If it existed in a bubble, the new 2015 Apple TV would be a stellar product. It offers a steady improvement over its three-year-stagnant predecessor – a device built for the then revolutionary new standard of 1080p – and comes with one of the most premium remotes on the market. If there was nothing to compare it to, it’d be hard to point out the number of flaws the system has. It’s lacking native Amazon Prime Video support, for example, and Siri recognizes less than half the commands on the new Apple TV than it does on iOS, watchOS or OSX. That’s not to mention the fact Siri is voiceless at the moment, relying on text and graphics to respond to any inquiries you might have. The remote itself I really like, as do many of the developers I’ve spoken to about it. But it isn’t the panacea Apple marketed it as. Entering text one letter at a time for a password is tedious, and as of right now there’s no way to connect your iPhone or iPad to step in when you get tired of slogging through the long row of letters.
But that’s the snag with the new Apple TV: it’s just shy of being the product we were promised. It might very well be one day once the system grows up, gets a few patches and more developers see the same promise in the living room they see in our pockets and tablets. But, for now, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done and the competition shows no signs of going easy.
Before we dig into the latest prodigal fruit from Apple, let’s first delve into the core of what made the original three Apple TVs worth buying.
Apple TV: What is it?
The Apple TV in question or, more precisely, what the company is calling the new Apple TV, is the fourth iteration of a “hobby project” Steve Jobs started in 2006. Jobs’ vision was to create a dead-simple entertainment hub, one that could access your media in a few simple steps. That came to fruition in 2007 with the first Apple TV. (Apple wanted the name iTV, however the major British broadcast network of the same name threatened to take legal action should Jobs brand Apple’s new device using that moniker.) In the time since then we’ve seen two sequels that upgraded the internal Wi-Fi antenna from 802.11b to 802.11a/b/g/n before landing on 802.11ac for the latest build. The processor has been radically changed in that time, too, starting at a 1 GHz “Dothan” Pentium M equipped with 256 MB and ending on a vastly improved 64-bit Apple A8 processor. Yes, a lot has changed since the first Apple TV. There’s less hard drive space on the new unit, ironically, but that’s because streaming has overtaken the notion of owning content. Speaking of hard drive space, the new Apple TV comes in two sizes and price points: The 32GB version costs $149 (£129, AU$269) while the 64GB version comes in at $199 (£169, AU$349). The only difference between the two is the amount of memory which, considering how small most streaming apps are, means the former will probably have sufficient space for years to come and offers the better value right now.
The new Apple TV is driven by apps of all shapes and sizes, not just first-party ones anymore. For the first time ever you’ll see the wealth and power of the Apple App Store in the living room, and I expect that once the system matures it will be a sight to behold. Finally, unlike the bastardized OS of systems past, the new plastic runs a platform of its own called tvOS, a nomenclature taken from the Apple Watch’s watchOS. What hasn’t changed is that Apple still cares first and foremost about Apple products. The new Apple TV works best with iPads, iPhones and Macs thanks to Apple AirPlay and will allow you to easily stream content from your phone or tablet to the big screen. And while there have been steps taken to make the system feel less Apple-centric, the iTunes store stands firmly in the center of everything. Every search includes results from iTunes. Every purchase goes through iTunes. You can’t go more than five minutes without being shown some new TV show or movie that, as soon as you click on it, will bring you back into the icy-cold money-loving hands of Apple’s ecommerce magnate.
Apple TV vs the competition
If you’re entrenched in the Apple ecosystem (by which I mean you buy movies and shows from iTunes, subscribe to Apple Music and/or stick to phones and tablets running iOS), then the Apple TV will be a supremely good addition to your living room that will only improve with age. The less of those features you care about, however, the less you’ll like the new Apple TV against the other extremely strong contenders in the streaming video space.
