In 2015, Apple announced a big overhaul of the Apple TV user experience with a fourth-generation set-top box. The diminutive device increased a little in height but its appearance remained largely unchanged from the third generation. What did change was the operating system and the remote that came shipped in the box. Along with a promise to ‘change the TV industry’. Did that really happen? Let’s discuss.
The future of televsion is Apps…
Tim Cook teased the audience when unveiling the fourth-generation Apple TV by proclaiming that the tv industry had not changed in years but that Apple was “going to do something about that”. He went on to explain that Apple’s vision of the future was ‘provocative’ but that the transition had already begun. And that future was apps. But that build up to then simple state that he future of TV was apps was not provocative. Not at all. That transition began many years before 2015. For some people, myself included, they hadn’t been watching terrestrial TV or cable services for years. So-called ‘cord cutters’ were numerous and so this proclamation by Cook seemed a little bit late to the party and not at all surprising. Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and many others were already shipping as apps on mobile devices in addition to dedicated streaming devices like the Amazon Firestick or Google Chromecast.
After some confusing messaging about the future of TV, Cook went on to unveil the fourth-generation Apple TV including its new operating system called tvOS. tvOS was designed with apps in mind and made it much easier to download and access them with the inclusion of the App Store for the first time on Apple TV. The new OS resembled iOS and was built from its foundations, sharing many of the same technologies. In fact, the A8 chip from the iPhone 6 series was embedded into the device and enabled new kinds of apps to run on the platform such as games, social media and more. The third-generation product by contrast could only run a handful of apps that were mostly limited to streaming services and came preinstalled by Apple. You couldn’t download additional apps.
Along with the new OS came a new way to navigate it with the introduction of the Siri Remote. The new remote replaced some of the physical buttons of the previous remote with a frosted glass, touch-sensitive surface. Navigation was performed with swipe gestures and voice control with Siri. The controller also featured an accelerometer that gave it some level of motion control, similar to a Nintendo Wii controller (rip). But while the new controller paired with the new OS was certainly a welcome refresh of the product, I couldn’t help but think this was more of an evolution and not a revolution.
Apple TV Today
The Apple TV received a further minor update in 2017, adding 4K, HDr and Dolby vision support thanks to a spec bump to the more powerful A10X Fusion processor. The design once again remained unchanged. And the Siri Remote had but the slightest of refinements with the addition of a raised edge to the menu button to help you distinguish it by touch. tvOS has been updated year on year, slowly adding new features such as multi-user support, the ability to use the device as a HomeKit hub for controlling smart home devices and new theming with an optional dark mode. Oh and the TV App but we’ll get to that. Overall change has been very slow to come to tvOS but I don’t know that Apple can do much about that. What more can you really do with a TV user interface, at least based on the technology that Apple currently ships with their set-top box?
Now some people have criticised the Siri Remote, claiming that it’s slippery, easy to lose and not tactile enough. I’ll be honest I completely disagree and I love it. I find the Siri Remote to be a joy to use. Navigation feels fast and fluid and I don’t have to worry about trying to find the right button. Is the remote small and potentially easy to lose? sure. But any remote can be easily lost in a busy household. The Siri Remote isn’t immune to that. And I really appreciate using voice control to perform searches within Apps such as YouTube and Netflix to find the content I’m looking for without having to type it in manually. I’ve found it to work almost flawlessly.
One thing I must admit is that once the initial novelty of playing a few iOS classics on the Apple TV had worn off, my usage of the Apple TV immediately went back to the way I used the third generation Apple TV, i.e. using streaming Apps to watch TV. The only thing that the new UI and remote had changed for me was making it easier to navigate the system and use voice control to more easily search for content.
The TV App
One major update that Apple bought to the Apple TV and its other devices was the new TV App. The App aggregates all of your streaming content from different sources into a single user experience. For example, you can access Disney+, Amazon Prime Video, HBO Max and Hulu within the TV App. This sounds great in theory….except it still requires you to download and install the app for each service. And then I need to go into each App and sign in one by one. And ok sure I only need to do that once, but then some Apps don’t integrate into the TV app including perhaps the biggest one of all. Hello Netflix.
To me the TV App is confusing. It makes it harder for me to find content I want to watch, not easier. It doesn’t contain all of the streaming sources I’d like it to and the layout looks like a storefront. When I use the TV App I feel like I’m browsing the iTunes Store (remember that?) or the App Store. It doesn’t feel like I’m finding something to watch. Content doesn’t feel front and centre and instead, I feel overwhelmed by menus, clutter and complexity that is so uncharacteristic of Apple. Frankly, the UI of the TV app is junk. It reminds me of a store, not a place to watch and discover great content and in doing so fails in its purpose.
In a rare move for the company, Apple has made the TV App available on third-party devices. Specifically recently released third-party smart television sets from various manufacturers such as LG and Sony. They’ve even added support for AirPlay 2, the same content beaming and mirroring system built into the Apple TV set-top box. This move follows only one other recent example which was the decision to make Apple Music available on Android. Both decisions are specifically tied to the companies deep dive into services. This brings us on to….
In early 2019 Apple introduced their own streaming TV service called Apple TV+ and the service includes various original content produced in house by Apple. The tech giant has placed emphasis on original content and as of 2021 does not host third-party content. Apple has tried to differentiate itself by focusing on quality, not quantity. And while there isn’t a ton of content on TV+, to be fair to Apple the content that they have created has won many awards including Emmy awards! Not that I can testify to the quality of the content. I haven’t watched any. Not a single show or movie. And for a while, it took me some time to put my finger on the reason as to why. It comes back to the TV App.
The only way to access Apple TV+ content is via the TV App. As described above I can’t stand it. The App is such a mess that even the draw of potentially great shows isn’t enough to force me into using the TV app. Heck Apple even gave me a year of TV+ for free in 2019 when I purchased an iPhone 11 Pro Max. They gave it away for free to anybody that bought an eligible device in the launch window for the service as it turns out. But in my case, they can’t even give their content away for free because of the crippled user experience found in the TV App.
The decision to integrate the TV app into third party devices was in my view specifically to sell TV+ subscriptions. What other motivation could there be? The TV app running on an LG TV certainly isn’t going to persuade anybody to buy their first Apple device. It’s just as horrific on third party devices as on the Apple TV set-top box.
So what really went wrong with Apple TV?
Apple TV started as a ‘hobby’ for Apple. They weren’t investing all of their energy into it as a product. And that still feels the same today despite what the company might say to the contrary. They haven’t invested much into making the hardware better and to be honest it feels stagnant. Apple doesn’t seem to care about the platform very much anymore and is more interested in TV+ and trying to sell you a subscription. Tellingly the company even extended the year free trial it offered to users for a further 6 months. An 18-month free trial is simply unheard of for any product or service. And I think it says a lot about the state of the companies TV strategy.
TV+ houses some great content according to the accolades the firm has been awarded. But it’s locked behind a clunky and frustrating TV app. And the Apple TV device has not been updated in four years. It’s a real shame because I do genuinely enjoy using tvOS for the most part. I use my Apple TV every day and I really like the Siri Remote. But right now I can’t see how Apple can improve on the Apple TV set-top box aside from an exterior design change and a faster chip. And neither of those things will get me to use the dreadful TV app.
Perhaps Apple has some new ideas in store for the Apple TV and will unveil them at their event on April 20th. But I doubt it.