After years and years of rumours about the future of Apple TV, we finally have a new one. It's real, it's beautiful, and it's going to change the way you use your living room.
This post was originally published at 12:01PM on October 29.
What Is It?
A new streaming and gaming box from Apple. Maybe the last box you’ll need in your home entertainment cabinet.
The new Apple TV is taller and heavier than its old counterpart. It stands at 35mm high, making it a noticeable 12mm taller than the third-generation Apple TV. It also weighs 153g more than the old Apple TV, tipping the scales at 425g.
It’s powered by a dual-core A8 processor, and also packs in 2GB of RAM. The new Apple TV comes in two different flavours: 32GB and 64GB for $269 and $349 respectively. However many apps, tracks and photos you want to store on your Apple TV will dictate how much space you need.
Truth be told, we haven't been able to figure out the average size of an Apple TV app compared to an iPhone or iPad app in the time that we've been reviewing the unit.
And for what it's worth, the Apple TV appears to stream its content from the iTunes Store and free up the space again when you're done, rather than store all of your content on the disk until you manually delete it.
With this in mind, I can't imagine you'd ever really need the 64GB model unless you're someone who loves to sync stuff like music and photos to the device for faster playback. Apps are going to take up a bit of space on your system alongside the OS, but I can't ever see you struggling for space on a 32GB model unless you install app after app after app on your box.
There’s so much to love about the new Apple TV.
UI, Apps and Games
First things first: the new Apple TV looks nothing like the Apple TV you’re used to. Thank merciful Christ.
In the old days of the third-generation Apple TV box, app cards were drab, boring, static and seemed really out of step with the bright design language of iOS 9 and WatchOS. Apple TV users were all starting to notice that the grass was greener on the other platforms.
Now with the new unit, Apple TV gets the best of both worlds: a vibrant new UI based on the iOS ecosystem and design language that is genuinely wow-inducing.
Rows of app cards are sticking around in the first generation of tvOS, but now they’re bright, gorgeous and fun. They can be picked up with the trackpad (which we’ll get to) on the new remote and shuffled around like you’d grab and reposition any app on an iPhone or iPad, which serves to personalise the whole experience.
tvOS is based on iOS, which means the massive library of iPhone and iPad apps can easily be ported to the new entertainment box (at the whim of developers, of course). That means that the Apple TV has its very own App Store for the first time.
We tested the App Store pre-launch, which means that there weren't a swathe of tvOS apps waiting to be downloaded, but as more apps go through the approval process, numbers are going to grow rapidly.
Apps that we tested included Crossy Road (which is insanely fun on Apple TV), Netflix, Stan (which is working from launch, yay!), Zova (a fitness app for your home) and Airbnb. All of these apps are fantastic Day One offerings, and even on the pre-release hardware we found that nothing crashed, nothing slowed down and it brought a whole new dimension to the Apple TV.
Gaming is something that’s particularly exciting on the Apple TV, because it opens the box up as the most family-friendly streaming device on the market. Gaming on the Apple TV with your kids takes them off the couch where they might be staring down at an iPad and gets them into the action on the biggest screen on your house.
All that gaming goodness is enhanced by the smart new Remote.
Speaking of interacting with the UI, the new Apple TV comes with a newly-designed Apple Remote. Gone is the old silver, three-button remote with its directional buttons, instead replaced by a beautiful black remote.
It comes complete with a clickable touch-sensitive trackpad for easy navigation, a Siri button for talking to your TV (we’ll get to that in a moment), and for the first time, a separate Home button and Menu button for multitasking and smart remote functionality.
The trackpad is an insanely fast way to get around on the new Apple TV. It’s a stark contrast to the last Apple TV where every movement of the cursor came from you clicking a directional button. Caveman stuff compared to the new trackpad, which allows you to glide and click around the UI with ease. The trackpad also serves as a way for you to shuttle and scrub your way through a TV show or movie, and it’s a nice new way to use the alphabetical keyboard.
The trackpad is slightly interrupted by the separate Menu and Home buttons, but that’s ok. Those are the buttons you’re going to be using most, and even if you’re large of thumb or forefinger, you’re still going to have enough room to use it comfortably.
