It’s easy to write the new Apple TV (currently $149.99 at Best Buy) (also known as the Apple TV 4) off as a minor upgrade, but that would be a mistake. While I’m not sure that I wholeheartedly agree with Apple’s bombastic statement that this is the future of TV, I am nonetheless very impressed with the new Apple TV, despite it’s limitations.
Thinking back I was incredibly excited when I started seeing rumors of an actual Apple TV set — a television, not a box — popping up online. There was something exciting about that prospect — an iTV that would be ultra-thin with an aluminum back and who knows what kind of groundbreaking features. Compared to that, the new Apple TV is a bit of a let down. But it really shouldn’t be.
If you think about it, an iTV would have been incredibly expensive. The new Apple TV, on the other hand, is relatively affordable and works with any TV that has an HDMI port (so any modern TV).
Compared with streaming devices from Roku, Amazon and Google, the new Apple TV is impressive (those comparisons come a bit further down in this review). Even compared to the previous Apple TV (the Apple TV 3), the new Apple TV is great. It’s easily the best streaming box on the market.
And while it may not feel revolutionary, the new Apple TV nails down some important details to give users a better, more streamlined living room media experience. And those little details end up making a world of difference.
Apps and content
The popularity, utility and enjoyability of the Apple TV rest squarely on the shoulders of it’s app ecosystem. Great apps will make the new Apple TV incredible. Bad apps… will make it forgettable and disappointing. Thankfully there are already some really great apps available for the Apple TV — if only a handful (this close to launch).
The new Apple TV’s interface is very familiar to users of previous versions. Before you groan, let me suggest that that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Given a choice between the Apple TV grid and the Roku grid, Apple TV will win every time. The home screen is clean and uncluttered and very simple to navigate.
Interestingly, the Apple TV doesn’t come pre-loaded with a smorgasbord of apps: jus the Apple defaults. That means you’ll have a clean slate to work from.
Aside from the default Apple apps you’d expect (iTunes Movies and TV Shows, Music, Photos, etc.) users can download more from the new Apple TV app store. To be frank, there just aren’t a lot of quality, innovative, useful or entertaining apps at the moment (at the very end of 2015). But there are all the apps you’d expect as a viable minimum plus a few shiny examples of good apps to come.
Of course there is Netflix and Hulu. If you’re subscription happy you can also subscribe to HBO, CBS, Feeln, pro sports games and a handful of additional networks.
This willy-nilly subscribe to a half-dozen apps thing is cumbersome and I hate it — as do many people. But it’s not unique to the Apple TV. Fortunately, Apple appears to be working on a light TV bundle that will cost significantly less than cable which would make the Apple TV quite a bit more awesome. On that front, we’ll have to wait and see what happens.
I haven’t seen any lifestyle apps that have really piqued my interest so far except for one: GrubHub. Yes, GrubHub’s been around for a long while on iPhone and iPad, but there’s something interesting about ordering food from my TV. This gives a new meaning to the phrase “dinner and a movie.”
Gaming on new Apple TV
On the gaming front there are four or five games that actually have pretty nice graphics: Asphalt 8: Airborne and Galaxy on Fire Manticore Rising to name a couple. You will absolutely never confuse these or any other Apple TV games as Playstation 4 or Xbox One games: the graphics just aren’t there. Still, given the Apple TV’s limited abilities (Apple limits all apps to 200MB of local storage), there are developers making games with immersive, enjoyable and fairly impressive environments.
Still, gaming on the Apple TV feels a bit like gaming on a phone. That’s because several games are actually iPhone/iPad ports. And there’s really nothing wrong with that. Alto’s Adventure is fun on any screen. But it and games like it aren’t deep. They aren’t textured and beautiful and complicated.
And the simplicity of the current batch of iPhone games is really the biggest disappointment so far. If you saw a video of someone playing Galaxy on Fire: Manticore Rising you’d think to yourself, “Wow, this game has nice graphics and it looks fun to fly your ship around a large space map shooting at other ships!” But in reality, the game is a bit of a dud. It’s just a bunch of flying — you can only shoot by aiming at enemies (there’s literally no fire button). You can fly faster, fly slower and roll to the sides. Boo.
On the plus side, Asphalt 8: Airborne is awesome on the new Apple TV. It’s the one game I’d say is truly worth playing at the moment. There are a few small stutters on loading screens, but they’re negligible and don’t affect gameplay. The environments are big, driving is smooth, gameplay is fun and there’s a really fun multiplayer mode.
A lot of people have been hating on the new Apple TV’s remote. I mostly like it, though it’s not quite as great as I expected it to be from the launch demonstration.
The touch surface is easy enough to use. I’ve seen a lot of people complain about the sensitivity and how they had to adjust it. I didn’t have that issue. I find it to be a pretty convenient way to navigate and a definite upgrade over the last Apple TV remote with the four directional buttons.
