Finally, Apple decided to update the AppleTV – and promote it to the product menu bar on the main site! This common, and popular, device had been overlooked for four years!
The changes are exactly what I was wishing for… but somehow not enough. The main thing I wanted was apps. It seemed kinda dumb that an iOS device (the previous AppleTV was running iOS 5) couldn’t run apps.
The internals have been improved significantly to support the load that modern apps will certainly give to the hardware. An A8 processor (mostly the same in the iPad Air 2, with a different GPU), 2GB RAM, and 32-64GB flash storage. Bluetooth 4.0 and WiFi 802.11 ac (along with the other letters).
But Apple has never been strictly about the internals. You shouldn’t need to know exact RAM numbers to know how the experience will be [1. Quick, tell me how much RAM a PS3 has! Whether you know that number or not, you realize it doesn’t matter as much as it would on a desktop]. Apple has always been about the experience, even if it causes the device to be a little more expensive.
So what is the experience? Well, the existing AppleTV experience is a gimme. It was already very good and uniquely seamless… playing iTunes content and receiving AirPlay streams is a very satisfying experience. The downside? The doors were closed to anything else. So now with apps, the experience gets much wider. Plex is better than iTunes. [2. There. I said it.] TuneIn Radio would be nice to have on the same box. And then there’s games!
<record scratch>. [3. For the younger set, you might have to Google this]
Of course there’s going to be games, when people talk about the App Store for iOS, their first thought is GAMES. But, the App Store games have been unique beasts until now. Odd games with ridiculously simple controls and brief (seconds to minutes) of typical game time. Games like Threes, Angry Birds and Plants Vs. Zombies really worked on a portable, touchscreen, battery-powered handheld that you had with you anyway. Put it on a screen with three other bored family members watching and it won’t work.
The games have to change nature, obviously. When you fire up a game in the living room, you do so with hours, not minutes in mind. Solo games are still fine, of course (they already succeed on the consoles, so that proves that). But the AppleTV as a gaming device is going into the arena with a handful of potential games worth playing. I too loved the demo of Crossy Road, it looked great… but I think I would only play it on the big screen for 10 minutes. The Apple ad highlighted Asphalt 8, and there’s also Real Racing 3, another graphics-beautiful game that lends itself wonderfully to the controller. And with the In-App Purchases you can…
<record scratch>. <audience gasp>. <crickets>. [4. You have to add your own sound effects here. Work with me, people.]
I bought Real Racing 2. It was fun, if a bit unrealistic. It was self-contained and cost money up front. Real Racing 3 came out, and was mostly improved except it’s now Freemium… so you can play for free as long as you stop playing every few races to let it recharge. Stop. Playing. Tell me if that’s going to work when you’re on the couch with a cool drink and controller in hand. I know, there are about 1% of the players that actually pay for cubits or gemoids or coinules or whatever they have [5. For the older set, don’t bother Googling these].
The easy(tm) solution is to charge more for the games. I’m actually fine with that, as I’d pay $5-$10 for a really good game. That would be kinda the upper limit, the reason for which will I will explain shortly. So maybe that will happen. I’m actually pretty certain(tm) that it will, actually, though I think the prices will balance out at a little more around $10-$20.
Now back to the hardware. It has the grunt to drive these games, but there are two significant problems that stand out right away.
First, controller support is restricted to MFi controllers, so those awesome and cheap USB controllers you already have (like the ubiquitous Xbox 360 controller) cannot be used. So you can get an AppleTV for $149 plus a controller for $49 more. $200 USD for an unknown console with a single controller… now that’s not too bad given new console prices. Except I could pop out today and get a PS3 with 4 really good games (Lego Batman 3 and the Sly Collection) for $219 CDN. With 500GB of storage.
Which leads me to my next issue. There are only two levels of storage differentiating the $149 and $199 models Is 32GB enough, or is 64GB enough? Right now very few know. A high-end iOS game at the moment might push 2GB, or possibly more, but recently released developer information explains that apps for the AppleTV can only reserve 200 megabytes of persistent storage each. They can download and cache a whole lot more than that, apparently, but given memory pressure (i.e. lots of different apps, not just games) using that cache, it will be dumped and you will have to redownload it. So the snappy performance of the device when you first set it up will probably fade. In practice, maybe you don’t notice this much, since you’d have to run a lot of different apps to create the memory pressure required to dump the cache of one. Most people would focus around 4 or 5 apps each. Unless of course you’re a family.
Oh… yeah, that [5. Won’t someone think of the poor RECORDS?].
It would be easy to compare this to the Xbox One, because it does much of what the Apple TV promises, without the Apple integration, of course… but it’s expensive, so I won’t do that.
Let’s go back briefly to the pricing of games… It seems to me the big competitor they’ve just walked into the ring with is Valve. Steam sales are ridiculous. It’s not unusual to get a significant and excellent game on Steam for under $5. Steam games are often cheaper than their iOS ports. But, PC games and consoles are very different things. The other key is the Steam Link hardware that is coming out next month. A $59 CDN box will stream your PC/Mac games to your big screen. It supports Xbox 360 controllers as well as a few others, and they are releasing a new $59 (CDN) controller as well, that is looking promising. So for games, it’s $119 for a game plus controller, and a TON of cheap, high-quality games. And an online store that works really well. It will also stream your music if you really need to (MP3 only). Maybe movies will come soon, who knows. While it’s true it’s a streaming-only device, and you need your computer on… AppleTV is mostly the same for movies and music. (Yes I know about iCloud)
I think the real potential competitor to the new AppleTV is the old AppleTV + Steam Link. $89 + $59 = $148 CDN beats $149 US by a fair margin. Enough to throw in a controller, if you really really don’t have one.
Comparing unreleased, unknown products is often an exercise in madness. But at least my madness is well exercised. I think we’ll know how this all shakes out in about a year. Mark this down.