Apple's streaming-video box could get a lot better with a few improvements.
Rumours were abuzz earlier this week about a possible refresh of the Apple TV set-top box, as retailers are running out of existing stock.
I certainly wouldn't be surprised if there's a new Apple TV coming soon, since the current model came out way back in September 2010. As good as the current Apple TV is (I like the current model, although living in the US means a lot more features than Australian Apple TVs get; see my full review), there's plenty of room for improvement, especially with competitors like Roku and Xbox 360 providing compelling alternatives.
If a new Apple TV is indeed announced at an early March Apple press event, here's what I'll be hoping for:
1. Siri voice control and search
I haven't found Siri to be that useful on the iPhone 4S, but it would be an excellent addition to the Apple TV. Microsoft's latest Xbox 360 dashboard update added voice control and search, and once you've said "Xbox Bing The Daily Show" instead of tediously typing it out with on-screen keyboard, it's tough to go back. Plus, Apple can easily one-up Microsoft by supporting natural language commands; my major annoyance with the Xbox 360 was having to say stock commands like "Xbox Bing Parks and Recreation", rather than "watch latest episode of 'Parks and Recreation'".
While microphones built into the Apple TV would be the best-case scenario, it's more likely that voice search capabilities would be offered via other nearby iOS devices, like an iPhone or iPad, especially since the new Apple TV is rumoured to include Bluetooth 4.0 functionality. And consider any voice capabilities to be an excellent test run for the forever-rumoured Apple HDTV.
2. Cross-platform search
Apple's user interface is beautiful if you're looking to buy or rent movies from iTunes, but it's of no help if you're trying to manage all the streaming-media services available on the device.
As I mention in my Apple TV review, I was about to purchase The Trip from iTunes for US$5, until I quickly checked Netflix and realised I could stream it for free. With solid cross-platform search and browsing, you can look for the content you want, regardless of what service it's offered on. The Xbox 360 and Google TV platforms both do a much better job at this, and it will be even more necessary if Apple adds support for a full App Store.
3. True apps
Any time I write about the Apple TV, I'm quick to bring up that competitors (especially Roku's line of boxes) have more streaming services (once again, this tends to be a US only thing — one day they'll hopefully get to Australia!). That might not matter if you're only planning to stream from Netflix and occasionally rent a movie on iTunes, but digital mediaphiles expect more streaming options — especially the basics, like Hulu Plus and Pandora.
Apple can put the entire issue to rest by rolling out a full-fledged Apple TV app store. The current locked-down nature of the Apple TV seems particularly out of date, now that seemingly every gadget comes with its own app store. It will be hard to keep the user interface looking quite as minimalist by allowing users to install their own apps, but it would be worth it to get more content.
Unlike some of my colleagues, I'm not a big iOS gamer. I've played a lot of games on my iPhone 4, but rarely have been sucked into the experience as much as on dedicated portable gaming systems like the Nintendo DS. Similarly, the casual gaming available on the Roku 2 XS isn't compelling yet, either.
But given how much developer support the iOS ecosystem has, gaming on the Apple TV could be big. Add support for a Bluetooth controller and you've got a pretty decent budget gaming console, especially if games have "app-friendly" prices in the US$1 to US$5 range. Even better, the Apple TV could support OnLive (which is coming soon for the iPad), making it a potent US$100 media box.
When it comes to streaming video, bitrate is more important than resolution, which is why I don't care that the current Apple TV is limited to 720p resolution. The truth is that HD iTunes and Netflix video looks great on the Apple TV, often a lot better than overly compressed "1080i" HD content you get over standard TV.
But in 2012, lacking true 1080p output would seem bizarre — there's no reason not to have it (some might argue that was also the case in 2010, although I disagree). And it is possible as video compression gets better and better, that resolution could eventually become a factor for streaming video if you have a truly huge HDTV or projector. If nothing else, I'll never see a comment about the Apple TV being "only" 720p again.