Apple finally has an Apple TV it doesn’t mind boasting about.
After years of downplaying its set-top box as “a hobby,” the company on Wednesday made a revamped Apple TV a headliner of its annual fall product launch. “This is the future of television,” CEO Tim Cook said.
The new box has a revised design, a more powerful processor, and a new operating system called tvOS. But the main attractions are the remote control, the search functions, and the app store.
Set-top boxes have come a long way since Steve Jobs introduced the first Apple TV in 2007. Devices like the Roku 3, Amazon’s Fire TV, and Google’s Nexus Player have their pros and cons, but they all offer roughly comparable access to on-demand movies, TV shows, apps, and games.
To surpass them, Apple needed to give the Apple TV at least one or two features that stand out from the crowd. It may have succeeded.
The remote control, in particular—called the Siri Remote—is unlike any that has come before it. At the top is a glass touchpad that you tap and swipe like the screen of an iPhone or iPad. Below that are a few standard buttons—menu, home, play/pause, volume up and down—and one with a microphone icon. Touch that one and you’ll summon Siri, which Apple has given the task of fielding a surprisingly wide array of voice commands, searches, and queries.
Say, “Siri, show me funny TV shows,” and the TV will pull up a carousel of options that includes New Girl, Veep, The Big Bang Theory, and Girls. “Show me family movies” brings up a diverse list; “animated only” narrows the list accordingly; “just the new ones” further limits the search results to new releases. You can ask for “comedies with Jason Bateman” or “the Jason Bourne movies,” or call up “James Bond movies” and then specify “just the ones with Sean Connery.”*
Voice search on a set-top box is not new: Amazon’s Fire TV made it a core feature (and the subject of a string of Gary Busey commercials), and the Roku and Nexus Player have followed suit. But Apple’s appears more seamless than that of its competitors. A voice search on the Fire TV, for instance, won’t pull in results from Netflix. Apple’s appears to be agnostic of the content provider: Search for New Girl, and you’ll go straight to the main show page. From there you can start watching with one click, without having to select a specific app first. (You still have the option to toggle between various content providers for a given show, but you don’t have to fiddle with it.)
The voice features don’t stop with search, however. In the middle of a show, you can ask Siri, “who stars in this?” A window will appear across the bottom of the screen displaying the names and faces of the actors who play each of the major characters. Or, if you missed a line of dialogue—perhaps you were munching popcorn too loudly, or checking your text messages—you can ask, “What did she say?” Siri will rewind the show 15 seconds and display captions until you’re caught up.
According to Apple’s demo, you can also apparently ask, “How did the San Francisco Giants do last night?” and pull up the latest game score while your show continues to play in the background. Which sounds … distracting? Then again, research shows a lot of us are already paying half-attention to our phones and iPads while we watch TV. Apple appears to be trying to bring that second screen back onto the first screen.
The Siri Remote isn’t just about Siri, though. It also includes sensors designed for gaming that allow you to wield it like a Wiimote, swinging it through the air to control characters on the screen. Which brings us to the App Store.
Apple is throwing open its TV box to third-party developers, inviting them to develop apps and games using many of the same tools they’ve been using for years to create iOS apps. Whether people really want to use apps on their TV—aside from the obvious ones, like Netflix and Hulu—remains to be seen. But they’ll now have the option to plop in front of the boob tube and browse Airbnb listings, go shopping on the Gilt app, or play Crossy Road, which is launching a multiplayer mode exclusively for the Apple TV. I like to imagine people gathering the whole family on the couch for a rousing bout of Zillow-stalking.
Oh, and there have been rumors that Apple is working on its own paid streaming-TV service, though the company didn’t mention that on Wednesday.
It might seem a little late for Apple to be trying to corner the set-top market. The innovations the Apple TV offers appear largely incremental rather than revolutionary. But Jobs was certainly right that it was too early in 2007, when on-demand streaming was in its infancy and Netflix was still a service that mailed you DVDs in little paper sleeves. Even a couple of years ago might have been too early for Apple to strike the deals needed for seamless, universal searches across multiple content providers.
If it works as promised, the Apple TV looks like it has a good chance to become the best streaming box on the market. At a price of $150 for the 32 GB model and $200 for 64 GB, it had better be. Either that, or Apple might want to get to work programming some clever responses to the command, “Siri, give me my money back.”
*Correction, Sept. 9, 2015: This post originally misspelled the last name of movie character Jason Bourne.