Cultural Insularity and Apple TV

From Shannon Liao’s roundup for The Verge of yesterday’s Amazon announcements:

Amazon Fire TV has had 4K support for a while, but a new device will now support 4K HDR video with 2160p resolution at 60 frames per second. It has Dolby Atmos integration and an Alexa voice remote. It costs $70; that makes it priced far lower than the rival Apple TV 4K, which starts at $179. The Fire TV is available for preorder now and will come out on October 25th.

The lack of Dolby Atmos support in the Apple TV 4K was a sticking point in several reviews. Atmos support is supposedly coming to Apple TV in a software update, though, so the obvious difference between these products is price.

Without ever having looked at the new Fire TV (I did pre-order one, though, so I can), I’m sure that Apple TV is a more powerful device. The new Fire TV doesn’t even have a power cord — it just dangles as a dongle plugged into an HDMI port. [Update: I was wrong about this — it does take power, with an ungainly micro-USB cable. Boo-hiss to Amazon for not using USB-C.] But explain the difference to a typical person looking for a set-top box. Apple TV 4K’s main feature is obviously 4K playback — it’s right there in the name. The new Fire TV does 4K (with HDR at 60 FPS) too. Even.

Earlier this week I wrote about my vague concern about Apple’s insular culture. Apple TV is the product line where I think that might really be a problem. Apple charges a significant premium over the average product in PCs, tablets, and phones. It works for them in those markets. That’s what Apple does and has always done: they make superior, premium products for people willing to pay for them.

But with Apple TV, I’m hearing from a lot of people who are in the Apple ecosystem — people who own MacBooks, iPads, and iPhones — who just don’t want to spend $200 for an Apple TV when they can get a Roku or Fire TV for a lot less. The primary selling point of an Apple TV over these devices is iTunes. I love iTunes — I’ve bought hundreds of movies and TV series from iTunes over the years, knowing full well these purchases would be locked to the Apple ecosystem. I feel like my loyalty to iTunes is being rewarded now that I can get 4K versions of the movies I’ve already bought without paying another dime. No one sent me Blu-ray versions of the many movies I purchased on DVDs back in the day.

But for people who don’t buy movies from iTunes — and generally don’t buy movies period, choosing only to stream from Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Amazon Prime, etc. (and/or to assemble their home movie collection from copies that fall off trucks) — what does Apple TV offer to justify costing over twice as much? The computing power of the device and the popularity of iOS for gaming make Apple TV a decent casual gaming device, but it doesn’t ship with a gaming controller and even Apple describes Apple TV as a video platform first, gaming platform second.

I like Apple TV a lot, but I think Apple is ceding marketshare by not having a box that competes on price. I think there are a lot of people who look at iPhones, iPads, and MacBooks and see them as “expensive but worth it” but who look at Apple TV and see it as “ridiculously overpriced”.

Apple still sells the previous generation Apple TV, but it costs $149 and doesn’t support 4K. There are ways that it’s a better computer than a Fire TV or a Roku, but without 4K and HDR it’s inarguably worse at the primary task of playing back video content. The fact that it’s a more powerful computer is irrelevant. And yet it costs twice as much.

It’s not enough to make a better set-top box. It has to be obviously better. I don’t think Apple TV’s current lineup makes that case.