This week, Apple will take to the stage for its much-mooted 2014 event. Speculation is rife about what it will introduce for its new iterative models of the iPhone and iPad – but the question for us lies with their other piece of tech, which has often lain unforgotten in the corner of the Apple living room (and is tellingly note included in their top-level menus on the Apple Store site). Yes, the Apple TV Box.
Famously once described by the company as a “hobby”, Tim Cook dismissed such dismissals earlier this year, noting that Apple has sold $1 billion worth of set top boxes in 2013. Nonetheless, a lot has changed since Apple TV launched in the UK. Roku now not only has a streaming box, but a Streaming Stick, while Google Chromecast is fast becoming a household name. And next month, of course, Amazon Fire TV looms on the horizon to seize its own share of the market. Is it time for a new Apple TV upgrade?
We put Apple’s little black box through its paces and compare it some of the more recent streaming devices.
Apple may have made its name with the white iPod and iMac, but Apple TV is sleek and black. It comes with a metallic remote that feels great to hold and is weighty, yet appealingly thin.
The box itself is small enough to sit comfortably – and discreetly – on a TV stand in your home, although it is still a whole lot bigger than its new, USB stick-sized rivals. Perhaps Apple, king of scaling things into small packages (at least, until they started making their iPhones bigger) should look at downsizing?
This is where Apple TV falls down the most: its price tag of £79. Granted, this has been reduced from the once £99 label – a sign of preparing for a new product line? – but it is still significantly more than even the most expensive streaming media device, the Roku Streaming Stick, which costs £49.99.
The price, of course, is a result of Apple’s typical premium approach: you pay the most, their reasoning is, to get the best. But a look down the rest of these categories may go some way to explaining why Apple TV has never really taken off.
Apple TV is, naturally, based around your Apple user account. If you already have an iTunes account (linked to your iPhone or iPad) – and that is the clientele Apple TV is courting – then setting up is the easiest yet of all UK boxes. No visiting the computer for authorisation codes: simply sign in. If other streaming devices take a few minutes to install, Apple TV takes a few seconds.
Content / Channels / Apps
Thanks to its early pioneering work, Apple has established itself as the leading marketplace for apps on mobile devices – although Google Android is not that far behind. But Apple’s range of programmes has always come hand-in-hand with its contradictory emphasis on exclusivity. Why offer a rival service, if Apple has one of its own?
Nowhere is this more apparent than Apple TV. The streaming media device is, much like Sky’s NOW TV, extremely restrictive in its selection of apps.
“Is there Netflix?” is the first question most likely to be asked by a user. Unlike NOW TV, the answer is yes. There is even Vimeo and YouTube, alongside a neat range of multimedia apps, such as Flickr and iCloud Photos. Vimeo’s sign-in feature lets you watch your private videos (provided you add them to a watch list), which puts Apple TV one step above Roku. A NOW TV Sports app, meanwhile, lets you – with a Day Pass – stream Sky Sports live without a contract.
Front and centre, though, is iTunes. Apple TV’s strength is that offers what no other streaming device can: access to your iTunes library. If you’ve rented or purchased music, movies or TV shows, here is your chance to watch them seamlessly on the big screen in HD. You can even stream your podcasts too. The iTunes Store is one of, if not the, biggest movie and TV digital stores around, so renting the latest releases is a doodle – and, at roughly £3.49 a rental (SD), no more expensive than any other app that might be on there.
… Apple TV is missing a lot of apps. Third party rivals, such as pay-per-view service blinkbox, are perhaps expected to be missing, but there are countless others that are simply bizarre. While Netflix is present, fellow subscription service Amazon Prime Instant Video is excluded (perhaps because the app also includes Amazon Instant Video rentals). NOW TV offers Sky Sports, but no Entertainment or Movies options.
The most glaring error, though, is BBC iPlayer. In fact, all of the free-to-view terrestrial catch-up services. If Roku and Chromecast are ushering in an era of cord-cutting viewing, Apple TV is stuck in a world where cords are necessary (perhaps a remnant of its US origins, where networks are still the dominant industry force) and on-demand viewing is an after-thought to renting something from iTunes.
Compare it to the NOW TV Box, which is also highly restrictive in its content (no Netflix or Amazon) but does include iPlayer, ITV Player, Demand 5 and 4oD. With its price tag of £10, what might seem unreasonable there seems downright backward here.
Worst of all is that there is no Apple app store on Apple TV: you cannot install channels, only open the ones Apple choose for you.
Apple was EA’s “biggest retail partner measured by sales”, the company said last year – with $90 million generated from smartphone and table income. Apple TV, though, has no gaming platform included at all. With Chromecast offering a range of basic games – with potential for innovative, interactive offerings thanks to the “casting” operation – and Amazon Fire TV launching in October with a dedicated games focus, is it that far-fetched to suspect Apple will introduce its own gaming element to its tiny black box? The marketplace is already there.
Apple TV’s interface is ruthlessly efficient, sticking with the company’s tried-and-tested tile layout, which has become the default for all other devices since the iPod Touch. The lack of customisability, though, is a weakness. You can change which apps are displayed, toggling them on and off, but this only emphasises the lack of flexibility in choosing which apps to install in the first place.
The remote, though, works fluidly, with a satisfying click for every press of the button.
Most impressive of all is the inclusion of AirPlay, which allows you to stream any video content on your iPhone or iPad onto the screen, just by selecting a button on your mobile device’s screen. Chromecast may have caught the public’s imagination, but Apple TV was been casting before Google stepped into the set top box arena. You can use iPlayer and stream it to the telly, then, even without an app. That, though, once again reminds you of the missing channel to behind with.
The biggest surprise, though, is for Netflix users. The app may be present and correct, but the interface has been given an Apple-style makeover, complete with list-style menus that take up half the screen. It is far from intuitive and feels very alien indeed.
And what of voice searching? Amazon Fire TV will include voice searching as standard when it arrives in a few weeks. With Siri an ever-present function on iPhone and iPad, why not introduce it to Apple TV too?
Apple TV plugs into an HDMI port via a cable (which is not included) and outputs in a crisp 1080p HD where possible (any AirPlay content is subject to the quality of the original source). There is also, to its credit, an Optical Audio port too.
Black, sexy and simple to use, Apple TV definitely carries the signature Apple “wow” factor. It does what a (very) loyal Apple user would want from a streaming box – presuming they don’t watch terrestrial TV.
What has become painfully obvious, though, is that the box is too expensive. The joy of being able to access your iTunes catalogue is arguably worth an extra bob, but with such a small – uncustomisable – range of apps and no iPlayer, the price tag errs towards the extortionate rather than the exclusive affect you suspect they were after.
Is it time for an Apple TV 2014 update? Yes please. Will we see one this week? Who knows?
Our new 2014 Apple TV wishlist:
– More apps
– Better menus
– The original Netflix interface
– Voice search