The Apple TV (First impressions?)

It’s 2023. The (non-Apple) streaming box market just feels…desolate, in a way.

Google TV’s landscape (which is usually what I prefer) feels, again, desolate. The low end of the market is very well served for what it is: You’ve got the $20 Onn streaming box (I own one and for the 1080p TV I have in the garage, it works pretty well as a “just stick something on this TV” device), and the $50 or so Chromecast with Google TV. Up until now, the latter is what I used on my main 4K TV, and initially it was pretty awesome! But with age it feels like it’s getting longer and longer in the tooth. I have to keep it in apps only mode to get any level of decent performance out of it, as navigating the UI otherwise just feels slow. Sometimes I can cast to it, and it’ll just ignore it entirely. Good stuff.

The high end of the Android TV market is where things begin to look, well, desolate. The go-to option used to be the Shield TV Pro, and I actually bought one back in 2020 because I got tired of trying to do the whole thing where I’d try and make a Windows PC with a Kodi frontend be my home theater device. It works relatively well for what it is, but I got tired of Windows doing what it do. (and Linux wasn’t going to be an option, here.)

Back in 2020, the Shield TV was a good value, I feel. Especially with the onboard graphics hardware. (You could run a Plex server off it, even!) However, we’re in the tail end of 2023 going into 2024, and the Shield TV is going to be five years old. It was last updated in 2019. Thus far, Nvidia has not signaled that they’re interested in releasing an updated model. (And I’m assuming it’s going to be consigned to the same fate as the other Shield devices.)

There’s also the issue of ads. I can see ads being a thing on the Chromecast, which is on the cheaper end of the spectrum. But ads (that, to be fair, were put there by Google, not Nvidia) on a product that costs $150 at a minimum? No thanks. Not a fan.

There seem to be other no-name boxes vying to compete with the higher end of the Google TV market, but personally, I’m not sure I trust them, exactly.

There’s also the other players in the market that I haven’t mentioned: Roku and Amazon. Roku just feels like they’re only hanging on by way of being an ad delivery platform for smart TVs. They were once the defacto choice for streaming hardware, but those days have long since passed them by. (Far as I know, Roku doesn’t even have an app for, which is just wild to me.)

RokuOS is also what my current smart TV runs and by god, it is awful. The networking sucks (can barely pull 70Mbps either by wireless or wired), and chokes hard on YouTube 4K content. So if you’re going to come into this whole thing asking “why not just use what your smart TV has onboard”, what’s why. It sucks. Bad. I think even my PS3 can outrun it in wireless speeds.

Amazon is also a consideration but they have odd compromises. Their highest end streaming device (Fire TV Cube) has Ethernet, but only 10/100. Huh, what? 10/100 Ethernet in 2022?! That just feels weird to type. It was already weird to type back in 2019 with my TCL TV, but…now? Good lord, Amazon. Gigabit’s been the standard for ages. The Cube also has no casting/mirroring support from phones, either. Lastly, as an Amazon product, it has ads. Everywhere. No thanks.

That brings me back around to the Apple TV. Apple charges what I’d call a fair price ($129 USD) for the base model, 64GB Wi-Fi (no Ethernet, and no Threads support for those who use smart home stuff) with an A15 SoC (so, iPhone 13 Pro-caliber) onboard. No ads littering your home screen for the most part (if you don’t count TV+ kind of being up in your face when you first set it up, that is). The setup coming from years of Android/Google TV devices is a serene experience in comparison: Just pick up my iPhone midway through the process and let it handle everything. This feels like a huge missed opportunity from Google here: I have a Pixel 7 on the side and never ever felt this level of ecosystem integration with the Pixel and Chromecast. Then again, who knows if Google’s even going to keep Chromecast around at this rate with their affinity for burying products.

You might notice despite my issues with the Fire TV Cube only having 10/100 Ethernet that I picked the Wi-Fi only version of the Apple TV, and might also wonder why I did that. Simply put, I trust Apple far more on the Wi-Fi hardware front than I do anyone else, and I trust whatever Wi-Fi they they equipped the ATV4K will be sufficient. And it is: Doing a speedtest on my 1.2Gbps connection, I pull 700Mbps down and 230Mbps up. Is it saturating my connection like my iPhone 15 Pro Max could? No. But is it fast enough for pretty much all types of content I can throw at this thing? Absolutely.

