I’ll freely admit when I’m wrong or when I’ve created a poorly-researched piece of content.
In March, I did just that.
It’s calmed down a bit now, but that Apple TV article has thus far attracted over 90 comments on Medium – around 2% of which actually agreed with me.
I’d overstepped the mark; my assessment of the Apple TV was, clearly, rather hurtful for many people who absolutely love that little square box.
I’ll save you the trouble of reading the article if you haven’t already. I simply suggested that Apple should cancel the Apple TV because it no longer deserved a place within their product line-up. I also confirmed that I hadn’t bought an Apple TV for around ten years (although had misplaced my parents’ during that time).
This was silly. How could I so confidently write about something of which I’d had such limited experience?
So, I bought the new version to see what all the fuss was about.
And holy crap am I an idiot.
I think it’s worth starting here, simply because I’m attaching the Apple TV 4K to a relatively old – in TV terms – panel.
Resting within our faux chimney breast is a curved Samsung 55” TV. It has a name, but like every TV, it’s an unfathomable collection of letters and numbers which from which I’ll save you and your invaluable time. All you need to know is that it’s about five years old and supports 4K and HDR content. The curve makes zero difference to anything and, when purchased, it was a respected mid-range unit that offered plenty of bang-for-buck.
Primarily, we use the TV to either watch Sky Q (it’s a UK thing) or one of several streaming services via the TV’s built-in apps.
I’ve always thought that this Samsung panel produces a nice image, but then I connected it to the new Apple TV 4K.
Clearly, my Samsung TV’s built-in capabilities for 4K/HDR playback from its own apps aren’t quite up to scratch, because the Apple TV has completely brought this panel alive. Everything played through that little set-top box is crisp, buttery smooth (with full respect to the original frame rates – I’ve turned off the TV’s motion smoothing) and incredibly colour-rich.
I’m genuinely blown away. Even season 2 of House (yeah, we’re behind) looks markedly better when played through the Apple TV 4K versus my TV’s own Amazon app.
The Apple TV wipes the floor with my Sky Q box. It even beats the TV’s own ability to playback content on itself. It is utterly stunning and, clearly, what my TV has been missing out on for a long, long time.
It’s the little things
Anyone who knows me will be aware that I’m fond of small technological advancements and touches which make a significant difference, and there are two such innovations present on the Apple TV which deserve special mention.
The first is the new colour correction feature, which enables Apple TV 4K owners to use their iPhone as a tool for measuring colour accuracy on the TV to which it is connected. After about ten seconds of flashing various colours at your iPhone’s front-facing camera, the Apple TV will adjust the colour balance to better reflect the content.
On my TV the difference was fairly small, but enough to be noticeable. It’s important to bear in mind that this feature only changes the Apple TV’s output (therefore you’re still at the mercy of your TV’s other inputs and anything else it might do to the image), but it is such a cool, genuinely useful feature.
Second to this is the ability to synchronise the audio and visuals. Anyone who uses an external audio source for their TV – be it a surround receiver or pair of Bluetooth speakers – will know that such a setup often suffers from out-of-sync audio and video. On the Apple TV, there’s a tool to fix this, which once again uses the iPhone to measure sound output and match it up with the timing of what’s happening on the screen. You can do this on Sky’s box, too, but it’s a manual process. Apple’s fix works perfectly and couldn’t be more “duh – why hasn’t anyone else thought of this?”.
These features are two further examples of where the Apple ecosystem offers some massive, smart benefits. They’re such clever uses of multiple devices, and the net results are both measurable and beneficial. I love the fact that Apple has thought of this stuff.
A quick review of the hardware
There’s not a huge amount to say on this front. The Apple TV 4K box itself is no different to the outgoing model; small, chunky and without any design flourishes, it’s both typical Apple and correctly understated.
I have just one gripe. Apple has, as is so often the case, decided to use an extremely glossy material with which to surround all four sides of the Apple TV. It looks lovely, of course, until you try and blindly plug anything into the back of it (come on, Apple – we all do this with AV stuff). I did just that, and the rear of my brand-new Apple TV 4K is now covered in unsightly scratches.
I’ll never see them, of course, but it’s classic Apple: “let’s make it as shiny as possible so it looks great for precisely 0.0000000237% of the ownership experience”.
Top tip: don’t look at the back of your Apple TV.
That aside, it’s a perfectly acceptable little box that practically disappears when in situ. Apple has never attempted to make a statement with the Apple TV’s design, and I think that’s sensible.
The same can’t be said for the outgoing remote. I never experienced it, thankfully, but it’s no secret that it was universally hated.
This is no surprise – it was an inherently silly design that offered no help whatsoever in identifying the top of the device in less than perfect lighting conditions and featured a touch-sensitive trackpad that randomly responded to input when you least wanted it to.
The new remote is pretty good. I judge all TV remotes by comparing them against the absolute abomination that is the first generation Sky Q remote.
Sky’s attempt at a remote is not only the worst remote ever invented, it’s the worst piece of technology I’ve ever had the misfortune to use. The touch-sensitive controls are about as user-hostile as it comes, and the remote starts fast-forwarding if your phone is resting nearby and you receive a text message. No, really.
Apple has thankfully ditched the trackpad on the new Apple TV remote, but the touch-sensitive controls remain. These can be tweaked in the settings menu, but I’m yet to try out the alternative settings. I may have to, though, because both my girlfriend and I have found it a little too sensitive out of the box.
However, I’d rather Apple ditched the touch-sensitive controls entirely because they still feel ham-fisted and far too easily invoked. As a result, you’re always slightly nervous when picking up the remote, just in case you inadvertently pause, rewind or fast-forward whatever it is you’re enjoying.
Despite this, it’s a decent remote overall. Clicky, ergonomic and perfectly sized. About time, Apple.
What needs to happen next (in the UK)
In the US, Apple TV owners can subscribe to individual channels and watch their favourite cable services via Apple’s set-top box. We can’t do that in the UK. Instead, we get access to the usual bunch of streaming services and our terrestrial network’s catch-up apps.
Most of those apps (for instance, BBC iPlayer) enable live TV to be watched, too, but it’s not exactly the most convenient way to do so. It therefore remains the case that you’ll need an Apple TV and some form of terrestrial TV box to grab the widest, most convenient viewing options.
I’ve been thinking this weekend about how we use Sky at home, and it’s perilously close to being a non-requirement. There are one or two shows which we record onto the Sky Q box and, occasionally, we’ll “just put something on” while eating lunch (which invariably ends up being another re-run of a Friends episode).
I’ve cancelled sports, and we barely watch the movies package for which we’re still paying. This begs the question: what does the Apple TV have to do to finally make us remove Sky from our lives?
The answer is obvious: it needs to become its own terrestrial set-top box. I’m not sure if that’s the experience US folk receive (please let me know in the comments) and I know each country’s approach to TV is rather different, but if there becomes a way to use the Apple TV as our only set-top box, I’d switch immediately, almost entirely because of the picture quality and user interface.
In our home, our viewing habits still require two devices. I want to get away from that. Alas, TV is a mess. There are far too many competing services and boardroom battles for this to be resolved any time soon.
I was wrong about the Apple TV – big time. So, to everyone who commented on my ‘death to the Apple TV’ piece – thank you. If I hadn’t read those comments, I may never have bothered with this new version and, once again, missed out. Big time.