Apple TV review: The good, the bad and the ugly

By

The next big app might be yours.
The new Apple TV brings powerful new features.
Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

The new Apple TV looks like the old one, but it’s a complete overhaul of the little black puck. It now comes with a full-blown App Store, a touch-sensitive remote and voice controls via Siri.

You can preorder it now, and it’ll ship Friday.

We got our hands on a developer model and have been playing around with it. We like it a lot. Setup is fun, the interface looks stunning, and the touch remote works beautifully. If the Music app is any indication, apps on this thing are going to be great. There’s just one little thing wrong. And it’s not little, actually. It’s big.

Here’s the good, the bad and the ugly about the 4th-generation Apple TV.

20151023_Apple_TV_4_gen_ - 13
The new Apple TV’s UI is simple and striking.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac

Apple gave some developers early access to the new Apple TV so they could get their software ready for the new tvOS App Store. Unfortunately, there’s no App Store yet, but we gave the built-in apps a good tire-kicking.

We watched movies and TV shows from the online iTunes store, loaded Photos from our photo stream and explored the fantastic Music app, which is sweeeeeet. We watched, mesmerized, as the fantastic aerial screensavers played time after time. And we did a lot of talking to Siri, which you’ll hear about in a bit.

All in all, we got a pretty good picture of how the new Apple TV works.

Setup is the best yet

20151023_Apple_TV_4_gen_ - 18
Setup of the new Apple TV is so easy, you barely need the remote. It’ll pull settings right off your iPhone.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac

The new Apple TV brings a vastly improved setup procedure. Instead of jumping through screen after screen, laboriously entering all your passwords, the new device can be paired with an iPhone or iPad via Bluetooth. It then copies your Wi-Fi and Apple ID settings. Admittedly, it didn’t work the first time we did it, but it did the second time, and I was just delighted!

Performance: New Apple TV is snappy

The new hardware is fast and fluid. The surprisingly small motherboard holds a 64-bit, dual-core A8 processor, a super-speedy little monster that debuted in the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus (now a generation behind the new 6s).

The chip is a screamer, and runs hot, so the new box is about half as tall again as the old one (iFixit’s teardown shows the increased size accommodates a giant heat sink). The small set-top box boasts 2 GB of RAM, also a step up from the previous version.

It’s not just the chips, though. Networking is fast. The new Apple TV utilizes the fastest Wi-Fi currently available (802.11ac) as well as Bluetooth 4.0 and an IR receiver. It’s not clear yet what the IR receiver is for — the remote works over Bluetooth. (I was able to connect Bluetooth speakers and a pair of Bluetooth headphones for listening to music in private — another new feature.)

On the device’s back, you’ll find only a few ports. There’s HDMI to connect to a TV at 1080p resolution. Unlike some other boxes on the market (the new Amazon Fire TV, Nvidia Shield and Roku 4), the new Apple TV does not support 4K video.

There’s an Ethernet port for wired networking and USB‑C for service and support. Like its predecessor, the power supply is built‑in so there’s no chunky power brick, a small and welcome blessing.

One thing I missed: The new Apple TV doesn’t have an optical digital audio output port, which I used to hook my old Apple TV to a bookshelf stereo so I could stream tunes via Airplay.

Under Apple TV’s hood: storage

If you’re going to buy one of these things, the only choice you’ll have to make is between storage options. The new Apple TV will be available in two versions: a 32GB model (for $149) and a 64GB model (for $199).

At this point, it’s unclear how important storage space will be. The current Apple TV comes with 8GB, just enough to buffer whatever it’s streaming. Nothing is stored locally.

This will probably be the case for the new TV too. Movies, games and music will be streamed to the device. To save space, Apple has all kinds of clever tricks up its sleeve, like deleting levels of games you’ve completed to make room for unplayed ones.

However, apps will be stored on the device, and it’s possible you’ll fill it up pretty quickly.

Should you get the bigger one? Probably, because $50 isn’t a lot to pay for some headroom.

New Apple TV interface: Hey, good lookin’!