Befitting of its hardware, just doing so much as navigating the interface is stupid quick. Installing apps? They install instantly. The new remote is a joy to use, and the fact that it’s rechargeable out the gate (over USB-C!) is awesome. No more dealing with AAAs! The touch interface of the remote is great, too, it makes navigating the ATV’s interface slick. It only really falls apart in one app, but we’ll get to that in a sec.

One of the other neat things that I noticed is that my ISP’s streaming app actually supports the Apple TV, which I didn’t think they would. They definitely don’t support Google TV, like at all, so if I wanted to use that capability I actually needed to back out into RokuOS and use it there. Not that I really use it, but it’s a nice way to get access to live TV without needing a cable box for it., should I wish to.

The only downside here is losing access to the third party app I use on Google TV. Twitch’s official app sucks hard. It didn’t used to be like this, either: I want to say they pushed this update late last year, and it was a massively broken pile of garbage that would just randomly kick you out to the home screen if you backed out of a VOD, and it wouldn’t remember playback position for said VODs so if you were knee deep in an hours-long VOD you’d have to remember where you were, or start over. It took functionality that previously worked and just outright broke it.

Thankfully, some things have improved: The app now remembers playback position (oh thank Jobs) and it doesn’t seem to kick you back to the home screen when you back out of a VOD. However, some issues still remain: The touch sensitivity for the remote is insanely sensitive, so seeking along a VOD is very, very difficult. Sometimes when you do this too, the progress bar just gets stuck and won’t dismiss (and hitting the back button just kicks you out of the VOD). However one of the worst things is that the Twitch app doesn’t show you all available VODs. Yes, I know, Twitch is primarily a live-focused service, but VODs are how I primarily interact with Twitch, so if they’re broken, I’m not happy.

On the Twitch ATV app, I can only see the 12 most recent VODs, so if there’s a VOD I want to go back further and watch? I can’t. I have to get out my iPhone, fire up the Twitch app, find the VOD there and AirPlay it over.

This is just irritating because the previous app had none of these issues! Was it getting a bit long in the tooth? Maybe. But it worked.

(I suppose this would be a nice case for someone to make a third party app and maybe throw it on AltStore, assuming you can do that with an Apple TV…)

Even though Twitch kinda sucks, the rest of the Apple TV honestly makes it worth it, so far. The user experience has been amazing. The UI feels responsive, something I’ve not experienced in a while with streaming boxes. The way it integrates with my iPhone is slick too (and feels like it presents a missed opportunity for there to be deeper integration with Google TV/Pixel devices). The Wi-Fi is decently fast, I don’t feel like I’m missing much not having Ethernet. And so far, AirPlay has actually worked bang on every time, something I’ve not been able to say with Google Cast.

I look forward to exploring the Apple TV more in the coming weeks, and hope that this honeymoon period keeps on rollin’ like it did with the Shield TV. (And I hope it doesn’t end like the Shield TV did, where Apple drops a big ‘ol stinker of an update that makes me question my purchasing decision. Thus far, at least, tvOS 17 has been Just Fine.)

Update, like, a day later: I think one of the big annoyances of both sides of the streaming box war here is that I don’t necessarily fit into either ecosystem super well, either. My main computer is a Windows 11 PC, and my browser of choice is Firefox. Because I use a PC, there’s no way for me to send a YouTube video from my computer to my Apple TV. I could probably somewhat do this on my Mac with AirPlay (but I use Firefox there, too) and Safari, but that feels like just as much of a hack as firing up Chrome on my PC and feeding it a URL and telling it to cast to my Chromecast.

Since Apple has no stake in the browser wars as far as PC is concerned, it’d be neat if they had an extension that allowed Firefox and Chrome to send stuff to the Apple TV. But it’s likely hell will freeze over before that happens.