The click-baitiness of Mark Gurman’s much-linked piece today — titled alternately “Apple’s TV Box Is Now Mostly Pointless” and “Why Should I Buy an Apple TV Instead of Amazon Fire, Google Chromecast?” — is quickly given away when he writes: “In recent years, the Apple TV has become a less obvious purchase for many Apple fans and content junkies.”
Is it “a less obvious purchase” or “pointless”? Or is it indeed “useful,” as per this later line:
“Integration with HomeKit, Fitness+, AirPods and the iOS remote app is useful.”
But for the sake of argument, I’ll assume he really does believe the Apple TV is “pointless,” and I’ll boil down his argument into what I see as his three main points, paraphrased by me.
Listen, this would’ve been great at the height of the pandemic, but it’s still useful to watch videos and listen to music with your buds on a FaceTime call.
As though now that pandemic restrictions are lifting, everybody’s going to come over and watch movies with me? I don’t know about you but my friends have kids and lives and aren’t going to schlep across town on a Tuesday night just to watch a movie with me, much less a single episode of a TV show — let alone several friends! (Is this a brutal self-own? Do people really just have hoards of friends swinging by all the time?)
And doesn’t anybody have friends in, like, other cities?
I use Plex regularly to watch things with friends remotely, and it’s a flawed experience. Hulu and others started rolling their own “watch together” solutions that frequently required watching from a browser and other hassles. That SharePlay will be a system-wide API that streaming services can tap into is huge, pandemic or not.
Ever since Apple brought “Spatial Audio with Dynamic Head Tracking” (emphasis mine) to the AirPods Pro, there has been a lot of conflation between these two distinct features. Recently two Apple experts talked about this with regard to Apple TV. It’s often assumed that Spatial Audio is not possible on Apple TV, because the Apple TV doesn’t have a U1 chip, but this is due to a misunderstanding of what Spatial Audio is.
Spatial Audio mimics having the multiple speakers of a surround sound system by running a 5.1, 7.1, or Atmos audio source through some algorithms to create a binaural audio effect. This is similar to using ear-shaped microphones to capture sound so that when played back on standard headphones, the audio sounds like it’s coming from different directions. Also known as “holophonic sound,” Disney did this at Epcot with an attraction called “Soundsations”:
This is separate from Dynamic Head Tracking, which is what most people seem to think Spatial Audio is. Dynamic Head Tracking is what makes it sound like the audio is coming from the device that is playing the video, even as you turn your head.
Just as it would be possible to have Dynamic Head Tracking without Spatial Audio — basically a flat stereo sound that remained “stationary” while you moved your head — it would be possible to have Spatial Audio without Dynamic Head Tracking.
By default, spatial audio makes it sound like the audio is coming from your iPhone, even when your head moves. You can change this behavior so that the audio sounds like it’s following your head movement.
What this means is that there seems to be no technological reason that existing Apple TVs couldn’t do Spatial Audio, or that if there is, it’s because they’re not powerful enough to process the surround sound data through the necessary algorithms, which seems unlikely.
Honestly, I don’t know why Apple TV doesn’t support Spatial Audio, but it’s not the lack of a U1 chip.
And as long as I’m talking about Spatial Audio with Dynamic Head Tracking, I’m a bit surprised that things like Apple Fitness+ and Apple Arcade don’t feature them.
The Apple Watch can be a great motivator for fitness. Closing rings and the hourly stand reminders can be just enough to nudge you into getting off of your ass once in a while, and that’s great. Since watchOS 4, there’s even been an end-of-day reminder to close your rings if you haven’t already:
If needed, toward the end of the day, they’ll be told exactly how long they should walk to close their Activity Rings before the day is over.
This notification will say something like, “You’re so close to closing your Move ring. A brisk, 11-minute walk should do it.” (Often, to many people’s chagrin, this will happen at 10:45 PM while it’s raining outside.)
What’s nice about this is that walking doesn’t seem as miserable as maintaining a 160 BPM heart rate while a Peloton trainer screams at you. It’s inviting! Why not take a walk around the block? The habit of daily walking is probably easier and more beneficial for most people than doing 20 minutes on a treadmill once a month.
I was excited when the reports of Apple Watch’s upcoming “Time to Walk” Fitness+ feature started circulating, and that they’d feature audio content. Cool! I need an excuse to listen to more podcasts anyway.
I’m envious of the technology in Facebook’s Portal; I walked past a demo unit at a Best Buy last year and was so delighted to see the camera follow me wherever I walked. It may have zoomed as well? I don’t remember, but it’s a far cry from the experience on the Amazon Echo Show I was gifted earlier this year, which is angled upward by default and therefore perpetually propped up on a coaster and whose use usually involves crouching and contorting my whole body uncomfortably for 15 minutes while video chatting.
I don’t want to invite Facebook into my life any more than it already is, or require my friends and family to invite it into theirs (for hundreds of dollars) so we can video chat more comfortably. On the other hand, most people I know already own some Apple product that is capable of FaceTime, making it our go-to video chat software during the pandemic.
I’m lucky enough to have a gooseneck phone mount, which, when clipped to the coffee table, makes these FaceTime sessions at least somewhat more comfortable, but the size of the screen and speakers leaves a lot to be desired.
And we’re making gaming on Apple TV even more personal by expanding multi-user support. Now you can instantly resume your games exactly where you left off. Just open control center to switch between users, and you can now see your game progress, achievements, and friends.
I would expect that Apple Arcade games would all support this flagship feature of tvOS 14 (insofar as tvOS can have “flagship features”), but none of them that I have seems to support it yet. Are they all just going to drop updates today to support Game Center switching?
If so, that’s kind of crazy and weird last-minute timing. If not, that means Apple’s subscription gaming service won’t support one of the most important gaming features on Apple TV.