I’ve never actually reviewed the Apple TV on this blog. But I’ve had my current model for 5 years, so I think I can handle a “where it stands” review. Just know that when I first got my Apple TV it was the star of my entertainment center. It was my first streamer (followed by Roku, Chromecast, and Fire TV). It integrated well with my Macbook and my iPod Touch (these were pre-iPhone years). It had Netflix, which was all I cared about at the time, and I couldn’t say enough good things about it. Over the years Apple has added new “channels” including other streaming staples like Hulu, Crackle, and HBO Now. But after 5 years it is only one of several streamers that I have on my TV stand. And while I don’t use it exclusively any longer, it is still streaming throughout the week. So this old dog (5 years is ancient for tech like this) is still proving itself, but there is a new sheriff in town, and that’s the brand new 4th Generation Apple TV. So before we talk a bit about the difference, let’s first take a look at the 2nd Gen Apple TV, and see where it stands.
Apple TV – 2nd Generation (STREAMING MEDIA BOX)
Original Purchase Date: 10/01/2010
Time owned between Original Purchase and Where it Stands: 5 years, 45 days
In 2010 media streamers were not a large market. Even now, 5 years later, they aren’t a huge market, though many companies (amazon, roku, google, apple, etc) are working to change that situation. But back in 2010 “instant streaming” was as much a novelty as anything, as people still clung to their DVD players. The mass movement to digital media had only just begun. I’ve already spoken of my first impressions of the Apple TV, but understand this streamer was excellent in those early years. It had a simple interface (with only a few channels initially). And it saw cool updates every year, like Airplay where I could “cast” the content of my iPod/iPad/iPhone to the TV through the Apple TV. This was years before Google would introduce the same function with the Chromecast (another streamer I now own). So it was great. At the time it would have been my first recommendation, but five years is a long time.
Apple is a closed system. Always has been, always will be (to some degree at least). My first major beef with the Apple TV was that there was no way to play external media, like movies stored on an external hard drive. I was already into digital media when I got the Apple TV, and my tool of choice was the WDTV. This device allowed me to plug-in an external hard drive and watch my movies and shows via a simple interface on the screen. To be fair the only current media streamer that kind of does this is the Roku, and even that device is now a smooth experience. So the Apple TV has you locked into the channels they offered. I use Netflix and Hulu for the most part, and both work well on the Apple TV. I’ve found some cool education channels like the Smithsonian Channel and Discovery Channel that offer lots of free media. But, as it always seems to be with Apple, the free stuff will only get you so far. Most of the channels require some form of payment (one time or subscription). So don’t get too excited by the Disney Channel, HBO Now, or ESPN. You are going to pay for those channels to get much more than ads. Over the years the Apple TV has added channels and functionality without sacrificing speed and experience. That’s pretty unique, especially for Apple, which always is pushing you to their new devices by ditching support for older devices, at least in my opinion. So where exactly does this five year old streamer really stand?
Where it Stands
The 2nd generation Apple TV was discontinued in 2013, so why are we having this conversation you might be asking. While the latest and greatest Apple TV is out now, you can still get the 3rd generation Apple TV and it will only run you $69. That’s better than the $100 I paid for my device in 2010. And it’s better than the entry-level price of $150 for the 32GB model of the 4th gen Apple TV. So I think these thoughts on the 2nd generation are relevant. So would I recommend it? As an entry-level media streamer the 3rd gen Apple TV is a bargain, since most similar devices will run you $100. But there are better “entry-level streamers” in the form of “streaming sticks”. Roku and Amazon both offer these for around $50. The Chomecast will only set you back $35. So from a price standpoint, I wouldn’t recommend the Apple TV. While it works just fine, it is expensive for something so old. It also works best for a household that already has other Apple devices. Where other streamers get along with everything better. If you have Amazon Prime, I’d point you to the Fire TV Streaming Stick. If you are brand new, with no affiliation, I’d point you to the Roku Streaming Stick. The Apple TV is good but no longer good enough.
So for now, the Apple TV (2nd and 3rd Generation) scores a CUP HALF EMPTY
First Impressions of Apple TV (4th Generation)
Here is the short list of what the new Apple TV does that is different and exciting. First it’s a whole new interface, called TVOS. The iPad has truly come to the TV screen. And app developers will reap the benefits in the same way they’ve been cashing checks with their iOS apps for years. By allowing 3rd party apps on the Apple TV all sorts of options open. The long-awaited PLEX app is already available. This app allows you to stream media from your computer, or server (if you are a geek like me). This is similar to what the Apple TV has done for years with Airplay, but now any device running PLEX can take advantage of it. And thus begins the rise of digital libraries!!
The new Apple TV features an updated remote control with a trackpad vs the direction pad of the old device. It’s still small, so you’ll be checking the couch cushions from time to time, I’d imagine. The remote also takes a card out of the Fire TV deck with voice control. Of course Siri is front and center, pulling up shows and films based on search criteria. The really cool thing that differentiates the Apple TV from all other streamers in this regards is what I’d call “layered search”. You can search for comedies. Then filter to a specific star, and the search will modify accordingly. I haven’t tried this feature in person, but I can imagine the possibilities, having done voice search with my Fire TV for over a year.
