As expected, Apple announced an updated version of the Apple TV today, and I just spent a little time playing with it. Physically, the unit itself isn't much different than the older model — it's just a little bit taller — but the remote and interface are entirely new.
Read next: The Apple TV review.
The remote is a slim wand with a touchpad at the top; menu, home, volume, Siri, and volume buttons; and motion sensing capabilities. The mic for Siri is at the top, as you'd expect, but you shouldn't have to actually hold it up to your face to make it work. The touchpad is glass and it clicks — it's very much like having a tiny MacBook touchpad under your thumb. On top there's a small IR port for sending out the volume commands to your TV, and on the bottom there's a Lightning port for recharging — the battery is supposed to last for three months. There's no TV power button, though; it only controls your TV like that if your TV has HDMI CEC, which most newer TVs support but most older ones don't. It connects to the Apple TV over Bluetooth 4.0, so that IR port is really just a concession to needing at least to control volume on every possible TV. There's also support for Bluetooth keyboards, just as with the current model.
Using the remote itself feels pretty frenetic, actually — the touchpad is pretty fast, and there's no pointer on the screen so you're just swiping between different active app icons. Once you're locked on an icon, it wobbles 1:1 with your thumb on the touchpad, which is how you know you're about to jump to the next icon — the current icon tilts all the way to one direction, and then it leaps over with a tiny amount of inertial scrolling as you go through a list. It's really cool, but it's definitely different and will certainly take a tiny amount of getting used to.
Apart from that, the interface is pretty similar to the old interface, just cleaned up and with a white background instead of the black background on the current model. Most apps have been updated for what Apple is now calling "tvOS," and while nothing is radically new, everything feels a little cleaner and lighter. It's a welcome change from the claustrophobic previous interface.
I talked to Craig Federighi and he told me that tvOS is "95 percent" the same as iOS, with modifications to the interface layer to support the new remote and display on a TV screen 10 feet away in a living room. He says that Apple views iOS, OS X, tvOS, and watchOS as all being built off the same core frameworks and ideas, so they should all stay in sync as they're updated over time. Good news for anyone who's bought into a TV platform only to have it be abandoned later. (Cough, Boxee, Google TV, webTV, etc etc etc.)
He also told me that he expects game developers to take advantage of accessory controllers, but the platform is designed to work first and best with the remote and then iPhones as additional controllers. No word on whether it'll support multiple remotes just yet.
The biggest interface change is the addition of universal search screens, which show you a beautiful custom card for every show and movie you might search for, with a listing of services that let you stream that content. It's nice, and clearly an attempt to create a new main interface concept.
Siri is working, but it's noisy here, and I've heard it duff a few questions already. We'll have to see what it's like in the quiet of an actual living room.
Siri and universal search work in iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, Showtime, and HBO right now, and Apple says more apps will be supported soon — it's not clear if app developers can add support on their own, or if Apple will be a gatekeeper.
As for performance, it's unsurprisingly great in the limited demos running here. The App Store isn't live yet and is showing a dummy screen, but the games are running fast and smooth, and video apps are of course streaming flawlessly.
I played Asphalt 8 and it ran great, but the controls on the remote were strange — it's just a little small to hold in two hands, and none of the buttons line up when you hold it horizontally. Apple says any MFi game controller should work with the new Apple TV, and that might be a necessary purchase if you're planning on doing any real gaming on this thing.
As for apps, I played with the Gilt app (and bought a $149 chair on someone's credit card) but honestly it just felt like a giant smartphone app — a good first idea, but anything beyond streaming apps and games needs a real reason to live on the TV, and Gilt and Zillow don't really feel that compelling.
Overall, it's a welcome — and meaningful — upgrade to the Apple TV, but there's nothing in this first look that makes it seem like it's going to usher in a massive TV revolution. It's now competitive with the latest from Roku, Amazon, and others, and the potential of real processing and graphics power coupled with the App Store is enormous, but it's hard to say more until that stuff goes live.
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