Review: Apple TV (Fourth-Generation)

Pros: Apps and games have arrived. Hardware is all top-rate — this is a fast set-top box with a great remote. tvOS is an improved system for navigating Apple TV. Siri works very well within its range. Faster AirPlay and wireless. Apple Music is available. Aerial screensavers are gorgeous. The ability to connect Bluetooth peripherals extends the device’s versatility. Quick setup process. Footprint is no larger than past Apple TV. Plenty of potential.

Cons: Limitations in Siri and search are disappointing. Current apps are underwhelming; App Store itself needs work. The most expensive set-top box available. Siri Remote is expensive to replace. No 4K video support. Cable subscription apps still must be authenticated one-by-one. No optical audio out. No support for the Remote app or Bluetooth keyboards restricts entries to Siri Remote.

Tim Cook has long referred to Apple TV as “a hobby” for the company, though in February 2014, Apple’s CEO admitted that with $1 billion in revenue from the set-top box during 2013, it was getting harder to refer to the little square puck as such. That hobby talk has completely evaporated with the introduction of the new Apple TV ($149/$199). Instead, Apple has a new claim: “The future of television is here.” Quite a difference. And there’s quite a bit more to the new, taller Apple TV, which has a new remote, and plenty of new features. After all, Apple’s had plenty of time.

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Apple first introduced the third-gen Apple TV in March 2012, so it’s been about 3 1/2 years since the last brand new edition of the set-top box. With so much time for development, it’s natural to expect plenty of new features, and indeed, the new Apple TV has its own operating system now, tvOS, which can run Siri, games, and apps — which is why there are also now two Apple TV models. The new Apple TV starts at $149 for the 32GB model, and goes to $199 for a 64GB model. Those who anticipate downloading lots of apps or games (especially games) may want to spring for the larger model, as it’s only $50 more expensive. But considering many major apps take up very little space — for instance, the presumably oft-used Netflix and Hulu currently take up 12.1MB and 33.4MB, respectively — most Apple TV users should be perfectly fine with the base model.

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So, after all this time, is the new Apple TV worth the wait? Is it truly the future of television? And should you buy one?  We can say that we’ve been eagerly awaiting this release for years now. Inside, we’ll pick apart the new device’s features and see if it justifies that anticipation — and its increased price tag.

New Box, New Remote

The new Apple TV doesn’t look that much different than the previous Apple TV. It’s a bit taller — now 1.4” as opposed to 0.9” — and it’s a bit heavier, although it’s still less than one pound. The footprint is the same as before — 3.9” x 3.9”. On the back of the device, the new Apple TV loses the optical audio port, and gains a USB-C port for service (or screenshots). It retains the ports for power, HDMI (it’s HDMI 1.4 now), and Ethernet. An HDMI cable is still not provided.

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Internally, Apple TV still handles 1080p HD video, as there’s no support for 4K. Maybe it’s a bit curious to some, considering the newer iPhones support 4K video recording, but 4K video isn’t exactly widespread at this point, and Apple could always introduce a 4K version of the Apple TV later if need be. Dolby Digital 7.1 is now supported, up from 5.1, and faster 802.11ac Wi-Fi is supported now, too. AirPlay is also faster than before, with less noticeable lag. The biggest boost, however, is in processor speed — the new Apple TV features the same A8 chip found in the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, sixth-generation iPod touch, and iPad mini 4. The previous Apple TV only ran Apple’s A5 chip, last found in such products as the iPad 2 and iPhone 4S.

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One obvious change at first glance? The new remote used to control the Apple TV. Before it was a slim aluminum remote with a few buttons. Now Apple TV comes with Siri Remote, a slick black remote with a Glass Touch surface — you can glide your thumb over the touchpad to quickly and easily move the cursor to navigate on Apple TV. No more clicking all about. The new remote also has dual microphones for Siri, and an accelerometer and gyroscope for gaming, in addition to a menu button, home button, Siri button, volume controls — a great addition that won’t require users to operate two remotes at a time — and a pause/play button. Siri Remote can use both Bluetooth 4.0 and its IR transmitter, and a Lightning connector for recharging — Apple includes a Lightning cable in the box. Apple claims the remote can work for months on a single charge.

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Siri Remote is very intuitive — you should have the hang of it in a minute or two. Its accurate Glass Touch surface and the other buttons allow users to navigate around Apple TV much quicker than ever before. The home button is a boon, as we love the ability to immediately get to the main screen with the simple push of a button, rather than clicking all the way back out of an Apple TV channel or holding down the menu button until you exit. If your devices support HDMI-CEC, the remote can also be used to turn your TV or AV receiver on or off, switch to the correct input, and control the volume on the TV or another connected speaker. If you don’t have an HDMI-CEC compatible TV or receiver, you can also still easily train the remote to control the volume, saving you the trouble of juggling a second remote. Siri itself is also obviously a big help, and we found the microphones worked quite well. It’s clear Siri Remote is a big step up — and it should be, as it’s sold separately for a pricey $79. We found Siri Remote’s biggest issues are more on the software side of things, which we’ll get into on the next page.