Apple TV vs Amazon Fire TV: The Amazon Fire TV has been a thorn in Apple’s side since its launch in 2013. It presents its own problems by restricting a good deal of content to Amazon Prime subscribers, but the most recent revamp of the system saw a huge improvement with the addition of 4K streaming. The Fire TV is not nearly as good a game console as the Apple TV has the potential to be (or even currently is), but it does have the advantage in price – $99 (£79, about AU$140) vs the Apple TV’s $149 (£129, AU$269). All that said, if you want Amazon Prime Instant Video you’ll need to use an Apple device with AirPlay – Amazon hasn’t made a native Apple TV app for Instant Video and it’s unlikely to ever do so.
Apple TV vs Roku 4: If you’re in the US, own a 4K TV and are more concerned about streaming video content than any app or game, stop reading right now and buy a Roku 4. At $129 (about £85, AU$180) it’s about $20 cheaper than the new Apple TV and worth every cent. The Roku 4 is the most egalitarian system of the bunch. It doesn’t care if you pick Netflix over Amazon, or Vudu over Hulu. It doesn’t want to sell you an Rdio subscription, and it could care less if you join YouTube Red. At the end of the day, all Roku’s new device cares about is getting you to the content you want through the most affordable means possible. It’s entertainment on your terms, and in my opinion the epitome of the cord-cutting movement.
Apple TV vs Android TV / Chromecast: It’s hard to compare a full-size system to Google’s pint-sized streaming disc, but if you could put the two against each other pound-for-pound, the $35 (£30, AU$49) Chromecast would probably eke out a win. Google’s streaming stick plays nicely with both iOS and Android apps, and while it doesn’t have an interface of its own it boasts a relatively impressive app that essentially performs the function of a full streaming video box at a quarter of the price. Admittedly it’s up to developers to support the Chromecast, whereas Apple can control its own destiny for the Apple TV, plus the Siri Remote – while troublesome at times – is actually pretty svelte.
Design and interface
With the comparisons out of the way, let’s move on to the design of the Apple TV. Overall the unit has the same premium feel you’d expect from an Apple product: It’s glossy, sleek and completely understated. It’s bigger than I expected, though. It’s about the size of two old Apple TVs stacked on top of each other and then fused together with an still-pretty-fresh A8 chip at the helm of the ship. As you might expect, it pairs nicely with the new Siri Remote, the primary way you’ll control your new piece of plastic until Apple re-releases the Remote app for iOS with new Apple TV support.
But, despite how it sounds so far, just know it’s not sunshine and rainbows in Apple’s venture into the living room.
Let’s start with some stats. The Apple TV is, again, about twice the height of the last iteration but not much wider at 1.4 x 3.9 x 3.9 inches/35 x 98 x 98mm (H x W x D). It’s a small footprint for a video streaming box, and one that seems even smaller when combined with its sleek black, inconspicuous exterior. Speaking of the exterior, there’s not a lot to see on the box. There’s a small white LED indicator on the front of the unit and an Apple logo carved into the top. It’s about as minimalist as an Apple-designed product has ever been, and that’s a very good thing. Spin the unit around you’ll find your standard 10/100BASE-T Ethernet, HDMI 1.4 and USB-C ports, though the latter is only used for service and support. It’s not all that exciting, honestly, especially considering the last Apple TV came with an optical audio-out connection.
At least the technology packed on the inside of the Apple TV is a different story. For starters you’ll find a much-improved Apple A8 processor, a proprietary chip the Cupertino company uses in the iPad Mini 4, iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. It also supports 802.11ac Wi-Fi, which should offer faster, uninterrupted streaming for anyone upgrading from an older model.
The main attraction however is the new Siri Remote. The remote, alongside the new tvOS, are the two biggest reasons to jump onto Apple’s living room bandwagon. Feature-wise, the Siri Remote sports a built-in microphone for Siri support and a matte touch pad, as well as a number of sensors developers are still wrapping their heads around. There are only six buttons on each unit (seven if you’re including the touchpad, which can be clicked down), but really you’ll mostly use the top two buttons – menu and TV. Menu is a faux back button while TV takes you back to the home screen. It’s not the most intuitive setup, obviously, and one which Apple can improve upon in the future.