20151023_Apple_TV_4_gen_ - 7
The new Apple TV UI is big and bold.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac

I love the new interface. It’ll be immediately familiar to current Apple TV owners because it uses the same tiled UI. It’s fast, fluid and very easy to use. There’s no getting lost. Each screen delivers lots of big, bold images and eye-catching carousels. The graphics are big, bright and colorful. The menus are logical and well laid out. Everything is fast and smooth, especially with the new touch-sensitive remote.

Apps and games coming to Apple TV

20151023_Apple_TV_4_gen_ - 12
Apps galore will be coming to the new Apple TV.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac

The most important change coming with the new Apple TV will be a real App Store, with apps and games galore from third-party software developers.

Apple has said it’ll be a real app store, with thousands of third-party apps that users will be able to download or delete as they see fit. Apps may be “universal,” so that apps bought for an iPad will also work on the new Apple TV.

It’ll get the usual selection of video apps from YouTube, Netflix, HBO, Showtime and Hulu. The one big missing app will be Amazon’s Instant Video. There was no mention of it during the September announcement, and Amazon just announced it will no longer sell the Apple TV or Google’s Chromecast streaming stick. The new Apple TV looks like it’ll be an Amazon-free zone.

No biggie, perhaps. I streamed video from the Amazon app on my iPhone via AirPlay and it was great. AirPlay is a killer feature, BTW, and criminally underrated. It’s a super-easy way to get stuff onto the TV from unsanctioned sources like Amazon or the BBC’s iPlayer (if you’re outside the U.K. and have a VPN.)

During the September event that gave us our first look at the new set-top box, Apple showed off several games, including Crossy Road and Guitar Hero. The games were controlled by the touch-sensitive remote, which has a three-axis gyroscope for Nintendo Wii-like gameplay. The hardware looked more than capable of the demands of HD games.

Also shown at the event were apps from Major League Baseball, Zillow (real estate), Airbnb (rental properties) and Gilt (shopping). No mention was made of HomeKit, Apple’s home-automation framework, which is potentially a killer app for the new device.

All in all, the App Store promises to bring a ton of functionality and fun to the living room TV when it debuts.

Touch remote: Take a swipe at TV

20151023_Apple_TV_4_gen_ - 3
The top part of the new remote is touch-sensitive. You’ll love it.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac

The new Apple TV remote is great — a vast improvement on the slim silver stick of yore. It’s been completely redesigned, with a large touchpad at the top and some new buttons. In addition, the entire touchpad is one big button — a change that took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out. (When I first got the remote out of the box and started setting it up, I tried hitting various buttons to proceed. I didn’t realize that the whole top surface was one big button. I discovered it by accident when I pinched the thing in frustration).

About 5 inches long, the remote is a little longer and wider than the current silver one. It adds some extra buttons, like volume controls and a dedicated “Home” button that takes you back to the main screen. I grew to really like the Home button. It’s a handy shortcut when you’ve drilled down through a bunch of screens. One click and you’re back to the top.

The touch-sensitive trackpad is also a blessing. It acts much like Apple’s Magic Trackpad or the trackpad on a MacBook. You can quickly move anywhere on the screen, tracing your finger through wide circles or swiping through a bunch of thumbnails. It’s not tricky or fussy at all, and it’s a huge improvement on the old system of clicking through items one at a time. It even makes entering long and complicated passwords less of a chore.

The remote connects via Bluetooth 4.0, so you don’t need a line of sight. It also includes that mysterious IR transmitter. Perhaps Apple will enable it to control other devices, turning it into a universal remote (watch out, Logitech Harmony).

The remote also packs an accelerometer and gyroscope for games and the like. Apple hasn’t announced a console-like gaming controller, but has said the new Apple TV supports them. For now, Apple is telling developers that all games and apps must be controlled with the included remote.

The remote charges via a standard Lightning cable (which comes in the box). Apple says the battery will provide months of happy clicking on a single charge.

Beautiful new screensavers

Apple has added dozens of new video screensavers. These slow-moving aerial shots of cities like London and New York are totally mesmeric. Only a couple of screensavers get stored at a time. To get new ones, you tell the device to download new ones every month, week or day. I sat, slack-jawed, as I gently floated over the Golden Gate.

