Sunday 25 September 2016

Apple TV: A new console for a new generation

Published 24/12/2015 | 13:25

The fourth-generation Apple TV has big potential for gaming
The fourth-generation Apple TV has big potential for gaming

LONG before there was Xbox, there was Pippin. Very few remember or even know that Apple tried and failed to compete against Nintendo and PlayStation in the mid-1990s.

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The Apple Pippin game console never caught the public's imagination and was summarily canned in 1997.

Apple has seemed ambivalent about gaming ever since, even as the App Store made hundreds of millions from such trivial pursuits. But its latest assault on Nintendo and PlayStation hedges its bets with a play that is as much about television as gaming.

The newest Apple TV (€180 or €230 for 32GB/64GB of storage) could potentially act like a Trojan horse in the same way Nintendo's Wii colonised the living room by seducing non-gamers. On the face of it, it resembles the old Apple TV streaming box, albeit one that ate all the pies. Functionally, it ably performs the same tasks, connecting Netflix and iTunes Movies to your big-screen TV.

Voice control via Siri enables some cool tricks (once you set the locale to UK - Ireland isn't officially supported yet) such as searching for movies or genres or skipping back a few seconds if you miss some dialogue.

But it's the built-in App Store that unlocks intriguing possibilities. Apple TV now operates on an offshoot of iOS called tvOS that enables it to run, so far, thousands of different apps. However, developers must do a not-insignificant amount of work to convert from iOS to tvOS.

Beat Sports
Beat Sports

Irish developer Steven Troughton-Smith, who has considerable experience on iOS, thinks Apple TV has a bright future.

“The idea that any TV network could provide their channels as an app, with built-in EPG, on-demand episodes of TV shows, and all kinds of other appropriates add-ons and extras etc, is a very exciting one,” he says. “Why buy an expensive network bundle of channels you don’t want when you could pick just the ones you do and pay for those? While this is not yet fully realized with tvOS, especially outside the US, I expect to see a lot more of this over time."

Many of the initial crop of apps dutifully oblige with the same information you can get on your phone, such as weather, photos, etc.

Instead, it's the games that prove the most interesting direction, powered by the combination of a big-screen canvas, a motion-sensitive remote-style controller and what is essentially a muscular mini-console, equivalent maybe to a PS3.

Oceanhorn: An impressive Zelda-like 3D adventure
Oceanhorn: An impressive Zelda-like 3D adventure

So far, so PlayStation circa 2008 really. But it's the low iOS-style price points and the wide audience familiar with casual iPhone games that could swing it for the Apple TV.

“Games will be a huge market, especially since Apple TV supports game controllers like a console,” says Troughton-Smith. “There are still uncertainties regarding meaningful (non-casual) games due to some limitations Apple have put in place (like no local file storage, and no gamepad-only titles), but I expect those to be shaken out over time.”

Apple has limited the amount of storage each app can permanently use, which leads to annoying situations where the box must download from the cloud frequently if you switch a lot between apps. That could be a problem on a slow or data-capped broadband connection.

At the console launch, Apple itself showcased Beat Sports, an ultra-simple music rhythm action game that mashes Wii Sports with Guitar Hero. At €10, it's a big ask that highlights the clumsiness of the touch sensitivity in the controller. The ubiquitous Asphalt 8 racer shows it can be done better, however.

But look instead to the likes of Zelda-alike Oceanhorn, an impressive iPad port that is free if you own the original. Several iOS games offer such cross-buy benefits.

Many of the more complex Apple TV games such as the beautiful Transistor become far more playable via an optional gamepad (typically about €60). In fact, if you’re keen on gaming at all, a gamepad is a near-mandatory purchase.

Apple has banned developers from producing titles that require a gamepad rather than the remote control. It restricts the console’s possibilities in the long term but may help to build a solid user base who may be otherwise intimidated by the complexity of traditional consoles.

 “All things considered, this is a €180 iOS computer you can build any kind of app for and show on any-sized screen – it’s bristling with potential and this is only the first release,” says Troughton-Smith.

Certainly, it's early days yet for the new console with a lack of Apple TV exclusives to woo the uncommitted. But as we've seen with iOS and iPhone, you would never bet against Apple stealthily winning the long game.

 

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