But what I do like is that the Siri Remote doesn’t use batteries. You’ll recharge the remote by plugging the included lightning cable into any USB port on your laptop or PC. This could be problematic down the road once the battery starts to wear out, but battery life isn’t a huge concern as the remote has yet to die after a week of testing.
With the remote in hand and your unit set in the center of your entertainment space, it’s time to plug in and enjoy your new hardware. Setup takes minutes and can either be done by manually entering information using the Siri Remote (this is not recommended) or by syncing the unit with your iPad or iPhone via Bluetooth. The latter pulls all the data it needs – your Wi-Fi network ID, the password and your iTunes account info – in a matter of seconds and brings you to the stunning new home screen. (Editor’s note: If you don’t want your data to be shown and distributed to potential advertisers, make sure you check the “do not share my information” box when prompted during setup.) The UI is divided into three main parts: a highlight bar that can store five apps and show real-time updates or highlighted content from those apps (the second area), and an area where the rest of the apps live underneath.
The Music, Photos, iTunes Movies, iTunes TV Shows and the Apple TV App Store apps start off in the highlight row initially, however these can be swapped out at any time by pressing and holding down the the touchpad on the remote. The interface is clearly iOS inspired. It places apps on the front page, never hiding anything from view. Navigation from one section to the next feels like a natural process – despite the new Siri Remote’s buttons having confusing words or pictures on them. Similar to other iOS devices, however, there’s no way to really personalize the theme or make the unit your own other than by adding different apps than your neighbor. It’s still a walled garden, if a slightly bigger one than before. That said, inside and out, the new Apple TV is cleanly built and radiates the simplistic aesthetic many have come to love.
Content and performance
After spending so much time with an Apple TV and an actual app store with third-party content, it’s hard to imagine going back to a system without all that. There was a time when many of us settled for a limited streaming solution that mirrored our Apple devices but lacked anything other than a few dozen pre-approved apps. That time has passed. Now, that doesn’t mean the App Store is bursting at the seams with content just yet (it definitely isn’t), but there are plenty of indicators that show developers’ interest in Apple’s newly created OS.
The fact it took Plex approximately five days to release a full app, for example, is one, and Beat Sports, an app from major traditional game developer Harmonix, is another. But until more software does appear there are only really a handful of apps worth latching onto right now.
Right off the bat, the majority of the content you’ll be shown is from Apple itself. For starters you’ll be shown the latest hits on the iTunes Movie and TV show storefronts, as well as be directed towards Music for all your audio needs. It can be slightly overwhelming if you’re not used to Apple’s lush, content-rich financial minefield, but anyone who’s used an iPhone or iTunes in the past few years will be able to navigate around without accidentally dropping dinero on one of the promotional deals. Get past the opening deals and slew of Apple content and you’ll find the epicenter of the new Apple TV, the App Store. On it you’ll see the regular stable of streaming video apps (HBO Now, Showtime Anytime, Netflix and Hulu are all present and accounted for), and many of the top US sports apps including MLB.tv, NHL GameCenter Live, NBA.com League Pass and Watch ESPN. If you’re in the mood for good ol’ cable, you can find streaming versions of ABC, FOX and PBS, though each one requires an individual subscription.