Siri: The fly in the ointment

20151023_Apple_TV_4_gen_ - 4
Siri should be the Apple TV’s killer app. Instead, it kills you.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac

Here’s the bad news about Apple TV: Siri is the weak spot. Everything works great except Siri. Apple’s AI assistant was maddeningly inconsistent.

The ability to control the new Apple TV with Siri’s voice commands was one of the big tentpole features during September’s keynote. This capability puts the Apple TV on par other streaming boxes like the Roku 4, Amazon Fire TV and Comcast’s X1 — just hit the dedicated Siri button on the remote and speak into the built-in mic.

Oddly, Siri understands just about everything I say (even with my British accent). I can see my commands transcribed onscreen. It also understands my American colleagues and kids. Siri has no trouble understanding what we say — but it is unable to obey all our commands.

For example, I cannot for the life of me get Siri to find Game of Thrones, despite repeated attempts. It transcribes the search perfectly, but responds that it can’t help me. And yet I have no problem finding the hottest show on TV when I go looking for it with the remote.

Most basic voice controls work fine. I can instruct Siri to rewind, pause or play. All that works great. In fact, Siri quickly becomes a natural and easy way to control the TV. Just squeeze the remote, speak a command and it executes. After just a couple of days it became fluid and easy, and natural, and it bothered me to navigate a TV with a traditional remote.

But Siri is comically inconsistent.

Say, “Search for Sylvester Stallone movies,” and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

I can ask Siri, “What did they just say?” and it rewinds one minute. But say, “Play The Clash,” and it brings up a bunch of Sesame Street and Elmo videos. “Play Led Zeppelin” works fine.

20151023_Apple_TV_4_gen_ - 20
Ask Siri to play The Clash, and you get Elmo.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac

It’s baffling.

There is no rhyme or reason to the maddening inconsistency.

I even tested some of the searches featured in Apple’s September keynote: “Show me action movies” and “Show that Modern Family episode with Edward Norton” and “What did she say?” The last two commands work, but the first one doesn’t.

20151023_Apple_TV_4_gen_ - 21
Pretty much my experience with Siri.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac

By comparison, the Amazon Echo we have in the Cult of Mac offices works by voice pretty much flawlessly. It makes smart, educated guesses when it can’t execute commands to the letter, like searching the Amazon Prime store for music that’s not in its library.

Music to my ears

20151023_Apple_TV_4_gen_ - 10
I really dig the Apple TV’s Music app, which serves up a cornucopia of music.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac

Talking of music, I really dig the Music app. I’m a subscriber to Apple’s unlimited Music service, so the app enables a vast library of music as well as all the songs in my iTunes collection.

The Music app’s first screen, “For You,” is well-populated with a wide variety of music. The selections are nicely laid out, with albums from particular artists interspersed with curated playlists. It appears to be based on a mixture of my music library and my recent listening habits — mine had hip-hop interspersed with classic rock. A rap playlist called “State of Emergency Rap Songs” followed by “The Who: B Sides and Rarities.”

There’s also a “New” tab that’s populated with a ton of stuff, divided up into various categories — music videos, recent releases and so on. You’ll also find Beats 1 radio, which I’m a big fan of, and you can create Pandora-like radio stations based on a particular artist or song.

I played around with playlists and custom radio stations, which can be tuned, Apple says, by hitting a little heart icon that pops up with each song. Supposedly this helps the algorithms tune the station to your tastes, but I had limited success. I much preferred Beats 1 and the surprising choices that occur when a human DJ picks the tunes.

The future of Apple TV

There’s a lot of rumored Apple TV functionality that we’re still waiting to see. Cross-app search will be coming, and it will be interesting to see if it pulls content quickly and easily from the libraries of iTunes, Netflix, Showtime and HBO. Apple’s own TV service, which supposedly will offer a cable TV-like package of channels over the Internet, is also on the horizon. And then there’s HomeKit, which promises to make the Apple TV the center of home automation, if Apple enables it.

Conclusion: Apple TV review

When it comes to consumer electronics, interface is king, and the new Apple TV has nailed the basics. The updated remote works great, and its trackpad makes it far better than the previous version.