Finally, gaming. The Apple TV has long been an untapped resource for gaming revenue. The idea that you could throw iOS games to the screen was introduced with Airplay, but it was always clunky. Now Apple is taking on the Fire TV specifically, which also has a gaming element (and associated controller). Only time (and 3rd party developers) will tell if gaming will find new life on the Apple TV, but it seems like an easy bet to make.
Apple likes to “redefine” genres. They did it with the smartphone (iPhone), they did it with the tablet PC (iPad), they are trying to do it with the smartwatch (Apple Watch). And now they are truly going after media streamers. Roku, FireTV, Chomecast, and a few others have never faced competition like what it coming. Will the Apple TV prove to be the best? Only time will tell. But things look promising. Stay tuned.
A New Category of Review!!
A year ago I introduced a category to my fledgling blog called “First Impressions”. The purpose of those posts was to do a quick review of the features of a new device/service/app that I’d only used for a week or so. The first device I did “First Impressions” of was the Amazon Fire TV. After a year of blogging it’s time for a new category that I’m calling “Where It Stands”.
So many technology reviews are written in the whirlwind of a product’s release. And judgement is often passed based on a brief encounter with the technology (be it a phone, tablet, streaming box, application, or any other tech that is targeted for the masses). If you google reviews for the product, the vast majority of the time you will find reviews that are old. Reviews that were written within a week of the release date (much like my First Impressions reviews). This new category is intended to re-visit something I reviewed early on, in order to see “where it stands” after 6-12 months of use. Often tech that looks bad initially improves through software updates. Sometime tech that looks great at launch doesn’t hold up over time. I couldn’t think of a better product to use for my first “where it stands” review than the Amazon Fire TV. So let’s get to it.
AMAZON FIRE TV (STREAMING MEDIA BOX)
Original Review Date: 8/15/14
Time used between Original Review and Where it Stands: 1 year, 22 days
Right from the beginning I loved the Fire TV. I found the user interface very intuitive. The voice command to search for movies or actors worked smoothly. Gaming proved to be a great fit for the streamer. Partnered with a USB Xbox controller, I was quickly playing racing games, and even Minecraft Pocket Edition on the big screen. The Fire TV quickly became my go-to streamer, in a house full of many other options (Apple TV, Roku, Chromecast).
The device certainly steers users to amazon content. Voice search only searches amazon’s offerings. Prime videos are not separated as clearly as they could be, so you have to pay close attention to that little “prime” ribbon on the free content (assuming you are a Prime Member). But amazon is a company selling content, and so I made my peace with that element, knowing it would never be as simple to view any video for free the way it is on Netflix. Thankfully, Netflix is an app on the Fire TV, so I’m covered!
The Tech in Action
My primary use for the Fire TV is Netflix and Hulu. The interface for both apps is great. The screens are much easier to navigate through than the current Apple TV. For the first few months I also spent much of my time playing games. I sang the praises of “Asphalt 8” in my first impressions review. That game is great, but you quickly run out of space with internal memory, so having an extra flash drive for additional storage is a must (there’s a single USB for that purpose). I found a fun social game called “Fribbage”. This game uses the Fire TV as the “game board” but it also uses smartphones for each participant. I used both Android and Apple phones with no issue. The game provides a phrase with a blank space, and then everyone types something to fill it on their smartphones. The game mixes up those with the true answer, and everyone votes, again using the smartphone to input your choice. It was a very fun game, and while we didn’t play it a lot, that has more to do with how seldom we entertain than the gameplay value. So gaming remains solid on the Fire TV, from Minecraft to Minions Rush, and more complicated games like Leo’s Challenge and Mickey’s Castle of Illusion. Grab a Bluetooth controller or plug a USB controller in and you’re good to go!
Currently one of the main apps we use of the Fire TV is HBO Now, which just became available after a period of
exclusivity on the Apple TV. We used the Apple TV version since it released and I am so happy to have the improved interface of the Fire TV. Hands down, amazon has better screens to navigate.
Where it Stands
As of today, Amazon Fire TV is the champion of the streaming boxes, in my opinion. Roku may have more channels, but amazon has a slicker experience. Apple TV may have more clout, but currently that box is several years old. Apple plans to announce a new Apple TV September 9th, so we’ll see what changes come to that device. Most guesses are that the new Apple TV will support apps, gaming, and voice search. All things that the Amazon Fire TV does already.
The Fire TV was refreshed via software update in April 2015, offering enhanced features like Bluetooth headphone support (keep Game of Thrones from your children’s ears), enhanced USB support, and improvements to WIFI connections. There are no rumors of a new product launching soon, but currently the device is out of stock with amazon. The company states that it is due to “high demand” for the streamer, but often supply lines dry up just before a new product launch. So stay tuned for news of a new Fire TV; I’ll be all over that! If gaming isn’t your cup of tea, the Amazon Fire TV Stick is currently available for $39. That’s $60 less than the larger streaming box, and offers everything except the gaming aspect. So that’s certainly a good option.