Setup, Navigating tvOS, Siri + Search

Setting up the new Apple TV is quite easy. Though there are many setup screens — choose a language, whether to enable location services, and so on and so forth — the time and headaches are reduced if you’ve got an iPhone handy. As with the prior Apple TV model, Apple TV can copy your network settings via Bluetooth from an iPhone running 9.1. It makes short work of the lengthiest part of the process, and it’s a nice touch from Apple.

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For users of the past Apple TV, the main screen on the new tvOS-based Apple TV will still look pretty familiar, albeit a bit less crowded. From the get-go, you can access iTunes movies, iTunes TV shows, the App Store, Photos, Music (now including Apple Music), Search, Computers, and Settings. And that’s it. Unlike the previous Apple TV, which immediately showed users all the available channels, the new Apple TV keeps it brief. It’s a bit underwhelming at first, but it’s best to compare tvOS to iOS rather than the past Apple TV software. Think of it as a customizable blank slate, rather than an big block of channels in your face, some of which you may never use. Is this new way better or worse? We’ll revisit that in the next section of this review.

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Siri is here, though it’s a different kind of Siri. Apple TV Siri doesn’t want to know your name or answer a bunch of wide-ranging questions. It doesn’t even want to talk back to you. It is there to help you navigate, and answer a very specific set of other questions — weather and sports scores, for instance. But mostly, it interacts with what you see before you. You can use it to turn closed captioning on or off. Asking “what did he say?” offers a clever rewind so you can catch that last bit of dialogue. You can ask it to find specific sets of entertainment options — say, David Fincher movies, or anything starring Meryl Streep. You can ask vague things like, “show me new comedy movies.” Siri is fast, and as we found, very accurate.

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This all ties into the universal search found in tvOS — something that’s been needed for a while. A search for Bob’s Burgers, for instance, gives you a Bob’s Burgers page, showing you all the available options for watching the show. Before, we often relied on websites to tell us what was streaming where, or we darted in and out of Apple TV channels. Now, a quick search is all that’s needed. Not that it’s perfect.

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What Siri and universal search concentrate on, they do very well. But there are limitations. At this point, Siri only searches in iTunes, HBO, Hulu, Netflix and Showtime. If you’re looking for other things, you might not quite get to the right place. Or you might get an apology from Siri. (If you’re expecting a lot from Siri, you might be hearing “sorry” an awful lot.) As mentioned, Siri can’t do what it does on iOS. If you have an iPhone nearby, you might not care, but there doesn’t seem to be a particular reason Apple TV Siri has to be limited in this manner. We didn’t actually miss Siri talking back to us, but we certainly did miss using Siri for Apple Music. Apple has pointed out that we’ll be able to use Siri for Apple Music next year…why not now? After waiting this long for a new Apple TV, it’s annoying to have to wait for big features like this, which are already available on iOS.

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The biggest Siri issue is the lack of Siri search in the App Store, which is baffling. Instead, users are confined to the new keyboard — it’s more spread out than before, so it ensures that even though you’re using the Siri Remote’s touchpad, you still won’t be able type in a title without spending some time doing so. It’s frustrating. We’re really hoping Apple finds some way to improve App Store search in upcoming tvOS updates, because for now, it’s rather unwieldy — and there will never be fewer apps available than there are now. What will it be like in six months?

The App Store

The biggest reason to get a new Apple TV, or to upgrade from the previous generation, is obviously the App Store. This is clearly the focus and the future of the Apple TV. When you enter the App Store, you’re greeted by a Featured section. Here’s where you’ll find the usual big channels from the past Apple TV, which are now apps — “What to Watch” features Netflix, YouTube, CBS, WatchESPN, etc. Next up is “What to Play,” featuring a number of games. Then there are more big apps, a kids section, more games, sports apps, and even more games. Curiously, there’s no section that lists everything that’s currently available in the third-generation Apple TV. This feels like an oversight to us, as users may forget about some long-available apps when hunting for downloads.

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The big apps are hit and miss right now. You know what you’re getting from Netflix and Hulu, so we’re more interested in the debut of other big-name apps on Apple TV. Results are mixed, often within an app itself. Zillow offers a nice way of checking out nearby housing options with big photos, but there’s no filter, so you can’t do a serious search like you can on the iOS app. Similarly, Airbnb gives users a nice preview of rentals, but you can’t book from the app. Kitchen Stories presents great videos for following recipes, but it doesn’t always tell you the exact ingredients — that should be found in Info. Periscope’s app has a ton of potential, but right now, it’s a total mess.

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Apple TV could be very exciting — or potentially dangerous, depending how you see it — for shoppers. The QVC app is quite clever, showing a live feed of the channel while giving users the option to buy right from the app itself. Gilt’s app lets you buy clothes right from the Apple TV app, too. This all-in-one functionality is something we’d like to see more of in all apps, not just shopping apps. Hopefully, in time, we will.