More importantly, the apps will make the 4th-generation Apple TV a winner. It’ll be fascinating to see all the new apps coming down the pipeline. I know there’s a killer app that’ll blow everyone away. Gaming on the device will depend on support for game controllers, and that seems likely.

If only Siri could get her act together. Talking to the remote is a great way to interact with the Apple TV — if only it were consistent (and consistently good)!

Come on Siri, get it right!

Apple TV

  • MaskedRacerX

    I do hope Amazon and Apple kiss and make up, because I’ve love Prime Video on our Apple TV – we use the latter for 95% of our TV/movie viewing, and having to fire up a totally different device (with a different remote, a different UI) is a bit frustrating – it’s a PS3 too, with a janky fan, so it’s watching a show at an airport …

    I’d also love to see a fully integrated ‘Your Shows’ type interface where you could mark shows as “subscribed” (whether it’s via iTunes, or a networked based app like FXNow), and everything would be in one place. I’d assume if the meta data was available, it would be easy to mark availability as well (some networks have a rolling window of availability for new releases). I know the promise is Siri providing this through the deep search API, but I’d prefer a simple UI that’s like a standard program listing.

    • heywoody

      Fantastic point about Amazon and Apple. When they don’t get along, the only people who lose are the customers.

    • There’s nothing on Amazon Prime I want to watch that I can’t see on HULU, Netflix, etc. What am I missing?

      • Julien

        I think that some people like him don’t want to have to subscribe/pay to multiple TV streaming services just because the hardware he’s using/wants to use does not have an app for his service.

      • Darren Roark

        Transparent is great.

      • I’ll look into it.

      • My Uncle Carson just got an awesome year old Cadillac CTS Sedan just by parttime work from a home pc…look at more info on my~ prof!Ie~

        )e

      • My Uncle Evan got a new yellow Chevrolet Camaro Z28 only from working parttime off a macbook air.original site on my` prof1Ie`

        !77777777777

      • Xenu Cruise

        Amazon’s original programming. Red Oaks is pretty good and The Man in the High Castle premieres next month. Transparent returns in December.

    • If we get amazon on Apple tv, will we get iTunes on Amazon (Video) ?
      I think that answered the question.

      • Gerco Broekstra

        Nope, but I you see Amazon as a content provider, is makes sense. Netflix and HBO are on AppleTV too.

      • I would like to have iTunes on Amazon so I do not need to switch between the two. I see iTunes as a content provider, it makes sense.

  • Dan Rabinowitz

    The character Elmo is voiced by an actor and puppeteer named Kevin Clash. He’s probably listed as the star of those Elmo videos.

  • heywoody

    Excellent, EXCELLENT write-up, Leander. Well done.

  • I have a serious question. is there any way from this new Apple TV to directly stream content from an iTunes library on a macbook like on the previous versions? from all the stills and video i have watched it seems only the content purchased via the iTunes store will be accessible. is there still a “Computers” section to access libraries?

    • lowtolerance

      Yes, it is still there but it is pretty unimpressive compared to the rest of the UI.

  • Is it too much to ask for a gigabit ethernet port? Why are devices still shipping with 10/100BASE-T Ethernet ports? Ugh.

    • Julien

      I don’t think that any app that will be available on the new Apple TV will be capable of using all the bandwidth available in a 100Mbps Ethernet port so why would they need to put a gigabit one ?

      • I admit I can survive with the 100Mbps port, certainly on the last Gen Apple TV, but the new Apple TV supports 802.11 AC which is at least 4x the bandwidth of a 100Mbps connection (if not far more). It’s just odd that a wired connection is often the best route for a device to cut out issues with interference and what not, but device are are still using the slowest wired option available. Also, when using display mirroring or streaming via LAN I feel like a gigabit connection would be fantastic here, but I guess we will never know.

