staples of everyday app usage, social media is usually at the top of the list, but on the Apple TV they are either non-existent or badly rated. Currently, as of February 2018 Twitter is sitting at a rating of 1.5 stars and Facebook and Instagram are totally non-existent. Gaming is in abundance and I can see how the easy access is good for casual gamers, but for me, I have the PS4 for that.
That said, it’s primary focus should be TV and in that instance all the big boys are there (in the UK anyway). Netflix, NOWTV, Amazon Prime, YouTube and BBC iPlayer are all in attendance and all work well - I say work well but I have a huge problem with TV apps usability in general that is present across all platforms and devices and not exclusive to Apple TV. If you’ve ever navigated through a long list of YouTube subscriptions to someone at the end, then you will have experienced what I mean.
What is interesting is Apple's own app simply called TV. It plugs into various streaming services and searches across them all in an attempt to aggregate the content into an advanced playlist without having to enter each app separately. At this point it’s an unsurprising move considering Apple don’t really have any content to offer themselves (yet).
Overall the selection of viable apps is pretty disappointing. My expectations demanded a living room version of my iPhone where all my apps were available for the largest screen I own. In reality only a few exist, and not all features are mirrored. Practically that makes sense as the primary input is a remote which, by default, limits your capacity for typing as it has no native keyboard. This is where Apple use visual cues to drive you towards using Siri.
Speak and Spell
Ok, let’s talk about Siri. The ATV4K doesn’t rely on it, but tvOS somewhat pushes the user in that direction. Every text field has a prompt for using a vocal input, and not only that, there's a dedicated button on the remote just for activating Siri, so Apple clearly want you to use it. The problem is it's not very good.
Don't get me wrong, there's an empowering feeling when you hold the Siri button, say a command, and the action plays out just as you'd hoped, it just doesn't happen all that often.
One challenge all keyboardless controllers have is that at some point the user will want to enter bespoke text, whether it's a password or an email address; not all cases can be tailored for by custom buttons. The problem is, Siri doesn't solve that either. The idea is that from anywhere within tvOS a simple button press can activate Siri and it will take you to anywhere you wish, all through the utterance of a single phrase. This is great as long as you don't want to watch any sequels. One weekend I spent more time than anyone should trying to get Siri to select Iron Man 2. However, Siri was much more interested in replacing the "2" for "too" and I got nowhere. I don't know how many different ways I can say "2" without sounding like a toddler doing an impression of a train. In all seriousness Apple have to sort out their voice interface. I have an Echo at home that is by no means perfect but it's eating Siri’s lunch.
The saving grace when it comes to textual input is the Remote app on the iPhone. If you encounter a text field and have the app on your phone you should receive a push notification leading you to use the phone's keyboard to enter the characters. This is the best way to deal with text fields by far and any other way is nothing but a frustration.
It may sound like I’m ragging on the Apple TV, and I guess I am a bit, but in general I’m happy. It’s just that I want to be ecstatic. Siri is poor and is needs more apps, but as a viewing experience, the Apple TV 4K does sit above any alternative I’ve tried. There is the element of UI detailing you’d come to expect from the Apple product team such as parallax thumbnails on a simplified home screen, and I often find myself mesmerised by the dynamic screensavers; sweeping in over Hong Kong Harbour is nothing short of breathtaking.
The beauty of software is that it can be updated, and with the Apple TV 4K being in its first iteration, I’m hopeful for the future. Siri needs a significant upgrade across the board otherwise it risks obliteration by its competitors. When that upgrade happens, the living room could become an interesting space, providing the apps are there to support it.
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