New Apple TV Experiences

I’ve now had the Apple TV for a week, and I’ve used it quite a bit since then. Being away from home for a month means it’s the only box plugged into the TV for doing anything. It’s therefore acting as our Netflix hub, the Plex interface for our home content and providing gaming entertainment for our son. I’m pleased to say that it’s been doing an excellent job of all of these tasks, although I’m not sure that it would replace our current solution at home – the Xbox One, which has the added advantage of having a tuner for live TV.

Siri works great, searching for movies, actors, genres or weird combinations of all three is fast and simple and it does a pretty good job of what me and my Scottish accent are saying. It is true that the Amazon Fire TV had the voice remote and searching first, but their software implementation was very basic in comparison to what is being offered here. The disappointing factor is that it doesn’t do more. No music integration should be embarrassing for them after the push for Apple Music over the past few months, and I also don’t understand why Siri neither talks back, or answers questions that she can on the iPhone or iPad. This was the opportunity for them to have a living room AI similar to what Amazon has with the Echo and it’s a chance they’ve so far squandered.

As I wrote before the Apple TV was released, the differentiator here is the App Store and the massive iOS development community. Nothing comes close these days to the number of active developers pushing out new software, and with the ATV being essentially the same iOS platform as all they are already used to, any other set top box is going to struggle to compete, even if most of them already have development environments of their own.

So far there are about 1500 apps, and a lot of them work really well. The most common so far has been games, and those are also what is sitting on top of the best seller lists. Many of these games work really well, something like Jetpack Joyride which only requires touching the screen on the iPad or iPhone easily translates to the single main button on the ATV controller. Even more complicated fare, like the twin stick shooter Geometry Wars, simplifies the gameplay when only the standard remote is available, but gives you the console like experience when you plug in a real controller.

If you really are going to play games on this thing, then a real controller is what you need. The SteelSeries Nimbus fills this hole admirably, providing you the two stick, 4 button Xbox / PS4 controller that you’re probably looking for. Once you have one of those, Geometry Wars plays like it should and Rayman becomes a real platform game rather than an endless runner. For the casual gamer with no console, or for somebody looking to replace their Wii as the family games machine, this could be a genuine option. Fire TV games tended to be poor Android ports, but already the choices here are more polished.

If Apple were truly serious about games though, they’d include a real controller in the box. They were selling the Nimbus next to the device itself in the store I visited, but that’s just not the same as bundling it in. Developers are forced to support the included remote, which just won’t work for a lot of titles. The concern is that it puts them off even trying to put their game on there, especially if proper controls are only available for a small set of users.

One thing that is impressive is that both the latest Skylanders and Disney Infinty titles are available, and not cut down versions either, the full console experiences. The graphics in Skylanders aren’t up to the Xbox One version, but the frame rate is still solid and frankly, our 4 year old didn’t even notice it was any different. None of those Android gaming boxes for your TV can claim to have the largest two family games out there.

On the negative side, the store is desperate for some better curation. It’s been a week and most of the editors picks haven’t changed at all, despite the constant stream of new apps being released. I understand that having categories and sections also doesn’t make sense when the number of apps is low, but I do already feel like I could be missing out on a lot of potentially useful apps because there is no easy way to find them.

All in all, I think it’s a great starting point. It’s fast, it’s nice to look at, the version of Plex is the best I’ve seen anywhere, and the games are already heading in the right direction. Let’s hope Apple puts the resources into it to help steer it on its way.