As a TV remote, I’m a fan. As a gaming remote, I’m less than thrilled. Fast-forwarding and rewinding during shows is the best scrubbing experience I’ve seen — period. Most games, however, are less-than-thrilling using the included remote (it’s just too awkward to hold and/or just doesn’t do enough). If you’re wanting to get more out of your Apple TV games, a third-party controller would be strongly advised.
The buttons on the Apple TV remote press nicely — except for the button(s) that are the touch surface. You can press down on the touch surface to click, but it’s not always as easy or responsive as I think it could/should be. Still, that’s a pretty minor nitpick in my mind. It definitely doesn’t ruin or even hamper the Apple TV experience.
I love the fact that I can control the power and volume of my actual TV using the new Apple TV remote. The fewer the remotes lying around, the better. And it works perfectly.
It’s also nice being able to double-tap the TV button on the remote to bring up a list of recently viewed apps — and to be able to swipe up to close them.
In terms of size and weight, I think the new remote is just about perfect — again, for TV viewing. For anything but the simplest of gaming, it’s just too small and awkward.
The Apple TV remote recharges via a Lightning cable. That’s cool with me, but it’s annoying that I have to hook it up to my computer because it doesn’t come with a USB Power Adapter which would let me plug it into a wall outlet (like the ones that comes with iPhones and iPads).
One of the best things about the new Apple TV remote is that it isn’t line of sight like the old remote was; you don’t have to aim it at the box to make it work. That means the Apple TV can be hidden away inside your media cabinet and it will still work — it also means you can point the remote in the opposite direction and it will still work. Other remotes have had this for some time (Roku comes to mind), but it’s one of those small details that makes a very big difference in daily use.
Siri on the new Apple TV is awesome — but underutilized. There are things it does amazingly well and there are things I wish it could do but can’t.
It’s great using Siri to search for shows. It’s handy whether you know what you want to watch already or not. If I know I want to watch Enemy of the State, Siri will display all viewing options. If I know I want an action movie, Siri will make some really good suggestions which can be narrowed down quite impressively (“Show me only the ones with Stallone.”).
One area I wish Siri came in handier is typing. Why can’t I use voice dictation with the Siri remote to type things like emails? Even on the new Apple TV, typing in login credentials is more terrible than it needs to be.
It’s just really useful to be able to say, “Go back 15 seconds,” or “What did they say?” It’s much, much easier than trying to manually navigate using buttons. Mainly because it’s so much quicker (and more accurate).
Siri alone is worth upgrading from your old Apple TV to the new one. I find it that useful.
So the new Apple TV has an/some interesting screensaver(s). They’re slo-mo shots of various locations, like London. I like them a lot, but they’re not a reason in and of themselves to buy the new Apple TV. That said, if you’re most powerful sound system is hooked up to your TV, it might be nice to have something interesting up on the screen while you’re listening to your favorite music.
Aside from the actual screensaver that comes bundled with the Apple TV, there are several apps that are functionally screensavers — naturscapes, scenes with relaxing music and, of course, a variety of fireplaces.
The new Apple TV vs Roku, Amazon and Google
In terms of interface design, the new Apple TV has the competition beat hands down. In second place is the Amazon Fire TV followed by Roku and finally Chromecast (but Chromecast really doesn’t have an interface to speak of since you use many individual apps to control content).
When it comes to remotes, I definitely like the new Apple TV remote better than the others. Following the pattern above I then prefer the Amazon Fire TV’s remote and then the Roku remote. Again, Google doesn’t have a remote — the “remote” is your phone and it’s not super convenient. There’s no comparison here, really: the Apple TV remote is just more sophisticated and useful, despite being quite a bit more fragile (due to the glass touch surface).
In terms of content Amazon’s Fire TV and the Apple TV are probably the best; though Amazon does have some exclusive content you won’t be able to get on the Apple TV (whereas Netflix and Hulu exclusives are available on all the devices I’m talking about right now).
In terms of design the Chromecast probably looks the coolest, but it hardly matters since all of these devices mostly hide away basically unseen. True, every one of these companies minus Apple offers a stick or dongle that can be completely invisible behind your TV whereas the Apple TV only comes in box form. That may bug some people, but it’s really just a small gripe.
Speaking of those sticks and dongles, they’re not nearly as powerful as the new Apple TV (or other streaming boxes). The stick version of the Roku, for instance, drives me nuts with how slow and seemingly glitchy it runs because it just doesn’t have the same processing power.
I think my wife summed things up best when she said, “That new Apple TV is pretty nice. It would be hard to go back to the old one.” That’s exactly how I feel. It’s not lightyears ahead of the old Apple TV, but it offers enough new and significantly useful features that it will ruin other streaming media boxes for you once you get your hands on it.
Should you buy the new Apple TV? Is it worth it? I would say yes with no qualifications. The Verge said you should buy it only if you’re already in the market for a new streaming TV box, but I think that’s wrong. I, for one, am glad that I upgraded (even though I didn’t have to). Given the choice, I’d choose the new Apple TV over all other options.
PS — am I bothered that the new Apple TV doesn’t support 4K? Not yet. Ask me in two years.