It’s great that Apple has separated Menu and Home on the new Remote. On the last Apple Remote, you’d only have a single Menu button that responded to the length of time you pressed. Now you’re given options: long press on Menu is still a function that exists, but giving you access to a bespoke Home button means you can get back to the top of your device in a hurry. It’s smooth and seamless.
The Home button enables multi-tasking functionality. A double-tap takes you to a familiar-looking screen that allows you to jump between the apps you have open in the same way you would on an iPad or iPhone. It works super-quickly, and allows you to jump between apps easily rather than making you go back to the home screen and launch each app separately. Multi-tasking also remembers where you were in a particular app, which makes choosing something to watch a lot easier.
I know that I choose something on Netflix and then have a think if there’s something else I might like to watch on Stan or iTunes. Multi-tasking allows me to line up something to watch on all three services and jump quickly back to the title and the service I eventually settle upon. It’s just a faster way to use your TV.
Under the hood, the remote packs in an accelerometer which allows you to play motion games like Beat Sports from Harmonix. It’s almost like a Diet Nintendo Wii in the way that you game on it. Despite the fact that it communicates over Bluetooth 4.0 and not an optical receiver, it still works insanely well on motion games that involve actions like timed arm flailing and whatnot. Of course, no optical controller means that you’re not about to use the new Apple Remote like a Wiimote.
You can do more serious gaming on the device with a third-party Steelseries Nimbus controller, that's shaped a little bit like an Xbox One controller, so it fits into your hand nicely.
What's great about the remote is that it's also able to control your TV via the HDMI cable. Long-pressing on the Home button triggers a sleep command which also powers off your TV. The TV is woken up by the Apple TV, and the Remote also controls your TV's volume by itself as well. Best of all, there's no set up required like most smart remotes. Just plug and play.
The Remote is powered by a rechargeable battery as opposed to a replaceable watch battery, which we’re told only needs charging a few times a year. When it does need to be charged, you power it up via a Lightning cable. If you don’t already have an iPhone or iPad, don’t worry: Apple bundles a new Lightning cable in the box.
The remote also features a Siri voice button, which leads us conveniently into...
Siri and Universal Search
Siri — Apple’s smart voice assistant — has never felt more at home than on the Apple TV.
The Remote has two microphones: a rear-facing one for ambient noise-cancellation and one on the front of the device for listening to your voice. Activating Siri means that you have to press and hold on the Remote’s microphone button and speaking your request.
She still works on natural language requests, and for the first time adds contextual search abilites to within your results.
Say you’re after a George Clooney movie. You’d ask Siri: “show me movies with George Clooney”. A little drawer will open at the bottom of the screen featuring movies you can get from Netflix and iTunes starring George Clooney. But Clooney actually stars in comedies as well as serious dramas, so on that window you can then ask Siri to “Only show the funny ones”, and she’ll apply your desired filter.
Again, it’s all about speed on Apple TV. Apple wants to cut down on the amount of time you spend searching for a movie and focus on the actual watching of content.
Once you’ve selected a movie, Universal Search pages take over. Almost all the titles we’ve searched for during our time with it have their own special page outside of the iTunes Store that shows you all sorts of information alongside bespoke cast images and different options on how to watch. That’s super important, because it means that Apple allows you to see everything you’re subscribed to in order to consume the content you're paying for.
So, say you search for Orange Is The New Black, you’ll notice that the Universal Search gives you hooks into the iTunes Store where you can buy it, or Netflix where you can instantly stream it if you’re a subscriber, or purchase a subscription via an in-app purchase in order to get started. It’s seamless content across your entire digital life, and that’s totally awesome.
One thing we did notice is that there aren’t any hooks into the Stan ecosystem just yet, nor are there any Foxtel apps for the new Apple TV. It’s disappointing, but surely it’ll come with time.
Siri doesn’t stop being useful while you’re watching a movie, either. She has a whole host of features you can use during a stream to make the experience better.
One feature I like in particular (because I’m deaf) is asking Siri “what did he/she say?” during a movie or TV show. In any app (we’re talking everything from Netflix and iTunes through to TenPlay), Siri will then rewind the action by 15 seconds and enable subtitles (if available). It’d be awesome if in future SIri could answer questions like “who’s that guy/girl?” during complicated films, and tell you quickly how they fit into the plot. Sigh, we can dream.
