Apple TV 4: Iteration, Not Revolution

Previously, on Apple TV

A Hobby

Both Steve Jobs and Tim Cook called Apple TV a “hobby.” And although I doubt either chief executive meant that pejoratively, it certainly came off that way for Apple fans (myself included). For many years, Apple TV has been largely ignored by Apple. Up until a few days ago, the current Apple TV (Apple TV 3) sported 3-year-old SOC architecture. And as far as software goes: yes, Apple TV did receive a visual refresh following iOS 8’s introduction in 2014. But beyond that, the backbone of Apple TV’s UI hasn’t been re-thought since the 2nd generation was released in 2010. Generally speaking, Apple TV has consistently been an afterthought for Apple.

A “hobby,” indeed.

Adopting iOS

The 1st generation Apple TV was essentially a pared-down Mac. In it’s silver and white guise, it was based on a variant of Mac OS X 10.4 “Tiger.” That Apple TV required a computer running an iTunes to stream content. There was no Netflix, no Hulu Plus, and no HBO Go Now. Apple TV was essentially a glorified conversion box that helped your HDTV stream content from Apple’s iTunes CDN.

For the following two generations, Apple TV dropped it’s OS X underpinnings and adopted iOS for its operating system.[1] It no longer required a computer running iTunes, and it could finally purchase/stream content from the iTunes Store directly. And that brings us to today.

No one watches TV like this
No one watches TV like this

The Hope for Better TV

At this year’s September event, Tim Cook said that the “future of TV was apps.”

A bold claim, to be sure.

Up until that point, there was really nothing Cook could have said to appease Wall Street or end users. Wall Street is never happy with Apple. End users haven’t been happy because they’ve been waiting for Apple to do something with Apple TV—even if they don’t know what that something is.

Though Apple TV has been stagnating over the past couple of years, that hasn’t stopped Apple from dropping numerous hints that they planned to disrupt the TV market soon.

A Television Set?

Some of those hints suggested that Apple was planning its own television set.[2] Instead of a set-top box, Apple was going to create an all-in-one device that incorporated Apple TV’s features into an actual television. Over the years, we all watched Gene Munster’s downward spiral from an initial place of hope and optimism, to an eventual state of dreary embarrassment, as he finally capitulated that Apple wasn’t going to make an actual TV (they really were going to, though!).

If not an Apple-branded television, what then?

A Streaming Content Service?

Other hints suggested Apple’s big foray into TV disruption was going to be a streaming content service. Not unlike the current state of “cable” television, this proposed “Apple TV” venture would help cut the heartache associated with cable TV service.

“Do you have an AppleID?”

“Perfect.”

“You can have whatever channel you want, as long as you pay us $___.”

Apple could leverage its already having our credit card information, and offer a streaming TV/Movie service to customers without all the terrible strings attached that we currently endure for traditional cable service.

Cord-cutting has been steadily increasing amongst TV viewers—especially in the millennial generation. Apple would be wise to take advantage of the situation. The cable TV market has been ripe for disruption for as long as ESPN has been subsidizing all the other channels that no one cares about.

Hope Realized

Here’s the deal: Apple TV 4 is not a revolutionary television set, nor is it a new-fangled streaming content service. It is, said plainly: more of the same.

Yes, the Apple TV 4 is a remarkable improvement over its predecessors (more on that later). And yes, tvOS is the most exciting software initiative since iPhone OS (more on that later).

But Apple TV 4’s improved hardware and software are still fundamentally iterative.

And if you’ve been following Apple for any reasonable amount of time, this is nothing new.

Iteration, not revolution.

Side by side: the old remote vs Siri Remote
Side by side: the old remote vs Siri Remote

The Hardware

The new box looks almost exactly like the old one, except it’s about twice as tall. I got the 32 GB version, because I haven’t read a compelling reason to buy the bigger version.[3] I’ve always thought the shiny black plastic on the periphery of the device was rather gaudy. I wish they would have used the matte finish currently adorning the top and bottom of the box everywhere. Sadly, this new generation is visually the same as the previous ones: shiny plastic on the outside surfaces, except for the top and bottom, which are matte like the older versions. It’s not ugly, and it could be argued that the shiny outer trim compliments the new remote.Let’s talk about the remote.

Siri Remote

The biggest visual change for Apple TV hardware is the new Siri Remote. It’s basically the same size as the last one, except it’s 30% deeper compared to the previous two generations’ remotes. I was concerned that the trackpad would feel awkward. I was also concerned that the button layout was unintuitive.