Chord cutters are on the rise. HBO and Showtime now offer monthly subscriptions for apps on streamers. It’s only a matter of time before media streamers truly go mainstream. And the Amazon Fire TV is a great choice, if you’re considering taking the leap.
For now, the Fire TV scores a CUP HALF FULL.
When I was a kid every few years we got cable for Christmas. It was usually a six month stint, but it was a dream come true for me. I got the Disney Channel, and Nickelodeon (for NIck at Night primarily), and a hundred other channels to surf. But we never got the premium package, which included that great mystery that was HBO. The cost was too high, and I was too young for a majority of the content anyway.
As an adult I’ve never had cable. I like to say that my cable consists of Netflix and Hulu Plus. Between those two I can watch the majority of the shows I want to with Netflix providing lots of past seasons, and Hulu Plus providing current programming. But I’ve added a third service to my “cable” and that is HBO Now. In March HBO announced that they would begin selling monthly subscriptions that could be accessed via Apple TV and devices running iOS (read iPhone, iPad, and newer iPod Touch). After a period of exclusivity, the service will certainly come to Android platforms as well, and smart televisions as well. I signed up on the first day (as of 4/28/15 the first month is still free!), and I haven’t looked back since. So let’s take a quick look at what HBO Now offers.
It has tons of content
I started by taking in all the offerings. I was a total newbie having never had HBO before. I’ve seen some shows through DVD (i.e. Sopranos, Game of Thrones), but the vast array of options was a total surprise. The service breaks it up into categories including: series, movies, comedy, sports, documentaries, collections, and late night. You can add most of the content to your “watchlist” and I immediately started adding movies I wanted to watch, which included many current films like “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, “Edge of Tomorrow”, and “A Million Ways to Die in the West”. I found several shows that I’d heard a lot about, like “Veep”, “The Comeback” and “Silicon Valley”. There were documentaries that looked interesting, like “The (Dead Mothers) Club” which explores the lives of famous personalities who lost their mothers at young ages. I even found a documentary on David McCullough, one of my favorite biographers. Bottom line, there is tons of stuff that looked interesting, and well worth the $15 monthly charge. And all of that content comes to HBO Now the same day as it broadcasts on HBO itself, so no worrying about Game of Thrones spoilers!
Parental Note: the service offers “parental controls” so you can limit what content kids can access with a passcode. I found plenty of content my kid would enjoy watching, but HBO is well known for plenty of Rated R type stuff (ahem…Game of Thrones). So it’s nice that there is a built in “firewall” of sorts.
If you have an Apple TV, that’s the best way to watch HBO Now. During Apple’s exclusive period you are stuck with either that or watching on an iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch. I’ve watched a bit on an iPad MIni, and it works fine for that size screen. Though Game of Thrones isn’t quite as epic on an eight inch screen. The Apple TV interface is very similar to the other video streamers on the device, like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Crackle. Easy navigation, great summaries of shows. The majority of the movies offer the preview right on the selection screen, which is a great feature (missing from Netflix).
For Your Consideration: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
When John Oliver took over the Daily Show with John Stewart in the Summer of 2014 it was awesome. I kind of liked him more than Stewart. When he left the show shortly after Stewart’s return I was bummed out. The fact that he then started a weekly news show on HBO was a twist of the knife. So when I realized I’d finally get to watch his program “Last Week Tonight” with my HBO Now subscription I was thrilled. And the show lived up to the hopes I had in it. It is unlike anything I have ever seen. While it feels a bit like The Daily Show (leans pretty heavy to the left politically), it also feels like an irreverent 60 minutes. Oliver spends most of the program digging into specific issues, using good old fashion investigative journalism. Sure he swears like a sailor throughout, but he makes amazing points, and really makes you think (even if you don’t agree with him all the time). It’s a great show, and well worth the cost of the subscription. For me, everything after John Oliver’s program is just icing on the cake.
The Whole Cup Summed Up
The dreams of my ten year old self have been fulfilled! Every time we start up a show and the static sound followed by the HBO icon appears I get a little excited. The grip of the cable companies on the premium content offered by HBO is starting to loosen. Or rather HBO is breaking free of their grasp.
For the time being you will need an Apple product to access HBO Now and an Apple TV to get the service off of your mobile device and onto the big screen. So if you don’t have those options, be patient for the service will certainly come to devices like Roku, Chromecast, and maybe even the Amazon Fire TV (they already have a deal to show older content after all). That’s not to mention an app for Android smartphones and Tablets. It should be mentioned that you can watch HBO Now on a web browser if that’s your only option, but that is certainly not optimal.
If you get in soon you can try the service out for 30 days at no cost, so what do you have to lose! And $15 is a pretty decent deal, since renting just 3-4 movies (which I found on HBO Now) would cost at least that much. So grab this link and give it a go.