The options are slightly more limited in the UK, unfortunately. Sky has released a new version of its Now TV app for the new Apple TV, and BBC recently announced that it plans on creating an iPlayer app for the device in the near future. As far as content is concerned, there are still some big players missing from the list – Amazon Prime Instant, CBS All Access and Sling TV spring to mind – but overall it’s not half-bad for the Apple TV’s second week on the market. What the Apple TV isn’t so strong in, though, is music and photo apps. Sure, there’s always Apple Music, but I couldn’t find a Spotify app and even the ubiquitous Deezer was nowhere to be seen. For photos, there’s either Flickr – the Yahoo!-owned photo sharing platform – or Apple’s own Photos app that only pulls in content from your photo stream. It’s slim pickings at the moment. The somewhat better news is that games are going to play a major role on Apple’s new plastic with titles like Beat Sports, an Apple TV port of Transistor and Alto’s Adventure leading the charge.
As a word of warning: apps are costlier here than are on other platforms, at least while the competition is sparse. My favorite game on the new system, Beat Sports, costs $9.99, for example, though the game’s developers told me that’s due in part because of the promise of more content coming later which they’re hoping to give to customers for no extra cost. You’ll find many of the games and apps cost something upfront, which is vastly different than how the iOS App Store works, but that might be a phase while developers are working out the kinks of a new platform.
The alternative: Apple AirPlay
Can’t find your favorite iOS app on the new Apple TV App Store? Don’t worry. Open the app on your phone or tablet and look for the AirPlay button (it looks like a screen with a solid arrow pointing up). Should the app have it – it should, as hundreds of apps support the platform – select your Apple TV from the list to send the content from your small screen to the living room TV. AirPlay is the Apple TV’s trick up its sleeve. While many of your favorite apps are still MIA on the new App Store, using AirPlay is the easiest – and really only – way to access that content on Apple TV. Both the Spotify and Amazon Prime Instant Video apps are AirPlay-enabled, so while many will find the extra step a hassle, the lack of apps isn’t as dire as it seems.
For a 1080p device, the new Apple TV looks sharp. The upgraded processor enables a very smooth experience jumping between apps, and the improved antenna does a better job grabbing onto a Wi-Fi signal and holding on. There’s still buffering, of course, but it feels less frequent than on previous iterations of the TV. One of the biggest faults of the system is that it doesn’t support 4K, a feature that both the new Roku 4 and Amazon Fire TV carried into the next generation of video boxes. This isn’t something that Apple can fix via a software update and will stay as a limitation of the hardware for the lifetime of the system. This is an important point to consider if you intend on upgrading to a 4K TV sometime in the next two or three years. Should you decide 4K isn’t your style, you’ll be treated to a surprisingly quiet box that rarely heated up or revved up to an audible level when I tested it. The only noise I heard outside of the volume of the TV was that of my own voice while using the new universal search function that comes baked into tvOS.
Universal search is a term that describes the Apple TV’s ability to scan multiple sources for video content. Say you want to watch the film Top Gun, for example. Just speak into the microphone on the remote and Siri will pull up a film page for Top Gun with every service the movie is currently on (the big three right now being iTunes, Netflix and HBO Now). You’ll need to subscribe to the service or pay for the movie outright still – there are no free lunches on an Apple product – but the fact Apple shows the other options is a dramatic step forward for the platform. All it needs now are more services to search; the market-leading Roku 4 searches over 20 streaming video apps. Unfortunately one of the Apple TV’s best features can sometimes also be its worst.
Using the Siri Remote is at times a truly compelling experience – it’s a Wiimote meets a Roku remote meets an iPhone – but it can also be stubbornly imprecise when it wants to be. At no time was this more clear than during a free game called Edge Ex that simply asks the player to guide a cube from one end of the map to the other without falling off. There was a point in a particularly easy section that only required me to move right over a narrow bridge, but the controller kept interpreting a swipe right as a swipe up, much to my chagrin. This experience played out dozens of times on the new Apple TV, each one more painful than the last. The hope is, I suppose, that developers can learn to make the most out of the Apple TV’s wonky touch controls and instead of rehashing old iOS games, create new content that properly leverages the powerful handheld technology. Finally, something I found inconsequential but still sort of cool, is that when you’re done with the Apple TV and leave it idle, a high-def screen saver comes on that shows pre-recorded video of some of the world’s most famous skylines. It’s a minor detail, and not one that’s necessarily worth writing home about, but it does give me pause before resuming whatever show or movie I’m watching.