Siri Remote (Left) vs. 2nd and 3rd Generation Apple TV remote (Right)
Siri Remote (Left) vs. 2nd and 3rd Generation Apple TV remote (Right)

Firstly, the trackpad felt great. No one can deny that Apple does the best trackpads. The glass that adorns the Siri Remote is just as easy and fun to interact with as the rest of Apple’s trackpads. And while I can’t speak authoritatively on the intuitiveness of the button layout (I’ve only spent about an hour with the device), so far, it seems fine.Likely the best feature of the new Siri Remote is television integration. John Siracusa had me worried that my TV wouldn’t automatically respond to Siri Remote’s commands. But, lo and behold: It Just Works™. The volume up down, as well as the TV “on/off” button—both features worked right out of the box. No doubt the engineers on the Apple TV 4 project spent countless hours testing and debugging this feature.[4]

The Software

Software-wise, Apple TV 4 has made a giant leap over its predecessors. Don’t get me wrong—the hardware is great. But the real win for Apple TV 4 is it’s new operating system: tvOS.

I think tvOS is the best thing to happen to Apple TV since Apple TV. It is the reason to buy a new Apple TV 4.

Some perspective: I haven’t been an iPhone user since the beginning “Wikipedia: The Original iPhone”). And I wasn’t into Apple when the original iMac was released. And I wasn’t old enough to have the first Macintosh in 1984. But I’ve been using an iPhone since 2012, and a Mac since 2006. That’s long enough to grow thoroughly accustomed to everything that goes along with Apple ownership: delightful software interactions, astonishing hardware innovations, and the general notion that I’m using products created by people who care more than everyone else.

And yet, after years of Apple ownership, I am the first to admit how easy it is to forget all the aspects that make Apple products inarguably Apple. Said another way, I have grown so accustomed to Apple being great that I no longer appreciate all the niceties of the Apple ecosystem.[5]

In this year alone, Apple has impressed me in two big ways. The first was the new Retina MacBook. The second is tvOS. I am thoroughly impressed with tvOS.

tvOS is an example of Apple iteration at its finest. iOS through and through, tvOS no more revolutionary than any new version of iOS compared to its predecessor. But it’s decidedly different from the version of iOS adorning iPhone and iPad.

For better or worse, iOS 7 ushered in a new era of “flat” design. Bright neon lights replaced warmer colors. Gone were the days of button outlines. In their place, …a bunch of text buttons. (In 20 years, I believe we’ll all look back at iOS 7 and see it as one of the most controversial design decisions Apple has made.)

iOS 8 and 9 toned-down iOS 7’s absolute minimalism, bringing back button outlines and the occasional textures. Combined, I think of iOS 8 and 9 as “iOS 7.5”—it’s almost as if these three releases are one big release, spread over three years.[6]

Using the UI differentials of iOS 7 → iOS 8 and iOS 8 → iOS 9 as a barometer, tvOS might as well be iOS 10. There’s a still a bunch of white everywhere, but it’s less in your face than iOS 7. And yes, there still aren’t enough drop shadows around button outlines. But there’s a lot to like about this new TV operating system.

Iteration, not revolution.

Setup

I heard talk about the ridiculously easy setup for Apple TV: how I could simply hold my iPhone near the Apple TV to transfer Wi-Fi credentials. For whatever reason, I assumed this wouldn’t work for me.

Surprisingly, it did. When prompted, I placed my iPhone near the Apple TV 4 while it figured out how to connect to my home network. (Why can’t the new iPhone setup process be this easy?)

The next step was to choose what apps to install. That experience is what you’d expect if you’ve used the App Store on an iOS device.

So far, so good.

Source: Apple
Source: Apple

It was the next step that took what seemed like eons: authenticating the Netflix, YouTube, and Home Sharing apps. The on-screen keyboard for tvOS sucks, plain and simple. Navigating that a-z lineup of letters is horrendous, even with the neat new remote. And what’s more frustrating is that Apple hasn’t (won’t?) update the Remote app to work with Apple TV 4. So, no using my iOS device’s easier-to-use on-screen keyboard to type in[7] those horrendously-long passwords for Netflix and YouTube (Google). I spent at least ten minutes alone trying to get my Netflix password to work. It’s around 30 characters long, with a mixture of uppercase, lowercase, symbols, and numbers (like the good paranoid nerd that I am). Inputting complex passwords via on-screen keyboard is a terrible experience.

Oh, and no Bluetooth keyboard pairing, either. (I can only assume Apple is planning a dot release to address this seemingly critical omission.) Once I got past that drudgery, it was time for delight.

