Apple TV and a Better Siri

Walter Isaacson wrote that before he died, Steve Jobs said he’d “cracked” the problem of a simple TV interface. Apple isn’t saying whether its 4th generation Apple TV device represents Jobs’ vision, but it has a bunch of Jobs hallmarks: simplicity, elegance, and the fact that “it just works.”

I started using Apple TV four years ago, shortly after it was introduced. With a Mac in the house and an iTunes library, it made sense, and $99 was an attractive price point. Although my DVD player also supported Netflix and Hulu, I discovered the Apple TV was faster and featured Apple’s brilliantly simple navigation. The device practically set itself up (I just had to enter usernames and passwords), and has worked without incident since. Apple’s recent deal with HBO sweetened everything – between HBO, Netflix, and Hulu, I’ve missed cable less than ever.

Apple used to be pretty low-key about Apple TV, calling it a “hobby.” That changed with the announcement of the 4th generation, featuring the Siri Remote. Say what you want about (or to) Siri, the software has been improving steadily. Its integration on the Apple Watch makes a keyboard almost unnecessary (I dictate 9 out of 10 text messages now), although enough questions stump her that I usually skip the middleware and go right to Google for information. The Siri Remote is another story. As a control interface, she’s intuitive, fun, almost always more convenient than clicking through menus.

The 3rd generation Apple TV now costs $69; the 32GB 4th gen with Siri Remote is $149, making the remote a $79 upsell. It’s worth it (you need the remote to instruct Siri.) “Show me the latest episode of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.” The episode comes up, ready to play, saving about a dozen clicks and scrolls compared to previous interfaces. “Show me Star Trek movies.” A list of movies appears with poster art; clicking any of them gives a list of choices about where that particular item is available (Netflix, HBO, iTunes, etc.) “What did he just say?” The program rewinds 15 seconds; if subtitles are available, they’re turned on. “Fast forward thirty minutes.” “Reduce loud sounds.” And so on. The language parsing isn’t too picky – most of the time, it does what you intend. Additionally, the remote will control a separate sound system and the television itself (but not a DVD player at this point.)

Tim Cook made a big deal about “Apps on the TV” being the killer new feature of Apple TV. I don’t agree – many of the apps are basically channels (Netflix, Hulu, HBO, YouTube, PBS, and so on) that have been available on previous versions. There are games now, which emulate but don’t really compare to what’s available on stand-alone consoles like Wii or PlayStation. I downloaded a karaoke app, which recently occupied a roomful of teens for a couple of hours; also, a collection of high-res photos from the International Space Station, which give the satisfying illusion of orbiting the planet. Nice, but not game-changing (yet).

The Siri remote is the main attraction of the new Apple TV, making this product a no-brainer if you have iOS devices or Macs in the house already. (Holding an iPhone near the device accomplishes most setup tasks without additional input needed. Very cool.) If you’re on the fence about Apple products (thinking they are too close to world domination), this may be the one that changes your mind. Great stuff, clearly no longer a hobby for its maker. Continued improvement seems likely.