With or Without Wi-Fi and Ethernet

Apple announced two new Apple TV models today that are sourced from only the finest parts bins. Hewn from a list of things that can be removed from the previous models for a modest discount. Chiseled from a single block of text about there being no reason to buy the 128 GB version before. Only Apple could name one the Apple TV 4K (“Hey honey, don’t we have one of those? Wait, there are three of them?”) and the “Apple TV 4K with Wi-Fi and Ethernet” a product name befitting an Amazon retailer that uses only consonants.

Monkeys Paw Finger Number One

I, and many, many, many, many, many other people have written for years about how the Apple TV product line is too expensive. Long ago, the 3rd generation Apple TV, that didn’t run apps, and was super old, got marked down to $69. It stuck around way longer than it should have, but it let Apple say that Apple TV started at $69. A price they won’t get near again.

Competitors have been able to undercut Apple in standalone devices, and HDMI sticks/dongles for long time. All with comparable feature sets. TV manufacturers were eager to cut out the need for external equipment with apps.

Apple embraced those trends by making Apple TV apps for those other platforms rather than trying to engineer an approachable Apple hardware solution for price conscious consumers.

The justification seemed to be that Apple was offering a premium experience, with premium hardware, at a premium price. Unfortunately, the Apple TV is just a nice experience, not a premium one when it comes to using the device, so fancy materials, sensors, etc. don’t make a premium experience any more than silverware at your table instead of stainless steel flatware.

Fire TV and Roku junk up their interfaces with ads, but Apple also junks up their interface with ads for Apple TV+, Apple Music, and Apple Arcade. If you don’t subscribe to any of those Apple will periodically nudge you in a way that is not at all premium. Are the ads in an Amazon Fire Stick $75-$80 worse than the ads in the Apple TV? The TV app, the way Apple thinks it’s easiest for people to get to their shows, currently loads up on the TV+ tab (which I’m not subscribed to) and then when I go over to Watch Now I get a thin strip of “Up Next” items, three “What to Watch” titles that aren’t from Apple TV+, and then screen after screen of TV+. Tacky and it’s not like it’s knocking anything off the cost of the entry-level hardware.

The apps that serve your streaming content serve the same ads regardless of platform so there’s no luxury experience there either. You can cut that steak with silver or steel it’s not going to make it taste any different.

Much like the Apple TV 3rd generation, Apple discounted the Apple TV HD (4th generation) originally introduced in 2015 and fed it a steady diet of poorly designed but expensive remotes. The lowest it ever got was $149 before it was discontinued in 2022. Not a very enticing proposition! It never made it below $100. Even a refurbished Apple TV 4K 64 GB 2nd Generation is $109.

Our wish for a cheaper Apple TV 4K was granted by taking the previous one and de-contenting it (a term usually used in the car industry to describe removing stuff that was in a previous generation of a car) except for the processor. The way I had suggested going about that in previous posts was to pare down the remote and offer a model that had no hint of it being a potential gaming platform. Make a device truly focused on media steaming only. Instead it no longer has ethernet support, and it no longer has a Thread radio.

Well at least cutting those costs got the device below $100, right? Right?

padme meme

In my mind the removal of Thread works against what Apple should ultimately want to have happen in the home. If these devices are supposed to be components in our Matter-filled future, then why introduce an asterisk to the Apple TV 4K family by having one model that doesn’t work with Thread? Sure, it’ll work with Matter through WiFi and BlueTooth, but is that the experience that Apple wants people to have over the next two, three, four years? Wouldn’t it help Apple’s brand beyond TV boxes if they were the de facto backbone of the home? When I criticize a move like this it’s not because the market is flooded with Thread today, it’s because this product will last in homes for a long time. Even if it gets replaced by a new Apple TV in that particular living room in two years, it’ll be demoted to another TV in the home, one that is likely to be more on the periphery, and more likely to help with a robust mesh network.

Ethernet seems perfectly acceptable to remove from an entry level model. Many competing streaming devices don’t ship with ethernet ports, and offer ethernet adapters. High-end TV sets that ship with Ethernet will also ship with bad ethernet. John Siracusa recently got the highest end TV that Sony makes and it doesn’t have a gigabit ethernet port. As long as that is still on a high end model then I feel like it’s A-OK.

Monkeys Paw Finger Number Two

The second wish was for Apple to articulate some reason why there was a 128 GB version of the Apple TV 4K — beyond the flimsy rationale that the 128 GB version was for people that play “a lot” of games.

Instead of doing something serious with games that would take advantage of that local storage, they’re shifting to relying on home networking being a distinguishing feature of the device, and as mentioned above, it’s not the addition of home networking features, or better networking hardware than the previous generation, it’s because it’s now the only one with those home networking features.

This, by default, makes the 128 GB version a better buy than the 64 GB model. Something that could never be said about the higher-tier of storage in previous models! Seems pretty weird that $20 gets you a Thread radio, a gigabit ethernet port, and twice the storage!