Delight

Good software should delight.

Here’s BuzzFeed’s John Paczkowski, formerly of AllThingsD, calling out a mission statement that used to adorn Apple’s website:

Presented in two videos that bookended the keynote address, it was at once a mission statement for the post-Steve Jobs era and a paean to the Apple co-founder’s vision for the company. It’s a “Think Different” campaign for the next phase of Apple’s evolution, and it speaks to Apple’s drive for perfection, Jobs’s “we just want to make great products” refrain, and his 1997 observation that “innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”

The first thing we ask is: What do we want people to feel? Delight. Surprise. Love. Connection. Then we begin to craft around our intention. It takes time. There are a thousand no’s for every yes. We simplify. We perfect. We start over. Until everything we touch enhances each life it touches. Only then do we sign our work.

Just like everyone else, I was enamored with Aqua when I bought my first Apple computer in 2006.[8] Over the years, I found myself delighting in OS X’s liberal use of chrome UI, and of the not-so-subtle Genie Dock animations, and the drop shadows on screenshots—the list goes on. There were times that I thought—especially at the height of skeumorphism in 2012—that Apple’s UI needed a refresh. And in an effort to internalize that belief, I pushed back against those delights of yore.

That was a mistake. While I still prefer the older design, iOS 6 was seriously long in the tooth when iOS 7 launched. iOS 7 needed to happen. But part of me wonders whether the pendulum of flat design has swung too far away from the rich and delightful UI’s of old? Shouldn’t there be a balance between delight and minimalism?

With tvOS, I believe that balance has swung back toward the delightful UI of older versions of Apple operating systems. And that’s a good thing.

Parallax

Speaking of delight, the parallax UI first featured in iOS 7 is in full force in tvOS. On the Home Screen, hover over an app icon and rock your thumb slightly from side to side. The app icon dances around, following the curve of your thumb. Flat is great, but flat without a sense of context is just confusing. This is the best example I’ve seen of Apple using a “flat” UI to convey a sense of place.

The Sounds

The sounds have been thoroughly redone, as well. I liked the old ones quite a bit, but these new ones go better with the new visual UI. Swipe or tap the trackpad to bounce to a nearby app icon, and a more graceful, playful ding ensues.

Tap the menu button on the Siri Remote to go back one level. Gone is the sharp thud from before. It’s more of a subtle dong. “Thud.” “Dong.” I know these terms are incredibly subjective, and may not adequately capture the new sounds. But trust me: they’re great.

Source: Apple
Source: Apple
Screensavers

I haven’t been excited about a screen saver since, well …no—I’ve never been excited about a screensaver. That is, until I heard that the new tvOS screensavers were amazing.

Are they amazing?

Yes, yes they are.

Here’s a video I captured showing one of the many [600 MB] screensavers new for tvOS:

Like many annoying hippie environmentalists, I had previously set my Apple TV to sleep after 30 minutes—what I believe was the shortest time interval I could have chosen.

Having screensavers this nice makes me want to set the sleep timer to 1 hour, just so I can walk by the TV and see these awesome Aerial screensavers.

The Need for Speed

Navigating through the menus and the overall hierarchy of the UI seems roughly 50% faster than the previous generations. I don’t chalk this up to hardware alone; it seems like tvOS itself plays a part. For instance, I’ve noticed there is a slight delay between when I select something, and the content presenting itself onscreen. In this situation, it’s almost as if tvOS is compensating for the slight delay between selections: instead of just going black, the background blurs, calling out the centered, non-blurred text stating the UI destination. The background blur only lasts for a half second or so, but for whatever reason, transitioning in this manner instead of via black screen seems faster.

Video Seek

The video seeking demonstrations at Apple’s September event were not exaggerated. Seeking on the new Apple TV 4 is vastly different from the previous generations.

For the older platform, seeking at 2x or 3x was unusable. The old Apple TVs would present a thumbnail for the first few moments of accelerated seeking, but after a bit, the thumbnail would disappear, and one would have to guess where to press play.

“Whoops, I went too far.”

[Rewind. 1x. 2x.]

“Nope, too far back.”

[Fast-foward. 1x only, this time.]

“Close enough. Sigh.”

Gone are those days. It takes a little getting used-to, but seeking forward or backward on the Apple TV 4 is much easier than before. Seeking is actually a usable feature now, whereas before it was hit-or-miss at best.

Games

I’m not a big gamer. I had a PlayStation 2 in high school, and I occasionally watch YouTube play-throughs of Metal Gear Solid 2 when feeling nostalgic. But that’s about it.

