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The past and promise of the Apple TV

Christa Mrgan | April 22, 2014
The Apple TV is like that old friend from college--pretty cool, but always crashing in your living room.

The Apple TV is like that old friend from college — pretty cool, but always crashing in your living room. Its inconsistent stability, frustratingly anemic content offering, and lack of rich input methods have kept it from becoming what Apple enthusiasts long swore it would be: the iPhone of TV set-top boxes. Though its interface and hardware continue to evolve, the little black box faces real competition from faster-moving players that are offering more, like the Roku 3 and the new Fire TV from Amazon.

The past (and getting passed)

The original Apple TV was basically an iTunes accessory for your television, which had to be synced with content from your media library; it was later modified via software update to be a stand-alone device. But it wasn't until 2010, when the second generation of the device got a complete hardware and software overhaul, that things really got exciting. Now running on a version of iOS and relieved of its hard drive, the box became significantly smaller, lighter, and cheaper, and shifted entirely to streaming-based functionality.

Given the overwhelming success of Apple's other iOS devices, and particularly that of the iOS App Store, the obvious — to analysts and enthusiasts, at least — next step in Apple TV's evolution was an expansion of that universe, which would bring a wide variety of third-party games and apps to your TV. Four years later, however, there's still no clear sign that functionality is on the way. Not only are there no games, but the list of streaming services the Apple TV does provide continues to grow at an agonizingly slow pace, while competitors with lesser experience leap-frog ahead. The small but mighty Roku is the clear winner here, offering more than 1000 channels and games.

Though the excellent, it-just-works AirPlay protocol allows users to mirror the screen of an iOS device or Mac to the Apple TV, it's hardly the immersive experience that a native app would provide. Meanwhile, the offerings on the Roku 3, though often lacking the polish of what you'd find on the iOS App Store, are clearly built for the device and feel at home there. And Amazon seems to have created its set-top box, Fire TV, with the goal of making available as many streaming services, apps, and games as possible. So how is it that Apple, with its abundantly successful iOS App Store, continues to let the Apple TV languish?

Failure to communicate

The last major piece in the puzzle of why the Apple TV continues to frustrate in spite of its clear potential is user interaction. While the sleek aluminum remote that began shipping with the second-generation Apple TV was an improvement over the finicky plastic relic that accompanied the first generation, its responsiveness is still clumsy and slow — it relies on line-of-sight infrared technology — and using it for text entry is downright painful.

 

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