If Apple was still manufacturing a 64 GB model with identical features then the decision would be simple: You would get that one. How much would that even be, $139? How much does a radio and a port cost, if you don’t get the storage? $10?

This also means we get the ungainly name “Apple TV 4K with Wi-Fi and Ethernet” because that’s the difference, ethernet, and we still need to tell people it has Wi-Fi so they don’t get confused, even though we don’t call the 64 GB one, “Apple TV 4K with Wi-Fi” because that would be silly.

Monkeys Paw Finger Number Three

When I used the Siri Remote for the Apple TV 4K second generation it was immediately apparent that it was better than the very, very bad glass remote, and that it was still not a good remote.

The directional pad was a huge improvement, as expected, but the jog-wheel scrubbing through the video still doesn’t work in most apps I use. Accidental swipes across the pad still happen, and play/pause gets pushed instead of mute, and vice versa, because we have to have perfect little circles for those. The button for Siri is still awkwardly positioned on the side. It’s still made of metal that is very easy to dent or scratch, something my boyfriend has done many times when he’s dropped it! So much room to iterate and refine.

Wish granted: They improved the remote!

The remote is exactly the same but with USB-C instead of a lightning port.

Take the next two or three years off. Good work.

It shouldn’t be surprising, because the last time they refreshed the remote, they just put a white circle around the edge of a button. Seems like the R&D budget of this enormous company can only afford to do design work on a remote once every five years.

Monkeys Paw Finger Number Four

A criticism that was leveled before was a lack of HDR10+ support, and that’s not really a major concern for most people. This was low on the list, but again, because of how Apple chose to price this device, it’s worth bringing up. If you’re marketing the most expensive media streaming box, then it should stream all the media the best it can. The quick summary of HDR10+ support is that it’s Samsung’s HDR standard so they don’t have to pay Dolby for DolbyVision. It’s HD-DVD vs. BluRay all over again, but there’s no “winner” here.

Samsung is really the only TV manufacturer that offers HDR10+ and no DolbyVision support. Most offer either just DolbyVision, or HDR10+ and DolbyVision. They all support HDR10, which is a more limited HDR format. HDR10+ and DolbyVision both work by sending dynamic metadata along to adjust the media file.

The thing is that Samsung sells a lot of TV sets all over the world. It’s not a niche player in this space.

People with a Samsung TV using an Apple TV 4K 2nd gen would still see HDR content in HDR10, and probably don’t know the difference because people are bad at judging that sort of thing. It’s not like it looks like SDR content.

HDR10+ support was allegedly confirmed, and supposed to pop-up in tvOS 16 this summer. It never happened. Mentions were scrubbed, some sites like 9to5 Mac still reported it shipped, etc. Then HDR10+ support shows up in the press release for the new generation of Apple TV 4K hardware.

This is extremely strange because it’s not like we need the horsepower of the A14 chip to handle metadata from HDR10+ in a way that’s unique compare to the A12 handling DolbyVision. This seems like a software difference masquerading as a hardware one, unless there’s some board component iFixIt discovers that does something very specific.

Apple’s storefront for TV and Movies still doesn’t tag any titles as being mastered with HDR10+ support, just DolbyVision. That makes me wonder when the device ships, with what is sure to be tvOS 16.1, that tvOS 16.1 might have HDR10+ support for older devices once the new Apple TV is on the market. It wouldn’t be the first time Apple withheld something from older models just to market something new.

Ultimately, without knowing how much content in Apple’s store is mastered for HDR10+, and without knowing which streaming services will adopt HDR10+, the value of the feature is debatable as anything other than finally checking that checkbox for device support.

All Out of Fingers

I wish the Apple TV was the product to recommend to anyone and everyone that wants a smart TV experience, or an easy-to-use smart home appliance. Hopefully that wish doesn’t make me Burgess Meredith.

While it might be the preferred TV hardware and software experience for some, and certainly something I use daily, it’s far from perfect, or even widely adopted. The changes that they’ve made are better than leaving things as-is, but now these are the changes that will be left as-is for a couple years.

Every time I write something critical like this five people show up in my mentions to tell me that they would rather use the Apple TV than anything else Amazon, Roku, Samsung, or LG makes, but those five people never seem to understand that their personal preference has never really been representative of the market. We may be lucky that Apple hasn’t decided to abandon Apple TV hardware and settle on making an Apple TV app to house their Apple TV+ wares on lesser platforms, but they’re still not setting the Apple TV up for success.

It’s not really of any consequence to Apple if it thrives or not so why put in the work? I’m sure that’s an argument that’s been made inside Apple’s offices more than once. I think it matters quite a bit, and I certainly don’t want it to die, so it needs more effort.

It isn’t inexpensive. It isn’t premium. It doesn’t have the best remote. These changes and prices will be this way for two more years.

I wish they could really put their best effort into it.

2022-10-21 12:30:00

Category: text