The new generation Apple TV is so Apple. The app-enabled set-top box is tiny and beautiful, fast and slick. It's a big step towards the future but yet is sometimes annoying and occasionally limiting. What else did we expect?
While the previous Apple TV models (which are still available much cheaper) were just streaming units, limited to whatever 'apps' they came with and whatever you streamed over AirPlay, the new Apple TV is smarter.
The 4th generation Apple TV is basically an iPad mini 4 without a screen or battery – its core is an A8 processor, meaning that it's capable of running complex apps, and it comes with an App Store anyone can develop and submit apps for. It runs tvOS, which is pretty much iOS redesigned and reworked for the big screen, and with a few features specific for making it easier to find things to watch.
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Like iOS, you grab apps from the App Store and put them into a Home screen grid, and you can make your most-used ones more prominent – if you've used an iPhone or iPad, it's all pretty intuitive.
You control it all from Apple's new remote, which has a touch-sensitive pad at the top, and just six buttons. Swiping at the top is how you navigate on-screen – you can build momentum to scroll faster through lists with a big swipe, or just tap to move a single space. That whole top section clicks in like a trackpad, which is how you select something (which can lead to accidentally moving to something else first if you do it sloppily, annoyingly).
Mostly, it feels pretty smooth to use, though it is easy to overswipe and miss your mark.
The one area that Apple has badly got wrong, though, is the keyboard. When you need to type (such as a search term or password), the keyboard appears in a long line of the alphabet, which you have to scroll all the way through for every. Single. Letter. It's maddening, and it makes you want to select the option to turn off the need to enter a password when you buy something (when you set up the Apple TV, you can place an iPhone near it to share your Apple ID details, but you still need to enter passwords in many places) – but if this is going in a family home, you probably won't want to do that…
In the old days, you could use Apple's Remote app on iPhone to type passwords on a proper keyboard, but Apple hasn't supported it (yet, at least).
The buttons are easy enough – Menu mostly works as a kind of 'Back' button functionally, a button with a TV on takes you home, or you can double-press it to get a multitasking view to switch between your recent apps. You've also got volume controls and play/pause, and Siri. They're easy to confuse with each other by feel, but everything is so fast that an accidental press when getting used to it doesn't hold you up at all.
One of the neatest features is that it can control certain elements of lots of TVs without any setup needed – the volume buttons control your TV's volume setting, and turning the Apple TV on or off also turns your TV on or off. Generally, it's all pleasant and fun to use, if occasionally frustrating when you overshoot your mark – but you get used to it over time, and you're grateful for the faster scrolling when you've got a big list of apps (folders aren't supported).
That said, it feels like it's a touch of the wild west in the interface right now when it comes to apps. A few use the idea of you swiping down on the touchpad to bring up settings that are otherwise invisible – but some totally fail to provide any guidance on this. In a bid to make apps open straight to great-looking content (rather than opening menus), some clarity is getting lost.
It's not necessarily a fault with the Apple TV itself, but it was something we picked up on while using it.
Apple TV Applications
The apps themselves are often really nice, but we do feel like in a lot of cases we're just at an experimental stage with the Apple TV – we're not sure how much of what's out now we'd use long-term, but we're trying them all out because they're there.
Video apps will be best, of course, and the promise of Apple TV is that it will have the most comprehensive apps for watching just about anything – eventually. Netflix, YouTube and Vimeo are there already, along with NOW TV, but no BT Sport, All 4, or even an official Twitch app yet (there is an unofficial Twitch one). Although there is BBC iPlayer.
They'll come, and until then, you can often stream to it using AirPlay, but we were hoping for more out of the gate. Though the chance of a native Amazon Prime Instant Video app in the future is looking a little slim.
We can see so much potential for the next evolutionary step in how we access things we want to watch (such as lots of formerly computer-only watching moving to the living room for the first time), and how we find them in the form of Siri, that it's a shame the app-based future is arriving in a slow trickle.
