Your Living Room Needs The New Apple TV

Photo: Courtesy of Apple.
If you are an iPhone user and you own a TV, you're going to want the new Apple TV.

Whereas in the past, an Apple TV was something you only bought if you were truly, 100% devoted to the Apple ecosystem (Do you download your movies on iTunes? Do you live in iCloud?), now, it's something that will update just about anyone's living room for the better. With voice-based Siri search, an App Store with a growing number of third-party apps, and ample storage for downloading said apps, the Apple TV will transform and unify your living-room entertainment experience.

The new Apple TV doesn't look like much. In fact, it looks almost exactly like its predecessors, but thicker. If your entertainment center is primarily black, like mine is, you'll barely even notice this rectangular, obsidian puck sitting there. A small, touch-sensitive Siri remote accompanies the set-top box as a controller.

Setting up the Apple TV unit is surprisingly simple. You plug it in, plug in the HDMI cable to your TV, and then, instead of having to enter in your Wi-Fi network settings, you just hold your iOS 9.1-running iPhone next to the device when prompted, and it grabs your network information and your Apple ID. Then, you enter your Apple ID password, and later, login information for any apps you download — the biggest, and perhaps only, pain of the entire process.

With the new Google Chromecast and the new Roku 4, Apple has some serious competition in terms of living-room domination. But from what we've experienced so far, what it offers is tremendous. Read on to find out what it's like to use the 2015 Apple TV, and if it's right for you.
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Photographed by Christina Bonnington.
The Siri Remote
The Siri Remote is a slender controller with an aluminum back and a glass front. It's got six buttons: menu, home, volume controls, pause/play, and Siri. The top portion of the remote acts as a touchscreen and clicker, letting you tap and swipe your way through the onscreen interface, much like you would on a smartphone, and providing an audible and tactile click when you press to select something.

With older Apple TVs, you could use the Apple Remote app to turn your iOS device into a remote control instead of using its piddly little remote. With the new Apple TV, your only choice is to use the Siri remote, but for the most part, this is definitely a good thing. It's got Bluetooth and infrared controls, so the remote can interact with the Apple TV unit even if it's not pointed directly at it, and the remote can control your TV's volume. The size fits nicely, cradling in your fingers, although I almost wish it were a smidgen thicker. And the remote's buttons are useful — pleasantly minimalist. There's no button you won't use, and hardly any other buttons you'll miss.

The remote is super-thin because it charges via Lightning cable, but its battery is designed to last three months or more with normal use. Perhaps its only physical downside: It's sized to lose, and if it does get absorbed by the couch cushions, there's no (current) functionality with the Apple TV unit or your phone to find it. I did lose it about once a day; I also lose my phone about once a day. I was always able to find it again, though.

Swiping around onscreen is easy, although sometimes you can swipe a little too hard and overshoot your target app or button. There is a minuscule lag between tapping on the remote and what happens onscreen, but this was only noticeable in a couple games I played.
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Photographed by Christina Bonnington.
Siri
While you take care of most onscreen interactions using the touchscreen portion of the remote and its buttons, you've also got a dedicated Siri button for summoning a simplified, TV-optimized version of Apple's virtual assistant.

Siri on the Apple TV doesn't do everything. You can't ask her general web queries (you'll have to pull out your iPhone for that) or even let you perform voice dictation. The latter is a bummer when you're entering in username and password into the apps you've downloaded. You have to flick back and forth across the onscreen alphabet to type things. Pray you don't make a typo.

But what she does do, she does well. You can ask her about the weather, or about sports standings, and information pops up on the lower third of the screen. Swipe upwards, and you get more detailed information, while whatever you were watching gets paused. Swipe down, and you're taken back to whatever you were doing before. Asking your TV questions takes some getting used to, if you normally whip out Siri on your phone for these tasks.

And since it has dual mics inside, you don't need to hold up the remote to your mouth for it to understand what you're saying. Siri can understand your requests with the remote sitting in your hand.
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Photo: Courtesy of Apple.
What Siri is really designed to do is help you find things to watch, and this is great. You can make all sorts of entertainment-related demands: "Show me some new comedies." "What are some vampire movies?" "What are some movies starring Harrison Ford?" You can also get granular, particularly with TV shows. You can ask, "Find the episodes of Friends with Bruce Willis," and she is able to pull up the correct episodes (21, 22, and 23) in season 6. She was not, however, able to understand my request to "Find the Star Wars episode of Family Guy." This search function is best suited to questions about actors, directors, titles, and movie categories, rather than subject matter, for the time being.

