Apple TV First Impressions: Hands-On Time

After announcing the new Apple TV at a press event in San Francisco Wednesday, Apple gave journalists some hands-on time. I had just a few minutes to actually try the device myself, and Apple deliberately didn’t show off some features, but I still got some first impressions about Apple TV’s strengths, and its potential weaknesses.

Here’s what using the new Apple TV is like:

It’s all about Siri. Apple clearly has turned Siri into the centerpiece of the new Apple TV. The remote control comes with a microphone button that initiates voice control, and two integrated microphones — one to actually take voice commands, and one to monitor for and filter out background noise, like actors speaking on TV.

Using voice to control Apple TV worked fairly well during my brief hands-on test, which says something: My German accent tends to throw off voice recognition systems, but Siri had no problems searching for foreign comedies when asked to do so.

Siri on Apple TV is also capable of handling multiple connected search queries, making it possible to search for Adam Sandler movies, and then follow up with a second query for “just the good ones” — something Siri determines based on their Rotten Tomatoes scores. (Results included “Punch Drunk Love” and “The Comedians.”)

Siri even offers some limited functionality while a movie is playing, and is for example able to fast forward any amount of time, or rewind a few seconds and display subtitles when asked “what did he just say?” However, so far, most of that functionality is restricted to iTunes Movies, and not available within apps like HBO Now.

Siri also stumbled when asked to show TV shows from ABC, something an Apple employee attributed to the fact that the demo was optimized for movies. Also notable: Siri wasn’t actually that smart about connecting the dots. Follow-up questions have to start with certain keywords, otherwise Siri thinks it’s a new question. Launching an app or game requires users to use the word “open,” and not “go to.” And the MLB app wouldn’t open, just because I said “Open MLB.tv,” not “Open At Bat.”

The interface feels fast and fluid. Apple TV is based on pretty powerful hardware, and that shows when you navigate the device’s home screen. Scrolling through apps with the remote control’s touchpad is fast and fluid, app icons are 3D-animated, and the interface looks a lot lighter than that of the previous-generation Apple TV.

However, Apple hasn’t really done a whole lot to reinvent the way these apps are presented on the home screen. The interface is still very app-heavy, and Apple hasn’t followed Google’s and Amazon’s cues to show recently-watched TV shows directly on the home screen. An Apple employee told me that was a conscious decision, meant to avoid privacy mishaps for a device that is often used by more than one person. But that also makes it harder to jump back to the latest episode of a Hulu show you were binge-watching the night before.

There is a top gallery to show off featured content that changes when you move from one app to the next. During the hands-on demo, all of these apps were Apple-made, but I was told that users can rearrange their apps, and publishers can use the same space to show off their own content.

Finally, universal search makes it possible to find content across apps, so you don’t have to repeat the same search within different apps anymore. However, at launch, “universal” is a bit of a euphemism: Only five publishers, including Netflix, HBO Now and Hulu, have been invited to participate.

The remote can do a lot. One of the best things about the new Apple TV may just be its remote. In addition to the microphone, it features a touchpad to navigate Apple TV’s menus, as well as fast-forward within a movie or TV show episode, all of which worked fairly well during the hands-on demo.

But the real killer feature may just be integrated volume control. The remote integrates with modern TVs with a technology called CEC, which makes it possible to control the volume for any app or game. The Apple TV remote is even capable of turning on the TV itself, and also works with older TVs thanks to IR, so Netflix fans really don’t have any reason to search for their TV or cable remote anymore.

Look out for Watch integrations. Apple TV doesn’t just integrate with Apple services, but there’s also a lot of potential for interacting with other devices, like the Apple Watch. Apple employees showed off one such integration on Wednesday with a fitness app that could display a user’s heart rate on screen while showing workout videos, but one could imagine a bunch of other applications as well.

The verdict: It’s hard to judge a device that’s meant to deliver entertainment for hours every day after playing with it for just a few minutes. That being said, the new Apple TV does look and feel fun, thanks largely to Siri.

However, it also seems like Apple hasn’t really shown off the device’s strengths yet. Apple CEO Tim Cook said Wednesday that no one had changed the TV experience — and the new Apple TV doesn’t really change it either.

It’s possible that the company is waiting for its live TV service to launch until it launches the interface it has really been working on all this time. After a few minutes of hands-on time, it feels like an update that’s nice, but not necessary — and not really worth $149.

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