Having an iPhone hasn’t changed much about that. I’d call myself an occasional gamer on iOS: I could probably count on two hands the games I’ve purchased in the past three years.

That being said, the games I have purchased are solid titles, no doubt.

The most recent of which is Alto’s Adventure. Part endless runner, and part pure Monument Valley, this title had a tvOS submission on Day 1 of the tvOS App Store going live.

I bought the app and played for about ten minutes this evening.

Alto's Adventure is just as fun on tvOS as it is on iOS
Alto's Adventure is just as fun on tvOS as it is on iOS

Unlike the iOS version of the app, the tvOS version only has one primary input method: the “Touch surface.”

So, to jump, I click the Touch surface and the character jumps.[9] And when it comes time to use the Wing Suit, the Play/Pause button is used. This is slightly awkward at first, but after a few minutes, I was having fun.

Awkward re-learning of the controls aside, there’s really no substitute to playing your favorite iOS game on a big screen TV.

Consoles aren’t going away any time soon, but Apple TV 4 / tvOS is a significant step toward console disruption.

Here’s Ben Thompson of Stratechery, adding some perspective on Apple TV gaming versus console gaming:

None of [the Apple TV 4] games are even close to being a substitute for what is on a console, and again, that market is big enough — now twice the size of Hollywood — that it will continue for quite some time. And, of course, I continue to have minimal faith in Apple investing in the sort of thriving ecosystem that supports multi-million dollar titles.

That said, the ultimate battle is not for AAA-games but for attention, and the reality is that every single minute spent on a casual game on Apple TV (or an iPhone, for that matter) is a minute that is unavailable to consoles. Moreover, the existence of any games at all makes the selling proposition of consoles that much harder: they not only need to appeal to people who like to play games, they need to be demonstrably better than what people already have, or in the case of Apple TV, what they can buy for $150. Small wonder console publishers are looking elsewhere for growth.

I'll be using this a lot more than the old one.
I'll be using this a lot more than the old one.

Final Thoughts

I didn’t plan to do a “review”[10] of the Apple TV 4. In fact, I wasn’t even that excited for it to arrive yesterday. I figured I’d spend a few minutes setting it up, then not think about it again until the next time Allison and I want to watch TV at dinner.

But from the first on-screen instruction page, tvOS made an impression. tvOS makes me wish I had an app idea that could benefit from the big screen, because I want to use it all the time. It’s a great evolution from the original iOS 7 design. I hope iOS 10 and OS X 10.12 “San Bernardino”[11] follow in tvOS’s footsteps, adding textures and UI that were stripped two years ago.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple is using Apple TV 4 as a testbed for future hardware and software development. Imagine how easy it would be to just “pair” your old iPhone with your new one come every new iPhone launch? And imagine how tvOS’s visual UI would look applied to its smaller screen pure iOS brethren?

Apple TV 4: iteration, not revolution.

And that’s fine by me.


  1. Interestingly, the version of iOS powering Apple TV has consistently been a year behind whatever version powered that year’s new iPhones and iPads. (Why release software updates with the newer OS’s for the hobby device, I suppose.)

  2. Apparently, prototype televisions made it pretty far along in Jony Ive’s walled-off design studio.

  3. On this week’s episode of The Talk Show, John Gruber and Guy English hypothesized that the Apple TV might find itself on a 2-year release cycle, which is to say that the device will only get hardware changes every other year. Then again, Apple is on a more-or-less yearly cycle with the rest of the iOS devices. If the latter is true, all the more reason to save $50—why buy the expensive version of something that will get updated next year?

  4. Imagine all the different hardware vendors they had to test against!

  5. There are a lot of niceties I often forget. Random hardware example: why is the anodized metal on the iPhone so nice to the touch? Random software example: Why is the SpringBoard UI leaps and bounds better than what Marshmallow has to offer?

  6. After all, Apple is just now putting the finishing touches on Jony Ive’s vision with iOS 9. Iteration, and more iteration. That’s Apple’s way.

  7. Or copy and paste from 1Password 🔑

  8. Although I was a freshmen in college, I rebuffed my grandma’s offer to purchase the MacBook Pro, and instead spent my own ~$3K on that wonderful 17-inch monstrosity. The hardware was great, but the software. Oh, the software.

  9. I asked if a “tap to click” was planned for the future, and the app’s Twitter account suggested as much.

  10. I put “review” in quotations because I don’t think this was long enough to qualify for a review.

  11. What if that really happened?