Here’s the part in the review where we typically lay down the hammer and give a definitive nod to a product or write its name in the disappointing category of our notebooks to be long forgotten. As much as I’d like it to fall into one of those two camps, the Apple TV doesn’t fit in either. Taken on its own merit, it’s a good streaming video player. It supports some of the most popular video formats – H.264 video up to 1080p, 60 frames per second and MPEG-4 video – as well as most audio files. There are a few apps out already in the Apple TV’s first two weeks that I’ve found seriously impressive (Beat Sports!), and the apps are slowly but surely becoming more diversified by the day. But both thanks and due to the new tvOS backbone, the Apple TV feels like a first-gen system, rather than a refresh of an already-solid product. There are dozens of irksome quirks that litter the experience, from a stubborn remote that misreads gesture commands to a number of unintuitive shortcuts (for example, if you want to delete an app from the home screen you hold down the touchpad and press the play/pause button. How you would ever figure that out on your own, I’d never know). It’s not quite the revolution Tim Cook pitched me, and that hurts.
Overall, buying an Apple TV feels like you’re agreeing with and reinforcing Apple’s desire to charge you at every possible turn. It’s one paywall after another, and unless you’re already bought into that mentality, it can be a tough pill to swallow. If you’re entrenched in the Apple ecosystem (you buy movies and shows from iTunes, subscribe to Apple Music and/or stick to phones and tablets running iOS), then the Apple TV will be a supremely good addition to your living room that will only improve with age.
As much as you can knock it for looking like a plain black box, Apple designed a sleek exterior for its new hardware. It’s unobtrusive, understated and, best of all, quiet. The breakout star of the device, though, is the new tvOS. It’s opened a world of possibilities for the platform to overtake the living room in the same way iPods conquered Walkmans and iPhones replaced flip phones. I see a lot of potential in the platform and a few areas of improvement that can be fixed with a patch here and there. Finally, while there’s not a ton of content right off the bat, there are some really smart ideas in the works. It’s only a matter of time until the platform finds a runaway success like Angry Birds or Infinity Blade and converts the hungry horde of casual gamers into iTV lovers.
Both a boon and a faux pas, the Siri Remote is the most loved/reviled aspect of Apple’s new plastic. By building in a microphone and half-baked Siri support, the Apple TV takes some serious steps forward on its march to the living room throne. But simultaneously, an inaccurate touchpad and obfuscated buttons are keeping movement to a crawl rather than an outright sprint. You’re also unlikely to see every single streaming app on the Apple TV. The on-going feud with Amazon means that a native Prime Video app won’t ever happen, and Apple might have a hard time letting Spotify and Tidal sit right next to Apple Music on your home screen. Plus, at $149 (£129, AU$269), it’s not the cheapest player on the market and the competition is just that much better that it’s hard to warrant spending an extra $30 if you’re not already bought into the Apple ecosystem.
If you have your heart set on an Apple TV, and you don’t mind dealing with a few flaws, there’s nothing horrifyingly wrong with Apple’s new system. For anyone who’s already bought into the ecosystem, there’s plenty to enjoy with plenty of room for the system to change and grow. I mean, this is the company that brought thumb scanning into the public’s attention, developed its own payment system and radically changed what we thought a cell phone camera was capable of. Why can’t that same level of innovation happen here? On the other hand, if you’re looking for a fully functional system that already has one of the best voice search algorithms, a fully stocked streaming app library and 4K-ready hardware, you might want to consider a Roku 4 or Amazon Fire TV. The Apple TV is a platform-in-the-making. It’s not what Tim Cook pitched us, but it’s clearly not a hobby for the company any longer. It’s real and steadily improving, even if it had to return to its infancy to learn how to walk again.