Once you click on a result, you're not just shown Apple's results in iTunes, either. If a title is available on Netflix, iTunes, Hulu, and HBO Now, its page will serve up links to all of them, prioritized in order of what apps you already have downloaded, and whether you have to pay for it or not. In the case here, Netflix is the default selection.
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Photo: Courtesy of Apple.
Apps
Besides Siri, the other huge deal about the new Apple TV is that Apple opened it up to developers, and it has an App Store. There are plenty of smart TVs and set-top boxes that already have apps (the Roku being the best example), but the Apple TV is poised to do this really, really well because it already has the richest smartphone and tablet app ecosystem.

A surprising, and quickly growing, number of apps are already available for the Apple TV, including Airbnb, QVC, Gilt, and Periscope. I was skeptical that I'd like using AirBnb on the big screen, but the app is tailored for the experience. You swipe through curated collections of rentals around the globe, each loaded with more than a dozen high-resolution images to gawk over, and if you like something, you can favorite it, and then handle the actual booking from your iPhone. QVC offers a dangerous one-tap buying option in its app. For shopping, it may be entirely preferable to ditch your small iPhone screen in favor of browsing designer collections on your TV, unless you want to watch a show at the same time.
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Photo: Courtesy of Apple.
And then, there are games — and there are plenty of them. For games, the Siri remote also has a gyroscope and an accelerometer. You can use taps and swipes to navigate onscreen characters in some games, but for others, you can use the actual movement of the remote itself. There is already a number of games available, from straightforward Mario-style platformers like Crossy Road and Mr Jump, to rich, console-level titles such as Oceanhorn and Badland. My boyfriend and I had fun taking turns trying to get the high score in Crossy Road and Mr Jump, although Crossy Road also offers a multiplayer option for the big screen.

I even checked out the first drinking game for the Apple TV, a super-basic spinner that instructs you to take a drink, drink on one leg, or assign a drink to someone else. It wasn't so impressive, but I'm sure more engaging party games will come along soon enough.
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Photo: Courtesy of Apple.
The prospect of an App Store for the Apple TV (or any set-top box) has always seemed meh to me. What else do I need beyond Netflix and HBO Now? Turns out, I didn't realize what I was missing until I had a chance to taste it. If you don't have a cable or satellite subscription, you get a huge variety of content — even from network broadcast stations — that's easier to find and navigate than using a browser on your laptop. The Apple TV also becomes a home for networks that haven't yet found a home on traditional TV.

These pugs, for example, are from a Valentino documentary I was watching on M2M, a fashion-focused video network you can download from the App Store for free. It houses movies, documentaries, and fashion shows from all over the globe, and all the videos are commercial-free, and available when you want to watch them.

Video networks that don't have a presence on the Apple TV are going to quickly find that they need one if they want to stay relevant in 2015 and beyond. As for general apps, some work as larger-screen experience, and some don't. I will never need Venmo on my TV, but as I mentioned before, Airbnb surprised me with how well it worked.
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Photo: Courtesy of Apple.
The Big Picture
With the exception of a couple of app crashes (including one unfortunate case of having to re-enter my Netflix credentials again), the Apple TV is a wonderful way to meld the things you enjoy on your phone and laptop with the things you enjoy on your television. The onscreen menus are logical and easy to navigate, especially if you use Siri to find TV episodes and movies to watch. The apps, from the early examples I tested, are well-executed and generally well-suited for the big screen.

And the price point isn't too bad, either. The new Apple TV comes in two variants: A 32-GB $149 model, and a 64-GB $200 model. Unless you plan to download a lot of apps, or particularly big games, you should be fine with the cheaper 32-GB option.

But there are other cheaper options: the $35 Chromecast and $130 Roku 4. If you're an Amazon Prime user, and watch a lot of Prime Instant Video, you'll notice Amazon Prime Video is conspicuously absent from your Apple TV experience. You'll have to go with a Roku for that. And if you're purely interested in streaming video from your phone or computer to your TV, the Chromecast is a much more economical option.

Still, the Apple TV offers a lot of value for what it does. For me, it turned that big, dust-gathering thing I sometimes binge-watched Netflix on into something friends and family can watch and experience together. Instead of looking down at your iPhone, you can share a game on the TV. And instead of googling and IMDBing and mulling over Saturday-night movie choices, you can use Siri's smarts to help narrow things down, quickly.

If you aren't already an iOS user, the Apple TV's plus sides may not be compelling enough for a $150 purchase. But for anyone who recognizes the power that the App Store brought to the iPhone, the Apple TV is clearly the next frontier.
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