Siri is one of the features Apple is really pushing in the Apple TV, integrating it deeply. It can find information from within apps, meaning that you can ask it to take you directly to a show in Netflix, or just ask it to show you an action film with Chris Pratt, and it'll give you all the options it can find from different sources – in the UK, those sources are largely limited to iTunes movies and TV shows, and Netflix.
Apple says it will make it so that any app can tie into Siri in the future, though. When it works properly, it's absolutely great – it's extremely accurate, and responds quickly and usefully.
However, it's also surprisingly limited – it can't handle music at all, for example, which seem bizarre when adding deep music integration to Siri was such a big deal for the launch of Apple Music. It can do lots of Siri's other function, such as pull sports scores or weather information, but overall it feels like only a first step.
It's stumped by "Play the next episode of [x] on Netflix" as a command, which seems like an obvious one. And when we told it we wanted to put on House, it just told us it couldn't do music.
Just as we were surprised to find Siri a little simpler than we'd expected, we were also surprised that iOS 9's Picture-in-Picture option wasn't available, which seems like a big omission – if we're going to browse something in an app or pick up a light game, wouldn't we want to carry on with sports or something in the corner?
Apple TV Gaming
Speaking of games, having the App Store obviously means games – they go hand in hand these days. Is the Apple TV a console killer? Of course not – especially since all games have to work with the standard remote as a controller, effectively forcing a certain level of simplicity.
Some actually work pretty well like this – but they're usually so simple that we just can't imagine dedicating our entire TV to playing them, when we could be watching something else and playing games on a phone.
You can connect an Apple-certified controller, and some games actually offer more complex control systems when a controller is connected, which is nice (you can also navigate the Apple TV generally with a game controller, which is useful, too) – but we still worry that the remote will hold back its potential for growth as a games machine.
That said, there's lots of potential for fun party games and things like that, if you're into it.
As you'd expect, in an all-Apple environment, the Apple TV is at its strongest. If you have an iPhone, it takes seconds to set up; you can stream anything to it with AirPlay; most of your personal media will already be accessible through iCloud or iTunes Home Sharing anyway; and many apps will be universal across devices, so you don't need to rebuy them (although, so far, most games are separate purchases, and are aiming at higher prices than iOS).
Outside an Apple environment, it's still a really nice machine, but some of its built-in apps become… kinda pointless.
To a certain degree, that's what the App Store is for – helping anyone find something great on it without needing to have all their stuff in iTunes and iCloud – but it's very much the case that it's the pretty experience and slickness you're paying for here if you're not an all-Apple person.
And we mean that in a good way – when you're putting something at the centre of your house, it should be a slick, pretty experience – but the functionality will still be reduced.
One question worth asking is over the lack of 4K support here. Right now, this is 1080p only, and we have no way of knowing if Apple could unlock 4K support down the road.
There is, of course, still a lack of 4K content generally, but since Apple owns the biggest online movie store in the world, we'd kinda hoped they could do something about that.
Still, it does mean that if you wanted to watch even 4K video recorded on an iPhone 6s on your 4K TV, you'd need another option – the Nvidia SHIELD and hopefully-coming-to-the-UK Roku 4 support 4K, for example. There's also no optical audio output, so if you rely on that in your home audio setup, you'll need to plan accordingly.
The new Apple TV is a really great, smooth, easy media box – right up until it does something which leaves you scratching your head.
The remote control is very slick, and Siri can be just brilliant on it, making it feel natural to move around. And though voice control is nothing new to TVs, Apple's implementation is, no surprise, generally more natural.
Still, the more you use it, the more you notice the little things that could be just that much better. Wider Siri integration and MUCH better text entry being the key thing, but we'd also like to see games unshackled from the remote.
If you've got a lot of Apple stuff, this is the no-brainer media box to get. If you don't, it's still a worthwhile purchase – but it's definitely worth looking around at the competition before you decide.
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