She also has access to a whole swathe of information like weather and calendar data.
It's a little disappointing that the new Apple TV doesn't support 4K content. Despite packing a shiny new HDMI 1.4 output (one that can probably send 4K signals to your TV), the Apple TV has a maximum output of 1080p60fps.
iTunes doesn't actually let you purchase or rent TV shows or movies in 4K/UHD, but a service like Netflix absolutely lets you view this high-res content if you're on the $14.99 per month service plan. That means watching 4K Netflix content on your new Apple TV will only give you 1080p results once it gets to your panel.
This is a minor issue, simply because Netflix barely has any 4K content in its catalogue right now, and because there aren't exactly that many 4K screens crying out for this content just yet.
I'm not expecting Apple to fit this thing with a Blu-ray drive capable of 4K playback, but it'd be nice if we could take a screaming leap into the UHD-future by enabling 4K output on the HDMI 1.4 connection.
In a further downer for high-def content lovers, the new Apple TV has done away with the Optical Audio connection. That's not a huge deal if you connect to your sound system via HDMI passthrough, but I guarantee you (like with the 4K issue), there are going to be some disappointed audiophiles and pixel peepers out there.
Speaking of design, God only knows what Apple — a company famous for its incredible designs — is keeping inside the new Apple TV. It's almost twice as tall and just about twice as heavy, but I have absolutely no idea why.
Taking a look at the iFixIt teardown reveals that most of the space is taken up by a new heatsink, probably designed to keep the beefier dual-core A8 chip cool.
Still, the design is still pretty baffling when you consider that the new Apple TV comes from the same company that manages to make the iPhone thinner every year with similar hardware.
Honestly, though, the design of the thing won't worry you one iota the second you put it inside your home entertainment unit. I'm just trying to find things to complain about. To be perfectly honest, there isn't much wrong with the new Apple TV.
The only thing that could go very wrong for the new Apple TV actually has nothing to do with the hardware or even the software itself. It all comes down to those precious partnerships.
Over the years, we've seen countless streaming dongles, boxes and gadgets come across our desk. All of their masters tell us that this is going to be the best* new way to stream content ever.
*What these manufacturers don't tell you is that they haven't secured deals with one or two streaming providers in Australia, meaning that your entertainment experience is just as fragmented as it always has been.
I would guess that if you're reading this review, you understand how big the problem with home streaming is. You probably have a few different streaming boxes at home. Maybe there's a Chromecast in your TV, a console or two inside a cabinet or maybe even just a honking home-theatre PC sitting in your living room taking up space. No matter what you have, the struggle is real: home entertainment is more fragmented now than it ever has been.
The Apple TV, with its hooks into various streaming services and Universal Search is the best hope yet to unify this fragmented world of entertainment into the one box that works with all the services you could possible dream of. Apple has the clout to get these idiots to play along, but it doesn’t look as ready as it could be at launch. Stan is missing from Universal Search, and Foxtel is nowhere to be found.
We’re so close to fixing streaming it hurts.
Should You Buy It?
The answer to whether or not you should buy the Apple TV comes down to whether you own the third-generation box or not.
If this is your first time with Apple TV, I’d recommend the new model. Even if you’re not a fan of buying your content on iTunes, it’s the best way to get new content from almost every streaming service currently in Australia (it’s still missing Foxtel, as we’ve mentioned).
It’s the most powerful and fully-featured box on the market right now (compared to devices like Nexus Player, Chromecast and Telstra TV), and it’s simultaneously the most promising thanks to the possibilities of apps on tvOS. The best use for your TV probably hasn’t even been invented yet, and that’s super exciting.
If you have an old Apple TV, the question of whether you should buy the new one becomes slightly murkier. The third-generation Apple TV features the basic streaming apps like Netflix, the iTunes Store and Stan, which should satiate your basic streaming needs. If you want newer features like games and apps, you’re going to be left wanting. It’s up to you to decide if those new features are worth the $269 investment, but from where we’re sitting, it’s definitely worth the cash.