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There are certainly some headaches with apps and the App Store, though. You still have to activate each cable subscription app separately — we had hoped there’d be some all-in-one function for that, but it’s not the case. Searching for apps is a pain. As mentioned, Siri can’t be used to search, so you’re stuck with the poorly-designed onscreen keyboard, typing in titles letter by letter. And how can you even tell what’s available? If you really want to know everything that’s available now, we’d suggest going into search and typing in a single letter: A. Check out the “A” apps. Then move on to “B.” It sounds silly, but if you want the overall lay of the land as it exists now — before there are thousands and thousands of apps — that’s really the best way of doing so.

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Unfortunately, and not unexpectedly, there’s mostly just a lot of junk in the App Store right now. We’d seriously question spending any money on any unknown app at this point, to say nothing of the numerous $5 apps we’ve seen. We spent $1 on Montessori Spelling, a kids app that Apple featured — it’s not “junk,” but it’s very basic and falls far behind top iOS apps like Originator’s Endless Alphabet and Endless Reader. We tried one free game that simply didn’t seem to work with the controller. The sky may very well be the limit for Apple TV’s App Store, but it’s definitely hovering near the ground at this point.

Gaming and Peripherals

Apple is really pushing gaming as a major component to the new Apple TV, and it’s something we’ve been expecting for a few years now. The Siri Remote is capable enough as sort of a “lite version” of a Wii Remote — we used it with a number of games, including Asphalt 8, Pako – Car Chase Simulator (a game that’s gotten better and better with added content), and Badland. In each case, though, we weren’t sure the games were any better on Apple TV than they are on iOS. We definitely prefer Badland on an iOS device. We’ll hold out further judgment until more games arrive for Apple TV. One element that gives us hope is our use of a Bluetooth controller.

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Apple has mandated that, at this point, all games must support the Siri Remote. In other words, a separate controller can’t be required to play a game. By doing this, Apple ensures that games will remain accessible, and that no one looking for a game will be left out. On the other hand, a larger controller can obviously do so much more than the Siri Remote. Using Mad Catz’s C.T.R.L.i, we found gaming to be a better, more comfortable experience. The potential of larger, more ambitious games are limited by both the size of the apps — 200MB is Apple’s initial download limit for Apple TV apps — and the limitations of the Siri Remote. (Edit: To clarify, apps are initially 200MB in size, but can download additional resources, which are managed by tvOS. So size may not be an issue at first, but may become more of a problem once your Apple TV gets tighter on space — as we alluded to earlier, anyone planning on using the Apple TV predominantly for gaming should consider the 64GB model.) It’s possible Apple recognizes that diehard gamers won’t recognize Apple TV as a serious gaming device, anyway, and is content to aim for a more casual crowd. We can see both sides.

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Another nice feature on the new Apple TV is the ability to use Bluetooth headphones. We quickly connected a pair of headphones to the Apple TV and were soon listening to Apple Music and doing everything else with the audio coming straight to our ears. We had no issues — setup was quick and there were no audio problems, either. This is quietly sort of a big feature, especially for those who like to keep an Apple TV in the bedroom and don’t wish to disturb their partner. You can also connect a Bluetooth speaker, which probably won’t be as useful, but could still be a nice option for those with a great Bluetooth speaker and lackluster TV speakers.

Conclusion

Apple TV represents a bold step forward for Apple’s set-top box, but there are a number of reasons why some users might want to wait until Christmas to pick up the device, if not longer. While it’s exciting that an Apple TV App Store even exists, there’s very little available so far which would make users feel a definite need to upgrade or move on from another streaming box. The killer apps, if you will, either haven’t arrived yet or haven’t reached their full potential yet. Siri for Apple Music isn’t due to appear until next year, and waiting also means that Apple may improve certain facets in search and interface — maybe the onscreen keyboard? — via tvOS updates after the company sees what’s working and what’s not. Perhaps the biggest reason to wait is Apple’s own looming web TV service. The long-discussed streaming service could include dozens of TV channels, and cordcutters may justifiably be waiting to see what Apple’s offering entails before committing to the most expensive streaming box on the market.

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That being said, there are plenty of reasons to upgrade now, as well. Despite a few frustrations with the limitations of Siri and search, the new Apple TV is a fast device with a great remote. (It’s also worth noting that users who often rely on help to find a movie or TV show to watch will likely be quite enamored with Siri as it is.) It’s fun to use, and there’s more to discover. It feels like a more modern experience when compared to the previous Apple TV, and you won’t want to go back once you’ve tried it. The fourth-generation Apple TV may not feel quite like the future of television yet, but it certainly offers a few glimpses in that direction.

Our Rating

B+
Recommended

Company and Price

Company: Apple

Model: iApple TV (Fourth-Generation)

Price: $149-$199