Sep 12, 2015

Where’s The Wow? The New Apple TV Is Just Playing Catch-Up

Originally published at TV[R]EV on September 9, 2015

So Apple closed out today’s event with the band One Republic playing their two year-old hit “Counting Stars.”

Which only seemed to confirm the day’s theme, at least as far as Apple TV was concerned.

While there were plenty of upgrades to the AppleTV box, most of them were things their competitors have been doing for a while. Which, if our social media feeds are any indication, left many people feeling like Apple was playing catch-up rather than forging ahead.

Apple’s big announcements around TV centered around four new features: a new remote,  Siri integration, universal search, and a new SDK for games. And while they all had individual pieces that were innovative, nothing really overwhelmed us.

A Sleek New Remote
The most impressive new feature was probably the new remote control, which featured a glass touch pad that will allow you to swipe through the on-screen menu and tap to select. That’s a unique feature but without a keyboard to do the things you really want to do (e.g. search for specific shows) it’s still a hassle. Which is why a mini-tablet or smartphone based remote continues to make more sense.  Still, points to Apple for the sleek design.

Voice Commands Via Siri
The next big feature was Siri integration. You can use Siri to search, to pause, to rewind and fast-forward (in specific increments of time), even to call up the cast of the show you’re watching.
All of which Amazon Fire already does.

And here’s the rub with Siri: voice recognition systems circa fall 2015 do a good job with “find me Brad Pitt movies.” Less so with “find me Angelina Jolie movies.” And don’t even try “shows with Mariska Hargitay.” (Hence the aforementioned need for a keyboard.)

The voice-activated rewind and fast-forward and “what did she say” feature (Siri rewinds 15 seconds and includes closed-captions) should work well though, and we agree with Apple that voice commands are the future. It’s just that we’re not there yet.

Universal Search
Universal search was another feature Apple was pushing. Though for now it’s still not-quite-universal search—AppleTV will only look through Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Showtime and iTunes for you. Here again, Roku’s had this feature for a while now,and it works across every app you’ve installed. Roku has no voice integration (yet) but, well,  Mariska Hargitay. As well as any foreign film you might be interested in watching. (“Hey Siri, find me La Nuit de Varennes.”) Typing is just easier.

The final new feature was a new operating system called tvOS that comes with an open SDK that seems to be geared towards game developers. While our Twitter feed was full of people mocking it as Apple reinventing Wii, there may be a market for “good enough” games—experiences that don’t require the intensity of a World of Warcraft, but are still fun and engaging. That said, other streaming device manufacturers (Amazon and Roku) have already been down this path without much success and beyond the remote, Apple doesn’t seem to be adding anything different. (And showing off the Gilt app certainly didn’t help their cause. We’ve already learned people don’t like to use the static interwebs on their TVs.)

Having neglected the Apple TV for quite some time, it is only natural that today’s update included a lot of catch-up features. The problem is that there was nothing ground-breaking either, nothing that really makes the new AppleTV stand out from its competitors. The new remote and voice-activated Siri are nice enough features, but neither one seems to justify the extra $100 Apple is charging for the new box. (Which still, interestingly enough, is priced to factor in users downloading large amounts of content, an idea that seems very 2010.)

If Siri’s ability to understand what we’re saying to her vastly improves, Apple may have something. But until then, we’re not seeing much reason to upgrade from the original AppleTV. Or switch over from Roku.

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