      • Julien

        I’m still not sure that even mirroring would require or work better with gigabit ethernet over 100Mbps. If there were any constraint in the older aTV I think it would have been processing power.
        I get what you say about he 802.11ac… Maybe it’s just that they want to sell more of their ac compatible Airport routers ? :D haha

      • I just get a sad feeling inside when the Apple TV and the Wii U are the only two devices in my entertainment center that don’t give me that 1000Gbps indicator light on my gigabit switch. All lights must be green!!!1 :-)

      • Agree, even my sony 4k tv has a gigabit connection, and great when i stream 4k content from my upnp nas. I found having wired instead of wireless more benefecial, especially if you to rewind. It provides less inteference from the neighbours who must having eveything on wireless ( even sound)

      • Julien

        It makes sense to have a gigabit connection for 4k streaming but as the Apple TV doesn’t support 4k video it would be pointless for them :)

  • TJ

    It’s possible the Siri interpreter you were getting was undergoing final development and that’s the reason it was inconsistent. I’ve had issues with Siri on iOS betas while friends on the released code didn’t. Hopefully now that’s it’s officially released, the backend is more stable.

    • tim simms

      Siri is an idiot, which I make sure to tell him every chance I get. I’m not surprised this is the weakest element of the Apple TV. On my phone, I usually have to do whatever I asked him to do myself.

      • Siri is like an 7 year old child, you have to repeately tell him/her to clean the room and pack away the toys before its done, but it only requires permission once for a candy bar.

  • lowtolerance

    What is even the point of reviewing this before the App Store and built-in channels are released? I also think it’s a bit unfair to come down so hard on Siri when it’s likely they don’t have the back-end running at full steam before it’s officially live. Dev kits are not intended for review purposes.

  • Paul Lloyd Johnson

    The IR receiver is for those poor countries that don’t get a Siri remote and have to make do with a standard remote.

    • Julien

      Or for those people who wants to use their All-in-one remote to control the Apple TV.

  • Thiago Arantes

    The good news is that Siri works remotely, so we don’t need to worry when buying the new hardware. Apple will solve those issues with our best assistant ever soon enough.

  • Daz CJ

    I remember Apple saying that the Siri Remote would be able to control your TV (Volume, Power etc.) hence the IR transmitter.

    • No, that’s through the HDMI ARC support, not infrared.

      • lowtolerance

        From what I’ve read, volume control is still controlled via IR, even if the TV supports volume control over HDMI-CEC. Not sure what the rationale is for that, or whether it’s even true, though.

      • Julien

        The Siri remote can learn the codes for the volume control via IR but by default it will control TV power and volume via HDMI-CEC.

      • Steve Philpot

        Right out of the box the apple remote controlled the volume on my TV.

    • M.Nakamura

      Plenty of audio receivers / amplifiers still use IR. The ability to control the volume of these devices with the new Siri Remote is fantastic. Finally, we’ll be able to ditch having a separate remote just to control the volume of our amplifier!

  • DC_Guy

    All I want to know is whether 4K streaming can somehow be enabled on this unit via a software update or will that require new hardware? I will hold off if it’s the latter.

    • lowtolerance

      Just wait until the next generation model comes out in 3.5 years.

  • Tom

    I’m surprised there’s no mention of support for multi-user accounts? If I add my Apple Music account to the new Apple TV, my family members can screw up my library and likes? Or is there an easy way to switch accounts? If not, is the Apple view on the living room one where everybody has his own television set? Not very realistic.

    • Julien

      In the previous aTVs there is the possibility to add and switch iTunes accounts but it’s buried into the Settings menu. I hope they revisited it in the new tvOS.

    • MrBukey

      If you have a family, why not use Family Sharing and use one account just for the AppleTV? Yes it’ll cost a bit more over a single person sub, but if you have other members of the family using it too, you’ll actually save money… And you’ll have your own library alongside a shared one on the TV…

  • Kristian

    “includes that mysterious IR transmitter.”

    I thought that the remote could used to control the volume of your TV?

    • Julien

      Yes it can learn the codes to control the volume of your TV via IR but by default it will use HDMI CEC via the aTV (if available).

  • Pat

    If you want SPDIF (Optical audio) out, you can add it via an HDMI to SPDIF extractor (I have used the
    ‘ViewHD HDMI Audio Extractor’ – available on Amazon) to good effect. It’s about $30.

