Apple wasn't able to invite us to its homecoming dance in San Francisco this year, but we admired its dance moves from afar. We also tuned into the after party gossip when attendees told everyone how they really felt about the latest products. The new Apple TV, apparently, is pretty good.
The new all-about-the-apps Apple TV, you see, is actually a lot like the old all-about-a-handful-of-native-apps Apple TV. New hardware includes a much needed upgrade to an A8 process as well as a touchpad-powered remote. You can also talk to the new Apple TV with some fanfare-flanked Siri functionality. But at the end of the day, it seems like watching TV with Apple TV is still just watching TV. It's a little bit more futuristic, but the new Apple TV is not necessarily revolutionary, according to the lucky few who got to boogie with it.
The small, black rectangle is about the size of an iPod Nano, and is so light it feels like it's missing its battery. (It's almost too light, honestly — I'd lose this thing everywhere.) Instead of the up-down-left-right buttons we've been used to, this one uses a clickable touchpad, like a Magic Trackpad on a Mac. You swipe-swipe-swipe to what you want, and then click on the trackpad to select. It's crazy sensitive — for a while I was gliding 12 icons when I meant to move one, and I was always going places I didn't mean to — but it's a sensible and one-handed way to move through even pretty long lists of stuff.
I decided to have some fun by asking Siri to help me navigate content on Apple TV. For example, I tried using Siri to steer a spaceship in a Star Wars game. But that was difficult, perhaps because of my inexperience with the game. I also tried searching for action movies and comedy movies with the remote control's microphone. Siri misunderstood me when I said "comedy," thinking I had said "comity."
The folks in Cupertino have been on a serious "do things better, faster" kick lately and this trackpad really does help — punching out names and titles with a d-pad is so 10 years ago. The flip side is it sometimes feels as though it's moving a little too quickly, like it wants to be half a step ahead of where you are at the moment. And the icing on top of this squat, squarish black cake? You can use the remote to fiddle with the volume, no matter what game or app you're currently playing.
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.
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 optimised for movies. Also notable: Siri wasn't actually that smart about connecting the dots. … 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."