Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Movie and DVD Reviews: The best and not-so-best movies available on DVD, and whatever else catches my eye.

Apple TV review

Jerry Stratton, September 13, 2016

Planets app on Apple TV

The Planets app is universal for the iPad, iPhone, and Apple TV, and displays constellations, planets, the moon, and the sun’s location in the sky or below the horizon.

In April, I purchased the fourth-generation Apple TV. It was less about wanting an Apple TV than about getting fed up with my Samsung Smart TV’s utterly insane user interaction choices. I don’t get cable television, just Internet, and I don’t watch a whole lot of broadcast television either. I used my television mainly for Netflix and Youtube and a little for Video & TV Cast when I wanted to watch something live.

But the Samsung was always updating when I wanted to watch something. There’s a setting on the TV that sounded like “update in the background when I’m not using the television” but in actual practice can’t have meant that because it doesn’t seem to have done it.

When I first bought the television, I hadn’t paid much attention to the Smart TV aspects, because I expected Apple to come out with a smarter Apple TV box soon. That was in June of 2014. By the time Apple finally did bring out the smarter box in November of 2015, I was semi-resigned to using the crappy Samsung interface and thought I’d try to get by without spending a hundred dollars on a set-top box.

But the Samsung just seemed to keep trying to convince me to get something better. I forget what finally put me over the line; it may have been turning on the TV to watch one of the debates and being told to wait a few minutes while the “smart” aspect of the Smart TV updated.

Since getting the Apple box, I have not used the Samsung apps even once. I haven’t missed the apps at all. The only features I do miss are on the YouTube app, but since the YouTube app on the Apple TV is more reliable than the app on the Samsung, it’s still overall a better experience on the Apple TV.

YouTube on the Samsung used to temporarily lock up occasionally, freezing for up to a minute before continuing on. That doesn’t happen on the Apple TV, but the Apple TV version of the app does not allow liking/unliking videos, which the Samsung version did, nor any sharing or adding to folders. On the whole, since I turn on the television to watch something—and the inability to do so is what drove me to the Apple TV—not freezing makes this app better on the Apple TV than on the Samsung. But it’s still disappointing that I can’t mark something for later retrieval.

Haystack TV

Haystack TV aggregates news snippets, and learns what you choose to watch to show you more of it.

Watching YouTube videos on the Apple TV does add them to the History category, so there is that.

Netflix also seems to work better. Netflix on the Samsung occasionally got the video and sound out of sync, but I haven’t seen that (yet) on the Apple TV.

As for sending live video up from my iPad to the television, that’s built-in to the Apple TV and works very well, but I haven’t used it since everything I’d want to throw up to the TV can be viewed directly on the TV with one app or another.

The Apple TV is pretty much all about the apps, so I’m going to review the apps I use more than the box itself, which seems to work fine. That should give you a better idea of whether the box is something you’d want than just talking about the box.

For news, some of the apps I use now are Haystack TV and YouTube for news aggregation; Catholic TV for news about the Vatican; NASA for news about our space program1. I also have Newsy and Newsmax for non-standard news. I never watched television news before, because I didn’t want to shackle myself to their schedule. Now, I pull them up on the Apple TV and choose the news stories I’m interested in.

And, although I rarely use them, most of the three-letter networks have their own app. I use these mainly for viewing live events during the election season.

For movies, I have Netflix, although I’ve currently let my subscription lapse—I have a backlog of DVDs I’m trying to get through. I also have Classix for older movies, and it’s a real standout. And I occasionally watch movies and television shows on Crackle. When it’s in season, I watch The Black List on the NBC app. Most of the other three-letter networks require signing in to your cable television provider to watch television shows; since I don’t have television service, they’re useless to me.2

There are a whole bunch of other apps I’ve downloaded for documentaries and independent movies and weird stuff—Periscope, Vimeo, Drive In Classics, Smithsonian, TED, NFB (a Canadian channel), PBS, and XIVE TV—but I almost never watch them. Periscope seems especially interesting. It appears to be a way for people who happen to be at an interesting event to livestream it. I watched a really fun narration of a sunset in New York City on it. And I expect to hit the Smithsonian app for documentaries—I watched one on volcanos already—but I just haven’t had the time.

TVTimeWarp Chesterfields

TVTimeWarp is a neat little app that emulates an old woodgrain cabinet television on your HDTV, using the Internet Archive to provide old content. Just like the old days, you don’t get to choose what you’re going to watch, just the channel, although in this case the channel is approximately the year.

The Apple TV also connects to iTunes on my iMac to play my music and display my photos. I also have home movies on a networked hard drive that I can watch using Infuse or VLC.

I tend to prefer the things that present information quickly. There’s an astronomy photo-a-day app, for example, called APOD. And the Podcast app lets me listen to short podcasts such as The Way I Heard It.

