The new Apple TV, shot at range as for some reason Apple wouldn't allow us to get very close to it
It feels as though every single Apple event of the last four years has been expected to bring with it a new Apple TV.
For a while there were even crazy rumours that the next Apple TV would be an actual TV. But now, finally, the new Apple TV is real - and after all that wondering and hypothesising its initial appearance is actually a little, well, underwhelming.
Why? Well it’s just a slightly taller version of the puck-like Apple TV we’re oh so familiar with.
But Apple knows the physical appearance of the actual box doesn’t really matter because it’s probably going to be tucked away out of sight anyway. What matters is what it does and what it’s like to use. And here Apple appears to be very much on the right track.
Apple's Wii Sportslike game called, wait for it, Beat Sports
What you’ll actually be looking at a lot of the time is Apple’s new operating system, which is called, with typical ambivalence to capitalisation conventions, tvOS.
This is heavily based on iOS and is unsurprisingly geared heavily towards facilitating and featuring apps. The idea is that the millions of app developers out there will have some natural familiarity with the platform, which will encourage them to produce loads of exciting new dedicated apps to use and play on your TV.
And “play” does feature quite heavily here. Apple featured a load of Apple TV games during its 9 September keynote, including a new and exclusive version of Crossy Road that adds a fantastic looking multiplayer mode, a new Warhammer 40k shooter called Freeblade, and a Wii Sports-like game called, wait for it, Beat Sports.
Graphically this is a pretty impressive looking game closer to PS3 quality than PS4 but sharp and pretty detailed
What wasn’t mentioned during the keynote is that Apple TV will also support new gamepad controllers. The first to appear will be the SteelSeries Nimbus, which looks very much like a console controller and unlike previous iOS controllers has Bluetooth 4.0, a Lightning connector for charging and a menu button in place of pause.
I didn’t get a chance to play with the gamepad in the hands-on area, but I did get to see it being used in a demo of third-person shooter Afterpulse.
Graphically this is a pretty impressive looking game closer to PS3 quality than PS4 but sharp and pretty detailed, even on on the big (I’d say 50in) flatscreen of the demo room. The animations and physics looked fairly rudimentary -Call Of Duty has nothing to worry about - but I can see this being quite good fun, at least briefly.
But while a gamepad will be recommended for some games, it won’t be necessary for many. We were also shown Rayman Adventures, which is already available for iOS, being played using the new Apple TV’s standard remote. This is a fairly simple-to-control 2D platformer, but it sure looks fun, fast and pretty: all bright colours, busy environments and sharp definition.
No direction buttons? Nope, instead there’s a touchsensitive surface at the top that allows you to swipe through the OS
Talking of the standard remote, this one builds quite heavily on that of the existing Apple TV, which was already very nicely designed and made.
This is similarly thin and long, but while its edges are silver, the front and back panels are black. On the front there are six buttons - menu, home, Siri, play/pause, volume up and volume down. No direction buttons? Nope, instead there’s a touch-sensitive surface at the top that allows you to swipe through the OS. In action it feels smooth and responsive, and given the potential for huge grids of apps is a vast improvement over having to click to move one icon at a time.
But the touch surface is still not the quickest way to move through tvOS. That award goes to Siri.
For Siri to be really useful it needs to be able to search multiple services for the movie or show you’re after
Hold the mic button on the remote and the familiar multi-coloured waveform appears at the bottom of the screen to indicate that Siri is ready for your command. As with iOS 9, Siri on Apple TV has been developed to be quicker, more capable, and more able to understand natural language.
You can say phrases such as “show me films suitable for a ten year old” and you’ll be taken very quickly to a bunch of appropriate suggestions. Even a question such as “which episode of Modern Family did Edward Norton cameo in” will take you directly to exactly that episode.
Siri understands secondary questions, too. We saw one mad user say “show me films with Adam Sandler”, and once given the selection, hilariously follow up with “only the good ones”. Because Apple TV now has Rotten Tomatoes data built in, Siri was then able to very quickly remove the worst films in his utterly appalling oeuvre. Of course, if Siri had got the joke we’d have been left with no films at all, but that might be asking too much...
For Siri to be really useful it needs to be able to search multiple services for the movie or show you’re after, but while Apple did announce such a feature, it admitted that at launch only a handful of services would be supported. Global search is what really elevates a smart TV device such as this, but it isn’t worth a great deal if it isn’t truly global. Fingers crossed Apple can join the dots before too long.
I was shown a few other apps during the demo: Airbnb, a fitness app and Zillow
I was shown a few other apps during the demo: Airbnb, a fitness app and Zillow, which as far as I can discern is the US equivalent of Rightmove but I struggle to see any of these being big draws on the big screen. There’s nothing more annoying than watching someone else browse for a holiday or a house, even if it might one day be your holiday or house. I still think we’ll all do the research on our own phones or tablets, then perhaps share our favourites with our significant others by handing over our device or maybe, just maybe, Airplaying it to the TV.
What really matters in a device like this, despite what Apple might say, is whether it’s got all the TV and movies we want to watch and whether they’re accessible quickly and easily.
With all of the existing Apple TV apps available on the new Apple TV the content is largely covered, and with the new remote control and what looks like very impressive Siri support, the quick access to content might be sorted, too.
Whether those aspects are strong enough to justify the extra cash over something like a Roku 2 remains to be seen. We’ll deliver our full verdict closer to the final October release date.