  • MWinNYC

    Does anyone know if the remote works as a universal remote for your tv subscription i.e. Verizon Fios, or does it ONLY work with the apple tv box and its’ apps? In other words, can I command Siri to go to my local NBC station? I’ve pre-ordered the new box, but this type of functionality will help me decide whether to keep it, or not.

    • S C

      Siri will only function with the TV box itself, so no you can’t get your local ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, etc. affiliate through Siri. Think of it this way: All of the Siri functions are piped through the TV box itself and it has no way to control your cable box. The remote itself does not do any of the Siri processing; that’s all still done on Apple’s Siri servers (unless I’m mistaken, the TV box doesn’t have the computing power or the storage necessary to perform these functions). The remote will function as a volume controller for your television. I do not think that it’ll be able to send any commands to your cable box.

  • junkscienc

    Can you confirm that Siri doesn’t search inside apps – for example you can’t use Siri to search in YouTube? That’s a deal breaker for me – the whole point of buying the new Apple TV would be to avoid having to use the remote to tap out text to search with. It might have a pretty new interface but if they haven’t improved how I intereact with it then I’m not interested.

    • Julien

      No as of now Siri doesn’t search in apps

  • Shaw Wakefield

    For those who live outside US like me, you can access Netflix, Hulu and similar media stations on your Apple TV by using UnoTelly or similar tools.

  • Steve_Cologne

    I don’t understand why there is no audio output like the digital optical output or just two RCA/cinch connectors. My Marantz audio equipment has no HDMI-in. And if it would have, I’d need the HDMI for my TV.
    Without a special audio out I remain with my former Apple-TV.

  • Lee Hammond

    Naive question [not answered in the review]: does this need a constant internet connection? My earlier [US bought] aTV does not operate in México and never gets to the home screen. I guess I don’t know why it can’t play music, show photos etc, without a broadband internet connection.

    • Julien

      I think it does need a constant internet connection. You can’t really store a lot of data inside it. It’s meant to be a streaming box.

      • Lee Hammond

        This review says the new model has more storage, though. Besides, why can’t I stream my music, or view my photos, without an internet connection?

  • guitarian

    If Apple TV doesn’t support HDCP 2.2 (and it does not) it will not support 4K “Ultra”. This is the copy protection standard that has been chosen by content providers. (All 4K Blu-ray devices will have HDCP 2.2) As it stands now, Apple TV will not stream Netflix 4K to your television.
    The Roku and Amazon devices already have HDCP 2.2 output. Why would Apple leave this out? Oh yeah, so it can charge me again in a year or two.

    • Julien

      In a year or two Amazon, Roku and the others will have a better product too so is it really only Apple that will charge you again ? Yes it’s a bummer that the new Apple TV doesn’t already support 4k video but are there that much people with a 4k TV already ? Or that much 4k content on TV ?

    • I don’t believe you HAVE to have HDCP 2.2 for 4K. My 4K tv has 5 HDMI inputs. Al 5 support 4K sources, but only 2 support sources that output HDCP copy protection.

      • guitarian

        To watch some 4K content, like a lot of what is available on Youtube, you are correct. The problem, though, is that all of the 4K content coming soon, like 4K Blu-ray, and all streaming commercial 4K content from a Roku, Amazon, for similar device will utilize HDCP 2.2. If your TV doesn’t have that input, you won’t be playing that content.
        If your TV has Netflix, Amazon, etc. built in, that should not be an issue. Streaming 4k, however, has a compression factor of about 8:1. It still looks good, but not nearly as good as uncompressed 4K.

  • farsighted

    No 4K TV? Wow, that’s a bit disappointing, for all that money. My Amazon FTV box has it. Oh well. I ordered it for the speed increase; tired of all that buffering. Maybe the next one will have the 4K. I don’t care about the Prime, I have it on the Amazon box.

  • Sebastian

    So.. is there a way that the new Apple TV can read my local network media disk? I would like to watch my movies and tv shows through it. Had to jailbreak the previous Apple TV, though. Or is there an app for it?

  • there is one thing consistent with Siri since her inception … she doesn’t work … never has