The Apple TV has a neat feature whereby the apps in the top row can display dynamic information at the top of the screen. So I try to put useful apps that can take advantage of that feature on the top row. Currently, my top-row apps are Newsy, Haystack TV, APOD, NASA, and Classix. The first two provide current news links, the second two provide quick links into the apps, and Classix provides a list of trending movies.3

Another neat thing about the Apple TV is that it’s very small, and it maintains its memory very well when unplugged. This makes it very handy to pop into a bag when traveling and carry it along. As long as you have network access and a television with an HDMI port on it at your destination or along the way, you can keep up with the news and any podcasts or subscriptions.

Turning on the Apple TV automatically turns on the television set, too, and switches the source to whichever HDMI port the Apple box is plugged into. I don’t use the complicated television remote unless I want to watch something on broadcast television. The remote can also control the volume of the television set, although in my case that’s not as useful because I have a fairly old stereo hooked up for sound and keep the television volume level at zero.

Asking Siri for the weather

You can ask Siri many things, such as what the weather’s going to be either locally or somewhere else.

The biggest feature of the box itself is Siri. Siri is not as omniscient as she is on iOS, but still manages to be very useful. Siri can do the obvious task of opening apps by name and sometimes with parameters, such as “show me RSS apps in the app store” or “show me icy crash videos on YouTube”. Siri very nicely takes the place of a keyboard when doing searches—although I have recently paired an old bluetooth keyboard with it for typing passwords.

Siri can also respond to non-app-related requests, such as telling the time in any city I’ve given it so far. More useful is that it can provide a weather forecast over the next few days, both locally and in other cities. It can tell me what day or date some particular holiday falls on, as well as how many days remain until that holiday.

There are probably other things that I haven’t thought to ask it.

Games are pretty neat. I tend toward old-school, so I’ve sideloaded MAME on it and a couple of simple adventure games—Dungeon Quest and Heavy Blade—as well as a few games I’d already had on the iPhone and iPad. While it isn’t called iOS, the Apple TV is tied into the main iOS App Store: app designers can make their apps universal across the iPhone, iPad, and Apple TV, and if one of your apps is or becomes universal, your Apple TV gets it for free.

For some of the games I use the SteelSeries Nimbus. It has a nice feel for a relatively inexpensive gaming controller. The Nimbus recharges like the Apple TV remote does, using a Lightning USB cable. This is my first experience with the Lightning connector, and I have to say it’s pretty nice not having to fiddle with orienting the connector properly.

To accommodate both the Nimbus and the remote in my media room, I picked up a replacement power receptacle that also has two USB ports on it. So far it’s been working great. If it’s still working in 2017, I’m going to get two more for the bedroom.4

Apple TV playing iTunes music

There’s also an app to connect to iTunes on your computer, to play music and display album covers,

There are some disappointments that I wouldn’t have expected, mainly having to do with iCloud sharing. The Apple TV can’t accept Photo sharing requests. Even if you have an iCloud account (which you can set up on the Apple TV), you have to accept sharing requests on iOS or MacOS. This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. In my case, it means that I can’t set up a family sharing album on iCloud that my parents, who only have an Apple TV, can see. They don’t have an iPhone, iPad, or Macintosh to accept the sharing request on.

Similarly, there’s no way to accept location sharing on the Apple TV—although this is less of an issue since Apple Maps is also not yet available on it. And since it uses iCloud only sparingly, if at all, Siri doesn’t know about upcoming events or contacts.

The oddest disappointment is with the app store. When I first bought the box, the app store had a “Recently Updated” list in the “Purchased” tab. This made it very easy to read the release notes for apps I already had to discover new features. Many of these apps are growing quickly as the developers learn more about what they can do on the Apple TV. But this feature disappeared with or slightly before the 9.2.2 update.

Those disappointments aside, though, I am very happy I purchased this box. The bottom line is that, given the difference in price between smart and non-smart TVs vs. the cost of an Apple TV5, I can’t see any reason to buy a Smart TV rather than the dumb counterpart, at least for the ones I’m familiar with. The Apple TV blows them out of the water not just on almost every metric, but every one.

If you want to keep up on the news on your television set but don’t want to be tied to someone else’s schedule and also customize your news sources; and if you enjoy watching movies and shows à la carte, this is a great choice. If you also have an iMac or iOS device that you want to use with your television, it becomes by far the best choice.

Full disclosure: I own Apple stock, mainly because they keep making products that make my life easier.

  1. The NASA app is probably the crappiest app that I use regularly. The videos themselves are very informative, but the app disables scrubbing through them and pausing/restarting them, which also disables knowing how long they are. Further, videos are divided into five categories, and to find new videos you have to go through each category.

  2. I did set them up on my parents’ Apple TV box, and it seems to work fine. It is a little annoying to have to go to a computer and browse to a web page to verify service. That’s hopefully going to be fixed in the next version of tvOS.

  3. It’s odd that some of the apps from Apple that seem eminently suited for this functionality, such as the podcast app and the trailers app, don’t utilize it.

  4. I’d get one for the kitchen, too, but it doesn’t look like it can replace GFCI outlets.

  5. If you buy outdated Smart TV models on clearance, the price difference between the Smart TV and the Dumb TV is much smaller.

  1. <- Florence Foster Jenkins
  2. Small Soldiers ->